In “Song of Myself,” I see Whitman’s value and focus of collectivism, but described in an individualist sense. Throughout the poem, Whitman writes of many observations of nature, people, religion, and more, and how they personally relate to them. He describes these things through his own eyes and perspective and how they look to him, which gives an air of individuality. However, he also emphasizes the fleeting nature of life, how we should care for others, and the collectivity of history, culture, pain, and joy. These combined themes make for an interesting reading experience, but help sell the reader and seem to synthesize a modern tension between collectivity and individualism.
In many instances, Whitman describes long lists of observations, and ends with how they relate to him. When discussing arctic ice, he writes “the enormous masses of ice pass me and I pass them, the scenery is plain in all directions” (1338). Here, there does not seem to be any relation or connection, but more a sense of objects/organisms fulfilling their own destinies in passing. This emphasizes the individuality of Whitman’s story and life in relation to what he sees. Towards the end of the poem, he reiterates this sentiment when he writes “not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself” (1352). This line struck me as showing how every life is unique and a journey for that person.
Whitman also writes a lot about painful and difficult experiences for others and explains how sympathy creates a collective society. Several instances, Whitman writes of the pain of Native Americans and slaves and tries to sympathize with them. For example, he writes “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs” (1339). Later, I understand why Whitman writes this, but I think it is a little unaware to say that you feel the pain of someone’s struggle of a life that is very hard and different from a white writer. Later, Whitman better articulates his message when he writes “I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair and unbelief” (1349). From this, we see the meaning behind all of Whitman’s individual observations of life and how they relate to him. He seems to see the world in a collective sense–like a group of individuals with separate lives but feeling the same things.
I see Whitman as a teacher in the sense that his poem is trying to promote the idea of sympathy and the fleetingness of life. I read “Song of Myself” as a message of how beautiful is it to be human, but it only becomes human when you can realize your existence alongside others. He writes “I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs, And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help” (1346). Here, I believe he is suggesting that while he helps those who need physical help, his poem works to help enlighten those who are able to help others, and that is how I see him as a teacher. I especially see him as a teacher when he writes “But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence” (1352). I take this phrase to point towards how as soon as his readers are enlightened, he sends them on their new journey with blessing. I really enjoyed reading the second half of “Song of Myself” and how all of his pieces worked together to become somewhat of a sermon or prophetic speech.
One thought on “Whitman as a Teacher”
I was also interested by the parts in which he talks about feeling others’ suffering, and especially book 37. There he lists people, all of them in some way suffering, whose pain he can feel, but most of them are suffering in punishment for a crime: a prisoner, a mutineer on his way to prison, and a child accused of, convicted of, and sentenced for theft. I think his comments about suffering alongside slaves and Native Americans did not bother me all that much because he isn’t moralizing on the subject, or implying that he actually understands their experiences. Rather, through his love for his country, he feels all its denizens’ pain, no matter how great or small, no matter how deserved or not. He can’t necessarily fully grasp the magnitude of their suffering, and he isn’t feeling it with them, but he is suffering for them in his own way because he knows that they are suffering.