Critical Essay Walt Whitman


The second episode is more optimistic. The famous “twenty-ninth bather” can be found in the eleventhsection of the poem. In this section a woman watches twenty-eight young men bathing in the ocean.She fantasizes about joining them unseen, and describes their semi-nude bodies in some detail. Theinvisible twenty-ninth bather offers a model of being much like that of Emerson’s “transparenteyeball”: to truly experience the world one must be fully in it and of it, yet distinct enough from it tohave some perspective, and invisible so as not to interfere with it unduly. This paradoxical set of conditions describes perfectly the poetic stance Whitman tries to assume. The lavish eroticism of thissection reinforces this idea: sexual contact allows two people to become one yet not one—it offers amoment of transcendence. As the female spectator introduced in the beginning of the section fadesaway, and Whitman’s voice takes over, the eroticism becomes homoeroticism. Again this is not somuch the expression of a sexual preference as it is the longing for communion with every living beingand a connection that makes use of both the body and the soul (although Whitman is certainly usingthe homoerotic sincerely, and in other ways too, particularly for shock value).Having worked through some of the conditions of perception and creation, Whitman arrives, in thethird key episode, at a moment where speech becomes necessary. In the twenty-fifth section he notesthat “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself, / It provokes me forever, it sayssarcastically, /

Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?

” Having already establishedthat he can have a sympathetic experience when he encounters others (“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person”), he must find a way to re-transmit thatexperience without falsifying or diminishing it. Resisting easy answers, he later vows he “will never translate [him]self at all.” Instead he takes a philosophically more rigorous stance: “What is known Istrip away.” Again Whitman’s position is similar to that of Emerson, who says of himself, “I am theunsettler.” Whitman, however, is a poet, and he must reassemble after unsettling: he must “let it outthen.” Having catalogued a continent and encompassed its multitudes, he finally decides: “I too am nota bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “Song of Myself” thus ends with a sound—a yawp—that could be described as either pre- or post-linguistic.Lacking any of the normal communicative properties of language, Whitman’s yawp is the release of the “kosmos” within him, a sound at the borderline between saying everything and saying nothing.More than anything, the yawp is an invitation to the next Walt Whitman, to read into the yawp, to havea sympathetic experience, to absorb it as part of a new multitude.


The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia


'Song of Myself' [1855]


Miller, James E., Jr.

Print source:

J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds.,

Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia

(New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the 1855 edition of 

 Leaves of Grass

, "Song of Myself" came first in the series of twelve untitled poems, dominating the volume not only by its sheer bulk, but also by its brilliant display of Whitman'sinnovative techniques and original themes. Whitman left the poem in the lead position in the 1856edition and gave it its first title, "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American," shortened to "Walt Whitman"in the third edition of 1860. By the time Whitman had shaped

 Leaves of Grass

into its final structure in1881, he left the poem (its lines now grouped into 52 sections) in a lead position, preceded only by theepigraph-like cluster "Inscriptions" and the programmatic "Starting from Paumanok.""Song of Myself" portrays (and mythologizes) Whitman's poetic birth and the journey into knowinglaunched by that "awakening." But the "I" who speaks is not alone. His camerado, the "you" addressedin the poem's second line, is the reader, placed on shared ground with the poet, a presence throughoutmuch of the journey. As the poem opens, the reader encounters the poet "observing a spear of summer grass" and extending an invitation to his soul. He vows to "permit to speak at every hazard, / Naturewithout check with original energy" (section 1). Leaving "[c]reeds and schools" behind, he goes "to the

Public domain photograph of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

A selective list of online literary criticism for the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman, with links to reliable biographical and introductory material and signed, peer-reviewed, and scholarly literary criticism

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Introduction & Biography

"Walt Whitman."Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nation. Walt Whitman biography, by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price (short version). Excerpts of commentary by influential critics of Whitman. On "One's Self I Sing," "I Hear America Singing," "As Adam Early in the Morning," "I Hear It Was Charged Against Me," "A Glimpse," "For You O Democracy," "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the 1860 version of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, "Song of Myself."

Biography of Walt Whitman. Introduction to Leaves of Grass. A close reading of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."Academy of American Poets.

"Walt Whitman."Poetry Foundation. Encyclopedia-type introduction to Whitman, his biography, themes, and techniques, with samples of his poems.

"Walt Whitman." An introduction to Whitman from the college textbook publisher the Heath Anthology of American Literature.

"Walt Whitman as a Transcendentalist."The American Transcendentalism Web. Ed. Ann Woodlief.

Meats, Stephen "Walt Whitman."Literary Encyclopedia. 30 Sept., 2004. Eds. Robert Clark, Emory Elliott, Janet Todd. An introduction to Whitman, from a well-edited online database that provides signed literary criticism by experts in their field, and is available to individuals for a reasonably-priced subscription [subscription service].

Literary Criticism

Belasco, Susan and Kenneth Price. "Spiders, the Web, and Dickinson & Whitman."The Classroom Electric, 2001.

- - -. "Foreground and Apprentices: Dickinson and Whitman." The Classroom Electric, 2001.

Erkkila, Betsy. Publisher's blurb for Whitman the Political Poet (Oxford UP 1989).

Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. Extended, detailed biography of Walt Whitman,The Walt Whitman Archive.

- - -. Whitman's Manuscript Drafts of "Song Of Myself" Leaves of Grass, 1855.The Classroom Electric, 2001.

- - -. "Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the Civil War."The Classroom Electric, 2001.

- - -. "Walt Whitman's 'The Sleepers.'"The Classroom Electric, 2001.

Grossman, Jay and Geoffrey Saunders Schramm. "Brothers in Arms: Masculinity in Whitman's Civil War."The Classroom Electric, 2001.

Kaplan, Justin. Excerpt from Chapter 1, Walt Whitman A Life (Harper Collins 1980).

Lawrence, D.H. "Whitman." A chapter in novelist D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).

Pope, Nakia S. Brief review of "Whitman and the Homosexual Republic," by Betsy Erkkila. In Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays (U of Iowa P 1994).

Price, Ken. "Walt Whitman and Slavery"The Classroom Electric, 2001.

- - -. "Sex, Politics, and 'Live Oak, with Moss.'"The Classroom Electric, 2001.

Price, Ken; Martin G. Murray; and Robert K. Nelson. "Whitman's Memory."The Classroom Electric, 2001.

Roberts, Kim. "Whitman in Washington (1863-1873)." Beltway: a Poetry Quarterly.

Sarracino, Carmine. "Redrawing Whitman's Circle." On Whitman's devotees and disciples. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (1997).

- - -. "Dyspeptic Amours, Petty Adhesiveness, and Whitman's Ideal of Personal Relations."Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (1990) [slow download].

- - -. "Figures of Transcendence in Whitman's Poetry."Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (1987) [slow download].

Smith, Ernest. "'Restless Explorations': Whitman's Evolving Spiritual Vision in Leaves of Grass." Papers on Language and Literature (2007) [subscription service].

DeSpain, Jessica. "Working through Whitman's Contradictions."Papers on Language and Literature Summer 2009 [subscription service].

Tayson, Richard "Back Down to Earth: On Walt Whitman's Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass." Academy of American Poets.

Web sites

"O Captain, My Captain." Whitman manuscript, Library of Congress.

The Walt Whitman Archive. Eds. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. A project that "sets out to make Whitman's vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers." Editions, manuscript transcriptions and images, letters.

"Walt Whitman and the Development of Leaves of Grass." Ed. Anthony Szczesiul, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, U of South Carolina. Brief history of Whitman's editions, illustrated by photos of the books.

The Classroom Electric. U of Virginia. Extensive web site projects created by scholars and Ph.D. candidates, covering topics on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Woodlief, Ann. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed." The American Transcendentalism Web. A study text to help readers trace the symbols of the lilacs, the star, and the hermit thrush through the poem.

The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. U of Iowa. Provides titles and abstracts for the most recent edition of the publication.

"Walt Whitman." The Library of Congress exhibit from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection.

"Walt Whitman." Texas A&M Universtiy. Inventory of the Roger Asselineau Walt Whitman Collection.

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