“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass
Exploring a Walt Whitman Poem
Throughout his epic 52-verse poem, Walt Whitman explores the essence of being alive and what it means to celebrate yourself and all of your virtues and vices. He revels in the beauty of nature—the wintry sky, the misty-topped mountains, the branches of lilac, and wild gander. He meditates on the connectedness of life—to himself and everything and everyone around him.
He published the first version of the poem in Leaves of Grass six years before the outbreak of the Civil War. He draws inspiration from all different kinds of people and places—and attempts to bring them together in free verse.
“Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.”
Whitman sees himself in others. His poetic observations resemble the practice of mindfulness, which is to say that he pays attention to his surroundings and passing thoughts in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.
He is kind and compassionate toward himself, acknowledging his shortcomings and idiosyncrasies, not as something that needs to be fixed but as a reality—something as real as the constellations in the sky, where it’s up to us to connect the dots.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
We are constantly evolving and exchanging thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Like Whitman, we can be shameless in our changes, especially as the line between public and private life becomes increasingly blurred in today’s social media landscape. Sharing our missteps and foibles is more socially acceptable than it once was. And guess what? Sometimes our goals and intentions don’t line up with our actions or results. This does not make us failures. It makes us humble. It makes us wise. It makes us human.
But is there a line? Can you reveal too much? In his day, Whitman was, in a way, accused of oversharing. Critics deemed Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, as shocking, obscene, and too sensual largely because of his sexual references. We’re not saying you have to take it that far and write a tantalizing tell-all, but baring your heart for others to see is a vulnerable and brave act. By doing so, your voice becomes their voice; your bravery, theirs.
Our experiences become the tie that binds, and our stories become the catalyst for empathy, which is something Whitman felt deeply upon meeting others: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
Sharing stories about ourselves opens the doorway to understanding. But someone has to be willing to take the first step and cross the threshold. The extent of Whitman’s influence is incalculable. So, too, are our stories. We might not know exactly who our stories will touch or in what way. But we are the only ones who can tell them.