June 14, 2020 | Brian Chappell

Song of Myself

When I teach “Song of Myself,” I refer to The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman, by M. Jimmie Killingsworth. In particular, I refer to what Killingsworth identifies as the five major features of the poem. For my students I further identify these features as “breakthroughs” that would come to largely characterize the modern poetry that followed. They are as follows:

Breakthrough #1: The poem conducts a radical experiment in poetic form (Killingsworth 26).

Breakthrough #2: The poem embodies the ideals of personality within the context of political democracy (Killingsworth 28).

Breakthrough #3: The poem spiritualizes the body and materializes the soul in an effort to reinvigorate the religious experience (Killingsworth 30).

Breakthrough #4: The poem uses catalogues of images and vignettes to suggest the open-ended and endlessly varied range of experience within modern life (Killingsworth 34).

Breakthrough #5: The poem pushes the limits of human knowledge and language (Killingsworth 36).

As my students work through the “Songs,” I ask them to identify how a particular song manifests one or more of these breakthroughs. I also ask them to consider which of these breakthroughs is the most significant and why. I encourage you to undertake a similar exercise here. Though we want “Song of Myself” to wash over us, even overwhelm us, using these breakthroughs as a frame of reference will nonetheless enhance our engagement. 

Then, I encourage you to identify a favorite song, or even a favorite line or moment. I will share mine. It is the concluding couplet of Song #6: 

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

I love it for personal reasons, particularly Whitman’s attitude towards death, which is the general subject of Song #6. One can take this attitude as a personal consolation, and others can investigate the possibility, as many have, of Whitman’s engagement with Eastern religions. Either way, it is an act of defiance, especially in our culture, to say, when all seems to point to the finality of death, that “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” What would it mean for you to say, when you consider your beloved dead, that they are “alive and well somewhere”? It is possible that to utter these phrases and believe them, we must reframe our perception of what life and death really are, beyond what our cultural messaging continually conveys. “Song of Myself” is up to nothing less.