Walt Whitman’s Liberalism and His Freethinking Behavior as Expressed in “Song of Myself”

The most well-known part of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," section 33, expresses Whitman's emotions, opinions, and thoughts about a variety of human actions and natural phenomena. Above all else, Whitman portrays himself as an independent thinker who is compassionate and open to understanding a variety of viewpoints. This humanistic and, if you can call it that, "hippyish" aspect of Whitman's "Song of Myself" exactly mirrors his conduct in real life and his personality. In the following paper Whitman’s poetry will be compared to his life to draw a portrait of an energetic and dynamical singer of nature, beauty, joy, and freedom.

Literature historians and Whitman’s contemporary critics alongside with academic disputes and researches represent Whitman as a sexually, socially, and spiritually frivoled person whose ambition was to accept everything and judge nothing. During Whitman’s life there were rumors of him being homosexual (Schmidgall, 89). His magnum opus was often called pornographic in nature or unfairly offended in some other ways. At one occasion in life Whitman was denied a government position under the pretense that he was the author of “awful” “Leaves of Grass” of which “Song of Myself” is one of the best parts. During Whitman’s life his persona was nothing but ordinary as he appeared to be originally different from others and unable to adapt to usual collective norms. He was dedicated to his country and its people but in a way many people did not understand during his life. Facts of his biography even though they correspond with and reflect his poetry were used by his critics to attack his work.

During his life Whitman was known to swim and sunbath naked at various occasions. Academic dispute presents Whitman as either a homosexual or a bisexual. There are men with whom he was known to have more than friendly relationships (Schmidgall, 78). Additionally, he was visited by Oscar Wilde in the last years of his life which itself can bring some definite yet improvable conclusions. In any case Whitman was known then and later as a kind of weird but passionate marginal (Price, 108). However, in the company of such his close colleagues as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson he was right on his place. In any case they were all well respected and admired by the wider public. Origins of Whitman’s attraction to nudity while swimming and sunbathing go back to one of his first literature experiments named “Manly Health and Training” in which he suggests men to swim and sunbathe naked (Schmidgall, 57). In this book Whitman wrote different advices to stay healthy, strong, and energetic. Among these advices there are suggestions to get up early, eating meat, train physically etc. This strange kind of book untypical of Whitman was later himself regarded as his worst creation.

In “Song of Myself” Whitman writes: “To drive free, to love free, to court destruction with taunts. One brief house of madness and joy!” (Whitman, 50) And also: “The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections, They scorn the best I can do to relate them.” (Whitman, 113) Lines as such can be assumed to express Whitman’s affection to nature and his energetic way of being free in madness and joy. Whitman appears as singer of interconnection of everything in nature. Whitman says in “The Song of Myself”: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuffed with the stuff that is course, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine, one of the nation, of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest”. (Whitman, 34) This celebrated diversity is among the central aspects of Whitman’s poetic identity. In his life Whitman followed the principles expressed in “The Song of Myself” and he dedicated his life to one and only literature masterpiece “Leaves of Grass”.

In “The Song of Myself” Whitman celebrates natural diversity of all living creatures that surround him including himself. He wants to know everything and be a part of everything. Philosophically speaking Whitman states that he is as much a part of this world as this world is a part of him. Unity of nature and human, unity of people, animals, ideas, feelings, emotions, and joys is what Whitman tries to express and deliver with his immortal lines: “Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? (Whitman, 58) These lines draw a portrait of a man whose connection and bond with nature and surroundings allowed him to achieve inner peace and harmony. Whitman expresses his amazement at the experience of being human

To define Whitman as a poet and Whitman as man in the best way it would be effective to claim that he paid a lot of effort to erase the border between these two. Whitman was a poet in life and a “common man” in poetry. This contrast, nevertheless, can be seen as Whitman attempt to unify his artistic explorations with his real-life experiences of being human (Schmidgall, 90) Whitman did not draw a line between his work and his life because his life was his work while his work was his life. He dedicated his life to poetry and dedicated his poetry to life. This straight-forwardness is Whitman’s most unique and original feature that makes him different from all the other poets existed before or after him (Loving, 70). Even though Whitman did never confess being a gay (which was a critically extreme point of his frivolity and also a feature of his basic nature) and even claimed he was not, his poems made people think about it exactly because Whitman was unable to hide anything in his poetry writing everything as it was, as he felt it.

The facts of his biography also show this unalienable love of freedom and the attachment to libertarian spirit. These exact elements of Whitman’s both poetic and personal identity can be qualified as his patriotism. Whitman loved American nation and cared for America eternally and endlessly. Without any doubt Whitman’s personality as a freethinker and his social image of a free spirited man corresponded the principles stated in his poetry.

By singing a song of himself Whitman follows the example of Michele Montaigne, a late renaissance French writer who wrote “Essays”, an astonishing work of ethics, morality, and philosophy. Like Whitman Montaigne attempted to document and immortalize his portrait by carefully observing and evaluating personal experiences and own life. Whitman uses his identity, his human image and his persona to take experiences with which he experiments in the “Song of Myself”: “What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere, The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the

end to arrest it, And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” (Whitman, 87). This admiration of everything that exists in reality introduce Whitman’s panoptic evaluation of life in general.

In his “Drum-Taps” Whitman again shows his free spirit and liberal thinking expanding the boundaries of human experience and dynamically striving for all-encompassing human unity: “Over all the sky—the sky! far, far out of reach, studded with the eternal stars.Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling!” (Whitman, 123)

All in all, it was discussed that Whitman as a man could not be disconnected from his poetic image as they are tied in a unity that Whitman admired and strived for. In his life Whitman followed the ideals of freedom and natural behavior; he celebrated human unity with all living things and peace that exists between everything and everywhere. More than anything else Whitman described himself in “Song of Myself” from the “Leaves of Grass” shortly reviewed and evaluated here. It was contrasted to Whitman’s work “Manly Health and Training” and to the lines from his “Drum-Taps”. Walt Whitman was a great poet because he lived a poet’s life and used poetry to reach out to the world and scream about his universal unity with existence.

Works Cited

Loving, J. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press

Price, K. Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Boston: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Schmidgall, G. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life New York: Dutton, 1997

Whitman, W. Leaves of Grass. New York: Penguin, 2001

Whitman, W. Collected Poems. Chicago: Routledge, 2009

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