Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” and Expansive Persona
By Matthew Cox
Walt Whitman is one of the most famous poets in America during the 1800’s. He is known for his poetry collection known as the Leaves of Grass. The author spent his entire life perfecting this work by reediting and adding to it throughout his life. One of the most famous poems from the book is called “ Song of Myself.” It is a metaphor about who Walt Whitman is. It engages readers by Whitman exaggerating who he wants to be with expansive persona. The work does not sound arrogant or boastful. Rather, it entertains the reader with vivid descriptions of how the poet wants to portray himself. Whitman uses elements of Transcendentalism and Romanticism for artistic effect. Also, he predicts realism in writing in America after the Civil War. “Song of Myself” is an exaggerated metaphor of Walt Whitman’s personality.
Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is a famous piece from his collection, Leaves of Grass published in 1855 (Wikipedia). It first appears as an unnamed writing. In the 1856 edition, of the Leaves of Grass, Whitman called the poem “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American.” He renamed it to “Song of Myself” in the 1860 version of the collection. The poet divided it into 52 numbered sections in the 1867 edition. Walt Whitman borrows Transcendentalist ideas for this work. Ralph Waldo Emerson supports this notion. He even writes a letter to Whitman praising his first edition of the Leaves of Grass. Additionally, Whitman uses many Romantic ideas in his poems including an appreciation of nature, nationalist slant, and an introspective approach to writing. He shows this the gritty details of life in the 1800’s.
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did it in the cot in his mother's bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand . . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove ... (section 15)
Many literary critics say that Whitman was ahead of his time. Realistic writing styles such as this come after the Civil War and not before it.
The poem is a self portrait of who Walt Whitman is. For example, the word “self” identifies the speaker, or “I” in the poem. “Song of Myself” shows the reader who Whitman wants to be or might be, and not the real-life writer. This is called an expansive persona. Writers who use this method write about who they want to be and not who they are. People who use expansive persona exaggerate or give unrealistic details about their personalities and experiences. For example, "I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe .... and am not contained between my hat and boots" (section 7) uses hyperbole to describe the passage of time for Whitman’s life (Wikipedia). The writer’s tone does not appear to be selfish with “in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less/and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them” (Section 20). Instead, he seems to use the writing as a way of reaching out to people. Other quotes from the passage show that he is telling readers about different aspects of his personality.
“it is you talking just as much as myself…I act as the tongue of you” (Section 47)
“I am large…I contain multitudes.” (Section 51)
“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” (Section 1)
Literary analyst Alice L. Cook writes that the concept of “self” is an important element in the poem. Everyone has their own personality and expresses it in individual ways. Therefore, “self” is a universal concept. Critic John B. Mason asserts that the poem starts out as individual expression. It moves into cosmic proportions as Whitman exaggerates and adds hyperbole to his work. The “self” is much like what people find in epic poetry. The writer in such writing takes a hero and gives him superhuman powers. Whitman does the same thing to himself and not with a made up person.
“Song of Myself” is an exaggerated metaphor of Walt Whitman’s personality. He is one of the most original and influential writers in the Mid-1880’s. Whitman spent his whole life adding to and revising his poetry called the Leaves of Grass. “Song of Myself” is one of his most popular poems. The work reveals hidden aspects of Whitman’s personality through hyperbole. This piece entertains readers with vivid descriptions of who the writer wants to be through expansive persona. It does not portray the poet as arrogant or haughty. Rather is delights readers by stretching the truth. Whitman borrows ideas from other forms of writing including Transcendentalism and Romanticism. However, his literary style is realistic an ahead of its time.
“Song of Myself.” Wikipedia. 16 February 2008. 2 March 2008.