Inscriptions to Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman is very likely America’s greatest poet. Stylistically, he is certainly the most influential, leading the way into the modern age with his emphasis on free verse. He freed poets, whether traditional or not, to write their poetry in the style that best suited their content.

More importantly, to me at least, he seems the quintessential poet of Democracy. He is, even more than Emerson or Thoreau, the American Scholar that Emerson called for. His greatest achievement was his ability to successfully combine individualism with democracy, no mean task. Unlike Emerson or Thoreau, Whitman managed to include people, not just Nature, in his celebration of life. Unlike Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman was not an elitist and actually seemed to like people of all classes. Surprisingly, he actually seemed to believe in democracy.

The 1891 Edition of Leaves of Grass begins with “One's-Self I Sing,” a poem that attempts from the very beginning to reconcile the idea of individuality and democracy, “en-masse:”

ONE'S-SELF I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

When Whitman speaks of one’s self, he seems to mean the self as One, implying the all-pervading unity that Emerson called the Oversoul, participant in the Holy Spirit, participant in The Force, if you will. Because we are all part of the Oversoul, when we celebrate one individual, we celebrate all. Individual and Society are inseparable under Democracy, at least under democracy as Whitman envisions it.

As a part of the Oversoul, the individual is a microcosm of society. Just as society cannot reject a part of society and remain whole, the individual cannot reject part of himself and remain whole. Body and mind are inseparable. If I reject the body, I am rejecting myself. If I reject the mind, I am rejecting myself. As a society we must celebrate both woman and man. As a person, I must accept the feminine elements as well as the masculine ones if I am to be a complete human being.

Seen in this light, life can be passionate, pounding, powerful. It can be lived with zest, freed from doubts fostered by a view that sees people as “chosen” or “damned,” freed from a view that sees man as inherently evil, a mere step from eternal damnation, and sees the flesh as weak and prone to sin.

Section 1 of Whitman’s masterpiece, Song of Myself, continues these ideas:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

“Song of Myself” is no celebration of mere egotism, it is a celebration of the nobility of the individual in touch with his soul, a celebration of all individuals in touch with their soul, each soul, each individual, a mere blade of grass in a field of common, everyday grass, united through democracy and the Oversoul.

Perhaps to prove that he is, indeed, Emerson’s prophesied American Scholar, Whitman emphasizes his roots as an American through and through, but it also shows that he himself is part of his ongoing vision of democracy, a vision of American democracy as the fulfillment of society’s long dream of individual freedom. No callow youth with an idealistic view of the world, Whitman is a thirty-seven year old man in the prime of his life. Freed from religious sects or philosophical schools, Whitman is directly in touch with the power of Nature, his Vision of the Oversoul, allowing it to speak through him without conscious check, for better or for worse.

What do you think?