Jen’s Bridge to the Blog 1/24/2013

Although I am a reader who does not typically give an unnecessary amount of attention to authorial intent, I have concluded that one cannot read “Song of Myself” without understanding the historical context in which Whitman wrote, as well as giving thought to his political and social agenda. As with most literature, “Song of Myself” is a response to historical events. As we have discussed in class, Whitman was writing during a time in which the union was being threatened—people were forgetting about the democratic values on which the country was founded and society was increasingly plagued by evils like slavery and “the mania of owning things” (line 688).

I believe that Whitman thought it was his duty as a poet to address these social ills, rectify the material body and the spiritual soul, and bring society back to a state of faith. In class, we have talked about Whitman as a prophet-like figure who brings a spiritually important message to the American people. In this way, “Song of Myself” becomes what we learned is referred to as a “jeremiad,” a long work that laments society’s wrongs named for the prophet Jeremiah. When pointing toward his society’s verge of spiritual collapse, I think that Whitman makes it clear that his message is about egalitarianism and democracy, values which he saw as the unifying forces needed to mend the ever-thinning ties that held the nation together. In fact, in a very prophetic moment, Whitman says, “I give the sign of democracy;/ By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on/ the same terms.” As we discussed today, his message of equality can also be seen in his use of parataxis in listing the “common” people of America. In all, there seems to be strong evidence for this theory of Whitman as prophet.

However, we have also gone further and touched on the idea of Whitman as a Christ figure, especially when he refers to his own “crucifixion and bloody crowning” (960). When Dr. Scanlon asked us at the end of class about our thoughts on Whitman’s repetition of the “I am…” mantra (beginning with “I am the hounded slave…” in line 834), I immediately thought of the phrase as an allusion to Christ’s frequent use of the phrase to describe both his humanity and divinity (e.g. “I am the Bread of Life.” “I am the Way”). In addition, according to Christian tradition, “I Am” was the first name of God. However, I wonder if Whitman, in light of his democratic message, wants to highlight the divinity of one man or entity. Instead, his message often seems to be that of pantheism—the belief that God is found in all people and things and that everyone and everything are equally divine. Thus, there definitely seems to be some tension between Whitman’s desire to be prophetic and reformist and his simultaneous desire to reinforce the values of American egalitarianism. Essentially, this is my question: How can Whitman claim to have this sense of prophetic or divine authority without subverting his own argument that no one person should be subordinate to another?

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2 Responses to “Jen’s Bridge to the Blog 1/24/2013”

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this point, Heidi. I’m definitely starting to rethink my arguments and ideas in this post. After class today, I can see that Whitman may not be trying to take on the air of the all-knowing prophet. When I read the poem for the first time, I think I got very wrapped up in what Whitman was “preaching” or saying to me, and missed parts where he addressed readers, asking them to engage and respond. There is a give and take and ebb and flow to the poem, and in a way, we as readers become part of the process of the poem. In this way, I guess if we do still see Whitman as a prophet, we have to recognize that his message cannot be complete without readers understanding and responding to it.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Heidi says:

    Prophets are the connection between divinity and humanity….but the great prophets of various world religions/ cultures were typically ‘ordinary’ people, living humbly among the people, as equals…. In Whitman’s preface to the 1855 edition of L of G, he writes about ‘the greatest poet’:
    “If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer … he is individual … he is complete in himself … the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not.”