Song of Myself, 24

Saturday, 7/25/20 at 5:46 PM
497   Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
498   Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
499   No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
500   No more modest than immodest.

501   Unscrew the locks from the doors!
502   Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

503   Whoever degrades another degrades me,
504   And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

505   Through me the afflatus surging and surging, through me the current and index.

506   I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
507   By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

508   Through me many long dumb voices,
509   Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
510   Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
511   Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
512   And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
513   And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
514   Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
515   Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

516   Through me forbidden voices,
517   Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,
518   Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.

519   I do not press my fingers across my mouth,

520   I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
521   Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.

522   I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
523   Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.

524   Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
525   The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
526   This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

527   If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it,
528   Translucent mould of me it shall be you!
529   Shaded ledges and rests it shall be you!

530   Firm masculine colter it shall be you!
531   Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you!
532   You my rich blood! your milky stream pale strippings of my life!
533   Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you!
534   My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!
535   Root of wash’d sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!
536   Mix’d tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you!
537   Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you!
538   Sun so generous it shall be you!
539   Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you!
540   You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you!
541   Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
542   Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you!
543   Hands I have taken, face I have kiss’d, mortal I have ever touch’d, it shall be you.

544   I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,
545   Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy,
546   I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,
547   Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friendship I take again.

548   That I walk up my stoop, I pause to consider if it really be,
549   A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

550   To behold the day-break!
551   The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,
552   The air tastes good to my palate.

553   Hefts of the moving world at innocent gambols silently rising, freshly exuding,
554   Scooting obliquely high and low.

555   Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
556   Seas of bright juice suffuse the heavens.

557   The earth by the sky staid with, the daily close of their junction,
558   The heav’d challenge from the east that moment over my head,
559   The mocking taunt, See then whether you shall be master!

In his lecture “The Three Voices of Poetry,” T. S. Eliot draws attention to the issue of poetic voice. He proposes, outright, three categories: (1) “the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody;” (2) “the voice of the poet addressing an audience;” (3) “the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse” (4). Eliot then uses this framework to discuss the evolution his own poetic voice experienced from writing dramatic verse, and more broadly, to encourage readers of poems to appreciate the multi-vocality of poetry at large. “Can you distinguish these voices in the poetry you read, or hear recited, or hear in theatre? If you complain that a poet is obscure […] remember that what he may have been trying to do, was to put something into words which could not be said in any other way, and therefore in a language which may be worth the trouble of learning,” Eliot writes (23). To take up this directive: How does considering the three voices stretch or expand our conception of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” Section 24 — a poem which seemingly attempts to collapse the distinctness of these three voices altogether?

It is quite easy to identify both the second voice in the long string of second-person epistrophe in the middle section of the poem: “Translucent mould of me, it shall be you! / Shaded ledges and rests it shall be you! / Firm masculine colter it shall be you! […] Hands I have taken, face I have kiss’d, mortal I have ever touch’d, it shall be you.” (528-543). Commands also establish direct address to an audience, which Whitman does early on, in the fifth line of the poem: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501-502).

The first voice is necessarily more nebulous because it exists in terms of creative process, and not readily identifiable surface features. The poet engaged in the first voice, as Eliot defines it, “is not concerned, at this stage, with other people at all: only with finding the right words or, anyhow, the least wrong words” (18). In other words, the first voice is a state of mind on the author’s part, and thus cannot be definitively pointed out by an external reader; its fundamental impulse exists in absentia. Yet we can still try. Might “The air tastes good to my palate,” or “Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,” qualify as poetic attempts to express some inner, psychic opaqueness (552, 555)? Or, perhaps, the images of “Root of wash’d sweet flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!” (535)? Or, indeed, any of the first-person statements: “I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious” (544)? As Eliot writes, there is no point in conducting a biographic or psychological analysis to confirm or deny these identifications (19). It is simply possible that any of these lines—as diverse as they are—may have arisen from Whitman’s desire to express accurately his inner experience.

This brings us to the perhaps the most interesting point in Eliot’s essay—the category of the third voice. The third voice compels the writer to expand out of his own, known subjectivity: “a character which succeeds in interesting its author may elicit from the author latent potentialities of his own being.” Moreover, it generates a site of mutual influence, as the author “imparts something of himself to his characters, but I also believe that he is influenced by the characters he creates.” (11). There is a certain stability to the third voice which distinguishes it from the others: for Eliot, the first voice barely exists outside of its preliminary function in the creative process, and the second voice easily reduces itself to “haranguing”: “it was the second voice, that of myself addressing—indeed haranguing—an audience, that was most distinctly audible” (7). By this portrayal, one might even argue that the third voice is what makes for a successful poem, a relevant poem, a social poem. A poet who inhabits only first and second voice might fail to connect to the outside world. This, of course, brings up the question: does Whitman engage with the effects of the third voice which Eliot so valued?

Whitman, quite plainly, doesn’t use the third voice as defined by Eliot, which is to say, he doesn’t write in dramatic verse. It is possible to argue that Whitman creates a form of dramatic monologue by calling upon himself in the first line: “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.” But for Eliot, the character which defines the third voice necessarily exists in dialogue: “I risk the generalization also, which may indeed be far too sweeping, that dramatic monologue cannot create a character. For character is created and made real only in an action, a communication between imaginary people.” (14). Yet Whitman perhaps achieves an effect proximate to the one Eliot proclaims to have found by writing in dramatic verse — the effect of, in a sense, breaking out of one’s own subjectivity, of entering a dialogue, through radically different means.

One way in which Whitman seems to accomplish this is through the machinations of doubling and parallelism at the outset of the poem. Consider the third line: “No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them” (499). The doubled “no,” the opposition of “above” and “apart,” of “men” and “women” all form pairs which seem to reflect off of one another, rather than allowing the statement to settle. The repetitions of the word “modest” in “No more modest than immodest” and “degrade” in “Whoever degrades another degrades me,” of “unscrew” and “door” in “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the door themselves from their jambs!” all continue this doubling scheme (500, 503). In the last example, Whitman could easily have written “Equally modest and immodest,” which expresses in more direct fashion the semantic content of the line. Instead, he chooses to frame this statement in parallel with the preceding no’s. The aural effect of the line —the assonance of the “o” (“no more modest than immodest”) and the nasal consonances (“no more modest than immodest”) —creates a sensation of echo and sonic equivalence, furthering the syntactic parallelism (500). While this parallelism doesn’t explicitly involve the self/other relation, it forms a linguistic world in which objects, subjects, referents, and signifiers may be interchanged or syntactically exist on equal footing. The linguistic norms of the poem generate a hall of mirrors which forces the reflection of the self on to the other, the other onto the self, on and on. This is a form of linguistic, structural dialogue which brings proximate the more overt, semantic address of the poem with its existence as pure sound and pattern.

The epistrophe of “it shall be you,” repeated over the course of sixteen lines (including two interruptions) in the eleventh stanza, more concretely defamiliarizes the reader from recognizing easily distinguishable subject and object positions. The “you,” on one hand, might refer back to Whitman’s own body “If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it, / Translucent mould of me it shall be you!” (527-528). In another sense, each “you” seems to directly address the object in question, whether that be the “trickling sap of maple” or the “vapors lighting and shading my face” (537, 539). But as the epistrophe continues, it becomes increasingly unclear what the “you” refers to, what the “it” “shall be,” and who the speaker of these lines even is. While we may assume that it is Whitman’s poetic persona speaking, the inversion of subject and predicate and lack of an “I” pronoun (excepting the first and last lines of the stanza) disperses any central, concrete subject position.

These are only a few of many ways in which Whitman collapses the distinctions between first and second voice, and effectively forms his third. Unlike Eliot, who takes the opposite tack by distancing the world of self and that of character through the creation of more overtly theatrical poetry, Whitman works to unify and accrete all possible worlds in his lyric. And despite this difference, the two writers perhaps arrive at a similar effect. As Eliot writes in his closing sentence of “The Three Voices of Poetry,” “The world of a great poetic dramatist is a world in which the creator is everywhere present, and everywhere hidden.” (24). This is precisely the sound of Whitman’s voice: everywhere present, everywhere hidden.

(26 October 2017)

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. The Three Voices of Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 1953.

Whitman, Walt. “24 from Song of Myself,” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.

Tags: whitman eliot voice poetry