Whitman's Song of Myself and The Nature of Life Essay

Whitman's Song of Myself and The Nature of Life Essay

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Whitman's Song of Myself and The Nature of Life


Identifying the mystery of existence, Whitman writes "Song of Myself," section six to question the nature of the life of man. He alludes to and confronts past answers to this query by utilizing as his central image the leaves of grass. In the Christian tradition, the Bible utilizes this image of grass to describe the lives of men. Isaiah, a prophet of God cries out, "All men are like grass . . . and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, . . . but the word of the Lord stands forever" (Isaiah 40:6-8). The scriptural image of men as grass, "the handkerchief of the Lord," places man in relation to God and establishes the transient, finite nature of man. Whitman responds throughout this poem to the Biblical answer to the question of life. Emphasizing the cyclical process of nature, Whitman constructs his poem to insist that the life of man, as in nature, moves not with linear progression, but rather in a cyclical succession. Birth and death, Whitman asserts, serve not as bookends to a concise life span, but rather as connections in a larger continuum of existence.

Whitman utilizes an imagist technique relating a series of associated images through a central connection. Whitman first presents the reader with the image of a small child offering up grass with the question, "What is the grass." In light of the scriptural connection Whitman provides, this query "What is the grass" from the lips of a child presents the larger question of what is man. Whitman chooses not to answer this question directly, but rather to present possibilities and proffer the question back to the reader, stating "How could I answer the chil...


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...ot ceased to exist but rather now continue their existence "alive and well" in the ambiguous "somewhere." Whitman will not accept the Biblical understanding of death as a passage to either heaven or hell. He claims instead that "to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." This fortuitous death he would apply to every man, not reserving destruction for any man. Death, if it truly exists, for Whitman, leads only "forward to life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it." Stating "All goes onward and outward . . and nothing collapses," Whitman affirms the view of man's earthly life as a succession rather than a progression and claims for man a part in a larger cyclical continuum of existence.

Works Cited:

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 3rd ed. Ed, Paul Lauter. Boston,NewYork: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

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