1) One recurring theme that caught my attention in Song of Myself was the concept of balance. This motif was not only presented throughout the poem with the overt use of contrasting terms within a sentence but Whitman also alludes to the idea of balance in some of the sections where he describes broader concepts.
Here are some examples of yin and yang terminology that I noticed as I read:
- "I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, Maternal as well as paternal..."
- "I am the poet of the woman as well as the man, And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man"
- "I too am of one phase and of all phases. Partaker of influx and efflux..."
- "I am not the poet of goodness only...I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also."
- "...no more modest than immodest."
- "...of wombs, and of the fatherstuff"
- "sounds of the city and sounds out of the city...sounds of the day and night."
- "Backing and filling, appearing and disappearing"
- "I help myself to material and immaterial"
- "...the living and dead lay together"
- "And know that they who have eyes are divine, and the blind and lame are equally divine"
- "...ever the upward and downward sun...ever the air and the ceaseless tides"
- "I do not call one greater and one smaller, that which fills its period and place is equal to any."
Whitman even brings balance to his belief system and all the topics he covers by suggesting that he contradicts himself, or essentially places weight on both sides of almost all the arguments he makes. I think that this is a very important thematic concern of the poem because it seems that Whitman's most fundamental purpose throughout the piece is to create a sense of unity amongst all beings. He aims to develop acceptance for all people and animals and faiths and while he feels there is no one greater than himself and he encourages others to "stand cool and supercilious before a million universes," he also admits to his own faults and misunderstandings and suggests those within others and doesn't even surrender an all-knowing power to God.
2) A literary device that Whitman utilizes throughout the piece is anaphora, or the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of several sentences consecutively. There are countless less notable instances of this in segments using "the" or pronouns such as "you" at the start of sentences but here are some more unique examples:
- "For me all that have been boys...
For me the man that is proud...
For me the sweetheart and the old maid...
For me lips that have smiled...
For me children and the begetters of children."
- "If they are not yours...
If they do not enclose...
If they are not the riddle...
If they are not just as close..."
- "Earth of the slumbering...
Earth of departed sunset...
Earth of the vitreous pour...
Earth of shine and dark...
Earth of the limpid gray..."
- "Ever the hard and unsunk...
Ever the eaters and drinkers...
Ever myself and my neighbors...
Ever the old inexplicable query...
Ever the vexer's hoot...
Ever the bandage..."
I think that Whitman chose this rhetorical device not only to create the repetition that we see throughout the poem but also for emphasis and rhythm. The technique gives a melodic quality to the expressions, which might otherwise feel overly dense and rambling. For such a long poem I think that this was a wise choice on Whitman's part to break up the varying ideas he discusses and to give the rant a poetic flow.
3) Another major motif that Whitman refers to again and again is God or at least his concept of God and faith. He makes several references to the "divine," things made "holy," "prayer" and "worship," but he also heavily references ideas that are in direct contrast to these things such as open sexuality and science. He does not claim a clear affiliation and gives equal weight to the faiths of others, he does however capitalize the "g" in "God," which indicates his respect and acknowledgement for some higher power or being. Here are some instances where "God" is mentioned:
- "I visit the orchards of God and look at the spheric product"
- "And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own..."
- "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer, This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds."
- "I do not despise you priests; My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths, Enclosing all worship ancient and modern, and al between ancient and modern...Waiting responses from oracles...honoring the gods...saluting the sun..."
- "God will be there and wait till we come."
- "And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God, For I who am curious about each am not curious about God, No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death."
I think that it was necessary for Whitman to include references to God and the concept of spirituality in general because he covers such a broad range of topics regarding humanity that something essential would be missing if he did not. He also makes so many references to eternity and the universe and ideas that are simply incomplete without the mention of spiritual faith and beliefs influenced by religion. However since he doesn't claim one specific religion or definition of God, he presents a message that can be appreciated and understood by everyone equally. He states that he sees God in everyone and everything and throughout everyday and every moment. I think this is a very enlightened position to take, especially during Whitman's day, which was more heavily influenced by religion.
4) Asking questions to the self and to the reader is another technique that Whitman repeats in Song of Myself. I think this represents his thought process and creates space for the reader to consider their own answers to these questions before reading through his train of thought. I think this humanizes Whitman and serves to further unite himself with the reader.
- "Have you reckoned the earth much?"
- "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?"
- "Who need be afraid of the merge?"
- "Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?"
- "Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?"
- "What is a man anyhow? What am I?"
- "To be in any form, what is that?"
- "...and what is called reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?"