Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins with the line, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” a line that has stuck with me since I first read the poem. But what does it mean?
Whitman, a Long Islander who liked the sound of the ocean waves, first published “Song of Myself” in 1855, meditating on the interconnectedness of all individual beings. He muses on diversity of American life and attempts to weave the country together by conveying the idea of unity in diversity and stressing an ethic of care for one another and for the world we inhabit. The poem, split into 52 sections, was revised throughout his lifetime, reflecting Whitman’s unique approach to poetry: one that reflects the transitory and sometimes random nature of life itself. Cornell mirrors the interconnection that Whitman stresses, in the way that it brings multiple different schools under one umbrella, conveying the theme of unity in diversity. In a society increasingly emphasizing specialization, Whitman’s emphasis on interconnection conveys the importance of a liberal arts curriculum.
One of Whitman’s famous lines is “I contain multitudes” relating to the amorphous, shifting and even somewhat mysterious nature of the self. This sentiment relates to the self-knowledge that we gain at college. Self-knowledge is a term used in psychology to define the knowledge of one’s own mental states, processes and dispositions. We gain this knowledge at Cornell by taking new classes, meeting new people and partaking in new experiences. It is a complex and personal process. We learn about the kind of friend that we want to be, we learn about the way that we want to be loved and the type of student that we want to be. On the other hand, we think about how we will fit into the world once we leave Cornell, what kind of job we want to have, what kind of path we want to take to get there, what kind of life we hope to live. We think about our hometowns and our personal histories and decide how we can shape the things that initially shaped us. As T.S. Elliot states, “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” Whitman reminds us that we have the privilege to become and that we discover through friendships that we are connected to everyone else. To understand the multitudes that we contain, we must acknowledge the multitudes of others.
Whitman states, “This is the city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools ….” Throughout the poem, Whitman attempts to bring together the individual self and the collective nation. By doing so, he highlights one of the paradoxes of democracy; how to maintain unity and equality while guaranteeing enough freedom for the individual to break boundaries. The first amendment freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution shape our very own learning environment. Being able to speak freely and articulate the views that we believe in is critical to self-development and to achieving genuine community.
Whitman wrote at the time of the Civil War. Since Jan. 6, 2021, there have been claims that America is nearing another Civil War. Our media are flooded with vicious, often mendacious attempts to dehumanize “others.” Whitman wrote, “Whoever degrades another degrades me.” It is a sentiment American politics has lost. Nastiness pervades our political discourse. The plethora of ad hominem arguments, spewed by the past president on Twitter, have incited imitators and insurrectionists. Whitman reminds us to respect the common humanity we share even if we do not respect views that are racist/sexist, spread by deliberate misinformation and so on. An ethic of care rather than an ethic of spite directs one to understanding rather than dehumanization. In “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” Whitman had the nerve to write, at a time when the nation was being torn apart, “Be not dishearten’d — Affection shall solve all the problems of freedom yet; / Those who love each other shall become invincible.”
Beyond being part of a collective nation or a collective politic, we are also part of the wider world and a part of a wide ecology of living things. Whitman is recognized as an eco-poet, creating poems with environmental themes. He states, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars” — all being is interconnected, and precious. He actualizes his vision for democracy through nature. He uses the symbol of grass to convey egalitarianism as he states, “This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, This the common air that bathes the globe.” He sees a symbol for the national politic in the grass, but he also sees that human existence is very much intertwined with this grass. Many believe that the world exists to serve our needs, but in an age of global warming we must relearn our place in the world. Considering the recent natural disasters — the floods in Pakistan, the devastation of Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico and Canada, the fires in California, and the typhoon that hit the North Philippines — we see that all of us are interconnected and responsible to each other. Geopolitically, fossil fuels supplied by Russia will not be supplied this winter; many European nations face an energy crisis. This war may push European nations to focus on renewable energy.
While we belong to a greater community of living things, we also belong to the wider universe. Whitman states, “And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” In my oceanography class I was introduced to Carl Sagan’s statement that all of human history occurred “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam ….” As Cornellians, we belong to many places: the universe, the Milky Way, the solar system, planet Earth and the continents, countries, cities and towns we call home. While we inhabit this little campus on a hill let’s remember to treat the people and the world around us with care.
Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.