Ahmir Allen

“Song of Myself” as a Representative of the American Canon

For my Digital Humanities project, I chose to look at the poem “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself” has historically been considered one of the first great American poems, due both to its creation at a cultural turning point in the United States and the influence it had on poetry for future generations. The poem itself provides short scenes of people in everyday life interacting, which the speaker describes in free-verse extensively. The goal of my exploration of “Song of Myself” was to see if I could glean any information on the social issues and concerns of Whitman’s contemporary American writers and readership. While I was able to come to a conclusion that satisfied me in terms of identifying references and themes in Whitman’s poetry, I also was interested in some research that provided new information for me on how the public viewed Whitman at the time he was publishing.

“Song of Myself,” which underwent various edits and re-writes during its lifetime, acted as a personal testament on Whitman’s behalf of the themes he was interested in and even his philosophy on life. As such, I viewed the poem itself as a documentation of the concerns not only of Whitman but of many American citizens. Using voyant-tools to highlight the most common words in “Song of Myself,” I found that “know,” “old,” “Earth,” “night,” “man,” “good,” and “day” were the words Whitman used most often, ignoring “shall” and “long” as they didn’t pertain to the subject matter as much as the rest. While I originally thought that looking for specific references within “Song of Myself” would yield the best results, looking more closely at the poem showed a more emphasized insight into the workings of Whitman as a poet and as a citizen.

His transcendentalist tendencies towards nature and individuality show through the repeated use of words like “Earth,” which was written 28 times, and “Man,” which was written 25 times throughout the text. Nature is presented, among other meanings, as a representation of the cycle of life and death that humans must accept. This philosophy was more prevalent in Whitman’s writing after his involvement in the Civil War, during which he was exposed to many injured soldiers including his own brother. There is also a clearly distinguishable interest in people and power of the individual, showcasing Whitman’s beliefs in democracy as a government and a lifestyle through the prevalence of words like “man” and “love,” which appear 27 and 19 times respectively throughout the poem.

A particularly surprising aspect of my research was the lack of defined biblical allusions in “Song of Myself,” as I had been under the assumption that many poets and authors were still relying heavily on preconceived notions of religion for substance during the time the poem was published. While there aren’t any notable biblical references, there is an extended conversation about “God,” which appears 19 times in the poem, and the inability for the speaker to accept that God should receive more love from him than he himself would. This also falls in line with Whitman’s devoted appreciation for independence and individual strength.

One poet who I compared Whitman in terms of content to was Henry David Thoreau, another transcendentalist contemporary to Whitman. For instance, in “The Moon Rises to Her Absolute Rule,” the most common words in the poem are “fruit,” “absolute,” “bears,” “fields,” and “life.” The poem, being much shorter than “Song of Myself,” only repeats each word two or three times, but the devotion to nature is still absolutely as noticeable as with Whitman’s extended work. Whitman and Thoreau both showed an interest in concepts of the wilderness and free-spirited independence, and Thoreau went so far as to compliment Whitman’s epic work “Leaves of Grass,” although the collection’s poor reception at the time of its publication is just as informative as if it had been popular. With that knowledge, it could be assumed that between the philosophical qualities and the free-verse style Whitman used audiences were possibly jarred from the experience. These findings ultimately showed that Whitman was not as representative of the era for poetic and literary thought as his popularity in the modern day might lead us to believe. Sections of “Song of Myself” move between individuality and the responsibility of a democracy to the contemplation of life and death from the eyes of someone who values physical agency very highly, and while it depicted everyday people in poetic and beautiful language, the references to other literary influences on the time were not as numerous as I thought they would be at the beginning of the project. Still, this project gave me a better understanding of the transcendentalist movement and of what Americans have historically canonized into national literature.

“Song of Myself” as a Representative of the American Canon (Process Blog)

The text that I chose to examine for my Digital Humanities project was “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. For as long as I’ve studied any poetry Whitman has been defined as one of the undeniable American poets that helped shape the literary culture of the country. As such, I was interested in seeing if there was an actual correlation between what modern scholars have deemed essential and what people were interested in when Whitman was publishing poetry. To see if there was a discernable connection, I decided to compare “Song of Myself” to poems by Henry David Thoreau and see if either could present references to events or issues that were impacting people at their time. I was also looking for biblical or religious allusions to see if either poet used that as a common theme to associate people with their work.

I mainly used voyant-tools to help gather data and visualize this project. The website seemed like the best choice for synthesizing documents and getting immediate data on them, as well as making that clearly visible for the sake of the project. I had been using Excel for a time, but not much information made it to the Excel spreadsheets that wasn’t also available through voyant-tools, such as the number of times words are repeated. The main steps I had to take once I decided on an idea for the project were gathering the documents I wanted to use aside from “Song of Myself,” which included various poems by Henry David Thoreau and transcripts of the original drafts of “Song of Myself,” then organizing those documents in terms of what I was trying to compare.

One challenge that I found through this project was a lack of specific references within “Song of Myself” to relate to any specific point in time. While the vignettes of the poem do show people going about their business in the day-to-day among other scenes and monologues, there aren’t many things that can be traced to an exact point in time that might give reference to the general attitude towards the poem. I went into the project thinking that there would be more references to the bible or other well-known literature at the time, and while there was a mention of God numerous times, these weren’t so much pious as philosophical for the sake of Whitman’s transcendentalist personality. Additionally, finding out more about the lack of acceptance Whitman encountered put the entire project into a bit of a downspin, meaning just because the aspects that define Whitman were chosen by educators didn’t imply a good relation between his writing and critics at the time. Personally, making sure to stay on time and organized with any long term project is also a challenge, so that was something I needed to keep my eye on during the semester as well.

The project I ended up with definitely wasn’t what I had anticipated making at the beginning of the semester, but that was mostly because I hadn’t perceived the lack of compatibility between my specific question and the poem I chose. I expected more specific, concrete allusions to be present, but the poem was defined more by the overarching philosophical gestures Whitman made constantly. It met my expectations in that I was able to gain some useful knowledge on the poem of Walt Whitman that I hadn’t known prior to researching, and I was able to get a better understanding of him as a poet and why he has such an established place in the American literary canon. However, if given the chance to go back and change some things, or more time to work on the project as it is, I would like to bring in more documents to analyze alongside “Song of Myself.” It’s possible that I would pick an entirely different document but still approach it with the same question, since I see a lot of value in being able to tell what was popular in the past and what has been sensationalized by history.

If someone were to try and expand upon my project as it is now, I could see them approaching it less as a study of the population at Walt Whitman’s time and more as a study of Walt Whitman’s poetry as it was influenced by his time. The more interesting parts of the project, in my opinion, were discovering the motivations behind the choices made in Whitman’s drafts and finished texts. Seeing that through the lens of a different question or format would be interesting, and comparing the two projects would hopefully be able to support each other.