Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary by Walt Whitman is a sectional breakdown of the poem with two different commentators — Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill. Folsom teaching and research have centered on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry and culture. He earned his MA and PhD from the University of Rochester and currently the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa. Merrill is an American poet, essayist, journalist and translator. Currently, he serves as director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
“Song of Myself” is often included in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It has been called the core of Whitman’s poetry and something he edited throughout his life. It examines the self, the soul, America, the universe, and back down to the atoms. Whitman also openly hid references to the equality of races and sex in the poem. It reminded me of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side where censors were so worried about the reference to “colored girls” that they missed the sexual reference and caused quite a stir. Likewise, Song of Myself was not well received by social conservatives and was threatened by the Baltimore district attorney for violating obscenity laws. Whitman’s view of race and sex extended beyond being progressive for his time.
The poem reads extremely well on its own and the commentary and afterword on each section help focus the reader on the changing themes of the poem. The first time I read Leaves of Grass, I just fell into the rhythm of the words and went blindly on with the flow. Folsom’s commentary deal directly with the section read. He discusses the social and historical aspects of what is written and compares them to today and the poems setting. Merrill draws on personal experience and his own travels to relate what Whitman is saying. The joint effort gives the reader two views that are easily understood but without any heavy-handedness. They work well with Whitman’s easy, open style.
Whitman’s view is all encompassing from the joining of body and soul to religion The poetry drifts into philosophy. His views of American society are compared and contrasted with Thoreau and his Whitman’s vision of America is compared with Tocqueville’s writing of American democracy. He writes of war as a soldier and a sailor, Manifest Destiny, and of Texas. He writes of the America that is, which is not always the America America thinks it is. He presents the reader with science from the atoms to the cosmos. This is Whitman’s life work and it is all encompassing. It is everything he saw and believed recorded as a poem to be passed on. He knows that he will die and he calls on the reader to discuss and criticize the poem and to become a co-creator to add to what he was written — To keep the poem alive as one would believe a soul lives on after death.