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On "One's Self I Sing"


James Dougherty

The 1855 "Song of Myself" had announced that the "word of the modern" was "a word en masse," and eventually Whitman would revise this 1867 Inscription to affirm that "En-Masse" was also "the word Democratic." In a modern, democratic society, as Tocqueville had said, no intermediate allegiances stand between the individual citizen and the entire body politic. The Self is indeed separate, isolated; it has renounced party and creed and local custom, all mediating bodies that provide a system of preference or exclusion.

from Walt Whitman and the Citizen’s Eye (Louisiana State UP, 1993), 140.


Terry Mulcaire

"One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person," run the opening lines of Leaves of Grass from 1871 on, "Yet utter the word Democratic." A poetic universe of productive tension is hinted by that "Yet"; the tense equipoise between individualism and democracy, this poem suggests, is the foundational theme of Whitman’s book. The poem then goes on to introduce the site and symbol for this reconciliation of individual to mass: the body, "physiology from top to toe." We receive individual identity through our body, . . . yet at the same time, physicality, and especially physical affection, are universal, binding us together in common humanity. Much of the boldly progressive politics of Whitman’s poetry will follow from this emphasis on the body; thus his introduction of the theme of "physiology" is followed by his (then quite radical) insistence on the political equality of male and female.

from J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1998), 483.


Betsy Erkkila

The poet he imagines in the 1855 preface is, like his ideal republic, balanced between self and other: "The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain close betwixt both and they are vital to his style and thoughts."

This vision of a poet stretching within a universe bounded by pride and sympathy had as its political analogue the paradox of an American republic poised between self-interest and public virtue, liberty and union, the interests of the many and the good of the one. The secret of Whitman's art and the American Union, the paradox of many in one, eventually became the opening inscription and balancing frame of Leaves of Grass:

One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Balanced between the separate person and the en masse, the politics of Leaves of Grass is neither liberal nor bourgeois in the classical sense of the terms; rather, the poems represent the republican ideals of early-nineteenth-century artisan radicalism, emphasizing the interlinked values of independence and community, personal wealth and commonwealth.

from Whitman the Political Poet. Copyright 1989 by Oxford University Press.


Ezra Greenspan

His most ambitious attempts to define his relations with the public, however, were in the various prefatory pieces he continued to attach to later editions of Leaves of Grass. With Whitman, the preface was designed to explain the purpose of his writing both to himself and to his reader. The logic of his authorial position had normally presupposed the mutuality of self-discovery. It was here, therefore, that Whitman was most particularly intent to put or keep the reader in the text, treating him or her to the one-to-one address he had used in his early poems. Often, the most important thoughts of his prefaces were those which could not have been expressed except as addresses to the reader reading: "The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought -- there to pursue your own flight."

He was to work away on and off throughout the rest of his life on the formulation of the supreme statement of his poetic purpose in Leaves of Grass but with particular urgency during the 1860s, by which time, the years of his most intense creativity already behind him, he was looking to define his achievement. The most sustained product of this ambition was the series of musings, alternately in prose and verse, which he unsuccessfully attempted over the course of the decade to cohere into the final preface to Leaves of Grass. The manuscripts in which he worked over these musings, one of the most revealing batches of his papers as to his method of work, offer an unobstructed view of Whitman's manner of thinking and composing at this stage of his life. One can see in them how the same thoughts and ideas, expressed in lines and stanzas which changed little except for their order or phraseology, were worked over and over in Whitman's mind for years, as Whitman punctiliously recombined parts in the search for the perfect whole. He appropriately thought of this preface as his "Inscription: To the Reader at the Entrance of Leaves of Grass," with himself stationed at the meeting point between life and literature, waiting to receive the reader with opened arms. This final address to the American reader became the "Inscription" to the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass:

Small is the theme of the following Chant, yet the greatest -- namely,
    ONE'S SELF -- that wondrous thing, a simple, separate person.
    That, for the use of the New World, I sing.
Man's physiology complete, from top to toe, I sing. Not
    physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse; -- I
    say the Form complete is worthier far. The female equally with the
    male, I sing.
Nor cease at the theme of One's-Self. I speak the word of the
    modern, the word EN-MASSE.
My Days I sing, and the Lands -- with interstice I knew of helpless
    War.
O friend, whoe'er you are, at last arriving hither to commence, I feel
    through every leaf the pressure of your hand, which I return. And
    thus upon our journey link'd together let us go.

The familiar Whitman motifs are all there: the individual and the collective, man and woman, body and soul, art and America. And so, too, is the familiar Whitman ploy of communicating these themes through reader involvement. But even the appearance of this statement in print did not satisfy Whitman, who eventually condensed this inscription into the short programmatic poem, "One's-Self I Sing," which was to become the lead poem to all later editions of Leaves of Grass. Slim as it was, it contained the kernel of his thinking about the dichotomy in his society between the individual (the "simple separate person") and the democratic whole (the "En-masse").

From its beginning, his Leaves of Grass career had been a contiguous attempt to provide a creative answer to this duality, to locate the individual -- himself -- in the national collective.

From Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Cambridge University Press.


Christopher Beach

In the well-known "Inscription" to the 1867 Leaves ("One’s Self I Sing"), Whitman introduces distinctions only to collapse them. The distinctions he foregrounds in this brief poem--One's-Self/En-Masse, separate person/Democratic, physiognomy/brain, Female/Male, laws divine/Modern Man--suggest the more general distinctions that are embodied in his work as a whole: private/public, lyric/epic, national/universal, background/poem, social/aesthetic. Each of these pairings represents an important opposition for Whitman, an opposition which he believes must be explored and then ultimately collapsed or rejected. Paradoxically, his poetic goal is to make distinctions among the vast array of available words and meanings so as to constitute or inaugurate a basic Americanness that on one level is without distinction--democratic and egalitarian--but at the same time is literarily and historically distinct from all other national cultures and from his own contemporary poetic culture. Both implicitly in his idiolect and explicitly in his social reference, Whitman takes on the impossible poetic task of presenting a core Americanness that for all its tremendous diversity is united in a common moral, historical, and aesthetic purpose.

From The Politics of Distinction: Whitman and the Discourses of Nineteenth-Century America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. Copyright 1996 by University of Georgia Press.


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