Selected Criticism

"Beginning My Studies" (1865)
Huang, Guiyou
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem first appeared in the 1865 Drum-Taps where, according to Roger Asselineau, it did not belong because its theme is irrelevant to that collection; in 1871 Whitman transferred it to the "Inscriptions" cluster.

E. Fred Carlisle views the poem as Whitman's identification of the first stage of the self's meeting with the world. The poet's attachment to the actual, physical world serves as a bridge to "partial fulfillment and self-transcendence" (Carlisle 97). Thus the poet is articulating his concern with the thing-in-itself and his wish to experience the real world. James Dougherty presents a similar reading; Whitman finds a self-conscious delight in consciousness and confesses the pleasure of being the connoisseur of one's own experience. V.K. Chari reinforces this reading and establishes the theme of the self as essential to the comprehensive intent of Whitman's poems because the subject matter of his poetry is the nature of experience itself, "the fact of human consciousness" (Chari 19). According to these readings, the poem explores the nature of subject-object relationship and offers the key to a large portion of Whitman's poetry; its "mere fact consciousness" explains the fundamental meanings of Whitman's poems and largely determines their forms and techniques. Gay Wilson Allen, on the other hand, reads the poem as Whitman's declaration not to become a systematic or aggressive student of philosophy.

In theme and tone "Beginning My Studies" resembles "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Both display a disdain for bookish knowledge and for authorities as represented by learned astronomers. The poet evinces greater interest in and curiosity about the actual facts than in figures and charts from books and classrooms. He seems to be content with what he is and with the actual physical forms whose presence his senses can feel; he is equally pleased to enjoy the consciousness of those matters and sing them "in ecstatic songs."


Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality. Trans. Richard P. Adams and Roger Asselineau. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960.

Carlisle, E. Fred. The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1973.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.


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