Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"One's-Self I Sing" (1867)
Author:
Mulcaire, Terry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A longer version of "One's-Self I Sing" first appeared as an "Inscription," heading the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. From the 1871 edition on, a shorter version, with the present title, became the first poem of Leaves, placed at the beginning of the opening poetic cluster, which was now called "Inscriptions." The longer version, with the new title "Small the Theme of My Chant," reappeared in the final, 1891–1892 edition, in "Sands at Seventy."

"One's-Self" is clearly a kind of framing poem, meant to point the reader's attention to certain paramount themes in what follows. "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, as Whitman had insisted in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), 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.

After these dense indications of some major themes, "One's-Self" ends with a bland paean (absent from the 1867 version) to "Modern Man" in his "cheerful" freedom, and this soft ending, in turn, suggests the degree to which Whitman began to polish the rough edges of Leaves in the later editions. "One's-Self I Sing" is a relatively sanitized framing of Whitman's more extreme representations of physiology, of sexual relations, or of the violence involved in reconciling liberty to democracy, extremities which he had embraced, in earlier editions, as of the essence of Leaves. Most of these extreme representations are preserved in the later editions, but as this poem indicates, they are framed as particular instances of increasingly spiritualized and abstracted universal principles.

Bibliography

Cowley, Malcolm. Introduction. The Works of Walt Whitman. Vol. 1. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. 3–39.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1962.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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