Selected Criticism

"Song for Occupations, A" (1855)
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The poem that became "A Song for Occupations" in the 1881 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass originated as the second of the untitled poems in the 1855 edition, where it immediately follows what eventually became "Song of Myself." In later editions it became "Poem of The Daily Work of The Workmen and Workwomen of These States" (1856), chant number 3 of the "Chants Democratic" (1860), "To Workingmen" (1867), and "Carol of Occupations" (1871 and 1876). The poem also passed through extensive internal revisions. To the 178 lines of the original, Whitman had added 27 lines by 1860, when the poem reached its maximum length of 205 lines; but then he began to cut, and by 1881 he had pruned away 59 lines of the 1860 version while adding five new lines, for a total of 151 lines. Throughout these changes the poem is concerned, as its various titles suggest, with work and working people. But the changes are so radical that the 1855–1860 text is in some important ways a different kind of poem from the post-1881 text.

M. Wynn Thomas has argued that "A Song for Occupations" is principally concerned with "the loss of the conception of the complete human being . . . Whitman commits himself to pitting his ineffectual strength against the whole weight of the American predilection for respecting the power of money to decide personal worth and to dictate the terms of personal relations" (13). Whitman has great difficulty, as Mark Bauerlein notes, in saying precisely what has been lost: "I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness" (section 3). But the primary symptom of the loss seems to be the tendency of the citizens of the republic to think ill of themselves:

Why what have you thought of yourself?
Is it you then that thought yourself less?
Is it you that thought the President greater than you?
Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

(section 1)

More broadly, the image has taken precedence over substance, the abstract simulacra has replaced the thing itself: "Have you reckon'd that the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture? / Or men and women that they might be written of, and songs sung?" (section 3).

What has been lost is a sense of "wholeness," both in things and in the self. "Will the whole come back then?" the poet asks a little wistfully, at the turning point of the poem (the beginning of section 5 in the post-1881 version). "A Song for Occupations" seeks to recover wholeness by affirming the dignity of human labor, as the process that generates both the material and the social world. The poem works back from the commodities produced by labor, through the labor process itself, to the person behind it all. Commodities thereby become units of energy, and energy in turn becomes human power at work. Whitman shows little awareness of how mechanization, capitalist consolidation, and racism were affecting the lives of nineteenth-century working people. But as Alan Trachtenberg argues in a brilliant essay, although the "social logic of the wage system escaped him," Whitman "grasped the difference, if not its cause, between use-value (the value itself) and exchange-value, and he joined in powerful tropes and a music of amalgamation, use with being, work with art," to create in "A Song for Occupations" an "heroic celebration of labor as life, work as art" (131).

Whitman's revisions may not change the theme of this poem, but they decisively affect its tone. The post-1881 text begins with an appeal to abstract principles and an explicit declaration of a unifying theme:

A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings.

(section 1)

But the earlier version begins on an intimate, even erotic note:

Come closer to me,
Push closer, my lovers, and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer, and give me the best you possess.
This is unfinished business with me— How is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types, cylinder, wet paper between us.

(1860 Leaves)

In both early and late versions, this poem is concerned with the relationship between the feeling/touching/knowing self and the active, laboring self. But the earlier version moves from the former to the later, while the later versions reverse this path, starting with and always returning to the external, public self. We can see this shift especially in the most heavily revised section of the poem, the long catalogue of occupations in section 5 of the 1881 version. Whitman's cuts in this section make it less fluid and personal, transforming it finally into a mere list of occupations.


Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

Knapp, Bettina L. Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "The Politics of Labor and the Poet's Work: A Reading of 'A Song for Occupations.'" Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 120–132.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile Edition of the 1860 Text. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.


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