Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of Joys, A" (1860)
Author:
Dietrich, Deborah
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Entitled "Poem of Joys" when it first appeared in 1860, and "Poems of Joy" in 1867, the poem resumed its first title in 1871 and 1876. It took its present title, "A Song of Joys," in 1881. Based on memories of Whitman's early life, but designed, like "Song of Myself" and "Song of the Open Road," to celebrate the vitality and variety of the American experience, the poem has been much revised by excision and addition. An important change was the addition of lines 121 through 133 and 166 through 170 in 1871. This addition may indicate the poet's feelings of optimism after the Civil War. Whitman's entry in a pre-1855 notebook indicates his early interest in the poem's theme: "Poem incarnating the mind of an old man, whose life has been magnificently developed—the wildest and most exuberant joy—the utterance of hope and floods of anticipation—faith in whatever happens—but all enfolded on Joy Joy Joy, which underlies and overtops the whole effusion" (Whitman 102).

"Poem of Joys" proclaims the poet's discovery of his poetical powers and his ability to use words to give vivification to his world and himself in it. The poetic self journeys forth, singing of the beauty of the tasks of various occupations along the way. The catalogues of average people at work enact textually the poet's blending with the many identities he encounters. He celebrates the dignity of all workers and he ennobles all jobs. As David Reynolds suggests in Walt Whitman's America, Whitman's passage on the orator's joys emphasizes his desire to incorporate participatory oratorical style into his poetics.

In the poem Whitman embraces all equally: female and male, infancy and old age. Everything gives him joy. The "vast elemental sympathy" generated and emitted by the poetic self's soul is not independent of the material objects which give the soul its identity. This cosmic emotion enables his merging into new identities and gives substance and beauty to his spiritual body.

At the poem's conclusion, the physical body returns to the "eternal uses of the earth," and the "real body," the spiritual, leaves for other spheres. For Whitman, death is beautiful because it allows the soul to pass beyond, ever changing. Death is part of the "perpetual journey" ("Song of Myself," section 46) and a step toward an "unknown sphere more real than I dream'd" ("So Long!"). Therefore, like everything else, it should be celebrated. In contrast to works like "Song of Myself" and "Children of Adam," "A Song of Joys" proclaims that the life of the spirit transcends the flesh.

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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