Selected Criticism

"Song of the Open Road" (1856)
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally published as "Poem of The Road," the poem received its present imaginative title in 1867; in 1881 its 224 lines were divided into fifteen sections. Whitman's own interpretation of the work is most nearly expressed in a book on which he collaborated. There it is called "a mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life, a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining . . . a religious poem in the truest and best sense of the term" (Autograph Revision 88–89). It has remained popular because its insights into human frailty are offset by its rousing call to freedom and fraternity, by its dynamic persona who is at once the poem's subject and the spokesman for Whitman's exuberant gospel of hope, and by its stirring musicality.

During the 1850s the open road was a distinctively American symbol of progress—an imagined escape route toward the quasi-mythical open spaces where one was free to prosper, to commune with nature, to discover one's selfhood, and to undergo spiritual regeneration. Whitman translates the nineteenth-century doctrine of progress into a vision of a hard-fought but inevitable individual advancement—"the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe" (section 13). In Democratic Vistas he contends that the attainment of personal and societal betterment must be preceded by a powerful poetic vision of the future. "Song of the Open Road"—one attempt to create such a vision—affirms his faith that the (somewhat vague) "goal that was named cannot be countermanded" (section 14). Regarding humanity's progress along the mythic road, the poem's persona declares: "I know not where they go, / But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great" (section 13).

Essentially a dramatic monologue, the poem is divisible into three "movements": the persona's absorption of the road's sights and sounds and his translation of them into a visionary consciousness (sections 1–5), his transfigurative voice conjuring up visions of limitless possibilities (sections 6–8), and his quasi-oratorical call to companions to undertake the mystic trek. In the first "movement"—with its exuberant apostrophe to the mystic road—his perception and his inner sight merge: the road and everything on it become a nexus of symbols. He reads these symbols inscribed on the road's ostensibly "impassive" (section 3) surfaces and interprets them for everyone's benefit. The experience fills him with a sense of transcendence. Envisioning a race of perfect men and women, he exclaims: "I think I could stop here myself and do miracles. . . . I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines . . . my own master total and absolute" (section 4–5). Although the poem is esteemed for its evocation of nature and wanderlust, it contains little description of nature. Rather, nature becomes an extension of the persona's capacious imagination, for, as Whitman elsewhere explains, nature is always filtered through the mind of the observer ("Poetry To-Day" 485).

The poem's second "movement" (sections 6–8) brings the persona to the height of his absorptive powers and forms a bridge to his call to action. His capacity for personal attraction is called by the innovative ("not previously fashion'd") word "adhesiveness" (adapted from the phrenological term for the supposed instinct of male bonding) and is said to be consistent ("apropos") with nature's laws (section 6). The persona distills "the charm that mocks beauty and attainments," "charm" being the mesmerists' code word for one's hypnotic and clairvoyant powers. Becoming "rightly charged" and exuding the soul's "efflux" of happiness (section 8), he is eligible to become the dynamic leader of the poem's second half. Nevertheless, his confidence is tempered in section 7, where, in sexually charged imagery, he questions the meanings of his own "thoughts in the darkness," his ability to attract others, and his "yearnings" for companions.

Scattered throughout the poem's second half (sections 9–15) are ten stirring lines beginning with the command, "Allons!"—"the poem's framing 'Marseillaise' cry" (Hollis 118). The persona challenges his reader-companions to abandon their conventional beliefs and relationships, to perfect themselves, and to embrace life and death joyously. In a rare pun, he urges them to develop limitless powers of imagination (to become poets?): "To see no possession, but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it" (section 13). (The "feast" encompasses love, beauty, and even godhood.) By pausing to question whether diseased and depraved persons or secretly self-loathing conformists are eligible to undertake the proposed limitless journey, the persona reflects Whitman's known doubts about transforming the flawed American masses into ideal personalities. Nevertheless, he remains confident, rallying all persons to the martial rhythms of the poem's penultimate stanza. In the closing stanza of the earlier versions of the poem, the fatherly persona (in his only direct address to an individual) had invited "Mon enfant" (a "Calamus" lad? the reader?) to accompany him down the uncharted road. In 1881 Whitman changed "Mon enfant" to "Camerado," thus elevating the "enfant" to parity with the persona.

Although he does not classify "Song of the Open Road" among Whitman's first-rank achievements, Gay Wilson Allen calls it "a carefree, light-hearted . . . universal vision of joy and brotherhood" (86). The poem is a virtuoso experiment in innovative prosody and in poet-reader relations. Its lines are varied in rhythm, diction, and melody. Its language, although sometimes lapsing into the sermonic or even the banal, is generally innovative and—with its out-flashings of emotion—exhilarating. And taking advantage of the fact that the pronoun "you" is both singular and plural, Whitman achieves a brilliant interplay between formal (at times oratorical) address and intimate conversation.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Walt Whitman. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Collins, Christopher. "Whitman's Open Road and Where It Led." The Nassau Review 1 (1965). 101–110.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

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

Rosenfeld, Alvin. "Whitman's Open Road Philosophy." Walt Whitman Review 14 (1968): 3–16.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. "Poetry To-Day in America—Shakspere—The Future." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 474–490.

____. Walt Whitman's Autograph Revision of the Analysis of Leaves of Grass (For Dr. R.M. Bucke's Walt Whitman). Ed. Stephen Railton. New York: New York UP, 1974.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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