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From Song of the Open Road

July 24, 2017

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

–Walt Whitman 1856

COMMENTARY: When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he claimed that he intended it to be small enough to fit in a pocket “to be read in the open air.” The compact size of the book likely had more to do with his shyness than any forethought he may have given to its portability. He had only a 200 copies published by a small press, and though he included a rather rugged-looking photograph of himself on the title page, he did not name himself as the author. It was only the following year, after he sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson on a whim and after Emerson responded with high praise, that Whitman decided to publish a much expanded version. This second printing featured Emerson’s letter in prominent gold leaf after the table of contents as well as dozens of additional poems.

Thematically, “Song of the Open Road” picks up where “Song of Myself” leaves off: an expansive celebration of a freedom that is sometimes spiritual and sometimes sensual. Beginning many stanzas with allons! (let’s go!), the poem is an invitation to a vagabond’s frolic. Though the prevailing tone is one of romantic optimism and transcendence, there are certain lines, such as the excerpt above, contrasting Whitman’s ideal with the claustrophobic life of false strictures. The lines “Another self, a duplicate of every one….smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast bones, hell under the skull bones” curses the psychological anguish that results from the social facade. The extent to which this anguish describes the Whitman’s uncertainty of himself in the days before Emerson is of course only speculation. Nonetheless, the lines are remarkable for their acidic renunciation of the “artificial flowers” of civilized life. In this way, they prefigure the alienation of modernity and foreshadow something of J. Alfred Prufrock.

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