Nature as Guide in "Song of Myself"
Whitman's "Song of Myself" is a celebration of Nature in the Romantic-Enlightenment tradition. As is evident from a close reading of the poem, Whitman believes that Nature is a pure force, a sublime manifestation of what is Good. This paper will examine lines 10-13 and provide a literal meaning as well as a thematic interpretation based on the use of figurative language and the image of unfettered freedom (as the greatest good) that Whitman gives to his beloved -- Nature.
These lines comprise the fourth stanza of Whitman's exceptionally long and flowing "Song of Myself," may be viewed as an ode to liberty and Nature, culled straight from the doctrine of Rousseau that Nature is in and of itself the only guide that mankind needs. Nature needs no "check" or restraint and should not be held down by "creeds and schools" which, in the first line of the stanza, are mentioned and then suspended, as though dismissed -- "retiring back a while," states Whitman in line 11.
Whitman's voice is driven by a first-person wandering narrative that emphasizes introspection, contemplation, and meditation throughout the poem: but it is also assertive and accompanied by a self-indulgent tone, a tone that is utilized without apology; indeed, self-indulgence is the point. If Nature is to be the rule, the guide, the transcendent truth, the Self is the expression of Nature -- and in the Self there is nothing bad, so long as no restraint is placed upon its true expression. (The only "bad" can be that which is judged so by society -- at least that is what is implied in Whitman's ode to himself and to nature).
Thus, line 10 opens with "Creeds and schools in abeyance" -- that is, literally, doctrinal beliefs and formal methods of thought teaching are suspended. In other words, the field is wide open: Whitman "loafs" (and inviting his soul to loaf -- as he states in the opening lines) and in so doing allows all that has been put into him by way of formal learning to recede and drain out. He empties himself of these externals, which, in a way, he deems as oppressive -- for they are not the voice of Nature and do not represent the natural resplendency of that which a "blade of grass" represents for him. The doctrines...
Whitman rejects this view in his elevation of Nature, refusing to assent to the proposition that his human nature is in any way fallen. That is why "school is out," so to speak, for Whitman. His "new" education is now beginning in the fields.
Yet he acknowledges that the "creeds and schools" also served a purpose in line 11: "Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten," -- he puts them in their proper perspective, as far his new creed goes. They helped to show him what the old world was all about and they were good for that reason. But Whitman has a new pursuit -- a new "harbor" which he seeks: "I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard," (line 12). His new harbor is a place of safety, like a place where ships come to dock after their long voyages. Whitman's long voyage through the schools of his youth and through the dead Old World ideologies has finally come to shore: he lies in the harbor of his adult youth "for good or bad" (he makes no judgment -- there is need for none in the world of Nature, for all that is wanted is the spring of life, the ease of flowing language -- a permission to speak "at every hazard" the same way a gulley forms and lets the water travel willy-nilly, as it wants. That is the message and "creed" of Nature: it is not bound to any stricture or formal attire: it comes and goes as it pleases and is bound only to overflow at will. Some may call this a "hazard," as Whitman subtly implies, but for the Poet,…
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