A Privilege of Existence in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

Although the entirety of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is full of meaning and beauty, one stanza stood out to me as incredibly poignant:

“I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.”

I interpret this stanza as an ode in and of itself, speaking to the overwhelming nature of purely existing in the world, in a body that is both simultaneously containing multitudes and is yet incredibly individual in its consciousness. Whitman alludes to the magnitude of how it feels to simply be in the world when he states, “I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and I am happy”. These words indicate a sense of wholeness that can be felt by using one’s senses to explore the world, and how it doesn’t take much to feel a part of the world; to feel belonging in the world can be experienced with the slightest movement of the body. By indicating this almost effortless existence of experience one has in the world, Whitman speaks to a universal ability for all human beings to have access to experiencing the world, simply because their senses give them this privilege.

By stating that these sensory experiences cause happiness, Whitman further elaborates to explain how happiness is relative to an “other”, a relationship between two individuals. By stating, “To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand”, Whitman speaks to the overwhelming sense of not only existing in the world but additionally of existing with another in the world. His use of words, “is about as much as I can stand” indicates the intensity of the human experience of interacting with and simply co-existing in a world filled with fellow humans. Through this, Whitman is able to display how the individual is not only happy to be with others but actually needs others in order to fully experience the world.

In addition, I think Whitman’s use of language in this stanza is also indicative of a message of the beauty that comes with human existence in that he uses several sensory verbs to illustrate the act of doing, of feeling, the surrounding world. The use of the words, “stir”, “press”, “feel”, “touch”, and “stand” are all verbs that help the reader to involve themself with the words and begin to feel what Whitman is talking about. The direction of the verbs is also important because they could be interpreted as actions that build off of one another in relation to how an individual comes into their body and consciousness. For example, the verb “stir” reminds me of the first small movements one makes as they are waking up, the verb “press” reminds me of someone beginning to sense the surfaces around them, the verbs “ feel” and “touch” remind me of more conscious actions to reach out and explore what is around oneself, and the verb “stand” reminds me of the final act of getting up from a state of subconsciousness (such as sleeping) and fully uprighting oneself in the world and finally coming to one’s full sense of awareness.

So, why does a stanza exploring the joy in experiencing oneself, others, and the world matter? These words matter because they illustrate the privilege we all have to rise again, every day, and begin a new exploration of existence in the world around us. When Whitman explains that everyone has the innate ability to experience the world through their senses, he highlights the unity of privilege that all humans have to experience their surroundings. In this way, he places all humans on an equal plane in terms of the privilege of simply existing, as he stresses that this state is so wonderful that he can hardly stand it. The cyclical aspect of life can also be seen on both the macro and micro scale, as Whitman depicts in this stanza, by showing how the world offers constant opportunities for renewal and rebirth. This is seen in the use of his words “stir”, “press”, “feel”, “touch”, and “stand”. This is another example of how we are all privileged to a certain extent, regardless of socioeconomic status, etc. Although it is inaccurate to assume that everyone has the same level of privilege, Whitman’s words in this stanza highlight the importance of looking at things through an optimistic lens and noticing the often-overlooked privilege we all share of existing.

One thought on “A Privilege of Existence in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself”

  1. Hi there! First of all, your analysis of the verbs used in this stanza to emulate coming into one’s body and consciousness upon waking is ingenious. I’ve also noticed that a lot of the queer work we’ve read this semester thus far has had this common theme of the desire for unity among humans. I nearly made this the topic of my blog post by suggesting its presence in needing to find a commonality amongst women by Grahn, trying to find a physical abnormality that is the same in all lesbian women by Dickinson, singing of others in order to sing of oneself by Whitman, and anytime “we” is used by Brooks. However, you focused in on this theme present in Song of Myself in such a way that I wouldn’t have thought of, and it was a pleasure to read.

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