Every Atom | No. 190

Michael Robertson

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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The climax—in every sense—of “Song of Myself” comes early in the poem, in section 5. As in so much of Whitman’s greatest poetry, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, although many readers believe the section describes a mystical religious experience. Outdoors, on a beautiful summer morning, the poet experiences an intense union with his soul, which leads to a revelation. This new knowledge cannot be expressed in rational terms—it passes all argument—but the poet experiences an intense connection with God and his fellow human beings, and he understands that love is the guiding force of the universe. (A kelson is part of the keel of a ship, responsible for keeping it on course.)

If you understand “Song of Myself” as an essentially religious poem, then you can see why this mystical climax comes so early: the rest of the poem is an expression of the insight that the poet gains at this moment. The doors of perception have been cleansed, and he now sees into the infinite heart of God, humanity, and the natural world.

Some of Whitman’s contemporary readers were certain that they knew exactly what lay behind these lines. Richard Maurice Bucke, the Canadian psychiatrist who wrote the first Whitman biography, said that they were about Whitman’s attainment to “Cosmic Consciousness,” an experience that Bucke dated to June, 1853. Whitman himself, despite Bucke’s persistent inquiries, refused to say.

Many later readers have focused on the section’s third stanza, which appears to describe a sexual encounter, most likely between two men. Others argue that the eroticized tongue is also an organ of speech and that the stanza describes the origin of Whitman’s poetic vocation.

When I teach “Song of Myself,” students ask me, “Is this section spiritual or sexual? Does it show infantile regression or mystical illumination? Is the sex metaphorical or real? Is it homosexual or heterosexual?” I have a ready answer for their questions: Yes

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Michael Robertson is a professor of English at The College of New Jersey, a member of the editorial board of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, and author of the award-winning Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples.


Cover art by Brian Pals