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Song of Myself uniquely examines the purpose of collective identity in contrast to individual identity. Where other poets look at how the one fits into the many, Whitman crafts a character for himself that embodies all of America. He looks at how the many lend themselves to the identity of the one. Through this interpretation, Whitman is able to create a national voice, a unified identity for all Americans. Viewing America as one unit, he crafts a persona that is inherently optimistic, which I have seen exemplified in my life.
This mindset, though perhaps faded and buried under the toil of a pessimistic public, still permeates the American mentality today.
In the opening section, Whitman talks about the perfumes in a house. Although he appreciates all the scents, he does not allow himself to possess too much, since it is impossible to savour anything in abundance. Whitman finds the open air against his skin to be more pleasing. In this case, open air is a metaphor for freedom.
The poem says America is drawn towards perfumes, but only when reserved for house shelves. Polluting the free, open air is not their way of life. America was founded on the principles of democracy and freedom, but Whitman refers to a different natural right; the right to individuality. Perfume is used to mask the flaws of that which is undesirable.
Contrarily, America’s individual is free to be who he actually is. America’s character disdains perfume, preferring the odourless and true air which is not facetious, allowing the naked self to be exposed and loved.
In section three, Whitman urges us to live in the present, since now is the finest time to be. Whitman argues that there was no more “heaven or hell as there is now”(Whitman section 2), it so follows that will not get any better or worse from now. To continue discussing this country’s greatness would be of no avail, as “there is always substance and increase” (Whitman section 3): America is always growing and improving upon itself.
Whitman elaborates by explaining that to define America too strictly would be to undermine its potential. Whitman’s America is structurally sound(“plumb in the uprights”), and characteristically “stout as a horse” (Whitman section 3); being built on solid foundations, breaking America will prove to be a nearly insurmountable prospect. In section 6, Whitman also displays his optimistic perspective by stating that the grass that grows in between every crack is hope and that hope is spread everywhere and is never lost. This is also true for birth and death, Whitman says in 7, having had first-hand experience with both.
He sees the world through a glass of champagne, without no trace of enmity or inhibition. My experience leads me to believe that this optimism, though not as eminent as in Whitman’s time, has pervaded all of American society- it is an important part of the collective culture. In my limited experience, I have rarely encountered those who are relentlessly pessimistic about their condition in life: will get into a good college, get a good essay grade, etc. Despite the dog-eat-dog culture that is a by-product of America’s reputation for innovation, my surroundings suggest that the glass is half full.
Our current president was born in the lower class, the nation has an active manned spaceflight plan to live on Mars. Despite our sometimes dismal economic situation, people work diligently, with the faith that somewhere in America there must exist the solace they are searching for. One of my has had the misfortune of battling true depression, yet she was brought back to health with the help of friends who were optimistic. America has been the land of opportunity since its conception. Ellis island may be skeptical of your tired, your poor, and your yearning huddled masses, but lady liberty is blind. Through the Golden Doors come all optimists who see a path through Whitman’s America. friends
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