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Bauerlein, M. (1987). Whitman's Language of the Self. Am. Imago, 44(2):129-148.

(1987). American Imago, 44(2):129-148

Whitman's Language of the Self

Mark Bauerlein

This was a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality, in the midst of, and tallying, the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America—and to exploit that Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book.

Whitman, “A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads”

To express a self. To display a “Personality” “uncompromisingly” with a limpid style, a transparent form that ardently renders an identity in all its plenitude and immediacy. This is the “special desire and conviction” that incite Whitman to write “Song of Myself,” a personal epic in which, with sustained narcissism, Whitman freely explores his ego in an original style, in a structureless narrative, in free verse form, in brazen play and naked confession. As Richard Poirier would put it (though not in direct reference to Whitman), “not that style should mediate between the self and society but that it should emanate from the self as a leaf from a tree, expanding itself naturally to nourish, color, and become the world.”1 Whitman's expansive, egotistical poetic style fits Poirier's description: founded on a person, it grows into a “Kosmos.” An active repudiation of European models, of Old World ideas and pentameter lines, cleared the way for a genuine revelatory expression as unique and original as its provenance. The obstacles lay in obsolete meters and ossified diction, in styles inadequate for the liberal exuberance of young America. Only a “Personality” as copious and juvenile as the New World could envision and graft a “self-reflecting” poem onto “The United States … the greatest poem.”

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