#2 Whitman Wednesday: One’s-Self I Sing

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Hello, friends! I’m really doing this – roughly one Walt Whitman poem a week as we slowly trek through Leaves of Grass. Are you excited?

If you’re just joining us, I introduced Whitman Wednesdays last week as a way to get myself excited about poetry again, working through Leaves of Grass a poem at a time. I’m no expert on Walt Whitman or parsing poetry, but I hope to get better with practice (and by discussing the poetry with you, dear readers!) Some of these poems are longer than others, so I might play around with how many poems to write about at a time, but that’s getting ahead of myself. Today, I’ll just start with the next poem.

The first section of Leaves of Grass is called “Inscriptions,” and the first poem is “One’s-Self I Sing”.

One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
I had to remind myself why Leaves of Grass was so radical and remains so celebrated; it’s easy to take innovative poetry for granted when you’re looking back 150 years. Things that seem obvious or ordinary today may not have been so in 1855 when Leaves of Grass was published. In the 1850s, Whitman’s contemporaries were busy writing epic poems about wars (see Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington) and romances (see Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha).
Whitman instead is singing about himself, and more democratically, of all selves. (Not to the jump the gun, but Song of Myself will be coming up in about… 24 more weeks at this pace.) To Whitman, all parts of the self are worth writing about – physiology (the body and how it functions), physiognomy (physical characteristics) as well as the intellectual and spiritual.
Physiognomy has its roots in antiquity. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked. Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage.
I spent a good 30 minutes reading up on physiognomy, which I must admit I had confused with phrenology (the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities). Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe phrenology is a much darker pseudo-science than physiognomy, because you most likely associate it with the Nazi’s quest to prove Aryans were a superior race – yikes! Needless to say, I’m glad Whitman is celebrating physiognomy and not phrenology, although there are long chapters on the phrenology of whales in Moby Dick that I would highly recommend.
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Diagram of facial angles from Charles White, c/o The Getty Institute

As of right now, I am still a little unclear as to who Whitman’s “Modern Man” is – do you have any ideas? Is the Modern Man just someone who is in touch with his spirituality and his femininity? What do you think? I expect Whitman will let us know more, soon enough.
 Once again, I invite you to join me – I’ll post the poem or a link whenever possible. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

 

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4 thoughts on “#2 Whitman Wednesday: One’s-Self I Sing

  1. Physiology… Physiognomy… Phrenology… Phenology… it can be hard to keep them apart by name alone 😉 It reminds me of the opening of Heart of Darkness when the protagonist is getting various parts of his head measured as part of his medical exam.

    It is interesting to think about physiognomy and phrenology within literature and how the two reinforce or influenced the other (not a great link but related: http://www.historyofphrenology.org.uk/literature.html), and I probably would not have given it a second thought if it weren’t for this post.

    • That’s a very interesting link you sent me – thank you for sharing! I’m glad to see that Leaves of Grass & Moby Dick both made it onto the list. 😉 I think the idea of phrenology appeals to me in the same way that tarot and astrology appeal to me, but it’s easy to see how it can become really racist really quickly — yikes! I feel like even if it’s not a “real” science, it could be fun to measure my face and see what that says about my personality… what do you think? If your eyebrow ridge is more than 2 centimeters over your eye sockets, you have a great sense of humor, etc, etc.

  2. Pingback: #3 Whitman Wednesday: As I Ponder’d in Silence | Like Bears to Honey

  3. Pingback: #9 Whitman Wednesday: For Him I Sing | Like Bears to Honey

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