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Ahmed Bassam Salama
Professor Alexander Mathew Licker
English 603-101-MA
15 November 2021
How does Walt Whitman’s prophetic poetry in "Song of Myself” talk to modern society?
"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". With these words, the influential poet
Percy Shelley described the scale of poetry's influence on society. Indeed, many ground-breaking
works in poetry written decades or even centuries ago still resonate in our contemporary world.
A great example of a poem having this relevance would be "Song of Myself" by the brilliant
transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman. In this essay, I will briefly explain the transcendentalist
movement and describe how Walt Whitman's poetry in "Song of Myself" is relevant to our
modern society by virtue of his revolutionary views – views that resemble today’s progressive
politics given his prevalent sense of interconnectedness and human unity.
Firstly, it must be said that Walt Whitman belongs to the transcendentalist movement, which is
an offshoot of the romantic movement. What defines transcendentalism is the deep focus on the
soul, the body, individualistic spirituality through nature, the idea of the universal “prophetic
poet” and thus the ultimate culmination of some or all of these factors to create a
“transcendence”. This idea of “transcendence” is best illustrated in the first stanza of Whitman’s
poem "Song of Myself”. Indeed, the author writes: “For every atom belonging to me as good
belongs to you”, implying a transcendence due to the interconnectedness – and subsequent
equality – between all of the objects on earth as, through his lens, we are all simply “atoms”. As
for the notion of the universal “prophetic poet”, Whitman writes in the poem: “I am the poet of
the Body, I am the poet of the Soul”. As such, it becomes apparent throughout the poem that the
usage of the personal pronoun “I” further reinforces this notion of the universal poet. Hence, it is
without a doubt that Walt Whitman’s poetry is a prime example of the transcendentalist
movement which arose in early 19th
century America.
Secondly, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” provides a fascinating window of comparison
between his extremely progressive ideas at that time – ideas such as gender equality and body
positivity – and today’s progressive politics in western society. Indeed, it was almost
unfathomable that a man in 19th
century America, which was a deeply conservative country in
that era, says something along the lines of: “I am the poet of the woman the same as the man” as
well as “And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man”. You can thus imagine the
American public’s shock when reading these radically different lines that conflict with the
traditional, conservative, and patriarchal system in the western world during much of the 19th
and
early 20th
centuries. Therefore, it is unsurprising that during Whitman’s lifetime, his poem
received mixed reviews from the public and critics alike. However, as Percy Shelley put it:
“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", which means that poetry can – and does
have a huge impact on society, public opinion, and ideology. Hence, it naturally follows that
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is now thought of as on of the greatest American poems
considering the societal developments in the western world. Now that the context has been
established, allow me to expand on many of Whitman’s ideas in this poem. Evidently, more than
just being a “proto-feminist”, Walt Whitman is also a humanist par excellence as he says: “In the
faces of men and women I see God”, which, in my eyes, is a strikingly similar philosophy to
today’s society and politics. Truly, transcendentalist way of thought, which prefers spirituality
over organized any religion, is demonstrated in this passage as there exists no central entity to
speak of. As a matter of fact, it is the people that have become “God”. The relation between this
passage and today’s politics resides in the fact that religion, the central entity, has been separated
from the state not a long time ago. Thus, this gave rise to the humanist way of thought based on a
continuing process of observation and self-evaluation. Nonetheless, ideas like this make
Whitman’s poetry undeniably relevant to our modern world. Lastly, one cannot mention
Whitman without mentioning his focus body positivity and sexuality, which, much like his
feminist views, was also very shocking for his conservative society but is accepted today as the
norm.
To conclude, Walt Whitman’s focus on interconnectedness and human unity in “Song of Myself”
allowed him to erase all of his societal barriers and write in a way that is free of sexism, racism
or discrimination. As such, it is unsurprising that Walt Whitman’s ideas echo heavily in the
modern western world.

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English essay- song of myself by whitman.docx

  • 1. Ahmed Bassam Salama Professor Alexander Mathew Licker English 603-101-MA 15 November 2021 How does Walt Whitman’s prophetic poetry in "Song of Myself” talk to modern society? "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". With these words, the influential poet Percy Shelley described the scale of poetry's influence on society. Indeed, many ground-breaking works in poetry written decades or even centuries ago still resonate in our contemporary world. A great example of a poem having this relevance would be "Song of Myself" by the brilliant transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman. In this essay, I will briefly explain the transcendentalist movement and describe how Walt Whitman's poetry in "Song of Myself" is relevant to our modern society by virtue of his revolutionary views – views that resemble today’s progressive politics given his prevalent sense of interconnectedness and human unity. Firstly, it must be said that Walt Whitman belongs to the transcendentalist movement, which is an offshoot of the romantic movement. What defines transcendentalism is the deep focus on the soul, the body, individualistic spirituality through nature, the idea of the universal “prophetic poet” and thus the ultimate culmination of some or all of these factors to create a “transcendence”. This idea of “transcendence” is best illustrated in the first stanza of Whitman’s poem "Song of Myself”. Indeed, the author writes: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, implying a transcendence due to the interconnectedness – and subsequent equality – between all of the objects on earth as, through his lens, we are all simply “atoms”. As for the notion of the universal “prophetic poet”, Whitman writes in the poem: “I am the poet of the Body, I am the poet of the Soul”. As such, it becomes apparent throughout the poem that the usage of the personal pronoun “I” further reinforces this notion of the universal poet. Hence, it is
  • 2. without a doubt that Walt Whitman’s poetry is a prime example of the transcendentalist movement which arose in early 19th century America. Secondly, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” provides a fascinating window of comparison between his extremely progressive ideas at that time – ideas such as gender equality and body positivity – and today’s progressive politics in western society. Indeed, it was almost unfathomable that a man in 19th century America, which was a deeply conservative country in that era, says something along the lines of: “I am the poet of the woman the same as the man” as well as “And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man”. You can thus imagine the American public’s shock when reading these radically different lines that conflict with the traditional, conservative, and patriarchal system in the western world during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, it is unsurprising that during Whitman’s lifetime, his poem received mixed reviews from the public and critics alike. However, as Percy Shelley put it: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", which means that poetry can – and does have a huge impact on society, public opinion, and ideology. Hence, it naturally follows that Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is now thought of as on of the greatest American poems considering the societal developments in the western world. Now that the context has been established, allow me to expand on many of Whitman’s ideas in this poem. Evidently, more than just being a “proto-feminist”, Walt Whitman is also a humanist par excellence as he says: “In the faces of men and women I see God”, which, in my eyes, is a strikingly similar philosophy to today’s society and politics. Truly, transcendentalist way of thought, which prefers spirituality over organized any religion, is demonstrated in this passage as there exists no central entity to speak of. As a matter of fact, it is the people that have become “God”. The relation between this passage and today’s politics resides in the fact that religion, the central entity, has been separated
  • 3. from the state not a long time ago. Thus, this gave rise to the humanist way of thought based on a continuing process of observation and self-evaluation. Nonetheless, ideas like this make Whitman’s poetry undeniably relevant to our modern world. Lastly, one cannot mention Whitman without mentioning his focus body positivity and sexuality, which, much like his feminist views, was also very shocking for his conservative society but is accepted today as the norm. To conclude, Walt Whitman’s focus on interconnectedness and human unity in “Song of Myself” allowed him to erase all of his societal barriers and write in a way that is free of sexism, racism or discrimination. As such, it is unsurprising that Walt Whitman’s ideas echo heavily in the modern western world.