Christopher Beach: On "One's-Self I Sing"

In the well-known "Inscription" to the 1867 Leaves ("One’s Self I Sing"), Whitman introduces distinctions only to collapse them. The distinctions he foregrounds in this brief poem--One's-Self/En-Masse, separate person/Democratic, physiognomy/brain, Female/Male, laws divine/Modern Man--suggest the more general distinctions that are embodied in his work as a whole: private/public, lyric/epic, national/universal, background/poem, social/aesthetic. Each of these pairings represents an important opposition for Whitman, an opposition which he believes must be explored and then ultimately collapsed or rejected. Paradoxically, his poetic goal is to make distinctions among the vast array of available words and meanings so as to constitute or inaugurate a basic Americanness that on one level is without distinction--democratic and egalitarian--but at the same time is literarily and historically distinct from all other national cultures and from his own contemporary poetic culture. Both implicitly in his idiolect and explicitly in his social reference, Whitman takes on the impossible poetic task of presenting a core Americanness that for all its tremendous diversity is united in a common moral, historical, and aesthetic purpose.

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Title Christopher Beach: On "One's-Self I Sing" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christopher Beach Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Politics of Distinction: Whitman and the Discourses of Nineteenth-Century America
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