Ezra Greenspan: On "One's-Self I Sing"

His most ambitious attempts to define his relations with the public, however, were in the various prefatory pieces he continued to attach to later editions of Leaves of Grass. With Whitman, the preface was designed to explain the purpose of his writing both to himself and to his reader. The logic of his authorial position had normally presupposed the mutuality of self-discovery. It was here, therefore, that Whitman was most particularly intent to put or keep the reader in the text, treating him or her to the one-to-one address he had used in his early poems. Often, the most important thoughts of his prefaces were those which could not have been expressed except as addresses to the reader reading: "The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought -- there to pursue your own flight."

He was to work away on and off throughout the rest of his life on the formulation of the supreme statement of his poetic purpose in Leaves of Grass but with particular urgency during the 1860s, by which time, the years of his most intense creativity already behind him, he was looking to define his achievement. The most sustained product of this ambition was the series of musings, alternately in prose and verse, which he unsuccessfully attempted over the course of the decade to cohere into the final preface to Leaves of Grass. The manuscripts in which he worked over these musings, one of the most revealing batches of his papers as to his method of work, offer an unobstructed view of Whitman's manner of thinking and composing at this stage of his life. One can see in them how the same thoughts and ideas, expressed in lines and stanzas which changed little except for their order or phraseology, were worked over and over in Whitman's mind for years, as Whitman punctiliously recombined parts in the search for the perfect whole. He appropriately thought of this preface as his "Inscription: To the Reader at the Entrance of Leaves of Grass," with himself stationed at the meeting point between life and literature, waiting to receive the reader with opened arms. This final address to the American reader became the "Inscription" to the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass:

Small is the theme of the following Chant, yet the greatest -- namely,

    ONE'S SELF -- that wondrous thing, a simple, separate person.

    That, for the use of the New World, I sing.

Man's physiology complete, 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.

Nor cease at the theme of One's-Self. I speak the word of the

    modern, the word EN-MASSE.

My Days I sing, and the Lands -- with interstice I knew of helpless

    War.

O friend, whoe'er you are, at last arriving hither to commence, I feel

    through every leaf the pressure of your hand, which I return. And

    thus upon our journey link'd together let us go.

The familiar Whitman motifs are all there: the individual and the collective, man and woman, body and soul, art and America. And so, too, is the familiar Whitman ploy of communicating these themes through reader involvement. But even the appearance of this statement in print did not satisfy Whitman, who eventually condensed this inscription into the short programmatic poem, "One's-Self I Sing," which was to become the lead poem to all later editions of Leaves of Grass. Slim as it was, it contained the kernel of his thinking about the dichotomy in his society between the individual (the "simple separate person") and the democratic whole (the "En-masse").

From its beginning, his Leaves of Grass career had been a contiguous attempt to provide a creative answer to this duality, to locate the individual -- himself -- in the national collective.

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Title Ezra Greenspan: On "One's-Self I Sing" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ezra Greenspan Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Walt Whitman and the American Reader
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