Terry Mulcaire on One's Self I Sing from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia
"One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person," run the opening lines of Leaves of Grass from 1871 on, "Yet utter the word Democratic." A poetic universe of productive tension is hinted by that "Yet"; the tense equipoise between individualism and democracy, this poem suggests, is the foundational theme of Whitman’s book. The poem then goes on to introduce the site and symbol for this reconciliation of individual to mass: the body, "physiology from top to toe." We receive individual identity through our body, . . . yet at the same time, physicality, and especially physical affection, are universal, binding us together in common humanity. Much of the boldly progressive politics of Whitman’s poetry will follow from this emphasis on the body; thus his introduction of the theme of "physiology" is followed by his (then quite radical) insistence on the political equality of male and female.