Betsy Erkkila: On "One's-Self I Sing"

The poet he imagines in the 1855 preface is, like his ideal republic, balanced between self and other: "The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain close betwixt both and they are vital to his style and thoughts."

This vision of a poet stretching within a universe bounded by pride and sympathy had as its political analogue the paradox of an American republic poised between self-interest and public virtue, liberty and union, the interests of the many and the good of the one. The secret of Whitman's art and the American Union, the paradox of many in one, eventually became the opening inscription and balancing frame of Leaves of Grass:

One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.


Balanced between the separate person and the en masse, the politics of Leaves of Grass is neither liberal nor bourgeois in the classical sense of the terms; rather, the poems represent the republican ideals of early-nineteenth-century artisan radicalism, emphasizing the interlinked values of independence and community, personal wealth and commonwealth.


Title Betsy Erkkila: On "One's-Self I Sing" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Betsy Erkkila Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Whitman: the Political Poet
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