Answer: The note of optimism which Whitman puts in his “Song of Myself” is very much related to his idea of the body, soul, and the universe. In his poem, Whitman identifies a mystical unification of all things in this universe. He envisions a universal self, which works as an underlying principle behind the diversity of things. Thus he wants to say that all things share a holy, divine and single identity. Again, there is a positive purpose of living and every creature has its value in the cosmic design. It is this positive purpose in his poem that makes Whitman an optimist.
Whitman establishes unity behind diversity by conceiving the existence of a universal self. This self seems to be an omniscient entity and everything is part of this. In order to establish a linking principle that links all objects of the world, Whitman introduces the idea of atom. The poet says in the very first stanza:
I celebrate myself and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
According to Whitman atom is the smallest component of matter, which is permanent and invisible. In every atom there is a constant urge to merge with another atom. This
“procreant urge of the world” (section 3)
Makes atom of a particular object transform into another object creating always
“a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life”.
So, although there are objects of different shape and size in the universe, they are essentially one. As Emerson in his celebrated essay “Nature” says,
“Each creature is only a modification of other, the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.”
Emerson’s influences clearly evident in Whitman’s idea of the universe. Like Emerson, Whitman contends that “all the endless variety .of things make an identical impression”. This is why, while pondering on the grass, Whitman says,
“the grass is itself a child” (Section 6).
Here the poet suggests that the atoms formerly belonging to the dead child have now taken the form of the grass. In this sense, everything is immortal and there is no beginning or no end. As Whitman says,
“The smallest sprout shows that there is really no death. And if there was it led forward life” (Section 6).
Here we find a concept of evolution, which is akin to the Hindu notion of ‘Karma’. According to this doctrine the action performed in one incarnation determine the nature and fate of the individual during his next incarnation.
The realization that everything is immortal and that there is an inherent unity behind all things .certainly lead the poet to be optimistic in outlook. The poet thus identifies himself with others, declaring,
“In all people I see myself’ (Section 20).
He also identifies himself with other objects, saying,
“to me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow” (Section 20).
Here we have Whitman’s vision of democracy too. His unified vision of self merges all geographical and racial differences and he asserts that he belongs to every hue and caste and every rank and religion. Moreover he shows his love to other forms of life such as the team, the wild gander and the moose. He believes that the same old law works on everything. This is why the self has a potentiality of being everything; it is an
“acme of thing accomplished and an encloser of things to be” (Section 44).
Whitman’s optimism is associated with his idea of God and the divine plan. To Whitman, God is a transcendental self, which manifests itself everywhere—”wherever the land is and the water is”. This is why Whitman says:
“I see something of God each of hour of twenty-four
In the faces of men and women I see God.”(Section 48)
It is the God, which provokes everything to be merged with other things; it is the “original energy”. Again, every human being has an access to this benevolent God. A man perceives God intuitively. Whitman discards the second hand knowledge of books and suggests a direct communion with nature to have a vision of God. As he says,
“A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of book” (Section 24)
Here Whitman, like Emerson, relies on “transcendental idealism”, according to which rational approach is not an adequate basis of knowledge and true knowledge is to be achieved only through intuition.
When a man realizes the true nature of self, he also realizes the presence of God. In other words, every man possesses a legacy of God. This is why, the poet says, “Divine am I inside and out”. Again, as everything belongs to the same God, there is no room for evil in this universe. Thus Whitman accepts the healing effect of both ‘evil and ‘reform of evil’. He extends his sympathetic hands to everything irrespective of moral standards. He invites kept-women, thieves, and murderer to take his sympathies. Whitman highlights the value of both body and soul, as both are the part of the same self. The poet expresses,
“clear and sweet is my soul and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul”
Whitman looks upon the various objects of the world and sees them merged in the same universal self. He searches for a positive purpose in life and he finds that the same divine law binds all things. Thus every creature has its worth. He envisions a world free of oppression, injustice and inequality. He finds no racial, caste or gender discrimination. Even death is not the final word, as it inevitably leads towards regeneration. Thus life is meaningful and worth living. In this way, Whitman is thoroughly an optimist in his “Song of Myself’.