Answer: The concept of self is the most significant aspect of Whitman’s mind and art. Though it seems that soul self and body are three different identical words, but Whitman, like a mystic, tries to unite these three into oneness, which is immortal. Whitman’s self is constituted with his soul and body. And his soul and body are not two different things. He says; “the soul is not more than the body” And “the body is not more than the soul”. Whitman believes in the eternity of his soul and self that merges into universal self to Divine self.
There are three important themes in “Song of Myself”. They are the idea of the self, the identification of self with other selves and individual self’s journey towards universal and Divine self. To Whitman, the self is both individual and universal. Man has an individual self, whereas the world has a universal self. The poet wishes to maintain the identity of his individual self-aiming a mystical union with God, the Absolute self. Sexual union, to the poet, is a figurative anticipation of spiritual union.
“Song of Myself” celebrates the poet’s self; the ‘I’ of the poem is the poet himself, and at the same time it is universalized. In .Section 1, the poet says; “I celebrate myself”. But just after, he reiterates;
“What I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
We see the poet loafs on the grass and invites his soul to appear. He relates that he was “form’d from this soil”, for he was born here, as were his parents, grandparents, and great-grand parents. Later, in this first Section, he asserts that he is “thirty-seven years old”, and in “perfect health”. This expression shows that Whitman is conscious of his physical senses.
In Section 2, the self, asserting its identity declares its separateness from civilization and its closeness to nature. Whitman says, “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes”, but the outdoor atmosphere, the universal self is ‘odorless’; yet he is “in love with it”.
Experiences, reaches out and extends the intensely personal experience and vision of the poet, into the vast cosmic scheme. This extension is facilitated by his spiritual vision. It is stabilized through a recognition and reinforcement of the bonds between himself and us, between himself and rest of creation. The bonds are not just bonds; they are an externalization of the oneness that binds the two, binds us all, and this oneness is self.
Whitman says since self is all-pervasive and all-inclusive, evil is regarded as just a part of the whole as good is. In the comprehensive vision of self, there are no restrictions to experience and apprehension, no categories of the higher and lower. All are equal and of equal significance. The poet accepts all life, naked and bare, noble and ignoble, refined and crude, beautiful and ugly, pleasant and painful. The physical and spiritual both are aspects of his vision, which has an organic unity like the unity of the body and the soul. Whitman realizes that the physicals as well as the spiritual are aspects of the Divine self. This realization comes to him through various stages. The first stage may be termed as the “Awakening of self’ and the second, the “purification of self.” Purification ‘comes through the acceptance of the body and all its function.
Whitman does not speak of just his soul; he speaks of self that is common to him, to us all. He says, “Clear and sweet is all that is not my soul”. Here “not my soul” does mean that which is not his soul. It refers to the universal soul, the self that animates the whole of creation.
Whitman’s “Song of Myself’ may be considered as ‘song of self, because his ‘self is all-inclusive. There is no distinction of caste, color, sex or religion to him. He says; “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist …….
“I am of the old and the young, of the foolish as much as the wise ….”
Whitman’s treatment of body and soul merges through or goes hand in hand with the treatment of his individual self with the universal self. He discusses the relative properties of the body and the soul. He finds that the body has value, for it leads man to a unified self— a purified combination of the body and the soul. Whitman says;
“I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the soul”.
The poet experiences a spiritual illumination passing through joys, sufferings, despair of the soul to achieve purification finally. His self, purified, comprehends the Divine reality, the `transcendental self’.
Whitman, though tries hard to be united with Divine self, does not want to follow the traditional way where communion is possible only through purgation — or mortification of the flesh. According to his philosophy, the self should be purified through the acceptance of physical reality. Calling himself a `Icosmos’, the vast one of many, Whitman says he is
“Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding”.
He also glorifies his body saying;
“Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch, or am touch’d from”.
The above sentence expresses the Divine spirit, the transcendental self.
Whitman, like a mystic, believes in the immortality of the soul. It is his belief that through death comes rebirth; rebirth of the soul is to establish relation with the Divine self. To him, soul is like power has no end, but only can be transferred. Whitman says;
“To be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of .us, and ever come back thither)”.
By the lines, the poet shows death-life cycle of the human being and other species declaring the immortality of the Divine soul.
Whitman’s ‘self’ encompasses everything. He is also conscious of the confrontation of his self, but it is not so contradictory as he is the container of everything En-masse. It makes us believe that Whitman’s ‘self’ is not a different thing than the Divine self when he says “I am large, I contain multitudes”.
To Whitman, the complete self is both physical and spiritual. The self is man’s individual identity; it is a portion of the one Divine soul. Whitman’s critics have sometimes confused the concept of self with egotism, but this is not valid. Whitman is constantly talking about ‘I’, but the T is universal, a part of the Divine, and therefore not egotistic. He is also a poet of the elements in man, the body and the soul. He thought that we could comprehend the soul only through the medium of the body. Thus, we see Whitman sings of the body or its performances when he sings a spiritual chant.