Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica for November 3rd

Filed under: Uncategorized — November 1, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

After viewing Whitman’s war journals and letters at the Library of Congress, I was taken aback at the extensive editing Whitman did. I even started to classify Whitman as a perfectionist. So, when looking at the 1891-92 Song of Myself compared to his first 1855 edition, I once again saw this perfectionist attitude shining through. This perfectionist attitude is demonstrated in the grammatical differences throughout both versions. However, despite the clean-up of the poem, Whitman’s hopes and visions for the nation did not drastically change. But, what did change was Whitman’s own self perception. The 73 year old Whitman now recognizes his mortality and no longer sees himself as the most powerful force for the American people. I believe that Whitman’s change in self perception is reflected in the grammatical changes and the removal/addition of words and phrases within both versions of Song of Myself.

When examining the changes in punctuation marks, the first thing that caught my attention was absence of ellipses in the 1891 version. Whitman instead replaced the ellipses with commas. This change can be seen in the difference between page 59 compared to page 219 and 220. In the 1855 edition, Whitman uses an excessive amount of ellipses to describe the travels that his vision takes him on and begins with the line, “My ties and ballasts leave me….I travel….I sail….my elbows rest in the seagaps”. Meanwhile on page 219 these similar lines are written as, “My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps.” The change from ellipses to commas and occasional dashes, give the poem a more clean and concise feel. As a man nearing his deathbed, Whitman was firm in his opinions and did not need to drag out what he was trying to say. So, perhaps Whitman is using this change in punctuation to demonstrate not only his perfectionist “clean up”, but also the change in a more definite and concise Whitman.

Also, throughout the 1891 edition, Whitman uses many more parentheses than in the first edition of SoM. I would say that Whitman’s asides, personal comments, and feelings are expressed through the usage of these parentheses. Rather than generalizing his thoughts and opinions, Whitman makes a clear distinction of his opinions and attitudes by using the parentheses. The words within the parentheses are included in the 1855 edition, but because they are not separated by the parentheses, there is less attention given to them. So, Whitman as a perfectionist must have wanted readers to focus on what was included within the parentheses and make a distinction between those thoughts that are in the parentheses and the rest of the poem. To really see this, let us look at page 39 and pages 200/201. On page 200, Whitman uses parentheses to describe the lunatic and writes, “The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case, (He will never sleep any more as he did n the cot in his mother’s bed-room). Yet, on page 39, Whitman combines both thoughts about the lunatic and does not separate by parentheses. This subtle change can tell us a lot about the self perception that Whitman is trying to reflect in the later edition. Perhaps Whitman in the later edition wanted to provide readers with his personal first-hand knowledge, experiences, and opinions and used this punctuation mark to do so. Whitman was older and as the saying goes, with age comes wisdom, so by using the parentheses, Whitman could freely express and make clear the wisdom he believed to have.

Also, Whitman did not use as many exclamation marks in the 1891 edition. This can be seen when looking at page 48 and 208. In Whitman’s earlier edition when describing the sea Whitman writes, “Sea of stretched ground-swells! Sea of breathing broad and convulsive breaths!” However, in the later edition, Whitman replaces the exclamation points with commas. This change in punctuation mark could demonstrate Whitman’s reflective tone and nature. Whitman did not need to use exclamation points to shout out his message, because most of the public was aware of Walt Whitman and this work. Therefore, in the later edition Whitman wanted to remind readers of the importance of his message and ideas, but, it was not as urgent and commanding as the 1855 edition.

Furthermore, Whitman demonstrates his change of self-perception by leaving out references of him being immortal. When Whitman was 37, Whitman expressed his immortality and wrote, “I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality” (Whitman 48). However, in the 1891 edition, Whitman does not even include this line in SoM. I feel this absence clearly demonstrates Whitman’s change of perception of his body as being immortal. Whitman is dying and knows that his body will not live in this world. Therefore, Whitman edits out this line in the later edition.

Although Whitman knows that his body will not live, Whitman considers his written words to be immortal. Thus, his message of hope and direction for the American people does not change from the first edition to the last. Whitman writes in both version of the poem about turning and living with animals. In this section there are no changes in punctuation or addition/subtraction of words. I feel this section demonstrates how Whitman wants the American people to live. Whitman likes how the animals do not complain about their position in society, do not excessively discuss their duty toward God, are not materialistic, and are not unhappy. In this section, it is as if Whitman wants the American people to be simple like the animals. Since there was no change in this section, Whitman’s vision of the American people did not change. Although Whitman personally experienced change in his own perception, his hope for the American people remained the same.


  1. tallersam:

    I too think that Whitman was trying to sound more concise and authoritative in the later edition of ‘Song of Myself’ through using the more respected commas, instead of ellipses. It takes the focus off the ambiguity of the punctuation and focus the reader back on the words of the poem.
    I also agree with what you said about the speaker of the poem trying to draw more attention to himself in the later edition (I talked about something similar in my blog post). I think this, again, shows the speaker of the poem as more authoritative than he was before.

  2. meghanedwards:


    I also noted the changes in punctuation that Whitman makes, and I agree with both you and Sam-the commas make the entire selection sound more concise and compact. Added with the sectioning off that Whitman does, it makes the entire poem feel very neat and together, as if the emphasis is entirely on the words, instead of the presentation. I also really like your point about Whitman and immortality-with Whitman’s realization that the words, not the man, are immortal. I wonder if the war had anything to do with that, or if that realization is something that just comes with the onset of death.

  3. abcwhitman:

    O how I love Whitman’s 1855 ellipses! I love how some times it’s a “..”, some times a “….”, and some times the proper “…”

    Like a hurriedly written note, the random ellipses speak to Walt’s zealousness, his force, his speed, his flowing, grandiose, splendid way of creating. The 1855 “Leaves of Grass” came out of nowhere, totally alien, and its punctuation is one part contributing to its revolutionary nature.

    Personally, I prefer the old-school punctuation.

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