Song of Myself (an excerpt) by Walt Whitman






Approximately fifty pages into Leaves of Grass, in the 1892 version that is referred to as the deathbed edition,[1] Walt Whitman seems to pause and take a step back from his rolling, practiced effusion about everything human.  In some ways the sweeping momentum of the poem comes to an abrupt halt and lands in what philosophers call an aporia, or a troublesome conflict.  Whitman surmises:





I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid

            and self-contain’d.

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of

            owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands

            of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

So they show their relations to me and I accept them,

They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in

            their possession.  (52)


On some level it’s a remarkable passage, complicated in its way because it not only goes against the Enlightenment position, which reinvigorated the age-old belief in human superiority, but in some sense it contradicts the Romantic view of animals as well.  After all Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the granddaddy of the movement, had written in his “Discourse on Inequality” that “Every animal has ideas because it has senses; it even combines its ideas up to a certain point, and, in this regard, man differs from beasts only in degree.”[2]  That is, for Rousseau, animals almost reach human levels of thought.  They share a kinship with humanity, but they also fall short of human greatness, even if only by a matter of “degree.”  But Whitman goes a great deal further.  In effect he reverses the hierarchy hidden in the binarism human/animal.  What he proposes is the notion that animals are better than us.  He prefers them for what they don’t do, including whine, regret, grovel, kowtow, strive or own.  Setting aside the question of the empirical accuracy of his assertions, the passage begs deeper consideration for how it relates to the humanist tradition.  After all, one of the consequences of that tradition was for cultures to denigrate their own by reducing groups or individuals to a name, including “animal,” “beast” or, most damning of all, “savage.”  In a sense Whitman reverses these labels, or he rehabilitates them.  He says later in the text: “[G]ive me serene-moving animals teaching content” (262).  And “How beautiful and perfect are the animals!” (369).  And he enthuses about “the satisfaction and aplomb of animals” (415).  The big question is why he is so insistent on this theme.  Is it merely a poet’s game or is he serious?  And if the latter, what are the consequences?  If animals behave in ways preferable to humans, does that imply that all the mean-spirited labeling no longer possesses any bite?  That is, if animals no longer constitute an Other to humans, if the slash in the binarism human/animal is removed or, more aptly, the hierarchy is reversed, then what happens to the hierarchies between humans?  What does it say about the many traditions that served in the nineteenth century as bases for inequality, including Christianity, but also capitalism and bourgeois culture, as well as one of their most pernicious forms, the slave system?  If all these are what he’s after in the language of the passage above, how does this leveling relate to all his inducements elsewhere in the text to think of America broadly, allegorically, as a place where difference is the rule, requiring a radically new approach, an entirely new understanding of democracy?  Again if the hierarchy between humans and animals is overturned, then can’t the same be possible in human hierarchies, all of which are founded on perceived differences?  Finally, do any of these considerations challenge the way we think about and treat animals themselves?  Would Whitman genuinely have cared?

–Professor Donald Mengay

[1] Whitman, Walt.  Leaves of Grass and Other Writings.  Ed. Michael Moon.  New York: Norton, 2002.

[2] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Rousseau’s Political Writings.  Ed. Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella.  Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanell.  New York: Norton, 1988.

28 thoughts on “Song of Myself (an excerpt) by Walt Whitman”

  1. Prof. Grace Schulman asked me to post this comment for her:

    Yes,this is, as Prof. Mengay says, a pause in Whitman’s great poem. It is a “turn,” as the poet tells us in the first line. Elsewhere in the poem,Whitman declares outright his visual — and visionary — purpose: “I see,” “I observe,” I peeringly view from the top,” “I perceive.” Here he begins the passage tentatively, gingerly, and in the conditional: “I think I could turn and look at animals.” The subject comes as a surprise. He is off on a refreshing new course, or precisely, a turn. In a while he will dip into negation, praising the beasts for what people around him do not have. But before that he tells us, “I stand and look at them all day.” In that line resides the poet’s marvelous gift to all of us, that seeing, feeling, and hearing are miracles, and that each observation is a turn, a new adventure.

    –Grace Schulman

  2. “I think I could turn and live with animals,” and I asked myself: “Why? What makes them special?” The simple thing is just because the animals are “down to the Earth”. They do not express the emotions of fear, aggression, hate, anger, hypocrisy, or unhappiness. They do not lie and do not pretend in “good” and innocent people. Animals are living organisms that live by the order of Mother Nature; they are pure and clean, like the nature. The natural selection law is only rule that drives them and makes them equal in front of each other. And Walt wants to get that purity and live by the order of nature, but not the society rules. For Whitman the people are the beast than the animals. Because they live in the world and tease each other with their laws, rules, stereotypes of behavior, roles and status in the society. Walt does not want to be under the people’s opinion and appreciation by the world. He sees in the animals something divine, that people lost already and became the beasts. Walt wants to be free from all the bad ongoing on the Earth. He wants to go out from selfishness, egoism, untrue behavior and corruption of people’s minds.
    More and more reading the poem I wondered to know what kind of animal Walt Whitman could wish to be come. And the answer is obvious – a BIRD , that lives in the clouds, sing, fly around and creates the poem of its live.

  3. This is a beautiful and uplifting passage (and witty–I love the insight that not one animal is respectable), but it’s based on some major misrepresentations of animals! They do too whine and feel dissatisfaction, and they certainly bow to one another; the term ‘alpha male’ comes from the animal kingdom to humans, not vice versa. In critiquing human hierarchies, Whitman imagines that those free of them would exist in a utopia. The State of Nature is certainly no utopia–just ask Thomas Hobbes. Whitman replicates the placement of human over animal by willfully misinterpreting animals.

    But it feels mean to have a go at Whitman about the romanticizations in the passage, especially because its heart–his heart–is clearly in the right place and he doesn’t harm or demean animals in the depiction. Prof. Mengay suggests that Whitman’s animals provide a model for human liberation and a radically different organization of society. It’s an inspiring vision, in which longing and status and dogmatism have no place. If so, Whitman offers us an ideal not just of human society but of the animal kingdom: it becomes a place where male lions do not eat the young of their rivals, to choose a particularly gruesome example. I wonder what this revision of the animal world would look like, too.

  4. I always wonder why some human beings often being compared with animals. In this poem, Whitman argues that human are more beast than animals, and he seems like he has a desire to be one, like when he says “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d.” His interpretations here looked similar to Buddha’s life. Buddha once had a great kinship with animals,and he treats them like a human.In fact, due to this relationship, he never had intentions of eating them, he became vegetarian. Still, today we could see why some Buddhist-Indians do not eat beef. Cow is one of the most respectable creatures in India. Whitman claimed that we must constantly endeavor if we are to succeed, especially when treating “Others”. Professor Mengay pointed out several interesting aspects of degrading ourself to the same level as animals. It may destroy “the hierarchies between humans,” and democracy might never existed. Nevertheless, I agree with Walt that our lifes will never be freed from human’s interference and “law”. Unlike animals, we live in a society where social norms and people’s opinions controlling us. Discrimination, stereotype, social status have overpowered human’s freedom today, and it even tortured the weaker ones. Whitman’s “Song of myself” has made us realize the reality of human’s life over animals, from the ego to the cruelty human beings ever made.

  5. After I finished the blog post the first question came to my mind is, what kind of animals is Whitman talking about, he never says what animal. I believe he is not talking about the animal eats own kind but the harmless animals like dog, or other kind that are around people and like people in some ways. At beginning Whitman admires animals, wants to live and be turn like they. Then He contrasts animals with people by comparing. He says animals don’t complain; don’t commit sins and critiques religion. Furthermore he talks about how animals are real, honest, no artificial, no burdens and equals. On the other hand people are selfish, greedy, want more than they need, are bound by religions, hierarchy and not natural. From “They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,” we can get a sense of how He is tired of religions people and religious burden, it even made him sick. There are three repetition, two verbs “I think “&”I stand”, three times “They do not” and “Not one” these repetition gives sense of author’s meaning, more memorable, insist on something and emphasize something. In the end, I believe he is telling us animals are revel what we already have but we admit it by, “They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession”

    -Shilei Chen

  6. In this poem Whitman details his view of the superiority of animals in comparison to humans. While his view is clear and easy to understand it is woefully inaccurate. He claims that animals aren’t dissatisfied, don’t whine about their condition or kneel to each other when there are countless of animals that exemplify these acts every day. Whitman’s distorted view of animals is clearly a result of his dissatisfaction with the lifestyle of humans. When he states that animals don’t whine about their condition, he is attacking people who complain about their illnesses. When he states that they aren’t demented with the mania of owning things, he is attacking people who are greedy. When he states that they don’t discuss their duty to god he is attacking people who are religious.

  7. I can totally relate to this section of the poem. My interpretation of this poem is as follows:
    From the 1st sentence i feel he is trying to employ the peace and tranquility that comes with being one with nature. Humans tend to make things more difficult then it should be, whereas the simplicity of animals frolicking amongst themselves brings about a certain sensation of relaxation. Animals seem not to have a worry in the world. They go about their day as nature intended.

    I agree somewhat with Professor Mengay. Yes, this is a remarkable passage, but its complicated splendor is very logical. Human superiority is a matter of opinion. One can argue that ants are more superior than humans because they are equipped for ultimate survival. As far as romantic views are concerned, we all know that predator and prey is part of the mark-up of every living thing (speaking from the present.) But during the enlightened period where I am guessing the majority did not feel like the laddder, this seemed like a threat to their “enlightened knowledge.”
    As far as philosophies go, I agree with Whitman over Rousseau but for a different reason. Natural, as I stated early, animals are better equipped for survival than humans. Overall, Professor Mengay had way more questions than answer, but who are we to assume.

    I agree with Prof. Grace Schulman. It is very refreshing, but Whitman is still consistent.. Notice the “I” pattern in the poem.

    I somewhat disagree with Anna Kapitsa. I believe animals have emotion. I do not necessarily believe that animals are pure and innocent due to the predator/prey aspect. I think Whitman was trying to display the difference between humans and animals when it comes to complexity and serenity. In some religions animals are considered divine to this day.

    Strong statement by Mary McGlynn. Agreed!

  8. The above passage by Walt Whitman suggests some of the ways in which humans can learn from animals, in that simplicity is often times genius. Humans are often discontent with themselves and the world around them, over things that they believe to be true. Many of the most sinister events that have occurred over the course of human history have been committed in some false sense of a duty to God. Whitman writes: “They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.” At the root of nearly every genocide, racial cleansing or major war in memory, it is almost guaranteed that at least one group of people is acting in some sort of false sense of a duty to God. Whitman is using animals to personify his vision of a world without religious hatred or simply a world without acts of stupidity that are a result of religious over zealousness.

    Another major contributing factor to human unhappiness that Whitman personifies through animals is money. Whitman writes: “Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” The constant desire to acquire material possessions is what droves many humans mad and often times spend a significant portion of their lives working hard to acquire material possessions, which they do not have time to enjoy. Animals have no such desire and are perfectly satisfied, with only the possessions they need to survive. They are not capable of comprehending the idea of working for possessions, that they don’t need to survive and are therefore much happier because of it.

  9. In this passage Walt Whitman openly declares his disappointment with human society in terms of people constant dissatisfaction with what they possess, about their greediness and overestimated role of religion. Whitman opposes “civilized” human world to “wild” world of animals and states that animals are in superior position to people. However, if we respect science and believe in Darwin’s human evolution theory, then Whitman suggests that humans wasted millions of years on evolution and should go backwards to become a part of a “better” animal world all over again. Human beings are not perfect, but neither are animals. Definitely, along with all the advanced achievements civilization made people to develop certain types of not very noble traits of characters and patterns of behavior, such as fascination with materialistic things, desire to possess more than we need and so on. However, this is an inevitable reality that every progress has it downsides.
    Furthermore, if Whitman claims that animals are better than human beings, then he consequently affirms the main law of animal world, or as we call it, The Law of the Jungle, according to which in nature everyone fights for him/herself and the strongest survives. However, in civilized human world we refer to the Law of the Jungle in a quite a negative way, while comparing human beings acting like wild animals that do not possess any moral principles.
    Therefore, Whitman statement comes across as a rebel against society and utopian desire for people to be able to live in a primitive “honest” animal world.

  10. Walt Whitman writes in his poem about the animals and the human beings. He says that “he could turn and live with animals” which means that he doesn’t like the human being society(world), he wants to say that he would rather live in animals world then in humans world. Whitman uses repetitions for the starting of lines of the poem, such as “They do not…”. he talks about the animals who do not usually do what humans do. He does not says directly that he does not like the way people live, their behavior, and attitudes. But instead he says what animals don’t do and says that he accepts them. The second repetition is “Not one is…” , which is repeated four times. The author doesn’t repeat the word “animals” , which was used in the beginning to show about whom is the poem. Instead Whitman uses “they” and “one” in his repetitions which created the feeling of a long list with animals superior qualities.

    Whitman creates the portrait of people in the society. He writes about the true faces of the humans. The author writes: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,/ They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”. Whitman shows the hypocrisy of humans who talks about the duty to God but, at the same time, they create sins. This creates contradiction. If people have a real faith, they wouldn’t just weep for their sin. Instead they wouldn’t create any.

    Another line which creates characteristic for human beings is “…not one is demented with the mania of owning things”. The author shows how people are greedy for money, owning things. It creates enemies and even wars. The animal world also has its own rules as surviving of the fittest. However, the animals kill each other because this is way to survive and feed themselves. In contrast, the humans kill each other because of greed and willingness to have power over others.

  11. when I first read this poem I somewhat related to it. Whitman states that animals are more pleasant to be around and “do not sweat or whine about their condition.” I feel like sometimes human beings spend a lot of time complaining rather than actually solving their problems. Animals are accustomed to survival of the fittest and solving problems is how they learn to survive.

    Animals live a simple life that is not bounded by god or religion. I think Whitman through his words stesses his idea that eventhough humans are considered the superior beings in society and the world, there is so much that we can learn from animals and nature.

  12. Whitman’s admiration and dislikes are seen clearly in this passage. He speaks of the qualities the creatures do not possess that humans do that appear to annoy him stating They do not…” whine about their condition” or “make me sick discussing their duty to God”. As part of our class we had the opportunity to read a part of this poem and I was intrigued by what I read (this passage was not included). I really enjoyed this passage as he describes mother nature and all the wonderful animals around him. I am not surprised by how appreciative he is of these creatures. He admires their ways of being and learns from his interactions with them and treats them as his equal. As part of this poem he is trying to let the world know that we can learn from even the little examples. We turn to books and search for answers in complex places but he shows us how the answers to a lot of things are right before us. He informs us that we should not look to deep into things and he learns that the most simplest ways of living are the best. We as humans sometimes are not satisfied with what we have but these little creatures have nothing, and they are able to live happily amongst one another. This passage is so simple yet so deep and it reminds us that we should appreciate what is before us.

  13. It is very easy to understand Whitmans message and ideology from reading this poem. It best sums up his disdain for human nature and the way we tend to be. Animals live in conditions that we as humans would see as unlivable and terrible. Yet they easily adapt to their environment and don’t complain like any human being would. With animals Its like that famous way of thinking “count your blessings” and be happy with what you have. Thats exactly how Whitman wishes we as humans would think.

    I also agree with Anna’s interpretation of the line “not one is demented with the mania of owning things”. We as humans thrive off of greed and always wanting more. It has often been the cause of so much death and destruction around the world.

    The poem as a whole represents the flaws that humans possess. Greed, the rejection of others opinions and our way of destroying the earth all to satisfy our lust for more.

  14. After the reading of Whitmas passage, I have a very strong feeling that he uses the images of “animals,” and through them, emphasizes sins of church, religion and human race in general.
    The author states, “weep for their sins,” “discussing their duty to God,” showing that religious people may point out on their sin and may be talking about how hard it is to serve to God. Whitman emphasizes that people kneels to show their respect to other holy people such as Jesus or Buddha, while animals do not do that. In addition, the author highlights that humanity is not even, it has “respected” people, and the ones who are respecting. Human race features unhappiness “over the whole earth.” Even more, animals do not lie, complain about their conditions or have obsession of owning things. This poem shows us how animals differ from people via their behavior.

  15. In this passage, Whitman compares animals to human beings in order to highlight the shortcomings he considers in the latter. In his view, animals, unlike humans, are not obsessed with their sins or religion. Animals, Whitman argues, are also not driven to be part of a hierarchical system where one human is somehow superior to another and all are driven to acquire possessions. In my view, Whitman seems less interested in actually living with animals than with pointing out what he considers tiresome and annoying in his fellow humans.

  16. I really liked this poem. I somehow agree that “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” The author seems to see the animals badly, but he seems to see them nicely in the end, for instance, “They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.”
    I feel like the author is comparing human and animals. The author’s lesson is the animals are better than human because they at least know how to express their feelings and they don’t “whine about their conditions.” If I am sick, I whine and complain to all other people. I mean most people will do when they don’t feel good. Although people think that they don’t show their conditions to other people, another person can tell he or she looks sick or tired. If I compare animals to human, then I think that animals are better and have greater patience than human.

  17. In all of Whitman’s poem, Whitman makes us reflect on how we should be as a human.From his poem, Whitman made use of animals to critic on his own society, on the corrupted and negative aspects of his society. It should be taken note that Whitman has written this poem of “Song of Myself” within the period of American Civil War, whereby there is a lot of civil unrest present. In relation to the citizens of during the time, with their grudges, their social discrimination, their dis-satisfactory of the world, the world of the animals may be seen as a better world. The world of the animals, from Whitman’s viewpoint, is a world without religion conflicts, without suffering in the society, without hierarchy and without sorrow. It is a simple and pure world contrasted to the world that he is living in. For the people of his society, there are so much to learn from animals.

  18. After reading this poem I someone can relate to it. The following line got my attention, “Every animal has ideas because it has senses; it even combines its ideas up to a certain point, and, in this regard, man differs from beasts only in degree.” As a human being we should always try our best and not to complain when we are un able to figure out something in life. There’s always a social constraints between human beings therefore we should live in a simple life. But in an animal word there are no competition such as hierarchy and suffering. The world is basically perfect and as human beings we should live by their life styles.

  19. This poem seems like it has a joyous and kind of like a mystical tone to it. He describes how humans are more beasts than animals. He desires to be an animal as he says in the lines, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained.” He continues though out the poem expressing how different animals are to humans. Animals, don’t whine about their conditions, “they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins”. This poem basically just shows how humans differ from animals.

  20. I think through this poem Walt Whitman is simply expressing his his admiration and preference for the simplicity of an animals life. He contrasts the lives of humans and animals. He shows resentment for people being overly religious, constantly complaining and materialistic which he believes are not characteristics present in an animals life. The part of human life I believe Whitman is trying to go against is our constant need to outdo one another how we always wish to be superior- our religion is better/more correct, we must own more and nicer things or we must always look up to someone or find ways of fixing “problems” we think exist in the world. Whitman just wants a life in which everyone is only concerned with themselves and happy with what they possess and not try to be too ambitious and just live without complications.

  21. This poem clearly describe hoe the poet is rather live with animals than humas. This could be interpreted as the poet has bad experiences with someone which caused him to hate humans. Sine the first line of the poem, he directly point out how he thinks that living with animal is better than with humans, “ I think I could turn in and live with animals, they are so placid”. The rest of the poem, he briefly elaborates how living with animal is better than with human, “ they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”. I think the main purpose of this poem is to express his feeling how he is disappointed living with humans.

  22. After reading this poem I could not help but wonder what animal Whittman was talking about. I read it continuously trying to find some clue but then I realized it could be many. The way he describes animals in comparison to humans is extremely interesting. His statements like “they do not sweat and whine about their condition,” and ” they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,” made me truly think about the many hours that humans spend worrying when the animals live so freely. His comparison made me feel as though humans are not as free as we say we are. His words made me feel like we are locked in this cycle and are overpowered by our own emotions everyday. It seems we will never be as free as the animals he is describing.

  23. I think this poem is about how humans are more of a beast than animals. In my opinion, human is an animal, we are just an animal with a brain. We take beast to a different level. This poem reminds me of a time when humans used to hunt other animals like a pack of wolves. We are no different than any other animals with a brain. Even if we have all the basics we need to survival, there are other stuff that we want and can never be filly satified. Like the Hierarchy of Needs and Self-Actualization in the humanistic model. There are many stuff that one need until one is fulfilled and self-actualized, some will never get there.

  24. The poem reveals the negative qualities of human being even it is only talking about animals. I can feel that in Walt Whitman poem, we, human, are irritable and always complain about the current situation. We deceive each other in order to do ourselves a favor. Even though many people confess but they still continue their sin. We seperate ourselves into different social classes and then discriminate each other.The animals are showing their true disposition. Walt Whitman uses his writing to attack people that are being fake. By the way, I guess he is talking about dogs.

  25. Whitman starts biting the organized religion, particularly religions that focus on the ideas of guilt, shame, and hatred of the body. He feels “sick” by people “discussing their duty to God.” That’s why he is admiring animals healthy attitude toward life which is missing in “human”. As he mentions:

    “They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.”

  26. After reading this poem I felt like Whitman is tired of being around people. Or even I could hear him saying “what is this world coming to?” He compares humans to animal “They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins”. He says he prefers to live with animals rather than with the rest of the world. It is a beautiful passage but I don’t know if it is right to make a comparison with animals. I am an animal lover but I just think it is wrong. He keeps going on and on about how people take things granted and don’t appreciate anything “Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth”. Interesting view I say.

    Aliya Adelman

  27. After reading the poem I think Whitman describes the behavior of human as he compares with animal. Animal is a creation of God they are beautiful creature but they do not have the sense of decision making. That is why we people the great creature. But Whitman feels uncomfortable by human behavior. He thinks human are cruel and lacking of some understanding problem. He also is feeling sad around with people. He wants to leave them by anyhow. But could it possible for him. I think it is not possible because human may be cruel sometime but they are great human being. There is no other way that we can compare with us with animal. A human can have significant qualities that animal do not. Human can create the rule of establishment and also they can demolish the establishment. But i think human can bring their best to satisfy him.

  28. This poem was very simple and straight forward. Whitman is subliminally saying that humans cause many problems in the world and he is sick of it. I do agree with his statement, because many humans live life to be the best, there is always competition with them. I found it interesting the way he is comparing living life with animals and humans, the idea that animals are more free because they don’t need much (or even any), to be satisfied and thus there is no drama. On the other hand humans complain, commit sin and do much.

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