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Whitman's Free Verse: Untraditional, but Not Unskilled

Originally published in 1855, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is a classic piece of narrative poetry surpassing 1300 lines in length. Section 11 stands out as one of the 52-part poem’s most intriguing segments. With his use of rhythmic, flowing free verse; his lack of regard for traditional line length and arrangement, rhyme, and meter; his vivid visual and tactile imagery; and his attention to the then-controversial theme of sexual yearning, Whitman has effectively cemented “Song of Myself, 11” as an essential portion of one of the most innovative and influential 19th Century American literary works.

            Walt Whitman is known for constructing smooth, flowing free verse, and “Song of Myself, 11” is no exception. The poem contains no rhymes and does not have a set meter. If one, however, reads only line 6, he or she might think “Song of Myself, 11” was written in iambic pentameter. Line 6 readily breaks down into feet because all of its ten words have just one syllable: “Which of the young men does she like the best?” Stressed syllables include “Which,” “young,” “men,” “like,” and “best.” This means that if line 6 were to be divided into five parts of two syllables apiece, it could be a line of iambic pentameter consisting of a trochee, an iamb, another trochee, and two more iambs.

            Yet the simple structure of line 6 is deceptive. Few of the poem’s other seventeen lines could be identified as traditional iambic pentameter. For example, line 16 has twenty-five syllables instead of ten and two two-syllable words: “The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them.” Out of the first four words in this line, “young,” “men,” and “float” all receive emphasis. This method of emphasizing three consecutive syllables is atypical in set-meter poetry. Thus, it is safe to conclude that Whitman’s poem breaks from metric tradition and is instead part of the realm of free verse.

Although he does maintain the traditions of capitalizing the first letter of each line and ending all of his lines with some sort of punctuation, Whitman has no qualms weaving long, descriptive lines that do not end at the edge of the page. In the literature anthology, lines 10, 12, 16, and 17 are all indented in the middle of the line to indicate that they are continuing on where the next line would normally have begun. Whitman did not write “Song of Myself, 11” in a fixed form; the poem does not conform to any specific rules as would a ballad, sonnet, or villanelle. Yet it is somewhat closed in form: each of his stanzas consists of two lines except for the first and last stanza.

            Whitman uses several devices in “Song of Myself, 11” to establish the cohesion and fluidity characteristic of his poetry. One such device is repetition. Repeating a word or phrase creates a rhythm and provides a focal point for literary audiences, especially if the phrase recurs in consecutive lines. The first two lines of the poem repeat the phrase “Twenty-eight young men,” and the third line begins “Twenty-eight years.” Due to the repeated phrase, lines 1 and 2 create a strong image of a mass of bathing men which at first seems will continue in line 3. Yet the narrator surprises the audience and uses the number twenty-eight to describe the age of a woman in the poem and not the men she is watching.

Part 11’s beginning is not the only time the narrator utilizes repetition as a technique of gluing ideas together.  The phrase “over their bodies” concludes lines 13 and 14. This repetition clues readers in to the idea that they should picture the bathers’ wet bodies just as the woman in the poem is doing. One final repeated phrase is “they do not,” which occurs in all of the final stanza’s three lines. In each case, the line is followed by a different verb: “ask” in line 16, “know” in line 17, and “think”’ in line 18. The narrator’s purpose in repeating the phrase is to emphasize the point that the bathers the woman views with yearning have no idea she is observing them and pretending to be among them. This enhances the sense of loneliness hinted at in when the narrator calls the years of the woman’s life “all so lonesome” (3).

            Whitman does not use rhyme to establish rhythm and flow in his poem, but he does use alliteration and consonance. The first example of alliteration comes in the very first line: “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore.” Whitman sets the B-words “bathe” and “by” right next to each other. Consonance is apparent in line 3: “Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.”  The L-sound is repeated in the words “womanly,” “life,” and “lonesome.” One final example is the alliteration two lines later: “She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window” (5). Yet again, Whitman places two words beginning with the same sound right next to each other, but this time it is the H-sound in “hides” and “handsome.” It is no coincidence that these alliterative words are also some of the poem’s key words. Just from the three words “bathe,” “lonesome,” and “hides,” one can understand that a character in the story may be lonely and secretive, and that there is some element of bathing. Ergo, Whitman’s use of alliteration is adept since it brings notice to some of the piece’s crucial words.

             Besides his use of repetition, alliteration, and consonance, Whitman ensures that his poem will be read gracefully by utilizing several syncopes. He places them in three consecutive lines, from 12 to 14. In line 12 he abbreviates “glistened” to “glisten’d,” and in both lines 13 and 14 he shortens “passed” to “pass’d.” By using these syncopes, he makes it known that readers of this poem should not pronounce “glistened” as a three-syllable word or “passed” as a two-syllable word like they would when reading Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, Whitman is preventing his audience from stumbling over the words and emphasizing unnecessary sounds that might make his lines awkward instead of flowing.

            Imagery is yet another weapon in Whitman’s literary arsenal. Many of the poem’s nouns are devoted to giving readers a glimpse of the bathing men’s bodies. One can hardly help but visualize the men in the water because the narrator inundates readers with mentions of different body parts: “beards” and “hair” in line 12; “bodies” in lines 13 and 14; “temples” and “ribs” in line 15; and “backs” and “bellies” in line 16. Receiving this level of description makes the poem more real for readers.

Another idea the narrator extensively covers is water and wetness, and he does this with both visual and tactile imagery, using both nouns and verbs. One example of visual imagery comes when the narrator describes the bathing men: “Little streams pass’d all over their bodies” (13). The narrator does not just simply state that the bathers are wet; he goes into detail, comparing the water collected on the men’s skin to streams. A piece of visual and tactile imagery concludes the poem: “They do not think whom they souse with spray” (18). The narrator could have allowed more vagueness and could have merely written: “They did not think whom they hit with water.” Instead, he described the scene with precision. The use of the word “spray” instead of “water” indicates the men are splashing in the water, which causes water to ricochet at the woman in sprays. Saying the men “souse” the woman indicates the degree to which she is being hit with the spray: she is drenched! These descriptive words help literary audiences experience the action along with the woman; readers can see the spray jetting toward them and feel themselves getting soaked.

The primary theme of this poem, a woman’s sexual desire for bathing men, comes into play most noticeably toward the end of “Song of Myself, 11.” The narrator relates the plot as follows: a lonely woman in her upper twenties looks out her window and spies a large group of men bathing. She concludes that she loves all of the men, even the least attractive of the bunch, and proceeds to imagine herself being in the water with them. Although it may already seem sexual that the woman’s “unseen hand pass’d over their bodies” in line 14, and she imagines being “soused” with water by naked men in line 18, even clearer signs of the woman’s sexual desires are apparent when examining subtle indications in Whitman’s word choice. The sheer length of the narrator’s aforementioned list of body parts in stanzas 4 through 6 demonstrates that the woman is somewhat obsessed with looking at these men’s nude bodies.  

One instance may indicate that the woman is even writhing with pleasure while viewing the bathing men: “They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch” (17). The word “puff” shows that while the woman imagines herself in the water with the men, she is breathing deeply and rapidly. The choice of the adjective “pendant” in this line indicates that she is not arched in one set angle, but instead she actually dangles and sways while puffing air, attentively watching these men. The fact that this sexually-charged picture of a woman’s heaving body lies at the end of the poem calls even more attention to it. Its placement at the conclusion affirms the belief that lust is one of the poem’s major topics since it is the lasting image by which audiences will remember this piece.