Introduction

Whitman opens his poem with a conventional iambic pentameter line, as if to suggest the formal openings of the classic epics, before abandoning metrics for a free-flowing line with rhythms that shift and respond to the moment. Instead of invoking the muse to allow him to sing the epic song of war, rage, and distant journeys, Whitman becomes his own muse, singing himself and announcing that the subject of his epic will be himself. He “celebrates” that self, and the etymology of the word “celebrate” indicates “to return to” or “to frequent.” The whole poem will be Whitman’s record of the self expanding out into the world, absorbing more and more experience, then contracting back into the self, discovering that he can contain and hold the wild diversity of experience that he keeps encountering on his journeys through the world. He sets out to expand the boundaries of the self to include, first, all fellow Americans, then the entire world, and ultimately the cosmos. When we come to see just how vast the self can be, what can we do but celebrate it by returning to it again and again?