In reading the deathbed version of Song of Myself, I don’t know how much the speaker had changed in actuality from the 1855 speaker, and how much change I was simply adding in from my knowledge of Whitman, and the relationship I now have with him and his work.
In reading the 1855 version, I had no real preconception of Whitman, no real knowledge of who he was, and what little I did know of him had no bearing on what I thought of the poem, or how I interpreted it. I read Song of Myself viewing the speaker as an anonymous being; since I had no real idea of Whitman, I only placed him as a name in the narration. In reading the deathbed edition however, it’s just the opposite. I have a very definite idea of who Whitman is, and I can’t help but let my feelings and thought about Whitman influence how I see the speaker. So it’s hard to say how much of the changes I noted were actually changes, or me just viewing things differently.
I noticed that even though many of the powerful lines are the same, I read them in a completely different way in the DB edition. I often would read a line, and then double check the 1855 edition just to see if it had been changed at all. I was somewhat surprised that the lines and images jumping out at me were often the same in the 1855 as in the DB edition. It was interesting to me though, that many of the lines and verses I underlined or took special notice of in the DB edition were completely different from ones I had taken note of in my reading of the 1855 version. Knowing all the things I do now about Whitman’s life, different things stuck out to me.
“I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.” (239)
This line appears in both the 1855 version and 1891 version. At first when I read this line in the 1891 version, I thought perhaps he had added it in, and then found out the same line, unchanged, was in the 1855 version. I couldn’t believe how differently I interpreted it. In the 1855 version I see a young Walt, a little bit pompous, exalting himself, his poetic career in front of him. In the 1891 version, I see the older Whitman, looking back on his career, greeting the future of America, himself, poetry, anything. I want to know if Whitman reread these lines and thought of his younger self, or if he, like me, saw that he had changed, and yet the line still meant the same thing really. Maybe this is why Song of Myself still speaks to me, over 150 years after it was published. Because it could still speak to, speak of, Whitman, even 40 years after he had written it originally. It occurred to me around this point that not only was I projecting my knowledge of Whitman onto this reading, but also the knowledge that he was near his death. That line definitely stuck out for that reason.
As far as the actual changes I saw in the poem, most of them seemed to give the speaker more confidence. Whitman eliminated the ellipses (something which I saw changed in other poems) and some of the commas as well. He also compacted the stanzas and lines from the earlier edition. There were less lines just free floating. At times in the 1855 version, while the speaker was very sure of himself, it seemed that often there were time when the speaker was testing the waters; it didn’t seem like he was always completely behind the ideas being thrown out. This speaker is confident and wise in everything he says. There are no drawn out pauses of consideration, just a straight forward laying out of what he is trying to say to his audience.
There also seem to be less references to God, possibly in relation to this confidence. Instead of in the 1855 edition where Whitman says
“Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?” (45)
In the DB edition he asks
“Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” (206)
This more direct tone seems to be in connection with the more knowledgeable and wise speaker of this edition.
There were other small changes that influenced by interpretation of the speaker. On 214, the line
“I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.”
felt very powerful to me. I immediately looked it up in the 1855 edition, to see that the last half of the second line “—this suits me” (54) had been added on. I could very much see the speaker I had been envisioning—the aged, wise Whitman—saying this line. Maybe it just seems like something an old man would say, I don’t know. To me it seemed like something Whitman would say, from what I know of him anyway. It gives me this very relaxed, accepting sense of the speaker, falling in line with what I have been thinking of Whitman.
Even reading the last section of the poem, about looking for Whitman under our boot soles, etc., gave me a completely different feeling. I knew they were the same lines that I had read from the beginning of the semester, but it didn’t change the fact that I felt them so strongly this time around. Not to say they weren’t strong from the beginning, because they were, but imagining the good grey poet instead of the young, well, also grey poet made me a bit emotional. It was then that I finally concluded that I would never know for certain how much the speaker had actually changed.
I don’t really know how to end this, other than to say that this is probably an awful mess that doesn’t make much sense. I tried. Perhaps I will post more on this later, since I am already at a very substantial amount of words. There were a lot of other small changes I wanted to talk about. So in conclusion, I need a follow-up post.