Where better to begin our pick of Whitman’s best poems than here, with the poem which seems best to embody his call for literary independence and self-expression?
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death …
When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems, although he would continue to expand and develop the collection for the rest of his life – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.