‘O Me! O Life! by Walt Whitman is a poem where being capable of boosting the quality of “life” is presented through juxtaposed ideas. Specifically, the negatives of “life” are discussed as the forefront thoughts of the poem in striking juxtaposition to the “good” elements of “life” that are offered afterward for a strong contrast. Although there is far more negative said about “life” than positive, the poem still leaves the reader with the notion that while catching the “good” elements might be difficult since they are so rare in comparison to the “poor” details of “life,” embracing them can lead to a “life” where experience and possibility are enough to make “life” a “good” thing. You can read the poem without the analysis here.
O Me! O Life! Analysis
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
There is certainly a tone of woe in this first section of O Me! O Life! that begins with the first words—“Oh me!”—which set the atmosphere of a sad lamentation. There is irony at work, however, in that the thing that is being lamented is “life” whereas the more common thing to lament would be death. Regardless, the following words of “Oh life!” let the reader know that Whitman is sorrowful over some element of “life,” and this sorrow will be a primary motivation for the entire work. It is not until the final line of this stanza, though, that we learn what particularly is the reason for the lament, and this is the notion that with all the struggles of “life,” Whitman wonders what “good” can be “amid” the problems.
These problems are presented almost completely in metaphor, and this figurative quality accomplishes two things. First, it helps to better address something as inexplicable as “life.” It is not tangible, or even fully understandable, so using elements that come with interpretative meanings is fitting. The second accomplishment is that Whitman is able to better express his despair by utilizing details that are deeper than superficial ideas. He could have described things that were as specific as arguments or poverty as “life” problems, but he instead dives into elements far less literal and far more open to interpretation.
For instance, his mention of “the endless trains of the faithless” has a physical object that can be noted in the “trains,” but he is not referring to literal “trains” of “faithless” people. Instead, it is referring to “faithless[ness]” that travels and is present in a number of situations, like a “train” that travels with various travelers to various places. Basically, numerous people in numerous places could have been “faithless” in his eyes, but again, there is interpretation within this concept. What precisely have people lost “faith” in? Is it one another, society, or something else? Whitman does not explain, so the meaning could be as deep as the reader wishes to make it—like “life” itself could be as vivid or imaginative as a person wants.
Likewise, the “cities fill’d with the foolish” is a metaphor for general people in large numbers since Whitman is not saying that there are specific “cities” that are “fill’d with” unwise people. It is just a note that he feels numerous people are unwise, and the alliteration of the “f” sound cements this concept by showing unity among the occupants of the “cities.” If they are united in the “f” sound of their description, the reader can assume they are just as united in their unwise nature.
Whitman, however, does not continue with talking about people in general, but instead focuses on himself in a “forever reproaching” mentality. This could be because he “see[s]” himself to be like his fellow citizens, or perhaps his frustration with those “cities” and such is because he is so disgusted with himself that his unhappiness spills over into his opinions of others. This idea gains merit in that this “reproach[ful]” detail is offered between the “trains” and “cities” line, which is about people in general, and the following line about general “eyes that vainly crave the light.” Because of this positioning, in particular, we see that his loathing of himself is the key to his discomfort with people because his personal reflection is sandwiched between general complaints—like it is the core of his problem.
For the remainder of the stanza, the reader encounters a number of ideas that are expressed in a metaphoric manner. In fact, even the statement of “eyes that vainly crave the light” is an expression that people want brighter existences, but their struggles to achieve something of more value are in “vain” because they cannot escape the darkness around them. There is no indication of what darkness this is, but it is indicative of the sorrow that Whitman has chosen as the focus of this poem.
Whatever these struggles, however, they are “recurring,” which indicates that they continue without fail, much like the similar beginnings of each of the first six lines of the poem. All of these lines begin with “O” words, and all but one of those words is “Of.” This is noteworthy since “[o]f” hints a connection, as in something is a part “[o]f” something else. Because of this word choice then, the reader can know Whitman considers himself to be a part of the problem that “crowds” and “cities” experience, as in they are a part “[o]f” the same sorrow.
In the end, “poor results” and “empty and useless years” leave Whitman wondering of the value of “life”—particularly “What good [is it] amid these” negative elements. Once this question is posed, he returns to his personal despair by giving the return lament of “O me, O life.” This time, however, it is presented as a weary question rather than a dramatic declaration, which hints that Whitman is being worn down too far for exclamative purposes. It also reveals that while he cannot separate his disgust with himself from how he perceives others, it is his personal situation that is his primary concern. Otherwise, he would not begin and conclude this stanza in this personal lament fashion.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
A new irony is at work in this stanza since the “[a]nswer” that is provided for the question of the “good” that exists in “life” is neither people in general nor Whitman himself. Rather, it is “you,” as in the reader. Further irony happens in that Whitman is noting things like being “here” and being able to “contribute a verse” to “life” as good elements, but given how downtrodden the first stanza makes “life” seem, one might wonder why a person would want to be “here” in “life” to be a part of a “powerful play” that can cause such heartache. At this point then, the reader can pause to consider these notions to find Whitman’s intended theme.
The “[a]nswer” to that question could be in the presence of “identity” that occurs in the second line of the stanza. In spite of the general “cities” and “crowds” of the first stanza, “identity” among the masses is now noted as possible. Rather than just being a part of the “crowd,” specifically, a person can be an individual as well, and perhaps this is the key to the poem. Only in being an individual person within the “cities” and “crowds” can someone, to Whitman, find a “life” that is “good” among the harsh elements. By doing this, a person “may contribute a verse” to have a place in “life,” one that helps to build a song in the “powerful play” of “li[ving].” Perhaps by doing so, the “verse” could be a happy one to counteract “life[‘s]” negativity.
The question remains, however, why Whitman is so unhappy with his own situation if he is acknowledging that a better “life” is possible. The answer could be that Whitman is using his own “life” as a warning—an example of what happens when things are “poor.” By pairing this back-to-back with the “[a]nswer” of “good” things, the juxtaposition is so strong that the “poor” things seem worsened by the possibility that comes with “verse[s]” and the knowledge that “life” is a “good” thing of itself.
In this—through the harshness of the first stanza’s elements, the juxtaposition of opposites, and the easy joy that can come with “life” through “exist[ing]” and having a right “identity”—the message of the poem becomes clearer. That message is that “life” can be a hard thing to endure, but the ability is within us to make it something worth experiencing anyway.
About Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman is an American writer who was born in 1819. He had eight siblings and spent time as a teacher in the 1830s and 1840s. Additionally, he was strongly connected to the Long-Islander newspaper, and he penned a number of works that are still noted as worthwhile. He passed away 1892.