‘Song of the Open Road’ by Walt Whitman appeared in what many scholars deem one of the most influential poetry texts of all time, Leaves of Grass, which was first published on July 4, 1855. A journalist and teacher by trade, Walt Whitman is known as a poet and essayist, and many modern poets credit his poetry with inspiring and influencing their own works.
Whitman was born on Long Island and grew up in the New York area. He had very little formal schooling, but he considered himself to be a lifelong learner. He took jobs at print shops; additionally, he taught school and worked on several newspapers. Whitman died at the age of 72 after suffering a debilitating stroke. His poems and essays are read in classrooms throughout the United States and the world.
Explore Song of the Open Road
The speaker of the poem is describing a trip on which he is embarking. He describes himself as being “healthy and free,” and he realizes he is the only person who is in complete control of his life; he chooses his own destiny. Because of this realization, he does not have to wish or hope or pray for good fortune. He attests that he, himself, is his own good fortune, and that is all he needs. There is nothing that he is lacking. He will reach his destination on his own, and the earth will provide him with anything extra that is necessary. This is not to say that the road he is taking is not paved with imperfections and burdens. Rather than worry, however, the speaker has decided to take those burdens with him and deal with them as they arise.
Whitman engages with important themes of freedom, the self, and nature in ‘Song of the Open Road’. His speaker, who is very likely Whitman himself, describes a journey he’s embarking on. It is open that is “open”. There is a whole line of freedom right in front of him that he’s going to tap into. The journey he undertakes s also going to tell him about himself. He believes that he’ll come to fully depend on himself for everything. This will allow him to achieve a new perspective on his own abilities and a new knowledge of what he values.
Structure and Form
‘Song of the Open Road’ is separated into four separate stanzas. With the exception of the first stanza, which contains only three lines, the other stanzas contain four lines of verse. The poem utilizes free verse; the lines are unrhymed and of varying lengths. Song of the Open Road is told from the first-person point of view, and the speaker, perhaps Whitman, knows himself very well. Whitman is often referred to today as the “father of free verse poetry”. His use of this style of writing paved the way for generations of poets after him.
Whitman makes use of several literary devices in ‘Song of the Open Road’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and caesura. The first, enjambment, is a common and useful poetic technique that allows the poet to control how fast a reader moves through the lines of verse. One good example is the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza. Alliteration is another common device, but one that works to create a feeling of rhyme and rhythm. This is quite important in free verse poetry. Take for example the words “no,” “need,” and “nothing” in line two of stanza two as well as “complaints” and “criticisms” in line three of that same stanza.
Caesura is another formal technique that involves splitting a line with punctuation. Take for example line four of the second stanza. It reads: “Strong and content, I travel the open road”.
Analysis of Song of the Open Road
In the first stanza, the speaker begins his journey. Whitman writes:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
From this stanza, the reader is able to glean several important points: first, the speaker is setting out on the open road on foot. Secondly, he is light-hearted and open to all he is about to experience. Additionally, the speaker recognizes that it is he who is in control of his journey. He will choose where the path will take him on his journey.
The second stanza continues the thoughts expressed in the first three lines. Whitman writes:
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
The speaker says that he does not have to pray for good luck because he is the maker of his own luck. He will no longer cry or hesitate to do what he wants because he is in need of nothing. He is no longer content with being walled inside; he is strong and happy to be on the open road. In line six, Whitman writes of “querulous criticisms.” The use of alliteration here emphasizes the speaker’s carefree tone, which is continued throughout the course of Song of the Open Road.
In the third stanza, Whitman makes reference to the earth and stars. He writes:
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
Here, the speaker seems to separate himself from others. He says the earth is fine the way it is; he does not desire to be any closer to the stars than he already is. He knows they are fine where they are, and he knows they are good enough for those who belong to them. This last line is in strong contrast to the rest of the poem, where the speaker emphasizes his free will and independence, which means he probably does not include himself in the group of people who belong to the constellations. He does not belong to them because he does not need them.
The fourth stanza is physically separated from the rest of the poem by Whitman’s use of parentheses. He writes:
(Still I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
Whitman’s use of parentheses here makes the stanza more of an aside than its own separate being; it is almost an afterthought that the speaker decides to throw in, but it is still important to Song of the Open Road. Here, the speaker admits that he is not without his own problems, but instead of fretting, he relishes them. The reader can see this through Whitman’s diction. His use of the word delicious is no accident; through that word, Whitman conveys the sense of relish the speaker feels for his burden. In the second line of the final stanza, the speaker admits to all that he carries them with him wherever he goes; this thought is continued in the final two lines of the poem. The speaker declares that he cannot rid himself of them; instead, he and his burdens share a symbiotic relationship of sorts: he is filled with his burdens, and in return, he fills them. The speaker is stating here that his burdens do not define him; rather, he accepts them and carries them with him wherever he goes.
Like many of the poems contained in Whitman’s seminal work, Leaves of Grass, this poem is an ode to one’s self. Whitman revels in his own independence and ability to control his life, and this idea of self-determinism has continued to influence readers since the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855.
There are many Whitman poems that engage with similar themes of the self, freedom, and nature. Interested readers should look at the long poem ‘Song of Myself’ as well as ‘Me Imperturbe’. Other poets have also spent time on these themes and others that are quite similar. Some of the best include ‘The Freedom of the Moon’ by Robert Frost, ‘The Lake Isle’ by Ezra Pound, ‘Wild Swans’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and ‘The Gypsy’ by Edward Thomas.