Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman

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.

Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman

 

Summary of Song of the Open Road

‘Song of the Open Road’ by Walt Whitman describes a trip the speaker takes in order to learn about himself and enjoy the journey to an unnamed destination.

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.

 

Themes in Song of the Open Road 

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 of Song of the Open Road

‘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.

 

Literary Devices in Song of the Open Road

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

Stanza One

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.

 

Stanza Two

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.

 

Stanza Three

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.

 

Stanza Four

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.

 

Historical Significance

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.

 

Similar Poems

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 PoundWild Swans’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and ‘The Gypsy’ by Edward Thomas.

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  • Avatar Nancy shukla says:

    Thanks for such a amazing explanation

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      You’re more than welcome. Thank you for your kind praise!

  • Avatar Mahek says:

    good perfectly explain……….there are some point which I did not got but fine I am satisfy with this content.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Great to hear.

  • Avatar Bharati Kapatkar says:

    Exact appreciation of the poem .We feel inspired .Burdens are everywhere ,they can’t be removed easily,then why to remove them and waste our energy. Just be yourself.
    A very simple but meaningful poem.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Whitman was great at creating that vibe in his poetry.

  • Avatar anil Chakranarayan says:

    The Poem is excellent. The reader of any culture should feel proud of being a human being. He or she is able to decide his or her future destiny. Notwithstanding this attitude in the poem, it smacks of Macho-ism of American Spirit where the human and mixed saviours like Superman and Spiderman were born. Not to mention the bullying American attitude of spying the whole world to spot any other nation going beyond them or any one becoming better than us. This attitude is very well portrayed in person of Trump as it was in times of George Bush Jr. He first falsely blamed Iraq for Chemical weapons and launched an offensive on the civilians to get Saddam Hussein out. After he entered Iraq he found no chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the damage to the civilian life and limb had already been done. Iraq being a cradle of sorts of the ancient near eastern human culture was all destroyed.
    Having said this much The analysis is good but of course it falls short of critical appreciation applicable for the present age.
    Secondly, the poem exhibits the Spirit of Materialism very much suited in present times to the American and to that extent to the western mentality or course a strong influence of Americanism.
    Human being are no doubt made of matter so the matter they will be easily attracted latch themselves to. But another reality has to be realised that human beings are not also only Matter. They are also more than matter to which some say SPIRIT – never dying and never disintegrating as opposed to the matter. some say it just ENERGY. Whatever it is. Here in the poem just materialistic thought is promoted. Certain amount of heightened or even bloated ego. This bloated ego or heightened haughtiness has brought today to his knees ny a mere virus – called COVID 19. All our science and technology are kneeling before it without any respite.
    Thirdly, though there is inclusion of nature it a secondary. Full importance is rendered to the Human being,
    ” Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune
    Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,…”
    Fourthly, it exhibits a free spirit.The Spirit that does not come under anyone’s authority in a slavish way. It is not salve to any person, a philosophy, a Guru, a Politician or a particular Social group or a Pressure group or even for that matter any religion. The man should grow free of these curses. Take from them what is useful for the development a positive, constructive and other-oriented (not self centered) human personality, a cultural personality, for an enrichment of human civilisation. What is not useful or what is harmful should be shown the garbage bin. This is in the backdrop of the present situation the above things have made the human life and society miserable and gradually a spineless society following the herd mentality instead of preserving personal and societal liberty, sustaining brotherhood in the humanity.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      wow, thank you for this highly critical appraisal of the poem. Although your views are heavily politicised. (I wouldn’t like to agree nor disagree with your viewpoints, but meet me later for the bro-nod and fist bump!) I think this really adds a lot to the understanding of the poem. I think that American spirit and nature you touch on definitely exists, and to a point is charming, but at its extreme it can be damaging.

  • Avatar Manasi says:

    A magnificent analysis of spellbinding quality.
    Sincerest gratitude and appreciation.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      An articulate and gratifying response. Thank you!

  • Avatar Lalitha Iyer says:

    Thank you for such a lucid and succinct write-up.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Always a pleasure!

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