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.
Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women—I carry them with me wherever I go…
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseased, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes—none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but are dear to me.
Yes, Walt Whitman. Who could miss his catalogs of inclusiveness, with their unexpected yet spot-on details?
If you had read these lines to me without disclosing their source, I’d say “Song of Myself”—because that’s the poem best known for Whitman’s catalogs. But no, this is “Poem of the Open Road.” It’s not in the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. But it does appear in the 1856 edition and thereafter—soon re-titled “Song of the Open Road.” (Whitman revised and expanded Leaves of Grass throughout his life: nine editions in all. I’ll be using the 1856 version of “Song of the Open Road,” because in general Whitman’s earlier versions are more spontaneous—more, well, Whitmanesque.)
It’s a longish poem of fifty-seven sections (though nowhere near the 372 sections of “Song of Myself”).
For this post, I want to hang out with “Song of the Open Road.” I wonder why. I think because I’m moved by its all-embracing spirit, and I like where the poem takes me. And maybe because, with COVID having kept me cooped up at home for so long, I need some expansiveness. And I need a celebration of the fresh air that I can finally breathe:
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
For Whitman, of course, just “breathing” the air isn’t enough. He has to picture how the air is empowering:
I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air,
I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles…
One of the “miracles” is to be freed from all constraints:
From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loosed of limits and imaginary lines…
Freely out on the open road, Whitman’s poetic persona apostrophizes the road itself. As always in Whitman’s catalogs, the delight is in the details:
You flagged walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!…
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has been near you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead I think you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.
This is typical of Whitman’s poetic persona: that whatever he extols he takes into himself “amicably.”
Also typical is the eventual movement from the literal road out toward the transcendent, as his subject becomes the traveling “Soul”:
“To know the universe itself as a road—as many roads—as roads for travelling Souls…
All parts away for the progress of Souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of Souls along the grand roads of the universe.
Those “grand roads of the universe”: to call Whitman’s persona expansive would be a colossal understatement (if that’s not an oxymoron). There’s evidently nothing and no one that he won’t exuberantly embrace:
Committers of crimes, committers of many beautiful virtues,…
Habitues of many different countries, habitues of far-distant dwellings,…
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! They go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
They go! As you’ve no doubt noted, traveling the open road releases, for Whitman, a spray of exclamation points. (I count sixty-three total in the poem.) Then about halfway through the poem, the exclamation point itself starts acting as a euphoric embrace of the reader, with sections beginning “Allons!” (“Let’s go!” “Come along!”). And with that invitation, the pronouns you-we-us join the poem’s previous I-me:
Allons! Whoever you are, come travel with me!
Traveling with me, you find what never tires.
The “Allons!” invitation is cried out repeatedly through the rest of the poem, which ends with what I hear as a climatic clashing of cymbals in this final, wildly fun catalog—of what the open road calls us to leave behind:
Allons! Be not detained!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopened!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearned!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
And then the final verse:Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
My coda: Actually, I’d say that we stick by Whitman long after he lived. Through his poems like this one.
Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.