At the very beginning of this course, someone remarked that the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself” (or perhaps it was Leaves of Grass in general) was considered to be the superior text, and honestly, I think I have to agree. I know it’s more or less stating the obvious, but the speaker seems so much older than that of the 1891/1892 edition. Bear with me; I know that it’s kind of a “duh” statement.
In the 1891/92 edition, the poem has been section off-one dose of Whitman for every week in the year. The syntax, too, differs. Where the 1855 punctuation is spread out with a myriad of ellipses, this one contains rather domesticated looking commas (and every so often, a dash or two). The effect is similar to Whitman’s sectionalizing; it looks contained and sparse, almost as if Whitman deemed it necessary to have more organization in his life and work. But the 1855 seems more to hold true to his message; the sprawling text seems to emulate the author’s immense covering of the “Kosmos” and “multitudes.”
There are also several changes in diction that I found interesting-if not sometimes disconcerting. For instance, Whitman becomes “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son” (210). Where is the American? Why isn’t Walt one of the roughs anymore? It’s an interesting edit, particularly because I think it speaks so much to the message of “Song of Myself;” Whitman is defending himself as the all-American poet, the see-all, do-all, feel-all, be-all. Maybe that message changed somewhat, with the war. Whitman is an American, but perhaps he is more closely Manhattan than anything else, and being a Manhattan-ite is what validates him as American. I’m not really sure why “one of the roughs” is gone; it identifies so closely with the former image on the frontispiece. In the same vein, Whitman changes the line on 203; after one of his infamous lists, of these he “weaves the song of myself,” rather than “be[ing] more or less I am.” It’s almost as if Whitman is acknowledging that he can not be all of these people, can not do-all. But perhaps he can feel-all, and this he demonstrates with Song.
This entire section is stricken from section 18:
This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour,
This is the the tasteless water of souls . . . . this is the true sustenance,
It is for the illiterate . . . . it is for the judges of the supreme court . . . . it is for the
federal capitol and the state capitols,
It is for the admirable communes of literary men and composers and singers and
lecturers and engineers and savans,
It is for the endless races of working people and farmers and seamen.
This is the trill of a thousand clear cornets and scream of the octave flute and strike
It disappeared from the 1867 edition and never returned. I imagine it’s because of the following section, wherein the speaker “play(s) marches for conquer’d and slain persons” (204). The earlier section detracts from the dead soldiers to whom Whitman became so close to. Within the text, the “victory marches” that Whitman mentions seem more for the capitols and seats of government and beings that caused the fractures that Whitman so desperately wanted to heal. And perhaps Whitman did not want his song characterized in the same vein as these individuals, particularly since “composers” and most “literary men” had no real idea what went on with the war; rather, they read the newspapers (some of which Whitman contributed to). Whitman’s evidence of the war is also shown later in this section; he “beat(s) and pound(s) for the dead” (205) rather than raise “triumphal drums” (44); it’s more of a dirge than a celebration here.
With experience, comes change-and Whitman certainly does that, revising his work as the nation continually revised itself. So, maybe I’m a little bit wrong. Perhaps it’s not so much that one edition is better than the other; perhaps it’s just that certain ones exemplify different aspects of his life-sometimes more efficiently than others.