Natalie SturzaJanuary 17, 2018 – 8S”O Me! O Life!”In this poem, Walt Whitman entertains one of humankind’s most complex and debated questions: what is the point of life? The first stanza of the poem asks the question while the second stanza answers it.
He writes in his typical freeverse style with the use of anaphora. He uses his own perspective to ponder the meaning of life and by the end has given the reader an insight into his own philosophy.In the first stanza of “O Me! O Life!”, Whitman asks the question and then paints a negative picture of life and the human condition. The first stanza is comprised of seven lines in his traditional syntax with informal freeverse with anaphora. When Whitman says, “O Me!” he questions himself and his existence. “O Life!” asks why life can be so cruel. Diving deeper into this feeling of depression and hopelessness, Whitman expresses how self-centered and untrusting humans are, including himself. Cleverly, he writes, “endless trains of the faithless”, saying that humans will betray themselves or each other at some point in life.
Or simply, they will do so at the next station of life. “Cities fill’d with the foolish” is judgemental, grouping everyone together, and saying that no matter their upbringing or their moral code, they are still foolish. His views of human nature are quite negative. Later, in the next line, “for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless”, he criticizes himself for being no better than everyone else. He certainly does not view himself as better than others. He is just another foolish and flawed human.
In the following line, he explains how there are many who “vainly crave the light” or simply want something better than what they already have. This further implies his philosophy that humans care only for themselves and are often corrupted by greed. Their search for a better future will be fruitless and in vain. He refers to the “poor results of all”, highlighting that life may not go according to plans and can often have unwanted results. The problem may be that humans do not learn from their mistakes and still continue to try in vain.Next, I learned that sordid means filthy and wretched, and I inferred that “of all the plodding and sordid crowds” highlights the pain of human destiny and the struggles of life. When Whitman says “empty and useless years”, he implies that people often waste the limited time they have.
The next line reinforces his idea that he is stuck among these people and wastes just as many “useless years” as them, in hope of something he will never reach. The final line of this stanza is among the most important. He repeats his question O Me! and questions the misery he faces. Then, he asks for the good and starts looking for the positivity in life.
This is the turning point in the poem as he comes to his own realization.The second and final stanza of the poem “O Me! O Life!” is three lines long and provides a poetic answer that reminds us of our duty and opportunities. Once Whitman realizes the answer is in his grasp, he expands upon it by explaining that life “exists” and goes on. He highlights that everyone is their own person with their own “identity” and has agency. Agency asks who is in control and leading the way. Whitman says that everyone can lead their own way and create their own legacy. He concludes by inviting others to “contribute a verse”. He challenges everyone to contribute to life and the world.
In his case, he can complete this mission by contributing a verse, or being a poet. “Verse” can also be interpreted in a broader way and could be any positive contribution someone makes. Throughout the poem, Whitman relies on anaphora by using the word “Of” at the beginning of most of the lines in the first stanza and “That” in the second stanza. This literary device engages the reader into his train of thought. Whitman also repeats the title, and question, of his poem in the first line for emphasis. In the first stanza, most of the pronouns are in the first person, including me, myself, and I. The point of view is clearly Whitman’s, as he asks the question and gives his own observations and opinions. The pronouns switch to you in the second stanza, as the author challenges us to live, take charge, and have agency.
Words with negative connotation are weaved through the first stanza, such as “endless”, “faithless”, “foolish”, “reproaching”, “mean”, “struggle”, “poor”, “plodding”, “sordid”, “empty”, and “useless”. The tone switches in the second stanza with “exists”, “identity”, “powerful” and “contribute”. There is a clear contrast between both stanzas. Although Whitman’s first stanza reeks of negativity, he ends the poem positively by telling us that we should be grateful for what we have and that we have agency. He reminds us that the purpose of life is to live.
He combats his own despair and depression by giving us an answer to look up to.