“O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
“O Me! O Life!” was published in Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass in 1891.
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island and raised in New York, working as a journalist for a number of newspapers before leaving the state to travel the country. In the post-Civil War era of industrialization and modernization, the poet’s work celebrated humanity’s body and soul amidst a rapidly changing world. Influenced by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. The collection of twelve poems was then re-published several times throughout his life with new additions to the original, and the final edition published in 1892. Whitman died on March 26, 1892 in New Jersey.
In “O Me! O Life!” Walt Whitman questions his existence in a meaningless world of modernization and industrialization in the years following the Civil War. Written in free verse, the poem poses a question in the first stanza and answers the question in the second. Whitman employs the anaphora “Of” to begin five of the eight lines in the first stanza, linesthat ponder the aimlessness of the world and his being in relation to it. The stanza’s run-on, continuous phrase exposes Whitman’s frantic and anxious thoughts about questioning his existence in the face of a meaningless world. He laments the futility of life in the era of industrialization, of “trains of faithless, of cities filled with foolish” (2). He examines himself in a self-deprecating tone, labeling himself “foolish” and “faithless” to believe he influences the world around him. He “vainly [craves] the light” (5), craving a verification of existence and meaning in a “sordid” or dishonorable world where the struggle increases each day as he strives to reach an unattainable goal of verifying his existence in the face of his world’s dishonesty and barrenness. He finds himself “empty” in a hopeless cycle of dissatisfaction and frustration.
The second stanza answers the first stanza’s rambling question in three succinct lines. He reminds himself that life, “the powerful play” (11), carries on and that the world continues to spin, that he is alive and his mere physical existence matters. From that physical existence, he can influence the world and make his mark on society, to verify his being and to fill the empty void he feels. He celebrates the human condition and believes that physical existence is part of the fight against the futile world in which he lives. As he trudges through his self-doubts and a changing culture, Whitman remembers the continual nature of life and his role in it, deciding that he may “contribute a verse” (11) to establish his legacy and to verify his existence in a seemingly futile world by creating poetry.