a nesting doll of marks and words

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Yes, these are very famous lines. They’ve been quoted in all manner of essays, from scientific and philosophical journals, to cultural and literary criticism. I love the parentheses. Like two firmly cupped hands, they contain the very words that speak of containment. It does what it says. A Russian nesting doll linguistically rendered. I love, too, the speed and efficiency of the second line. With only one comma, it’s like a zip line, which, in a blur, whisks you from a half-hearted apology to a devil-may-care audacity. A lot happens in that line.

At any rate.

You know these words come from Whitman and probably even know that they come from Song of Myself. But do you know the contradiction he’s referring to? I don’t, that’s for sure.

Here’s section 51 of Song of Myself.

The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied
them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the
door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through
with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already
too late?

Talk amongst yourselves. And hopefully you’ll scratch my itch.

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7 Responses to a nesting doll of marks and words

  1. Fiona Bell says:

    Ginsberg seemed to understand it as the inability for the poet to be truly open, honest and naked to the world.

  2. Fernando Pessoa, then, understood the passage quite differently than Ginsberg. “I contain multitudes” – Pessoa took it entirely literally.

    Earlier Whitman has declared his lack of interest on God or Death. Who, then, is the listener up there? The spotted hawk, perhaps, who leads the next stanza, who “complains of my gab” – that bit is hilarious.

    The gap between snuffing the sidle and the contradiction continues to mystify me. I’m tempted to think that the speaker changes. Except “I” and “myself” are already distinct here, right?

    • Yes, gaps. Little leaps, sometimes big ones. I like the idea of the spotted hawk as the listener up there, but it seems to be preceded by one of those pesky gaps. Hence, the feeling of mystification that I share with you, too.

  3. My first thought was God – what else – but wondered about Whitman’s beliefs as I really only know Whitman vaguely (being an Aussie who studied m ore English than American poetry). So, I’m going out on a limb – I like poetry but it does make the brain hurt, and I love your honesty in asking for meanings! Is “the listener” his conscience/his superego? “Talk honestly, noone else hears you…” I don’t know the rest of the poem though and don’t have time to get it now. It’s Sat morning and we’re off to mundane things like grocery shopping.

  4. Of all the mundane things that Whiman glorifies, I don’t believe he ever glorifies grocery shopping – he thanks you, I’m sure, for rounding out his account! Anyhow, at the moment, my mind is snagging on the transition from “listener up there” to “talk honestly.” It’s a transition from passivity to activity. Perhaps therein lies the “contradiction.”

  5. He probably didn’t have to do it!!

    Yes … contradiction or conflict even?

    Is it God? Is he nearing death? Is that the door-slab he is approaching?

  6. […] Kevin at Interpolations reads a famous Whitman line in context. […]

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