Gif of Walt Whitman
Gif of Walt Whitman

You’ve probably seen it said online, in quippy social media posts and on Twitter, particularly: “I contain multitudes.”

Not quite a meme, but ubiquitous enough to be recognisably part of online parlance in 2020, the phrase is deployed any time there might be a perceived contradiction in one’s tastes, thoughts, beliefs or behaviour.

“I contain multitudes”, goes one tweet about the pandemic, from July, “in that I don't like having to stay inside, but I also don't like going outside.”

“i know i contain multitudes”, tweeted comedian Aparna Nancherla in early 2019, “because i routinely experience anxiety yet spend the whole day emailing and texting ‘no worries’ to people like i just hit the waves with my board”.

You’ll find it combined with other memes, too – “im baby, but i am also grandma. i contain multitudes” goes one – and at least as far back as 2016, when Buzzfeed tweeted an illustration portraying the multitudinous nature of September.

Go back far enough – through not just the timeline but time itself – and you’ll find its first usage, in Walt Whitman’s seminal 1855 poem ‘Song of Myself’, from his collection Leaves of Grass:

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

Why has this one line of American poetry, written 165 years ago, survived into the digital age, and how much of Whitman's original sentiment are we really echoing?

The answer, you might say, contains multitudes.

 

   

Born in Long Island to a Quaker mother and alcoholic father of meagre means in 1819, Walt Whitman’s early life remains something of a mystery. What is known is that he dropped out of formal schooling at just 11 years old, learning to write and edit during stints as a teacher, and that by 22, he’d moved to Brooklyn to become a journalist.

He was a music critic and a flâneur who enjoyed strolls into Manhattan; there he wrote an unremarkable novella on the evils of drinking (which he later gave up), and was an avid reader.

Still a young nation, America at that time was between its revolution and its civil war; socially and politically, there was great cause for optimism. But the country’s literary reputation was yet to be established. Moby Dick, perhaps the defining American novel, was another three decades from publication, and English writer Sydney Smith had just brutalised American culture in his essay ‘Who reads an American book?’ in 1820, demanding: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

Undeterred, the headstrong Whitman had, by his late twenties, begun his most ambitious written work yet: an epic, untitled American poem that synthesised a long and contradictory list of his fascinations, including English romantic poetry, American poetry, philosophy, city life, nature, democracy, tradition, God and the human spirit. When it was finished, in 1855, Whitman took it to friends of his, who helped him self-publish it between commercial jobs.

Written in free verse – a form considered radical at the time, and an attempt on Whitman’s part to fuse the cadence of the Bible with the musicality of opera, which he’d come to love while covering music as a journalist – Leaves of Grass oozed hubris. Though his book bore no author’s name, it featured an engraved portrait of Whitman himself, the top of his shirt unbuttoned, facing the title page, and was deliberately small: “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air”, Whitman said. “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air”.

The book immediately captured the attention of contemporaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote Whitman in praise of it, as well as Henry David Thoreau and Alfred Tennyson. But sales were low, and critical reception was initially uneven. As Ezra Greenspan writes, in the introduction to Walt Whitman's Song of Myself: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition: “even most of those who saw merit in the work typically complained about the flagrant violation of aesthetic and social decorum”.

The book's opening poem, which posits an all-powerful “I”, was perceived as self-absorbed and even blasphemous; a friend of Emerson’s, to whom he had recommended the book, called Leaves of Grass “trashy, profane & obscene” and Whitman “a pretentious ass”. One particularly scathing review, in a New York literary newspaper prefiguring The New Yorker, suggested Whitman kill himself.

But while it may be easy to misconstrue lines like the 1855 poem’s opening:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

The poem has since been more universally understood as a paean to humanity: its "I" is a great, inclusive "I", and the goodness he finds in himself, as Whitman iterates in that latter line, belongs to the reader and all human beings. And while Whitman posited himself as “one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual”, he also wrote he was, “no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest”.

The poem's most famous line – the one keeping Whitman's spirit alive every day on Twitter – encapsulates this recognition of the beauty and complexity of humanity. Certainly, Whitman himself recognised the power of “I contain multitudes”; he spent his life editing and re-editing the poem. By the time it was last edited in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death, the poem, was given the title it bears today: ‘Song of Myself’.

By then, its ripple effect had started. Oscar Wilde found great value in the poem – not to mention in Whitman himself, who was believed to be gay; Wilde once allegedly claimed, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips” – and it inspired the modernists, too. D. H. Lawrence called him “the one pioneer”, while Ezra Pound referred to Whitman as “America’s poet”, writing: “His message is my message.”

It was a sentiment echoed again in post-war America, where Langston Hughes wrote, in 1946, “Singing the greatness of the individual, Whitman also sings the greatness of unity, cooperation, and understanding.” In 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ shone a light backwards on Whitman’s free verse form, and by the 1960s, the poem’s sensuality was aligning perfectly with the sexual revolution and hippie ideals of tolerance in lines like: “In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less, and the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.”

Wrote Greenspan in 2004, “the turn in the last criticism concerned with race, gender, sex and sexuality, transgression and globalism has led a new generation of critics to see ‘Song of Myself’ […] as a stunningly rich analogue to its concerns.”

Sixteen years later, ‘Song of Myself’ is resonating once again.

 

   

Not every social media post with the line “I contain multitudes” stems from a direct awareness of Whitman, but all of them, knowingly or not, contain something of his poem’s – and the poet’s – spirit, a call for the validation of human complexity and contradiction. It’s a timeless notion, but the line’s recent ubiquity hasn't come out of nowhere.

Perhaps it signals a turning point, or at least an evolution, in our relationship to our digital selves, a response to the online culture of the early 2010s, when the minute self-expression of social media seemed a cause for optimism.

A certain demographic of perennially online people spent that era building online personas that succinctly summed us up – in Goodreads profiles, Spotify playlists and Twitter bios – and called what we’d constructed “our brands”. We took Buzzfeed quizzes to help decide which Disney character we were, or whether we were British enough to know ‘these 19 ways to eat potatoes’.

Now, further into an increasingly digital age, something has changed. We’re fatigued with the one-dimensional brands we established; we can be cheesy chips, or mash, or roast potatoes, depending on the day.

Our brands have become prisons; we established masks, and when they slip, when our multitudes peek out, we yearn still to be accepted, to be seen. “I contain multitudes” is a cry for help, its subtext: “I am not just faves and retweets, not just memes and irreverence; I am human!”

“I contain multitudes” has, at the time of writing, been quoted on Twitter dozens of times in just the last few hours. We are as human, as “disorderly, fleshly, and sensual” as Whitman saw us in 1855, still singing “trashy, profane & obscene” songs of ourselves.

But then, it’s probably more nuanced than that, too. As one particularly astute tweet put it: “can’t tell if i contain multitudes or if i’m just full of shit”.

What did you think of this piece? Let us know by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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