Literature

A Short Analysis of Walt Whitman’s ‘O Me! O Life!’

One of the shortest of Walt Whitman’s great poems, ‘O Me! O Life!’ was featured in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams’s character recites it to his class. ‘O Me! O Life!’ contains many of the features of Walt Whitman’s greatest poetry: the free verse rhythm, the alternation between long and short lines, the rhetorical (or not-so-rhetorical?) questions, the focus on the self. Before we offer a fuller analysis of the poem, here’s a reminder of ‘O Me! O Life!’.

O Me! O Life!

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?

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

In summary, ‘O Me! O Life!’ sees Whitman despairing about life, but also, by association, about himself. Whitman was among the most generous-spirited poets of the nineteenth century, and his work shows a refusal to see himself as superior to, or separate from, the world around him. ‘O Me! O Life!’ is an excellent (short) demonstration of this abundance of self-awareness.

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?)

In his pioneeringly exuberant and Psalmic free-verse style, Whitman begins by lamenting the various causes for perplexity that he has: the many faithless people (both those without a faith in something, and those who one cannot have faith in, i.e. the unfaithful, liars and cheats?), the cities full of foolish people, and even himself – he perplexes and worries himself because he is always chastising himself for being one of the foolish and faithless, and indeed, one of the worst offenders…

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,

More attention to the crowd here, the city filled with people, just going through their daily routine (‘plodding’) and low, immoral, and dirty lives they lead (‘sordid’). Life, in summary, is a vain struggle.

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?

Is Whitman alluding to retirement in his reference to ‘the empty and useless years of the rest’ – i.e. the ‘rest’ or remainder of one’s life when one has left the bustling crowds, and the ‘plodding’ world of work? Of course, retirement is also a ‘rest’ of another sort. But no: ‘rest’ predominantly refers to the ‘rest’ of the population – those who don’t work and aren’t part of the crowd, or even perhaps, part of a functioning society.

 Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Whitman ends ‘O Me! O Life!’ with a defiant and jubilant answer: the worth of life lies precisely in life: in the fact that we are here, alive, and have the chance to contribute in some small way to the sum of human endeavour and happiness. For Whitman, he can contribute a ‘verse’ to the world, but ‘verse’ here can be taken as a metaphor for any small contribution made to the world: a painting, a piece of music, being a good teacher of young minds, helping others.

If you enjoyed this analysis of ‘O Me! O Life!’, we recommend Whitman’s hymn to the people of America.

8 Comments

  1. I want to read “Paradise Lost” by Milton… haha I am not sure. Sorry if I am wrong

  2. Pingback: 10 of the Best Walt Whitman Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

  3. Ah! the questioning ,,,,,

  4. Pingback: ‘O Me! O Life!’: A Poem by Walt Whitman | The Secret Diary of J. Alfred Prufrock

  5. Wow, I just watched that movie last night!

  6. Pingback: ‘O Me! O Life!’: Taking My Own Advice – Communication Meditations

  7. Always makes me think of Dead Poets Society, as O Captain My Captain does.

  8. We are in the game and should play with gusto!