O me! O 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 originally published in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem explores the meaning of life through idyllic philosophy and noting the importance of the spiritual and moral.
Written in two stanzas of inconsistent length, with no rhyme scheme or strict structure, “O Me! O Life!” is a seven-line free verse poem. The title and the first line of the poem question the speaker’s purpose: contending with the fact that life is cruel. The poem explores the feelings associated with modernization and industrialization in the years following the Civil War, and includes several images of industrialization, speaking of “trains of the faithless,” “cities fill’d with foolishness,” and “plodding and sordid crowds.” Through the imagery of “sordid crowds,” Whitman also points out the universality of struggling to find the purpose in life. He also captures the elusiveness of the meaning of life, as well as the desperation to find it.
Whitman anaphoric pattern of proposing his laments beginning with the word “of.” He references the questions “recurring” in the first and last line of the first stanza. This repetition enforces the cyclical nature of his existential questions. The poem struggles with the “recurring” questions of existence and becomes self-deprecating as the speaker breaks out of the anaphoric structure to ask, if not him, then who is the most faithless and foolish, mirroring his earlier descriptions of the equally lost and searching people around him.
The tone and structure shift with the second stanza with the word, “answer,” italicized in the center of the poem. Whitman engages the reader by changing the visual appearance of the poem and shifting in tone. He combats the elusive question of the meaning of life by offering an answer: that the meaning of life is to live. Whitman reaffirms the reader’s existence and urges her to explore her own existence and identities in the concluding lines of this poem: “That you are here––that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” This open-ended suggestion for life allows for negative capability in the exploration of the meaning of life.
“O Me! O Life!” poses the question of the meaning of life as something that is universally confusing and elusive; and in the final metaphor, Whitman offers a democratic explanation rather than a solution, allowing the mystifying meaning of life to be equally as perplexing to people from all walks of life.
Bibliography and Further Reading David S. Reynolds. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (2005); “Poem of the Week: ‘O Me! O Life!’ by Walt Whitman.” Shenandoah Literary; “O Me! O Life!” Poetry Foundation.
Credits Composed by Mariah Palmer, Fall 2018. Reading by Mariah Palmer