The central theme that I want students to take away from this lesson is what word choice does Whitman use to present a positive outlook on life. I also want them to consider how his poem reflects the Transcendentalist view of the afterlife. My focus is to present one theme in this lesson and then scaffold to include additional themes in Whitman's writing.
Before reading the excerpt from "Song of Myself," I like to give students some background on Walt Whitman and focus on his style of poetry. We talk about diction and extracting connotations from words, which of course is central to how the Common Core addresses vocabulary. However, in a poetical sense, diction is very important in understanding Whitman. The notes will hopefully shed some insight into his style of writing. Lastly, I like to talk about the Transcendentalists' view of the afterlife. The work of Ralph Waldo Emerson pretty much concludes that there is no afterlife. He believed that the security and hope of seeing loved ones again in heaven is not possible. However, he did believe that this hope could be achieved on earth. Transcendentalists and Whitman agree that once a person is born into this earth, he or she never leaves. His or her form just changes.
This excerpt from "Song of Myself" ushers forth the hope and promise that a life on earth is never erased or extinguished; its form is merely changed. Whitman's poem is a great example of how the Transcendentalists view the "afterlife,"or specifically, how they view our eternity here on earth.
After we read the poem once, I play the YouTube clip, which is from the Favorite Poem Project.
When we have looked at the poem twice, I ask students to underline lines in the poem that support the Transcendentalist view of death and the afterlife. I also ask, "How is the poem a positive portrayal of death? Which words indicate a positive tone? I will then solicit the class to begin a discussion on these topics.
Essentially, the last four stanzas in the poem mirror the Transcendentalist's view of the after-life. In these stanzas, Whitman says, "I bequeath myself to the dirt," "I should be good health to you and filter and fiber your blood," and "Missing me one place search another." All these quotes corroborate the Transcendental belief that once we are born onto earth, we never leave. Our form changes and our bodies then help create new life.
This excerpt is from An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology, edited by Robert Pinsky. W,W, Norton and Company, 2004.
For the rest of the block, I ask students to read the article, " Whitman: America Still Needs his Poetry." This is an accompanying resource. The URL is below. The purpose of this activity is to demonstrate to students how Whitman believed his poetry could cure the ills of society. The article also shows the reality of life in the nineteenth century. Whitman was a Romantic who saw life the way it should be. His version of life views things through rose colored glass. This perception at least comes through in the article.