” . . . and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
The key terms in this phrase, form and fact, are indicative of how Douglass distinguishes himself as a free man and an independent thinker. Form is simply the appearance, a description of qualifications, and indeed Douglass had those qualifications. He was born a slave, had the skin of a slave, dressed like a slave, and worked like a slave. But he didn’t not remain illiterate like a majority of slaves, and he learned here and there how to read and write. He witnessed and experienced some of the worst atrocities of slavery, and, though he worked for various masters, he abhorred his miserable state of slave-hood. He refused to accept a life of enslavement, and that is the distinction he’s making with the terms he chose. Although he had the form of a slave, he would not renounce his sense of self, and he was determined to never have the broken spirit of a slave. It is this small inward victory that encouraged him to travel north, find work for himself and not a master, and it helped him to shed the residue of fear and inferiority left on him from his enslavement. Not only was he in a free state, he was a free man in spirit and self-esteem.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
This “barbaric yawp” that Whitman mentions is defined by the internet as a a loud uncivilized cry, an utterance of sharpness, coarseness, and considerable volume. Whitman could be using this literally as well as figuratively; I do not doubt in the slightest that he ran around the woods shouting and whooping and howling to his heart’s content, just because he could. I also do not doubt that he most certainly did this in the nude more often than not. But all of Song of Myself isn’t comprised of words like “whoop!” and “wahoo!”, but line after line of colorful language and free and eloquent expression. People often say that they cannot find the words to express how they feel. Song of Myself is a fifty-six-page effort at expression, and Whitman comes pretty close to nailing down a feeling, or a multitude of feelings, that seems beyond the reach of English language. A barbaric yawp is free, honest, and uninhibited, as is the entirety of this poem. This is speech that comes straight from the soul, and the speaker is wild and giddy, as a boy in love. The speaker is rough and untamed, but has the gift of language. Song of Myself is an honest expression of love, desire, and endless joy, pouring out from the spirit of one man. This man allowed himself this vulnerability, and he allowed us a look into a fearless and mighty heart.
Reading through Whitman’s poem, I was waiting for the line that made it hard to keep reading. I assure you I was paying attention to the rest of it, but this line felt heavier, and it writhed around in my insides for a little while before I continued on with the poem. In terms of language, it is simple and blunt. Despite its linguistic simplicity, to me it is a profound and stentorian truth, and mantra that can ring in the mind for days. It is a mantra necessary for all that exist, those who feel the weight of existence in the burdens we drag around. This line to me is a truth that is as comforting as it is terrifying. Existence can be damn awful. There can be so much cruelty and tragedy, so many happenings that all seem so unfair. There is endless loss; loss of life, trust, love, faith, and the saddest of all, the loss of one’s feeling of purpose. This phrase is a reminder to the reader that each being is given the space they take up and that they deserve it. We are given this huge capacity to feel and to empathize and we don’t cherish nearly as much as we should. The universe is huge and we are one cell in a sea, but every cell of every thing is just as significant as the next. It all springs from the same earth, it is all nourishment, its all the manifestation of the same spirit. The theme that is present in this line as well as the rest of the poem is the celebration of life. Birth, death, friendship, love, and family are all due celebration. Our time here is brief, and everything we seen and learn and teach and experience are no less than magic. For that Whitman expresses endless gratitude, and he accepts his existence, he is humbled by it, he rejoices in it, and he accepts the existence of the lives buzzing around him, and he is humbled by them, and he rejoices in them. Whitman is a free man. He is not a prisoner of fear or anger or insecurity. He feels the universe vibrating in his cells. He found something that I can only imagine feels like when I was a child and I believed in magic. I read this line, and it was enough.