Whitman's grand poem is, in its way, an American epic. Beginning in medias res -- in the middle of the poet's life -- it loosely follows a quest pattern. 'Missing me one place search another,' he tells his reader, 'I stop somewhere waiting for you. ' In its catalogues of American life and its constant search for the boundaries of the self 'Song of Myself' has much in common with classical epic.
This epic sense of purpose, though, is coupled with an almost Keatsian valorization of repose and passive perception. Since for Whitman the birthplace of poetry is in the self, the best way to learn about poetry is to relax and watch the workings of one's own mind. While 'Song of Myself' is crammed with significant detail, there are three key episodes that must be examined. The first of these is found in the sixth section of the poem. A child asks the narrator 'What is the grass?' and the narrator is forced to explore his own use of symbolism and his inability to break things down to essential principles. The bunches of grass in the child's hands become a symbol of the regeneration in nature.
But they also signify a common material that links disparate people all over the United States together: grass, the ultimate symbol of democracy, grows everywhere. In the wake of the Civil War the grass reminds Whitman of graves: grass feeds on the bodies of the dead. Everyone must die eventually, and so the natural roots of democracy are therefore in mortality, whether due to natural causes or to the bloodshed of internecine warfare. While Whitman normally revels in this kind of symbolic indeterminacy, here it troubles him a bit. 'I wish I could translate the hints,' he says, suggesting that the boundary between encompassing everything and saying nothing is easily crossed.