Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs. Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all. That can be very wearing on the human spirit.
In such circumstances we begin to notice all that is bad or amiss, not only in the people around us but in ourselves. It all begins to seem a bit overwhelming. Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves. Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self (O me!) and with existence in general (O life!) — thus its title, O Me! O Life!
I will discuss it in parts:
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?)
Whitman not only ponders but deeply feels the questions associated with one’s being and with the life of which one is a part, the great questions that keep recurring. He thinks of the masses of people around him, the “endless trains of the faithless,” meaning the long lines of people who betray our hopes and expectations of them. He thinks of the cities full of foolish people (they existed then, they exist now), and he considers how he is constantly reproaching himself for not living up to his own notions of what he should be and how he should act in the world. He sees all the other foolish, faithless, fallible human beings, and he considers himself no better, no less foolish and faithless than they.
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;
He thinks of how our eyes — both physical and spiritual — crave “vainly” (in vain) for light that will brighten our darkened lives and enable us to somehow see some meaning in it all, some redeeming significance. He thinks of the “objects mean,” which we may take not only as the craving of humans for things that do not last and do not satisfy, but also as the unworthy objects (objectives) of our striving, goals that do not seem ultimately worth our toil to achieve them.
He considers the “struggle ever renewed,” of our constant efforts and labors to gain this or that thing, this or that position in the world, or merely to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over our heads. And he ponders the “poor results of all,” how things just do not seem to turn out the way we would like, how even the most valued of prizes seem to lose their glitter once they are achieved. And he thinks of the “plodding and sordid” crowds he sees all around him — the people caught in the rat-race of life, the people who have made it by standing on the backs of others, the many more who have failed in one way or another or feel they have failed, those who have not made it and have given in to numbness of spirit or dismal despair.
He thinks of the “empty and useless years” people spend in their often vain pursuit of this or that goal, of their frustration in not achieving it; of the wasted years of lives seemingly without achievement or purpose or point. And he counts himself among them, feels a part of them, “with the rest me intertwined.”
All of this brings up the great recurring questions. What is it all about? What is my place? Do I have one?
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
The question comes to us over and over again: in the midst of all the striving and disappointments and sordidness and meanness of life, what good is there in it all, of what use is it for the poet himself to exist, what point is there?
Whitman gives us and himself a simple answer:
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
He tells us that existence itself is the reason for being — that life exists is in itself enough, and that in this life we have identity — we are who we are. Among all these masses there is one named Walt Whitman, and he is an actor in the great play that is life, that vast, ongoing poem that is life; and each human, like Whitman, will contribute a verse to it. Every individual life, in whatever direction it goes, whether viewed as success or failure by others or by one’s self, is a verse in that poem of multitudes. That we all play our parts and contribute our lines, Whitman tells us, is enough.
I always remember a ’60s cartoon in which a supposed sage is asked, “What is the answer to the secret of the universe?” And the reply is, “The answer to the secret of the universe is not to ask stupid questions.”