Song of the Open Road is the classic poem for anyone about to embark on a journey.
And rightfully so.
Written over 160 years ago, the poem still resonates with modern Americans.
When Whitman wrote the poem, the United States was on the cusp of industrializing on a massive scale. The (perceived) openness and flexibility of the rural society romanticized by Thoreau and Emerson were ending.
The yearning to leave a more regimented life and to strike out along a limitless landscape is embedded within the American mythos.
There is something compelling about the journey letting us breaking free of the day to day confines we have put ourselves in.
Thoughts that seem to percolate often in other bedrocks of American literature:
I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.
We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”…
Song of the Open Road has lines that are part of the American canon for any traveler. With the first two stanzas perhaps being the most famous lines of all:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
Volvo made a memorable and rather well-done in my opinion, commercial using various lines from this poem.
Song of the Open Road is a poem that is deeply felt by many. Capturing the joy, excitement, and thoughts that come with an impending journey.
Appropriately enough a statue of Walt Whitman is on the Appalachian Trail. Greeting travelers as they follow a famous long brown path on their journeys.
The poem has inspired us well into modern times, and perhaps beyond, for dreaming.
But there are four lines in the first stanza, I think, are glossed over by many:
Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.
Many of us go the journey to escape what is happening in our lives. At least in part.
Myself included, I must admit.
Reasons could include a relationship ended, or an unsatisfying career, a desire for wanderlust, or perhaps just plain boredom.
The open road promises freedom and delights. A chance to reinvent ourselves. And explore what is deeply satisfying in our lives.
But when we hit the open road, we take with us what lead us to make the journey in the first place. For good or ill.
Unless we address and are honest about what made us take that journey initially, those burdens will always be with us. And they won’t leave when the journey is over.
The journey is a time to examine why we are on the open road. What compels us to have these feelings of leaving a life behind. And perhaps to start a new one.
But if there is no examination of the life just led, a change, or perhaps an acceptance of that life, we will continue to long for the open road. For an escape.
Not only for the journey itself or a sense of wanderlust. But as a chance to leave behind what was not satisfying yet again. A boom/bust cycle that is not sustainable.
Those burdens will always be carried. And never let go.
Hooray, another Whitman fan! Thank you for the insightful analysis of the opening of a classic American poem. I’ve been reading about Whitman in relation to the Civil War, (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), but I need to go back to his earlier poems like this one. It’s so true that we take our “old delicious burdens” (not always so delicious, IMHO) with us! Sometimes, even if we can’t leave them behind, the journey helps us put them in perspective. Whitman was uniquely American, unlike most 19th century American poets. Nursing wounded and diseased soldiers (disease killed more… Read more »
One of my favorite poems, ever ( and I’ve been around awhile…). I love your musings and insightful comments about journeying using Whitman as a touchstone. I’ve always taken note of those four unsung ( no pun intended ) lines– you carry your light and heavy burdens with you wherever you go. How fortunate for us all that Whitman did not romanticize travel as pure escapism.
Thanks, too, grannyhiker for your lovely analysis.
Emerson expressed the same sentiment in “Self-Reliance”: “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. We owe to our first journeys the discovery that place is nothing. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me in the stern Fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My… Read more »
Ah! But Emerson and Thoreau were content in their domains. While Whitman cautioned about our burdens, he ultimately championed traveling and championed the freedom.