This poem was one of the twenty new poems in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. Like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which appeared at the same time, it celebrates a communion and a democracy based on place. Here Whitman sets up the out-of-doors as a utopian, democratic space, in which all men can come together.
This poem shows more structure than many of Whitman’s works. From the cry of “Allons!” (Let’s go!) that opens many of the stanzas, to the lists and repeated phrases (the “efflux of the soul,” the “fluid and repeating character”) this poem truly does have the character of a song: musical and rhythmic, while at the same time completely unconventional.
In this poem Whitman celebrates the out-of-doors, and the road in particular, as a space where men can come together in a meaningful way, where status and social markers matter less. A road is something everyone uses, whether they are rich or poor, and it forces all levels of people to associate with one another. The road, furthermore, signifies mobility: one can take the road to somewhere new, and in America that means somewhere one can start over. For Whitman, too, the road is a space for gathering the material for poetry. As he travels along it, he sees a variety of people and places, and hears a plethora of stories. He argues against staying in one place for too long, although the hospitality may be a lure, for only the tests of the open road will do.
By contrast, indoor spaces are fixed and so stultifying as to be almost toxic. “You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house,” he commands. Indoors is a place of “secret silent loathing and despair,” where death always lurks and people’s bones are almost visible as signs of their mortality and innate debasement. True companionship is not possible in this indoor world, for people, bound by “customs,” live too close together and knowledge of one another is a liability rather than a linkage of love.
This is a call to arms, an exhortation to those who are strong enough to join Whitman on the road. While for him the journey is the source of poetry, he sees it as something larger, as a way of life. The poetry is secondary. As he says, “I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, / We convince by our presence.” What is at stake is therefore more fundamental and more universal than literature. The road is a symbol of a democratic and vital society that just happens to make for good poetry.