There is a long-standing tradition in literary criticism that one should never assume that the voice something is written in is inherently the voice of the author or poet. That the writer always creates a persona through which he or she writes his or her work and although the speaker may claim that he and the poet are one in the same, this is almost never completely the case. In reading Leaves of Grass then, the question arises of who is the speaker? Certainly, the speaker claims that he is Whitman himself but some of the language leads to something more expansive then the just the man. Indeed the ‘I’ and ‘you’ in the text are nothing more than constructs as Whitman is not, at this moment, hovering over my shoulder, whispering poetry in my ear as I type at my computer. Sadly, my muses tend not to be nearly as famous as him.
I propose then, that the Whitman the reader interacts with in the text of Leaves of Grass is a speaker that is best defined as “Whitman-as-Prophet”. This is working off of an inherent dichotomy set up in any bit of literature that intends to bring an audience, the “you” of the poem, any great revelation. The first side of this dichotomy is that of the witness. The ‘poet-as-witness’ comes to some epiphany and wishes to show it to his audience by way of taking them on the journey to where they got this information, explaining every step and leading the now fellow journeyer to the same revelation. Opposite this is the ‘poet-as-prophet’. The prophet is so full of his wonderful new information that the process of how he or she found it no longer matters, what matters is what they have seen, what they know, and now the want to tell you about it. The journey does not matter, only the enlightenment.
It is within this ‘Poet-as-prophet’ voice that Leaves of Grass gets it’s insane full-out charge energy. The Whitman speaker has seen everything and knows not his place within all of it, but has some ideas and all this new insight is just too massive to hold inside any longer. This is the type of speaker where one half expects him to jump out of his bathtub, scream ‘Eureka’ and run around town naked because his discoveries are just that big. Indeed it takes twenty pages of poetry, not even counting the introduction for him to list his name. Even the title page of the original version didn’t have a name, just an image and it is not the image of the stern poet but rather one more akin to a voice of one crying in the wilderness, coming down from the mountains reeking of locusts and honey, and just daring the reader with his glance to call him out on it. Then after the Speaker-Whitman gives his name and critique on himself, he follows it with “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” which, in a reading of the voice as prophetic is a shout to deny the definition on the poet of the name he has just provided. As doors enclose, so does, in the case the name, and Whitman cannot be the prophet he is trying to be without the inherent separation into this prophetic voice.