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Week 2: Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
. . . .
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
- from Song of Myself
Every time I shake mud off my boots I think of Walt Whitman. He is the soil of America. A
critic named Sandra Gilbert called him “the father of American poetry.” His legacy is immense
and crosses almost all boundaries. The first book on Whitman was called The Good Grey Poet
with reference to his grey beard that made him look like father time. He preferred to publish his
books with an image of himself and no name on the cover. He was a healer in the American Civil
War who went around to wounded and dying soldiers reading them the Bible and his poetry. He
was a revolutionary who did not use many traditional rhymes or write in tight stanzas. His long,
unruly lines led the British to reject him as “an American roughneck” who took a hundred lines
to say what Shakespeare could say in ten. Expansionism in his poetry with its catalogues of
information on every subject matched his expansionist politics of the American 19th century – he
considered Mexico and Canada to be part of America. He wrote poems for President Lincoln
(who signed the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery in 1864 near the end of the Civil
War) like “O Captain! My Captain,” which American schoolchildren are told to memorize. He
has bridges, schools and statues, even a cliff in Ontario’s Bon Echo park named after him. And
yet The Good Grey Poet more recently became known as The Good Gay Poet, for he struggled
with whether to hide or reveal his homosexuality in his lifetime. He loves everybody; this is
evident in Song of Myself, but the erotic passages with male lovers are more intense and
convincing – he finds God through gay sex in one of them. So Whitman is a hero in the gay
community as well as in the patriotic heartland of the USA. If you would like to see a wellrounded hour-long documentary on his life and poetry, try this from Voices and Visions (PBS):
In terms of our course, Whitman may be the most healthy example of transforming cultural trash
into fertile compost (near the end of the course A.R. Ammons excels, but Whitman broke the
ground). In the coming weeks we will read about industrial and wartime hells, and then midcourse there’s some brutal mid-20th century racism, so take some time to read and remember
Whitman’s ecology, which is surprising in a poet from the industrial 19th century.
Begin with “I Sing the Body Electric.” The title alone embodies Whitman’s foundations – the
body’s electricity, the sensual and nervous impulses running through every organ are brought
into poetry here, contradicting Victorian repression. The end of the poem, its last canto or
section, is a catalogue of adored and indiscriminate body parts. In the beginning of the poem, we
can become accustomed to Whitman’s signature style. It is one of reciprocity:
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Notice how, after the first line, the first half of every line is answered by the second half of the
line. Poets after Whitman in the 20th century like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson call this
technique “the line as breath.” Exhale, inhale. Expend energy and get it back. Put yourself out to
others and they come back to you. This poetic style of reciprocity is one that Whitman developed
from listening to the repetitions of church sermons from the Bible, though Whitman evolves a
unique holiness as the poem continues:
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
Traditional Christian division of body and soul collapses in the soulful body. Whitman does not
fully reject Christianity, but he brings it down to earth. He was influenced by Ralph Waldo
Emerson (who descended from eight generations of Unitarian Ministers) and the
Transcendentalists, who brought spirituality to earth: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head
bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become
a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate
through me; I am part or parcel of God.” After Whitman, a poet of the next generation whom we
will study, Wallace Stevens wrote “God is in me or not at all” (“Adagia”). Whitman was
likewise almost indifferent to the notion of salvation in the afterlife. He believed he’d return in
other forms – dirt, memories, perhaps an animal as in reincarnation.
Human bodies were his sacred ground as evident in the rest of “I Sing the Body Electric,” as
canto 6 celebrates sexual reciprocity:
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
. . . .
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
As loving as Whitman is, he is still from the 19th century. Feminists have criticized his reduction
of females to childbearing creative sources. See “Unfolding out of the Folds” for its holy
reduction to genitalia. Whitman also lived through slavery and as a northern unionist and
abolitionist, he supported Lincoln’s progress. Still, he didn’t discriminate or choose between the
slave and auctioneer:
A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)
This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?
(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the
Whitman breaks down racial discriminations through universal humanity, and by piercing
through the elitist superiority inherent to racism: “(Do you think they are not there because they
are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)” Whitman also counters popular notions of
racial purity in his century: “How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his
offspring through the centuries?”
“Song of Myself” is a long, ever-evolving poem with many editions, just like the book Leaves of
Grass in which it’s found. From the Poetry Foundation site, we are reading the 1892 edition.
You can focus on cantos 1-6, 10, 11, 13, 46-52. “Song of Myself” sounds like an egotistical title,
until we read the first three lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Here we see the same reciprocal style – in identity, song, knowledge, physical body and soul:
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Health is crucial to Whitman. His father was a farmer and his mentor, Emerson, argued in “The
American Scholar” that vitality and success depended on being a Man Thinking and Man Acting.
Physical and mental action was essential to Emerson in order to combat the sluggish intellect
evident in those who worked mechanically on the industrial assembly line. Emerson and
Whitman rallied against man as machine, including those who followed schools of thought:
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
It comes back to sex in canto 3:
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
In singing himself Whitman is equally adept at singing others. His ethical and sexual reach
sometimes requires imagination beyond the confines of the experiential body, as in this
surprising and fantastical canto:
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who
seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
Here the poet’s persona cross-dresses as the female observer. The twenty-ninth bather transcends
the physical interiority of her house in a fantasy caress.
Cantos 46-52 continue the transcendental trajectory as Whitman contemplates mortality while
ensuring that readers will continue to find him:
I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
Notice the image of the poet “hooking you round the waist” so that he can point to what he wants
you to see. He is a guide so that the reader can imagine the sights within his or her own vision.
Wallace Stevens would later call this imagination “the necessary angel of reality” (The
Necessary Angel). Reality was explored most beautifully in canto 6, “What is the grass?” It
might symbolize “green stuff,” or “the flag of my disposition,” or “the uncut hair of graves.”
These multiple connotations indicate that Whitman is more than a physical poet; his metaphysics
include consideration about language’s various symbolism. In the twentieth century, French
theorists developed the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs. Our sign-making system
called language is largely an arbitrary one. It cannot always capture what Stevens calls “the thing
itself” that we want to describe. Whitman is onto this back in the 19th century:
There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me.
Wrench’d and sweaty—calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep—I sleep long.
I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.
Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness.
We can call “it” lots of things; the word chosen is called in semiotic theory “the signifier”
(Ferdinand de Saussure). Whitman settles on “Happiness” as the signifier for this somewhat
vague determination of life from “Outlines!” Some might say that “the signified” (main idea) the
poet approaches is “God,” whom he had discussed like a preacher in previous stanzas. Whitman
prefers to leave the possibilities of fate open in increasingly abstract language:
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Poetry Foundation Source: Leaves of Grass (final "Death-Bed" edition, 1891-2) (David McKay,
If you like Whitman and want to read more, I recommend his poem about being born into poetry
on a beach at the edge of the sea – “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”