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Walt Whitman’s poetry contains many basic elements that come together to characterize his own stance in 19th century social and political thought. An analysis of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” specifically highlight Whitman’s concern with the human body. Through these poems, the human body is continually glorified and eroticized by Whitman. However, Whitman’s focus on the body runs deeper than a physical infatuation, as these poems also establish the body’s connection to one’s soul.
Another major characteristic in Whitman’s concern with the human body in these poems is his ability to universalize the human image, bringing the reader and poet into a single entity. This paper seeks to demonstrate how Whitman’s union of these highly connective representations of the human body allow readers a circuit to understanding Whitman’s own response to the social and political separatism that characterized 19th century thought. Writing in an era of radical inequality, Whitman’s characterization of the body in these poems serves to promote a larger message of social and racial equality in a time period that worked to largely suppress both.
Upon initial analysis of Whitman’s focus on the human body in “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” explicit descriptions of eroticism run prevalent. These poems place a large emphasis the juxtaposition of sensual yet sacred descriptions of human anatomy and sexual unions. I argue, however, that these striking images work to serve a larger purpose in Whitman’s message of a human unity and commonality that his poetry represents. For example, Whitman establishes a profound love and respect for the human body “I Sing the Body Electric,” stating, “[The body] of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect” (I Sing the Body Electric 10). This sentiment is also expressed in “Song of Myself,” as Whitman again uses sensuous terms to describe a sense of perfection that is found in every human body.
For example, he describes a slave in one scene, stating, “His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hip band, / His glance is calm and commanding… / The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of his / polish’d and perfect limbs” (“Song of Myself 224-229). Descriptions such of this fill Whitman’s poems and it is clear that he puts a profound respect and admiration for the human form—regardless of sex or race. William White’s critical essay, “Walt Whitman’s erotic poetry: New as foam and old as the rock” agrees with this argument as he refers to to “Whitman’s cosmic view of love as a force which permeates all living things, which lends dignity and glory to the human body, and which unabashedly proclaims sex and procreation as the true Spring of the life-cycle” (White 654).
Another example of Whitman’s continued emphasis on the glorified image of the human body occurs in “I Sing the Body Electric” in the lines
The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred; /
No matter who it is, it is sacred; /
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf? /
Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you; /
Each has his or her place in the procession. /
(All is a procession; /
The universe is a procession, with measured and beautiful motion) /
(“I Sing the Body Electric” 83-89).
By Whitman’s focus on the body forming what he frequently describes as a sacred entity, he again draws the focus to a commonality that he claims is shared by all of human-kind by forcing readers to see the “larger picture:” a universe that supersedes physical distinctions. “Do you not see that these [bodies] are exactly the same to all, in all nations and times, all over / the Earth? / If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred” (“I Sing the Body Electric 123-125), Whitman later adds. This focus on an identical sacredness found within each individual supports an analysis that shows that a universality of all human beings exists outside of temporary physical restrictions, which are essentially meaningless in Whitman’s view of the universe.
In addition, Whitman’s erotic undertones in his poems focus on a wide range of male, and female manifestations of love. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” for example, readers can find an explicit description of a male and female involved in a sexual act as the speaker states,
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 juice; /
Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn;/
This is the nucleus—after the child is born of women, the man is born of woman; /
This is the bath of birth—this is the merge of small and large, and the outlet again /
(“I Sing the Body Electric” lines 58-65).
Lines such as these leave readers little question as to the substance that the speaker describes, yet they also operate on a deeper level than physical infatuation. It is Whitman’s focus on the necessity of sexual unions for the continuance of life that gives his erotic descriptions depth and a greater cause. “It is really a peculiar form of eroticism which begins with the miracle of all life, especially the human body, and which conceives of all forms of love as existing and expanding as the primal life force and as an indicator of the infinite potential of the democratic ideal and the harmonious evolution of the universe toward ever-increasing greatness,” (White 651) adds White. Thus, a close look at Whitman’s writing demonstrates that the insertion of erotic scenes and description were not simply for the sake of themselves, but a mere piece to a larger definition of “love” that his writing sought to establish.
By interpreting Whitman’s physical representation of sexual acts as the promotion of a higher ideal, readers can also understand the significance of the numerous homosexual descriptions that are found within his poetry. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” for example, readers are exposed to a scene in which “two lusty apprentice-boys” engage in an act of homosexuality. The speaker states,
The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance, /
The upper-hold and the under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes/
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean/
Setting trowsers and waist-straps, / (“I Sing the Body Electric” lines 25-30).
Intense descriptive scenes of homosexuality such as this have prompted many critics to label Whitman himself as a homosexual. However, to analyze the text along the lines of Whitman’s promotion of human equality and “love” as defined as the materialization of all human interaction, it appears fitting to offer scenes such as this. Again, White’s essay agrees with this sentiment. It states, “[Whitman’s] intent seems to be to elevate love to a new level and to view it as symbolic of democratic equalitarianism. Admittedly, many of the poems stress the body, sex, and physical love as a part of nature and as a part of a life-style celebration.
They depict more than mere passion… almost all of Whitman’s poetry is a ‘love’ poem in the larger sense of the word’” (White 652-653). According to this translation, then, readers can make sense of Whitman’s various descriptions of homosexuality to bolster his theme of human equality. In a world where the spiritual and physical are almost merged, sexual unions take on a new definition; sexual barriers are no longer relevant.
Building upon Whitman’s use of sexuality to deploy his personal message, Whitman also works through expressing the unity between body and soul and the enormous personal power this connection grants individuals. This message of unity is especially significant as it allows readers to expel traditional 19th century views of the physical distinction between races and sexes that worked to put one individual above another and instead turn to a radical response that ‘leveled’ the ground for all human beings.
Both “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself” focus on how people are inextricably one and the same—posing a message that though our bodies may be different, it is the inherent connection to the human soul that creates equality. Stating, “Be not ashamed, women—your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest; / You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul/ “(I Sing the Body Electric 66-67), Whitman utilizes females as an example of the connectivity between the body and soul to foster a unity and equality of human-kind, helping to bring down sexual barriers that so defined 19th century thought and practice.
Adding to this concept, “Song of Myself” also works to elucidate Whitman’s combining of body and soul to create the sacred vision of humanity as it directly states this theme in the lines “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, / And I have said that the body is not more than the soul, / And nothing, not God, is greater to one that one’s self is” (“Song of Myself 1269-1271). Through Whitman’s continued focus on the connection between the human body and soul, readers can gain a sense of unity that Whitman illustrates in every aspect of his poetry. “Not only are the body and soul completely equal” adds critic Arthur Wrobel in his essay, “Whitman and the Phrenologists: The Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul,” but “there is no essential distinction between the two” (Wrobel 20). As a result, it is this purposeful ‘non-distinction’ that works to promote a universal equality that Whitman sees in each individual.
In addition to Whitman’s already inextricable link he has set between the body and the soul, I pose to argument that Whitman’s poetry also universalizes the poet himself to readers, and by implication, readers share and are receptive to his message. This universality of the poet again provides a message of the commonality between the poet and the masses, reinforcing the theme of a ‘shared’ human spirit. As a result, this message of a “unique unity” through multitude decreases the importance of the racial, social or political divides that dominated this era. For example, Whitman immediately asserts this universal theme of a poet-reader identification stating “I celebrate myself , and what I assume, you should assume. For any atom in me, as good belongs to you” (“Song of Myself” 1-4) to alert readers that his thoughts are in essence theirs. By extending his words and ideas to invite readers to directly share the sentiment, Whitman’s message of the universal human body can take root.
He later shows this notion in the lines, “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, / they are not original with me, / If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing, /” (“Song of Myself 354-356). By assigning to readers a shared responsibility in his words, Whitman works not simply to express his theory of a physical and spiritual human unity, but ensures to readers that through this unity, they too are part of the claim. According to Wrobel’s article, “Whitman’s own vision of the universe… stresses its underlying unity, a unity characterized by the exquisite adaptation of all its parts to form an orderly whole,” (Wrobel 18). In this sense, just as Whitman imagined and described a harmony in the physical anatomy between all human beings, this equality also expands to encompass his view of the universe at large.
Whitman’s decision in both “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself” to add lines that simply list parts of the human anatomy go into this concept that these parts, though unique in appearance, are universal. Inserting one of these anatomical lists in “I Sing the Body Electric,” the speaker describes shared “Strong set[s] of thighs, well carrying the trunk above, / Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg, / Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel; /” (“I Sing the Body Electric lines 146-150).
In the ensuing line, Whitman directly adds his theme, stating, “All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one’s / body, male or female / . . . O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul, / O I saw now these are the Soul!” (“I Sing the Body Electric 147 – 165). Whitman’s crucial decision to end his poem on a sensationalized note of the universality of the physical body and the connectivity to the souls serves as a testament to his radical 19th century world view; it demonstrates unity in the face of what originally appear to be individual differences.
Whitman’s writing again asserts the image of a universalized poet through his numerous direct statements that place himself not simply alongside the reader, but within the reader himself. Claiming to be “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” and later stating, “I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair and / unbelief/ … I take my place among you as much as among any / The past is the push of you, me, all, precisely the same /” (“Song of Myself” 1113 – 1118), again, Whitman stresses the universal element to himself and his message. Through these lines, Whitman is asserting a commonality between not simply the poet and reader, but between the reader and the rest of society.
Though Whitman’s poetry does not appear to send shock-waves to the modern reader, this idea of a “many in one” type of society in which human beings are essentially equal pieces in a larger functioning whole was a radical thought in disjointed 19th century society. According to Peter Simonson’s essay, “A Rhetoric for Polytheistic Democracy: Walt Whitman’s ‘Poem of Many in One,” Whitman published Leaves of Grass at a time of national fracture, and “through poetic free verse, he hoped to do what traditional political institutions seemed incapable of doing: refresh the nation’s democratic faith and bind the many together as one” (Simonson 355-356).
Thus, looking at “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself” as cohesive wholes illuminates a much larger philosophical issue to address in universal human equality. Whitman calls upon readers to not simply recognize this, but take it upon themselves to find a place for the world’s variety. This, agrees Simonson, is a fundamentally democratic ideal (Simonson 369). His poetry was not simply an illustration of human equality, but through its establishment of a poet-reader unity, it became a direct plea that sought reader involvement.
As was traditional in 19th century thought, there was an overwhelming concern with “the Other.” However, Whitman transcends this status quo through his poetry’s continued focus on what Simoneson describes as “the kaleidoscopic variety… of the 1850s United States… including those derided, despised or the subjects of disinterest” (Simonson 371). This exact sentiment is spoken almost directly by Whitman in “Song of Myself” in the lines,
Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and /
Walk by his side,
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and /
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them/
(“Song of Myself 952-958).
Whitman’s statement of identification with criminals, those who are considered to be at the lowest wrings of society illustrates his poetry’s true appeal to all members of American society, no matter how marginal. As a result, both “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” can be read as a strong response to 19th century logic that work through “deepening our habits of tolerance and receptivity, and creating moments of contact and pluralistic commonality with the resistances that mark this world of the many” (Simonson 373). The fact that Whitman uses the human body to portray this point, especially during an era in which differentiation was so discriminated against supports the argument that he utilized the body as a tool for elucidating his deeper social message.
Though an initial look at what Simonson has dubbed “habits of tolerance and receptivity… and pluralistic commonality” the viewpoint does not appear different or in the least bit radical. However, Whitman’s decision to take on a world view that connects and equates all human beings and weave it into poetry during the late 1800s, the concept itself becomes completely new. In an American society based around physical differences, especially as applied to women and blacks, this message of the glorified and even eroticized individual is an extremely radical response to the events of the era.
By delineating his focus to the human form—the splendor and beauty in each individual’s anatomy and the universal implications of sexuality—Whitman expresses his social stance in a unique way. The body, to Whitman, is the center of humankind’s important place in the universe, and to recognize the power of the body, one must recognize the soul. As exemplified in “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself,” the body—regardless of how it looks—is connected directly to one’s soul, and it is through this that Whitman believes all human beings are radically equal. Through this ironic focus on the body—which was used to discriminate and divide during this period—Whitman is able to send a social message to this dissenting era: the undying equality shared by the human race.
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