This essay was originally a handout for my American literature classes written some years ago. I used such handouts as this to share with my students my own interpretations of American writers and poets. In a few cases, I believe, the interpretations in question are "original" enough to warrant their "publication" to my Web site. This particular handout, for example, has even been given a blessing by James E. Miller, Jr., a well-known Whitman scholar. Please note that all references to the texts I have utilized here are indicated in the body of this "paper." Otherwise, the scholarly paraphernalia of footnotes has been dispensed with.

Whitman & Sex & God

Steven C. Scheer

PART I: "Song of Myself"

Published on July 4th in 1855 for the first time, Leaves of Grass burst upon the scene of American literature with the fanfare of a self-proclaimed triumph. The book itself - quarto, in dark green binding, the title in letters of gold, sending roots down and sprouting leaves above - bore no name, except (of course) the name of "Walter Whitman" (entered upon the copy-right page) as "publisher" and "copy-right" holder. "Inside" "Song of Myself" (the first of 12 poems in the volume, but occupying a space in excess of the other 11), we have (of course) a typically Whitmanesque identification, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" (he loved to spell certain words with a "k"), but the book's first readers had no way of knowing whether this was a real person or a fictitious character. (It was, of course, both.) The image of the poet himself did (of course) appear on the page facing the title page. The daguerreotype re/presents a man in his mid-thirties, in an open shirt, one hand in pocket (the left), the right arm akimbo. The bearded face under the broad-brimmed hat is not smiling. The expression on the face seems to say something like "I don't give a shit," even though this is not the face of a man prone to constipation. One of the first reviews of the volume tells us that:

An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. We shall cease shamming and be what we really are. We shall start an athletic and defiant literature. We realize how it is, and what was most lacking . . . One sees unmistakably genteel persons, travelled, college-learned, used to be served by servants, conversing without heat or vulgarity, supported on chairs, or walking through handsomely carpeted parlors, or along shelves bearing well-bound volumes . . . and china things, and nicknacks. But where in American literature is the first show of America? Where are the gristle and beards, and broad breasts, and space and ruggedness, and nonchalance, that the souls of the people love? (14-15, quoted by Allen)

This review (of course) was written by Whitman himself (he wrote no less than three in the summer 1855), and (at least in retrospect) it is easy to detect his style. Which is precisely why I am belaboring this point. Whitman seems to be "scientific" proof that the style, indeed, is the man. Superficial differences aside, Whitman and Thoreau appear to be birds of a feather (Whitman's plumage being, of course, much the gaudier); both set out to create "myths" of themselves, and both succeeded. At least on paper (this last statement is brimming with irony - I shall return to it in due time). Whitman, like Thoreau before him, never ceased to "sing" of "himself," but the self he sang about was not static (neither was Thoreau's, of course), even though (as we shall see) the persona in question underwent great shifts and changes. Right now, however, we are about to discuss its first version as represented, primarily, by "Song of Myself."

There is no question about the fact that this is an important and controversial poem. Chiefly on its merit, D.H. Lawrence called Whitman the first white aborigine. It has received many readings and interpretations (most of which I find too academic . . . for Whitman-as you shall see this handout is going to be both/and not). Of these the following are typical: (1) James E. Miller, Jr. sees the poem as an "inverted mystical experience" which begins with an entry into a mystical state and finally disentangles itself from it (Critical Guide). (2) Richard Chase's reading of the poem as the comic drama of the self is complimentary to Miller's interpretation. Chase sees the persona of the poet as a self that takes on a variety of identities only to extricate itself from each. A footnote "interpretation" supplied by the editors of the new standard edition of the works of Walt Whitman is a bit more pedestrian but nevertheless typical. It says: "The movement of 'Song of Myself' is circular rather than progressive, returning upon itself in evocation of ecstasy and confession, of identification and recognition, of rapturous union with earth and spirit-truly a celebration both personal and universal."

The critic who puts the poem into its larger context is James E. Miller, Jr. in his more recent Quests Surd and Absurd:

The situation of Whitman and his critics, from the beginning in 1855 until now, may be summed up in two inter-locking questions: Whitman asked, Who am I? His critics continue to ask, Who are you, Walt Whitman? It is not likely even yet that Whitman or his book will yield a definitive answer. But surely one of the reasons Whitman remains a central riddle of our literature is that he vigorously dramatized the questions that continue to haunt the American imagination-what does it mean, being an American? Who are we? Who am I? . . .

Throughout our literature, the question of identity has echoed insistently. James Fenimore Cooper ambivalently defined America (and himself) in the person of Natty Bumppo, a moral embodiment of the best of the old and the new, of civilization and the wilderness. Hawthorne probed his own and the national psyche in the Puritan past of Salem and in the pagan present of Rome. [Miller is thinking of The Marble Faun here] Melville's central figure was Ishmael, cut off from home and father, a wayfaring orphan searching for a lost self. Emerson discovered the secret of identity deep within the hidden recesses of being - in the pure stream of a primitive and alien energy. Thoreau tested Emerson's theory by isolating and throwing himself rigorously back on the resources of that elusive spirit of the transcendent self. James sent his Americans across the sea to Europe where, in the shadows of the past, they took on moral configurations that appeared distinguishable and distinctive. Twain sent his Americans floating down the great mother river searching for freedom and exploration of self. In one of her brief lyrics, Emily Dickinson provided a whimsical commentary on this recurring theme

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

It is, of course, an oversimplification to attribute the endless search running through America's literature solely to the ancestral severance with the past. There are no doubt many complex causes, and an important one is the gradual loss of religious faith, which Darwin's mid- nineteenth century discoveries accelerated. To the question-What does it mean, to be an American?- was added the more puzzling dilemma: What does it mean, to be a man? Inextricably entangled are the questions, Who am I? What is man? What is his nature and destiny? These questions are not, obviously, peculiar to American literature, but they seem to flow naturally and directly out of the American experience of severance and isolation and loss. . . .

The secret of Whitman's continuing relevance would appear to be twofold. In American literature, he brings into sharp focus a central theme-the search for identity. In modern literature, he remains a remarkable example of an obsessive concern-the nature of the self. (95-97, italics mine)

The most important clue in Miller's far-ranging summary is the "gradual loss of religious faith" as a significant shaping force in human life and as a reassuring interpretative scheme in humanity's evaluation of its ultimate nature and destiny. Before acting on this clue, however, it would behoove us to outline, however briefly, the basic structure of "Song of Myself." The poem is, above all, an imaginative (rather, an imagined) journey across America, around the globe, and back and forth in time. It opens in the speaker's "backyard" and it ends there. In the interim the persona takes all of life (past, present and future, good and evil) and diffuses it with the song of himself which (or so he implies) is the song of life itself, universal and eternal. But now, back to the clue.

"I do not despise you priests"

Let us consider two quotations here, the first from the Preface to the 1855 edition of The Leaves of Grass, the second from "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads":

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile . . . perhaps a generation or two . . . dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place . . . the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things.
From another point of view Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality-though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere. Of this feature, intentionally palpable in a few lines, I shall only say [that] the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted. . . .
And in respect to editions of Leaves of Grass in time to come (if there should be such) I take occasion now to confirm those lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of thirty years, and to hereby prohibit, as far as word of mine can do so, any elision of them.

In the first of these quotations Whitman rings a familiar note. It is the Romantic/Victorian idea (writ especially large in Matthew Arnold) that literature (poetry) shall replace religion. In the second of these quotations Whitman is clearly pleading with his present/future would-be censors. What should catch our attention here is the centrality which Whitman claims for "sex." That sex is central to "Song of Myself" is beyond dispute. But what is its ultimate significance? The first important clue occurs in Section 5:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valve`d voice.

I mind how once we lay on such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet.

Here the role of sex is clearly metaphoric: a union of body and soul (shades of Thoreau, with a bit of Whitmanesque "heat and vulgarity" thrown in). Elsewhere, in a notebook entry, we read the following: "The Soul of the Universe is Male and genial master and the impregnating and animating spirit-Physical matter is Female and Mother and waits . . . " (Note, in passing, that this passage re/presents the "traditional" male chauvinism which is both supported and subverted by the Bible.) I don't know about you, but it seems to me that given the "procreant urge" (of which Whitman always speaks of as "always," "Song of Myself," Section 3) one might argue (I will, in fact, so argue) that the "priestly" function of the speaker becomes the attempt to triumph over death (a basic motive in all religions). But what does Whitman offer us as the basic principle? What, in other words, will "slay death" for this poet of the kosmos? A careful reading of "Song of Myself" clearly indicates that the principle in question is "always" that famous "procreant urge," in other words (word, really) SEX. In Section 40 of the poem in question Whitman is rather explicit about "spelling this out" for us. Here's the relevant passage:

On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes,
(This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.)

To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door,
Turn the bed-clothes toward the foot of the bed,
Let the physician and the priest go home.
I seize the descending man and raise him with resistless will,
O despairer, here is my neck,
By God, you shall not go down! hang your whole weight upon me.
I dilate you with tremendous breath, I buoy you up,
Every room of the house do I fill with an arm'd force,
Lovers of me, bafflers of graves.

Sleep - I and they keep guard all night,
Not doubt, not decease shall dare to lay finger upon you,
I have embraced you, and henceforth possess you to myself,
And when you rise in the morning you will find what I tell you is so.

This is rather clear (I think). Sex is, of course, both literal and metaphorical here (and we are all aware of the fact that it is entirely possible to fuck or to get fucked metaphorically, so to speak). But I hope that you have all noticed something else, too - that is, Whitman's use of the word "breath," both in the essay from which I have quoted and in the passage above. This breath of course is the Breath of God whereby He gave Life to the Man of Earth ("Adam"), thus creating the human race. But is this well put? In a sense, no. How was our Man of Earth ("Adam") "procreant"? He could, of course, have "imitated" God and go around breathing on Eve (provided that he didn't have bad breath), but this is not what the Bible tells us. It seems to me that by the time the Bible gets around to fruitfulness and multiplication we also have another thing on our hands, the Woman of Life ("Eve"). "Eve," by the way, goes back to a Hebrew word meaning "life" (just as "Adam" goes back to a Hebrew word meaning "earth"). This, then, is what we have on our hands now: breath, earth, and life. Breath (spirit) is the union between "earth" (living matter, that is "man") and "life" (living matter, that is "woman"). Union, of course, is always already sexual, otherwise there shall be no fruitfulness and multiplication. (Note, in passing again, how this biblical reflection both supports and subverts "traditional" male chauvinism. Thanks.)

Back to my argument (again): Sex (literal as well as metaphorical union) is the principle that shall slay death in Whitman's new religion of the kosmos whose new priests are poets, perhaps simply because the old priests have abdicated. Which brings me around to a new part of my argument, the "Song of Myself" as a religious, Christian (Catholic ?) "gospel." All I can do here is ground my argument in terms that seem rather reasonable to me. Thus, what does the speaker's attitude have in common with certain central teachings of the Church? The first thing to note is the speaker's unabashed and total egalitarianism. Doesn't the Church tell us that we are all equal in the eyes of God? Perhaps it would be reasonable to assume that, in Whitman's case at least, the meaning of the phrase "American Adam" takes on a significance other than the significance usually associated with the Myth of the Virgin Land of which it forms a central part. According to a certain well-known song, America is supposed to be "the land of the free, and the home of the brave." It seems to me that the persona of the "Song of Myself" is a "person" who takes this notion rather seriously. Perhaps what Whitman advocates is that we be brave enough to freely accept one another as we are, just as God ultimately accepts us as we are. But enough of this. The drift of this argument should be clear enough for me to drift out of it. For the purpose of drifting into its larger contours, so to speak.

These larger contours could be rendered extraordinarily lengthy which could easily be sent "[d]ancing. . . through the streets in a phallic procession" (Section 43), but I shall opt for the more humble approach of synopsis. Traditionally, sex has always been associated with death and dying. It has always been associated with "life," too, of course (I first typed "source" instead of "course"-an interesting Freudian slip of the pro/verbial "tongue"), but once we realize that all of us, born of sex, as it were, are (in the instant of conception) doomed to die, the anti-commonsensical view of tradition (namely, that sex = death) makes sense. The trick is that Whitman uses sex (both literally and metaphorically) to deny death. And he doesn't mind the apparent contra/diction, for doesn't he question and answer himself in Section 51 as clearly as he can:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Speaking of "grass" (we have been, you know, since the beginning), Whitman claims at one point that it is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves" (Section 6). It is a symbol, ultimately, of democratic life and contra/death. It is also, finally, Whitman's personal symbol of the same. Doesn't he tell us in the end "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"? Yes, Walt. The last time I mowed the lawn (on a gas-driven mower purchased at Sears, Roebuck & Co.), I looked for you in earnest, but you eluded me, as usual. I remember feeling especially perplexed as I emptied the grass from the rear-bag into plastic sacks (made by a company by the unlikely name of "Glad"), because it suddenly became self-evident to me that you, Walt, don't really belong to those leaves, but to the kind we call a "book" where a leaf contains two pages. And it occurred to me that you were perhaps right about sex. For it takes two to tango. Yet the verso of the leaf in question will never meet the recto, even though in each instance they are inseparably back to back (or should that be belly to belly?). In any case, you have inspired me. I am, in fact, trying to write a song about myself at the moment. But at this point I only have the opening line, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself." It has a ring to it, does it not?

Part II: Out of the Cradle, Into the Grave

One of the most "convincing" accounts of Leaves of Grass as a single work (the work of a lifetime, at that) is that of James E. Miller, Jr.'s who argues for a structure of Whitman's book by relating it to three major crises in Whitman's life. In the first stage Whitman defines the persona who, as indicated in Part I, is both speaker and theme. Like Thoreau before him, Whitman uses the "Real Whitman" as the basis for the "Fictitious Whitman" (the speaker-and-theme Whitman), but with this difference: while the self-generated Thoreau ("Thoreau the Fiction") remains a "private" individual, the self-dramatized Whitman is meant to be seen as a "public" figure, primarily a performer-model on the stage of America and (ultimately) on the stage of the Universe. This persona-making first phase is best exemplified by "Song of Myself." The speaker of this poem (also its theme, of course) is the Archetypal American who is also the Archetypal Man. That is, he is a personification of the democratic principle while at the same time he is also the container of all the other principles of humanity at large (body and soul, good and evil, past and future, etc.). Another aspect of this first phase is, of course, the myth of the birth of the poet as configured in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." The account of the birth of the poet probably entails the projection of a fictitious childhood experience to exemplify the qualities that go into the making of this poet (such as the imaginative and interpretive act of sympathetic identification, which is the poet's ability to become "other," to become himself by becoming the "other").

In "Where Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd" we see the second phase of the evolution of Leaves of Grass. This is the public American's re-enactment of the mourning of public America. Here the theme and the speaker separate. Here the speaker enters into the turmoil of national crisis to become its spokesman both on the national and on the universal level. The form of the pastoral elegy is particularly useful to Whitman here. Through this form Whitman can "universalize" the experience of mourning. He can show that the death of Lincoln is mournful to nature as well as to America, but he can also show that death can finally emerge as a source of paradoxical joy (all this is "traditionally" in the domain of pastoral elegies).

In "This Compost" and the "Prayer of Columbus" we enter into the last phase of Whitman's development. In the first poem we witness a persona whose confidence in nature has to be restored via an imaginary act of interpretation. Here the natural process itself re-enacts the universal principle of immortality: life feeds upon "organic" death. Thus, the dead keep reentering the realm of the living. Thus, Death (ultimately and finally) does not exist. Yet, in "Prayer of Columbus," where (incidentally) the public, Archetypal American impersonates the man traditionally held to be America's discoverer, we behold a still more "uncertain" persona than the momentarily doubtful speaker of "This Compost." Here earthly achievements seem to lose all significance and, were it not for the broken old man's unmitigable faith in God, Whitman's world would collapse.

Thus, by a deviant route I can now return to Whitman's version of the American Adam. Meanwhile, note that "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" is a poetic (that is, fictitious) account of the birth of the poet (of Whitman's birth as a poet). The little boy's sympathy (empathy) with the he-bird's mourning over the loss (death) of the she-bird is the birth of the poet. The poem is also, though, a triumph over death. What the "sea" (water, "mother of life") whispers is the word "death," thus, what ultimately comes "out of the cradle [birth, sea] endlessly rocking" is both life (birth) and death (re-birth? faith in life out of death?). "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is also a poem about a triumph over death. This poem is a pastoral elegy (the tradition of which goes back to Bion's "Lament for Adonis," to Moschus' "Lament for Bion" in classical antiquity, and to such "later" versions as Milton's "Lycidas," Shelley's "Adonais" [mourning Keats], Tennyson's In Memoriam, and Arnold's "Thyrsis"). It mourns the death of Lincoln. What it really does, though, is what pastoral elegies always already do: that is, it turns mourning into song, into celebration.

The story goes on with "This Compost." This poem represents a momentary revulsion from "earth" and "water" because each is replete with excrement and corpses. Yet a bit of reflection causes the speaker to rethink the issue. The recognition that we are surrounded by death and shit leads the speaker to the recognition of nothing less than a miracle, namely, "That it is safe . . . / That all is clean forever and forever." "Now I am terrified at the Earth," the poet finally tells us, "it is that calm and patient, / It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions." We give it shit and corpses, it gives us "such divine materials." By the time we reach "Prayer of Columbus," we see a new Whitman. But let the poem speak for itself:

My terminus near,
The clouds already closing in upon me,
The voyage balk'd, the course disputed, lost,
I yield my ships to Thee.

My hands, my limbs grow nerveless,
My brain feels rack'd, bewilder'd,
Let the old timbers part, I will not part,
I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me,
Thee, Thee at least I know.

Is it the prophet's thought I speak, or am I raving?
What do I know of life? what of myself?
I know not even my own work past or present,
Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.

And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal'd my eyes,
Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.

What, then, of Whitman's American Adam? It begins with sexuality and acceptance, it moves through sympathetic identification, and it ends with resignation to the will of God. Between the cradle and the grave, then, there falls (italics God's) a significant growth in Whitman's development as a poet. Following Miller, we might say that this development entails three distinct stages. It starts with youthful braggadocio, continues with a mature concession, and ends with an age-old acceptance of God's pro/vidential design. "Our civilization," Kenneth Rexroth once wrote apropos of Whitman, "is the only one in history whose major artists have rejected its dominant values" (976). If we agree that Emerson and Thoreau valorized the spirit in an age that devalued it, that Hawthorne and Melville reinserted the fall into an age which had always already discarded it, surely we can see that Whitman's American Adam is neither the enemy of the spirit nor that of the fall. His vision of a new world is not the banal severance with the past that gives the "traditional" American Adam its bad name. His vision of America is truly "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Whitman wouldn't like the Meese Commission's Report on Pornography. Nor would he "approve" of the fundamentalist phenomenon, or the ultra-racist Comitatus. Which doesn't mean that he would favor child and/or drug or alcohol ab/use. These extremes are precisely what the Whitmanesque acceptance annihilates. For it is healthy to the core. That in an age of over-abundant "rules and regulations" (pointless "policies") he would applaud "disorderly conduct" is but a testimonial to his humanity. His "America" doesn't exist yet. Perhaps it never will. Perhaps no such "America" is possible, for it would have to be unfallen in its fallenness, undomesticated in is domesticity, immutable in its constantly changing de/velopment. It would have to be the paradoxical paradise which finds itself in its loss, loses itself in its finding, and baffles itself by its own doom. But perhaps Whitman knew this all along. This could be why, at one point in "Song of Myself," he thinks of joining up with the animal kingdom:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It may seem sacrilegious of me to even raise this question, but isn't this "animal kingdom" precisely like the Kingdom of God we all ardently yearn and hope for? I rest my "case" (etymologically, "fall").

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Copyright 2000 - 2001 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.

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