Allison for Sept. 15

In his letter to Emerson, Whitman addresses the “infidelism” concerning sex in America. He explains to Emerson that the body and sex, just like everything else (in typical Whitman fashion, he rambles off a long list), deserves to be expressed and sung about. While Whitman could have stopped there, he instead includes a profound little zinger to conclude his thoughts on sex: “the courageous soul, for a year or two to come, may be proved by faith in sex, and by disdaining concessions” (1359).  Here, Whitman presents his argument. Throughout the highly sensualist Children of Adam and Calamus, Whitman is not just trying to shock his 19th century audience (though he most certainly did), he was revealing a part of the human soul that had yet to be revealed in poetry at length and in detail.

In two separate poems (From Pent-up Aching Rivers, and One Hour to Madness and Joy), Whitman uses the phrase “mystic deliria” to describe sex. In other words, Whitman likens sex to an otherworldly, perhaps metaphysical, lapse in sanity. It’s not much of a jump from “mystic deliria” to “disdaining  concessions,” Whitman describes sex as a dropping of pretense, disengaging the societal “face” we all put on and assuming our raw, animal one. The speaker of Are You The New Person Drawn Toward Me, challenges a potential lover with this question, “do you see no further than this facade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?” What lies beneath the facade, the core identity of a person, is what the speaker wants his/her lover to see.  Much like sex itself, Whitman’s poetry celebrates and appreciates the body, recounting nearly every part, but actually divulges something much more significant than bones and freckles. With sex, there is a mingling of the physical and metaphysical, the soul is exposed through the tangible: “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul” (258). Along with how the soul is explored through sex, Whitman even more frequently describes how the body and soul yearns and craves sex.

Words like “aching,” “consuming,” and “burning”  appear multiple times throughout Children of Adam and Calamus. These poems are dripping with yearning, and what is more indicative of the human condition than yearning? The speaker of Whitman’s poems is more than just horny, though that could easily be argued, he expresses an insatiable desire to connect and to know other humans, both men and women. In the short and simple I Am He that Aches with Love, the speaker compares his/her desire to attract and connect with others to a gravitational force– something powerful and natural. The urge to love another, to mingle with a soul that complements our own, is inherent to our being and therefore a vital part of the human soul. Not Heat Flames up and Consumes explores the soul’s tenacious search to find true connection, Whitman likens it to a tide that is constantly moving. From its very beginning, the soul searches for love: “any more than my soul is borne through the open air, wafted in all directions O love, for friendship, for you” (278). The body yearns, yes, but the soul yearns first and more deeply.

  1. Avatar of cirvine1965

    #1 by cirvine1965 on September 13, 2009 - 9:50 pm

    I completely agree with you, Allison. While these poems were certainly shocking for their time and are heavy with lust and desire, they are far from trashy paperbacks. For me, the article by Reynolds really illuminated the point that Whitman’s desire was not only for sex, but for love. And not necessarily romantic love, but just genuine connections between people.
    Even in the raunchiest scenes, Whitman speaks of sex as a divine union between not just bodies but souls.
    I’m a Kerouac fan, and he says,
    “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk- real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

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