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october 1st

Elizabeth for October 1st: Passion and the Act-Poem

Is it fair to write Whitman off as merely bawdy?

If the highly explicit passages from Children of Adam and Calamus are noted, Whitman pulls no stops on shocking and exciting his readers with his revelations of the passion of lovers.  But Whitman makes an explicit reference to a higher purpose in From Pent-up Aching Rivers–not only does he sing the praises of the body, but he aims at a higher social purpose.

In the very beginning of the poem, Whitman states that sex is so consuming and essential to him that he will stand against social impropriety to proclaim it: “From what I am determin’d to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men/From my own voice resonant, singing the phallus” (p. 248-9.)  The passion defines his identity, “from that if myself without which I were nothing” (248.)  The joyful union of two lovers is one of the greatest compelling forces behind Whitman’s verse that it is difficult to imagine what his poetry would look like without its drive.

The passage is full of a constantly changing dynamic of yield and command, possession and submission.  The master to the pilot, the general to his men–Whitman details lovemaking by connecting it to other examples of trust and companionship between men.  This opens up the privacy of the lovers’ tryst to a more general spectrum of respect and love, which in turn is fed back in to develop the lovers’ relationship.

Most touching of all, Whitman calls the body an “act-poem” wherein lovemaking is nature’s poetry, a harmony of two voices.  The act is divine, blessed and not shameful.  The “divine father” is the seed of many generations of great children, just as Adam is the root of all of mankind.  In the conclusion of the poem, we are directed to celebrate the act of union and the children that it produces.  While working to undo all the deep-seated religious and cultural taboos associated with sex, Whitman describes the act beautifully, praises its worth and creates from it a pure image of its divine origin and divine works.

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