The sexuality of American poet Walt Whitman can be best described as mysterious in relation to the era in which he lived. I use the word mysterious because homosexual practices were taboo in the nineteenth century, furthermore the term homosexuality may have been non-existent during these times. Although homosexuality was not was not accepted during Whitman’s era, much of his poetry seems to express a deep devotion—if not obsession—for men. Jonathan Bradley, in his article entitled “Whitman’s Calamus”, discusses Walt Whitman in the context of his literary work and sexuality; in a basic sense, Bradley argues that Whitman desired to liberate homosexuality from the suppressive hand of his nineteenth century society.
As expressed in “Whitman’s Calamus”, Walt Whitman was a homosexual man who wished to openly express his sexuality. In the article, it is written that Whitman boldly expressed his sexuality when he decided to change the title of one of his works from “Live Oak, with Moss” to “Calamus-Leaves”:
Whitman’s decision was likely the product of common discourse of the times, which portrayed homosexuality as a vice and abnormality, as an act that alienated one from rest of the society. The shift in symbolism is fitting, from a lonely oak tree to the calamus plant, which is distinctive for its decidedly phallic seed pod and often grows in “clusters” of other calamus plants, making it a more “brotherly” symbol. Whitman’s revision reflects his desire to have his homoerotic poems present a more positive, unifying and democratic image rather than the negative implication of isolation established in conventional nineteenth-century sexual discourse. (Bradley 263-264).
Bradley concludes that Walt Whitman expressed pride for his sexuality despite negative attitudes and ignorance that was so common regarding homosexuality in the nineteenth century.
In addition to “Calamus-Leaves”, it appears that Whitman also to expressed a homosexual desires in his poem entitled “Song of Myself”. Several references can be found throughout this poem in which he expresses his approval for his same sex; Whitman writes:
The beards of the young men glistened with wet, it ran from their long hair, Little streams passed all over their bodies. An unseen hand also passed over their bodies, It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs. The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell 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. (Whitman 9).
I interpret this passage as Whitman’s expression of passion for the male physique, as he describes the young men’s bodies with great attention and detail. I believe that the “unseen hand” that Whitman mentions is his own, it is unseen because it exists within the fantasies of the awe stricken Whitman.
In “Song of Myself” Walt Whitman appears to allude to his love for his sexuality. Many have regarded Whitman’s “celebration of himself” as arrogant and conceited, however I hold a different interpretation of this prose. I believe that Whitman “celebration of himself” was inclusive of the male gender, he is expressing his pride for his same sex. To conclude, In Whitman’s “Song for Myself” he professes his love for his sexuality but does so within his society’s limits as to prevent marginalization.
Bradley, Jonathan. “Whitman’s Calamus”. Explicator, 2009 Fall; 67 (4): 263-267.