Friday, February 4, 2011

Song for Sexuality

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.

Works cited:

Bradley, Jonathan. “Whitman’s Calamus”. Explicator, 2009 Fall; 67 (4): 263-267.


  1. I completely agree with yours and Bradley's arguments for Whitman's sexuality. You do a good job of summarizing not only the article, but applying it to multiple quotes from the poetry. Having read this and knowing first hand what sort of language exists in Whitman's works, I would like to take the argument deeper. What was happening in Whitman's life? What was going on politcally, socially, and economically at the time he wrote his poetry? What was his family life? In other words, what is the CONTEXT of this apparent homosexuality?

    In my Western Civilization class, that is all we talk about; context. We read great stories or plays and regardless of their content, it was the context in which they were written that gets all of the attention. I personally like reading a story/play/poem for face-value but that seems to be shallow in this and many other classes. Great read.

  2. My main comment on this essay is that it's a little on the short and simple side. That might sound harsh, but I don't mean it to be - it's a clear, direct discussion of Whitman's sexuality and its relevance, and I'd much prefer a good but simple argument to a complicated one that fails disastrously.

    But to continue the thought - I see that the essay you're using is only four pages long. That probably means that, as the name of the journal indicates, it's meant more as an explanation than an argument. Again -t his isn't the end of the world, or any kind of disaster, but it *is* a limitation.

    So - you come to the reasonable conclusion that Whitman is celebrating the male body and (homo)sexuality, in defiance of all taboos. That's fine, as far as it goes.

    Now, if you were to revise, you need to get beyond simplicity, although you can certainly start with simplicity. If we focus on the centrality of the male body and of his desire for it in the poem, how should we read it differently? Does that understanding question, challenge, or change any of our discussion?

    In other words, how are you helping us to read Song of Myself differently? A simple insight can have complex implications - if you revise this, I want to see those implications.