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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
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Recognizing Limitations and Pain

Although Whitman has often been charged with displaying too much facile optimism, the poems reveal his awareness of limitations and pain. The limitations were those that dominated American civil discourse in the 1850s: the problem of slavery and the demand for equal rights for women.

Among the poet's many manifestations in "Song of Myself" is that of "the hounded slave," whose suffering is rendered graphically:

     I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again
     crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs,
     thinn'd with ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over
     the head with whip-stocks. (ll. 838-843)

Another is "the mother of old, condemned for a witch."

The Dramas of Personal Identity

To these national issues must be added the dramas of personal identity. Whitman's sense of himself drawn physically to other men and his belief in the power of male love to work against patriarchal authority were countered by a strong feeling of unspeakability.

How render a love that seemed to Whitman to have so few precedents? How evoke that love without inviting condemnation for immorality?

In the 1855 edition, Whitman could only begin a cautious exploration of these issues. He acknowledged the need to go beyond the surface and to reveal himself but felt unable to do so:

Man or woman, I might tell how I like you, but cannot,
And might tell what is in me, and what it is in you, but cannot,
And might tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days. (ll. 991-993)

Here Whitman's nonsexist "man or woman" serves also to disguise his subject. What is there that he "cannot" tell if the beloved is a woman?

It is in fact Whitman's homosexuality that must still leave him speechless, able only to speak through the voices of others who have suffered, to become a general voice of the outcast and forbidden.

Whitman's homosexual identity had to wait until the 1860 "Calamus" poems that are derived directly from these lines, as Whitman announces in the first poem that his new mission is "To tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades."

Still, even before "Calamus" he was nonetheless able to identify passionate love, implicitly homosexual, as the source of vision.

Section 5 of "Song of Myself" presents an idyllic moment of sexuality, "How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me," as the source of a vision of a redeemed world that has gone beyond a system of relative values.

There is a long tradition, of course, of the use of an erotic vocabulary to present a mystical experience, but also an equally long one that does the reverse. We can probably never know which is the vehicle and which the tenor.

In other sections of the poem, Whitman is bolder in his presentation of the sexual. In section 21, for instance, the poet sees himself as the lover of the earth in terms that are strikingly frank: "Thruster holding tight and that I hold tight! / We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other" (1860, ll. 449-450).

Whitman eliminated these lines in later editions, but they were part of his original conception, and they still speak eloquently about his power to employ the sexual as part of a larger social and philosophical program. Whitman loves the earth and penetrates it (a traditional metaphor for the male), but he is also in his turn penetrated by the earth, thus reversing the human-earth hierarchy and challenging fixed gender roles.

Whitman's first edition is thus highly erotic but largely lacking in the sense of identity or community. It is revolutionary in its frank treatment of sexuality and particularly in its use of sexuality as a means to spiritual insight and vision.

The 1856 Edition

In his second edition in 1856, Whitman added a crucial poem, later called "Song of the Open Road," that enabled him to deal at once with his mission as a national poet and as a lover of men.

Interspersed with the poem's dominant narrative of freedom ("I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines / Going where I list, my own master total and absolute" [11. 53-54]) is another narrative, at first attributed to the highway itself, of a love that will "adhere to me."

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