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Whitman, Walt (1819-1892)  
 
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The "Calamus" Sequence

Whitman's fullest exploration of his homosexual identity and its place in culture is to be found in the forty-five poems of the "Calamus" sequence. In some sense, Whitman's version of Virgil's "Bucolics," these poems are a sustained engagement with the history of homosexual representation as well as an account of a threatened love.

The first poem of the sequence locates the poet outside normal social space (in the space of the pastoral, in other words). His escape there is born not only out of a desire to escape the corrupt world of city or court (although there is some of that feeling, despite the poetry's earlier celebration of the city's erotic life) but also out of a need to find a place of meditation and self-recognition.

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The poem, like many of Whitman's, is structured around two times: before and after awareness. In order to "escape" the conventional world and its values, the poet must follow "paths untrodden" that can lead to the "margins." He must, in other words, acknowledge his difference and hence his freedom from "standards hitherto published."

In this place of seclusion, he escapes the meaningless talk ("the clank of the world") to find instead the "tongues aromatic" of the calamus plant and ultimately of a sensual bliss of comrade love.

His offering to the world, indeed his child in the imagery of the poem brought forth in the ninth month, is a new kind of song, one that, by revealing his own "secret" will offer to others the models or "types of athletic love."

Many other poems in this sequence develop and vary these themes. The second poem ("Scented herbage of my breast"), for instance, states the need to escape from the appearance of heterosexuality: "I will escape from the sham that was proposed to me, / I will sound myself and comrades only."

The eighth poem, "Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me" once again deals with the conversion pattern, from ignorance to understanding. In this case, the structure is autobiographical. The poet sees himself as devoted first to knowledge, then to the land, then to heroes, and finally to the New World (in other words, the dominant missions of the earlier editions of Leaves of Grass).

But he resolves to ignore these social missions for a personal one:

I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more,
I am indifferent to my own songs--I will go with him I love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together--We never separate again. (1860, 11. 10-12)

The spirit of many of the love poems in "Calamus" is a kind of "All for Love"; nothing can stand up against the value of personal affection. This view would be sorely tested within a very short time after the publication of "Calamus" by the outbreak of the Civil War.

In preparing the 1860 edition, however, Whitman was an optimist. The fifth "Calamus" poem, "States!," saw "a new friendship" as the basis of social unity. Whitman was applying to the nation the ideas of the social reformers and their search for a new community based on equality and love.

"Manly affection" will be visible everywhere, Whitman announces, and will link the states. This is to be the true continuation of the French revolution: "The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers, / The continuance of Equality shall be comrades." The new land, joined by a new social order, would be "indissoluble."

The "Calamus" poems lack much of the frank sexuality of "Song of Myself." They insist, not on homosexual acts, but on homosexual being in the world. At the same time, joyous as they are, there is a boyish exuberance about them that suggests a relative innocence about the realities of social conflict. The slave whose suffering is so visible in the 1855 edition is now almost invisible even on the eve of the war.

The poems attempt to locate a homosexual republic, a paradise of men who are freed from evil (like the parallel heterosexual collection, "Children of Adam," the new regenerate race, in which Whitman found room for poems that had once been in "Calamus").

Darkness is evoked in "Calamus" primarily in personal terms. It is the product of isolation as well as the failure of personal love. Whitman wonders whether his love for other men is actually shared by others; he seeks community.

He is tempted to repress his feelings, but, as he puts it in the ninth "Calamus" poem, "Hours continuing long," "it is useless--I am what I am."

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