Theme of Love and Sex in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Introduction: Love and Sex seen as Part of the Whole. Whitman conceived of the universe as a whole in which everything, created by a Divine Spirit, had its place and purpose. Love, and sexual love, is necessary to his understanding of the universe. In Whitman’s poetry, there is plenty of love and sex-in theme, meaning and imagery.

      Wide Range Consciousness of Sex and Love. In Whitman’s poetry, we come across a revolutionary frankness in dealing
with love, especially sexual love. Whitman emphasized that he was the poet both of the “body rid the soul”. He sang “the body electric”. He was a pioneer in inaugurating a better respect for the body and speaking for sexual delight as one of the blessings of human life. Song of Myself abounds in images and lines of sexual connotation, many of the sections express the delight of sexual love. He may speak merely of “a few light kisses, a few embraces, reaching around of arms” (Section 2), or he may speak of deeper issues involved in sex: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance always substance and increase, always sex.” In Section 11, he describes the desire of a lonesome lady for the twenty-eight young men bathing naked in the sea. In Section 19, there is an almost tender quality captured.

This is the press of a bashful hand - this is the float and odor of hair;
This the touch of my lips to yours-this the murmur of yearning.

      In Section 21, he declares the equality of men and women. He does not find copulation any worse than death in Section 24. In Sections 27 and 28, self-awareness arises from the sexual awakening. It is physical contact that leads to “a new identity”

Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them....

      In Children of Adam the poet looks outward for a partner and sings of “the mystic deliria, the madness amorous”. He is Adam and he has his Eve, his interest is procreational. In the Calamus poems, he speaks of “manly attachment”, “types of athletic love” and “need of comrades”. Phallic symbolism is used here even in speaking of spirituality or democracy. Frustrated love is one theme in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.

      Treatment of Sex-Frank and Realistic. Whitman had no inhibitions about sexual love. He called Leaves of Grass the “Song of Sex”.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sex and lust, voices veil'd and I remove the veil

      He took it upon himself to represent life in its entirety and sexual love is an important part of life. He makes a powerful appeal to overcome the Puritan hypocrisy and guilt connected with sex:

Unscrew the I ks from the doors:
Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs.

      No genuine unity so essential for the scheme of the universe - is possible if the sexual act takes place in an atmosphere of guilt and fear. But people of a conventional bent of mind find some portions of Whitman’s poetry bordering on the vulgar and even obscene. They cannot digest such sexual realism as

Give me now libidinous joys only?
Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank!
I take for my love some prostitute
(Native Moments)

Or in Spontaneous Me.

Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, ....
Arms and hands of love, lips of love, phallic thumb of lose, breasts of love....

      In the same poem there is a frank exposition of the compulsiveness of youthful passion:

The limpid liquid within the young man,
The vex ‘d corrosion so pensive and so painful
The torment, the irritable tide that will not be at rest....

      The most emphatic affirmation of the legitimate place of sex in human life, and the most revealing glorification of sex comes in 4 Woman Waits for Me. In this poem Whitman declares:

Sex contains all, bodies, souls
Meanings, proofs, purities....

      There need not be any shame about sex either in the man or in the woman. With a frankness that must have shocked his contemporaries, he describes the kind of sexual act that is to be expected from him:

I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States,
I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no ntreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

      Whitman celebrates the body and each of its organs in I Sing the Body Electric. Much of his sexual realism stemmed from his urge to break out of conventional silence over sexual matters. Writers had treated sex for sentiment, Whitman insisted on the power of sex. He uses sex for force.

      Love of Man for Man: Homosexual Tendencies. If sexual realism in treating of love between man and woman (or amativeness) was shocking. Whitman’s treatment of love of man for man (adhesiveness) must have caused several readers to feel ill at ease. The Calamus poems show great candor in treating of “manly” or “comradely” love. These poems certainly tread “paths untrodden” escaping “from all the standards hitherto published”. They make it plain that the poet is celebrating the love of man and man. They contain the usual symbols and subterfuges but also idealistically tinged homo-erotic carnalities unparalleled in any modem language. Song of the Open Road too depicts love between men.

Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by stranger?

      Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand is perhaps the one poem that tells the whole story and reveals the man’s nature and appetites.

      Sensuous Imagery Part of His Vision of the Procreative Urge in the Universe. The frank and realistic treatment of sex in Whitman’s poetry stems from the sensuousness of his nature. He says:

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant Conductors all over me

      His poems are replete with sexual imagery. Sexual connotations are quite unmistakably present in lines such as -

You sea! I resign myself to you ....
We must have a turn together, I undress,
hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me s ft, rock me in billowy drowse
Dash me with amorous wet
(Song of Myself)
The earth expanding ....

      In Section 13 of Song of Myself, he calls himself a “Caresser of life” in all its aspects. It is significant that he calls God his “loving bedfellow.”

      The sexual imagery, however, is not used for mere effect or because Whitman has an obscene bent of mind. The uninhibited treatment of sex should not blind us to its real significance - the fact that Whitman identified the sex urge with the generative forces of nature so essential for the continuity of life itself. Sex is sacred because through it alone can the divine purpose be accomplished. Thus all nature, indeed, the entire cosmos is brought into the poet’s sexual vision. As Miller points out, “through sexual imagery, Whitman identifies man with the fundamental generative forces in Nature. ln, his sexual identity and experience man may discover harmony and unity with Nature, the Life-force that sub-terraneously unites all into one creative whole”. The poet’s sexual vision penetrates the surface of nature to the pulsating force that vitalizes all.

      Self-Love Sublimated into Spiritual. In Whitman’s poetry there is present self-love or what psychologists call auto-eroticism. He worships his own body and its sensitivity:

I will go to the bank by the wood and become
undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

      But this “auto-eroticism” is not confined to the physical plane just as his frank sexual imagery is not to be understood only on the physical level. Throughout his poetry, one sees a close connection between sexual awakening and self-awakening, between the physical aspect of sex and the spiritual connotations of ‘Love’. Whitman’s ‘sensibility instead of remaining exclusively carnal, opens out and is sublimated Sexual climax can lead to mystical revelation. In Whitman, as body merges with body, the body also merges with the soul and the soul divine. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd and Passage to India dramatizes by means of heightened emotion the higher spiritual implications of sexuality. Self-love extends to embrace all for the “I” in Whitman’s poem is all-inclusive. He is poet of body and soul. He envisioned the sky and the Earth mating. Copulation is the essence of; procreation and life which does not end with death. Comradeship grows of love and without love man is lonely-like the solitary oak in:... ouisiana. Whitman’s vision of sex as an energy at work in all nature is connected with his mystic awareness of “the oneness of all”. One cannot: but agree with Miller who observes: “The themes of sexual energy and identification in Leaves of Grass extend far beyond the conventional themes of romantic love-literature, they lie at the very heart of Whitman’s profoundest cosmic meanings.”

      Conclusion. Whitman was a revolutionary in his frank treatment of sexual love in his poetry. He insisted on acceptance and celebration of man’s sexual nature in all its manifestations and complexity. But his poetry is not confined to sexual love alone. Some of the most moving sexual passages in his poetry are in reality “dramatic songs of cosmic forces in rhythmical generative union”. He regarded love to be “the kelson of the universe” and love and sex in his poetry cannot be viewed in isolation from the themes of democracy, science and religion.

University Questions

Write a note on Whitman as a love poet.
Discuss Whitman’s treatment of love and sex in his poetry.
Walt Whitman claimed that he was the poet of the body and the poet of the soul. Discuss this claim giving illustrations.

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