Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetry that contains themes of love, death, spirituality and even sex. The explicit sexual content in many of the poems has earned the book a reputation as “a mass of rotten filth.”
When Walt Whitman published his famous work in 1855, it caused quite an uproar on account of its openly sexual and even scatological nature. As a result, the book sparked both praise and criticism by academics and other protesters of the time. One such critic, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, was critical about many aspects of the book for a variety of reasons. In particular, to him Whitman’s work represented immorality and vulgarity by being too bold with how he talked about religion and sexuality. From Griswold’s perspective he argued that these subjects should not be discussed or implied in such explicit detail. As a result, he called Leaves of Grass “a mass of rotten filth”, really emphasizing his disapproval for the book’s content.
The book contains many graphic descriptions of sexual acts. For example, in the poem titled “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman describes a man’s body as a “love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching.” He also describes how he wants to “dive head foremost through Nature” and explore “the marriage-bonds … for I have seen them embrace.”
In another part of the same poem, Whitman describes how he would like to be buried with his lover if he died before her: “And you O my soul where death is nothingness / And all the crudest insults and torments slight – / And you O close-tied soul – O laborious self / Hereafter these are trifles.”
Whitman’s explicit depictions of sex have earned him criticism from many people who are offended by his writing style.