Walt Whitman was an American Poet who was very influential and controversial due to his sexual imagery in his works. He’s a bold poet who brings to light shameless sexual desires and homosexuality that no one before him have since it was seen to be scandalous and unusual during his time. The theme of sexuality is present in most of his works and changed the way people of his days and today’s society viewed intimacy. Whitman revised “Song of myself” multiple times throughout his life, deleting and inserting new lines and even changing the title. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman connects sexuality with nature, he speaks on human connections with the soul and body, and the ultimate power of sexual desires.
Throughout “Song of Myself,” Whitman connects sexuality with earth and nature. His love for nature is very evident and he believes it to be a symbol for freedom. “To go outdoors was also to liberate the self to ‘come out’…nakedness was the condition of truth (Martin 48).” He uses sexual metaphors to further describe how people should be expressive and come in contact with nature more frequently. “I behold from the beach your crooked fingers…Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you (Whitman sec. 22),” in this scene he is having a sexual encounter with the ocean, this links back in the beginning of the poem when he extenuates the idea of being “undisguised” with nature. Whitman doesn’t use sexual imagery entirely to talk about sex but rather to describe how sexual connections with the world is necessary for human life. He is also known to be a very radical transcendentalist, so it can be seen that he strongly believes that nature, god, and people are all somehow interrelated.
Whitman sees that “nature is forever performing a sexual act…humans are invited to partake (Miller 1),” this further highlights how Whitman saw that nature and sexuality are related to each other because he saw nature as being sexual too. To Further expand on nature and sexuality, the following lines in “Song of Myself” were deleted due to the widespread controversy during Whitman’s years, “Far-swooping elbowed earth!…Smile, for your lover comes…we hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other (Whitman sec. 21),” in this excerpt, Whitman compares the bride and the bridegroom to his sexual encounters with the earth. It again describes how in love he is with the idea and atmosphere of the earth, that he even compares it to two humans having intercourse. Afterall, he “ believed that language and the human body are equals (Tuten 136),” he thought nature, humans, spirituality, and earth were all equal, thus he spoke as so.
Correspondingly, Whitman speaks abundantly about the connection between the soul and body. Notice how Whitman doesn’t just speak of just one type of sexuality throughout his poem, he mentions the auto-erotic, homosexuals, and hetersexuals. He tries to ultimately praise the “recuperation of the body…breaking down of a body/soul hierarchy or binarism (Martin 47),” this is primarily seen in the anecdote when a women is watching twenty-eight men bathing in the ocean, desperately wanting to join them and describing the nude bodies of the men, soon after, Whitman is there watching too. The Poem also describes an “unseen hand” passing the bathers bodies (Whitman sec. 11). This is where most readers come to understand that Whitman is homosexual. However, this anecdote shouldn’t be mistaken by revealing his sexuality but rather explaining how the human body and soul are prominent for human connections. Whitman “celebrates the communion of the body and soul (Tuten 137),” he explains that without the soul, there is no body, and without the body, there is no soul. He states that they are both related but one if not superior to the other.
On top of that, The unseen hand that supposedly is touching the bathers, could be identified as the watchers (Whitman and the women) souls. It also stated “they do not ask who seizes them fast,” indicating that the bathers didn’t think that the “touching” of the soul was ungraceful but rather that they were connecting with one another spiritually. Another meaning behind this is that he didn’t specify whether this unseen hand was a mans or womens. This further emphasizes how Whitman didn’t care for gender, he recognized everything as equal and how individuals connected with each other spiritually and physically not because of their sexual orientation. “Sexuality is…the most sacred dimension of human physicality.. ultimate means of communication between two individuals (Tuten 139),” Tuten further evaluates how Whitman viewed sexuality as a whole. Whitman wants to strongly encourage humans to be more open with themselves. Emerson, a poet who was a big influence on Whitman’s start in poetry, saw his works as a scholar who was brave, free, and well-comprehended. However, still “Emerson asked Whitman not to publish some of his poems because of the sexual content (Miller 1),” indicating that Whitman was a very passionate author who was against conformity and wanted people to understand sexuality and how effective it is for human connections. He didn’t care what people judged of his works because he knew that his poem sent a message everyone needed to know.
Throughout his poem, Whitman is also very interested with himself, for example, he sexualizes his own soul. In the poem, he states, “you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me (Whitman sec. 5),” the “you” in his poem is in reference to his soul. It is also possible to say that Whitman is writing these sexual encounters with his soul because he is still in the stage of self-discovery himself. He felt “largely alone in his wish to understand his sexuality in a democratic culture (Martin 47),” which is seen in the poem since he didn’t blatantly state his sexuality but rather jump from different types: omnisexual. Also, the poem was originally named “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,” and what makes his “literary contribution…so extraordinary simply because it is rooted in and about him (Miller 1),” so it was meant to be about himself but he was also trying to educate and share his beliefs with his audience, thus later changing the title in 1881.
Whitman didn’t express his own sexuality in this poem probably because he needed everyone to understand that every sexuality is normal and shouldn’t be shocking to society. It was an “open-secret” among himself and others, especially during the civil war, since there was a lot of homosexuals during that time period. To expand on the theme of sexuality in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” he asserts the power of sexual desires to bring light to the raw nature of sexuality. Whitman’s main point is to not be ashamed for having or showing sexual desires because it is natural for everyone to. “Voices of sexes and lusts…voices veiled, and I remove the veil…copulation is no more rank to me than death is (Whitman sec. 24),” Whitman wants individuals to know that it’s okay to have these desires because it was a part of being human and a community. Based on his poem, he is really against conformity. He hoped for people to feel less restricted and more free with nature, sex, and soul because it could really affect a person emotionally if they feel guilt just because of their own sexual desires. Whitman also has problems with containing his own sexual desires. He describes “flames and ether making a rush for my veins, treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding (Whitman sec. 28),” Whitman is recounting a moment when he was masterbating. This is important to analyze because he is having trouble with controlling his sense of touch and desire.
In that excerpt, all this sexual energy was focused at one part of his body, hidden, and too powerful and violent. He rather wanted all his desire to be less centralized and more dispersed in his body. Whitman yearned to inform his readers that even though sexual desires and activities are natural, it’s also consequential to understand how to control the sense of touch at times because it could get out of control. During this part, he is having an autoerotic situation because it is understood that he is just as invested with his own sexuality just as he is with other individuals. Given these points, Whitman connects sexuality with nature, he speaks on human connections with the soul and body, and the ultimate power of sexual desires. Whitman saw all thing as equal and one way or another, interrelated. Writing about a very controversial subject during his time, he was a courageous man who longed to influence others, which he did.
Garcia Lorca and Edward Carpenter are just a couple writers out of hundreds who were heavily influenced by Whitman’s work. Whitman is a powerhouse of sharing his own thoughts, going against social norms, and at the same time, trying to find and understand himself too. After all, he just wanted everyone to feel unified and accepted.