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Whitman’s Masculinity and Femininity in Song of Myself

All Whitman’s poems, not merely the “Children of Adam” poems and the “Calamus” poems, are love poems of blatant sexuality and amativeness, which was frightening to some of those who read and liked him and was a real bugbear to those who charged him with writing filthy without bothering to read them. However, sex, this rejuvenation or rebirth or new life, is taken by Whitman as proof of the affirmative and ascending nature of God’s world and of humanity itself.

Sex is not something debasing or whispered about behind the hand but deserving the highest celebration. In Song of Myself, masculinity and femininity, the two components of sex, are chanted by Whitman. What’s further, Whitman brings together these two seemingly opposites and synthesizes them to form a new wholeness at a higher level where he unlocks his inner reality and truth.

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As a start, it is essential to list some of the opposite concepts that are such an integral part of Whitman’s poetry. “Group 1: arrogant, activity, day, sun, life, body and adhesiveness; group 2: docility, passivity, night, moon, death, soul and amativeness.” ii All of the words in group 1 relate to masculinity and those in group 2 to femininity. Strangely, the words in the two groups are not opposite at all in Whitman’s poetry, as they would be with most poets; instead, they are dual aspects of a new cosmic self.

Whitman is attracted to energy—-drawn by its glorious, magnetic charge, evidenced in all his poetry. Since reproduction is the prime energizing force in the universe, it would be impossible for Whitman to neglect its power. In Song of Myself, masculinity is explicitly depicted: it was the sweating, muscular labourers, not the pale bank clerk, that holds Whitman’s attention and love. He sings for the carpenter, the pilot, the blacksmith, their “strong arms,” “grimy and heavy chest,” and their sexual bodies.

As well, masculine heroism can find its great expression in Song of Myself: Whitman imagines himself as “a mashed fireman,” “exhausted but not so unhappy,”; as “old artillerist” against the “attacking cannons, mortars, and howitzers.” And further research will reveal that all these masculine and aggressive elements within Whitman’s descriptions relate to Whitman’s image. In his unsigned review of Leaves of Grass, Whitman himself depicted its author as “one of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding.”

Clearly, in all these masculinities, “there was always a bit of dandy in Whitman and a rather formidable streak of Narcissism”iii. Whitman was in love with the masculine image of himself, and it is the feminine elements of his being, at the very core of his making-up, hold this love. Moreover, penetrating this masculine physique and vitality, it exposes that Whitman’s inner nature is primarily passive and feminine, which might explain why he becomes ecstatic when he describes the masculinity of energetic men, typically, in Section 12 of Song of Myself where the poet is describing the blacksmiths: The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms.

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Besides the healthy masculinity and heroism, there are also many instances in Song of Myself where Whitman tends to view himself as Christ. In section 10, the poet is sheltering a run-away slave and showing his democratic (Christ-like) brotherly love: “Though the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limps and weak,/And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,/ And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet……/I had him sit next to me at table—-my firelock leaned in his corner.” In section 48, he declares, “In the faces of men and women, I see God, and in my face in the glass.”

Whereas Christ was masculine in his courage, in his rebellion against the established order, and his stoical attitude at his crucifixion, Whitman is also feminine in his passive humility, in his tender compassion and love for others and in his ability to calm and to take care of others. The third expression of masculinity is his boastful tone and his masculine outflow of his innermost feeling. When Whitman speaks in Song of Myself as the “cosmic I,” as distinct from the “personal I,” he seldom writes, “I said” or “I think” or “I state.” Like Emerson, he does not qualify and hedge in his statements.

He asserts. Few poets who have written in the English language have used the active, concrete verbs with boldness and artistic excellence. The assertions of Whitman are far too grandiose to be contained by the standard verse forms of his day or to be restrained by rhyme or regular meter. And because Whitman is a “spontaneous me” rather than an “intellectualized me,” he must “sing,” or “chant,” or “carol” as he rises and falls from peaks of ecstasy. “His message is not intellectual; it is anti-intellectual; it is not moral; it flows beyond and beneath morality into a beautiful and loving amorality.

It springs from a feeling, a fusion, and an accompanying certainty at the very core of his being. It is made possible because he is the ‘reconciler’ of apparent opposites (masculinity and femininity), which are when properly understood, not opposite at all.” Therefore, in this stage, it is safe to conclude that Whitman’s inner nature is primarily passive and feminine behind all the masculinities he chants in his muscularly assertive tone. Because “He is an ‘absorber,’ who receives and accepts all into himself. He is a Cosmic Eye who searches out and seizes all, a Cosmic Sponge who absorbs and contains all.”v

And after the process of absorption, the poet becomes a translator, “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women.” Instead, what occurs in Whitman’s translation is that “he accepts the peculiar and concrete as symbolic or representative—-‘a gigantic beauty of a stallion’ and then quickly fuses the particular into a cosmic view where it is elevated and submerged in deeper meanings far beyond its own limitations.”

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While the masculine elements Whitman extols, explores and glorifies in Song of Myself is in a variety of its implications—-firm muscularity, heroism, and the democratic (Christ-like) concept of brotherly love, femininity in this poem are of a very special kind. Women of the ultra-feminine, dainty and charming type are totally absent in Whitman’s verse. Instead, women in Whitman’s poetry are glorified for their masculine strength rather than their feminine delicacy; they are mostly down-trodden and among the laboring classes: females he sings for in Song of Myself are “the prostitute” draggling “her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck.” and “the clean-haired Yankee girl” working “with her sewing-machine, or in the factory or mill.”

Another female image in Whitman’s poetry is “mothers and mothers of mothers.” Whitman obviously has enduring and tremendous respect and praise for them. His deification of motherhood is apparently in section 21 of Song of Myself, “And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.” This veneration for motherhood is understandable because Whitman owns warm feelings for his own mother and motherhood is the visible evidence of procreation—-the force that is vital to life and to his poetry.

Such unordinary femininity, for one reason, maybe a result of Whitman’s widely known homosexuality: as is deduced from his relationships with Sergeant Thomas P. Sawyer and Peter Doyle, Whitman was homosexual and played a passive and dependent role in his unusual instances. Thus, torn apart by these deeply felt emotional attachments, Whitman always appreciates the masculinity of women and is naturally afraid of these very feminine women, because they are rivals for his subconscious love objects.

However, a further examination within a wider social background will show Whitman’s homosexuality is only a superficial reason for this particular femininity. The decades of the 1850s were the most creative period in Whitman’s life and it was also the highlight of the national movement of women’s rights. Whitman felt great sympathy, affection, and admiration for the feminists, such as Chilton and Menken; he encouraged them to struggle for women’s equal rights to men.

Thus, it can be understood that, by depicting women in such a masculine image, Whitman, does not mean to represent them as D. W. Lawrence commented on Leaves of Grasses: “muscles and wombs, they need not have had a face at all”; rather, it is a cosmic or levelling effect Whitman achieves by not making a distinction; the masculine image of women actually is “a reference…which holds the women just as great as the men; and the mother the melodious character of the earth, the finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go.”

To sum up, in Song of Myself, Whitman deals with both active masculinity and passive femininity and unites them to unveil his cosmic self. The reason that this fusion, the wellspring of his poetry is so complete, so candid, and so persistently exciting is that both the passive (feminine) and the active (masculine) components were blended and united within Whitman. It was his total acceptance and emotional extension of his own identity, with his joyous pride in its inclusiveness that gave America the miraculous volume. In addition to the joining together of body and soul, “it was a synthesis of the masculine and feminine within Whitman, which caused the mystical vision and inspired his poetry.”

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His poetry can be viewed as a child of this blending; therefore, its rhythms are necessarily sexual, since the fusion itself is emotional, subjective, and sensual rather than logical. Therefore, only by accepting the fact that all things, while still retaining individual identity and dignity, are in a deeper sense symbolic representatives of the same things, and that all things contain not only themselves but their apparent opposites, can the reader lose and then find himself in full freedom of Whitman’s cosmic version.

Only when we realize that Whitman is not a conscious and deliberate rebel, nor a mere chauvinist, nor a naive optimist, nor a discursive egotist—-only when we grasp the wholeness of man and his love and vision—-can we finally learn to feel him aright. For “Whitman’s poetry ranges beyond all studies and analyses; it is to be read aloud, to be sensed, to be absorbed, to be fused with—-just as the poet fused the diverse elements of life and the contending elements of his own personality, accepting them in such a way as to create the most remarkable volume of poetry in 19th century in America.”

Finally, it is necessary to be clearly aware that there is really no duality of paradox or ambiguity or opposites in the representation of the various masculine and feminine elements in Whitman’s poetry, which has been demonstrated in Song of Myself. “Day-man-life is not really separated from night-woman-death.”x They all merge to become a whole; all are of equal value, and all lead to new birth and a higher level of a Cosmic self.” As Whitman himself affirms, “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex.” Or again, the ultimate affirmation: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.”

  • See Sherry Ceniza “Being a woman…I Wish to Give My View”: Some Nineteenth-Century Women’s Responses to the 1860 Leaves of Grass
  • Kaplan, Justin: “Walt Whitman—a life” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. (P 429) Critical Biography of Whitman
  • Horber “Writing the Male Body” Literature and Psychology 33, No S.3 and 4 (1987) P 16-26
  • William M. White “Walt Whitman” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25 No.1 (Spring 1983) P 139-143
  • Brown Clarence A Walt “Whitman and the New poetry” American Literature 1982
  • Wiegman, Robyn “The Dynamics of Whitman’s Poetry ” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXX. No.2 Spring, 1972, PP 247-260
  • Whitman’s Masculinity and Femininity in Song of Myself ??? 01041083 08/05/2007

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