Through his poetry, Whitman’s Song of Myself makes the soul sensual and makes divine the flesh. In Whitman’s time, the dichotomy between the soul and the body had been clearly defined by centuries of Western philosophy and theology.
Today, the goodness of the soul and the badness of the flesh still remain a significant notion in contemporary thought. Even Whitman’s literary predecessor, Emerson, chose to distinctly differentiate the soulfrom all nature. Whitman, however, chooses to reevaluate that relationship. His exploration of human sensuality, particularly human sexuality, is thetool with which he integrates the spirit with the flesh. Key to this integration is Whitman’s notion of the ability of the sexualself to define itself. This self-definition is derived from the stronglyindependent autonomy with which his sexuality speaks in the poem.Order now
Much ofthe Song of Myself consists of a cacophony of Whitman’s different selvesvying for attention. It follows that Whitman’s sexual self would likewisefind itself a voice. A number of passages strongly resonate with Whitman’ssexuality in their strongly pleasurable sensualities. The thoroughlyintimate encounter with another individual in section five particularlyexpresses Whitman as a being of desire and libido.
Whitman begins his synthesis of the soul and body through sexuality byestablishing a relative equality between the two. He pronounces in previousstanzas, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself, and,Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be lessfamiliar than the rest. Here, he lays foundation for the basicegalitarianism with which he treats all aspects of his being for the rest ofthe poem. This equality includes not only his sexuality, but in broaderterms, his soul and body.
In the opening to section five, Whitmanexplicitly articulates that equality in the context of the body and soul: Ibelieve in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And youmust not be abased to the other. He refutes the moral superiority of thesoul over the flesh historically prevalent throughout Western thought. Withthat level groundwork established, he is free to pursue the relationshipbetween the soul and the body on equal footing. The mechanism of this integration may be one of a number of possibilitiesincluded in Whitman’s work. Whitman’s notion that All truths wait in allthings very broadly defines the scope of his desire to distill truth fromhis surroundings. He indicates that .
. . all the men ever born are also mybrothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, suggesting that perhapssensual understanding of the interconnectedness of man bridges the spiritualto the corporal. Within the context of the passage, the cause/effectrelationship between sensual contact and transcendent understanding becomesclear. His declaration that I believe in the flesh and the appetites,Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles reinforces the concept that truth isdirectly discerned through the union of the spirit and the senses.
Human sensuality thus becomes the conduit that bridges the spirit and theflesh. Whitman demonstrates the result of that synthesis to be peace andknowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. He expands thisrevelation of truth and understanding as the passage continues, linking itto divinity as he invokes the image of the hand of God and the spirit ofGod. The union of the spirit with the body thus becomes a natural, commonpathway to divinity. This association to the cosmos, facilitated by a unionof the spiritual and the corporal, is then a direct result of the expressionof the sexual self.
Whitman’s choice of the word reached in . . . And reach’d till you felt mybeard, and reach’d till you held my feet, is a powerful image.
It connotesnot only a physical bridging, which Whitman establishes as a elemental forcein its sensual nature, but also a direct application of the will. In thiscontext, this passage echoes Whitman’s earlier Urge and urge and urge,always the procreant urge of the world, in its hunger and desire. Bothwords reached and urge indicate willed effort, revolving around thebasic function of human nature in sexuality. The centralness of theprocreant urge to both these passages makes the sexual act the voltaaround which comprehension and truth are achieved.
One of the key truths that Whitman explicitly communicates is the notion ofthe interconnectedness of mankind. This theme echoes throughout Song ofMyself in the collection of voices through which Whitman speaks throughoutthe poem, voices of his own and of other persons. In celebrating thatdiversity among all persons and within himself, Whitman reiterates his useof the sexuality as an instrument of bridging. Here, the power of thesensual self binds all persons together through its universality and itsinherence in each human being.
In claiming all men ever born are also mybrothers, Whitman associates himself and his sexual being to the whole ofcollective human experience. His presumption that all persons are fullycapable of expressing themselves as sexual beings is subtly hinted at in theuniform hieroglyphic he mentions later. In this instance, Whitman’srelation between grass, the uniform hieroglyphic; and his catalogue ofdifferent identities, proclaiming, I give them the same, I receive them thesame, marks a commonality in the human experience. This notion of peopleas blades of grass, same and equal yet distinctly individual, can beextended to encompass Whitman’s notion of the sexual self. As Whitman’s transcendental experience continues, the scope of hisunderstanding seems to continue outward.
The exponential growth of hisknowledge through his sensual experience claims: And limitless are leavesstiff or drooping in the fields, And brown ants in the little wells beneaththem. The breadth of his comprehension increases profoundly on bothmacroscopic and microscopic levels. In contemplating the nature of grass inthe next section, Whitman echoes this notion of infinities giving way toinfinities: All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses. When taken into consideration with his later declaration, Walt Whitman, akosmos, the concept of the sexual self as part of an external infinity mustalso be weighed against the notion of the sexual self as an integral part ofan internal infinity. In Whitman’s enumerations of different types ofpersons throughout the poem, he strongly suggests that these people are alsovoices manifested in his own being.
He later proclaims, In the faces ofmen and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass. This line nearthe end of the poem strongly ties the sense of externally infinite being toWhitman’s sense of internal boundlessness. These two otherwise separatedomains of the external and the internal are thus coupled, completing thecycle of the theme of union that Whitman imbues Song of Myself. By projecting his sexual self against such broad parameters, Whitmangenerates a decidedly transcendental experience. With such vivid imagery inhis celebration of the sensual, he elevates the limited faculties of man tobeing capable of limitless understanding.
The role of the sexual in hiswork is integral to this sense of active, individual discovery. Whitman’snotion of sexuality acknowledges it as one of the highest forms of sensualpleasure, and one of great personal and communicative importance.Poetry Essays