Thursday, April 21, 2011

Whiman, "Live Oak with Mosses" & "Children of Adam"

--This is an image of a live oak tree, after which Whitman named these poems. The live oak is notable not only for its size, but for its very extensive root system, which stops other trees from growing nearby. For that reason, it is an ambivalent symbol of individualism in these poems of "manly love."

--How do these poems offer a different vision of Whitman's sense of his poetic self from that of "Song of Myself"?

--These poems exist as a cycle, presumably narrating an experience of manly love. How would you describe the narrative here? Where is Whitman at the end of this cycle?

--The editor suggests that Whitman didn't publish this sequence as it was drafted because it was "too direct" about homosexuality, but he did publish all of these poems, plus others about manly love in the "Calamus" section of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, so it doesn't seem that Whitman was shy about publishing a defense of homosexuality. The editor implicitly argues for the superiority of the "Live Oak, with Mosses" sequence as the original vision for the poems over those published. Which do you think should be privileged? The original vision or the published version?

--Compare how Whitman imagines heterosexual love in "Children of Adam" to homosexual love in "Live Oak, with Mosses." How are relations between men and women figured differently than male-male love relations?


  1. In "Children of Adam" the heterosexual bond through sex is seen as an encompassing of body and soul, and of everything else for that matter. He sees sex in everything, the smell of fruit and pairing of birds. It's portrayed as a natural process that's not only important, but arguably vital. When he describes the woman he likes best, he is describing an independent woman. In fact his ideal woman is so independent she will understand him but not obey him.

    -Max Stolte
    In "LIve Oak, with Moss" there is a sense of reserved praise for the homosexual partners he describes. He often calls them his friend, then his lover however the content is not reserved in the least bit. It also seems like the sexual bond between him and these men is almost a brotherly relationship. He says "O I think we should be brethren" when speaking of men he wishes to have relations with. Yet the way he speaks of them as, for lack of a better term, life partners, implies that he seeks more meaningful homosexual relationships. "I am to go with him I love...It is enough for each of us that we are together-We never seperate again." So maybe he is looking for meaningful relationships rather than just curbing his sexual appetite. The metaphor of the tree surviving all alone as Whitman believes he could not is an interesting one. Is he saying that he can not live without his strictly male lover? Or is he saying that he just needs somebody close regardless of gender? Even in section IX he speaks of male lovers as "robust friends" and "manly love". Is this manly love a sign of friendship or does it go deeper than that? Maybe this city he envisions is simply one of universal love without barriers of gender.

  2. In "Children of Adam" moreover, in "A Woman Waits for Me" Whitman talks about heterosexual love as something really natural and passionate and almost soaked into every part of the body and spirit. However, he uses phrases like " you woman" and he says that he expects his children to come out a certain way when he gets the girl he wants pregnant. So, while it does seem like a beautiful and natural thing, it also sort of seems like the heterosexual love and sex is a means to something. He wants to reproduce.

    In "Live Oak, With Moss" Whitman uses words like "my brother" "my lover" "my friend" over and over. The homosexual love seems a lot more personal and spiritual and intertwined for Whitman. It seems like something a lot more intimate and it's not just about sex. He wants love and passion to go with it. There's a longing in this poem that's not in "Children of Adam."

  3. Mike Flachs

    Whitman’s distinctions between the heterosexual love in “Children of Adam” and the homosexual love in “Live Oak, with Moss” seem to fall into the categories of the emotional and the physical. While there are images of both emotional and physical expression in each section, “Live Oak, with Moss” appears to focus on more emotional expression while “Children of Adam” seems to focus more on physical expression. For example, in “A Woman Waits for Me” Whitman writes, “A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking, Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking” (Norton- 2256). Here, Whitman chooses to focus on the physical experiences of love when he is describing the relationship between a man and a woman. Contrastingly, in “Live oak, With Moss”, Whitman writes, “In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon’s clear beams shone And his arm lay lightly over my breast- And that night I was happy” (Norton- 2297). In this selection Whitman undoubtedly does describe physical connection but his main source of inspiration seems to be the emotions of joy and happiness rather than pleasure derived from physical contact. Whitman also seems very preoccupied with his focus on sex within “Children of Adam”, while in “Live Oak, With Moss” he does not.

  4. when reading these poems, i couldn't help but draw a comparison to the way greeks saw love between women and men, and men and men--the general belief was that nothing could rival the love between two men, because they are intellectual equals, and thus their love is the most consummate. of course, greeks still married and had sex with women, all the while taking male lovers. i don't see whitman disparaging women for not being his intellectual equal, so perhaps it's an unfair comparison; i just noticed his mental and intellectual connect with the love in "live oak, with moss," where there was a much more physical thing going on with the female lover in "children of adam."
    the poems connect back to his themes of the body and nature; they seem to be linked and connected, sex and love as a part of the natural order. the same-sex love and opposite sex love are presented with the same validity and poetry.

  5. The first difference that strikes me is how Whitman focuses on many different aspects of the female form in Children of Adam, whereas he only mentions his lovers arms in Live Oak, with Mosses. This led me to think that Whitman feels heterosexual relationships are only focused on physical attraction. It seems strange to me that he should have this view - in Song of Myself he seemed to praise all loving relationships as deserving of equal treatment. It makes sense that he would not personally find that strong emotional bond in a heterosexual relationship, but for him to suggest that is how all heterosexual relationships are is, frankly, a little insulting.

    The second thing I noticed is there is a strong desire for reproduction in heterosexual relationships, and possibly in Whitman himself. The selection from Children of Adam focuses on this need to reproduce which is completely lacking in Live Oak, with Mosses. Again we have the physical desires versus the emotional - the independence/aloneness he feels.

  6. In "Children of Adam", heterosexual love is described as explicitly sexual, with constant references to the act of lovemaking and the attendant passions and primal urges. Yet for something of such a passionate nature, there does not seem to be much of a personal touch to the poem-especially given how many of Whitman's poems are squarely about him and his personal experiences. He describes it almost like a biologist observing two animals mating, and even talks of the social implications of creating strong children. All in all, he treats the love in Children of Adam as something he observes, but never really feels.

    Live Oak With Mosses is different in that the love described is romantic, platonic, and consummate rather than lustful and sexual. While Children is celebratory of sex and love, Live Oak With Mosses is more about the longing for love that isn't there, an obvious commentary on the acceptability of straight vs. homosexual love in his era. He describes his lovers in terms of brotherhood and friendship, whereas the connections between lovers in Children of Adam are far more sensual and nature-based. Like Cat Coyne said above, it does seem reminiscent of the Ancient Greek distinction between ordinary love between men and women and the consummate love between two men that is more about the bonding of two souls than anything sexual.

  7. In the poem "From Children of Adam", Whitman seems to be expressing his love and sexual desire for a particular woman. Intimacy between he and the woman is necessary, as he says "O resistless yearning". To have an intimate relationship with the woman helps to embody the bond that he already has with her, as he states that he loves her more than his own life. And even though there are other options as far as compatibility, he puts the woman above every other woman, "More than all else, you delighting". Not only is this a sexual infatuation for Whitman, this is an unconditional love.

  8. Children of Adam seemed to focus heavily on the desire to bear children even above the desire for sex. That seems to be the main attraction of heterosexual love to Whitman. This differs from the way that he portrays male to male love in Live Oak, with Moss (obviously) but Whitman focuses much more on internal happiness and what seems to be real "love" rather than just desiring to procreate. Children of Adam really did not have that same passion for finding happiness

    I thought that I kind of liked Walt Whitman until I read "Spontaneous Me". As soon as I read the stanza that said "love" about 30 times I just closed the book and walked away. I had met my love quota for the day. Then upon re-opening the book an hour later to finish the reading, wished I never had. I'll never be able to look at a Walnut tree the same again.

  9. For the cycle of "manly love" that is within "Live Oak, with Moss," parts XI and XII conclude the poem in a very strange fashion. Whitman, from what we've read in class so far, has been startlingly open and frank about his thoughts and feelings, and yet, in part XI he concludes with, "But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, / I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs." This is what Whitman says about the "athlete" whom he loves (and loves him back). Then, in part XII, Whitman ends with asking "what use were it for him to seek to become eleve of mine" if he did not have the "hot and red" blood of friendship in him, if he did not silently select his lovers. This part in general reminded me of the ancient Greeks, as their "homosexual" relationships were also often seen as teacher, student (which is how Whitman now frames this).

    Whitman is obviously upset with in the end of the poem. The way I read it, he had feelings for a young man who he thought had reciprocal feelings, but when Whitman took him has his student, the man rejected him. The part of the line, "If he be not silently selected by lovers, and do not silently select lovers," to me, is Whitman saying, "If he is not gay." What leads me to this reading is from part X of the poem, where Whitman finishes with, "Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me," after having described a person whom he "often and silently" approaches so that he may be near them. To me, this is his description of yearning after another man in secret, and the secrecy that was necessary being a gay man in that time period.

  10. In the poem "From Children of Adam", Whitman is very direct and vocal about heterosexual love. He openly expresses his sexual desires about the woman saying,

    "Singing the song of procreation,
    Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people,
    Singing the muscular urge and the blending,
    Singing the bedfellow's song, (O resistless yearning!
    O for any and each the body correlative attracting!
    O for you whoever you are your correlative body! O it, more than all
    else, you delighting!)....
    "he oath of the inseparableness of two together, of the woman that
    loves me and whom I love more than my life, that oath swearing,
    (O I willingly stake all for you,"

    In these stanzas Whitman openly acknowledges all the natural urges of human sexuality and love.

    In "White Oak with Moss" Whitman also illustrates the great pleasure associated with love but it is more about the emotional pleasures rather than the physical. This is shown when Whitman says,

    "And when I thought how my friend, my lover,
    was coming, then O I was happy;
    O Then Each breath tasted sweeter—and
    all that day my food nourished me
    more—And the beautiful day passed
    And the next came with equal joy—And with
    the next, at evening, came my friend,
    And that night, while all was still, I heard the
    waters roll slowly continually up the
    I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and
    sands, as directed to me, whispering,
    to congratulate me,—For the friend I
    love lay sleeping by my side,"

    To me this passage truly embodies what love is. His feelings and love for this person seem to make him radiate with happiness. It is improving every sense of his. His food is better,his breath is sweeter. He is engrossed in this wave of happiness. I believe Whitman's description of love and lust is more authentic in this piece which I believe is evidence that he identified more with the homo-sexual love he describes in this poem as opposed to the heterosexual love his describes in "From Children of Adam."