Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whitman, "Song of Myself," Day #2

--Last class, we talked about Whitman's attempt to bridge the divides, particularly between self and other through his poetry and we focused on "embodiment," the notion that the poet physically embodies the nation. Some of the other ways of imagining a way to bridge this divide is through observation, participation and even merging into the identity of others. Find a couple of examples of any of these in the poem (first half or later) and consider what you think of/how you respond to Whitman's engagement with other people.

--One of the main divides that Whitman sought to break down is the conventional divide between body and soul, especially the privileging of soul over body and the vision of sex as demeaning or sinful. Select an example or two of images of sex here and consider what he is specifically saying about it.

--At the end of the 1855 preface (which would not be included in subsequent editions of LoG), Whitman asserts that the "proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (2209). Do you think he is confident, anxious or discouraged about his prospects for this by the end of the poem?


  1. I think the idea of the soul/body divide you bring up is still a relevant idea today. It might even be subverted from Whitman's day, depending on how you view things--that is, the body and bodily pleasures are seen as more important than the soul. But then again, the body is still seen as sinful, and bodily pleasures are something to be guilty about. This dichotomy i'm guessing existed in Whitman's day as well.
    As or images of sex, my mind goes to section 11 of Song of Myself; it is a scene wherein "twenty-eight men bathe by the shore." it's a very erotic passage, if not overtly pornographic, which i think is more effective in conveying a sense of embodiment and love of oneself even better. Whitman is writing about this scene of the men in the river, which makes it homoerotic to an extent, but he talks about the woman watching the men. These two elements make it seem like it would've been controversial--the notion of female desire, and the fact that Whitman is writing erotically about the male body. Whitman plays with language to convey sexual imagery that is never technically present--indeed they are all naked, but never is there a mention of genitalia, or sexual acts. But in the section, the language he uses alludes to ejaculation and intercourse.

    "The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long/ hair/ little streams pass'd over their bodies./ An Unseen hand also passed over their bodies/ it descended tremblingly from their temples to their ribs./ The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,/ they do not ask who seizes fast to them,/ they do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending/ arch,/ they do not think whom they souse with spray."

    The attention to the body in it's natural state, and the abandon of not caring, makes this section a celebration of the body.

  2. “My lovers suffocate me/ crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin/ jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night/ crying by day Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head/ calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush/ lighting on every moment of my life/ bussing my body with soft balsamic busses/ noiselessly passing handfuls out of their hearts and giving them to be mine” (Whitman 2249).

    In this passage, Whitman pulls the elements of nature and sex together, making them both into beautiful things. He speaks of the sexual relations with his lovers, but then ends the stanza with the exchanging of their hearts with one another, which is something most people would argue that must happen before one takes part in such actions. But others, and the majority of the population in this time, believed the body was to be given only to their spouse, and not before they were wed. He speaks of “jostling,” in what appeared to me, daytime, then by nightfall, his lover would show up naked. Whitman shows here that the soul and body are intertwined when involving sex, because of the mutual love shared between parties.

    --Emily Miller

  3. When discussing the notion of grass and how it is so many different things he states that “sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.” I think this portion in particular is a very good “embodiment” of different people. He is not discriminating against any one person, culture, social class, or race. I also think in the entire catalog in sections 15 and 16 he engages with other people. He doesn’t just engage with one or two types of people, he is engaging with everyone. From the lunatic in line 274, to the bride who unrumples her dress in line 303, he connects with all of them by using this catalog. I am starting to change my ideas about how he is somewhat cocky and arrogant. I think he is trying his hardest to relate with everyone and connect on many different personal levels with his readers, and that can come off as cocky in a way.

  4. "The little plentiful manikins skipping around in collars and tail'd coats/ I am aware who they are, (they are positively not worms or fleas,)/ I acknowledge the duplicates of myself, the weakest and shallowest is deathless with me,/ What I do and say the same waits for them, Every thought that flounders in me the same flounders in them." pg 2245

    In this quote trying to bridge the divide between himself and his audience through observation. He watches them, observing how they move, what they wear, and determines that through observation he has learned who they are. He believes that his audience is filled with people who are essentially just like him, or "duplicates," in that we are all the same. Although this feels a little bogus to me, especially the part about the weak and shallow duplicate Whitman's, I was somewhat appeased by is admittance of egotism on the very next line after the excerpt I provided. While I'm mostly put off with Whitman's ideas that he and I are, in a sense, one, I think that it was a good move on his part to give credit to his own egotism.

  5. In section 28, Whitman mixes erotic imagery with fighting words. I interpret this section to be about masturbation and his conflicted feelings about it. When he says that he is "given up by traitors" and cries out (I assume more to himself than to any other person), "You villain touch! what are you doing?" he shoes the reader just how conflicted he is. Most of the other language suggests he is quite enjoying himself, but then we have these lines and all is thrown into confusion. This section shows the complex relationship between soul and body that Whitman explores throughout the poem. As I said before, he enjoys what he is doing to his body, but struggles with the act mentally. His soul seems at odds with his actions. I wish he had explained himself better, because I feel that I'm left with this sense of unknowing. I don't fully understand Whitman's view of the relationship between his soul and body. He seems to have no issues addressing the potential relationship of others, as shown in section 11 when he discusses the 29 bathers, which only serves to frustrate me more.

  6. The end of "Song of Myself" is a great place of connection between Whitman and his audience. Just before his final section, Whitman appears to be concerned abut the passage of time, and his interactions with others as time progresses. "The past and present wilt," he says, so he asks, "Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?" He is concerned that his message hasn't gotten across-- that his audience still lacks an understanding of what his poetry is trying to accomplish.

    His final few stanzas seem to contain a renewed sense of confidence in both his readers, and in his fate as an author/human being:

    "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
    If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

    You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
    But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
    And filter and fibre your blood.

    Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
    Missing me one place search another,
    I stop somewhere waiting for you."

    Whitman appears to understand that his audience may fail to understand what his poetry is trying to say or do, and will come to understand his meaning in time-- even if that time is after his death. Just as man is put into the earth after death, yielding grass above himself, Whitman is similarly immortalized by his poetry. Travelers will inevitably tread upon the ground that Whitman's grass grows upon, just as his audience will inevitably end up questioning the issues and ideas that Whitman addresses in his poem as they progress in life.

    Whitman's perspective is almost that of a watchful spirit or deity, remaining in some ethereal world after death and watching his readers interpret and decode his messages.

    In high school Whitman annoyed me down to the last fiber of my being. After rereading "Song of Myself" a second time, my opinion of Whitman has greatly changed. I mean, he is obviously a little obsessed with himself and probably did have a massive ego-- but the poem seems to have a genuine concern about feeling human connection through experience and remembrance.

  7. One thing I noticed continuously throughout "Song of Myself" was Whitman's attempt to "accept everybody" and appeal to every person. For example, he writes, "I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons./ Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?/ I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won./ I beat and pound for the dead,/ I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them./ Vivas to those who have fail'd!/ And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!" (362-368). Whitman tries to embody every person here because he talks of opposites victors and failures. He embraces both. This engagement with the two opposing types of people shows his effort to embody every individual.

    Whitman also engages with people at the beginning of "16" when he says, "I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,/ Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,/ Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,/ Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,/ One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same..." (330-334). After this, Whitman continues on by listing off people from many different areas around the country. In this way, Whitman truly "embodies the nation" by attempting to appeal to all of these people. He is again speaking in opposites during the first few lines (old/young, maternal/paternal, child/man, course/fine) which shows his attempt to embody everyone. Whitman bridges the divides between people by noting their differences, but also stating that he always embodies both of the differences.

  8. After reading the last paragraph of the preface, and then rereading the last two sections of "Song of Myself," Whitman seems very discouraged that everyone hasn't recognized his greatness. In line 1329 he says, "Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already to late?" This sounds like a person who is afraid that he's going to end up like Van Gogh and not get famous until after his death, which he seems kind of bitter about. Lines 1339-40 say, "If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles/You will hardly know who I am or what I mean." This could be read as hopeful because that means he's been absorbed by his country, but, given what we discussed in class Wednesday about his egotism, these lines sound bittersweet. Whitman recognizes how awesome he is, but he's unhappy that people don't seem to see it.

  9. P2228
    "If i worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body or any part of it. translucent mould of me it shall be you! shaded ledges and rests it shall be you@ firm masculine colter it shall be you! whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you@ You my rich blood your milky stream pale strippings of my life! breasts that presses against other breasts it shall be you! my brian it shall be your occult convolutions! root of wash'd sweet-flag! timorous pound-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you."
    "I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious, each moment and whatever happens thrill me with joy, i cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish."

    In These two passages Whitman talks about the sacred act of sex and how it should be worshiped. He refers to the spread of his own body which and a nest of guarded duplicate eggs which can be seen as the conception of a child. (milky stream & the nest of guarded duplicate eggs). He is also pleased with himself because there is much of him and the thrills he experiences during his sexual acts are so great that he looses control of his body and its movements (I cannot tell how my ankles bend). Whitman's language is very blunt yet flowery in what I believe is an attempt to discuss such private issues in a respectable and romantic way.

  10. The idea of embodiment is prevalent in both sections of Song of Myself. In the first verse even we see an almost Buddhist-like declaration, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you". I was not sure at first if I was reading too far into this or if the "every atom" bit was just a metaphor to convey that his story is that of every man, but when he later references the Buddha I thought that maybe he had at least some understanding of eastern religion. A passage that very well displays his attempt to embody the American is, "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe." This idea that his observation of strife is equal to experience is rather pretentious, however he later clarifies the distinction between observation and experience saying, "Were mankind murderous or jealous upon you, my brother, my sister? I am sorry for you, they are not murderous or jealous upon me, All has been gentle with me, I keep no account of lamentation, (What have I to do with lamentation?) In this way he says that he has not experienced these struggles firsthand, so it is hard for him to connect too much with the emotional experience of such hardship.

    -Max Stolte (Someone used my email address to make a google account for a pee wee herman ventriloquist dummy so this is my handle now, can't figure out how to change it.)

  11. "The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long/ hair/ little streams pass'd over their bodies./ An Unseen hand also passed over their bodies/ it descended tremblingly from their temples to their ribs./ The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,/ they do not ask who seizes fast to them,/ they do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending/ arch,/ they do not think whom they souse with spray."

    I think what's interesting about this passage is how innocently it's all presented. Whitman is describing something that would have been considered indecent at the time not with titillating language, but with respect and honesty, treating it as something completely natural. What it suggests to me is that he wants us to be more honest about our sexual natures, but not exploitative or salacious about them.

    "I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious, each moment and whatever happens thrill me with joy, i cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my faintest wish."

    This passage is a nice bridge between the proto-existentialism of Whitman and his views on sexuality. He sees sex as a spiritual act, and obviously someone's spirit can be known best only by that person. It's not merely about masturbatory pleasure, but the self-knowledge that comes through understanding one's own body as a physical object.

  12. Walt Whitman's work was extremely controversial during his time because of his overt displays of sexuality within his poems, especially in "Song of Myself" Whitman struggles with the his on view of sex as a natural act and the criticism he received from his peers (mainly the avid Christians) who argued that giving in to your sexual desires was a sinful and immoral act. In this passage Whitman shows his view that sex should be accepted as a natural act rather than something to be ashamed of.

    "Through me forbidden voices,
    Voices of sexes and lusts . . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
    Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
    I do not press my finger across my mouth,
    I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
    Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. (section 24)

    In this passage the speaker believes that sexual guilt and shame are harmful and damaging emotions. He seems to think that "lusts" are noble feelings that have been made "indecent" by the shame they provoke. The speakers views sex as natural and something that should be embraced, rather than "forbidden" and should not considered "rank," or indecent. By "removing the veil" Whitman is saying that he is not going to resist or hide his sexual desires or view of sex, but rather display it proudly and openly.

  13. I'm not sure necessarily how many examples I truly found to be Whitman emerging with another identity, but he certainly suggests there are faculties that do so. Generally displayed in the text as social commentary, classifications of workers and members of society, and interesting opinions of specific careers in a community. Page 2220 interestingly lists the whereabouts of canal boys, drovers, conductors, paving men; and may suggest, as on the next page, personality traits that may fit a specific cause. Page 2222 lists more of these, but in a manner that can be broken down if considering there "distinction", or significance, to the recognition of the community. In other words, I saw the line that read," A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest; as a pattern to which I responded: essential, practical, impractical, social, antisocial, free vs. prisoner, gentile & commoner, spiritualist. Nevertheless, my distinction of the list of professions may be one of many viewpoints regarding practice.

    On the whole, I really enjoyed Whitman's writing and realize both the artistic aesthetic and narrative style. As perhaps a derivative of a text like Age of Reason, I see a "natural strength" in Song of Myself. I enjoyed its candor. Though there were points that suggested specific roles, enmity, and certain animosities; as in the description of the quadroon girl being sold at the auction-stand. I considered that passage as a juxtaposition from the "nature of open water, to the domesticity of human beings" to be a drastic contrast in extreme modes of society.

    Though, the true cohesion of Whitman's writing comes in his respect to the Natural Law. We must consider how "experienced" an outdoorsman may be, and so should seriously consider their journals and personal writings. Basically, the power of nature's "same old law" suggests that everyone lives by a universal crede, or possibly mutual divinity. To Whitman, in considering one's self to the purpose and "song" that we all feel inside, each person has the responsibility to experience the meandering/chaotic path toward success, and regardless of predisposition may consider their "presents" as graces from God. For, Whitman more suggests that identities are found in various moments throughout the days, and constantly change in relation to mixed stimuli. For the deist platform, as to which Walt clearly stands, nature is used as an escape to all we find infuriating in the cities. However, in certain solitudes (perhaps considered hermitry), there is an frontier of profound enlightenment.

  14. Pages 2236 through 2238 are full of Whitman's personal embodiments:

    "I go hunting polar furs and the seal, leaping chasms with a pike-pointed staff, clinging to topples of brittle and blue."-page 2236

    "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person." -page 2238

    Since the main point of "Song of Myself" is that people and grass and moth eggs are all just some kind of celestial mulch, made of the same stuff, Whitman needs to vary the presentation of his lists. Otherwise it could get pretty repetitive. He uses tons of lists. On page 2220 every line starts with a "the." A poem constructed with only "the" would be hard to read.

    Either that or Whitman has some out-of-control empathy. He seems to believe that he is like a parent to the world. I know it's hard to watch when my kids get shots--but I don't mind getting them. Empathy, Whitman's got loads. If he would have had kids, he would have been the most overprotective parent ever.

  15. The mentioning of the bathers in section 11 is most definitely full of sexual imagery. The detail he goes into describing the men as they bathe amongst one another is very erotic in detail. In addition, the yearning that the woman feels as she watches the bathers can be interpreted as lustful in nature. I think this is an example of Whitman stating that sexuality is something that should not be hidden or suppressed. Instead, it is something that is ever-present in all actions, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge it. In this passage, his choice words make an everyday thing such as bathing seem very sexualized, and it's pretty obvious that there are homoerotic undertones. Also, the way the woman wishes to join the bathers can be interpreted in the way people repress their sexual urges unnecessarily and that to feel such urges is natural and something to be experienced.

    Another very sexual section is five, when he personifies the soul separate from his body and they seem to share a sexual experience, with the soul having "plunged your tongue into my bare-stript heart". I think this is Whitman trying to connect spirituality and sexuality, arguing that they are intertwined in many different ways. To Whitman, sex is a way of connecting and combining two entities, and body and soul are no exception.