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Walt Whitman

Whitman, Emerson, and the Song of Sex

Lee Gentry, VCU

While Emerson was impressed with Walt Whitman's style of writing and thoughts--he was "the poet" he projected in "The Poet"--it must be asked why Emerson could not accept all of what Whitman had to say in his poetry. I'm focusing on Song of Myself as this poem was Whitman's most profound piece related to the transcendental movement in America. As Emerson was transcendental, Whitman was transcendental and mystical. The reason Emerson may have hesitated in his support of Whitman's publishing the sexually explicit poems was possibly because Emerson had not yet reached the sort of mystical realm that Whitman had.

Emerson's doctrine of self-trust asserts that every man should commune with the divinity of (or the animating over-soul) within himself (Miller), 136). Yet it was difficult for Emerson to accept Whitman's belief that (his) own celebrated sexuality was (for him) his assertion of self. It might be said that Emerson was bound to a more conformed code of ethics and Whitman was exploring the open road. As Emerson felt free to write about the self and self-reliance, it was Whitman who truly embodied the doctrine of self-assertion.

Walt Whitman was then no mere transcendentalist, nor was his work the time's normal transcendental piece. Emerson said to Whitman about his work, "I give you joy of your free and brave thought" (136). Emerson found that Whitman practiced what the ideal American scholar should, "In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be--free and brave" (136). Yet Emerson asked Whitman not to publish some of his poems because of the sexual content.

Through sexual energy Whitman identifies with the fundamental generative forces in nature. In sexual identity and experience a person may discover harmony and unity with nature, the life force that subterraneously unites all into one creative whole. (129). Thus it is Whitman's vision--awakened through personal experience--that the human sexual nature is actually parallel to nature's own constant sexual energy. In Song of Myself we find a most revealing passage of such energy and likeness:

I am he that walks with the tendermand growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.

Press close bare-bosom'd night--press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds- night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night- mad naked summer night.

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset--earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow'd earth--rich apple-blossom'd earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.

Nature is forever performing a sexual act and Whitman is saying that humans are also invited to partake. Whitman relates here that the universal, cosmic passion is in constant spiritual union--the sea, the mountains--the earth is voluptuous! Whitman is passionate in his revelation that there is power in sex.

James E. Miller says Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of sex (128) Whitman's own experience with sex enlightened him not only to self-awareness but to the earth's lovesong. This is probably what Emerson had a problem with. Whitman was not bound by societal expectations--Emerson believed in heterosexual sex, or at least it was the only kind of sexual relationship he could publicly attest to. So Whitman was Emerson's risk taker and the transcendental poet of America. Whitman's courage to reveal his own sexual awakening is found in Song of Myself:

Is then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself,
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,

Emerson must have understood that this passage relates to the self--how any person might be inwardly absorbed in the discovery of the new intensities and levels of feeling (129). Perhaps Whitman's "omnisexual" preferences were not easily understood by Emerson, but for Whitman self-discovery was rooted and intensified through sexual experience. His sexual preferences--or the fact that he did not have one--suggest he was extremely awakened to the nature within himself. Whitman understood that the Over-Soul also had no preference of heterosexual versus homosexual sex as the universal consciousness is all the same and knew that, as represented by nature, sex has no boundaries. Morals limit a person, but over-riding the morals of conformity there is the self. The self is bigger. Whitman's literary contribution is so extraordinary simply because it is rooted in and about him. And there can be no greater work. In Whitman's' own words future generations will behold the mountains of truth about his transcendental state of mind:

I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
It's no wonder Emerson noted Whitman as the "most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." (136).

Miller, James, E. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1990.

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