Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Whitman was not reticent about proclaiming his beliefs (or his own talents). “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” he wrote in “Song of Myself,” yet that self was always seen as a part of all humanity and particularly of the people of the United States. Sexuality was not something to be left unspoken or concealed; it was one of the most vital aspects of life. Again in “Song of Myself,” he described himself as “hankering, gross, mystical, nude” and said that, like a hawk, he would sound his “barbaric yawp.”

The celebration of the physical and the sexual in “I Sing the Body Electric” was indeed too barbaric for the sensibilities of many people in the nineteenth century. Even Whitman supporter Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly advised him not to include the poem (or the sexual and homoerotic “Calamus” poems) in the 1860 edition, but Whitman held to his artistic vision. Many readers were outraged. A few years later, Whitman was fired from a government post after a superior read the sexual poems.

Whitman presents his glimpses of the body almost as quick snapshots, and he is both observer and participant in the scenes and experiences. The poem is not concerned with the intellectual question “What is beauty?” but observes beauty at the physical and sensual level—one recalls John Keats’s description of a life of sensation rather than thought.

Whitman’s responses are immediate, bold, and unapologetic....

(The entire section is 473 words.)