In the fifth section of his poem “I sing the body electric,” Walt Whitman offers a very explicit depiction of the allures of the female body and of the actions that can result when a man is attracted by feminine beauty. The speaker celebrates a woman’s
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
In a passage that so openly celebrates the pleasures of the flesh and of love, it is not surprising that Whitman coins the term “love-flesh.” This term seems to refer to passionate, sexually aroused bodies in general. It can also refer, perhaps, more particularly to a woman’s breasts. However, the most obvious and in some ways most shocking meaning of the phrase is its almost certain reference to the aroused penis. The next line makes this meaning almost undeniable, since this line seems to describe male orgasm. The next three lines also seem to allude to passionate love-making.
Little wonder that this poem generated a great deal of criticism from many of Whitman’s readers! He was writing in an era in which such phrasing would have embarrassed large sections of his audience. Yet Whitman was far less prudish, and obviously far more open about sexuality, than most of his readers.