Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a prominent and controversial journalist, writer and poet of 19th Century America. In a country still heavily influenced by Puritan sensibilities and values, and himself a product of a Quaker upbringing, his explicit references to sex and sexuality stood him apart from many of his contemporaries. That his works continue to be read and admired today speaks to the legacy he left behind. His most well-known collection of poems was self-published in 1855 under the title Leaves of Grass. A staunch opponent of slavery, he was heavily influenced by the debates over that subject then prominent in the New York intellectual scene in which he thrived. It was as a poet, though, that Whitman would make his mark on American letters – even his poems were said to have resulted in his being tarred and feathered on account of the obscenity charges aimed at him. Sexuality was not the only theme of his poems, though. Many involve nautical themes seemingly born of a deep love of the sea. His poem “Aboard a Ship’s Helm,” for instance, includes this passage:
“For, as on the alert, o steersman, you mind the bell’s admonition,
The bows turn, -- the freighted ship, tacking, speeds away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship, with all her precious wealth, speeds away gaily and safe.”
And, in “After the Sea-Ship,” Whitman writes,
“Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface,
Larger and smaller waves in the spread of the ocean yearnfully flowing . . ."
To be honest, if all Whitman had bequeathed mankind were his nautical poems, he would likely be forgotten. For better or worse, it was the sexuality, sometimes tinged with a maritime motif, prevalent in his work that garnered him attention and enduring fame. Take, for example, the following passage from “A Woman Waits for Me”:
“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.
Sex contains all,
Bodies, Souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results,
Promulgations . . .”
In “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s interests in all things sex and nautical are merged in such a way that he dreams of sex with the sea:
“I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart . . .
You sea! I resign myself to you also . . . I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers . . .
We must have a turn together . . . I undress . . . hurry . . . “
Rumors abounded regarding Whitman’s sexual orientation. Many critics have concluded that he was either homosexual or bisexual, and reading the breadth of his maritime/sexuality prose can certainly lead one to the conclusion that he was intimately familiar with more than one sailor.
While attention remains focused primarily on the moral boundaries Walt Whitman pushed with his poetry, one should not lose sight of the contribution to American literature this individual made. “O Captain! My Captain, our fearful trip is done,” he wrote. “O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.” That’s the stuff from which legends are made.