What one takes to be the meaning of this poem depends, in part, on context. To a reader not otherwise familiar with Whitman’s work, it seems to be a reflection on the relation of the natural and human, with a special bearing on the artistic. While the tree utters its leaves regardless of the absence of companions, the human consciousness requires human companionship to inspire it to creativity. Readers who are familiar with Leaves of Grass, however, and specifically with “Calamus,” the section (or “cluster”) of the book in which the poem is found, will be aware of further implications. “Calamus” immediately follows “Children of Adam,” a cluster dealing with what Whitman calls “amativeness” or the love between men and women. The organizing theme of “Calamus” is “adhesiveness” or male comradeship. Readers are increasingly inclined to read “Calamus” as an expression of the poet’s homoerotic inclinations, but it seems that few of Whitman’s contemporaries read it that way. To most of its nineteenth century readers, “Calamus” moved beyond the sexual concerns of “Children of Adam.” In fact, some readers were scandalized by “Children of Adam,” but “Calamus” seems to have raised scarcely an eyebrow during Whitman’s lifetime. While later critics are prepared to ridicule the naïveté and bad faith of nineteenth century readers, those are the readers Whitman knew. If one attempts to read these poems as one of Whitman’s contemporaries might have, the emphasis on relationships between men is not necessarily homosexual. For these readers, relationships between men are simply not sexual. Thus, these poems are about the spiritual dimensions of human experience, taking the reader beyond the physical and implying the judgment that the spiritual is “higher” than the physical.
Any interpretation of poetry reflects the worldview of the interpreter. More than a century has passed since Whitman’s death, and in that time American culture has come to question hierarchies such as the one valuing the spiritual over the physical; it has also come to place the sexual much closer to the center of human experience than Whitman’s contemporaries would have. Whether this has been, on the whole, for better or worse, it may have brought readers closer to the personal feelings and values of Whitman. For more recent readers, the poems of “Calamus” derive much of their emotional energy from the sexual longings of the poet, which seem to have been toward members of his own sex.
The “manly love” of “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is thus the love (including, even if not limited to, the sexual) of man for man. No reading that denies that is likely to be accepted today by sophisticated readers. Does this mean that the poem affirms that poetry is based on homosexual love? It seems, rather, to suggest that poetry is inspired by the poet’s deepest and most authentic feelings, whatever value the surrounding society may place on those feelings. For Whitman, these are the feelings of a homosexual man, and it is not difficult to see a symbol of male sexuality in the twig around which a little moss is twined. Yet the poem is not, in any reductive sense, about sex; the longing that drives the poem is linked to the artistic creativity of which the poem is an emblem. Further, the authentic feelings of a heterosexual man or of a heterosexual or homosexual woman are equally powerful sources of inspiration. What kills creativity, the poem suggests, is inauthenticity, the denial of oneself and of one’s feelings. This, rather than mere physical separation from other people—there is no lover present as the poet speaks—is perhaps, at the deepest level, what would prevent the poet from uttering his leaves.