Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

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.”

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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. They almost swoon with the joy of the human form—both the joys of living in his own body and of being surrounded by others: “I do not ask any more delight,” he says, “I swim in it as in a sea.”

The body transcends the mundane; it leads to artistic experiences and even mystical understanding. Whitman’s sort of transcendence differs from that of Transcendentalists such as Emerson, however, in that Whitman is not concerned with a dualism of matter and spirit: “the parts and poems of the body,” he concludes, “these are the soul.” They are one. Like nineteenth century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Whitman sees the body as a wonder, as sacred; unlike Hopkins, he does not see that divinity as explicitly Christian.

Whitman frequently meditated on future generations and on the future of the United States, and the sexuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” and the other “Children of Adam” poems is seen as part of the cycle of procreation; the poems reflect his projections into the future. When he looks at the man or the woman standing before him, he sees “countless immortal lives” and “the start of populous states and rich republics”; he sees “the teeming mother of mothers.” Whitman celebrated the joy of the moment and the ecstasies of the physical, but the present was united with the future and the physical was one with the spiritual.

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