The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

“I Sing the Body Electric” appeared in the 1860 third edition of Walt Whitman’s revolutionary volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, as poem 3 of the “Enfans d’Adam” (later Anglicized to “Children of Adam”) sequence. It is a celebration of the beauty of the human body, both male and female, that dwells on its physicality, its many forms, its sexuality, and its divinity. The poem—in the final, 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass discussed here—is composed of nine numbered sections of free verse.

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The title, joyously proclaiming the poet’s intent, is also the first line of section 1, which introduces the poem. The first four lines speak of the connectedness of everyone the poet loves; the next four are a series of rhetorical questions that stress the evils of corrupting the body and proclaim a direct link between the body and the soul: “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

Section 2 states that the body of the male and of the female is “perfect” and that the expression of the human face “balks account”—its beauty simply cannot be explained. Whitman proceeds from the face to other parts of the body, describing movement and grace as seen in people of all ages and walks of life: grown men, babies, women, girls, swimmers, wrestlers, laborers, the “farmer’s daughter,” “two apprentice-boys.” He concludes by again proclaiming his unity with them all: “I loosen myselfam at the mother’s breast with the little child,/ Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers.”

In section 3, Whitman reminisces about an old farmer he knew who was the father of five sons. He describes him as vigorous, calm, beautiful, and handsome; he was a man that anyone would want to be with—and would want to touch. Section 4, one of the shortest in the poem, speaks of the delight of being among those that one likes, of being “surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh.” Again, the soul is mentioned; physical things, Whitman states—the touch and the odor of the body—“please the soul well.”

Section 5 describes the female form, and it contains explicitly sexual imagery. The female has a “fierce” attraction, Whitman declares, then goes on to describe the activities resulting from that attraction—the “love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,” ejaculation, and the “night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn.” The sexual imagery is also tied to birth, to the creation of the new generations of the future. Section 6, depicting the male, ascribes action, power, passions, and pride to the male. Both male and female have their places in the procession of the universe. At the end of the section, Whitman asks another series of rhetorical questions, arguing forcefully for the equality of all humans.

Sections 7 and 8 begin by picturing a man’s body and a woman’s body, respectively, “at auction.” The mention of a slave auction in this hymn of praise to the human form is jarring (and, to modern sensibilities, repugnant), but Whitman uses the setting as another avenue for observing the body’s perfection, musing on the basic equality of all people, and imagining future generations: “How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?”

The final section, one of the poem’s two longest, consists mostly of a long catalog of parts of the body, with descriptions of the activities and movements they can perform. It both begins and ends by linking, once again, the body and the soul. More than that, however, the body and soul are united as one, and they are united with the poem itself: Bodies “are the soul,” and “they are my poems,” which are also everyone’s poems. The soul, Whitman concludes, can be nothing but the body and the parts of the body.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Whitman’s poetic style in the poems of Leaves of Grass (the first edition appeared in 1855) stood nineteenth century poetic convention on its ear. In order to approximate the rhythms of oratorical speech, he wrote in long lines that do not fit on one line on the page. He generally avoided the use of regular stanzas and rhyme. He wove together vocabularies from many walks of life, speaking in a voice larger than life, a bardic voice he meant to represent both himself and all of America.

In a series of vignettes, “I Sing the Body Electric” presents image after image of the body and its movements, portraying swimmers, rowers, laborers, wrestlers, and firemen. They seem almost Olympian figures, and the figures are nearly always in motion; the swimmer, naked, “rolls silently with the heave of the water,” apprentices wrestle after work, and firemen march. The female figure, too, is idealized, as woman soothes a child or “moves with perfect balance.” Whitman is observing acutely throughout the poem—he worked for a time as a newspaper reporter and editor—and he reports his observations one after another with emotion and immediacy. He views scenes of the body from a distance, then moves to small parts of the body, both seen and unseen, such as “eye-fringes,” “tongue, lips, teeth,” “scapula,” “arm-pit,” and “heart-valves.” The small and the large are united, none seemingly more important than the other, as no one person is more “equal” than any other.

Whitman uses the technique of the catalog to great effect in this and other poems. The technique goes back to the lengthy catalog of ships in Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and was used effectively by John Milton in the seventeenth century, yet Whitman makes it his own. In the poem’s ninth and final section, he creates an apparently endless list of parts of the body, and the cumulative effect is to emphasize the wonder of the body—in its totality and in all of its parts.

Leaves of Grass was intended by Whitman to be a poetic text that he would expand and revise throughout his life; he published numerous editions of the work between 1855 and 1892, with most of the revision occurring prior to the 1881 edition. There are therefore differing versions of many of the poems, and critics have disagreed as to which edition represents Whitman’s finest achievement. “I Sing the Body Electric” first appeared in the book’s third edition and was subsequently revised. The 1860 version, in fact, was untitled, and it did not begin with that incantatory phrase. Instead, it directly addressed readers immediately—“O my children! O my mates!”—and, instead of the 1867 version’s reference to “armies of those I love” (line 2), addressed the “bodies of you, and of all men and women.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 168

Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

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