The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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.”

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(The entire section is 638 words.)