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.”


(The entire section is 638 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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