AD's English Literature : Analysis of Walt Whitman’s I am the poet of the Body: Combines Body and Soul, Female and Male

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Analysis of Walt Whitman’s I am the poet of the Body: Combines Body and Soul, Female and Male


 I am the poet of the Body;  from Song of Myself, no. 21 
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

I am the poet of the Body;
And I am the poet of the Soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me;
The first I graft and increase upon myself --
  the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man;
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I chant the chant of dilation or pride;
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough;
I show that size is only development.

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle -- they will more than arrive there, every one,
  and still pass on.

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea, half-held by the night.

Press close, bare-bosom'd night! Press close, magnetic, nourishing night!
Night of south winds! night of the large few stars!
Still, nodding night! mad, naked, summer night.

Smile, O voluptuous, cool-breath'd earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees;
Earth of departed sunset! earth of the mountains, misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds, brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow'd earth! rich, apple-blossom'd earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!

Prodigal, you have given me love! Therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable, passionate love!


In I am the poet of the Body Walt Whitman  seeks to define his identity in terms of a poetic voice. The repeated ‘I am the poet’ of the opening lines of the first two units of verse makes the claim starkly, while other verbs continue the idea of a speaking voice – ‘I say’, 11.5 – 6; ‘I call’, 1.13 – and develop it specifically into linguistic and poetic directions – ‘I translate’, 1.3; ‘I chant’. 1.7. The notion of song here echoes a fundamental conception of the poet as singer, which has informed poetic theory and practice through the ages, perhaps most significantly and memorably in the formulaic opening of classical epic.

Walt Whitman
We might consider a possible self-contradiction within the stance adopted, for it is arguable that an assertion of all-inclusiveness actually reduces the rest of the world to the measure of the poet’s own personality, rather than subsuming that personality into the consciousness of the rest of humanity. You might recall our observation in Part 1 section (iii) about how some feminist theories are male attempts to acknowledge female experience as a form of appropriation, since their discourse remains inevitably male-oriented. A similar objection might, then, he lodged against the attitudes adopted in the text.

Again, The most immediately striking quality of Walt Whitman’s  I  am  the  poet  of the  Body  Song of Myself, no. 21 is the grammatical dominance of the first-person singular pronoun. Each of the first three units of verse begins with ’I’. Each of these units consists of a complete sentence, so that the first three sentences all begin with ‘I’. The symbolic “I” enraptured by the senses, vicariously is embracing all people and places from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Within each sentence verbs are repeated and varied in order to allow further emphasis on the recurring first-person subject. Later variation of syntax Still return to the simple ‘I’ + verb pattern, the rhetorical questions of line 10 being followed by a repetition of the opening ‘I am at line 12, and the exclamatory addresses to the earth giving way eventually to ‘I to you give love’ at line 25. The entire passage is, that is to say, frankly, even brazenly, egotistic – egotism being defined as frequent or excessive use of the first-person singular pronoun.

Walt Whitman ’s aspirations are pitched at an equivalently high level. The opening line of the first unit combines body and soul, while that of the second unit combines female and male. The first, that is, unites the totality of our common conception of a human being. While the second unites the whole human race. Thin claim of all-inclusiveness both matches and qualifies the egotism. It reflects the huge nature of the ambition, but it also rejects the idea of egotism as separation of the self form the world in favor of an embracing of the world.

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