Homoeroticism in Leaves of Grass
American poet, essayist and journalist, Walt Whitman, worked to expose his readers to his unique, personal thoughts on the body, nature, and the human experience. Whitman was a humanist, and incorporated both transcendentalism and realism in his work. He is often referred to as the father of free verse. Whitman’s most praised work is Leaves of Grass: a collection of poetry, published in 1855. The poems in Leaves of Grass are seen as Whitman’s celebration of life and humanity. Whitman chooses to explore and praise the many pleasures that life has to offer, even those which may be considered immoral. Choosing to write about such subjects, both directly and indirectly, allowed for a great deal of interpretation to be made by his readers. One of the most repeated and more explicit ideas taken from his poetry regards Whitman’s sexual preference. There are several poems in Leaves of Grass that contain homoerotic imagery. Though the imagery is subtle, it is a part of his work which cannot be ignored. Through simplified and subverted word play, Whitman twists homoeroticism into his work without actually making a definitive statement about his sexual preference, never revealing whether he is homosexual or bisexual, and at the same time explores sexuality as a whole.
The majority of Whitman’s poems which contain allusions to homoeroticism are part of a section in Leaves of Grass entitled “Calamus.” Though this section contains most of the poems which are dominantly erotic, we must first question why Whitman chose “Calamus” as the title for this collection. There are a few reasons why this section can be seen as a reflection of Whitman’s sexuality and view on sexuality. First, the Acorus Calamus is a tall perennial wetland monocot. It is a plant in the Acoraceae family, which grows in the same shape as an erect human penis. Many would assume he chose this title for this section of Leaves of Grass for the erotic imagery the plant creates. Second, in Greek mythology, Kalamos, the son of the river god, Maeander, loved Karpos, who was the son of Zephyrus and Chloris. When Karpos died in a drowning accident, Kalamos was so full of grief that he himself turned into a reed (Calamus). The imagery and meaning of the word “calamus” may therefore be seen as an intentional choice made by Whitman to represent male homosexual love, both physical and emotional. We know that Whitman focuses upon the physical and emotional aspects of human life in his poetry, so it is only appropriate that this may be seen as the reasoning behind why he chose this as the title. As we look further into the poems in this section, it becomes more apparent that this is in fact his intention when writing this section.
Whitman’s poem “Behold This Swarthy Face,” in “Calamus,” is the first to hint at homoeroticism in this section. In this poem, he writes of an encounter with a man in New York City, and the interaction between them upon this meeting. Whitman is sure to emphasize the masculinity of the individual he is regarding. He assures the reader that the person he is interacting with is indeed a man, and confirms it to us with a physical description very early on in the poem. “Behold this swarthy face—these gray eyes, This beard—the white wool, unclipt upon my neck” (Whitman, 149)
Whitman begins using a physical description to ease his readers into the actual nature of this piece. He makes it very obvious what type of person is to be loved in the poem. Whitman continues: “Ye comes one, a Manhattanese, and ever at parting, kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love, And I, on the crossing of the street, or the ships deck, give a kiss in return;” (Whitman,149)
Whitman is much less delicate here than he is the beginning of the poem. Though this can be interpreted as an experience of his “bonding” or assimilating with the city he is in and the people in it, he clearly writes about a physical, faintly erotic experience with this man he has encountered. In “Behold this Swarthy Face,” the homosexual aspects are implanted so subtly that it is possible for them to be interpreted as something else, however, interpreting the writing directly brings Whitman and his work into a totally different light. Not only does writing this reveal aspects of sexuality and perhaps Whitman’s desires, but it defines him and his writing as highly progressive and open for the time period it was written in.
Also in “Calamus,” we see physical interaction and subtle homoeroticism in Whitman’s poem, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand.” The poem is significant because it takes the time to directly communicate with the reader. The poem deals with a love which is physical and spiritual at the same time. Whoever you are holding me now in hand, Without one thing all will be useless, I give you fair warning before you attempt me further, I am not what you supposed, but far different. (Whitman,135) The first lines of the poem can be seen as somewhat of a “confession” of Whitman’s sexual preference. When he says, “whoever you are” (Whitman, 135), he maybe be speaking to someone unknown, defining them as a stranger, or recognizing “whoever” as everyone reading the poem. The fact that Whitman says, “I am not what you supposed, but far different,” (Whitman,135) can support the idea that he is admitting to homosexuality. The fact that we live in a heteronormative world, and during the time Leaves of Grass was written, heteronormativity was much more dominant, we can define homosexuality here as something that would be seen as “different.” By saying he is not what one would assume he is (heterosexual), we can view this line as a sort of “coming out” to his readers. Eventually, we see the actual revelation of male interaction: “Who is he that would become my follower? Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?” (Whitman,135) The actual use of the pronoun “he,” and again with the actual written action: “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you, With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss, For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.” (Whitman,135) Whitman is taking on the role as the husband of the other party in the poem. Marriage is more than just a physical linking between two human beings, there is an infinite love and spiritual connection that is not always present in casual romance. By desiring both the physical and spiritual connection with another man, or “comrade,” we can assume that Whitman does not only want a casual meeting, but a full on matrimonial bond with a man.
Finally, references of bisexuality in “Calamus” begin to peak in Whitman’s poem “To a Stranger.” In this piece, we see Whitman begin to speak of the pleasure and privileges of knowing both sexes: Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you, You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me, as of a dream,) I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you, (Whitman,151) Whitman tells us that he has lived a life of joy with “you,” meaning either men or women who have been a part of his story. By saying this, he is assuring his readers that he has experienced the pleasure of fully exploring sexuality as a whole. Whitman can be considered sexually “whole,” for he has indulged himself physically and spiritually in every aspect of sexuality. He confirms that the experiences he has had were indeed physical by stating: All I recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured, You grew up with me, were a boy with me, or a girl with me, I ate with you, and slept with you—your body has become not yours only, nor left my body Mine only, You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass—you take my beard, Breast, hands, in return. (Whitman, 151) The emotional intimacy Whitman and the unnamed person in the poem have faced match their physical closeness, which we can assume is sexual due to the context of most of the poems in “Calamus.” Whitman’s sexual experience knows no bounds. By stating these things about himself, and knowing Whitman highly praised the human body, we can assume he has indulged in all the sexes have to offer.
Whitman’s poems have a tendency of speaking for themselves. There are a handful of other poems in Leaves of Grass that dance around the same ideas of sexuality and homoeroticism, but not as blatantly as the collection in “Calamus.” Whitman understood human existence in a unique way, and completely broke away from sexual and gender norms during the period of his writings. Leaves of Grass, and particularly the section “Calamus” uses imagery, and both subtle and blatant context clues to make a solid statement about sexuality as a whole. By doing this, Whitman separates himself from a heteronormative society and presents to us limitless poetry.
Works Cited Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: New York UP, 1965. Print.
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