The Thrust of Nature: An Examination of Walt Whitman’s Poetic Realm
Walt Whitman’s “Spontaneous Me” (Norton 2151-2152) crystallizes his attempt to create poems that appear natural, impulsive and untamed. The natural effect is a carefully crafted technique that appears throughout his writing, hinting at a philosophy of life while seeming to simply offer observation. As in “Song of Myself,” Whitman weaves together carefully chosen images to create the illusion of untamed totality. What is important about his complete vision is that it seems somehow essential, as though a natural state is unveiled. He crafts a language that stems from natural rhythms, like the familiar feel of breathing. Human impulses become universal pulses and vice versa. This creates an elemental rhythm that governs the craft of the poem and much of its subject matter. “Spontaneous Me” is a deeply erotic meditation on the self. An important aspect of the poem is its whispered confessional quality. There is the sense that Whitman is searching for answers, if not redemption. The natural world provides the necessary soothing, making his poem a self-reflexive examination of the human as an earthbound element. The poem answers itself, by paralleling the greater natural world, which is established as an answer for everything. This is Whitman’s message. He demands that we turn simultaneously inward and outward in pursuit of the truth, crafting a human being who is both a reflection and an embodiment of nature.
One of Whitman’s characteristic techniques is his listing of images, ideas, and moments. The poem seems at a glance to be a list of images and ideas, a gathering of disparate thoughts. Practically every line begins with ?The,’ and continues with subjects encompassing people, objects, smells, sounds, and ideas, to name a few. Although this is a concrete structure, more rigid poetic schemes such as rhyming would create a more artificial tone to the poem. The list-like organization masks the craft of the poem but also achieves a distinctly democratic sensibility. “The loving day,” (l.2) “The hillside whiten’d,” (l.3) and “The real poems,” (l.8) are fixed on the same plane of ideas, equal in the eyes of writer and reader. The simplicity of this technique also makes the poem seem accessible. It allows the reader to see each idea separately before fitting them all together, and refuses to mystify with circuitous sentence structure or intricate poetic verse. Beyond equalizing, the listing tactic creates a hypnotic rhythm. This is one of Whitman’s most subtle and effective qualities. He makes the poem seem basic in its structure, charms the reader with the continuity of repetition, and fills the almost breathing beats with his vision of the world.
There are many more aspects in communicating the natural poem beyond this effective structure. Whitman builds the cult of nature by making his poem seem an instinctive act. The sense that his writing flows unrestrained from the human mind helps convince the reader that the poem is more nature than art. This begins with the title “Spontaneous Me,” which already suggests that the poem is an unexpected occurrence. The suggestion is enriched in the opening line: “Spontaneous me, Nature,” (l.1) which expands on the two word title and makes Nature a subject as much as the speaker. The simple separation of the two ideas by a comma, on the same line is a masterful subject heading for a poem that will work hard to equalize precisely these two disparate parts. The individual and nature will henceforth wax and wane, in longer lines, but still separated by commas and stated directly in fragments. There are moments as obvious as the title in Whitman’s attempt to create a spontaneous quality. After several lines of nature imagery, there is the sudden and self-aware “Beautiful dripping fragments, the negligent list of one after another as I happen to call them to me or think of them” (l.7). Here we are told that these thoughts just “happen” to the writer. Whitman clearly wants his reader to see these ideas as a constant “drip,” that has seen only “negligent” organization in this poetic form. In the last lines, the poem is called “this bunch pluck’d at random from myself,” (l.44) that he will now “toss carelessly to fall where it may” (l.45). We are left with “plucked at random” and “carelessly” to qualify what has come before. These are examples of an obvious de-emphasis on the unnatural aspect of organizing ideas into poetic language. This solidifies the sense of poetry as a natural and continuous state accessed by the writer’s mind, like a man dipping a cup into a flowing stream.
To create this stream, the poem has a flowing quality. The repetitions tripping forward over comma after comma build into a forward-moving current of thought. Whitman communicates and even refers to a sense of constant human “torment, the irritable tide that will not be at rest,” (l.29) in the form of unmanageable erotic impulses. The poem builds towards a climax of “The young man that wakes deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what would master him” (l.32) and soon after “The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers” (l.34). The alliteration in the ?p’s drives home the sense of physical pulsation with hard, fast, consonant beats. Here, Whitman uses sexual release to create the sense of natural human impulse. This is an elaboration of a very solid corporeal connection early in the poem: “The poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry,/(Know once for all, avow’d on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty lurking masculine poems)” (l.10). These lines may have explanatory purposes outside of the human impulse theme, but they still contribute to this sense of consistent nature. Whitman brilliantly makes his poem an actual extension of the human body. It is not only a physical body part, but a natural secretion, an impulsive release that cannot be contained.
The use of sexual release, specifically masturbation, creates the action of peering beneath social decorum to reveal natural behavior. Whitman often connects human sexuality to the behavior of animals. It is clear that in all the human preoccupation with “Love-thoughts, love-juice love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers,” (l.12) remains the vital and essential need for sexual release. This litany on love travels into a deeply erotic image from nature illustrates what dwells behind all of these romantic notions: “The hairy wild bee that murmurs and hankers up and down, that gripes the full-grown lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will of her, and holds himself tremulous and tight till he is satisfied” (l.17). Moments like these connect human beings to animals, and remind the reader of the universal natural drives that flow constantly through the world. Although the descriptions of human love are indeed beautiful and poetic, they are overpowered by the physicality of masturbation and the movement of a poem that reaches climax and then satisfaction in “relief, repose, content” (l.43). Whitman is thus capturing the flow of natural desires as well as describing the actions in which the flow erupts. His poetic self-exploration is like the physical self-exploration described in another masturbatory moment: “The curious roamer the hand roaming all over the body, the bashful withdrawing of flesh where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves” (l.26). Like the hand that roams, the poem probes unexplored human spaces. Its repetitions are like soothing pauses, slowly pulling at protective layers, trying to poke at the pulsions that lurk beneath.
To get at purely natural moments, Whitman takes us behind closed doors. This is the bashful aspect of the roaming, into private, half-lit spaces where the flow of nature is allowed free reign. The hesitation to expose is clear in the anxious atmospheres created for erotic freedom. There is a focus on “The mystic amorous night,” full of “strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,” (l.33) as the space where human nature conquers social controls and breaks free. This darkness is the setting for “The real poems (what we call poems being merely pictures,)/The poems of the privacy of the night” (ll.8-9). Here, in spaces too dark and essential for pretty pictures, human beings are as free as the poem to seek release. The “Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm slanting down across and below the waist of the other,” (l.19) are only discovered by the poem, casting its view like a linguistic searchlight. This moment contrasts an earlier image, when the cover of night is not present: “The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,/The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder” (ll.2-3). In the glaring light of day, the arm stays idle and innocent. Another specifically sunlit image is the idyllic vision of “the twin babes that crawl over the grass in the sun,” (l.36) an image sweet enough to greatly temper the vulgar grit in scenes of masturbation and sexual climax. This innocent vision shows how Whitman is not necessarily condemning the daylight decorum. He is simply including the other side, the truth that comes out in animals, in sleep, in the night, and in poetry.
Whitman does not just turn to nature for explanation. He shows how the natural world contains its own controls, in less oppressive forms than society’s use of shame. A subtle quality of this deferral is the use of nature for its calm and soothing beauty. Just as nature allows for both day and night, the poem tempers its own pulsing rhythm with calming imagery. This comes in brief, punctuating images that counter the deeply erotic moments. The litany on human love pauses for “Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west” (l.16). The erotic bee moment is met immediately, after a pausing semi-colon, with “The wet of the woods through the early hours” (l.18). The sleepers in the night are contrasted with “The smell of apples, aromas from crush’d sage-plant, mint, birch-bark” (l.20). In these situations, the non-sexual sensuality of nature is used to temper the violent eroticism of the human release. Whitman is artfully demonstrating the ability of nature, and the poem, to both release and contain inevitable instinctive needs. He even takes this tempering into the realm of redemption. The image of the masturbating “young man all color’d, red, ashamed, angry;” (l.34) is met directly by “The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked” (l.35). This soothing sea water leads directly into the image of the babies in the sun, and leads the poem out of its nighttime lust into daylight pondering. This tempering, redeeming counterpoint reveals Whitman’s faith in the totality of the natural world.
The rhythms and cycles of nature are simply the systems governing Whitman’s poetry. His focus remains the individual human being driven by such systems. His great love of the natural world combines with a passionate love of humanity to develop a unique vision. Like many of his other works, “Spontaneous Me” urges its readers to embrace each other and the world around them. The inward and outward ebb and flow whittles away at boundaries like flesh and shame to cast light upon every part of its human subject. There is more than just a celebration of sexual release in the climax and subsequent satisfaction of the poem’s final lines. The bee upon the flower is instinctively contributing to the progress of the natural world, just as Whitman ?spontaneously’ thrusts ideas into his cultural world. We are reminded in the final lines that the poem is left behind, extracted from him in a procreative manner. Unlike the secretive and frustrated masturbation practiced behind closed doors, the poem is a public outpouring of interiority. It is an injection of Whitman into the world at large, the world of human thought. In its subtle complexity and natural flow, it is entirely successful in both satisfying and fertilizing our minds.
Dave Eggers’s satirical and self-referential memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius documents his external and internal life. While the book is technically a work of nonfiction, Eggers externalizes and […]
In the Old English poem Beowulf, the warrior culture is centered upon the heroic codes. Those who are members of Hrothgar’s court are ranked based upon the identities and reputations […]
In his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole casts Burma Jones in a stereotypical role in society. By hiding Jones’ face behind space-age sunglasses and a cloud of […]
Throughout the novel Thérèse Raquin, it is apparent that Zola has chosen a particular light in which he wants the reader to view each of his characters. He did so […]
In “The Grammar of Narrative,” a chapter in his longer work, The Poetics of Prose, Tzvetan Todorov describes the simplest, “minimal complete plot” as consisting “in the passage from one […]
Arthur Miller’s American masterpiece Death of a Salesman, first presented on the stage in New York City in 1949, represents a successful literary attempt at blending the themes of social […]
In her essay “From the Women’s Prison: Third World Women’s Narratives of Prison,” Barbara Harlow argues that the solidarity that transcends race, gender, class, and other social categories is a […]
In Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen uses a variety of literary devices to highlight the monstrous disjuncture between the gruesome reality of the battlefield and the romanticised image of […]
Chinese Cinderella is a memoir by Adeline Yen Mah of her life as an unwanted child and as a rising entrepreneur during the transformation of Chinese society while it was […]
Walt Whitman’s “Spontaneous Me” (Norton 2151-2152) crystallizes his attempt to create poems that appear natural, impulsive and untamed. The natural effect is a carefully crafted technique that appears throughout his […]