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I Sing the Body Electric Research Papers

Research papers on Walt Whitman's section of Leaves of Grass that includes I Sing the Body Electric are custom written at Paper Masters.

I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass is a very long poem with nine numbered sections, each focusing on various observations and aspects of the human body and their significance as seen through the devoted eyes of the poet. I Sing the Body Electric Throughout, Whitman is committed to the sanctity of our bodily homes, declaring in the very beginning his intention to "charge them full with the charge of the soul (section 1, line 4)." Indeed, the distinction to him between body and soul seems blurred. He asks in the following stanza, "And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?"

But as “I Sing the Body Electric” also articulates, Whitman’s primary concern was not with slavery itself but with the disruption that was occurring within traditional American institutions due to the Southern states willingness to put their own interests before the broader national interests.  Foreseeing a kind of apocalyptic rebalancing of the tenuous union that would soon be breached, Whitman warned, by the perpetuation of the vulgarities that were slavery and slavery-based politics, and were vulgarities that would be passed from generation to generation as a kind of genetic predestiny.  “This is not only one man” involved in either the buying or the selling, he explicates carefully, “this is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns”.  And it is in the father-ness that Whitman sees, too, the gravest danger of the current state of affairs, for “[i]n him the start of populous states and rich republics” will find origins.  And in the vulgarities of the moment, he warns, one finds both the vulgarities of the past and the promise of their perpetuation into the future:  “How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries? / (Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)”. 

Whitman's growing disillusionment with traditional American political structures (that is, those that supported slavery in its various forms), and especially with traditional figures of authority, such as “American Gentleman” as precursor to the political figurehead, led him in the “Preface” to call for a new sense of politics/poetry as well as for a new recognition of the poet as bardic figure that can lead the country toward a new vision and a rebalanced future.  The poet “is the arbiter of the diverse,” he argued, “and he is the key.  He is the equalizer of his age and land… he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking”.

Leaves of Grass and I Sing the Body Electric 

In his “Preface” to Leaves of Grass (1955), Walt Whitman brought forward a work that is not only one of the great literary manifestos of the American literature, but a critical assessment of American poetry that resonates even today as both a vital work of criticism and a kind of guide into Whitman’s own sense of his own poetry.  Although dealing with such a complex and multivalent document always skirts the edges of over-simplification or reductionism, it is not so dangerous to suggest that in his poetry Whitman saw himself as a new kind of American poet creating a new kind of American poetry that would deal very specifically with what he perceived as the realities and anxieties of America.  More specifically, as I will show in my reading of the excerpt from “I Sing the Body Electric” included in Joel Conarroe’s Six American Poets, Whitman pointed to two densely coded questions as key to this new rethinking about what poetry can and should be in American culture: the position of the poet within America (a familiar question of the day) and how to articulate as fully as possible the idealization of the poetic body as a means to finding a voice for the radicalized but necessary poetic form that he imagined.  I have chosen this poem from Whitman’s impressive body of work because it speaks in the most compressed ways to the breadth of Whitman’s thinking, collapsing together in the idealized Whitmanesque synthesis his concerns with poetics, politics, and the erotics/poetics of body and language.

I Sing the Body Electric and the Poet and his readers

To the first point of the role of the poet in American culture, Whitman’s poetry connects with the writing of two contemporaries, namely Benjamin Franklin (whose writing focused, in part, on illuminating the Ideal man) and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose own critical prose (especially his 1844 essay “The Poet”) proved an inspiration for Whitman’s own bardic aspirations.  As he iterates again and again in his “Preface,” the need to write poetry that was new and was definitively American was utmost in Whitman’s mind throughout his career.  “[T]he expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new,” he states unequivocally, before going on to state with equal confidence that “[o]f all the nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest”.  

And it is a sense of this disillusionment that readers find in the structure of Whitman’s poetry itself, which is, for lack of more adequate terms, a poetics of discontinuity, a rupturing with the traditions that had come before but at the same time an acknowledgment of the need and desire to accept the past without being dominated by it.  Lines begin in mid-thought, and end when the energy ceases; breaks in voice, tone, and space find free articulation.  Carrying out of the corpse of a stagnant past, Whitman sets out in this poem to revitalize the “same old blood! the same red-running blood” with new “swells and jets” and with new “passions, desires, reachings, and aspirations”.

The remaining eight sections of I Sing the Body Electric poignantly describe aspects of both male and female bodies in such loving detail that the discourse borders on erotic. Section five does, in fact, describe at length the "bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn." However, it does not seem pornographic for it is clearly not solely intended to arouse sexual excitement in the reader. Rather, the discourse is a part of a larger issue, profound to the poet, of the divinity of the body and a plea not to corrupt it. Again from stanza two of section one: "Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves? / And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?"

 

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