Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'Children of Adam' [1860]
Author:
Miller, James E., Jr.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally entitled "Enfans d'Adam" in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, this cluster of poems celebrating sexuality was called "Children of Adam" in 1867 and thereafter. The poems, openly "singing the phallus" and the "mystic deliria," were too bold for their time and often got Whitman into trouble. His relationship with Emerson cooled after he refused Emerson's advice in 1860 to drop the sex poems; in 1865 he lost his job in the Interior Department in Washington for writing "indecent" poems; and he had to withdraw the 1881 edition of Leaves from publication in Boston when the Society for the Suppression of Vice found it immoral.

On conceiving the idea for the "Children of Adam" cluster, Whitman jotted in a notebook: "Theory of a Cluster of Poems the same to the passion of Woman-Love as the Calamus-Leaves are to adhesiveness, manly love" (Notebooks 1:412). Whitman appropriated two terms from phrenology to distinguish the two kinds of relationships he describes here: "adhesiveness," or comradeship, and "amativeness," or heterosexual love. In pairing his poems on friendship with poems on love, Whitman was following masters of the personal essay, from Montaigne to Emerson, who in their prose compared and contrasted the two most fundamental, and generally complex, relationships in life. Whitman's intention is programmatic: he challenges the traditional ecclesiastic view of sexuality as inherently evil. The symbolism basic to the structure of the "Children of Adam" cluster is announced in the title: human beings are all descendants of Adam and Eve, who, after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, "knew that they were naked" and covered their nakedness with "fig leaves" (Genesis 3:7). For their act of disobedience, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. In effect, Whitman exhorts a return to the Garden by recovering the sexual innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall.

The voice heard in the "Children of Adam" cluster, as revealed in "Ages and Ages Returning at Intervals," is that of a "chanter of Adamic songs" who, "[l]usty, phallic," wanders through "the new garden the West" and the great cities, "bathing" his songs in sex. This chanter identifies himself specifically as Adam in the opening and closing poems of the cluster, "To the Garden the World" and "As Adam Early in the Morning." In the first he is walking with Eve, content, taking delight in the "quivering fire that ever plays" through his limbs; in the latter he emerges from his "bower refresh'd with sleep" and urges, "Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass, / Be not afraid of my body."

Although the poet does not portray himself as Adam in the other "Children of Adam" poems, he assumes the voice of the "chanter of Adamic songs." "From Pent-up Aching Rivers," second in the cluster, has the tone of a defiant proclamation ("what I am determin'd to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men"). Images seem to tumble out with an increasing speed and intensity, creating finally the impression of a montage of sexuality in all its many and varied manifestations. The rhythmic urgency of the poem, beginning with the "pent-up aching rivers" seemingly at flood-tide, has something of the urgency of the universal sexual drive. 

Although Whitman considered using "Song of Procreation" as his title for this poem, he decided against it probably because he came to realize that the poem was more clearly a celebration of all sexuality however expressed—"The mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment." The poem embraces autoeroticism ("From native moments, from bashful pains, singing them"), homoeroticism ("From exultation, victory and relief, from the bedfellow's embrace in the night"), hetero-eroticism ("The female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching"), and what might be called cosmo-eroticism ("Of the mad pushes of waves upon the land, I them chanting"). In brief, Whitman's poem portrays the sex drive as a "pent-up aching river" or a "hungry gnaw" present day and night that demands release or relief, whatever form that release takes.

The third poem in "Children of Adam," "I Sing the Body Electric," originally appeared in the 1855 Leaves. It dominates the "Children of Adam" cluster by its sheer length and, like "From Pent-up Aching Rivers," celebrates sexuality as a mysterious primal energy contained within the human body: "The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account" (section 2). In section 2 the "chanter of Adamic songs" provides a random catalogue of men and women engaging in various activities—the "swimmer naked," "the female soothing a child," the "wrestle of wrestlers," the "march of firemen"—and then concludes: "Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother's breast with the little child, / Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count." By such lines the poet reveals the sensual pleasure, rooted unconsciously in sexuality, that all feel in seeing such scenes; great painters and novelists have always been attuned to such primal responses.

Sections 5–9 of "Body Electric" focus alternately on the bodies of women and men and are, in effect, a series of idealized portraits of nudes. To some readers they may seem a bit perfunctory, presenting predictable catalogues of the female and male bodies, interspersed with affirmations that everything named (including "the womb, the teats, nipples," "man-balls, man-root") are not just "of the soul" but "are the soul!" (section 9). The poet's technique, however, is full enough of the unexpected to reward the reader. 

Section 5 begins "This is the female form," then suddenly veers away from cataloguing into a metaphoric sketch of love-making that must be counted among Whitman's greatest lines: "Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching, / Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice, / Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn, / Undulating into the willing and yielding day, / Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh'd day." The metaphoric "bridegroom" and "prostrate dawn" are evocative of heterosexual love. But the initial focus on the phallus in orgasm is suggestive of homosexual love. There is enough ambiguity or indirection (the bridegroom is "night," the dawn is prelude to "day") to make it impossible to decide definitively. One might ask, what difference does it make? The point is that, contrary to those critics who assume Whitman to be sincere and persuasive only in his poems of adhesiveness, he could write with great power poems of amativeness that would appeal to all readers, whatever their sexuality. In this regard, it is useful to recall the many women among Whitman's readers who pointed to his sexual themes as one of the strongest of his attractions—Anne Gilchrist, who fell in love with the poet upon reading Leaves of Grass; Kate Chopin, who adapted some of Whitman's sexual themes for her own fiction; and Muriel Rukeyser, who found Whitman's handling of his sexual themes a model to admire.

After "Body Electric," two poems appear that were included in the 1856 edition: "A Woman Waits for Me" (originally "Poem of Procreation") and "Spontaneous Me" (originally "Bunch Poem"). In "A Woman Waits for Me" the poet assumes the role of Adam as everyman, contributing his vital part to the continuation of humankind. "Sex contains all" not only in the sense that it is the mystic deliria, key to human happiness, but it literally contains "all" the human beings of the future. As the poet drains his "pent-up rivers" into the "woman who waits" for him, "warm-blooded and sufficient," he wraps in her "a thousand onward years." The "crops" he "so lovingly" plants now will produce still other "loving crops from the birth, life, death, immortality." 

"Spontaneous Me" is a powerful outpouring of "pent-up" sexual images, but it seems to move toward a climax of some sort. A curious line in the middle of the poem—"The body of my love, the body of the woman I love, the body of the man, the body of the earth"—epitomizes the confusion felt in reading the poem. The spontaneous poet is revealing inchoate sexual feelings that originate from within and that are capable of being directed to any one of a number of bodies: the body of his "love" or of the woman, man, or earth he loves. Masturbatory images dominate the latter half of the poem, as in "the pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers." In the closing lines, the poet refers to a "wholesome relief, repose, content" and adds: "And this bunch pluck'd at random from myself, / It has done its work—I toss it carelessly to fall where it may." "Bunch" has at least two meanings: it is, in some obscure sense, the semen (a bunch of sperm?) ejaculated by his own hand, and the lines of the poem he has just written, also by his own hand, for which these are the closing lines. Semen or poem—each will "fall where it may": the first perhaps in the woods or in the sea, the poem among the manuscripts destined to become the Leaves

The remaining poems of "Children of Adam" all celebrate sexuality and sexual feeling consonant with the program announced in "From Pent-up Aching Rivers," but they are sparse on images of man-woman, or heterosexual, love. The poems appear to promise a particular sexual experience or partner—"One Hour to Madness and Joy," "Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd," "We Two, How Long We were Fool'd," "I Am He That Aches with Amorous Love," "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City," "I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ"—but instead they offer a generalized celebration of sexuality or ambiguity about the sex of the partner. "Once I Pass'd," for example, was originally addressed not to a woman but to a man (Emory Holloway's discovery of this in the 1920s subverted his enthusiasm for Whitman). There remain three additional, as yet unmentioned poems in "Children of Adam." Containing one of the rare references to the female genitalia in Leaves, "O Hymen! O Hymenee!" is a short paean to married love. "Native Moments," on the other hand, celebrates the "midnight orgies of young men," more adhesive than amative in its sentiment. In the penultimate poem of the cluster, "Facing West from California's Shores," the voice of the "chanter of Adamic songs" no longer sounds so confident as at the beginning, instead ending on a plaintive note: "But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?"

In "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888), Whitman wrote his final reply to those readers and critics who condemned him and his work for his frank avowal of sexuality. He said: " Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality. . . . the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted" (Comprehensive 572). Readers today are more prone to agree with Whitman than with the squeamish critics of his own time. "Children of Adam" should be read for what it purports to be, not a paean to heterosexual love, but a celebration of sexuality in all its varied forms—auto-, homo-, hetero-, cosmo-eroticism. Whitman was right to deal with all of these as a whole and, in a sense, as one; he realized that they are much more alike than different, that they hold much more in common than not. All these forms of sexuality take their origins from the same source, the "mystic deliria" of the universal sex drive.  

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos: A Psychoanalytic Study of The Poetic Process. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975. 

Holloway, Emory. Free and Lonesome Heart: the Secret of Walt Whitman. New York: Vantage, 1960.

Larson, Kerry S. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. New York: Viking, 1964.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Reiss, Edmund. "Whitman's Poetic Grammar: Style and Meaning in 'Children of Adam.'" Whitman in Our Season: A Symposium. Ed. B. Bernard Cohen. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1971. 32–41.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York, 1984.


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