Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'Calamus' [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.

The "Calamus" poems had their origin in a sequence entitled "Live Oak with Moss," which survived in manuscript (published, 1955, in Fredson Bowers's Whitman's Manuscripts). This sequence of twelve poems contained a sketchy account of "manly attachment" that ended in separation. Other poems were added to this core to comprise the 45 poems of the "Calamus" cluster in 1860. In subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman dropped or shifted a few "Calamus" poems, ending with a total of 39 in 1881.

The poems of the "Calamus" cluster, companion to the "Children of Adam" cluster, celebrate friendship and "manly attachment" (or "adhesiveness," a term that Whitman adopted from phrenology, as he did "amativeness" for heterosexual love). In setting these clusters together in his book, he appears to be following a tradition of the personal essay, from Montaigne to Emerson: writing on love and friendship by drawing on personal experience as a basis for philosophical generalizations. Whitman explained his title "Calamus" in the following way: "[I]t is the very large and aromatic grass, or root, spears three feet high—often called 'sweet flag'—grows all over the Northern and Middle States. . . . The récherché or ethereal sense, as used in my book, arises probably from it, Calamus presenting the biggest and hardiest kind of spears of grass, and from its fresh, aromatic, pungent bouquet" (Poetry and Prose 941). In his nude portrait of himself in section 24 of "Song of Myself," the phallic suggestiveness of Calamus (or sweet-flag) is made explicit: "Root of wash'd sweet flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs!"

"In Paths Untrodden" opens the "Calamus" cluster with a straightforward resolution "to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment," concluding "I proceed for all who are or have been young men, / To tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades." The next poem, "Scented Herbage of My Breast," initially introduces an extraordinarily copious imagery entwining "[t]omb-leaves," "body-leaves," "tall leaves," "sweet leaves," until, finally, in the middle of the poem the poet exclaims: "Emblematic and capricious blades I leave you, now you serve me not, / I will say what I have to say by itself." The poet spins an opaque web of images and, feeling himself getting entangled in his weaving, tosses it all aside and begins to speak directly: "I will sound myself and comrades only, / I will never again utter a call only their call." The drama of the poem is essentially about writing the poem, or about the giving up on the writing of the poem and turning to direct speech in its place. 

This playfulness with the reader continues in the next poem, "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand." The very title leads the reader to expect a love scene, with the poet's hand held by one of his comrades. But this is not the case. The reader quickly discovers that it is the reader's hand caught in the title. The poet turns the reader into the seducer, saying "before you attempt me further, . . . [t]he whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon'd." The poet (becoming his book) gives the reader a chance to escape, but then entices him or her by suggesting a trial in some hidden spot—"in some wood," "back of a rock," or "on the beach." There he will permit the reader to kiss him with the "comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss" and will allow himself to be thrust beneath the reader's clothing to rest against heart or hip. Readers discover, perhaps to their dismay, that they have been propositioned by a book! The poet himself is ready to escape, requesting his release with a riddle: "For all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at; / Therefore release me and depart on your way."

"These I Singing in Spring," the fifth poem in the "Calamus" cluster, portrays the poet going to the pond-side alone but soon surrounded in imagination by a gang of comrades—"the spirits of dear friends dead or alive." The poet, accompanied by this ghostly "great crowd" and wandering in search of "tokens," soon comes upon a place sacred to his memory: "O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me, and returns again never to separate from me, / And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall, / Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!" At the end of the poem, the poet begins to discriminate among his "cloud of spirits": not all of them are worthy of receiving the phallic-like Calamus-root. Indeed, it is reserved for a few: "I will give of it, but only to them that love as I myself am capable of loving."

The "Calamus" poems celebrate adhesiveness and manly love but rarely portray such a relationship at any length. At times, the intensities of feeling the poet celebrates seem more real in memory and imagination than in fact. For example, in "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," after describing the big philosophical questions that defy human answer, the poet reveals that for him the questions are "curiously answer'd" by his friends, his "lovers." Such a relationship charges him with "untold and untellable wisdom": "He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me." A similar portrait is painted in "When I Heard at the Close of the Day"; even though the poet's name has been received "with plaudits in the capitol," even though he has accomplished his plans, still he is not happy. Only when his friend and lover returns is he happy. The poem concludes with a bedroom scene, the poet lying awake content listening to the waters roll in on the shore: "For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night, / In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, / And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy." Again, the poem appears to be a treasured recollection, the more valued for its rarity in the poet's life; that night must provide comfort for the many others spent alone. The passion of adhesiveness seems to be manifested in the simplest of gestures—the holding of a hand, the encircling of an arm.

Though the poet celebrates adhesiveness and associates the love of comrades with some of the tenderest, most memorable moments of his life, he also sometimes reveals the pain he has felt. "Trickle Drops," the bloodiest of all Whitman's poems, might well be read as an anguished confessional poem—indeed the opposite of celebratory. The blood-drops come from his face, from his forehead and lips, and from his breast—"from within where I was conceal'd." The drops are "confession drops" that "stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I say." The poet exhorts the drops to saturate his pages "with yourself all ashamed and wet." The shortest of the "Calamus" poems, "Here the Frailest Leaves of Me," is similarly confessional, but less self-lacerating: "Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting, / Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them, / And yet they expose me more than all my other poems."

"Sometimes with One I Love" portrays the poet as feeling jealous rage for fear that he "effuse[s] unreturn'd love." He discovers, however, there is recompense, even for "unreturn'd love": "I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return'd, / Yet out of that I have written these songs." Perhaps this poem reveals the secret as to why there is so much celebration of adhesiveness in "Calamus" but so little portrayal of it in any extended sense. "Sometimes with One I Love" may be paired with "Not Heaving from my Ribb'd Breast Only," one of the most visually negative of Whitman's poems: fourteen lines begin with "Not" and two others with "Nor" in this seventeen-line poem! Along with "Trickle Drops," this is one of Whitman's most tortured poems, a long periodic sentence filled from beginning to end with heaving, sighing, panting, and chattering, a portrait of an unhappy, almost despairing man ("in sighs at night in rage dissatisfied with myself"). The source of the rage is finally disclosed in the last two lines: "Not in any or all of them O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life! / Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs." These two poems reveal that the poet has lived a largely lonely life suppressing his adhesiveness, his only compensation the creation of his poems. 

These poems may reveal the reason Whitman emphasized the social dimension of the "Calamus" poems when he referred to them in later years, as, for example, in his 1876 Preface to Two Rivulets : "Important as they are in my purpose as emotional expressions for humanity, the special meaning of the Calamus cluster of Leaves of Grass, (and more or less running through that book, and cropping out in Drum-Taps,) mainly resides in its Political significance" (Comprehensive 751). That "political" dimension is explicit in "For You, O Democracy" and "The Base of All Metaphysics." In the first of these, the poet announces his aim to make "the continent indissoluble," "the most splendid race," "inseparable cities"—all "By the love of comrades, / By the manly love of comrades." Many readers have found this poem naive or unconvincing.

"The Base of all Metaphysics," however, has not received its due. The poet become professor explains the base for all past metaphysical speculation—Plato, Socrates, Christ, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, etc.—as contained in "The dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend to friend, / Of the well-married husband and wife, of children and parents, / Of city for city and land for land." In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud presents in his non-poetic prose a vision of social bonding quite compatible with Whitman's: "Man's discovery that sexual (genital) love . . . provided him with the prototype of all happiness [inspired him to] . . . make genital eroticism the central point of his life. . . . The love which founded the family continues to operate in civilization both in its original [sexual] form . . . and in its modified form as aim-inhibited affection." Freud believed that "aim-inhibited love" was originally "fully sensual love, and it is so still in man's unconscious. Both—fully sensual love and aim-inhibited love—extend outside the family and create new bonds with people who before were strangers" (qtd. in Miller, Leaves 54). Freud would have seen that in such poems as "To a Stranger" the poet provides an example of the kind of bonding derived from such "aim-inhibited love." The poem is addressed to a "[p]assing stranger": "You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return."

As a poet Whitman probably had more conscious access to his unconscious than do most people. In the last "Calamus" poem he describes himself as "[f]ull of life now, compact, visible," but he speaks to those readers who have come after him, who themselves are "compact, visible," seeking him in his poems—"Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade; / Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)" ("Full of Life Now"). The poet is confident that his readers, whatever their sexuality, overt or suppressed, will respond imaginatively to such an appeal cast primarily in physical terms.

During the nineteenth century, Whitman's sex poems in "Children of Adam" and elsewhere in Leaves became subjects of controversy and created many problems for the "good gray poet," but the "Calamus" pieces were largely accepted as innocent poems of comradeship and brotherly love. In the twentieth century, the two clusters have exchanged positions in the reputation of Leaves; the sex poems have found acceptance, but the "Calamus" poems are charged with depicting "unnatural" sexuality. Most recently, however, with the advent of the rights movement for gays and lesbians (allied with the rights movement for Blacks and women), the "Calamus" cluster has come to be celebrated as a homosexual manifesto. Too often in the debate about "Calamus," proponents for one or another interpretation forget that it is a cluster of poems which, like all genuine poetry, yields itself most fully only after one attends to the subtlety and complexity of its techniques and themes.   James E. Miller, Jr.

Bibliography 

Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos.Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Fone, Byrne R.S. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

McKinley, John. "Shooting the Moon: Over-Reading Homoeroticism in Whitman's 'Calamus.'" Walt Whitman Centennial International Symposium. Ed. Manuel Villar Raso, Miguel Martinez Lopez, and Rosa Morillas. Granada, Spain: U of Granada P, 1992. 146–150.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. New York: New York UP, 1969.

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

____. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Pollak, Vivian R. "Death as Repression, Repression as Death: A Reading of Whitman's 'Calamus' Poems." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 179–193.

Thomas, M. Wynn. "Whitman's Achievements in the Personal Style in Calamus." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.3 (1983): 36–47.

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

____. The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Louis Untermeyer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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