In Whitman's poetry, the human body is a major theme—and much more. It is a prominent conceptual device; Whitman's use of body metaphors anticipates the work of twentieth-century cognitive linguists and language philosophers in the recognition of the body as the ground of human understanding to which all concepts ultimately relate. It is also a source of delight, on a footing with poetry itself, the seat of sexual pleasure and the sympathetic emotions which bind person to person. In this last sense the body is the heart of democratic politics, the common denominator in the experience of all men and women. In proclaiming himself in the 1855 Leaves of Grass to be the poet of the body as well as the poet of the soul, Whitman set out to elevate the status of physical existence as a theme and inspiration of modern poetry, fully exploiting the metaphorical possibilities of material life as well as advocating a complete realization of the body as a source of psychological, social, and political well-being.
The 1855 body-consciousness seemed to propel the poet beyond anything as simple as "interest" in the physiological processes of the body in health. He had expressed such an interest in his earliest poetry and prose, most notably in book reviews he wrote as a young journalist. But the 1855 versions of "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," and "I Sing the Body Electric" take their very inspiration from the being and workings of the human body. In all of these poems, bodily health is at once a metaphor for spiritual, social, and political success and a literal topic set on equal footing with the more traditional topics of poetic expression. In "Body Electric" in particular, physical existence appears as a central element in the poet's project. The speaker proclaims, "The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them, / They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them." The bodies of the poet's "lovers" are set against "those who corrupted their own live bodies" and "those who defiled the living" bodies of others (section 1). The latter come under a special attack in twin sections of the poem dealing with what the social reformers of Whitman's day viewed as the two great evils of American society—slavery ("a man's body at auction" [section 7]) and prostitution ("a woman's body at auction" [section 8]). Neglecting one's own body, the poem implicitly argues, leads to the oppression of others' bodies, so that democratic consciousness ultimately depends upon care for and respect of the physical existence of every individual.
In "The Sleepers," the poet adopts the persona of the loving healer who attends the bodies of sleepers restless with illness and with dreams of unfulfilled sexuality. His sympathetic imagination arises from the common experience of bodily life that the poet shares with the subjects of his poem—and with his readers, who are invited to join in the examination and celebration of the physical. Far from being just a metaphor, the treatment of the body appears as the very foundation of all metaphorical communication. As the language philosophers Lakoff and Johnson suggest, every new concept a person learns has its grounding in—or may be traced to—a reference to the living body. The body is the starting place of all knowledge, a theme taken up directly in the cosmic drama of "Song of Myself," in which the poet treats "otherbeingness" in nature—the life of other people, as well as that of animals, trees, and even rocks in the crust of the earth—as sharing in the overall evolution of physical existence and as being tied to the individual human being through shared developmental processes. Inone famous passage, the speaker of the poem marvels that "I incorporate gneiss and coal and long-threaded moss and fruits and grains and esculent roots, / And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over" (section 31). Such is the "knit of identity" (section 3), a trope that is simultaneously a metaphor for shared life and a metaphor for metaphor itself. Every metaphor knits an identity between unlike things. Whitman reveals material existence to be the starting place for all such identification and thus celebrates the body for its contribution to what he calls the "merge" ("Body Electric," section 5), the tendency toward the unification of individuals driven by the "procreant urge" of all life ("Song of Myself," section 3) to reproduce itself by interpenetrating with other life forms.
Whitman's attitude toward the body and his treatment of it did not remain static but changed over the several editions of Leaves of Grass as he added new poems and revised old ones. In the 1856 Leaves, Whitman was, if anything, more inclined to develop his celebration and exploration of physical life. In the poem eventually titled "Spontaneous Me," he again identified the poetic function with a physical one, this time with special emphasis on the male organs of sexual regeneration. In "Poem of Women," later titled "Unfolded Out of the Folds," he balanced the equation, presenting life as an evolving phenomenon unfolding upon the world much as a child emerges from the very folds of the mother's womb and vagina. In "Poem of Procreation," later "A Woman Waits for Me," the poet offers the vision of a future woman whose physical life is every bit as developed, as open, and as athletic as a man's.
By the 1860 edition, however, Whitman displayed a new trend toward developing his poems of spirituality and psychological drama and increasingly neglecting his poetry of the body. After his representation of the torn body of the nation and his own efforts at "wound-dressing" in the Civil War poems of Drum-Taps, he all but abandoned the celebration of physical existence. By that time, Emerson and other supporters had encouraged him to rethink his emphasis on the body because, they argued, it had cost him readers and interfered with his ambition to become the great poet of democracy. Moreover, he had lost much of his own physical vigor and, as a consequence, may have also lost some interest in being the poet of the body, though he never openly agreed to reduce, eliminate, or apologize for his work on sexuality and physical vitality in general, but instead defended it vigorously in essays like "A Memorandum at a Venture." Whatever the cause, however, the effect is clear: the poems written after 1865 are mainly soulful reflections on life from the vantage of an artistically distanced observer rather than the ardent celebrations of a lover of material life immersed in the very material of his being and song.
Early commentators on Whitman's poetry of the body, as well as critics and biographers well into the twentieth century, tended to understand the poems as a completely original gesture of a rebellious soul reacting to the strict demands of the Victorian Age. However, the image of the poetic rebel "singing the body" has been greatly modified by more recent scholarship under the influence of new developments in social history and a comparison of Whitman's work to contemporaneous writings outside the accepted literary canon (see Aspiz; Killingsworth, Poetry of the Body; and Reynolds). Whitman drew upon a variety of scientific sources and from social reform literature in developing both the form and content of his treatment of physical life. He learned about evolution, for instance, from reading reviews of pre-Darwinian scientists like Jean Baptiste Lamarck and Robert Chambers. He borrowed the notion of "sexual electricity" from eclectic medical writers of the day, such as Edward H. Dixon and Orson S. Fowler, the founder of the phrenological firm Fowler and Wells, which served as the publisher and distributor of the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Phrenology encouraged Whitman in his notion that character could be "read" in a person's physical attributes and that moral character, as well as physical traits, could be transmitted from one generation to the next. From popular medical writing, Whitman picked up the theme of human perfectibility and wove eugenic themes into poems like "A Woman Waits for Me." Above all, it was the quirky physiology of nineteenth-century science writing that Whitman left behind when he shifted the emphasis of his own writing after the war. His farewell to the soap box and lecture hall of scientific reform is embodied in the 1860 poem "I Sit and Look Out" and in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," which first appeared in Drum-Taps.
Formalist and deconstructionist critics since the 1950s have looked with skepticism upon Whitman's assertions about the spontaneous connection between his poetry and the unmediated workings of nature and the body. But the poetry of the body continues to affect readers with a sense of immediacy and liveliness that is difficult to account for by reference to poetic conventions and semiotic processes. Much as Lawrence Buell suggests that we must retain a theory of referentiality (a way of linking poetry to its sources in lived experience) if we are to grasp the full significance of Henry David Thoreau's work and his tradition in the literature of the environmental imagination, so perhaps we must retain a sense of how language not only depicts but also grows out of bodily processes—an organic theory of art rooted in life—to fully appreciate Whitman's accomplishment in the poetry of the body.
Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1995.
Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of "Leaves of Grass": The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.
____. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.