Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'I Sing the Body Electric' [1855]
Author:
Gutman, Huck
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"I Sing the Body Electric" was one of the twelve poems which comprised the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). As with the other poems in that edition, it appeared without a title. The poem's first line, later changed, was, "The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them," at the outset announcing itself as a poem about the human body. After revision and the addition of what is now the final section of the poem, it appeared as "Poem of the Body" in the 1856 Leaves. In the 1867 edition it appeared in its present nine-section version, with its present title, as part of the "Children of Adam" sequence. 

Unlike many of the other poems in the first edition of Leaves, "I Sing the Body Electric" has received relatively little critical attention. Some critics have felt that it is obvious and repetitive; others have found it lacking in the deeper mysteries characteristic of Whitman's major works. Many have criticized the final section, an extensive catalogue of the human body. Tenney Nathanson is typical when he says that the catalogue is "a struggle against alienation. It is a struggle the poet seems to lose. What ought to be a ritual of repossession . . . comes to seem instead like an obsessive enumeration" (288). 

But despite these critical caveats, "I Sing the Body Electric" remains a magnificent poem of Whitman's early period. Whitman was in his mid-thirties when he first turned to poetry, uncertain of himself yet determined to celebrate the glories of existence. He explored the mysteries of identity in "Song of Myself," of childhood in "There Was a Child Went Forth," of the rivers of subconscious desire in "The Sleepers." In "I Sing the Body Electric" Whitman records his delight—and delight is too weak a term—at the wondrous qualities of the human body. "If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred" (section 8), he writes, "And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?" (section 1). The reader encounters in "Body Electric" Whitman's profound love of bodily flesh. Always a central element in Whitman's ecstatic imagination, the body is here both ostensible and central subject of the poem. 

Almost at the outset Whitman acknowledges that many have doubts about the body—doubts originating in the enduring Christian notion that the body is different from the soul, and is the seat of the soul's corruption. Similar doubts will also surface in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856) and "Out of the Cradle" (1860). "Body Electric," however, is not a poem of doubt but a response to those who doubt the body. It is a paean of praise to the wonders of the sensual body. 

Section two asks the reader to consider the perfection of the body, devolving into a stream of images in which the poet looks at bodies with the gaze of sensual desire: the "swimmer naked in the swimming-bath," the "embrace of love and resistance" of two young boy wrestlers, the "play of masculine muscle" of marching firemen. The poet is attracted to all of these bodies, especially those of virile men, and sheds the rigid contours of his identity so that he can become close to them: "I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother's breast with the little child, / Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen." 

In section three the poet gazes with love and affection at the body of a patriarchal farmer, an idealized figure quite at odds with Whitman's own father as described in "There Was a Child Went Forth." Paul Zweig argues persuasively that the old man "stands for the self Whitman was even then making in his poems and in his person" (196). By section four the poet is convinced that nothing is more satisfying than to admire the bodies of men and women: "I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as a sea."

Whitman then proceeds, in the following two sections, to describe the bodies of women and the bodies of men. It is usual for Whitman to idealize the erotic attraction of women, something he does when he speaks of their "divine nimbus" and their function as "the bath of birth." But he also presents women as exceedingly sexual, for "mad filaments, ungovernable shoots" of erotic attraction play out of their bodies. The poet, describing himself as "ungovernable," gives way, and reaches the heights of sexual climax in the lines which begin "Ebb stung" and end with "delirious juice." 

Concentration on the body of a woman occasions a parallel concentration on the body of a man. But here a new note emerges, one which is likewise a constituent element of "Song of Myself." Whitman finds a link, an identity, between the erotic body and the body politic. For if "the man's body is sacred and the woman's body is sacred," then all bodies are sacred—even those which belong to the "dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf." Every single body has its place in the great democratic procession. Other-directed, Whitman is in sections six through eight less prone to egotism than in any other major early work; he speaks to himself as well as the reader when he chides, "Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts, / For you only, and not for him and her?" 

The poet continues to assert this democratic viewpoint in sections seven and eight, in which his gaze is focused on a male slave and a female slave on the auction platform. His is an antislavery argument, an argument derived perhaps from his Quaker background: "Within there runs blood, / The same old blood! The same red-running blood!" The political content of these sections is discussed by Betsy Erkkila, who notes that in writing about slaves and bodies-as-property Whitman provides an "ominous political prophecy [because] the body electric is also black" (125). Some critics are disconcerted that as Whitman moves from the body itself to the political importance of the body, he switches rhetorical modes, from the narrative rhapsodic to what Edwin Miller correctly assesses as the "forthrightly satirical" (133). A contemporary analogue of such mixed modalities is Moby-Dick, published four years earlier. 

Section 8 concludes with the curious questions about concealment, defilement, degradation with which the poem began. These lines reinforce the possibility that the poet's song arises not solely from a need to celebrate the human body, but also from a need to come to terms with his own ambivalence over his sexual appetites. "Body Electric" prefigures much of Whitman's later work by raising the possibility that the poet's bodily celebration is a complex mechanism of defense and self-argument which makes manageable the unruly emotions which arise in his psyche. Seen from this perspective, the poem is an assertion by the poet, to himself, that the sexual hungers which gnaw at him—hungers that we today recognize as an attraction to men—are legitimate because the body is so electric, so filled with a vital energy that attracts and a galvanic current that flows. 

Whether simple celebration or complex self-assertion, the final section, added in the 1856 edition of Leaves, "makes sense as the climax of the poem," as Howard Waskow says (86). It catalogues the glories of the body, moving from head to toe and from outer surfaces to inner organs and processes. 

Whitman's erotic specificity in the catalogue, and in the entire poem, has often discomfited readers. Yet despite exhortations to modify the poem, he did not. Nowhere is the poet's commitment to the importance of celebrating the body in erotic terms clearer than in the long conversation which took place between Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1860. For two hours the two men walked the streets of Boston, Emerson arguing that Leaves of Grass would find the large audience it deserved only if Whitman cut some of the most sexual and bodily passages from "Body Electric" and other poems in the "Children of Adam" section. "[H]e was the talker and I the listener. It was an argument-statement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home . . . of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems . . . each point of E.'s statement was unanswerable, no judge's charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put—and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way" (Whitman 281). 

Bibliography 

Coskren, Robert. "A Reading of Whitman's 'I Sing the Body Electric.'" Walt Whitman Review 22 (1976): 125-132. 

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. 

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. New York: New York UP, 1968. 

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992. 

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966. 

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1963. 

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984. 


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