Images of sexuality in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself

Seminar Paper, 1999

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main part:
2.1. The dealing with sexuality in 19th century
2.2. Whitman’s conflict concerning sexual topics
2.3. Song of Myself
2.3.1. Heterosexual elements
2.3.2. Homosexual elements
2.3.3. Autosexual elements

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This research paper is going to deal with the poem “Song of Myself“ by Walt Whitman, which was published in the collection of poetry Leaves of Grass in 1855 and holds a central place in American literature.

Whitman himself is said to be one of the most revolutionary poets in America and besides the most radical transcendentalist. He was a fighter for democracy and especially stood up for the rights of oppressed and disadvantaged people.

His poems were an outlet of their suppressed feelings and drives.

By using free verse he also broke the conventional meter and introduced a new - more natural - verse form.

Therefore I feel a personal interest in this fascinating man and his works.

A common subject of many of Whitman’s poems is sexuality. You can find a huge variety of several images and symbols of sexuality in numerous poems like e.g. the famous ‘ Calamus -poems’ (“When I heard at the Close of the Day“ or “Trickle Drops“) and also in the so-called ‘ Enfans d’Adam (Children of Adam)-poems’

(Poem of the Body: “I Sing the Body Electric“ ; Poem of Procreation: “A Woman waits for Me“; or the most bizarre one Bunch Poem: “Spontaneous Me“).

I have selected “Song of Myself“ as it is widely considered to be Whitman's single most important and most personal poem. In “Song of Myself“ you can find elements of three kinds of sexuality that often appears in Whitman’s poems: heterosexuality as the ‘normal’ sexuality of this time, homosexuality as Whitman is considered to be homosexual and autosexuality which was strictly considered as something abominable and despicable at this time.

Due to the huge variety of sexual elements in “Song of Myself“ and the lenght of the poem it is unavoidable to give only some selected examples acting for the others.

2. main part:

2.1. The dealing with sexuality in 19th century

Nowadays it could be difficult to understand the reasons of the enormous resistance Whitman was confronted with when writing about sexuality in his poems. From there it is important to put oneself into the position of a person living in this time by investigating the prevailing attitude towards sexuality in those days. Sexuality was always a taboo-theme and was considered as disgraceful and scandalous. Even speaking about topics concerning sexual feelings, lust, desire or anything voluptuous was disapproved. The following description is a good example of dealing with sexual topics:

In polite circles , piano legs were decorously covered with frilly stockings; undergarments were called ‘ inexpressibles’, shirts ‘linen’, arms and legs ‘limbs’ or ‘branches’. In popular religious and domestic writings designed for the parlor, sex was rarely mentioned[1]

A necessary information to understand the dealing with sexuality at this time is the lack of gender roles and sexual categories like (hetero-, homo-, or bisexuality).[2]

“Since there was no widely accepted concept of sexual types, sex between people of the same sex was not connected with a fundamental inclination or mind-set“[3]

Therefore passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was common in pre-Civil War America.[4] It was “in fact widely accepted in the street culture of Brooklyn and New York, but in a Puritan-based rural town [...] it would have been frowned upon, whether or not it involved sexual contact“[5].

It is important to mention that prostitution and pornography nevertheless existed in those days which causes Whitman - who despised this fact - to “castigate it in prose and to present a sanitized alternative to it in his poetry“[6].

“Determinedly avoiding both reticence and obscenity, Whitman in his poetry brought to all kinds of love a fresh, passionate intensity“[7].

2.2. Whitman’s conflict concerning sexual topics

“Whitman has normally been seen as sexual rebel whose poetry stood in opposition to an absurdly proper Victorian America“[8]. His way of writing - especially about sexual themes - completely differentiates from the popular literature of the period. Therefore there were a lot of ‘Whitman-critics’ in this time.

He thought that “both the prudish and the pornographic treatment of sex demeaned women and threatened to keep them in suppression“[9] and that “prostitution, like pornography, signaled larger problems in relations between the sexes“[10].

Therefore he demands a “redefinition of gender relations by which women would be liberated from virtual enslavement and marriage would be reestablished on the basis of true passion and mutual respect“[11].

Concerning his own sexuality his attitude has often been misinterpreted. Some say he was a womanizer, some he was a homosexual and some say he was a narcissist.

But which sexual emotion represents his real nature?

This question is not answered but certainly - as he fought for the equality of woman and man - he did not really distinguish between female and male sexuality. That’s why Whitman embodied a fluidity of gender roles. Whitman was neither uniformly homosexual nor uniformly heterosexual but flexibly omnisexual[12] .


[1] David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf inc., 1995) p. 195.

[2] Ibid. p. 391.

[3] Ibid. p. 394.

[4] Cf. D.S. Reynolds, p. 391.

[5] Ibid. p. 72-73.

[6] Cf. D.S. Reynolds, p. 196.

[7] Ibid. p. 197.

[8] Ibid. p. 195.

[9] Ibid. p. 196.

[10] Ibid. p. 196.

[11] Ibid. p.196.

[12] Cf. D. S. Reynolds, p. 199.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Images of sexuality in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself
University of Münster  (English Seminar)
English and American Romantic Poetry
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
441 KB
Images, Walt, Whitman, Song, Myself, English, American, Romantic, Poetry
Quote paper
Dirk Lepping (Author), 1999, Images of sexuality in Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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