Song of Myself


Divinity, Sexuality and the Self

Through his poetry, Whitman's "Song of Myself" makes the soul sensual and makes divine the flesh. In Whitman's time, the dichotomy between the soul and the body had been clearly defined by centuries of Western philosophy and theology. Today, the goodness of the soul and the badness of the flesh still remain a significant notion in contemporary thought. Even Whitman's literary predecessor, Emerson, chose to distinctly differentiate the soul from all nature. Whitman, however, chooses to reevaluate that relationship. His exploration of human sensuality, particularly human sexuality, is the tool with which he integrates the spirit with the flesh.

Key to this integration is Whitman's notion of the ability of the sexual self to define itself. This self-definition is derived from the strongly independent autonomy with which his sexuality speaks in the poem. Much of the "Song of Myself" consists of a cacophony of Whitman's different selves vying for attention. It follows that Whitman's sexual self would likewise find itself a voice. A number of passages strongly resonate with Whitman's sexuality in their strongly pleasurable sensualities. The thoroughly intimate encounter with another individual in section five particularly expresses Whitman as a being of desire and libido.

Whitman begins his synthesis of the soul and body through sexuality by establishing a relative equality between the two. He pronounces in previous stanzas, "You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself," and, "Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest." Here, he lays foundation for the basic egalitarianism with which he treats all aspects of his being for the rest of the poem. This equality includes not only his sexuality, but in broader terms, his soul and body. In the opening to section five, Whitman explicitly articulates that equality in the context of the body and soul: "I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other." He refutes the moral superiority of the soul over the flesh historically prevalent throughout Western thought. With that level groundwork established, he is free to pursue the relationship between the soul and the body on equal footing.

The mechanism of this integration may be one of a number of possibilities included in Whitman's work. Whitman's notion that "All truths wait in all things" very broadly defines the scope of his desire to distill truth from his surroundings. He indicates that "...all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers," suggesting that perhaps sensual understanding of the interconnectedness of man bridges the spiritual to the corporal. Within the context of the passage, the cause/effect relationship between sensual contact and transcendent understanding becomes clear. His declaration that "I believe in the flesh and the appetites, Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles" reinforces the concept that truth is directly discerned through the union of the spirit and the senses. Human sensuality thus becomes the conduit that bridges the spirit and the flesh. Whitman demonstrates the result of that synthesis to be "peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth." He expands this revelation of truth and understanding as the passage continues, linking it to divinity as he invokes the image of "the hand of God" and "the spirit of God." The union of the spirit with the body thus becomes a natural, common pathway to divinity. This association to the cosmos, facilitated by a union of the spiritual and the corporal, is then a direct result of the expression of the sexual self.

Whitman's choice of the word "reached" in "...And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet," is a powerful image. It connotes not only a physical bridging, which Whitman establishes as a elemental force in its sensual nature, but also a direct application of the will. In this context, this passage echoes Whitman's earlier "Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world," in its hunger and desire. Both words "reached" and "urge" indicate willed effort, revolving around the basic function of human nature in sexuality. The centralness of the "procreant urge" to both these passages makes the sexual act the volta around which comprehension and truth are achieved.

One of the key truths that Whitman explicitly