“I Sing the Body Electric” – Walt Whitman

Hi guys! So I had do a little poem reading for a class I’m taking and really enjoyed this one that I’d never read by Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric.” It’s from his Leaves of Grass collection of poems, and is just absolutely fantastic.

Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” begins in the 19th century (which is when this was written) at a slave auction, and discusses how he views slaves/people of color as exactly the same as white people. Whitman takes the time to verbalize every aspect of the human body to compare how alike the slave body and the white body are, and makes sure to convey to the reader that there is absolutely no difference between one body and the next, despite skin color. Whitman is obviously vehemently against slavery, and also is very pro-women’s rights, and uses this poem to express that message.

Whitman communicates this idea by discussing his view of what a female and a male (in terms of body and essence) are made of. For instance, when he describes women he explains that the proverbial “She” is something of beauty, something that produces life in more ways than one, someone who “contains all qualities, and tempers them – she is in her place, and moved with perfect balance.”  He mentions that women are “the gates of the body, and [women] are the gates of the soul.” In other words, he gives the reader a full description of what his view of the Female is – powerful, life-giving, beautiful, strong, capable, and “divine.” As he continues, he mentions that he sees this slave woman up at auction as just Female; he does not see a slave, he sees a woman who is just as capable of life-giving, just as female, as the other women he was describing. To him, white, black, or any other color – they are all equally woman, and thus equally divine.

But he doesn’t just talk about women – he discusses men as being powerful, defiant, passionate and prideful. He tells the reader, “the male is not less the soul nor more, he too is in his place,” which lets us know that he views men as equally as he does women.

Although I must say that I am genuinely impressed at his progressive views on women and equality, I also, in my own way, feel like Whitman might respect the female form more than he does the male form. I’m not saying he views them as unequal, or thinks that one should be valued over the other. Instead, what I mean is that Whitman is a man, and thus would be familiar with the male body and the strength and power that comes with it, but as a man I think he’s infatuated with the idea of what a female body can do.

Whitman even mentions, “I am drawn by [the female’s] breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it.” He sees the beauty in the form, the power in what it can do, and the mysteries of it he will never know. He appreciates that the life-cycle is dependent on the woman, and not that a man does not have a part in it, but he seems to truly respect and value the power of women.

He also, interestingly, discusses immigrants very briefly. Whitman says,

“The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred;

No matter who it is, it is sacred;

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you;

Each has his or her place in the procession.”

I was very taken aback at reading this since he not only mentions how he feels about immigration at the time, but also of how he equates slaves and immigrants. To start, I think it’s important to mention that starting around 1850, and going until the first World War, immigration was pouring in to cities. According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, large cities were becoming even larger due to the influx of immigrants. For instance, New York City grew sevenfold going from 500k to 3.5 million, and Chicago went from 29K people in 1850 to more than 2 million in 1910. This is a monumental gap. This is so important because as a country we get so wrapped up in the romanticized idea that America was founded by and built by/for immigrants, and yet those in that time period did not necessarily view immigrants in a kind way.

In the 19th century (and prior), America gained a large amount of wealth from slavery and the trade/selling of goods that came from it. But at a certain point, immigrants began to understand that they may be able to leave the poverty and horrific regimes that they were experiencing and took the risk to come to America. Those immigrants were not seen as important, they were not seen as welcome. Much like the immigrants of today, many people told them to leave, and made their lives difficult if they did not; this made it extremely difficult for immigrants to make a living and for them to build a solid foundation for their families. Whitman, on the other hand, understood how the immigrants were being treated and viewed that treatment as inequality. Despite the majority of the immigrants being caucasian, he viewed their treatment as unequal, just as he viewed slavery as unequal.

Whitman also uses an interesting set of stanzas at the end of his poem that encompass what he was trying to express in the rest of his poem. He sets off to give an extremely in depth look at every single part of the human anatomy; he makes the connection that every body has these parts equally, and if we have all of the same parts, how can we not be equal? How are we truly different from one to the other? In order to make this point very clear, Whitman describes individual body parts, and his use of imagery here is remarkable. He mentions “the ample side-round of the chest,” “Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,” and “the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes.” It gives the reader something to envision perfectly as you read along.

The way he begins with body parts everyone has (i.e. nose, mouth, tongue, cheek, eyes, etc.) and then moves on to the individual parts of man and woman truly spark a very distinctive picture in the mind when reading it. At least for me, I had no particular color of person in mind when reading it (since Whitman does not use skin color to describe anatomy).  I think that was his point: to make simply being a human being indistinguishable from race.

Whitman also equates the Soul and the Body. He tells the reader that every Body has a soul, and that soul is equal to all other souls. Thus, no matter what skin color, religion, language or social class, we are all equal. No one has the right to forcibly take another person’s body, to take another person’s dignity, to steal their rights.

Which brings me to my last point: Whitman’s writing of this poem is of extreme importance; particularly for the people of the time he wrote this. At the time this poem was published, approximately five years before the Civil War began, there was obviously an incredible divide between North and South. This poem simply explains that divide  from the point of view of just an average observer. He can see the differences between these two groups of people: those who believed that there is nothing different from one body to the next, that it is a human right to be free, versus those who viewed slaves as property, as meat and cattle, as something that could be collected and sold, exploited and overused.

Whitman’s writing of this poem shows just how progressive he was at the time. While of course there were abolitionists and groups that sympathized them, there were certainly still divides concerning whether or not black people were equal. In my research I’ve found that there were more people who disagreed with slavery, but still viewed black people and other people of color as beneath them than there were people who viewed all bodies as equal.

So while it may seem like Whitman is simply appealing to abolitionists alone, it seems like this poem would have reached people who were against slavery but still did not see how people of color could possibly be equal to white people. Whitman even publishing this poem could have put him in hot water (and it did), but he published it anyway knowing that maybe someone who was on the fence might now be converted, and at the very least he’s gotten his opinions onto paper and out there for others to use and criticize.

I really enjoyed this poem, and thought Whitman did a truly wonderful job of capturing the truth about race, slavery, gender equality, and equality in general.

If you guys have read it, or would like to read it (I highly recommend you do!) let me know in the comments below or via email! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and what you inferred from reading it yourself.

If you have any other comments or questions, you can leave them below or you can email me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com! I hope to hear from you soon!

Until next time,

Rachel

email: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

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