Divinity, Sexuality and the Self in Whitman’s Song of Myself
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...