Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s life legacy and at the same time the most praised and condemned book of poetry. Although fearful of social scorn, there are several poems in Leaves of Grass that are more explicit in showing the homoerotic imagery, whereas there are several subtle – should I say “implicit” – images woven into the fabric of the book. It is not strange, then, that he created many different identities in order to remain safe. What Whitman faced in writing his poetry was the difficulty in describing and resonating manly and homosexual love. He was to find another voice of his, a rhetoric device, and his effort took two forms: simplified, and subverted word play.
The first was to understand and render the experience in everyday terms, as in the poem Behold This Swarthy Face. Whitman puts emphasis on masculinity “in this swarthy face, these gray eyes” (149), and other words, too, are expressive enough to explain to the reader what kind of person is to be loved. What is not as subtle as in some other of Whitman’s poems is the idea in the second part of the poem: “And I on the crossing of the street or on the ship’s deck give a kiss in / return” (149) – the meeting of the two is to be recognized anywhere, be it on the street or on a ship's deck.
When it comes to the second form, Davidson notices that “The other and far more prevalent form of presented homoerotic love was by means of terms of oppression, subversion” (54). Exemplar poem of this form is Not Heaving from My Ribb’d Breast Only. In it the lyrical subject is trapped in fears and must break out of suppression in order to be himself. In the end of the poem there is a sudden release: “O pulse of my life! / Need I that you exist and show yourself any more than in these songs” (Whitman 139). In the poem Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances the recognition of sexuality may be a way out of the doubts and confusion of life: “To me these and the like of these are curiously answer’d by my lovers, / my dear friends” (Whitman 140). The difficulty is, however, that there is no language of sexuality by which this knowledge can be conveyed.
As seen above, the majority of homoerotic images is concentrated in a cluster of poems titled Calamus. It is noticeable that Whitman tried to express his sexuality directly, but ended up fabricating “a persona that obscured his true nature” (Bergman 387), thus it is only a bit more particularized than Song of Myself. In The Base of All Metaphysics the lyrical subject speaks of “the attraction of friend to friend” (Whitman 141), the Socratic notion of love, and it is this kind of love that Whitman seems to be most interested in.
Worth mentioning is that in Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand, for example, Whitman has abandoned his mission to be the bard of democracy and took on his own private voice. According to Davidson, “He has become assertive, even arrogant: the ordinary reader is, as it were, pushed aside” (55), and the reader is supposed to...