The 19th century was an era of discovery and realization. Ideas like equality, and individuality were becoming more prevalent in society. One of the first and most famous people to introduce these ideas to the world was poet Walt Whitman. In August of 1856, Walt Whitman wrote a letter to his friend and colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this letter, Whitman shares what he intends to achieve through writing poetry. Throughout the letter, there are ideas about the value of human life, the sanctity of the human body, and equality. These themes and elements are expressed in Whitman’s poetry.
In his letter to Emerson, Whitman states that “in poems, the young men of the States shall be represented, for they outrival the best of the rest of the earth.” It is evident that Whitman recognizes the value of human life, specifically the lives of young men, and he intends to present this value and importance to the rest of the world. Whitman achieves this idea in the poem “The Wound Dresser”. In this poem, Whitman refers to the blood of young men as “priceless”.
The use of the word priceless in this context allows the reader to catch a glimpse of just how important these young men are to Whitman. In his view, there is no battle worth the blood of young. In this poem, Whitman also says, “yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.” He values the lives of these brave young men over his own. He cares deeply enough for them that he would lay down his life if it meant they could live. Whitman successfully achieves the idea that the young men of America are the “best of the rest of the earth” by giving the audience a look into his mind and emotions.
Another thing that Whitman intends to achieve through his poetry is the normalization of sex and the human body. In his letter, Whitman says, “by silence or obedience to the pens of savans [savants], poets, historians, biographers, and the rest, have long connived at the filthy law, and books enslaved to it, that what makes the manhood of a man, that sex, womanhood, maternity, desires, lusty animations, organs, acts, are unmentionable and to be ashamed of, to be driven skulk out of literature with whatever belongs to them.
This filthy law has to be repealed – it stands in the way of great reforms.” Whitman believes that sex and the human body are natural things that should be celebrated, not hidden away from society or declared as taboo. The poem “I Sing the Body Electric” perfectly encapsulates these ideas. Throughout this poem, Whitman catalogues different parts of the body to allow his audience to envision the human body in all its glory. With this visualization, comes normalcy. By declaring the human body and sex as sacred and beautiful, Whitman hopes that more people will create art and poetry about it, and eventually lead to a society where there is no shame in either.
Whitman also expresses how he hopes to inform his audience about equality. He states in his letter to Emerson that “of women just as much as men, it is the interest that there should not be infidelism about sex, but perfect faith. Women in These States approach the day of that organic equality among themselves.” Whitman believes that women should be concerned with the normalization of sexual expression in poems, and that they are an equal part in the conversation. In Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric” he focuses on discussing and celebrating the physical body, both male and female.
A passage in section two of “I Sing the Body Electric”, says, “that of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect,” in reference to the human body. Near the end of section five, Whitman praises women by saying, “Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest and is the exit of the rest, you are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul.” Whitman is essentially celebrating women for their bodies and telling them that having a female body is a privilege and not something to be ashamed about. Saying something like this would have been considered inappropriate or even scandalous during Whitman’s time. This is because women were typically encouraged to stay covered and modest to conceal any expression of sexuality. By declaring the female body as beautiful and something that should be celebrated rather than hidden away, Whitman is achieving his goal of equality through poetry.
It is evident through his unique and personal poems that for Whitman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political beliefs, but a political force itself. He intended to change society’s view of sexuality, the human body, and equality through his poems. It is thanks to creative and determined people like him that modern day society has evolved into a more tolerant and free place.
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