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Love And The Theme Of Calamus English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3753 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the most outstanding American poet in 19th century, is one of the great innovators in American literary history. He was the first poet to make extensive use of Free Verse, and because of this and some other innovations, he is regarded as the Father of American Modern Poetry. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, is honored as American first epic, having significant influence on world literature circle. Throughout his life and his works, Whitman consistently reveals a humane thought, among which freedom, equality and love are of great essence. Calamus, whose theme is mainly about manly love, is one of the most important sections in the poetry. Whitman’s poems arouse the awareness of democracy for ordinary people. Based on relevant information and Whitman’s background information, this thesis tries to analyze the humanism conveyed in Whitman’s poetry. It also puts forward that Whitman’s ode to manly love in Calamus is not merely a confession of homosexual tendency, but a natural comeout of raising the comrade’s love to a democratic height.

Key Words: Calamus; freedom; democracy; homosexuality; love of comrades

1. Introduction

Walt Whitman was born in a carpenter’s family on Long Island, then grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout his life, Whitman received only five years of formal education. He was a man thirsty for knowledge and experience; therefore, he tried a variety of jobs such as rural schoolteacher, typesetter and newspaper reporter.

In his early 20s, Whitman began to have some of his writings published, including some conventional, undistinguished poems and vulgar short stories. The poet’s travel to the West in 1848 sees a turning point in his career. These experiences enlarged poet’s vision made his thought more mature and sharpened his writing style. Soon after Whitman began to write in a new style —— free verse, for which he became famous. In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained only 12 of his best poems.

Most of the poems in Leaves of Grass are about man and nature (李正拴、陈岩¼Œ2007¼š93). However, the publication of Leaves of Grass brought the poem praise as well as critics. He was praised by Emerson and some a few writers, while bitterly attacked by the majority of his contemporary critics.

After the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman added new entries of poems to enrich his collection and had it republished every a few years.

Amid strong assaults, came the publication of the 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass (1860). One of the most important enrichment in the 3rd edition is the poetry Calamus.

Calamus is regarded by most critics as one of the most controversial poetries in Whitman’s poems. In Calamus, Whitman daringly expresses his ode to love of comrades, which led him to savage attacks by critics at the time, some of who even regarded it as the symbol of Whitman’s “eagerness of sex” (M. J. Killingsworth, 1998). It was not until 1920’s that critics started to accept and study the homosexuality in Calamus.

Besides the homosexuality, the theme of Calamus also embraces the poet’s keen desire of freedom and strong sense of vacation for democracy, equality and human dignity.

This thesis mainly exposes poet’s thought in Calamus through revealing his background and analyzing some of its important poems as a whole.

2. Literature Review

Since the publication of Leaves of Grass, there has always been great divergence and controversies existing in the literary circle. The point of argument mainly lies on the direct and vivid description of sex, which shocked the American literary with “the call of wildness”.

In John Symonds’s letter to Whitman (Symonds, 1893), he found that Walt Whitman did have some kind of extraordinary point of view about sex¼ˆæŽé‡Žå…‰¼Œ1995.:107¼‰ . Sex and sexual content in Whitman’s poetry together are the factors which critics and readers in 19th century scolded for. At the beginning of 20th century, literary circle started to accept and study on the homosexuality, which gradually became the sources of inspiration in literature, in Whitman’s poems.

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College professor Gay Wilson Allen is accepted as the earliest and the most influential scholar on the field of Whitman study. In his masterpiece, The Walt Whitman Handbook, which contributed significantly to the rise of Whitman study in the 20th century, G. W. Allen claimed that he never found any proof of Whitman’s homosexuality. And Gay Allen prefers using the word “homoerotic” than “homosexual” to describe Whitman’s emotion world (R.A. Hunt, 1975).

American scholar Kenneth. M. Price analyzes how British writers D. H. Lawrance and E. M. Foster appreciated Whitman’s ideal of gender and sex in his new book To Walt Whitman, America. The value of Whitman’s poems lies in his incisive and vivid celebration on sex and the power from sex as Greek (Price, qtd. in 刘树森2004).

Whitman Study in China started to emerge in 1919 with an essay Tian Han published in Youth China. Domestic scholar’s studies on Whitman’s poems mainly focused on his humanism and democratic thought. Democratic Ideas in Whitman’s Poetry (Li Zhongze, 1997), Reading Walt Whitman through His Song of Myself (Jing Xue, 2005) are some recent essays involving the study on Whitman’s Democratic ideas.

In his Sexual Image in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, He Zhaohui concludes the sex in Whitman’s poems is fatal to human experience. Whitman celebrates manly love as a way of singing for democracy. The poet tries to instill comrades love into his nation, hoping to be accepted.

The studies on Calamus, either home or abroad, are mainly focused on argument that whether Whitman is a homosexuality or not. However, a few studies reach to the humanism thoughts such as freedom and democracy emerged from Calamus. This thesis, Democracy and Love— On the Theme of Calamus, is going to explore the matter subjects in Calamus in three aspects, poet’s yelling for freedom, yearning of democracy and ode to manly love.

3. Yelling for Freedom

Whitman’s father was a carpenter. However, the old Walt Whitman was keen on freedom and equality, and opposite to any kind of restrictions. These characteristic were passed onto Walt Whitman. All his poems, both its style and its subjects, embrace poet’s longing for freedom and equality.

3.1 Free in Poetic Style

To most people, when “English poetry” is mentioned, they usually think of “sonnet”, a fourteen-line rhyming poem with set structure, and written in iambic pentameter, which had been popular in Europe a few centuries ago. However, even in Whitman’s time, this poetic style was to be stuck by some famous figures such as Henry Walsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allen Poe and Ralph Emerson. It was not until Whitman’s landing that ended the domination of this old conventional poetic style in America. Whitman proclaimed a revolution against conventional poem, and established a new Poetic Aesthetics.

The young poet believed that since the United States has become politically independent from Britain, it’s necessary for it to be literarily independent as well. Therefore, Whitman intended to create a new style in poem composing to represent the emerging America and its people. The poetic style he created is called “free verse”, that is, poetry without a fixed beat or regular rhyme scheme. And this feature can be seen everywhere in all Whitman’s poems.

Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,

From all the standards hitherto publish’d, from the pleasures,

profits, conformities.

Which all too long I was offering to fee my soul.

…… (W. Whitman, 1983:92)

His lines are more similar to a prose or even an ordinary talk than a poem. He makes his poems more accessible to ordinary people. However, revolution means challenges, means risks. When his poems were once published, Whitman’s poetic style was bitterly attacked by other writers in his time. Henry James criticized that Whitman’s poems are sentences composed together without any rhyme, that they can not be called poems, not even prose¼ˆå¼ å†²¼Œ2000¼š420¼‰.

As a tough man, Whitman stuck to his “free verse”. He made an announcement that pleasure of poem does not lie in the beautiful meter, nor in the perfect arrangement of rhyme and form of parallel¼ˆå¼ å†²¼Œ2000¼š420¼‰. Because of his brave innovation of free verse and thorough distinction against the conventional style, Whitman is honored the Father of Free Verse.

3.2 Free in Spirit

In the previous part of this thesis, it mentioned that Whitman claimed the quality of a poem does not lie in its perfect form and beautiful rhyme. So, what determines the quality of a poem according to Whitman? Did he address this problem?

Whitman believes that a new world, a new time and a new people need a new poetry that could cast greater reflection on the society, on science, on democracy and on equality, that could embrace all experience in life. Thus, it’s its themes, its contents that could tell the quality of a poem. And Whitman’s poems are poem of that kind. They concentrate on a number of themes, such as the nature, the man, the love, the body, the spiritual and the democracy.

One of the reasons why Whitman’s poems have an everlasting vitality is that they root themselves in the ethnic spirit of America such as patriotism and democracy¼ˆå¼ å†²¼Œ2000¼š423¼‰. He describes America as a free land to sing, to celebrate, a free land tolerant towards differences.

In his poem In Paths Untrodden, Whitman sings:


Clear to me now standards not yet publish’d, clear to me that my soul,

That the soul of the man I speak for rejoices in comrades,

Here by myself away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d, (for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere,)

…… (W. Whitman, 1983:92)

“Here”, “this secluded spot” in this poem probably refer to the continent of America. In poet’s opinion, people could sing for what he wants to sing, could celebrate what he wants to celebrate in America as he “would not dare elsewhere”.

Whitman yells the need of freedom at the beginning of this cluster of Calamus. And free spirit can be also seen in his other poems.

4. Yearning of Democracy

Whitman is a democracy fighter of his time. His democratic ideals could been seen everywhere in his poetry. In Whitman’s first long poem Song of Myself, the poet sings:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (W. Whitman, 1983:22)

In this poem, Whitman certainly did not celebrate himself alone, for he implied that you shall assume what I assume, and every atom belongs to both you and me. “Self” here is more likely to represent every person, every individual in America. In Whitman’s eyes, every individual in America deserves democracy.

Even in the so-called “comrade” poetry Calamus, the poet tries to convey his democratic ideal in another way, for instance, in For You O Democracy. Whitman believed that this love of comrades can make America united and the existence of manly love proved the health democratic system in the States. And in turn democracy should welcome, or even encourage, this kind of manly love as it welcomes other things.

This thesis will explore more deeply onto this subject with the combination of manly love in the next chapter.

5. Ode to Love, Love of Comrades

Calamus, as one of those most controversial poetries in Leaves of Grass, is consistently discussed by critics for it touched the topic of homosexuality. However, somewhat surprisingly, the cluster of poems seems to have caused little controversy when it appeared in the 3rd edition of Leaves of Grass. At first, all the strongest critics go to Children of Adam, a section of poems whose subject matter is about heterosexuality (R.A. Hunt, 1975). It was not until the 20th century then the critics started to recognize the study on Whitman’s singing and celebration of “manly love” helps to give a more comprehensive understanding of Whitman. Love of comrades, or manly love, is the theme tone mentioned in Calamus. Thus, this part is of significant importance to this thesis.

In the eyes of some critics, Calamus conveys the message that Whitman is a homosexual or at least have tendency of that. They argued that the way Whitman described love of comrades seems more vivid and distinct than that of heterosexuality. They even took Whitman’s intimate friendships with some male soldiers as the signal of a homosexual.

That sounds unfair to Whitman. As a democratic poem, Whitman shows his love to all individuals, regardless of their colors or social status. “Manly love” is only a part of what he celebrates as he imposes the same importance on the “self” in Song of Myself and the “body” in Children of Adam (M. J. Killingsworth, 1998). All of the three show Whitman’s universal love. Therefore, it’s unreasonable to discuss them separately.

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When asked why choosing “Calamus” as the title of the poetry, Whitman made the explanation that “calamus here is a common word. The plant itself is a large, coarse grass, 3 inches high, grown in the North, and is popularly known as ‘sweet flag’ …” (the author’s translation, 李野光¼Œ1995:106). It can be implied that the phallic symbol of “calamus” was not the original intention of Whitman, British critics John Addington Symonds¼ˆLondon, 1890¼‰had written to Whitman asking him to clarify his intention on “Calamus” and Whitman denied vociferously any homosexual meaning¼ˆSymonds, qtd. in李野光¼Œ1995:107¼‰. And Whitman proved his thought by putting it into action. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman joined the North. However, because of his age, the poet missed the chance of serving as a soldier. Then he worked as a nurse in the camp, whose duties included taking care of the wounded and comforting their mental spirit. In those days, Whitman established profound friendships with soldiers in the camp, some of whom still kept in touch with Whitman after the War was over (梁实狼Œ198¼Ÿ:154). Since death and separation were common amid the war time, every individual there felt the stronger need of cohesion and love ever than before. It was the situation that Whitman was work with. The emotions spring from this occasion were strong and indispensable to life then finally became the feeling that Whitman was celebrating in Calamus.

Whitman is singing his ode to manly love in three aspects.

5.1 Confession

The poet first made his “confession” In Paths Untrodden, which begins the Calamus:

In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond-water,

Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,

From all the standards hitherto publish’d, from the pleasures,

profits, conformities.

Which all too long I was offering to fee my soul.

Clear to me now standards not yet publish’d, clear to me that my soul,

That the soul of the man I speak for rejoices in comrades,

Here by myself away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d, (for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere,)

… (W. Whitman, 1983:92)

Walt Whitman is all the tome considered as the “poet of ordinary people” (陈宏富¼Œ2001), whose poems mainly based on the subject of praising the grass-roots. However, here, in this poem, the poet transports him from “the clank of the world”—crowded street, congested ports to “paths untrodden”, where he could keep away from the moral “standards hitherto publish’d”, could speak “as I would not dare elsewhere” and could “sing no songs” “but those of manly attachment”.

Apparently, “the soul of the man” that Whitman “speak for” refers to Whitman himself. As the first poem of this cluster, In Paths Untrodden defines the subject that Calamus going to explore.

5.2 Yearning for Manly Love

In “Scented Herbage of My Breast” and “Who You Are Holding Me Now in Hand”, Whitman, for the first time, uses the “leaves” and “roots” as the symbol for what he’s yearning for. The two poems continue the topic discussed in “In Paths Untrodden”, they tell readers what Whitman has already found “by margins of pond-waters”— the “scented herbage”, “perennial roots” and “tall leaves”. Of course, these are just symbol of what Whitman is longing for. And he also said that the “leaves” “are often more bitter than I can bear” and that they “burn and sting” the poet, making him “think of death”. However, Whitman thinks “Death is beautiful for you”. Although Whitman had never exactly illustrated what these “leaves” refer to, it’s held by most critics that they are metaphor of manly love. Whitman wants to celebrate manly love in these two poems. In this way, we can understand the poem much better. For in Whitman’s time, this kind of “attachment” is considered as ill and abnormal, and is abandoned by the society. Thus, Whitman stated his original intention of writing this poem, “I write, to be perused best afterwards”. However, as he continued his composing, the emotion came stronger and stronger. Then made the poet feel “more bitter than I can bear”. Whitman even compared them to the death. For in Whitman’s philosophy, death is no longer a dreadful thing, but a step in the circle of “born- dead-reborn”. Manly love is immortal as same as death¼ˆæŽé‡Žå…‰¼Œ1995:114¼‰.

These all are to be poet’s celebration of homosexuality. However, the do not indicate Whitman’s tendency of homosexuality. They can only be regarded as Whitman’s strong desire of manly for, because Whitman always believes that love of comrades is the cohesiveness, a united power of the States and its people and the foot stone of democracy.

5.3 Foundation of Democracy

Whitman makes this ideal clear in “For You O Democracy”:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will divine magnetic lands,

With the love of comrades

With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees alone all the rivers of

America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all

over the prairies.

I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks

By the love of comrades,

By the manly love of comrades.

…(W. Whitman, 1983:95)

Whitman advocates “love of comrades” as the foundation of democracy in this poem. It can “make the continent indissoluble” and “make cities with their arms about each other’s necks”. Thus, the poet “will plant companionship” for democracy. The ideal of that is more clearly italicized in the poem “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice”


It shall be customary in the houses and streets to see manly affection

The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.

These shall tie you and band you stronger than hoops of iron,

I, ecstatic, O partners! O lands! with the love of lovers tie you.

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.) (W. Whitman, 1983:225)

In the end of the poem, Whitman points out that it’s not the “lawyers”, or “an agreement on a paper”, or the “arms” but the “manly affection” that makes us “cohere”.

Whitman had long before noticed an astonishingly firm affection between men, and later used the word “adhesiveness” to describe such attachment. This metaphor is also seen in other democratic poems in this section Calamus, such as “The Base of All Metaphysics”, “I Hear It Was Charg’d Against Me”, “A Leaf for Hand in Hand” and “To the East and to the West”.

6. Conclusion

Calamus is one of the important sections in Leaves of Grass. It is of course that there is a great deal of homosexual imagery in this section. However, Calamus is much more, and even more complex, than merely an expression of Whitman’s homosexual tendencies. It shares the common ideals delivered in any other sections in Leaves of Grass. The meaning conveyed behind “manly love” in Calamus is about freedom and equality, democracy and universal love. There is much healthier information than the controversial critics would think. That is Whitman’s yelling for freedom and yearning for democracy as a democratic fighter of his time. The manly love celebrated in Calamus is somehow the foundation of democracy. That is Whitman, a man with prospective vision and courage, and his Calamus, a poetry that conveys his flaming thought.


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