Study Guide

Song of Myself Sex

By Walt Whitman


The atmosphere is not a perfume . . . . it has no taste of the distillation . . . . it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever . . . . I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers . . . . loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine, (section 1)

Sex is both a metaphor and not a metaphor in "Song of Myself." You have to be careful about interpreting passages like this one. This passage is clearly erotic and expresses sexual desire, but it does not discuss specific acts of sex. Whitman rarely does. Instead, sexuality is a means of joining to the world. The world is charged with sexuality: "loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine."

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet. (section 5)

Here, again, he describes sex that's not really sex. Yes, he gets naked with his soul and their bodies join, but the passage is mystical, mysterious, and symbolic. Whitman's poetry has sometimes been called "autoerotic," because he is fascinated by his own sexuality as much as by other people's.

Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!

Prodigal! you have given me love! . . . . therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love!

Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!
We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other. (section 21)

The last lines of this section were controversial in Whitman's day, and he removed them in later versions of "Song of Myself." He compares his relationship to the earth with two newly weds in sexual union. He is the romantic "lover" of the world.

You sea! I resign myself to you also . . . . I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together . . . . I undress . . . . hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft . . . . rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet . . . . I can repay you. (section 22)

OK, we know the drill by now: it's sex that's not really sex. True, you can't actually hook up with the ocean, but lines like "Dash me with amorous wet . . . . I can repay you" are so blatantly erotic that it's impossible not to read sex into them. This section returns to the image, from the beginning of the poem, of becoming "undisguised" and "naked" in the presence of the world.

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts . . . . voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
I do not press my finger across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. (section 24)

The speaker believes that sexual guilt and shame are harmful and damaging emotions. He seems to think that "lusts" are noble feelings that have been made "indecent" by the shame they provoke. The key to healthy sexuality is to view sex as natural and not "rank," or offensive.

Is this then a touch? . . . . quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself,
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,
Depriving me of my best as for a purpose,
Unbuttoning my clothes and holding me by the bare waist,
Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture fields,
Immodestly sliding the fellow-senses away,
They bribed to swap off with touch, and go and graze at the edges of me,
No consideration, no regard for my draining strength or my anger,
Fetching the rest of the herd around to enjoy them awhile,
Then all uniting to stand on a headland and worry me. (section 28)

Despite all the uplifting talk about healthy sexuality, Whitman feels that his own desires can quickly get out of hand. Around the middle of the poem, he has a great crisis in which his sense of touch takes control of him. The imagery is suggestive of masturbation. To put it bluntly, all of his sexual energy converges on his genitals ("Treacherous tip of me"). He prefers this energy to be dispersed throughout his body where it can be channeled and directed toward more general and less narrow feelings of eroticism.