I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul”—Walt Whitman (1819-92).
Walt Whitman was a journalist and poet who volunteered as a nurse in 1863-4, during the American Civil War. His major work, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, was revised and expanded over the course of nine editions during his lifetime (with a tenth edition published posthumously in 1897).
Whitman’s poetry is intensely observant of the physical world, and deeply attuned to seasonal cycles and the passage of time. Birth and death, aging, disease, injury, love and passion all appear in his work, which is renowned for its oratory style, and its celebration of the embodied nature of human experience. “I sing the body electric”, he wrote. “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
The poem continues:
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style, the contour of their shape downwards,
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats, the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sundown after work,
The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance,
The upper-hold and under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes;
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,
The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting;
Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.
Extract from “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman, in Walt Whitman, The Complete Poems. Ed.Francis Murphy. London: Penguin, 2004. 128-9.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.