Spermatic Imagery in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
On the 26th of March 1892, American poet Walt Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey, aged 72. A humanist, whose work progresses from realism to transcendentalism, he is probably America’s best loved poet. His collection Leaves of Grass, which he published in 1855 with his own money, is an American epic dedicated to the common person, yet it was initially perceived as controversial. It was described as obscene for its overtly sexual language, even more so as it used free verse with a cadence based on the Bible.
While the poet’s own sexuality has been the subject of endless debate, Whitman explored this side of his human makeup fully in his work. He openly agreed with Swedish 18th century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who equated religious ecstasy with the desire to copulate. Equally, Whitman recurrently used orgasm as a metaphor for the divine act of artistic creation. Harold Aspiz notes how in Leaves of Grass, “the sexual climax is transformed into vocalism: the phallic utterance of the persona’s semen becomes the seminal utterance of the poet’s words.” (Harold Aspiz. ‘Walt Whitman: The Spermatic Imagination’, American Literature, Vol. 56, No. 3, Oct., 1984):
“My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach, With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds, and volumes of worlds. Speech is the twin of my vision-it is unequal to measure itself; It provokes me forever, It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough-why don’t you let it out then?” (Leaves of Grass)
Further passages reinforce Whitman’s fascination with the blissful act of release: “Beautiful dripping fragments-the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call them to me, or think of them, The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,) The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me, This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry, (Know, once for all, avowed on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty, lurking, masculine, poems… (…) The wholesome relief, repose, content, And this bunch plucked at random from myself, It has done its work-I toss it carelessly to fall where it may. (Leaves of Grass)
Not only do we hear Whitman’s evocation of ejaculation in the words of his poetry—the release “from the pent up rivers of myself”—but we also encounter the visual imagery of sperm in, on, and between the printed words on the physical page. And nowhere is this visual encounter more apparent than in his third edition of Leaves of Grass. Perhaps the most striking of the many notable features of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass is its cover and title page. “While the 1855 (first) edition features a cover with the title in floriated letters, with roots and leaves growing out of the type and with the period at the end of the title transformed into a germinating seed an odd spiral at the top of the “G” that makes the letter look like a swimming worm with an arrowhead pointing to the “R” that itself sports a long tail descending under the “A.” The more closely we examine the letters on the cover, the more a number of them resemble spirochaetes, as if they were wriggling and swimming and have been momentarily captured in some tentative sequence—the penultimate “S” (…) Walt Whitman’s 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass contains elements of design that enhance the poet’s use of spermatic tropes in his poetry. (…) the typeface on the cover and title page, as well as the ornamental decorations throughout the volume, create representations of sperm, underscoring Whitman’s radical notion that the act of reading was an act of spermatic words taking hold in the nurturant ground of the reader’s mind, producing the unexpected offspring of a more democratic citizenry.” (Ed Folsom,’ “A spirit of my own seminal wet”: Spermatoid Design in Walt Whitman’s 1860 Leaves of Grass’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 4, December 2010).
The collection was notoriously criticized for the “obscene” nature of the poetry. Geologist John Peter Lesley wrote to Emerson, calling the book “trashy, profane & obscene” and the author “a pretentious ass”. However, there was more than shallow referentiality to Whitman’s sexual focus in Leaves of Grass: he actually saw the poem as orgasm and vice versa, he really believed in the beauty of this allegory.
“Combining the images of the hero-poet as a sexually charged begetter, fantasizer, and speaker with some bizarre notions about the nature of sperm as the quintessential distillation of the body and the mind, Whitman fashioned a trope in which the persona’s sexual arousal and visionary fervor lead him to an inspired vocalism which accompanies, or acts as a surrogate for, orgasm. Always associated with the Whitman persona’s role as a poet or utterer, the trope mimics the inspired moments of literary creation with their interplay of sexual and creative drives.” (Harold Aspiz. ‘Walt Whitman: The Spermatic Imagination’, American Literature, Vol. 56, No. 3, Oct., 1984). For Whitman, the sweet moment of release was the be all and end all of creation and he was thankful to be able to be part of such a wonderous cycle:
“From my own voice resonant-singing the phallus, Singing the song of procreation, Singing the need of superb children, and therein superb grown people, Singing the muscular urge and the blending . . .” (Leaves of Grass)