21 April 2014
The Sexual Ambiguity of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
Since Walt Whitman’s poems first began their rise to fame, speculations have been made concerning the sexual innuendoes and homosexual elements often displayed in his works. Many critics argue that Whitman was bisexual, others argue that he was gay, some even argue that he was simply a feminine heterosexual man. Song of Myself gives the impression that Whitman was bisexual by allowing the audience to experience Whitman’s discoveries as he was faced with the same questions. He shows his reader his struggle with both sexual identity and gender identity by using frequent comparison between male and female desires and general ambiguity. He also uses the same sense of ambiguity to give human elements to nature that sexualize the narrator’s surroundings without gender assignments. However, the strongest showing of his discoveries is through the constant shift in the natural gender of his narrators- though Whitman is the true narrator throughout the piece. Walt Whitman uses a combination of metaphor, extensive personification, and varying points of view to communicate the discovery of his own sexual orientation in “Song of Myself”. Whitman uses metaphor throughout Song of Myself as a way to establish an ambiguous identity. He uses metaphor most often as a comparison between male and female, “I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,” (Whitman 21) which creates a continual blurring of gender identity. He uses these frequently contradicting comparisons to express a struggle between his natural gender and his more feminine characteristics- one side pushing him toward relationships with women, the other towards men. Whitman also uses a provocative level of
Michaels 2 ambiguity- aided through his use of metaphor- to express a struggle with identity (Chase). Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Whitman’s piece is is constant shifts and contradictions that work well to communicate Whitman’s internal struggle. He utilizes a multitude of tones such as: Dreamy, Whimsical, Passionate, Condemnatory, Morose, and Meditative. Whitman often uses vague metaphor to establish a constant shift in these tones; “The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell with me,” (Whitman 21). Whitman’s use of personification plays a key part in expressing the sexuality of the piece by allowing him to speak about sexual encounters without the burden of outside factors. In a similar way to how he used ambiguity with metaphor, Whitman uses personification to give a sexual, human element to nature while keeping an ambiguous gender about it:
“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.
Sea of stretch’d ground-swells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,” (Whitman 22).
Though he is talking about the ocean, Whitman personifies it with fingers, feelings, and desires- speaking of it as a sexual entity. The reader also witnesses sexual encounters between the narrator’s body and his soul, as well as the nature around him (Aspiz). It is through personification that the reader begins to understand the rather unclear sexual orientation of Whitman as a bisexual identity. He shows
Michaels 3 his gender-blind longing for sexual contact by giving the nature around him an air of human sexualiy: “Still nodding night- mad naked summer night.” (Whitman 21). It is the understanding that his desire is gender-blind that shows the reader that he is in fact of bisexual orientation. Whitman’s strongest tool in this piece is his varying point of view which allowed him to give voice to people and things of all forms, as well as change gender, age, and desires. He often took on