“I Sing the Body Electric”
Summary and Form
This is another of the poems from the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman here explores the physical body at length. In other poems he has established the interconnectedness of the body and the soul; here he celebrates the primacy of the body and its importance in forging connections between people. This is yet another poem of lists, which again imply a democratizing force at work. Whitman’s egalitarianism is a particularly important aspect of this poem, for it allows him to argue against the kind of valorization of the body implicit in slavery.
The lists alternate with anecdotal and propositional sections, which allow Whitman to work out some of the issues surrounding the body. This makes “Body Electric” one of his more highly structured poems. Just as various organs and features come together in the greater structure of the human body, so too do the various bits and pieces of Whitman’s poetry come together in a greater whole.
Whitman prizes the body most for its generative qualities. This is most evident in the fifth and sixth sections of the poem, where he examines first the female and then the male body, praising both for their “sacred” status. The woman is much more strongly associated with reproduction: she is “the gates of the body, and... the gates of the soul.” The man is more a figure of “action and power,” although he too is associated with propagation. The small anecdote of the “common farmer” is an interesting case. The farmer is seen through the eyes of his children, who “love him.” While the love of the children is not presented erotically, it shades into the erotic gaze of the poet, who longs to “sit by him... that [I] and he might touch each other.” The ability of this simple man to build a sort of family dynasty seems to be what attracts the poet.
Women are of course generative in the same literal sense in this poem. The eighth stanza opens with the image of “[a] woman’s body at auction”: obviously a slave auction. Strangely the poet, in the previous stanza, has spoken of helping an auctioneer sell a male slave. The auctioneer “does not half know his business” and the poet helps him by cataloguing the wonders of the man’s body. Both the male and the female slave are touted as the parents of multitudes. This makes them attractive as property: they can become essentially breeding stock for their masters. This kind of extreme valuation of the body would seem to be the extreme case of the kind of body-centrism Whitman advocates. In fact, though, it is the opposite. For Whitman, the body has primacy in its ability to generate experience, which can be compared metaphorically to the generation of children. The body can connect both erotically and spiritually with the bodies of others. In all this, the role of the body as the conduit between the soul and the world remains crucial. The slave auctions show a kind of debased, misguided worship of the physical.
The final stanza of the poem gives a catalogue of body parts, both the poet’s and others’. The parts listed have functions, of course, but they also provide the raw materials for poetry: “these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul.” The body becomes sacred through its linkage with the soul; while it is only the soul’s helper or accomplice, it nevertheless does not deserve second-rate status, for it enables not only spirituality but also poetry.
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