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Selections from Walt Whitman’s “Children of Adam” Poems

Walt Whitman is perhaps one of the most well-known American poets.  Throughout his life, Whitman worked in a variety of clerical and editorial positions that also caused him to produce a great body of work, much of which has been preserved and organized by The Walt Whitman Archive.  One of his groups of poems, known as the “Children of Adam” poems, is an interesting topic of study because of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice that Whitman do major revisions to the collection in order to remove “vulgar” material.  This bibliography looks at the first five poems in the “Children of Adam” collection, as Whitman begins to attempt to chronicle the rise and fall of man through his poetry.

Whitman, Walt.  “A Woman Waits for Me.”  1860.  MS.  The Walt Whitman Archive.  31 July 2013.

The tone of “A Woman Waits for Me” is different from poems preceding it in the “Children of Adam” series.  Previously, the tone of the first three poems was a tender, lovingly persuasive message that was meant to entice women softly and gently.  In “A Woman Waits for Me,” the speaker’s tone turns forceful to the point where the male character in the poem appears to be forcing himself on a woman in the name of perpetuating the human race.

The speaker’s attitudes toward sexual intercourse have also made a change in this poem.  Previously, Whitman’s speaker used more poetic language to describe the act of sex, portraying it as a beautiful part of nature.  In “A Woman Waits for Me,” the speaker gets as explicit as was probably socially acceptable for a poet in the mid-nineteenth century, describing in a forcefully poetic way just how the act of sexual intercourse between the speaker and this woman will aid in the continuation of mankind.  There is to be no shame in this act, however, because the speaker says that engaging in this act will not only produce children who will give birth to children, but also will create the individuals who will be responsible for contributing to the greatness of humanity.

———-.  “I Sing the Body Electric.”  1860.  MS.  The Walt Whitman Archive.  31 July 2013.

“I Sing the Body Electric” is the longest poem in the “Children of Adam” collection.  Divided into nine sections, this poem takes the reader from the speaker’s feelings after the sexual encounter between Adam and Eve through the slave era in the United States.  At the beginning of this poem, the speaker describes what anatomy and feelings make men men and women women, giving special attention to the slight movements, glances, and touches between men and women that may express or conjure desire.

In later sections of the poem, the speaker questions societal views on what makes a male or female a human being in the eyes of society.  The speaker describes helping at slave auctions, watching as men and women of various ages, sizes, shapes, and colors being auctioned off as if they were objects without feeling.  Whitman’s speaker draws on his previous descriptions of men and women and what he knows about those who are being auctioned as slaves – that they are mothers and fathers of sons and daughters – to question whether or not readers at that time should really consider slaves as property because they are different or to think of them as fellow humans because, in many ways, they are the same as the readers of the time.

———-.  “From Pent Up Aching Rivers.”  1860.  MS.  The Walt Whitman Archive.  31 July 2013.

After reading “From Pent Up Aching Rivers,” it is clear as to why Emerson urged Whitman to do large scale revisions to the “Children of Adam” poems before publication.  “From Pent Up Aching Rivers” is Whitman’s rendition of the fall of man and the lust that Adam felt for Eve in Eden.  A significant part of the poem is dedicated to the speaker describing his intense lust for another woman, presumably Adam speaking to Eve despite the lack of names for the man and woman in the poem.

The speaker also seems to take care that this not just a plea for interaction out of lust, but that the speaker truly does love the woman described in the poem.  The speaker talks about how he has waited for this woman, almost too long, and now that she is in sight his feelings for her have heightened.  Later in the poem, he goes on to describe that this is not just about the two of them, that these feelings will also lead to the conception of children and the furthering of the human race.  As cold and scientific as this proposal may sound to the modern reader, Whitman through his speaker makes this a tender moment, describing the aftermath as a moment when both of them have created a bond that neither of them want to break right away.

———-.  “Spontaneous Me.”  1860.  MS.  The Walt Whitman Archive.  31 July 2013.

Upon reading this poem, one of the motifs Whitman wove into this piece is that of frustration.  The speaker, presumably Adam, along with the woman (Eve) have become parents.  Adam appears to be having problems reconciling his physical feelings and need for intimacy with Eve with the responsibilities of parenthood, which he describes as a certain kind of chastity.  He can still remember the moments of intimacy shared between him and Eve, and those memories seem to be weighing on him as a man, which reads as though Adam is a man with unfulfilled needs.

Through Adam’s frustration, however, there is a sense of determination.  Towards the end of the poem, there is a section where Adam describes the natural scene around them as Eve and his daughter play nearby.  After Adam has described the natural part of this scene, he then speaks of his desire to father sons and the oath that he has taken to make sure that the human race is continued.  While Adam appreciates his daughters, there is a greed gnawing at him to produce sons, and this greed is compelling him to try to conceive a son to the point where he is careless in regards to the child’s conception.

———-.  “To the Garden the World.”  1860.  MS.  The Walt Whitman Archive.  31 July 2013.

This brief introduction to the “Children of Adam” collection reads like a call to the speaker’s audience to come and listen to the speaker’s story.  The speaker summons people of all stations in life – men, women, children, fertile and not, to come to an unnamed garden to witness a new beginning of some sort.  This beginning is described as being something excited, as the speaker describes shaking and rumbling, as well as feeling love and beauty as he or she awakes from his or her slumber.

“To the Garden the World” is an interesting introduction in that the poem tries to describe a beginning of civilization, one in which Eve is described as following the speaker, after the beginning of civilization has already taken place.  Through the imagery in this poem, it appears that Whitman wants to encourage some kind of rebirth of humanity, represented by the speaker feeling a new beginning formulating after awaking from sleeping.  The last three lines, however, take a turn away from biblical imagery by describing Eve possibly walking behind the speaker or walking at the speaker’s side.  Regardless of the spatial relationship between Eve and the speaker, the speaker seems content with however the arrangement works and appears willing to go on this journey with Eve.

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