Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Earth, My Likeness" (1860)
Author:
Chandran, K. Narayana
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Published as "Calamus" number 36 in the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, "Earth, My Likeness" acquired its present title in 1867.

Critics have often read the poem as a simple love lyric, or perhaps more restrictively as a homosexual song addressed to a young athletic lover. Neither reading tells us why Whitman finds likeness in Earth, whom he addresses here as a person. The likeness is not so much in their looks as in a deeper force or vigor that they share. Both the earth and the poet are full of "fierce" energies that might burst unless ventilated. Whitman talks specifically about "an athlete" and himself who are enamored of each other. How long, he wonders, can this intense longing be suppressed?

Read with no specific awareness of the poet's homoerotic passion, the poem documents the yearnings of a devout soul for comprehending love's mystery, its fierce and terrible spirituality. Alternatively, the poet fancies that only one of the many athletic readers/lovers for whom he feels a similar "fierce and terrible" passion would appreciate the point of his comparison: the poet and earth are pregnant with possibilities of fierce knowledge or passion. "I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs," says Whitman, who seems to grant himself and the readers of "Calamus" expectations of candor and plain speech.

Bibliography

Helms, Alan. "'Hints...Faint Clews and Indirections': Whitman's Homosexual Disguises." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 61–67.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. "'Calamus': The Leaf and the Root." A Century of Whitman Criticism. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969. 303–320.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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