Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"For You O Democracy" (1860)
Author:
Zapata-Whelan, Carol M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"For You O Democracy," written between 1859 and 1860, is a well-known "Calamus" poem originally printed in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as the last three stanzas of "Calamus" number 5. Whitman broke up this fifteen-stanza, forty-two-line poem, rearranging the first twelve stanzas into the "Drum-Taps" piece "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" (1860). With its repetend added, "For You O Democracy" took final shape in 1867 under the title "A Song" and took its present title in 1881.

Representative of Whitman's unifying program of "adhesiveness" (the phrenological term denoting for Whitman a physical-spiritual union), "For You O Democracy" has been called a dedicatory poem for the "Calamus" cluster. Echoing the eugenics of his time, Whitman proposes to "make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon." This program involves the poet's "robust" "manly love," a spiritual breeding of the new democracy "anneal'd" into the "living union," proposed in Democratic Vistas (1871). As in the rest of "Calamus" and Leaves of Grass, the implications of "manly love" are complex. From Richard Maurice Bucke's defense of this feeling as strictly fraternal, to James Miller's insistence that it is a sublimated homoeroticism, to Betsy Erkkila's proposition that it involves a "homosexual republic," critics circumvent and circumscribe the question as their views dictate. With characteristic circumspection, Whitman will say only that the main message of "Calamus" is in its "political significance."

Because "For You O Democracy" is the climax of "Calamus" number 5, the later deletion of the first twelve stanzas has caused speculation. Roger Asselineau suggests that the suppression of such lines as "touch face to face" comes from an aging Whitman who would minimize erotic implications. Thomas Crawley finds the expression of "Calamus" number 5 intensified in the shorter piece, supporting James Miller's view that the poem was tightened up rather than censored.

"For You O Democracy" occurs in a stanzaic pattern with repetend, a scheme found in declarative pieces like "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "Eidólons." It is possible that Whitman adopted this more conventional form because of the rally-and-flag-waving nature of the patriotic verse. Yet this poem of "comrades" transcends all convention, all agreements to union by "lawyers" and "papers" ("Calamus" number 5, 1860 Leaves) as it incites an exuberant uprising of solidarity and love. To a nation on the verge of civil war, Whitman, fighting his own internal divisions, brings his preacher-on-a-stump oratory: "Come, I will make the continent indissoluble." Unlike any other poet before him, the poet of Leaves of Grass seizes his readers with loving force as he woos not only "comrades," but democracy "ma femme" with "her" French echoes of "Liberté, fraternité, egalité!"

Bibliography

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Folsom, Ed, ed. Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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