Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"From Pent-up Aching Rivers" (1860)
Author:
Mullins, Marie
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was initially published in the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, by Thayer and Eldridge, Boston, placed in the "Enfans d'Adam" poem cluster, and designated simply as number 2. The present title was assigned in 1867, when the poem cluster title was changed to "Children of Adam."

The poem begins by describing the aching need of the speaker for the creative and the procreative act and culminates in a description of that act. The opening section (lines 1–14) articulates the foreground to this "song of procreation": the long ache, the "hungry gnaw," and the search for suitable forms of expression. The speaker describes his determination to sing songs (poems) about the procreative act, the creation of "superb children." His search for an adequate means of expression finds its model in the natural world, which provides the speaker with myriad examples of fecundity. This second, shorter movement (lines 15–20) of the poem includes descriptions of those aspects of nature which inform the poem: "the wet of woods, the lapping of waves," "the pairing of birds," "the smell of apples." Line 19 contains an image reminiscent of Whitman's ocean poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," both composed in the late 1850s. This line, the turning point of the poem, leads into the next movement as well. The sight of the "mad pushes of waves upon the land" provides the speaker with a figurative construct for the sexual act which follows in the third movement of the poem and serves as a transition to the focus on the human body.

The naked male swimmer of line twenty-two may be the speaker of the poem or a third figure, an example of the "perfect body." The following lines describe the "female form" and "what it arouses"—the abandonment of the sexual/procreative act. This section of the poem contains two parenthetical asides, both addressed to "you" in a much more intimate tone than the sections outside the parentheses. In a hushed voice, the speaker asks "you"—the reader/lover—to accompany him in this moment of sexual fulfillment. The metaphor of a vessel which has been taken over by a greater guiding force is used in lines 37–39; in this instance, however, it is the speaker who yields the vessel to the "master," in the interests of continuing with the "programme"/journey.

In the final movement of the poem (lines 40–57), sex is described as coming "from"—from physical contact undenied and chronicled through these "act-poems" which celebrate the "act divine." The speaker/poet, in bed with one unwilling to let him go, leaves only for a "moment" (at dawn) in order to record these poems, then returns to the night and to the work of procreation.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.


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