Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"In Paths Untrodden" (1860)
Author:
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The initial poem of the "Calamus" sequence has remained remarkably little changed since its first appearance in 1860. The manuscripts indicate, however, that Whitman began this poem without the central symbol of the "calamus." What was present from its inception was the idea of change or conversion. The six original lines stress the opposition between a past self that conformed to conventional expectations and a new life not publicly known. By escaping from the old life of conventional morality and social organization, the speaker realizes the possibility of celebrating "the love of comrades" (later revised to the "need" of comrades).

The first published version reflects Whitman's discovery of the "calamus" as a central figure for male sexuality and for his art. The added first two lines provide a physical and symbolic setting for reawakening. The poet must move toward the marginal in order to find the freedom to be himself. Whitman stresses his need to go beyond the conventional, to find in seclusion an ability to speak that he is not capable of elsewhere. The sylvan setting of the pond joins imagery of baptism and renewal with the erotic, allowing for "athletic love," or male homosexuality. In a line added in 1860 Whitman speaks of the burden of speech as "the secret of my nights and days," giving a personal urgency to a generalized claim of freedom from convention.

Whitman thus introduces the first "Calamus" poem as a text of "coming out," both literal and metaphorical, as the discovery of the self and its expression. Whitman announces his purpose in this sequence of poems as singing "manly attachment," creating a body of work that will record the joys and sorrows of his desires under the pressure of social disapproval. That the "calamus" is a figure for the male genitals is clear from "Song of Myself"; hence the love evoked is seen as both physical and metaphysical. His mission is to provide models for an as yet uncreated love. As in the first poem, the task becomes one of drawing on whatever literary tradition of male homosexuality was available to him (Greek and Roman pastoral in this case) while at the same time making it over into a democratic discourse.

Despite the striking sexual imagery and firmly stated intent, many critics have followed James E. Miller's lead in seeing the poem largely in terms of a generalized dissent or skepticism. Edwin Miller acknowledges the poem's sexuality but dismisses it as narcissistic and regressive. Following Martin in seeing the text as announcing a homosexual identity, Fone locates its discourse in the context of Victorian sexology. Whitman's text serves as a confession that establishes a self.

Bibliography

Fone, Byrne R.S. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

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


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