Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"O Hymen! O Hymenee!" (1860)
Author:
Round, Phillip H.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as an untitled member of the "Enfans d'Adam" cluster, the poem took its present title in the 1867 edition. Both the title and substance of the poem may have been suggested to Whitman by a passage in George Sand's The Countess of Rudolstadt, a novel he regarded as a masterpiece.

"O Hymen! O Hymenee!" is an apostrophic invocation to Hymen, the Greek goddess of marriage, in which the speaker chastises her for her inconstancy of affection toward him. The phrase itself is said to have accompanied marriages in preclassical Greece, and the word "hymen" itself later served as the root word of hymn, the holy songs of the Christian tradition—an etymological source Whitman may be playing on here to link his own song of physical love to the spirituality of the first couple, Adam and Eve.

Read in the larger context of the "Children of Adam" cluster, the poem offers a moment of meditation on the ability of the cluster's virile persona to sustain heterosexual passion in marriage. To the question of whether the Adamic lover can indeed sustain "mystic deliria" in such a union, the poem's speaker seems to reply in the negative. Permanent union would mean succumbing to the Transcendent, a spiritual apotheosis which results in bodily death.

Read in yet another way, the poem supports the claims of critics who have found the assertion of heterosexual sexuality in "Children of Adam" unconvincing and coldly rational. Whitman's use of the word "Hymenee" (apparently his own transformation of the Greek hymenaie) to refer to the bride's physical virginity, somewhat objectifies the woman and gives the holy hymn the air of a bawdy song in which the speaker explicates the travails of sexual intercourse from a somewhat clinical perspective.

Bibliography

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

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

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

Mullins, Maire. "'Act Poems of Eyes, Hands, Hips and Bosoms': Women's Sexuality in Walt Whitman's 'Children of Adam.'" ATQ 6 (1992): 213–231.

Shephard, Esther. Walt Whitman's Pose. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938.


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