Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Recorders Ages Hence" (1860)
Author:
Sienkiewicz, Conrad M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Recorders Ages Hence" was first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. It was the tenth poem of forty-five in the "Calamus" section. In the late 1850s, Whitman began writing poems for this section, and grouped twelve poems under the heading "Live Oak with Moss." "Recorders" was the seventh poem in this original cluster. In 1867 the first two lines were dropped, and the poem remained unchanged in later editions.

In this poem, Whitman addresses his future audience, asking readers to remember him not as a poet, but as a loving and emotional person. He then tells them of his love for another man. The poet, however, could not use the language of his era to express this love because there were no positive terms for homosexual desire. Homosexuality in the nineteenth century was referred to as a sin or disease, if it was even mentioned at all.

Whitman labored to create positive terms for "the measureless ocean of love within him." He called himself "the tenderest lover" to counter the negative terms that a homophobic society would use to label him. In "Recorders," he writes of the sadness when he is separated from his lover, "the sick, sick dread" of unreturned love, and the joy of holding the hand of "his friend his lover." Such emotional expressions could be shared and understood by readers of any sexual orientation. In "Recorders," and in many other "Calamus" poems, Whitman uses sentimentality to cover his homosexuality.

Robert K. Martin notes that in this poem Whitman challenges the gender roles of his day by performing "feminine" activities; he loves tenderly, he waits for his lover's return, and he saunters with his lover.

In the last two lines of the poem we see the dual aspects of this love. Whitman is with his lover, but the two are alone, "apart from other men," in "fields, in woods, on hills." The natural environment reflects the naturalness of their desire. Their private display is soon public, as they "saunter'd the streets" with their arms around each other's shoulders.

Bibliography

Cady, Joseph. "Not Happy in the Capitol: Homosexuality and the 'Calamus' Poems." American Studies 19.2 (1978): 5–22.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. "Sentimentality and Homosexuality in Whitman's 'Calamus.'" ESQ 29 (1983): 144–153.

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

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

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


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