Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Scented Herbage of My Breast" (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 second of the "Calamus" poems continues many of the themes introduced in the opening poem. Once again there is a sense of awakening and release, represented here in the figure of the "herbage" (or "blossoms", in the manuscript) that is brought out of its concealment. Whitman shifts subtly from chest hair to pubic hair, and from the body to the earth, from leaves of grass to the leaves of his book. He struggles against an allegorical, transcendental tradition that would read the herbage as "emblematic," seeking instead a way of speaking directly. This new speech amounts to a coming to awareness, a rejection of false identity ("the sham that was proposed to me" in 1860, originally "the costume, the play," later dropped altogether), and a new mission to speak for comrades.

The context for this discovery is a contemplation of death and rebirth, stimulated perhaps by the model of Osiris, represented as sprouting leaves of grain. Whitman links death and repression, the newly freed self being like someone reborn. In his manuscript revisions Whitman apparently sought to make less precise his original conception of the power of sexual denial. The "burning and throbbing" of line 8, with its incomplete phallic desire, was originally joined to "O these hungering desires!," which made the nature of the refusal as well as of what "will one day be accomplished" clear. This cutting is consistent with a general attempt to reduce the specific references to sexuality, resulting in a certain coy indefiniteness. Thus "I will sound myself and love" became "I will sound myself and comrades," while the concluding apostrophe to Death lost its correlative "and manly Love."

The joining of love and death in "Herbage" is an early expression of a theme that would dominate later poems such as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The ending of the poem reflects Whitman's Platonism, in its evocation of a "real reality" that lies "behind the mask of materials." Whitman returned repeatedly to his attempt to understand death, finding consolation in cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, and in an ascension "to the atmosphere of lovers," a Platonic paradise. His view of writing sees the poet's words as leaves or blossoms that may only flower after his death, but that can offer a testament to his life and desires.

James E. Miller emphasizes the poem's treatment of spiritual love, while Edwin Miller calls attention to a simultaneous exhibition and sublimation of desire. Killingsworth sees a rich psychological drama with the poet-lover fearing rejection, but ultimately going beyond the individual self. Almost all readers remark the complexity of thought and imagery in the poem, unusual in the context of "Calamus."

Bibliography

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

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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