Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Broad-Axe" (1856)
Author:
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Song of the Broad-Axe" was first published in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, as "Broad-Axe Poem." In the 1860 edition it became number 2 of the "Chants Democratic," and it acquired its final title in the 1867 edition. Whitman also cut the 290 lines of the earlier editions to 254 lines in later editions. Almost all the cuts come at the end of the poem, where Whitman excised two substantial passages, one describing the "full-sized men, / Men taciturn yet loving" (1860 Leaves) who will emerge in the future, and another describing Whitman himself—"Arrogant, masculine, näive, rowdyish" (1860 Leaves)—as the ideal embodiment of American manhood. The poem moves from an opening meditation on the various uses of the axe to a progressively broader vision of the various "shapes" that will eventually "arise" from the work of the axe. The structure of the poem thus invites a symbolic reading, and most critical commentary on the poem has been devoted to elucidating the symbolic meanings—whether private or public, psychosexual or sociopolitical—that come to cluster around the image of the axe.

"Song of the Broad-Axe" begins with an atypical (for Whitman) passage of rhyming, metrical verse (we can read it either as iambic tetrameter with some elided initial syllables, or as trochaic tetrameter with some elided end syllables), although Whitman has partly disguised this pattern by twice placing two tetrameter units on the same line:


Weapon shapely, naked, wan,
Head from the mother's bowels drawn,
Wooded flesh and metal bone, limb only one and lip only one,
Gray-blue leaf by red-heat grown, helve produced from a little seed sown,
Resting the grass amid and upon,
To be lean'd and to lean on.

(section 1)

The emphatic rhythm of these lines suggests a riddle (see Peavy), or perhaps, as M. Wynn Thomas has argued, a ritual incantation, "the modern, democratic equivalent of the baptismal spell chanted by primitives to confer sacred power upon a newly fashioned weapon" (141). In either case, the percussive rhythms and condensed, allusive language of these opening lines invite us to see the axe as something more than merely a tool—as, in sum, a symbol, but of what?

Whitman, according to Richard Maurice Bucke, wanted to make the broad-axe "the American emblem preferent to the eagle" (Notes 35). In Europe, Whitman reveals as the poem proceeds, the axe served primarily as an instrument of war and oppression, culminating in the figure of the bloody headsman described in section 8. But in America the axe is transformed into the means by which a free people clears the forest and transforms the landscape to build the ideal city, as described in section 5. Thus we can, with Thomas, read the poem's opening lines as a ritual purification of the axe so that it can play this new social role. To this end the poem systematically downplays the violence of the European invasion of America and the settlers' assault on the forest. Instead Whitman portrays this process as the expression of a "natural" vitality, "Muscle and pluck forever" (section 4). We can thus read the axe as a symbol of America seen as "a nonprofit association of purely heroic adventurers and spirited workingmen, in anticipation of the brave New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, to be built eventually on American soil" (Thomas 145).

However, we can also read the opening lines of this poem in more personal terms, for a flood of sexual imagery washes through these lines. The image of the axe-head "drawn . . . from the mother's bowels" has seemed to many critics as inescapably sexual. "The axe, drawn out of the mother's bowels, is not only the emerging infant but also the phallus of the father" (Gregory 2). As phallus, the axe becomes the focus of an Oedipal drama, compounded of admiration for the potency of the father (thus the emphasis on the power of the axe to generate new life) and fear of castration (thus the recurrent images of the axe as an instrument of destruction, climaxing in the sinister image of the masked headsman, "clothed in red, with huge legs and strong naked arms" [section 8]). Whitman attempts to resolve this ambivalence through identification with the father (thus the celebration of the "power of personality just or unjust" [section 3] in the middle sections of the poem), but in the end Whitman identifies not with the father but with the mother (thus the invocation of the ideal woman whose "shape arises" in section 11, at the end of the poem).

Bibliography

Black, Stephen A. Whitman's Journeys into Chaos. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Cavitch, David. "The Lament in 'Song of the Broad-Axe.'" Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 125–135.

____. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Gregory, Dorothy M-T. "The Celebration of Nativity: 'Broad-Axe Poem.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.1 (1984): 1–11.

Knapp, Bettina L. Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993.

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

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Peavy, Linda. "'Wooded Flesh and Metal Bone': A Look at the Riddle of the Broad-Axe." Walt Whitman Review 20 (1974): 152–154.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H. "The Eagle and the Axe: A Study of Whitman's 'Song of the Broad-Axe.'" American Imago 25 (1968): 354–370.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile Edition of the 1860 Text. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.

____. Notes and Fragments. Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke. London, Ontario: A. Talbot, 1899.


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