Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"These I Singing in Spring" (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.

"These I Singing in Spring" was first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. It was the fourth poem of forty-five in the "Calamus" section. In 1867 it was given a title, and the poem remained unchanged in later editions.

Whitman begins this poem alone, walking through "the garden the world." "Alone I had thought," he writes, "yet soon a troop gathers around me." "Some walk by my side" as equals, "some behind" as followers, "and some embrace my arms or neck" as lovers. The poet has withdrawn from society only to discover a community of others who think and love as he does.

He soon begins picking and exchanging flowers with this new community, and these flowers become "tokens" of friendship. The moss from a live-oak represents the poet's need for friendship and love, as expressed in another "Calamus" poem, "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing." The lilac is a symbol of the perennial aspect of love, and Whitman uses this flower in other poems such as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "Warble for Lilac-Time."

The most important symbol, however, is the calamus root. This "token of comrades," with its phallic bloom, is the unifying symbol for the "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass. It represents homosexual desire, or what Whitman calls "adhesiveness," one man's love for another man. Whitman had to be careful when expressing this love, for his was a homophobic society. In the closing lines of this poem, Whitman states that he gives away this token cautiously, "only to them that love as I myself am capable of loving."

By using natural imagery, Whitman shows that the love of him who "tenderly loves me" is a natural desire, contrary to the common beliefs of nineteenth-century American society. In this poem, fences are man-made dividers that represent the defining aspects of a society that is trying to limit and contain him. "Old stones" are symbols of the established yet outdated ideas of his society. A new and radical growth is beginning, however, as Whitman writes, "Wild-flowers and vines and weeds come up through the stones and partly cover them." As Robert K. Martin notes, Whitman moves from the artificiality of the cultivated garden to the natural realm of the forest.

In "Singing," we see several themes that are common to other poems in the "Calamus" section. Whitman withdraws from society to be "the poet of comrades." Once alone, he defines and expresses his gay desire in natural and positive terms. Like the spring, it is new, lush, and characterized by growth. Like the plants, it is beautiful, stimulating to the senses, and natural. Lastly, he discovers that there are others who love as he does.

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.


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