Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Woman Waits for Me, A" (1856)
Author:
Mullins, Marie
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was first published by Fowler and Wells in Brooklyn as the thirteenth poem in the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass and originally entitled "Poem of Procreation." In 1860 this title was dropped and the poem was moved to the "Enfans d'Adam" poem cluster as poem number 4. In 1867 the poem was given its present title.

Comprised of eight loose stanzas, the poem catalogues the speaker's desire for a woman who will meet his sexual agenda in the same bold and brash spirit as it is proclaimed here. The first stanza emphasizes fullness versus emptiness, since the woman who waits, "sex," and "the right man" must be present in order for procreation to take place.

The second stanza develops the idea of "sex" as an integral part of all aspects of creation. Here Whitman unpacks all that sex "contains," echoing the first line, but applies it to sex rather than to the woman. In the third stanza, both the man and the woman know and testify to the "deliciousness" of sex. By repeating the line and substituting "woman" for "man," Whitman calls attention to the natural attitude each brings to sex, an attitude contradicted by the "impassive" women of line 11. The third and fourth stanzas emphasize the mutual understanding and capacity that exist between the woman who "knows and avows" her sexuality and her physical prowess and that of the speaker, who appreciates and admires the "divine suppleness and strength" of their flesh. Apart from the ability to bear children, these women possess markedly masculine traits and abilities.

The last half of the poem describes the procreative act, as the "right man" and the woman who "contains all" come together. The tone of these lines changes, however; instead of the reciprocity and mutual understanding figured in the inclusive "knows and avows" of lines 9 and 10 and the following stanza, the lines attest to a man, "stern, acrid, large, undissuadable," who "make[s] [his] way." Despite the speaker's claim that these women are not "one jot less than I am," in these lines their desire does not match his, and, as such, they are found lacking. Now the single "woman" of the title becomes plural, as "you women" are drawn close to the speaker and forced to receive his "slow rude muscle." The procreative urge takes precedence over the women's "entreaties" and the speaker does not "withdraw" until he has "deposit[ed] what has so long accumulated."

In a rare moment of specificity for the pronoun "you" in Whitman's work, the final lines of the poem are addressed to the women who will make possible the speaker's procreative vision. Strong, healthy, unabashed, these women receive his "gushing showers" and in turn "grow fierce and athletic girls." The latter part of the poem collapses Whitman's poetic and political agendas in its use of hyperbolic rhetoric. As such, the poem should probably be read figuratively rather than literally; that is, insemination in this instance is directed toward those capable of bringing Whitman's poetic vision into being. Although it attempts to transform the constrictions placed upon women by nineteenth-century American society, the poem ultimately fails to extricate itself from contemporary discourse.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Baym, Nina. "The Portrayal of Women in American Literature, 1790–1870." What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature. Ed. Marlene Springer. New York: New York UP, 1977. 211–234.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

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

Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Seltzer, 1923.

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.


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