Selected Criticism

"Unfolded Out of the Folds" (1856)
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published as "Poem of Women," its original placement immediately following "Poem of Walt Whitman, An American" ("Song of Myself") suggests its importance in the eugenic program that pervaded the second edition. In the poem, pseudoscientific principles governing conception and gestation are applied to the birth of the perfect child. In 1860 and 1867, the poem was included, untitled, in the "Leaves of Grass" cluster; it acquired its present title in 1871, and in 1881 it was placed in the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster, thus diminishing its sexual implications.

The twelve-line poem begins, "Unfolded out of the folds of the woman man comes unfolded, and is always to come unfolded." Each of the following nine anaphoric lines is also an independent clause beginning with "Unfolded" and affirming that all elements of male greatness derive from the mother. The idea is recapitulated in the poem's last two lines. The repeated terms "unfolded" and "folds" highlight the poem's overlapping themes. These include Whitman's plea for a race of physiologically and spiritually sound women, freed from the restrictions of Victorian mores; a vision that predicates human evolution on a race of perfect mothers; the concept that the gift of poetry is inherited from an ideal mother; and, by implication, the celebration of the birthing of the wonder child who is destined to become his nation's poet.

The poem's imagery involves the "unfolding" of the foetus, the mother's vulval "folds," and the brain "folds" of mother and child. Phrenologists maintained that the attributes of the unborn child are encoded and "folded up or concentrated" (Fowler, Love and Parentage 26) in the parents' brains, which are constituted of faculties that govern each human trait and (to the degree that they are developed in the parents) transmitted to the child to form its character. Thus the poem declares that "[u]nfolded out of the folds of the woman's brain come all the folds of the man's brain, duly obedient" and that from "the folds of the superbest woman" will "come the superbest man." The mother's and child's attributes of "friendliness" are associated with the phrenological faculty of adhesiveness; their "justice" and "sympathy" with the group of faculties called the moral sentiments. Accepting the phrenological linkage of creativity with maternal sexuality, the poem celebrates the mother's "perfect body" and sexual stamina: "Unfolded by brawny embraces from the well-muscled woman I love, only thence come the brawny embraces of the man." (Paradoxically, the persona assumes the roles of both wonder child and Adamic begetter.) The declaration that "[u]nfolded only out of the inimitable poems of woman can come the poems of man, (only thence have my poems come)" illustrates Orson Fowler's dictum that "[a]ll poetry is inherited" (Hereditary Descent 203–204). The phrenological faculty of ideality was originally called the faculty of poetry. As in Whitman's self-portraits, Goethe, Schiller, and Burns were said to be descended from perfect mothers.


Aspiz, Harold. "Unfolding the Folds." Walt Whitman Review 12 (1966): 81–87.

Fowler, Orson Squire. Hereditary Descent: Its Laws and Facts Applied to Human Improvement. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1847.

____. Love and Parentage, Applied to the Improvement of Offspring. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1844.

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

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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