I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman

‘I Sing the Body Electric’ is one of the well known and celebrated early poems of Walt Whitman published in 1855, in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Like the other poems in the edition, it also appeared without a title. After revision, it appeared as “Poem of the Body” in the 1856 edition. It appeared as a complete poem of nine sections with the title “I Sing the Body Electric” only in the 1867 edition, as part of the “Children of Adam” sequence. Whitman celebrates the glories of existence, explores the body as a whole and in its parts, and the interconnectedness of body and soul, and interconnectedness of all irrespective of their race.

 

Summary of I Sing the Body Electric

In ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, Walt Whitman explores various parts of the human body with its function as a whole and as an individual part.

He also tries to bridge the gap between body and soul. He lists out several ‘human bodies’ of people of different professions and age groups beyond ethnicity. As the title suggests, he brings out the uniqueness of different body structures in away making it alive. In the first section of the poem, the poet states the similarities between the body and soul, arguing that the body doesn’t corrupt the soul. In the next section, he discusses the various ways which make the body perfect. Further, he defines a “well-made man,” especially in terms of his body. Besides, he explores bodies belonging to babies, girls, mothers, swimmers, rowers, horsemen, and laborers.

Whitman also recalls when he visited the farmer with five sons, “full of vigor, calmness, the beauty of person” even at the age of eighty. Further, he comments on the wonderful feeling gained by a person who is surrounded by beautiful human bodies. As the poem progresses, he also talks about the similarities and dissimilarities of the female and the male body. He further talks about the bodies of male and female sales at auction and expresses his condemnation of slavery. Here presented an underlining note that all bodies are equally sacred, despite the gender and race for everyone has the same red blood running through their veins. In the final section, Whitman lists out all characteristics of the human body that he admires and concludes that these features are not only markers of the human body, but that the body’s “parts and poems” also represent the soul.

 

Themes in I Sing the Body Electric 

In this poem, Whitman engages with some of his most common and celebrated themes. At the time he wrote this poem, many readers were shocked and outraged by the sensuality that he included within it. He freely celebrated themes of sexuality, the body, and the self. Throughout the poem, readers will find snapshots of the poet’s body and his experience of his body. He makes a connection between his physical and spiritual experiences, alluding to the interconnectivity of the human soul and human physical experience. Bodies come in many forms, the poet suggests, and they should all be celebrated and enjoyed. Everyone, no matter who they are, has the same blood running through their veins. This is something to cherish, not ignore.

 

Structure and Form of I Sing the Body Electric 

‘I Sing the Body Electric’ by Walt Whitman is written in free verse. This means that the poem does not make use of a standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is the style of writing that Whitman is best-known for. Readers will be hardpressed to find any specific rhyming pattern in any of his major works. Today, he is often referred to as the “father of free verse poetry”. But, despite this, it doesn’t meant that there are no examples of rhyme or rhythm throughout this entire piece. Readers who look closely should be able to spot examples of half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme. Whitman is also known to have used, on occasion, internal rhyme. These are rhymes that fall within the lines of text rather than at the end of lines.

 

Literary Devices in I Sing the Body Electric

Walt Whitman incorporates several poetic devices like alliterations, Rhetorical questions, Imagery, Uplifted tone, Metaphors, etc. He doesn’t follow a particular rhyme scheme in the poem. But, it has many consecutive lines that end with the same word. Many words and Phrases are repeated to emphasize the poet’s intended view. The poet uses the uplifted tone in many parts of the poem to express his satisfaction and his excitement over different body types. He also used words that support his view and tone.

Rhetorical questions are used to kindle inquisitiveness and curiosity in the readers. The first section of the poem for lines is in way of a question, yet they affirm his view about the connection between body and soul instead of giving it a possibility. Since the poem is all about the human body and its physical functionality, he has used a lot of imagery in it. His description of the farmer; the different types of bodies; Male and Female Body at auction and the rowers ‘bending forward and backward’ gives a vivid description of the human body types.

A metaphor is a popular device used by poets to compare things and situations. Here, in this poem, Whitman uses metaphors to compare various types of human bodies and their physicality. The title itself presents the body that can be played to music, in a way comparing the body movements to beats. He used other metaphors like a man walking like a poem (line16), the body is compared to the soul (line 7), and firemen’s in their costumes (line 27) to enhance the description.

 

Analysis of I Sing the Body Electric

Section one

1
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

The title, “I Sing the Body Electric” is also the first line of section 1, which proclaims the intention of the poet. This section’s eight lines are divided equally, and the first four lines describe how the people who love the poet encircle him, the way he encircles them. The next four lines are a series of rhetorical questions that stress on the connectedness between the body and soul. He draws a direct link between the body and the soul: “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

 

Section Two

2
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards,
The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water,
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats, the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sun-down after work,
The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance,
The upper-hold and under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes;
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,
The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting;
Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.

In section two, the poet uses a sequence of images to present his view of a perfect body.  The images of “swimmer naked in the swimming-bath”, the “embrace of love and resistance”, the “two young boy wrestlers”, the “play of masculine muscle” explicitly defines the sensual desire created through those bodies. The poet is attracted to all of these bodies, so he finds a way to have a close connection with them, which he expressed in the following lines: “I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child, / Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen.”

 

Section Three

3
I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons.
This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person,
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness and breadth of his manners,
These I used to go and visit him to see, he was wise also,
He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old, his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome,
They and his daughters loved him, all who saw him loved him,
They did not love him by allowance, they loved him with personal love,
He drank water only, the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face,
He was a frequent gunner and fisher, he sail’d his boat himself, he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner, he had fowling-pieces presented to him by men that loved him,
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

In section three of the poem ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, the poet talks about a common farmer he knows. The farmer had a physique and personality which the poet admired. His children loved him for his nature. Even at the age of eighty, he was full of vigor that he tells readers that they would “pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang”. The poet has a liking for the body of the man so that he says people would “you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other”.

 

Section Four

4
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

In section four of the poem, he speaks of the delight gained being among those that one likes. He again mentions the soul and the connection to physical things. Whitman states that the touch and the odor of the body not only please the senses but “please the soul well.” Whitman concludes that there is nothing more wonderful than to be surrounded by beautiful human bodies, which is more satisfying. He concludes with the remark on the bodies of men and women: “I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as a sea.”

 

Sections Five and Six

5
This is the female form,
A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,
It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,
I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it,
Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed,
Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it, the response likewise ungovernable,
Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands all diffused, mine too diffused,
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
This the nucleus—after the child is born of woman, man is born of woman,
This the bath of birth, this the merge of small and large, and the outlet again.
Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest,
You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul.
The female contains all qualities and tempers them,
She is in her place and moves with perfect balance,
She is all things duly veil’d, she is both passive and active,
She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters.
As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty,
See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see.
6
The male is not less the soul nor more, he too is in his place,
He too is all qualities, he is action and power,
The flush of the known universe is in him,
Scorn becomes him well, and appetite and defiance become him well,
The wildest largest passions, bliss that is utmost, sorrow that is utmost become him well, pride is for him,
The full-spread pride of man is calming and excellent to the soul,
Knowledge becomes him, he likes it always, he brings every thing to the test of himself,
Whatever the survey, whatever the sea and the sail he strikes soundings at last only here,
(Where else does he strike soundings except here?)
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)
Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?

Sections five and six of ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ describe the bodies of women and men. While describing women he focuses on the sensuality their body emits and the divine function of reproduction. He also presents women as exceedingly sexual, for “mad filaments, ungovernable shoots” of erotic attraction play out of their bodies. Through his concentration on the body of a woman, he makes a parallel comparison to the body of a man. With that, he concludes by stating that if “the man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,” in a way all bodies are sacred.

 

Sections Seven and Eight

7
A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.
Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.
In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)
This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?
(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)
8
A woman’s body at auction,
She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers,
She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?
If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred,
And the glory and sweet of a man is the token of manhood untainted,
And in man or woman a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is more beautiful than the most beautiful face.
Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.

Whitman emphasizes his transcendental belief in sections Seven and Eight of ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, focusing on the body of a male slave and a female slave on the auction platform. The sections also conclude with the curious questions about concealment, defilement, degradation with which the poem began. Here, Whitman talks about the times before the Civil War, when he used to visit the slave market. He expresses his view against slavery with his description of their bodies being so strong with keen senses. Ultimately, he questions the readers if they what kind of offspring they could produce?. Against the discrimination shown against the African Americans at that time, he affirms that their offspring could become great leaders or help cure a disease. As a continuation of the previous sections, where he argued men and women to be equal, here he concludes by closing the gap between racial discrimination.

 

Section Nine

9
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

The final section of the poem has an exhaustive list of body parts with its characteristics that Whitman admires. While concluding, he again brings the connection between the body and soul. He also informs the readers not to get confused only the body parts mentioned as the markers of the human body, but he says even the body’s “parts and poems” also represent the soul.

 

About Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman best known for his use of metaphors and free verse was born on May 31, 1819, in New York. He read voraciously the Bible and the works of Homer, Dante, and William Shakespeare. His Magnus opus Leaves of Grass introduced a groundbreaking new style into the transcendental poetry. He has revised the works, by adding and editing until the last edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ in 1891. He is one of America’s most important poets.

 

Similar Poems

Readers who enjoyed ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ should also consider looking into some of Whitman’s other best-known works. For example, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, ‘Passage to India’, and I Hear America Singing’. The latter is a beautiful expression of America’s diversity. It celebrates the voices of American men and women who come from a wide variety of backgrounds but are united through their songs. Other related poems include ‘A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body’ by Andrew Marvell and  ‘The Ecstasy’ by John Donne.

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