"Whitman's Poetics and the Unity of 'Calamus'"
Russell A. Hunt
[as published in American Literature 46:4 (January, 1975), 482-494]

"Who touches this touches a man"

THE SECTION OF Leaves of Grass called "Calamus" made its first appearance in the book in the third edition, in 1860. Somewhat surprisingly, it seems to have caused little controversy at the time; the first, and strongest, reaction to the 1860 edition concerned the "Enfans d'Adam" (later "Children of Adam") section. To the twentieth century, however, the homosexual (or, to use Gay Wilson Allen's word, "homoerotic") implications of Whitman's celebration of "manly love" and the directness of the phallic symbolism of "Calamus" have seemed more important to an understanding of Whitman -- and much more psychologically interesting -- than the somewhat programmatic heterosexuality of "Children of Adam." Critics and scholars have most often considered the poems of both sections primarily as clues to Whitman's psychology, rendering the history of the criticism of "Calamus" almost entirely the history of a dialectic of biographical theories, in which each poem is treated as a fairly direct "confession" -- an inference encouraged, of course, by Whitman's pose as an unsophisticated "bard" -- and without considering its relation to the other poems in the section and to the section as a whole.1

That this is critically indefensible is suggested by Whitman's own treatment of the poems. "Calamus" is one of the sections of the 1860 Leaves of Grass which survived essentially intact the repeated and drastic revisions Whitman undertook between then and 1891 (the other is "Children of Adam"). Clearly, Whitman thought of the poems in the "Calamus" section as representing some sort of integral group.2 More important, however, than any inference about how Whitman thought of "Calamus" is the fact that the hypothesis that the section is an organic whole leads to a fuller and richer reading of the poems themselves.

"Calamus" is much more, and much more complex, than merely an expression of Whitman's homoerotic tendencies, and a consideration of the section can restrict itself to the implications of the clearly homoerotic passages only by ignoring much that is of real importance in determining how those passages are to be understood. There have been a number of valuable approaches toward the poems along the lines I am suggesting,3 but the first really ambitious attempt to deal with the "Calamus" poems as an artistic whole was James Miller's article "'Calamus': The Leaf and the Root,"4 which proposes that there are five major themes in the section and that they are fused through the ambiguity of the metaphors, particularly that of the calamus plant itself. Miller's article is valuable in that he maintained for the first time that "Calamus" is a unified whole, separate from its ultimate psychological origins and with its own consistent artistic structure. But his reading is still finally unsatisfying; the five "themes" he suggests are simply too many and too unrelated to each other to be unified merely by the "ambiguity" of the central metaphor.

Roy Harvey Pearce, however, has suggested a principle which can be used to discover the essential unity of theme of "Calamus." In the course of explaining why he prefers the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass to the others, Pearce maintains that in this edition the "I" includes the reader and makes the reader a poet. "Children of Adam," Pearce says,

tells us how it is -- what it means, what it costs -- to be a maker of poems, and the "Calamus" sequence how it is to be a reader of poems. In the first instance the analogue is procreation; in the second it is community.5
The idea that the section forms a discussion of the poetic process is vitally important. It is this, stated somewhat differently than Pearce states it, which is the organizing principle with reference to which all the Poems of "Calamus" must be read.

"Calamus," then, is not an autobiographical "confession," not a celebration of homosexuality or homoeroticism, and not a political program which advocates manly love as the foundation of democracy. It incorporates elements of all these things, but they are at bottom merely the raw material Whitman employs in a statement, organized organically rather than logically, of the origin and nature of Whitman's own poetry -- how it should be read and by whom, and what effects its reading is likely to have. It is in the "Calamus" poems that it becomes most clear what Whitman's words imply when, for instance, in "So Long" he identifies himself with his book:

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man . . .
It is I you hold and who holds you . . .6
And it is in "Calamus" that the poetic possibilities of this idea and this image are most richly and satisfyingly worked out.

The first problem in interpreting "Calamus" is presented by the nature of its central image, the calamus plant itself. It is usually taken to be a phallic symbol. But if it is primarily that, it is a strangely complicated and ambiguous one. It is, for instance, the blossom which has a phallic appearance, but Whitman never mentions the blossom with this meaning. The plant itself is a large, coarse grass and as such its use obviously relates to Whitman's other symbolic uses of "grass" in Leaves of Grass. There is no reason why it should be more apparently a phallic symbol than any of the other grass referred to in the book. The root of the plant, which seems most clearly of sexual significance for Whitman,7 is most remarkable for its odor and for its medicinal properties. Had Whitman desired an exclusively or obviously phallic object, he need not have chosen one so ambiguous or with so many other, more obvious, associations. Indeed, the ambiguity of the calamus as a symbol is a central concern of a number of interpretations of the poems.8 If the section is viewed appropriately, however, all the ambiguities point to one subject: the poems themselves. It is his poetry, his book, which is the tenor to which all the varying vehicles of Whitman's complex metaphor relate.9

Starting with this interpretation of its central symbol, it is possible to argue that "Calamus" is an ars poetica in which Whitman explains what act is being performed in the writing and the reading of Leaves of Grass. The best way to demonstrate this is to turn to the poems themselves and show how it is actually accomplished.

The usual reading of "In Paths Untrodden," the poem which begins the section, does not suggest that it is likely to introduce a discussion of the poetic process. According to this reading, Whitman in the poem "composes" a place where, away from the moral "standards hitherto publish'd" and "in paths untrodden," he can cast aside the moral strictures of society, speaking "as I would not dare elsewhere," and, talking directly about his homosexuality, "celebrate the need of comrades." As long as he is thus removed from social norms, he will "sing no songs but those of manly attachment." It is also suggested that he finds himself "in paths untrodden" precisely because he is a homosexual, that part of the reason for the selection of the calamus as a symbol is that it does grow in out-of-the-way places.

This reading, however, does not go to the heart of the poem; it only uncovers the basic metaphor. What Whitman is saying is, at bottom, more like this: now that the reader and Whitman himself have come (perhaps by way of reading the rest of the book, particularly the preceding "Children of Adam") to "paths untrodden," he can explain the "secret" of their coming. Now that they are in areas of literary expression where not many come, he can "explain the secret of my nights and days," the secret which lies behind and within all his poetry. "My soul, . . . the soul of the man I speak for," he says, "rejoices in comrades." This clear distinction between the poet and the man he speaks for suggests a distinction between the sort of rejoicing in comrades which characterized Walt Whitman and what the phrase means when used by "the bard." Rejoicing in comrades is, for him, rejoicing in readers; rejoicing in the relationship between reader and writer; rejoicing specifically in the kind of relationship created by his sort of poetry.

That such a reading seems strained, when this poem is considered in isolation, is obvious. But when the poem is considered as part of a unity which also includes a poem like "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," with its direct identification of the poet with his book, the interpretation seems much less far-fetched. And "Scented Herbage of My Breast," the second poem, announces as clearly as can be that what is found "in the growth by margins of pond-waters" is Whitman's poetry and all that is associated with it.

"Scented Herbage" begins, in fact, with Whitman's usual identification of the leaves and the poetry:

Scented herbage of my breast,
Leaves from you I glean, I write, to be perused best afterwards,
Tomb-leaves, body-leaves growing up above me above death.
The leaves will grow above death, will survive the winter and bloom again, because although the speaker does not know how many "passing by will discover you or inhale your faint odor, . . . a few will." That is, of course, the poems will be read and understood on their own terms by a few, and this correct reading will be the blooming of the poems. The leaves are more than a monument, however; they are also in a peculiarly Whitmanesque way fed by the poet's own death. They are not only "tomb-leaves" but also "body-leaves."

The poet asserts that he has little control over them or their significance:

        I permit you to tell in your own way of the heart that is under you,
I do not know what you mean there underneath yourselves, you are not happiness,
You are often more bitter than I can bear.
They are, then, "body-leaves," springing from the breast rather than the brain -- not, in other words, intellectually worked out, but direct manifestations of the heart.

Their associations with death are also complex. "You are beautiful to me, you faint tinged roots," he says, "you make me think of death." They make him think of death not only because they are associated with his own death but because nothing is "finally beautiful" except love and death. In this way he brings together the three principal motifs of the poem and of the section -- death, love, and his poems.

But suddenly the poet is impatient with the inscrutability of the "emblematic and capricious" leaves, both the leaves growing from his breast and the leaves of the book which are his poems; he commands them to "grow up taller," to become more lucid and direct, to "spring away from the concealed heart there!" They are folded into their roots, they stifle and choke him: if he is to speak of their nature he cannot do it through them. He says, "I will say what I have to say by itself," that is, without the characteristic complexity of his other poems; he will raise the song of lovers and comrades, and through him "shall the words be said to make death exhilarating." The poet identifies love with death and with the relationship between the poet and his reader. Death and love are "folded inseparably together" just like the poem-leaves of his book; in death, in love, and in the relationship with the poet the soul merges with something else. These poems, growing out of the poet's death like the grass on a grave, feeding on his body, rising out of his breast, embody the exhilaration which accompanies that merging. It is this which lies behind "the shifting forms of life," the poet says, it is this which is "the real reality" behind the "mask of materials" just as the "purports essential" lie behind the mask of the material from which the poems are made. It is through this merging with something else, through death and love and these poems, that we pierce "the mask," that we "dissipate this entire show of appearance." It is this that "it is all for" and when material things pass away, it is this that is left; the show "does not last so very long, but you will last very long."

Whitman's chant of lovers and comrades has become a chant of all the methods of attaining a mystical merging with something else; and it is a song of his own poetry because his own poetry represents and causes such a merging.

"Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand," the next poem in the section, first makes this clear. In this poem Whitman says most directly -- saying what he has to say by itself -- that the reader-poet relationship must be the relationship of lovers.10 In this poem the poet becomes the book and speaks to the reader. "I am not what you supposed, but far different," he says. This is not merely another book of poetry but something far more "emblematic and capricious" and something far more dangerous. He warns the reader not to attempt to become "a candidate for my affections" (that is, to enter into that relationship with the poet which is necessary in order to comprehend the poems fully) unless he is willing to accept all the consequences, to "give up all else," to go the uncertain way to a perhaps destructive result, perhaps to something very like death: certainly to a merging with something else.

But, he says, if you choose not to "put me down and depart on your way," then take me, the book, to "paths untrodden," "by stealth in some wood" or "back of a rock in the open air." For when you attempt to read this book in the normal way, equipped with the usual preconceptions about literature and about the proper relationship between reader and poet, "I emerge not." In houses, in company, in libraries -- "I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead." Whitman asserts, in other words, that his barbaric yawp cannot be read as poetry was normally read by his contemporaries but requires a whole new set of attitudes and expectations. If, then, the reader makes himself entirely alone, separates himself from those attitudes and expectations, he can enter into the necessary relation with the poet and the book, the relation symbolized by "the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss, / For I am the new husband and I am the comrade." The reading, the relationship, must be analogous to a physical and emotional rather than an intellectual relationship:

. . . if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
Carry me when you go forth over land or sea,
For thus merely touching you is enough, is best.
Again there is the strong sense that it is the relationship, rather than the words which make up the poems, that is important. The intellect is dangerous, the words are emblematic and capricious. If the intellect reads the book in a library, "You con," he says, "at peril. . . . These leaves and me you will not understand." Understanding is not what may be expected from these poems; when you attempt to understand, to "con," just at the moment when "you should think you had unquestionably caught me, / Behold! / Already you see I have escaped from you." My poems, my leaves, the book which is identical with my self, will utterly elude the attempt to make a purely intellectual investigation:
For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it.
What I have to offer, he says, will not be acquired by reading, nor is it what we expect to gain from reading. Only a few "candidates for my love . . . [will] prove victorious"; and, when they have succeeded, what they have won will not "do good only," it will "do just as much evil, perhaps more." "For all is useless without that which . . . I hinted at," that is, the intensity of the merging, the relationship like that of physical love, the fusion in something as painful as death, which will open the poems to those few who in "Scented Herbage" sniffed the odor of the calamus.

These three poems, then, must be read together and seen as coexistent. They modify and refer to each other; the apparent disjunctions in subject among them make the reader modify his interpretations by ascertaining what the three poems have in common. They cause him to discover that love, the central concern of "In Paths Untrodden," death, the central concern of "Scented Herbage," and the poem-leaves, the central concern of "Whoever You Are," are all, for Whitman, closely related -- perhaps aspects of the same idea. These are not, in other words, different and distinct subjects or themes but a series of metaphors for the same thing, somewhat like the series of figures Donne employs for separation in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." As it would clearly be a mistake to think of that poem as one about death, gold and compasses, so it is a mistake to think of "Calamus" as a series of poems about death, love and homosexuality. To consider that "Calamus" is, as clearly as "A Valediction," a single unified work of art is to see that the error is obvious.

The fourth poem in the group, "For You O Democracy" (it is essentially a condensation of "States," the fifth poem in the original, 1860, "Calamus"), introduces another theme or metaphor; it considers the social value of the reader-poet love-relation itself.

The "democratic" poems of the section (''The Base of All Metaphysics," "I Hear It Was Charg'd Against Me," "A Leaf for Hand in Hand," "I Dream'd in a Dream," "To the East and to the West" -- not all of which deal exclusively with this subject) have frequently been called Whitman's way of rationalizing and sublimating his homosexual urges. The usual interpretation of these poems is that Whitman is saying in them that such urges are the basis of democracy and that the stronger they are the stronger society will be.

That such poems are not in the same way as the others metaphors for aspects of the poetic process is obvious, but they are no more merely an afterthought or a rationalization for Walt Whitman's guilt feelings than the more purely literary poems. They are meant to consider the results Whitman anticipates from showing "candidates for his affection" what his affection involves. Those few who go down "paths untrodden" and become impregnated with the calamus scent will leaven a society, and the love which they then understand will "take control of all" and "will make the continent indissoluble," "make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks."

In these four poems, then, combined with "These I Singing in Spring," which was the fourth poem in 1860 and the fifth by 1891, Whitman announces his subject and his basic metaphoric structure. The subject is the origin and nature of his poems, the method by which they must be approached, and the results of such an approach. The metaphoric structure involves an identification of the poet-reader relationship with death and with the sort of love signified by manly attraction, by adhesiveness; this is in turn signified by the calamus plant, which in itself joins all the levels of the discussion. It is the poems, the love which they embody, the phallus, the hair of the chest and the growth on the grave; it is also the manuscript written with the calamus pen. These poems create, then, in the first few pages of the section, the basic conceptual structure upon which all of "Calamus" must be read, which all of "Calamus" refers to and modifies.

Thus it is a superficial and isolated reading which sees merely or primarily homosexuality in such lines as these from "These I Singing in Spring":

And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall!
Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!
I will give of it, but only to them that love as I myself am capable of loving.
Given the meanings Whitman has folded into the calamus plant throughout the rest of the section, it becomes impossible to see it here as phallic only: this poem restates the caution that only a few are capable of receiving and comprehending the burden of his poems -- the calamus and its implications. These few are "youths," "young men," those who find it easier to go down the "paths untrodden," where the calamus grows.

The various separate themes which critics such as Miller have found in the "Calamus" section seem to me, where they are in fact present, to be made one by these first five poems when the poems are read as parts of a coherent structure. The celebration of adhesiveness, for instance, celebrates the poems themselves, their origin and their nature. The poet's statement, in "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," that he could not "utter joyous leaves of dark green" without a "friend or lover near" means not only that Walt Whitman could not be joyous without a lover but that the reason the Bard utters the leaves of "Calamus" -- indeed the whole of Leaves of Grass -- is to express and create that love, that relationship between poet and reader, to "celebrate the need of comrades" and to

. . . plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
[to] make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
A poem like "We Two Boys Together Clinging," which seems no more than a celebration of companionship, with no mention of poetry, becomes, simply by being placed in the "Calamus" section, a celebration of the impulse at the base of the poems. The poems which include "warnings" are cautions about misreading the poems, reminders that the poet demands complete devotion from those who "seek to become eleve of mine," or the "candidate for my affections." His addresses to the future reader, to "recorders ages hence," are invitations and warnings; they invite the reader to enter this relationship, to become the poet's reader-lover, and warn him that it is difficult, uncertain, dangerous to do so. They are of a piece with his assertions that his poems are identifiable with love and death; of a piece with the conclusion of "Calamus":
When you read these I that was visible am become invisible,
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)
Those poems in the section which overtly discuss the poetry are, it seems clear, susceptible in any context of only one reading. It is these unambiguous poems (such as "Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone" and "Here the Frailest Leaves of Me") which provide immovable guides by which to navigate the ambiguities of the rest of the section. These establish the theme which underlies all the other, subordinate motifs and which make the reader see that they are metaphors for aspects of the poetic process.

"Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone," for instance, cannot be reconciled with any reading of the section other than a literary one. Whitman announces that his poems are leaves, flowers offered to those who will be properly receptive, who can dwell "in paths untrodden"; leaves and flowers to be unfolded as Whitman unfolds them in "Scented Herbage"; leaves and flowers which bring their perfume to those who can accept it; leaves and flowers which will grow in his readers:

Frost-mellow'd berries and Third-month twigs offer'd fresh to young persons wandering out in the fields when the winter breaks up,
Love-buds put before you and within you whoever you are,
Buds to be unfolded on the old terms,
If you bring the warmth of the sun to them they will open and bring form, color, perfume to you,
If you become the aliment and the wet they will become flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees.
If the other poems are to be read as anything but a discussion of poetry, it has to be admitted that "Calamus" is not unified, that Whitman's action in preserving it essentially unchanged through all the successive editions of Leaves of Grass was pointless.

It is of course undeniable that there is a great deal of homosexual imagery in "Calamus" or that the poems deal with intensely personal emotions. But "Calamus" represents one of the ways in which Walt Whitman artistically transcended his personality, fused and trans­muted the raw material of emotion into a unity which is no longer a discussion, celebration, or a confession of that raw material but an entirely new entity with a coherence and vitality of its own. And it is only by reading "Calamus" in this way that its rich fullness can be savored.


1Interest in their biographical implications has dominated discussions of the poems from the beginnings down to the present day. John Addington Symonds's Walt Whitman, A Study (London, 1893), for instance, is full of unvoiced suspicion about the nature of Whitman's "manly love." Symonds had written to Whitman asking him to clarify his intention in "Calamus," and Whitman denied vociferously any homosexual meaning. See Phyllis Grosskurth, John Addington Symonds (London, 1964), especially pp. 272-275. See also W. C. Rivers, Walt Whitman's Anomaly (London, 1913). More recently, Gay Wilson Allen's A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman (New York, 1970), states that the poems have "come to be regarded as Whitman's homosexual love poems" (p. 71). Less central but perhaps more typical is the treatment of Edwin Haviland Miller, who in his Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey (New York, 1968) consistently considers them to be direct confessions of his homosexual yearnings and activities. Even in a book as avowedly non-biographical as Thomas Edward Crawley's The Structure of Leaves of Grass (Austin, Texas, 1970), the author spends most of his discussion of the section in opposing the biographical arguments -- and, at least partly as a result of the preoccupation, misses much of the richness of "Calamus."

2 It has been frequently suggested that he preserved the sections because the poems in them arose out of one crisis in his own life. But this will not do: many other poems in Leaves of Grass arose from the same crisis and Whitman did not hesitate to move or alter them.

3 Basil deSelincourt, for instance, suggested very early (Walt Whitman: A Critical Study, London, 1914, pp. 204-220) that Whitman made "manly love" the subject matter of "Calamus" simply because it was for him sexless by definition; he also warned the reader about Whitman's complex use of the word "I." Newton Arvin (Whitman, New York, 1938) separated the poems from the problem of Whitman's psychology, maintaining that the origin of the ideas in the section is irrelevant.

4 PMLA, LXXII (March, 1957), 249-271; later printed as Chapter III of his Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass (Chicago, 1957).

5 Leaves of Grass: Facsimile Edition of 1860 Text (Ithaca, New York, 1961), p. xxxvi.

6 Quotes from Leaves of Grass are from Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York, 1965). I use the final, 1891-1892 edition as opposed to the 1860 edition largely because it is more generally available; Pearce and Miller have established that the alterations of "Calamus" between 1860 and 1891 do not essentially change the nature of the section and are not intended to hide or disguise embarrassing revelations.

7 See, for instance, the reference to "man-root" in "I Sing the Body Electric," Section 9.

8 This is especially true, for instance, of James Miller's interpretation of "Scented Herbage of My Breast," the central poem of the section and the one in which the symbol receives its fullest development. Miller lists no less than six constituent meanings of the plant in the poem: the plant itself; the hair on the chest; the grass on a grave; the pages of a book; the manifestations of the heart; and the capacity for spiritual love. (It will be seen that at least the first five of these are parallel and clearly related; if the author is in his grave, the manifestations of his heart may easily be presented as the leaves which grow from his grave -- especially if the poems, the manifestations, are connected both with masculinity, symbolized by the hair on the chest, and with the "leaves" of the book they appear in.) Nor does this exhaust Miller's reading of the symbol. He sees the root of the plant as representing a slightly different group of meanings, standing for the phallus (and thus manliness), for the corpse that feeds the grass, and for the heart whose passion feeds the spiritual love. (Here again it is easy to see connections between the physical properties and the spiritual ones.)

9 The metaphor may be yet more complex. The word "calamus" was originally applied to a reed pen and to manuscripts written with such a pen and was only later applied to the domestic "sweet flag" (the common name of the calamus). That Whitman knew and utilized this primary meaning of "calamus" has been impossible to prove, but the way he uses the word in these poems suggests quite strongly that he did. The word was at one time in such common use that Whitman would almost certainly have encountered it in this sense, and he could hardly have missed a usage so appropriate to his own usual employment of "leaves."

10 This idea, of course, recurs throughout Leaves of Grass. Its centrality in Whitman has been most eloquently argued for by Leslie Fiedler in his No! In Thunder (Boston, 1960). See, for instance, p. 69: "Only with the creatures of his fancy, with an imagined 'you' (sometimes conceived as a lost lover; sometimes as the perfect 'Camerado,' God; sometimes as an indiscriminate Everyman; often as the reader; most often as a second self, 'the real Me') could he enter into an orgasmic unity. His poems are at once a prayer for such a union and that imaginary orgasm itself. No poet engages the reader with so fervid and intimate a clasp; no writer describes the act of reading so erotically."