Whitman begins “Calamus” in September, 1859, alone in the woods, away from all of the “pleasures, / profits, conformities” of his life. It is in this place that he can reflect on his inner self. This is a truer self than the one of the ordinary world. He resolves to “sing no songs to-day but those of manly / attachment….” It is a celebration of his own “need of comrades.” This time is also a time of reflection on the end of life. In “Scented Herbage of My Breast” he ponders leaves that grow above him. They are leaves of death and they are bitter, but this does not mean that death is not beautiful. Whitman says, “Death or life I am then indifferent, my soul declines to prefer….” Death is beautiful when a man does not live his life in service to it. Instead, Whitman is decisive in his wish to “make death / exhilarating” for his comrades and fellow travelers.
In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman makes the connection between America, the “continent indissoluble” and the friendship of which he sings. His goal is to create companionship in all of America. Cities will be filled with men bonded together in “manly love.” As he wanders through the woods, Whitman can feel the spirits of his former friends beside him. Some embrace him while others stand around him. Whitman begins to pick up “tokens” of nature around him: a lilac, a pine branch, “some moss…pull’d off a live- / oak in Florida as it hung trailing down,” some laurel leaves and some water from the pond. Whitman says that these are held near to him “by a thick cloud of spirits….” In “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” Whitman speaks not of spirits but of real people, lovers with whom he travels. They hold his hand and sit with him and there is a sense “that words and / reason hold not….” Whitman gains his wisdom from these moments and from this love. The questions of life and death fade away.
In “The Base of All Metaphysics,” Whitman attempts to give a philosophical answer to the ideas of love and companionship that he writes about here. He imagines a college course, taught by a professor. The class studies all of the great philosophers of the world from Socrates to Christ to Hegel. All of these philosophies, Whitman says, are undergirded by “The dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend / to friend….” Whitman hopes that it is this kind of “measureless….love” within him that will be the thing he is remembered for. He calls on his future biographers and recorders of history to note not his “songs” but his love for his friends.
It is only this love that can make Whitman happy. “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” is a reflection on this happiness. Whitman recalls the time he was honored in the capitol and a time when he “carous’d” and when his “plans were / accomplish’d,” yet he says still he is not happy. He is happy when he is in nature, rising with the sun, bathing in the ocean, and thinking of his dear friend, his lover, and how he is on his way over to see him. Whitman says that he is only happy when his arm is around his friend, when they lay together sleeping “In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams….”
Whitman sings a song for his beloved New York in “City of Orgies.” Manhattan is a city of “walks and joys” and Whitman sings his songs within the city and about it. What makes the city “illustrious” is not its buildings, homes, streets, or commerce. It is, instead, the love that the inhabitants of the city have for Whitman and the love that he shares with them. He sings of one particular New Yorker in “Behold This Swarthy Face,” who comes up and kisses him “lightly on the lips with robust love….” This is an act of robust love and this is a love that is saluted all over America. In “To a Stranger,” Whitman observes someone walking down the street and thinks that he must have known this person in some other time. This person gives him pleasure even though he does not know him. He is sure that he will meet this stranger again and that he will not lose this person again.
In a quiet moment, sitting alone, Whitman thinks of all the other men in the world sitting alone, “yearning and thoughtful.” Whitman believes that if he could only know these men, he would become as “attached to them as I do to men in my own lands….” He yearns to be brothers with these men; to be happy with them. Whitman then responds to those that charge him with seeking “to destroy / institutions.” He says that this is not his goal. Instead, he seeks to build up the institution of manly love in all the cities of the nation. Whitman says he does not envy important men – generals or the President or any rich or powerful person. Instead, he envies the “brotherhood of lovers” and those that maintain manly love throughout their lives.
Whitman makes “A Promise to California.” He tells California that he will soon go West because he knows that “I and robust love belong among you.” First, however, he rejoices in his love of “a youth who loves me and whom I love.” This youth comes to him in a crowded bar-room and holds his hand at a table. While others drink and swear, Whitman and his love speak little, “perhaps not a word” and enjoy being in silence with each other. He is not only smitten with this youth, however, but with all of the people of the nation. He longs to “infuse” himself amongst the workers and the blue-collar people of the land. In a dream, Whitman sees a “new city of Friends,” a place not of this earth. In this city, nothing is greater than equality and love.
In “To the East and to the West,” Whitman proclaims, “I believe the main purport of these States is to found a superb / friendship, exalte” that is unknown in any other time or place. While in “Among the Multitude,” Whitman says he can feel one “picking me out by secret and divine signs.” This person knows him and is his lover, his “perfect equal.” For his own part, he feels a “subtle electric fire” when he is near this lover. Whitman ends “Calamus” by claiming he is “Full of Life Now.” He speaks to past and future generations who will read these words and wish they could be his lover and tells them that through these words they can be certain that he is with them.
“Song of the Open Road” is Whitman’s celebration of travel. He takes to the road “A foot and light hearted…Healthy, free, the world before me….” He is free to choose where he goes. Whitman feels as though he embodies his own journey. He is good fortune and does not need to ask for it. “Strong and content I travel the open road.” He proclaims that the world around him – the earth and the constellations – come with him yet they do not have to support him.
To travel is to be free above all. Whitman “ordains” himself “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines….” He is, in the most real sense, master of his domain. He claims that he will listen to others, hear their words, but in the end he is divested “of the holds that would hold me.” Whitman even amazes himself. “I am larger, better than I thought / I did not know I held so much goodness.” Whitman seeks to give this goodness back to the world since the men and women of the world have done good to him while on his journey. Whitman proclaims that he will “scatter” himself amongst all people as if he were seed. If someone should deny him, he will not be troubled. If they accept him, and bless him, Whitman will reciprocate the reception and the blessing.
Whitman also has words of encouragement for his fellow travelers. He understands the journey, oftentimes, is difficult. “The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first….” He tells the traveler to “Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d….” He asks his fellow reader and traveler not to be convinced of this by “arguments, similes, rhymes” but to be convinced simply by Whitman’s own presence. Whitman assures his companion that all things of humankind – governments, religions, institutions - fall “into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand road.” The journey is always towards “something great.”
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman takes on the stance of observer. Around him, he sees “Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes” and they are “curious” to him. They are on the hundreds and hundreds of ferry boats that cross between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Whitman sees all of them, and himself, as “disintegrated yet part of the scheme….” He sees that others will follow him, others will watch these people and these boats cross, fifty or even a hundred years, they will “enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the / falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”
Whitman tells the “many generations hence” that he is with them. “Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” These future generations can trust that their experiences are the same as his own. Their observations of the beauty of the natural world around them are the same as his own. He wants these future people to know that he loved the cities, the rivers, and all the men and women that crossed between them. Whitman asks what it is between he and the future generations. “Whatever it is, it avails not – distance avails not, and place / avails not….” The “abrupt” questions that these future people feel, he also felt them. Whitman exhorts the river to “Flow on! Flow with the flood-tide,” and for the “masts of Mannahatta” to “Stand up, tall….” He asks the reader to consider that he himself might be looking back in some “unknown / ways….”
The sexual nature of Leaves of Grass was fodder for great controversy during Whitman’s own life. Several high profile critics, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, found these themes less than desirable in the book. Whitman lost his government job in 1865 because his boss read his work and dismissed him for indecency. Through all of this, however, Whitman maintained that sexuality was vital to his own work precisely because it is a vital characteristic of the human experience. Sexuality was not just an individual experience between two people according to Whitman; it was a foundational experience for how society is woven together.
“Calamus” is a reflection on male friendship and relationship. The name “Calamus” refers to an ancient Greek myth -- Calamus was a man who grieved for his young male lover and turned into a reed. That Whitman sees this friendship in erotic terms only shows the multiplicity of ways in Whitman understood true relationship. While much has been made of Whitman’s use of homosexual imagery, a sexual viewpoint that was not widely talked of nor published during Whitman’s day, the reader cannot overlook the fact that in previous sections, including “Song of Myself,” Whitman makes use of autoerotic and heterosexual imagery as well. This is what scholars have noted as Whitman’s omnisexual viewpoint. No one sexual preference is complete for Whitman. Sexuality must include preference for the individual, for the different, and for the same.
The first poems of “Calamus” see Whitman reevaluating some of the themes from previous sections, especially his understanding of the natural world. If the child’s poem from “Song of Myself,” in which the child brings a handful of grass to Whitman in order to ask what it is, is instructive of Whitman’s understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world, than “Calamus” represents a break with that understanding. Whitman begins in nature, observing the trees and the leaves around him, yet he does not feel a part of it. There is death and life in those leaves, he understands, but this does not seem to be as vital to him as it did before. Instead, he is infused with the desire for friendship. This is also a reevaluation of the Romantic spirit in American literature. While previous poets and writers, taking cues from their European forebears, found a true spirituality in the mysteries of nature, Whitman finds that he cannot find the true self in nature alone. Truth is only to be found in the bonding of men.
Whitman’s historical context is also important for understanding this section of the book. This is one of the only poems in the book in which Whitman gives a specific date for reference, 1859. It is notable that this is the same year that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. As the classic text on the theory of evolution, Darwin’s book is considered to be revolutionary in the fields of biological science. The theories that Darwin put in print, however, were already widely discussed in intellectual circles of Whitman’s day. In science and psychology (whose original manifestation was phrenology, a discipline which Whitman studied), there was a growing understanding that sexuality was a trigger for all biological actions and interior feelings.
Whitman sought to take this understanding from the scientific disciplines and make it relevant to the philosophical and literary disciplines. This is the best reading of “The Base of All Metaphysics.” Whitman’s reading of the great philosophers and religious leaders is not materialist in any way. Instead, Whitman understands the basis of all life as the interwoven relationships between people. His own songs are but manifestations of this love between friends. This love is manifested in “When I Heard at the Close of the Day.” This is a poem of consummated love between Whitman and his male friend. Through this act of sexual consummation, both also are consummated with nature suggesting that the relationship between men that Whitman experiences is the root of an equilibrium between all natural things.
The reader, however, cannot only read “Calamus” as an expression of carnal lust and base desire. The ending gives a correction to any who might do so. The last poems of the section take on a social dimension. While the first poems exemplified a deep and personal love, Whitman equates this personal, sexual love with the social love that he shares for all people. He thinks of all the men that he could be friends with and decides that he is united with them. He promises California that he will come and visit and envisions being united with all the working men and women of land. By the end of “Calamus,” the reader understands that the sexual impulse is, in reality, a democratic impulse.
In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman moves from an individual perspective to what we today might consider a global perspective. This is a broadening of his subject from previous poems. While Whitman has claimed in previous verse to be singing a song of America, in Song of the Open Road he shows that all people of the earth are in his purview and that his teachings can be understood beyond the democratic states. While the United States has been built as a country on the concept of freedom, Whitman wants his readers to understand that there is a strong urge of the individual that is present within the concept of freedom. Whitman cannot be tied down to the difficulties of the earth, to institutions or rules. To be free means that one loses the constraints of these old things and Whitman offers himself as the best example. His imagery of scattering seed is a metaphor for planting and for impregnating the imagination with his teachings.
If “Song of the Open Road” is a an ode to individuality, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is Whitman’s expression par excellence of the collective. “Brooklyn Ferry” features two characters – Whitman and You, the reader. The poem begins descriptively but, by the end of the first section, has introduced a conversational tone between Whitman and the reader. There is a personal dimension to the conversation and the setting seems to be more private than in previous poems addressed to a wide audience. Whitman balances an understanding of the reader as a close and personal friend, the kind of erotic relationship he described in “Calamus,” yet also a friend spread across time and space.
A central meaning to the poem is elusive except to say that, in watching the crowds cross Brooklyn’s river, Whitman is reminded of the fact that all things he experiences have been and will be experienced by all others. Whitman uses images of the world – rivers and suns, crowds and individuals – all as part of a larger “scheme.” These things have been placed within the poet and he understands that they will also be placed inside of the reader. In this way, Whitman knows that he has gained a spiritual unity with the world and with those that came before and will come after. This theme was important to many of the New England Transcendentalist writers and poets of the nineteenth century. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay Nature is, perhaps, the best example. Where Emerson sought to find a divine, unifying spirit in the natural world, however, Whitman finds it in the crowds of New York.