Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"I Sing the Body Electric..."

Walt Whitman wrote these words in 1867. He added them to his Magnum Opus; Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1855.

Funny thing about old Walt - he kept tinkering with those poems until his death in 1892.

Walt knew a thing or two about writing. And about using your Imagination. Think about it: when he wrote those words, electricity was a rarity - a wondrous new phenomenon barely tamed or employed.

Yet Whitman caught on to the wonder of it, the beauty of lightening across a summer sky and the great possibility of taming something so wild. And others caught on to Whitman.

I often wonder where he first found his Inspiration for this and so many other magnificent phrases he strung together. He used words like we use table salt - to add flavor and depth few of us can hope to achieve.

Yet, for all that, he was fired from his job, his writing deemed "obscene" and banned by many of the major retailers of his day.

But he kept writing. He kept revising. He kept editing. And he kept true to his vision.

"I sing the body electric..."

Thrilling, strumming, alive and fiery, the poem gives homage to the liveliness and grace of the human body. Men, women, old, young, at war and at peace, in repose and working. Can you read it and not get caught up in the rhythm? Can you read it and not SEE the words come to life? Can you read it and not want to write like that? I can't. Not a bit.

Especially this part: "Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count." Ah! It makes me want to dance and sway and move to the rhythm of the wind! How can you not FEEL these words? How can you not be inspired to at least TRY and write something comparable? 

I give you, then, the beginning and a link to the full version of "I Sing the Body Electric"

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 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.


  1. Barbara this is truly a gift thank you. I read it all .. and have book marked/or put it in a reading spot on my computer.

    I have a book of his poetry given me many, many years ago by a past lover and have just looked for it. can't lay my hands on it right now. I know I will delight in it as he delights - 'I swim in it, as in a sea'

  2. Thanks both of you for the lovely comments!