Weekends with Whitman — Calamus

Calamus is a thematic break from earlier sections of Leaves of Grass, in that it focuses on Whitman’s feelings of companionship with other men. Racial minorities, women, and children are scarcely mentioned in this section, as the poet concentrates on his feelings about friendship and romantic encounters between men. He also brings up his age at least twice in this section, mentioning in the opening piece that he’s forty-one years and nine months old; then the final piece notes that he’s forty years old. I don’t believe this is coincidental–Whitman chose to open and close Calamus this way, and his age seems to move backward between the beginning and end of it. I believe this is a deliberate metaphor. He nostalgically relives many friendly and romantic experiences in this section, and tells the reader the process made him feel younger.

In Whitman’s descriptions in Calamus, partnership, companionship, and romantic relationships are muddled. In “To a Stranger” he describes seeing a person passing on the street, and feeling a twinge of desire as the stranger walked past. He goes on to describe growing up through childhood with that person, as if in a past or parallel life. The two share experiences with one another, and even though the poet doesn’t speak with the stranger, he feels that their bodies are permanently shared with one another. The poem made me thing of the Temptations singing “Just my Imagination”, though that could be said of many of the pieces in Calamus.

Calamus departs further from the previous sections in that there’s little discussion of his relationship to nature or his soul-body-nature-nation metaphysics. In fact he departs from it substantially in “Are You the New Person Drawn to Me?” He asks the reader if he is an ideal, a potential friend, or mate. He then asks the reader if it’s possible that his intellectual and physical substance could only be “maya, illusion”. “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances” goes even further, and in my opinion is the most interesting piece in Calamus. In it, Whitman expresses doubt in the things, people, and institutions around him. He expresses doubt in nature itself and his own senses. Then he ends with the idea that nothing but enjoyment of the present moment can be certain. Since I found the piece so interesting I’m ending this post by sharing it in full:


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