This strange and haunting section has generated endless discussion, and Whitman’s emphasis on the number “twenty-eight” has particularly fascinated critics from the poet’s time to our own. Some have argued that Whitman was suggesting the number of states in the union, and, while there were twenty-eight states in 1845 (when Texas was admitted), Iowa became a state in 1846, Wisconsin in 1848, and California in 1850, so, when Whitman wrote this section, there were in fact thirty-one states. Other critics have suggested that Whitman is evoking the lunar cycle (popularly thought of as 28 days, though actually between 29 and 30 days). Still others have suggested associations with Egyptian mythology, which Whitman had studied in some detail (Osiris was killed in the twenty-eighth year of his reign, and his body, by various accounts, was divided into fourteen or twenty-six or twenty-eight parts before being recovered by Isis, thus associating him with the lunar cycle). Others associate the “twenty-eightness” of this section with the menstrual cycle. All of these associations thus relate to fertility, union, birth, and regeneration—things that have eluded the “lonesome” woman.
But, whatever (if anything) Whitman meant to suggest by the number twenty-eight, he certainly does create in this section more crossings of boundaries, this time boundaries of class and gender. The woman is wealthy, the owner of a “fine house,” positioned on “a rise” above the rest of her community, from which she is separated by layers of richness—from her dress to her blinds. But this material comfort has isolated rather than truly comforted her, and her aching desire, built up over twenty-eight years, now reaches through her insulated walls, through her blinds, through social conventions, and through her clothing, out to the group of rough young men—one for every year of her lonely life—who cavort naked in the river below her. Reversing the usual poles of Western voyeurism, where men have secretly watched naked women (as in the biblical story of David and Bathsheba or Susanna and the Elders), and putting aside the guilt usually associated with such acts, in this section the woman engages in the joyful erotics of hidden looking. And just as she imagines herself released from all her constraints as she joins the men, becoming the twenty-ninth bather, in a naked ecstasy of touching, so the male poet, watching her, becomes by implication the thirtieth bather, imaginatively joining in the free-flowing frolic as well.
And so are we, the readers, male or female, gay or straight, invited to become the thirty-first bather, riding the trajectory of the lonely woman’s desire out into the fluid world of democratic touch, where the constraints of gender and social conventions are momentarily cast aside. Gender itself evaporates as the young men’s bellies “bulge” as if pregnant, and the descriptive phrase “pendant and bending arch” adheres equally to aspects of both male and female anatomy. It is Whitman’s lesson in how the imagination is a democratic force that can carry us across the barriers of religion, morality, conventions, class, even sexual orientation, and test the waters of indiscriminate thinking.
More invention, in an extravagant key. The poet’s imagination brims with desire, in the form of a rich woman watching from her window twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore—one for each year of her life. Whatever other meanings might be attached to the number twenty-eight (the length of the lunar, solar, and menstrual cycles; the number of male consorts attending to the Egyptian moon goddess, Isis; the second perfect number, after six; and so on) the true number is one—the expansive identity of the self, which contains everyone: woman, poet, reader. For the “unseen hand” passing over the bathers belongs not only to the woman who in her imagination joins the men in the water but to the reader tracing a finger over the lines of the poet composing the scene. The poem as act and object of desire: another invention of the poet who discovered that unity is all, and always subject to the immutable law of nature that desire flows over the boundaries raised and enforced by custom, taste, and legal opinion. Whitman is innocent, of course, because in the act of writing he becomes Other, a change agent splashing water where he will. He doesn’t care if you get wet—and that is the point: readers, now and in the future, can join in the fun that is more serious than you might first imagine. He is the woman “seizing fast” to all the young men, here and everywhere, who live and die in his lines, over and over again.
How free do you think our imaginations are to carry us across the various borders that define us (nation, religion, economic class, race, sexuality)? Is the result of such imaginative flights usually joy or guilt? Why?