After the leisurely and lyrical Section 11, with its wealthy lonely woman imagining her way into a sensual frolic with the twenty-eight young men, this section is quick and spontaneous, as if we have now followed those bathing young men back to their jobs. Now the poet observes young men as intently as the young woman observed them in the previous section. Through the poet’s eyes, we see the young butcher changing out of his bloodied aprons (“his killing-clothes”) and sharpening his knives for the next day’s grisly business. But even after work, the butcher’s leisure involves more sharp tools and “break-downs.” His very speech is “repartee,” as Whitman reaches for what at first seems an inappropriate term to describe the way the butcher talks: “repartee” is French and invokes a higher social class, but it derives from a fencing term (a thrust in response to an attack) and came to mean a “sharp retort”—even the butcher’s talk is a whetted instrument. And he entertains himself (and the poet) with his “shuffle and break-down,” two fast and energetic dances that emerged from African-American folk traditions. This butcher-boy enacts his own border-crossing, an early instance of America’s crossover culture that has produced jazz and the blues and hip-hop.
Then the poet turns to a careful observation of blacksmiths at work, admiring their masculine bodies and the powerful rhythms of their work as their repeated motions sculpt their bodies into thin waists and “massive arms.” These men “environ the anvil,” and Whitman’s word “environ” creates an image of the men surrounding the heavy block of iron (the word itself has “iron” at its heart) on which they shape the molten iron from the furnace with their hammers. Their bodies move in a hypnotic repetition as, again and again, “each man hits in his place,” just as Whitman does here as he lovingly shapes his words to the meters of the workplace, hammering poetry out of the everyday world around him.
Whitman extends the poetic tradition of addressing work—its motions and rhythms, it sweat and grime, its tedium and transport—with his delineation in this section of the complex relationship between work and play. From the repartee and dance of the high-spirited butcher-boy to the hammering of the blacksmiths lies white space animated by an unspoken question: what is work? If work is what defines us, at least in part, then the poet, who prefers to “lean and loafe at [his] ease,” will bring the spirit of play to the blacksmith’s shop. He stands on the threshold, between the burning heart of the forge and the larger world, determined to link motion and matter through the act—the labor—of his observing. What pleasure he takes in watching the smithies work, reproducing on the page the cadences of their hammering as they fashion the artifacts that make up our environs. Three times in one line he uses the word “overhand,” creating a hypnotic effect, which may inspire readers to summon memories of that brief and blessed state in which by a seeming miracle they sometimes lose themselves in their labors.
Drudgery, of course, is the more common experience of work—and what, in fact, makes possible the courting of transcendence: repetition may invoke a playful spirit, which is always hovering nearby. Around the anvil the smithies find a rhythm in which to merge their individual selves in a larger enterprise. Think of it as a collective form of “shuffle and breakdown,” a slow dance in which new shapes are delivered unto the world. Just so, writers gather around the anvil of language, our common inheritance, hammering word by word at their materials, seeking to find the right place and rhythm in which to leave their mark.
What activities of labor have you found to have a particular beauty or power, and why?