Now, having safely placed himself apart from the mockers and arguers and talkers and trippers and askers, the poet accesses his soul. And, in one of the most audacious poetic acts of the nineteenth century, he imagines his body and his soul having sex. Continuing his insistence on equality, he affirms that neither the soul nor the body must be judged inferior to the other. Whitman here evokes the ancient tradition of poets imagining a conversation between the body and the soul: the difference is that instead of having the soul win the debate (as happens in virtually all the poetry before Whitman’s), the body and soul in this poem join in an ecstatic embrace and give each other identity. Where poets before Whitman imagined the soul as the enduring part of the self, the part that transcended the body at the body’s death, Whitman imagines a descendence (instead of a transcendence). It is only when the soul descends into the body, Whitman suggests, that it gains its power to operate in the world; similarly, the body gains a reason to operate in the world only when it is energized by the soul. Without a soul, the body is just dead material; without a body, the soul is just abstract desire, an urge to join, absorb, see, hear, touch, taste, without the means to do so. Body and soul are one and are coexistent.
It is difficult to tell just what kind of sex act Whitman portrays as he evokes the sensual joining of his “I” with the “you.” It is an act of intimacy that produces “voice,” but a voice that does not speak in words, music, or rhyme, a voice that does not “lecture” but rather “hums.” The most erotic part of the joining comes in the bizarre image of the unspecified lover opening the speaker’s shirt and plunging “your tongue to my bare-stript heart.” It is no wonder that Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was a fan of Whitman’s! Stoker knew that Whitman’s “I” was a bit vampiric, always lurking in his book (even long after his death) awaiting a living reader who would give voice and life to the otherwise dead words on the page. The plunging of the tongue to the heart perhaps suggests the joining of voice to body and spirit. Body and soul join here, and, in another sense, poet and reader join as well in an erotic embrace, as the reader’s body now takes on the words of the departed poet.
And then, in a Biblical-sounding passage, “peace and knowledge” come to the satisfied speaker, and all the “argument of the earth” vanishes into a mystical moment of oneness with both God and the “poke-weed,” with all men and women and with the ants, with the most exalted and the most common. Now the speaker knows that his body and spirit are part of whatever God is, and all of creation from the highest to the lowest, from the most vast to the smallest, is vibrating with “love,” which is the “kelson of creation,” the foundational beam of the universal ship on which all we all—great and small, significant and insignificant—journey.
Here is a dirty little secret: Eros may be the most reliable guide to poetic exploration, for desire is the fuel that burns in the lyric imagination. From Sappho to William Blake to Patti Smith, poets understand, if rarely acknowledge, the central role that desire plays in the composition of a poem, whether the object of one’s affections is the beloved, God, fame, immortality, revolution, or language itself. John Donne’s late Holy Sonnets blaze as intensely as the love poems of his youth: “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” And certain hymns to the divine composed by the Psalmist, Hafez, and St. John of the Cross carry a charge that we may recognize from the secret depths of our experience. What makes the fifth section of “Song of Myself” so audacious, and so moving, is Whitman’s decision to address this matter directly, enacting the marriage of the body and soul that from time immemorial has governed the lyric impulse—“a kelson of creation,” the girder bolted to the keel of the boat in which the lover sails, alert to everything under the sun. In a state of expectation, a space between one obligation and another, a lull, the poet hears “the hum of your valved voice,” which is the voice of every reader of his lines, yours and mine, brothers and sisters, now and in the future, tasting salt, and the surge of the waves, and “the peace and knowledge that pass all the arguments of the earth.” Here you are.
Section 5 is simultaneously one of the most physical and one of the most spiritual of all the sections of “Song of Myself.” How do you respond to Whitman’s insistence that we can only access the vast mystery of creation through the physical body?