We saw back in Section 5 where Whitman portrayed the body and the soul making love and becoming one—the body giving the soul access to the world through the senses, the soul charging the body with a desire to join, absorb, and unite. Now, at the end of Section 21 and the beginning of Section 22, the poet again turns to images of love-making, first feeling the “bare-bosom’d night” pressing close to him, then giving his love to the “rich apple-blossom’d earth,” and finally turning here to the “crooked inviting fingers” of the sea, as he undresses and gives his body over to the “billowy drowse,” as the sensuous rhythms of the waves rock him to sleep and “dash” him with “amorous wet.” Like the woman in Section 11 who imagined her way down to the river to bathe with the twenty-eight young men, the poet is here drenched in the sensual swaying waters that make him feel at one with creation. The sea is the ultimate composter, the pulsating creator of life (“the brine of life”) and recipient of death (it is the place of “always-ready graves” that do not need to be dug with a shovel since the ocean receives equally all that is put into it). The ocean is the eternal force of breaking down and building up, as, through its many “phases,” its tides roll in and out. Whitman adopts the ocean’s rhythms and takes on its “influx” and “efflux,” its flowing in and flowing out, comparable to the way the poet lets the world flow into his awakened soul and then flow out again into his surging lines.
Some of Whitman’s most challenging lines occur in this section, as he “extols” or praises “hate” as well as “conciliation,” and as he becomes not only the “poet of goodness” but also the “poet of wickedness.” After making love to the earth and sea, he is ready for largeness, for the vast embrace of all experience. His model for the democratic poet is the earth itself, which rejects nothing, which through its endless recycling of materials, composts all the things that have been declared evil and all the things that have been declared good, and in its “unflagging pregnancy” is always giving birth to an ever-emerging new present, an ongoing moment that all eternity has been preparing for and that we are lucky enough to open our eyes upon right now. It is the only moment in which we are alive, and so we must not waste our chance with this “wonder.” Standing in awe before the glowing presence of the present moment, how can anyone be an “infidel”—how can anyone not believe in, have faith in, the power of the universe to produce an endless stream of luminous Now?
The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) shared Whitman’s birthday—May 31st—and much more: an island childhood; an expansive vision; a long poetic line (though Perse was careful to distinguish his metrical intricacies from Whitman’s free verse); an affection for scientific vocabulary; a love of history and movement, enumeration and renewal, nature and the elements, especially the sea. Indeed Perse’s masterpiece, Amers (Seamarks), may be read as a meditation on the twenty-second section of “Song of Myself”—a book-length essay on what it means to be “integral” with the sea, to partake of “influx and efflux,” to ebb and flow and surge into every corner of life. It is difficult to sound Perse’s oceanic depths without also hearing Whitman’s “Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths”—which are perhaps the true units of measure for both poets. For the tidal motions of the sea, like the movements of the mind in deep reflection, in the heat of desire, in bewilderment and pain, point to the vastness of the universe, which was for these poets a source of endless curiosity.
Once I watched sea lions swimming at the Central Park Zoo, twirling slowly underwater in the tank built for them, gliding around and around on a winter afternoon, then surfacing and diving and leaping over the rocks, and I felt in my body a kind of grace, which from my intuition about the forces of nature shaping life and my reading of Whitman and Perse made me think that we are connected in ways that we will never understand. I knew in my skin how to stay warm on the coldest day and hold my breath for a long time; how to gauge the effects of different phases of the moon; how to rock “in billowy drowse” and repay the gifts that love bestows on us.
What does Whitman mean when he tells us that “evil propels” him and “reform of evil propels” him, and that he sands “indifferent” to the distinction? How can both the evil itself and the “reform” of that evil fuel this poem? Who decides what is “evil” in this world, and who decides which “evils” need to be “reformed”? Are some people’s “evils” other people’s virtues? What happens when the actions that some people believe will get you to heaven turn out to be the same actions that other people believe will land you in hell?