's description of the body being the same as the soul in "I Sing the Body Electric" is important in understanding his equal desire and passion for all
human beings. Because of this comparison of the body and the soul, Whitman's description of the minute
details of the body becomes an important insight into his description of the quality of the soul. In this myriad
of human beings, he describes his passion for both men
, for people of other race
s, and for the elderly
. In doing this, he creates a fabric
that composes society, a transcendental
concept, the Oversoul
, a great collective unconscious
that connects Whitman to his fellow men and women.
Whitman is fairly blunt when he compares the body to the soul. He makes direct comparisons with little figurative language when he says, "And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?" (Whitman 8), and "O my body! ... / I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)" (Whitman 129-130). He describes mothers as the "gates of the body" and the "gates of the soul" (Whitman 67). But these blunt descriptions aren't anything special and they don't amaze the reader in quite the same way as the last section of this poem. Between lines 131 and 162, Whitman describes the fine details of the human body. He delves into the internal as with "The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean, / The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame" (Whitman 148-149) and even into the physical aspects of emotion such as "tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love perturbations and risings," (Whitman 152). He collects the pieces of the body, he describes the way it moves, the way it stands still, the individual beauty of each part of the whole, and he derives a sweeping conclusion, "O I say now these are the soul!" (Whitman 164)
His description of these details of the human body is worth inspection because he relates them to the soul. By analyzing each tiny portion of the human body, Whitman creates a complex and writhing entity, filled with mystery and freshness. But at the same time, he reminds the reader that this body is the soul. It suggests that the complexity of the soul is as deep and as beautiful as that of the body. This is apparent in lines 18-30, where Whitman describes the beauty of people going about their every day activities, stretching and bending their bodies in the way they were intended, and, stretching and bending their souls in the way they were intended as well. Furthermore, the qualities of the body that he describes reflect the qualities of the soul. His description of the "flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs" (Whitman 107) suggests a great strength and hardiness within the soul of those who Whitman describes.
Most peculiar of these descriptions, though, is Whitman's description of men and women. Though he describes men and women in two very different ways, he sees them as essentially the same and he describes both with passion, and he loves both as he loves everyone. He writes, "There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well," (Whitman 50), but this is where his description of men and women as similar ends. He describes first the body and the soul of the woman as having a "fierce undeniable attraction," (Whitman 53), "moving with perfect balance," (Whitman 69), and having "inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty" (Whitman 73). He then gives man a different place in society, describing him as "action and power," (Whitman 76), "defiant" (Whitman 78), "blissful..., sorrowful..., prideful" (Whitman 79) and full of "knowledge" (Whitman 81). He describes men and women as having two unique places in society, the man as the one who must act, and the woman as the one who must be a mother and who must regulate the men. While this view may seem a little outdated, Whitman still finds both women and men beautiful as they fulfill their role in society.
In much the same way, Whitman is describing the Blacks who were being sold in slave auctions. He compares the "red, black, or white cunning in tendon and nerve" (Whitman 104), and explains that "Within there runs blood, / The same old blood! the same red-running blood! / There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations," (Whitman 109-111). In describing these similar body parts that the Black men share with the White men and with the Indians, Whitman is actually comparing the quality and the worth of their soul. He clearly feels passion for these people, and even says, "Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for the man's body," (Whitman 99) and continues to describe the incredible worth of any man's body in the following lines.
As his desires and passions are ignorant of gender or race, they are ignorant of age as well. This is apparent in Whitman's description of the farmer in the third set of lines. His "vigor, calmness, beauty of person," (Whitman 35) and "wisdom" (Whitman 37) were the reasons that "all who saw him loved him," (Whitman 39) and "you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other" (Whitman 44). Clearly Whitman had great admiration for this man, and while, as with men and women, his love and passion for the man was different than it would be for a younger man, it was strong and true nonetheless.
Whitman's broad sense of passion and respect for everyone despite their age, race, or gender is incorporated into his belief in the Oversoul. In lines 18-30, he describes a thriving society that he loves, and he is incorporated into this society as he says, "Such-like I love - I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother's breast with the little child, / Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with the wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count." (Whitman 31-32). He later describes the similarity of all humans when he says, "Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts, / For you only, and not for him and her?" (Whitman 93-94). As with the difference between men and women, he puts the responsibilities of everyone in their place in society (his as being a poet preaching the American ideals), as he says, "Each has his or her place in the procession." (Whitman 88). The Oversoul, though, is particularly striking, because the way he describes the individual organs as the components of the body (and the soul) seems to be the same way that he describes the individual members of society as the components of this powerful, differentiated Oversoul.
Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" is a very moving description of the body, and of the soul, and most definitely of passion and love. Whitman clearly exhibits some ideas of what I would expect an ideal American to exhibit, and his appreciation for people for their simple humanity is breathtaking. His passion seems indiscriminate of gender, race, age, and even physical attractiveness. He loves the soul, and he loves people, and he loves the wriggling mass of individuals called the Oversoul. I can imagine no greater victory than the ability to see human beauty in the same way that Walt Whitman did so many years ago.