Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman is considered "the American poet" or "poet laureate" of our nation.

He is best remembered for his Leaves of Grass (1855). "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856) and "I sing the Body Electric" are basically songs celebrating American life and the city. His most poignant piece of work is "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"—he expresses his profound grief at Lincoln's assassination


We can call this phenomenon over-identification with an idealized type in order to prevent the death of the self. There is mourning and melancholia at work here in which he is depressed about a loss, yet neurotically fixated on his love object in a melancholic way. He is upset about the loss of the innocence of his childhood. There is a mother fixation wherein he wants to crawl back into the womb in order to restore a lost world of tranquility. The absence of the praxis of sexuality stems from an extreme masochism and narcissism originating from an unresolved Oedipus conflict. His substitute gratification is strong identification with the American republic.

Who is he? What Joseph Smith proclaimed as the Mormon doctrine of man perfected into God is independently visualized in Whitman's hermeticism. He broke a taboo on talking about autoeroticism-onanism. He had a solipsistic relationship to his own body in which he could not bear to be touched. He believed in his own divinity. He might have been close to being psychotic--but writing oriented him functionally to reality. He can accept his own fate willingly and acceptingly--eternal recurrence. Psychodynamically, his literature evidences oral fixation with socio-sexual frustration of an active neurosis; he is not just a neurotic personality--deep problems demonstrated.

Obviously, he was a borderline/narcissistic type of personality in which he was close to psychotic. He turned much aggression (originating from self-hatred) against his own ego. He never adapted successfully to his social environment. We can infer that he had a savage superego but that his talents allowed him to sublimate his frustrated libidinal energies into art. In a sense, he died (sacrificed himself) for his art. He would not have had the ego strength to affect transference in psychoanalysis. He was overwhelmed by materials from the unconscious which he could not handle as neurotic conflict. He could not establish normal human relationships. He was connected to reality only through his writing.

What are the themes he explored? After all, he still was a late Romantic poet, an American, not a European Romantic poet.

1. Subjectivity and selfhood, or the heart prevails over the head. He is strange and unique in his self-presentation. Shock element.

The id overwhelms the ego. He had too powerful an instinctual life to be happy; however, he rechanneled that energy into writing or poetry in a socially acceptable manner. We have an instance here of sublimation. Too, in transference, Whitman is the therapist for creating a new ego identity for the American people; in a catharsis, the American people accept him at the level of poet laureate in a mutual confirmation. He takes Americans through their social conflicts to give them his gift of a national identity.

2. He championed the organic city as part of nature. There is no dualism here, as in Blake and Wordsworth. The impersonal city and he had a relationship—his love of the body electric is so abstract that it could not provoke anxiety—he loses himself in the oceanic feeling of the masses in urban areas. The city is eternal; for him its masculine pulsations are a substitute for a transient father figure.

His own broken boundaries of ego had fused with the unconscious. In many ways, he had an impacted personality, disassociated from reality as we know it.

3. The city is the place where there is an oceanic feeling of oneness with the people—democracy creates a fluid motion conducting energy into higher complexities of organization. These are the ingredients of patriotism and nation-building. Hence, the imagination would have infinite possibilities to play itself out.

Narcissism or self-love and nationalism or love of a country for itself as an elect and chosen people can go hand in glove. He personified in his poems that nationalism and Manifest Destiny. There is a surrogate pleasure from identifying with a great power which he considered ethical. It defused his sexual tensions.

4. We must take note of his free verse, formlessness, lack of rhyme and meter in contrast to Blake and Wordsworth. He is much less inhibited in style.

Narcissism and stream of consciousness/unconsciousness are coincidental where there are no ego boundaries, but this can open the self to oneness with the universe if the person is a genius type. There is no more pain connected for Whitman in his reality testing that normal people experience; rather, he had the oceanic feeling of oneness, which was compatible with the style partaking of his free verse knowing of no boundaries.

5. He wanted to demonstrate the New Adam in the American Garden of Eden as a democratic personality in contrast to the European. The new heroes would come from the people, not a dead epic hero but a live one who participated in current events. The New Adam was his idealized ego. He could then live in denial of his repressed homosexuality.

In the New Adam, he is idealizing an abstraction insofar as he could not admit his homoerotic impulses to himself so he could sublimate these painful conflicts into art. Every neurotic has homosexual/ heterosexual fantasies; it is a universal feature, including a polymorphous perversity which we have at birth. Gradually, we are socialized into monogamous heterosexual relationships. If you are homosexual, it is due to the hard wiring of the brain—it is neurobiological and an orientation that is given, not learned, in general. Even Freud admitted to them. However, a fantasy does not make a homosexual. The id is blind and psychotic and will manifest itself in every perversion possible to mankind; hence, the family, society, and civilization will have to socialize the individual into those norms suited to biological reproduction as it relates to the means of production, in this case, obviously capitalist.

6. He is fashioning a lyrical myth of America. The overall doctrines are encompassed by the name transcendentalism. His people are a free people who know no superiors. The hero is unconquerable and does not prostrate himself to money. He is a man of spirit. The man of spirit is metaphysical and beyond submitting to this world's mundane demands—a stoic detachment from mere material reality. He is in denial and suppresses internal conflicts by making them world conflicts where the original and primal individual struggle undergoes a countercathexsis or repression.

7. The bard is an exemplar to his people but remains humble and on their own level.

He had a definite messianic complex in which he thought of himself as Godlike. Clinically, we can define this phenomenon as paranoid delusions arising from his frustrated sexuality. He had undergone a deep repression of his forbidden sexual desires. Every neurotic conflict has a homoerotic component that what makes for resistance in therapy. People deny what the culture taboos. The transference is in having an imaginary dialogue with an idealized alter ego—with himself as a divinity. He is Jesus resurrected, raised from the dead to bring the millennium to Americans.

As the Time Draws Nigh


AS the time draws nigh, glooming, a cloud,

A dread beyond, of I know not what, darkens me.

I shall go forth,

I shall traverse The States awhile—but I cannot tell whither or how long;

Perhaps soon, some day or night while I am singing, my voice will suddenly cease.


O book, O chants! must all then amount to but this?

Must we barely arrive at this beginning of us?... And

yet it is enough, O soul!

O soul! we have positively appear’d—that is enough.