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On "For You O Democracy"


Kerry C. Larson

Legislated Union, in the wake of failed resolutions and bloody compromises, seemed more than ever a contradiction in terms, a premonition given added vehemence in "For You O Democracy". . . . It goes without saying that these pious exhorations count as little more than stop-gap measures, wishful prophecies whose inflated optimism is portentous in its own right.

from Whitman’s Drama of Consensus (U of Chicago P, 1988), 168.


Carol M. Zapata-Whelan

"Echoing the eugenics of his time, Whitman proposes to ‘make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon.’ This program involves the poet’s ‘robust’ ‘manly love,’ a spiritual breeding of the new democracy ‘anneal’d’ into the ‘living union,’ proposed in Democratic Vistas (1871). . . . [T]he implications of ‘manly love’ are complex. From Richard Maurice Bucke’s defense of this feeling as strictly fraternal, to James Miller’s insistence that it is a sublimated homoeroticism, to Betsy Erkkila’s proposition that it involves a ‘homosexual republic,’ critics circumvent and circumscribe the question as their views dictate. With characteristic circumspection, Whitman will say only that the main message of ‘Calamus’ is in its ‘political significance.’"

from J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1998), 226.


David Cavitch

In one declamatory poem in the "Calamus" section, "For You O Democracy," he does attempt to celebrate "the manly love of comrades" for its contribution to the social cause of democratic idealism.

From My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985. Copyright 1985 by David Cavitch.


Betsy Erkkila

Whitman's increased emphasis on adhesiveness was also a response to the deep cultural fear among Northerners and Southerners alike that dismemberment would give rise to a civil or military dictatorship. In poem no. 5 (''For You 0 Democracy"), Whitman invokes the Union as something more than a legal compact that could be held together by the machinations of lawyers or the use of arms:

States!
Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?

Placing himself in the service of "Democracy ... ma femme," Whitman announces his intent to "twist and intertwist" the states by circulating "new friendship" throughout the land: "Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom," he observes. The problems of freedom to which he refers are the same as those encountered by the framers of the Constitution: how to ensure a maximum of freedom without inviting either a tyranny of the majority or a tyranny of the State. What the founding fathers sought to do through an appeal to republican virtue, the poet seeks to do by arousing the bonds of comradeship and love:

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.
These shall tie and band stronger than hoops of iron,
I, extatic, O partners! O lands! henceforth with the
        love of lovers tie you.
I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet
        shone upon,
I wfll make divine magnetic lands.

from Whitman the Political Poet. Copyright 1989 by Oxford University Press.


Bettina L. Knapp

Whitman now offers his reader a radiant scene depicted with the objectivity and detail of such paintings by Thomas Eakins as "Max Schmitt in a Single Scull" or "The Swimming Hole." Both poem and paintings feature young men in a variety of activities: sporting on the grass, rowing in shells on the Schuylkill, shooting in marshes, and sailing before the winds. Whitman had always admired the candor and uncompromising reality of Eakins's paintings. "I never knew but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins," he said, "who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is" (Russell Lynes, The Art-Makers of Nineteenth-Century America, 367).

In "For You O Democracy," Whitman sings of companionship in a landscape "thick as trees," of good fun "along the rivers of America," of watching and joining his friends as they swim, row, race, and wander about from the great lakes to the prairies and mountains, "With the love of comrades, / With the life-long love of comrades." Objectivity but also symbolism mark Whitman's verbal canvas, studded as it is with phallic images of trees reaching up to the heavens and metaphors of the womb, in the waters flowing along the byways of the New World. Just as the poet requires insemination, then periods of gestation, to foster his work, so, too, does America in order to fulfill its potential.

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands....

The plethora of Whitman's water images introduces a whole subliminal sphere of prenatal and preconscious existence: the undifferentiated realm of nonknowing, of unconcern, shorn of all problems. Since water dissolves hard matter, it may be looked upon, psychologically, as a liquefying agent, making solid and problematic conditions -- be they sexual or intellectual -- more malleable.

Why, one may ask, does the author entitle his poem "For You O Democracy"? Because democracy not only represents the ideal form of government for the poet, but because he conceives of it as a mother figure. By conflating the ideal and the real, he is also paying homage to his own mother. Although he occasionally smarted from her subtly dictatorial ways and sought to evade the burdens she had placed upon him, Whitman adored her. Understandably, compassionate and loving mother figures prevail in many of Whitman's poems, including "These I Sing in Spring" from Calamus. In the latter poem, Mother Earth and the Water Mother figure prominently in a fertile atmosphere of wild flowers, trees, and grasses of all sorts. Democracy is identified with the mother; camaraderie with males, who are children of sorts, bounding about gleefully in natural surroundings.

From Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Bettina L. Knapp.


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