They will not let me off
A single exclamation mark appears in the poem Whitman would later call “I sing the body electric”—it is precisely placed, and marks the emotional center of the poem. Whitman is looking away from something, dallying, procrastinating, but it will not let him off. When he finally casts his gaze upon it, there it is, punctually, the dot and line. But this may be stated less cryptically.
The poem begins:
The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,
They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them.
Whitman goes with and responds to and loves many over the course of the poem, but in different ways. Some are easy for him to go with, to respond to, to love. And from another he averts his eyes, but finds that even there he will not be let off. Whitman’s next act, after this beginning, is to raise two questions:
Was it dreamed whether those who corrupted their own live bodies could conceal themselves?
And whether those who defiled the living were as bad as they who defiled the dead?
What is crucial in the poem is Whitman’s search for answers to these questions. The search begins generally: Whitman reminds us of the perfection of both male and female bodies. Here, as it were, is Whitman’s first principle, and now the demonstration may begin. Whitman soon gives us a list, a list of bodies at work and in leisure. Whitman goes briefly with each, responds to each, loves each. All are perfect. After this list, followed by a longer tarrying with an old, vigorous farmer, Whitman is left with a perception:
I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough,
But this perception is not an answer to Whitman’s questions, and perhaps this should be no surprise. Whitman is looking in the familiar places, but if the answers lay there, we should not have needed this poem. The first four in Leaves of Grass should have sufficed. So Whitman sets out again, now examining the female form—
Be not ashamed women
—now the male form—
The male is not less the soul, nor more
—finding each as perfect as his first principle promised. But we still have not gotten past this principle. To be sure, we have applied it to particulars, and that is well, and valuable; likewise, we have gained a new perception—
All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion.
—and that too, is well, and valuable—but, to use a Whitmanian distinction, these things please the soul, they do not please the soul well. For the soul has raised for itself a question, and the answer does not lie here.
We get the sense, after this, that Whitman is avoiding something, though we do not yet know what. In fact, however, the character Whitman has been avoiding does make a cursory appearance, though without a premonition of what is to come.
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred. . . . it is no matter who,
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
The slave appears here, alongside the dullfaced immigrants, as proof that Whitman’s first principle knows no exceptions. But the slave is subsumed under a general account, is but one of many Whitman could have placed here: the prostitute, the criminal, or any number of other objects of scorn. So, for now, we see no reason to suspect the slave as being of any special importance—except, of course, in having a sacred body. Yet, as we have seen, all that is yielded from this affirmation of the first principle is a perception that does not answer the soul’s question, the processional nature of the universe.
What follows Whitman’s presentation of this truth is instructive.
Do you know so much that you call the slave or the dullface ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight. . . . and he or she has not right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffused float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and vegetation sprouts for you . . and not for him and her?
But no! no! this is all wrong! Whitman first tried to treat the slave as an instance of a general principle. That did not work, that yielded no answer, so now addresses the issue in another way. But who does he address? You: do you know, do you suppose, do you think? He goes with, responds to, loves… you. You and not the slave. Whitman! You are still averting your eyes! You are looking only obliquely!
But that cannot last.
A slave at auction!
Whitman, if for but a moment, looks into the eyes of the slave. All depends on his response:
I help the auctioneer . . . . the sloven does not half know his business.
Whitman describes the slave, his beautiful body, his allbaffling brain, his limbs, his blood. He describes not only one man, for
This is not only one man . . . . he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
Whitman here is, indeed, helping the auctioneer: the auctioneer cannot see the true value of the slave; Whitman helps him to ascertain it. And in this process, Whitman receives his answers, with which the poem ends.
Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? Or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.
Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed,
Who degrades or defiles the body of the dead is not more cursed.
The soul has its answer—only the suspicion nags at me that the soul is still not well pleased. For the answer takes the form of a curse. Whitman, so affirmative in his poetry, indeed even throughout the body of this poem, ends not with affirmation but denunciation. Why is this?
Whitman has more than one first principle, only in this poem he has forgotten the others. He has forgotten that all returns. For he has still not gone with, responded to, and loved the slave. He has helped the auctioneer; he has addressed the gentleman bidding—but he has merely described the slave. The description suffices to yield an answer, but the answer comes as a curse, for Whitman is cursed. Whitman has, one last time, averted his eyes, and so the slave will not let him off.