Sunday, September 13th, 2009 | Author:

Okay, so this is going to sound kind of weird, but hear me out. When I was reading Calamus, I couldn’t help but start comparing many of the concepts in here to those of ancient Greece. Even the name, Calamus, is associated with Greek mythology; it was the name of a man who was turned into a reed upon his male lover’s death. I was also reminded of  pederasty. For the most part, and in most cases, the affair was meant to be a sort of mentorship, with the older man leading the boy and teaching him. Whitman often took this role with the men he loved, acting as sort of an uncle or father. This is a role he often takes in his literature as the poet-prophet, but I think that in his reality, this concept of mentorship was brought to a whole other level, especially since he could name the face that he was teaching, and not just embrace an entire nation.

In “I Dream’d in a Dream,” Whitman remarks, “I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth/I dream’d that was the new city of Friends” (284). This puts me in mind of the Sacred Band of Thebes, a Greek army consisting only of lovers, who, up until their massacre, had never seen anything remotely like defeat. This kind of army is Whitman’s ideal (although I don’t think he had any resolve for them to pillage and fight and whatnot). Whitman wants a band of men who are joined—mind, body, and soul—without negative feelings between them. What would destroy and separate them, pettiness and anger, is in turn destroyed because of the immense love among them. This lack of negativity is reflective in anything they do (hence, it is “seen every hour” (284)), and spreads to others, who are in turn inspired.  This sentiment is even argued by a character in Plato’s “Symposium:”

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their… it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.

Furthermore, ancient Greece reminds me of Whitman’s America. Greece was a nation of city-states, prone to fighting and going to war amongst each other. However, when they fought together for a common goal, they were frequently invincible. For the most part, America’s states ruled in a similar fashion, and had been brutally defeated by the fracture of the Civil War. There is so much more that I could talk about in relation to this—for example Plato’s idea of the concept of love, and how all souls are only half of a soul that was split in two.

Interestingly enough, in “The Base of all Metaphysics,” Whitman outright claims that he has studied this model of companionship. More still, he says that it’s the same as other models that he identifies with, such as Christ. At the end the poem, he amends again that all these philosophies of joining are within man and woman themselves. Again, we have this concept of divinity that we merely need to unlock. And here is Whitman, Adam, lover of man, the first, to lead us past our sins and bond with one another. Like us, he’s searching for that other half of a soul to be joined and be complete in our divinity.

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  1. Avatar of chuck chuck says:

    Meghan. It was very insightful of you to connect Whitman and ancient Greece. I found your blog insightful and intelligent, providing me with a view I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I especially enjoyed the quick reference to Aristophane’s speech at the end of your blog.

  2. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    That’s a really interesting point. I’d been thinking along similar lines, particularly about the idea of mentoring, but I hadn’t yet made the move to Greek comparison (embarrassing really since I like to consider myself somewhat of a Greek mythology buff).

    I’ve had a lot of conversations relating to the role of gay men in the military and whether it’s truly as detrimental to moral as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mindset claims it to be. The idea of the bond created between an army of lovers is interesting on that front as well as thinking about it in a army containing men and women. Would the same idea work if women were involved in the lover’s bond? Or would the pervasive sexism prevent the bond? I suppose in an ideal world the bond would override both sexism and homophobia to create a more, although this is rather contradictory, peaceful environment.

  3. Avatar of cirvine1965 cirvine1965 says:

    It’s funny, when I read “calamus” I also thought the word sounded Greek. What I found out, however is that calamus is also a plant which has been used for centuries throughout Asia, Europe and by the Native Americans as an aphrodisiac and a stimulant. Around the time that “Calamus” was published, it was popular to sprinkle a bit of crushed calamus root in wine.
    It’s pretty cool that one word can function in several different ways to enlighten Whitman’s ideas. We have discussed the relationship between the body and the soul and the different kinds relationships that Whitman reveals in his poetry. It seems that now we must even investigate the union between the different meanings of a single word.

  4. Avatar of missvirginia missvirginia says:

    Wow–I’m really glad you thought of that. I love Greek/Roman everything and being able to relate that back to our “American bard” is outstanding. There are so many coincidences! When I was reading From Pent-up Aching Rivers, I kept thinking about how affluent gentlemen of that time and place would be married to a woman, and also keep a male lover. It was almost a status symbol of sorts, but obviously you made the connection much more deeply than I. Kudos! :)

  5. mns says:

    This is a thorough and interesting post, Meghan. One thing for all of us to bear in mind is that, though because of our LOA book we are reading these volumes in their Deathbed context, as Gailey and Reynolds remind us, they were originally written before the Civil War but as Whitman felt that conflict inevitably brewing for his beloved America. When we get to the Civil War writings, I think you will see some of your theories here born out very well.

  6. Avatar of abcwhitman abcwhitman says:

    Going along with your Plato quote, I am reminded of the Greek symbol lambda and how it has become to be a symbol of the LGBT (and there’s a whole bunch of extra letters now?) community. Lambda was the symbol used on the shield of a specific Spartan army, which according to legend fought the most fiercely because every man had his own “companion.” Therefore, each man was fighting with equal fervor for his own life AND someone else.

    I’m just going to throw this out there: has society regressed? After reading Reynolds’ article and now thinking about Ancient Greece, I can’t help the feeling that we are too uptight and constricted by hetero-, homo-, bi- “labels” for our own good. People are just people, after all.

  7. Aracy says:

    this is very good, i will use your blogging techniques to write in a blog myself. thanks for helping.

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