Whitman’s clash with society

His first poem in the “Calamus” set is of course In Paths Untrodden, which I feel speaks to Whitman’s rebellion against societal norms.  The age in which he lives was a time when man-made creations were rapidly gaining a presence in everyday life. The explosions of productivity were coupled with a new sort of ‘business sense’ that pervaded the minds of those whose living dealt with commerce.  This sense favored efficiency and praised emphasis on the bottom line of industry. Whitman felt that his poetry and lifestyle were divergent from this new way of thinking. The lines describing ‘margins’ of pond water and the “standards hitherto publish’d, from the pleasures, profits, conformities” reflect his belief that there is impossible to explain the joy of life from a business standpoint. Although we are surrounded by material delights which fulfill our every physical need, Whitman yearns to have access to the life beyond it. This yearning is for the simple joy of relaxing by a campfire or in his case, the penning of a poetic piece that captures the essence of a human soul. His path untrodden is his way of developing his own self, away from the ‘clank of the world’.  He later mentions that he wishes not to live the life that ‘exhibits itself’ but instead he wants that which ‘contains all the rest’. Clearly this is meant to mean that he is seeking the joys of life that do not revolve around material things; instead he seeks his own path towards the development of one’s own inner being. From the tone of the poem, I take it that Whitman sees himself in the minority of this type of opinion concerning one’s own existence. The lines of the poem describe societal norms that he seems to resist simply because they are conformities.

A particular piece of society’s standards that Whitman most notably rebelled against was the partaking of homosexual acts. I take it that this was one of Whitman’s influences when he was writing this poem. A central feature of this notion is the title of the collection of poems in which this particular poem rests, Calamus. This title comes from the Greek mythological tale of a male river nymph which went by this name. This nymph was known to have a close male companion who drowned in a swimming competition between the two. His death sadden Calamus so much that he killed himself and took the form of a river reed so that he would never be far apart from his dead companion. This myth is especially applicable to Whitman because he and the nymph both shared a love for male companionship, both on an emotional and sexual level. Although not being the central feature of this poem, it is a sufficient example of how Whitman saw his life as a path less taken.

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