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Research Paper on Walt Whitman and Psychology

Walt Whitman, a well known literary author of poetry, wrote many pieces of work that reflected strong sexual imagery. This sample research paper on his work and the psychological undertones analyzes the core reasons behind his imagery. If you need editing or writing assistance, consider buying psychology papers from Ultius that you can use as a sample for your own work.

Often times, a work of art, aesthetic or in print, can have multiple interpretations based on diverse schools of thought. These schools of thought act as lenses that allow us to perceive and interpret art differently. Consider how the Bible, even to this day, has different meanings to both individuals and groups. A pessimistic or optimistic view, for example, could easily be supported from interpreting the text a certain way. One such way of interpreting art has been psychoanalytic theory by Freud, which pioneered the notion that behavior could be explained through internal conflict which results in subconscious expressions of behavior (Wolf, 42). Such a lens can also be applied to Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass. While I originally argued that despite initial criticism of his Whitman’s work, eventual acceptance resulted in a positive cultural effect on society; however, this poem has a widely different interpretation when viewed from a psychoanalytic standpoint.

Poetry as Whitman’s Form of Psychological Expression

Poetry was Whitman’s form of expression, despite the backlash that he received for it. Growing up in the “early 1800’s in Long Island and having a very restless and aggravating childhood,” Whitman had difficulty finding an outlet for his expression. Whitman’s work was denied by publishers on many occasions for his homosexual language and he was consequently labeled a profane author. Ultimately, however, Whitman did end up publishing his work and it remained in the spotlight even through today. Whitman’s experience can epitomize the paradigm of a writer who prevailed cultural backlash and became successful. A clear interpretation is that he was able to successfully share his work and inspire others, despite the lack of technology back then. Whitman’s work can also be viewed under the lens of internal conflict and sexual expression via Freud’s work as well.

The relationship between psychoanalytic theory and art is not a widely neglected or understudied phenomenon. There are numerous examples where art and psychoanalysis has been fused together. Adrian Stokes argued that “it is often overt conflict that inspires an artist’s imaginative flights” (Stokes, 198). The same internal struggles that influence behavior also influence how art is produced. Moreover, when these fantasies are spontaneously expressed outside the analytic situation in language, that is by the insane or by the poet, it is clear that the words are handled as a material with sensual qualities” (Stokes, 198). These sensual qualities are the result of subconscious psychic processes that help the artist project his inner most feelings. Whitman, along with other poets, did this quite often with their work.

Sexual Imagery in Whitman’s Work

In fact, Paula Bennett, in Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory, argued that much of Emily Dickinson’s work also included similar sexual imagery that related to Freud’s concepts. For instance, “Clitoral symbols-that is, symbols of small but precious objects-are ubiquitous in nineteenth-century American Women’s writing” (Bennett, 237). While this symbolism may have been considered relatively insignificant in our socially constructed means of interpreting poetry, Bennett noted that these sexual elements have remained consistent. The specificity of words like “heart, dowers, rose, rapture and bud” possess erotic connotations that are impossible to evade when taken into context (Bennett, 239). Surely, Dickinson, like Whitman, also faced scrutiny by her editors and peers. Scrutiny was always harshly delivered when the sexual viewpoints didn’t meet socially acceptable standards.

Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass, is filled with language that suggests a sexual interpretation. Despite being labeled as having an “explicitly political project” because of his past involvement with seeing the United States in a troublesome time, sexuality was also a common theme (Oerlemans, 703). For instance, Whitman wrote that “I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it, the distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (Whitman). By denying enjoying a fragrance, the context suggests that theme of temptation. Furthermore, the context suggests that he is attempting to enjoy the summer grass and is struggling with the perfumes that are present. Since perfume is worn by people, he clearly is distracted by the fragrance of other people (men or women). This implicitly suggests that desire and temptation are going through his head when attempting to enjoy nature. Also, this relates to the notion that Wolf mentioned regarding a lifelong inner struggle of seldom expressing inner states while analyzing observable behavior [such as observing grass] (Wolf, 43). Thus, Whitman’s writing suggests that his observance of nature was disrupted by the stimuli of perfume on a shelf so much that he chose to write about it.

Contextual Sexual Imagery

Another great example of Whitman’s sexual imagery comes directly from his context. For instance, when further discussing nature, he strangely introduces “A few light kisses…a few embraces…a reaching around of arms,” words very vague when taken into the context of trees and hills (Whitman). Such direct evidence portrays his sexual imagery of flirting. Another example is at the conclusion where he interjects, “urge and urge and urge” (Whitman). Once again we see this theme of temptation present when he is discussing nature. His stimulus of nature is directly correlated with emotions that humans typically feel towards one another. Indeed, this example correlated with Freud’s notion that many psychoanalytic aspects can easily be discovered through literature as well as clinical cases (Wolf, 46). While reactions such as solace, peace, depression and melancholy are typically induced from natural view like landscapes, Whitman clearly introduced emotions like temptation, which are more closely associated with sexual intimacy.

Interestingly enough, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an isolated incident where direct homoerotic language is not introduced. Steven Herrmann noted that Whitman came to terms with his homoeroticism “after a period of moral reflection on the anxiety and shame he had felt for having hid his homosexuality during the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass” (Herrmann, 19). In fact, it was Whitman’s earlier works that included this homoerotic language that almost stopped him from being able to publish his work widely (Bisharat, 3). Therefore, we see evidence of Whitman directly changing his own work to avoid criticism. Other writers with sexual imagery faced this same scrutiny in their work as well: Emily Dickinson’s editors “neutralized the poem’s sexual content in the process” of editing as well. (Bennett 239). Hermmann finally noted that Whitman’s aspect of sex remained in his work solely because Ralph Waldo Emerson persuaded him to keep it for “the betterment of society” (Herrmann, 20). Therefore, Whitman’s use of sexual imagery is epitomized by the fact that we used it in conjunction to the reaction he was getting from others.

Freud’s Perspective on Sexually Suggestive Themes

Freud argued that the use of sexually suggestive themes and language is the result of the author censoring his own work. Just as Emerson persuaded Whitman to exclude homoerotic content and Dickinson’s editors neutralized her poetry, the author also has an internal filter. In describing literature, Freud argued that:

“He [the author] represents his most personal wishful fantasies as fulfilled; but they only become a work of art when they have undergone a transformation which softens what is offensive in them, conceals their personal origin and, by obeying the laws of beauty, bribes other people with a bonus of pleasure” (Wolf, 46).

Just as many authors struggle to find the right words to deliver a powerful work, they also simultaneously work towards applying social filters while not revealing personal internal conflicts. This is more obviously revealed by the fact that some of Whitman’s poems, like Songs of Myself and The Sleepers, have strong sexual content that utilize language like “manly love” and “sexual love” (Miller, 1998). Therefore, we see clear evidence that Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective is engrained in Whitman’s work.

Portraying Man’s Primitive Sexual Urges

Taking into account the sexual nature and relative consistency among some of Whitman’s works, the primitive nature of human beings is revealed. With respect to the times that Whitman represents (early to mid twentieth century), it was considered taboo to openly discuss sex, let alone homoeroticism. Whitman’s work, therefore, reveals that Freud’s emphasis of the primitive nature of human beings gains merit. As most artists gain inspiration from emotional and internal experiences, Whitman’s were indeed strong enough for him to consistently maintain sexual themes. Such internal conflicts of homoeroticism remained central throughout Freud’s numerous volumes. Clearly, internal sexual conflicts are relevant examples of how outward behavior can be influenced. Although some of Freud’s work did not gain scientific merit, his concepts and studies of homoeroticism among authors remained true.

The psychoanalytic lens also illuminates the text very differently. By taking into account internal conflict, the poetry can be analyzed more so as a study of the author as a person rather than his work. By finding consistent elements, like sexual imagery, we gain insight about Whitman’s personal conflicts. Analyzing Leaves of Grass by its context of an inspired author merely allows us to investigate the themes of natural beauty, lyrical genius and cultural value to society. However, the psychoanalytic lens allows us to uncover much more rich themes: sexuality, personality [of Whitman], socially acceptable standards and the evolution of his writing. Behind the author who merely chose to or not to voice his homoerotic language, we can understand that behind the author there is a natural human being who also participated in the struggle of subconscious dilemma regarding sexuality. Analyzing these overarching and complex themes is much more beneficial in exploring the author’s mindset in writing certain poetry.

Non-Academic Applications of Whitman’s Work

The psychoanalytic perspective of Whitman’s poetry has numerous applications outside of the academic environment. For instance, taking into account the sexual nature of other individuals during conversation, we can gain insight into true feelings that others may not say outright. By utilizing this lens of criticism, we can gain insight into the primitive nature of other people. Furthermore, analyzing writing can be an asset to therapists in a clinical setting. For instance, if a patient is having a difficult time being open regarding personal sexual conflict, an open ended writing session could prove beneficial for the therapist. By analyzing the psychoanalytic elements of a patient’s writing, the therapist may gain deeper insight into the mind of the patient. Therefore, utilizing the critical lens of psychoanalysis could prove beneficial in clinical and personal settings.

While Leaves of Grass delved into the topic of self expression and cultural value, the critical lens of psychoanalysis brought much richer insight into the personal life of Whitman. Along with Whitman, authors like Emily Dickinson also had elements of sexual imagery as well. Freud noted how literature had been a beneficial form of study for the development of his concepts and theory. Surely enough, Leaves of Grass contained sexual imagery that was relatively unrelated to the landscape he was describing. Moreover, many other works by Whitman had homoerotic elements. This supported Freud’s notion that human beings are being constantly bombarded with internal conflicts regarding taboo sexual topics like homosexuality. This critical lens of analysis gave much more insight into the author who struggled with socially acceptable standards, the recommendations of his peers and his own internal stigmas. This aspect is very applicable to the field of clinical therapy and in our own personal lives as well. Psychoanalytic theory, thus, served as an integral lens to review Whitman’s work.

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. “Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory.” Signs 18.2 (1993): 235-259. Web. 10 March 2011.

Herrmann, Steven. “Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Imagination.” Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 1.2 (2007): 16-47. Web. 10 March 2011.

Miller, James. Sex and Sexuality. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. Print.

Oerlemans, Onno. “Whitman and the Erotics of Lyric.” American Literature 65.4 (1993): 703-730. Web. 10 March 2011.

Stokes, Adrian. “Form in Art: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 18.2 (1959): 193-203. Web. 10 March 2011.

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” February 2011. Tumblr. Web. 10 March 2011.

Wilcox, Louise. “Walt Whitman.” The North American Review 183.597 (1906): 281-296. Web. 10 March 2011.

Wolf, Ernest. “Psychoanalytic Psychology of the Self and Literature.” New Literary History 12.1 (1980): 41-60. Web. 10 March 2011.

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