Walt Whitman’s From Pent-Up Aching Rivers!

Walt Whitman’s From Pent-Up Aching Rivers is a rhapsodic exultation of wilderness,but  more specifically the wilderness of the human body. Wilderness and wildness can be interchangeable in this case, as wildness inhabits wilderness as an inherent quality. Whitman uses a river image of coursing, palpitating lust that also conjures images of blood coursing through veins, “From pent-aching rivers/From that of myself without which I were nothing” (Whitman 116). A river is a good image for wilderness and sexual impulse. It has no static or conforming body, only the confines of eddies and banks which tend to be especially fertile places, and there is a wild, uninhibited and primal quality to its formlessness and power. Just as it would be with some primordial Paleolithic dweller’s carnal lusts, a sort of wild, unadulterated passion that suffers no social neurosis—it is pure and unmarred by cultural notions and it takes action in “tremulous aching” (Whitman 117). It just is what it is. In Garrard’s Ecocriticism this idea is only hinted at, “The sublime provocation of the mountain scenery, and the near hysteria at the moment of ‘contact’ it enables, tends to belie the permanently threating proximity of that other wilderness, the human body” (Garrard 67). However, the subject briefly pops up throughout the book.

This “mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment,” could be the mentality of John Muir’s “Palaeolithic consciousness” or it could be what both Social Ecologists and Eco-Marxists would unhappily refer to Deep Ecologist’s “demands a return to a monistic, primal identification of humans and nature”, to which the former would consider a false monism because it is, “a dialectical perspective that envisages the evolution of human culture, or ‘second nature’, from ‘first nature’” (Garrard 21-29). The ‘first nature’ delirium experienced in this poem is onset by a searching for it and when it comes, there is a realization that it good, “Renascent with grossest Nature or among animals” (Whitman 117). And is not clean or perfect, which makes it even more primordial. As Burroughs believed, Whitman couldn’t have had it any other way, this essentially being the assimilation of Nature and its animal consciousness.

Another example of this Luddite harmony is Friedrich Schiller’s commentary on John Clare’s poetry, where he claims that ancient people did not differentiate between themselves and nature and were far less alienated from it. The evidence was in their simple language that “was more authentic, because it was intuitive, unalienated and inarticulate” (Garrard 45). Whitman does just this. He speaks in senses, not in linear, symbolic rationality. It is all sense and hedonism. It is a melting, melding existence here and it goes from sense to sense not rhetorically or dialectically. It is also pure and parallel to wilderness. If it were completely illogical it may be even more truthful.

Finally, we have a powerful sex scene beneath the stars where lovers rapturously enjoy each other. The stars in Whitman’s time must have seemed like the last bastion of wilderness and purity. Also, again, in reference to ancient Greek civilizations, the stars were not just lights but Constellations, as they are today, where couples and lovers are eternally encased because of their amorous exploits. These ancients did not decipher between nature and man. This thought could include the sentiment of a Constellation being a human, morphologically inhabiting a natural body, which in turn makes a case for the interchangeability of wilderness and wildness. Yet, not only are they a natural body, they are a spiritual, celestial body: the highest form of wilderness and wildness, as they are untouchable and indomitable entities that were created out of lust. Not to mention Zeus often took form as some fecund animal like a bull to partake in his sexual adventures.

So as the lovers ecstatically intertwine the sky and the stars consecrate their lovemaking with a beauty and spirituality that seems to make the universe vital and balmy.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed”CH./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 275-282, 284-93, 459-462. Pub. Random House 2001


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    I find your analysis of the sexual imagery in “From Pent Up Arching Rivers” interesting, inasmuch as when I first read the poem I had the same impression that the work was overtly carnal in some places and that this theme illustrated the poet’s yearning for the mentioned “monistic” relationship with nature. Whitman’s interest in the wilderness which you described was not merely out of shallow concern for the well-being of his environment (or of his self); it was all-encompassing.

    Of the wilderness he writes: “I love you, O you entirely possess me,/O that you and I escape from the rest and go utterly off, free and lawless.” (Whitman 118). Here, the wilderness is addressed not as a landscape, but as an anthropomorphized lover. I couldn’t help but think that Whitman was offering poetic foreshadowing of the discovery that all men emerged from star-matter, and that he would’ve been pleased to learn that we are in fact one with the universe (at least scientifically).

    Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed”CH./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 275-282, 284-93, 459-462. Pub. Random House 2001

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