Walt Whitman’s Bathers

A strange and sensual riff from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself — 

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.

She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.

The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their
long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.

An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.

The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the
sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending
They do not think whom they souse with spray.

2 thoughts on “Walt Whitman’s Bathers”

  1. This bathing scene always reminds me of the similar one in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ fragmentary “Epithalamion.”

    “We are there when we hear the shout
    …And the riot of a rout
    Of, it must be, boys from the town
    Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good.

    By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise
    He drops towards the river: unseen
    Sees the bevy of them, how the boys
    With dare and with downdolphinry and bellbright bodies huddling out,
    Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by turn and turn about.”

    The new bather strips to swim in a sequence enfolding natural descriptions with ecdysiacal excitement.

    “Here he feasts: lovely all is! No more: off with—down he dings
    His bleachèd both and woolwoven wear:
    Careless these in coloured wisp
    All lie tumbled-to; then with loop-locks
    Forward falling, forehead frowning, lips crisp
    Over finger-teasing task, his twiny boots
    Fast he opens, last he offwrings
    Till walk the world he can with bare his feet”

    Unlike Whitman, ever-in-the-closet Hopkins tries to shoehorn just before the fragment’s end a snatch of heterosexual allegory into his reverie.

    “Enough now; since the sacred matter that I mean
    I should be wronging longer leaving it to float
    Upon this only gambolling and echoing-of-earth note—
    What is … the delightful dene?
    Wedlock. What the water? Spousal love.”

    Of course it is.

    The Poem: http://www.bartleby.com/122/72.html


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