Bettina L. Knapp: On "For You O Democracy"

Whitman now offers his reader a radiant scene depicted with the objectivity and detail of such paintings by Thomas Eakins as "Max Schmitt in a Single Scull" or "The Swimming Hole." Both poem and paintings feature young men in a variety of activities: sporting on the grass, rowing in shells on the Schuylkill, shooting in marshes, and sailing before the winds. Whitman had always admired the candor and uncompromising reality of Eakins's paintings. "I never knew but one artist, and that's Tom Eakins," he said, "who could resist the temptation to see what they think ought to be rather than what is" (Russell Lynes, The Art-Makers of Nineteenth-Century America, 367).

In "For You O Democracy," Whitman sings of companionship in a landscape "thick as trees," of good fun "along the rivers of America," of watching and joining his friends as they swim, row, race, and wander about from the great lakes to the prairies and mountains, "With the love of comrades, / With the life-long love of comrades." Objectivity but also symbolism mark Whitman's verbal canvas, studded as it is with phallic images of trees reaching up to the heavens and metaphors of the womb, in the waters flowing along the byways of the New World. Just as the poet requires insemination, then periods of gestation, to foster his work, so, too, does America in order to fulfill its potential.

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands....

The plethora of Whitman's water images introduces a whole subliminal sphere of prenatal and preconscious existence: the undifferentiated realm of nonknowing, of unconcern, shorn of all problems. Since water dissolves hard matter, it may be looked upon, psychologically, as a liquefying agent, making solid and problematic conditions -- be they sexual or intellectual -- more malleable.

Why, one may ask, does the author entitle his poem "For You O Democracy"? Because democracy not only represents the ideal form of government for the poet, but because he conceives of it as a mother figure. By conflating the ideal and the real, he is also paying homage to his own mother. Although he occasionally smarted from her subtly dictatorial ways and sought to evade the burdens she had placed upon him, Whitman adored her. Understandably, compassionate and loving mother figures prevail in many of Whitman's poems, including "These I Sing in Spring" from Calamus. In the latter poem, Mother Earth and the Water Mother figure prominently in a fertile atmosphere of wild flowers, trees, and grasses of all sorts. Democracy is identified with the mother; camaraderie with males, who are children of sorts, bounding about gleefully in natural surroundings.

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Title Bettina L. Knapp: On "For You O Democracy" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bettina L. Knapp Criticism Target Walt Whitman
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Walt Whitman
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