“Live Oak, with Moss” by Walt Whitman was never published as a cohesive set of narrative poems. Instead, the poet incorporated the pieces into “Calamus” and Leaves of Grass. This paper was written while I was in a graduate research methods class with Steven Olsen-Smith, who is a noted scholar of Walt Whitman’s and Herman Melville’s work. His research pieced together the original sequence of poems that detail a same-sex relationship in the poet’s life.
It’s been a pleasure to bring my readers these literary criticism pieces from time to time over the years. This is likely to be the last one, as most of the others left in my files are not worthy of publication. I enjoy such scholarship immensely, and had my life went down a different path, I’d probably be a literature professor at a university rather than the freelancer you see here.
Whitman’s Greatest Contradiction: Manly Love in “Live Oak, with Moss”
The poetic sequence “Live Oak, with Moss” by Walt Whitman provides undeniable evidence that America’s favorite bard writes from a homosexual perspective. To fully appreciate the sensuality present throughout Whitman’s work, it is necessary to acknowledge all human drives and needs by adopting Whitman’s open-mindedness based on the here and now of our shared physical reality. Life’s complex questions cannot all be answered; to think otherwise would be foolish, and to judge others harshly the most foolish of all. Whitman speaks for the multi-faceted nature of humanity. In the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass, he writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very Well then… I contradict myself; / I am large… I contain multitudes” (1314-1316). We all contain multitudes that should endear us to one another instead of drawing lines of separation.
Whitman’s recollection of a homosexual love affair in the “Live Oak, with Moss” sequence speaks to anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows of love. Because the poet renders love emotions so eloquently, it becomes more necessary than ever to appreciate the poet’s message that all of mankind love one another and embrace their contradictions (all too often imposed by societal inhibitions) if they are to ever realize the limitless potential that stems from man’s commonalities rather than focusing on perceived dissimilarities. Within the poems of “Live Oak, With Moss” Whitman portrays homosexual love in a way that induces the truly open-minded reader to move beyond singling the poet out for exposing his sexual orientation. Rather, the love Whitman writes of could be that of any relationship.
Love cannot be separated into tidy boxes. Gay love is too often branded as love that is somehow different than heterosexual love, and God forbid if a homosexual should be capable of platonic love. After all, plenty of people still feel that homosexuality must be aberrant and of a solely prurient nature. Love is love is love, but not in everyone’s eyes. Studying “Live Oak” could do much to enlighten our understanding of the nature of love. Unfortunately, scholarship on “Live Oak, with Moss” has been virtually nonexistent. Only until recently has its significance to Whitman studies received much attention. Thus far, “Live Oak’s” treatment has fallen prey to the two extremes associated with homosexual love: shame and pride.
Alan Helms’ reading impedes the full breadth of Whitman’s poem because of a preoccupation with the perceived shame that Whitman experiences. In poem four, Whitman writes of “other men, in other lands, yearning and pensive” (5). Helms’ interpretation views the poet as “pining for men” as well as being “a conventional homosexual fantasy in which the world is conceived as a hospitable place for same-sex lovers” (para. 9). Helms’ emphasis on sexual implications demeans Whitman’s capacity as a poet since feelings of shame do not correspond with advocating a more tolerant society. If Whitman’s poem were solely about shame, such optimism could not come through.
The thoughtful tone of the fourth poem opens up the sequence to global proportion asking the “what ifs” of a better world. Whitman points out, “It seems to me they are as wise, beautiful, benevolent, as any in my own lands; / O I think we should be brethren—I think I should be happy with them” (4-5). Whitman contemplates a better world filled with humanity’s potential for goodwill toward each other. Possibly, that would lead to a world more accepting of homosexuality, but where in the fourth poem is any sexual connotation? The brotherhood of man need not be unduly sexualized or be made a thing of shame.
Another poem within the sequence also speaks out for a more inclusive love. The sixth poem puts forth the image that human connection on any level captures the imagination. Whitman takes on the role of observer from afar. In keeping with ambiguous scenes in which the reader can draw a multitude of inferences, we can read the men on the pier as expressing either platonic love or sexual love (better yet, a mixture of both). Perhaps Whitman’s role as observer when turned on the reader shows how people like to read a lot into most situations. Consider the following: “The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately kissed him” (5). Is that a portrayal of a public display of affection sexual? Passion in this sense could be the desperation of a parting father and son, or it could be the embrace of male lovers. In either case, Whitman keeps the imagery pointed back to the reader as if to say, “If in this you see brotherly love, than what is wrong with also seeing more manly love in the same embrace, for they are one in the same.”
At the other end of Helms’ reading of “Live Oak” as Whitman’s shamed struggle over exposing his sexual identity lies Hershel Parker’s interpretation of a celebration of homosexual self. Parker views the sequence as “an ultimately triumphant account of the poet accepting his homosexuality and surviving a thwarted love affair” (para. 20). Parker condemns Helms’ reading because Helms uses the comma-free version of “Live Oak, with Moss” that he extracted from the 1860 version of “Calamus” (para. 12). Parker also expresses concern over Helms’ reading since it may impede the significance that Whitman’s poetry holds, especially for adolescents who are faced with coming out (para. 26). Even though Parker and Helms make pertinent points, they don’t allow room for the greater ambiguities in Whitman’s poem—the ambiguities that make his poetry so refreshing and applicable to so many readers.
The second poem presents the image of the moss-covered oak tree. In this poem from which the sequence takes its title, Whitman presents the reader with yet another contradiction as he writes, “all alone stood it” (2). Yet, in spite of such perceived loneliness, he also writes of the tree “glistening out joyous leaves of dark green” (3). But the tree isn’t really alone. Its mossy companion adorns those happy leaves. The moss is of a completely different nature than the tree but they exist in a relationship nonetheless. Whitman sees the tree as “standing alone there without its friend, its lover” (5). All the while the imagery of moss drenching every branch of the oak conjures up an intimate picture. Much like homosexual love, the moss and the oak should not be together in a happy coexistence, but they are.
Another contradiction in viewing the tree as all alone occurs when Whitman plucks a leafy branch from the oak and he “twined around it a little moss” (6) before he takes it home to his room where it “remains to [him] a curious token” (8). Even though the poet says he can’t imagine a life without his lover, when he visits the tree he is alone and not distraught over being so, nor does he seem overly lonely.
Poems five and seven both contain elements of Thoreau-like concern about surface meeting surface in human affairs. In poem five, Whitman begins, “Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me” (1) as he ponders what wisdom really is. Then he turns to more concrete matters and “the Land of the Prairies engrossed” (2) him. Whitman explores the drive for purpose in life and decides his “life must be spent in singing” (4). However, the only real thing he can eventually find joy in is in loving another person, so much so that he ignores his self for the other, “I am indifferent to my own songs—I am to go with him I love and he is to go with me” (12). Whitman has weighed his options, and the deepness of true love overwhelms the rest.
Whitman puts surface concerns further behind him in poem seven. Once again he directs our perceptions and writes, “I will inform you who I was underneath that impassive exterior—I will tell you what to say of me” (3). Before being a poet, he is a lover and Whitman’s friend knows the true Whitman who has a “measureless ocean of love within him—and freely poured it forth” (6). Together they are happy and though Whitman mentions the rest of the world, while in love he can brush it aside.
Like all love affairs, good times don’t last and jealous heartache sets in, and questions of the worth of such love soon set in. The final four poems in “Live Oak, with Moss” encapsulate the sentiments expressed in the prior poems, but in a somewhat terse tone. Poem nine contains more dreaming of a better world while poem ten contains more yearning for a loved one. The final two poems shift from the more dreamy optimism to more dire reflection. In poem 11, Whitman notes “toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me” (3). That terribleness cannot be specifically known since Whitman “dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs” (4). The final poem ends the sequence with Whitman emphasizing relationships—teacher, pupil, friend.
Scholarship on “Live Oak, With Moss” is sure to continue. It’s a disservice to read “Live Oak” with such fervor focused on Whitman’s sexual identity since he will always be the poet of the people. Homosexuality produces emotions no different than heterosexuality and to focus on the polar opposites of shame and pride still keeps readers from acknowledging the real significance of Whitman’s poetry. As a member of a marginalized portion of society, Whitman’s observations are bound to come under greater scrutiny. Now that his homosexuality can be more openly discussed thanks to “Live Oak” readers will be called on to dissect his sexuality before hopefully arriving at the conclusion that Whitman now, more than ever, speaks for humanity’s best possibilities.
Are you a fan of Walt Whitman’s work? What about his poetry compels or repels you?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2017. Image credit: Walt Whitman by George Collins
 Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton. 662-751.
—. “Live Oak, With Moss.” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton. 752-756.
 Helms, Alan. “Whitman’s ‘Live Oak with Moss.’” Sex, Politics, and “Live Oak, with Moss.” Ed. Kenneth Price. 1992. The Classroom Electric, U of Virginia. 06 Mar. 2002 http://www.iath.virginia.edu/fdw/volume3/price/lowm.php?inc=helms.
 Parker, Hershel. “The Read ‘Live Oak, with Moss’: Straight Talk about Whitman’s ‘Gay Manifesto.’” Sex, Politics, and “Live Oak, with Moss.” Ed. Kenneth Price. 1996. The Classroom Electric, U of Virginia. 06 Mar. 2002. http://www.iath.virginia.edu/fdw/volume3/price/lowm.php?inc=parker.
Jeri, this post makes Walt Whitman sound more interesting than I ever thought he was. I’m going to think of this now every time I drive by the Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike or cross over the Walt Whitman bridge into Philly.
Whitman was indeed a pretty cool dude 🙂 Many of his poems were quite liberal, especially for their time.
Walt Whitman has always fascinated me. Your thoughtful article only increased that fascination. Seeing him and his writing in one dimension does him and his writing a disservice.
Susan, at times Whitman seems to get relegated to being a patriotic poet due to poems like “I Hear America Singing” being standard far in school, but he covers quite the gamut of human emotions quite eloquently.
I received the book, Leaves of Grass as a birthday present when I was thirteen. I have loved his poems ever since.
Glynis, the print book of Leaves of Grass is one of the only remaining non-reference books I have left on my shelf. The lines of free verse don’t translate well to a Kindle screen.
I have been working through Leaves of Grass for decades. I read some, understand some, get confused some and stop. This post has given me the post to pick the book up again and give him another whirl. I have never been repelled from him, just am bad at reading poetry. Thanks for the new perspective.
Rose Mary, reading poetry does have its own unique approach that can take time to development. I’ve always enjoyed poetry and spend quite a bit of time learning all about various poetic forms and devices, so I think that makes my reading experience with poetry fairly seamless now, but it took a while to develop for sure.
I first time read about Walt Whitman.
It seems so interesting. I will try to read more.
Thank you for a great share.
Andleeb, it pleases me to have been able to introduce you to a great American poet. You might like to give “Song of Myself” a try.
Hi Jeri. I admit to not being a fan of poetry and knowing very little about Walt Whitman. I cannot agree with the statement that platonic love and sexual love can be interchanged. I believe that there are very different kinds of love that come into our lives at different times. Perhaps that is because I have lived through the journey of love from that of passion to that of compassion. They are not one and the same.
Doreen, I see where you are coming from. Yet, we all experience love differently. At times, I want to put it in tidy boxes, but poets like Whitman help us explore how that may not always be the case.
This is a brilliant post, dear Jeri… I thank you for the excellent reading. Curiously enough (or not so much) “Leaves of Grass” was one of the first poetry books I read in English, just because I wanted to and I was not compelled to do so at School. Of course, I had watched “The Dead Poets Society” right before. I love Whitman´s poetry. There is something that kind of reminds me of Both Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickinson. The first section of this post, concerning Love as a sort of Platonic Ideal is priceless. “Love cannot be separated into tidy boxes”–> such a powerful statement. Again: excellent post. Love & best wishes 🙂
Aqui, I could have figured you for a Whitman fan! It takes a certain sort of person to be at peace with life’s inherent contradictions. I think it’s safe to say we probably both fall into that camp. Whitman’s poems are great at unearthing such things.
This is a brilliant paper Jeri. Many thanks for sharing it.
I haven’t read much of Whitman’s poetry. When I heard of ‘Leaves Of Grass’ recently, I have been trying to understand his poetry and the depth it contains. Isn’t it amazing how relevant it is in the modern times?
Balroop, Whitman really is a poet for the ages. I can’t say enough about how much I adore his work in terms of style and especially subject matter.
Love this close reading of Whitman! Especially the observation of a moss and tree being so different yet also interdependent on each other. You’re making me nostalgic for my graduate school days and doing literary analysis!
Christina, doing a close reading of a text is such a rewarding endeavor, yet not one I often make enough time for.
You know, I’ve never actually read anything by Walt Whitman, but he sounds like an interesting fellow!
Loni, Whitman is indeed quite the interesting fellow.
I don’t read poetry that often so I’m not familiar with Walt Whitman’s works. It’s fascinating to get to know the person behind the paper. Thanks for sharing Jeri!
Tatia, I’m happy to have introduced you to Walt Whitman! He’s a must when it comes to famous American writers 🙂
If I remember during the Civil War he had a government job, but was fired for his collection entitled “Leaves of Grass” on moral grounds.
I personally never read much of his work, but I do know Whitman is among the most influential poets in the history of America.
William, he did get fired from one government job only to land another federal gig soon thereafter.
I think maybe I read some Walt Witman in high school, but I’m not sure. I went to 3 different high schools so my education was so disjointed. I remember years ago a friend telling me to read Leaves of Grass and even gave me a copy but I never did check it out. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by poetry. But I think I will make it a point now to check out his work.
Erica, students who move from school to school do tend to have some literature gaps that might not otherwise exist. If poetry intimidate you a bit, you might like the Favorite Poem Project website. They have lots of videos of everyday people telling what they like about a certain poem and then reading it aloud.
Ah yes, Walt Witman. You discuss the write in such a way that I want to go back to school and read poems all day long!!
Christy, as a fellow student of literature, I so get your comment about wanting to go back to school as a vehicle to reading more 😉
I love this quote: “Life’s complex questions cannot all be answered; to think otherwise would be foolish, and to judge others harshly the most foolish of all.” That’s so we’ll said!
Meredith, Whitman is definitely one of my favorite writers for his ability to explore life’s murky areas. Really, it’s all murky, but too often made black or white for ease of understanding and being able to simply get through the day.