'Song of Myself', Section XI: The Voyeuse and Her 28 Men
After only a mere glimpse being shown in the last post, I've decided to pick out another section to ponder about:
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 bather, 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 arch, They do not think whom they souse with spray.
In comparison to the intimacy set earlier by the poem, here the reader senses a certain distance, not only between the voyeuse and the bathers, but also between the reader and the scene depicted: like the woman, he is privy to something in which he has no active part; furthermore, his view is provided through the lens of the poetic voice, thus creating an added step between him and the young men.
Yet the gap is bridged though the imaginings of the woman as a twenty-ninth bather joining these young men, whose hand descends tremblingly from their temples and ribs. Though unseen and non-physical, the interaction is intimate, and the desire to be amongst the bathers is shown through the contrast of the woman standing stock still, enclosed in her room, with the freedom to move with pendant and bending arch.
She seizes fast to the young men, projecting herself onto the water as if to assume its form. Although not quite personified by it, this projection recalls the Nereids, and the woman seems to reimagine herself as a nymph-like being, though to the ignorance of the men: They do not think whom they souse with spray. The sexual undertone of the final line highlights the longing, and further underlines the loneliness of the woman, for it seems that there is a social divide between the richly drest and the young men remains unresolved at the end.
However, the woman is not unnoticed by all: I see you. The narrator notes her desire and relays it to the reader, who is now also privy to this scene. Though there seems be no resolution to the loneliness of the woman, the blending of the two worlds is pulled into the poem, acting as a sort of crossing. Section XI represents an overlap where transformations are possible: the woman becomes the water, the homeliest the most beautiful, the excluded a member of a group. The number Twenty-eight, repeated thrice in a chantlike anaphore, joins all elements together by recalling the lunar cycle, emblematic of women, and linking it to this particular woman and group of men being depicted.
When reading the poem, I found myself looking for the purpose of including this section, since it seemed to delve from the beginning and also lack a strong message. However, after a bit of puzzling over, I now consider it to be an opening into the socially created loneliness of the woman: she is prevented from joining in the lightness and natural freedom that the group of men enjoy, due to her standing, and is even enclosed physically in her room. Walt Whitman highlights this loneliness by displaying the possible freedom that is unavailable, yet highly sought after, by the woman presented to the reader.
Please feel free to add and discuss any elements of this, since, like I have already said, I have very limited knowledge of Walt Whitman and would be interested to learn more!