Tuesday, September 20, 2011

As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado

In honor of the official repeal of DADT today, I wanted to post a poem about homosexual love in the military. Long before DADT was an official policy, Walt Whitman was serving as a nurse for the US Army during the Civil War. Drum Taps (1865), Walt Whitman's sequence of poems on the Civil War that reflects his experience as a hospital volunteer, includes several poems that appreciate soldiers in more or less homoerotic terms (for example, "First O Songs for a Prelude" and "O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy").

But it is elegies such as "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," "Reconciliation," and "As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado" that allow Whitman to express himself unrestrainedly.

In "Reconciliation," the speaker's tenderness for the fallen soldier overpowers the enmity between armies, in terms that anticipate Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting": "my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, / I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near, / Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."
As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado
As I lay with my head in your lap camerado,
The confession I made I resume, what I said to you and the open air
I resume,
I know I am restless and make others so,
I know my words are weapons full of danger, full of death,
For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to
unsettle them,
I am more resolute because all have denied me than I could ever have
been had all accepted me,
I heed not and have never heeded either experience, cautions,
majorities, nor ridicule,
And the threat of what is call'd hell is little or nothing to me,
And the lure of what is call'd heaven is little or nothing to me;
Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still
urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell'd and defeated.
Walt Whitman

In this particular poem, Whitman writes a brief, but beautiful confession and declaration of his own sexuality. It is a brief, but significant love poem, and the manner of Whitman's "confession" can be explored in a number of ways, but it ultimately points to a homosexual relationship. The first obvious hint that this poem is linked to Whitman's homosexuality is his adjustment of the word "camerado." The original Spanish word is actually "camarada" with a feminine ending, and it means "friend" or comrade." By changing this specific word to have a male ending, we know that Whitman is aiming and professing this poem to a male friend. The significance of this male friend becomes more apparent as Whitman continues with his poem.  His use of the actually word "confession" within the second line - "The confession I made I resume, what I said to you and the open air I resume" is another example of Whitman confessing openly his sexuality. As Whitman continues to describe this poem, he draws attention to the fact that it will make others "restless" and his words are "weapons full of danger, full of death."

The intensity of the poem, although subtle but existent, is what ultimately points that nature of the poem has to do with love or at least intimacy. Whitman seems very determined in this poem, especially as he says "Dear camerado! I have urged you onward with me, and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell'd and defeated." Whitman seems to be dismissing everything else, and urging this other person to do the same. He is rejecting any significance of heaven or hell, and embracing the fact that whatever road he is going down may bring hard times. Indeed, to announce homosexuality during Whitman's era would have brought on a lot of criticism and grief.



silvereagle said...

The poem is wonderful!! One that I have not seen or read before. Thanks for posting!!

But, the commentary is even more inspiring.

Keep up the good work, joeblow!

becca said...

love Walt Whitman this is one of his poems I haven't read before so thank you

fan of casey said...

Joe: Interesting post, I like the sideline commentary because sometimes I just can't figure out what the poem means.

I ran across this article and found it amusing, have a look:


Same place has an article on classifying bisexuals, do fit in any?


Anonymous said...

Interesting that we never read this kind of poem in literature class. Nor discussed this particular topic about Walt Whitman. Thanks for expanding my knowledge of a great writer!

Peace <3

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, silvereagle.

I love the poetry of Whitman too, becca.

Great links, FOC. I am glad that you enjoyed the commentary as well as the poem.

When I teach literature, I tend to gear it more toward what is interesting more so than the so-called "classics."

Anonymous said...

Where did you get the image of Henry Heath? Could you email me?

Ana Breton