Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City

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Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City
by Walt Whitman
(1819-1892)

Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future
use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casually met
there who detain’d me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together–all else has long
been forgotten by me,
I remember I say only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.

There are many different ways in which I find poems that I want to post, but this one came to me in a rather shocking way: porn. I’ve discussed on this blog before that I enjoy watching porn, so it should not be too shocking that I was doing just that the other day on my day off. However, I didn’t really expect to be inspired to find a poem for a post in a porn video. The video in questions, in case you are wondering, is the CockyBoys video “A Thing of Beauty.” It’s a pretty hot video about a threesome, but I digress. At the beginning of the video, we see three guys enjoying a vacation, when they narrator begins to read “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” by Walt Whitman. So after watching the video, and well, I will be modest and not discuss the particulars of watching the video, I looked up the poem, and what I found was fairly shocking, but I will get to that in a moment.

If one were to expect a poem in a gay pornographic video, you probably would be surprised to hear one by Walt Whitman, whose sexuality is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual based on his poetry, though that has been at times disputed. His poetry depicts love and sexuality in a more earthy, individualistic way common in American culture before the medicalization of sexuality in the late 19th century. Though Leaves of Grass was often labeled pornographic or obscene, only one critic remarked on its author’s presumed sexual activity: in a November 1855 review, Rufus Wilmot Griswold suggested Whitman was guilty of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians”. Whitman had intense friendships with many men and boys throughout his life. Some biographers have claimed that he may not have actually engaged in sexual relationships with males, while others cite letters, journal entries and other sources which they claim as proof of the sexual nature of some of his relationships. Late in his life, when Whitman was asked outright if his “Calamus” poems were homosexual, he chose not to respond.

If you are at all familiar with Whitman’s poetry, then you are familiar with the homoeroticism that exists within.

Emory Holloway, in his Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative (1926), provided the first scholarly biography of the poet, and his experience may stand as an example of the continuing controversy over Whitman. In his research, Holloway happened to run across the manuscript of a “Children of Adam” poem, “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” and discovered that it had originally been addressed to a man—and therefore “belonged” in the “Calamus” cluster. He was the first biographer to agonize over how to write about Whitman’s sexuality. A revealing footnote to Holloway’s biography is that he later became obsessed with demonstrating that Whitman was telling the truth in his claims to fatherhood in his letter to Symonds; his obsession led to his publication, after long years of research, of Free and Lonesome Heart: The Secret of Walt Whitman (1960), claiming discovery of “Whitman’s son.”

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Holloway’s discovery here lies the interesting part of “Once I Pass’d.” Originally, this poem was addressed not to a woman but to a man, as I have done above. Nearly every place that I looked for the text of the poem used the published version which used feminine forms.

The original story behind the poem states that in 1848, at age 29, Whitman visited New Orleans, the populous city in the poem. There he met a man, who became the inspiration for the poem. Most scholars now reject the idea that Whitman was involved with a Creole woman of higher social rank than his own and that his sudden exit from New Orleans was due to complications deriving from this relationship. The theory of a New Orleans romance, started by Henry Bryan Binns in his A Life of Walt Whitman (1905), proposes to explain the mystery of Whitman’s letter to John Addington Symonds in which he discussed his life down South and mentioned six illegitimate children (for which there is no documented evidence). It is also used to explain the dramatic change in Whitman after the New Orleans trip, his sexual awakening, and the inspiration for the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Some biographers think the lines “O Magnet-South! O glistening, perfumed South! My South! / O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!” in “Longings for Home” (later “O Magnet-South”) suggest a New Orleans romance. Some quote the first five lines of “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” as support for the idea. Basil De Selincourt asserts in his 1914 critical study of Whitman that “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” bemoans the death of one who was all but wife to him—the genteel New Orleans lady. Still others see further evidence in “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” in which Whitman penned, “Yet now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met there who detain’d me for love of me . . . who passionately clung to me.” However, Whitman’s earlier manuscript, which read “the man” instead of “a woman,” is telling.

When Walt looked back on his New Orleans passion, he penned a poem, “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” that was branded “obscene” when it was published. But when it was published, it hid the truth. In 1925 Emory Holloway discovered the original hand-written manuscript of “Once I Pass’d Through A Populous City,” showing the poet had changed the gender before the poem was published. Only eight letters make the difference between the original and the published version. In my opinion, those eight letters tell a completely different story. It seems that there was a romance during the three months (from 25 February to 25 May in 1848) that Whitman spent in New Orleans, but not with a creole woman, but a man.

New Orleans has always had a long history of homosexuals, or at least fluid sexuality, so why would it be surprising that the young Whitman came into his sexual being in New Orleans, “A Populous City.”

Source of the Whitman’s original manuscript: Walt Whitman Poetry Manuscripts in the Papers of Walt Whitman, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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