LITR 5731 Seminar in American Multicultural Literature
Minority Literature

student presentations

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Poetry: Walt Whitman, "In Paths Untrodden"

Poetry reader / discussion leader: Juan Garcia

“In Paths Untrodden”

From the Calamus group of poems, within

“The Leaves of Grass”, By Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in New York on May 31, 1819 and died March 26, 1892. 

He is considered by many, the father of free verse poetry and is best known for his seminal work, “Leaves of Grass.”  The collection of poems was a work in progress throughout his life, published, revised, and republished numerous times. His first printing of the work was a self published affair that many detractors considered profane or obscene, but was roundly celebrated in literary circles.  Due to the various printings of the work, this presentation is drawn from his 1897 reprint of his final revision.

In Paths Untrodden is the first of the “Calamus” Poems (the first step, if you will).  The poems focus on the love of men and comrades for each other, with various elements of nature and seclusion in the meetings.

Notable passages from other poems in Leaves of Grass, Calamus Group

} Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand

But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any
person for miles around approach unawares,
Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or
some quiet island,
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.

} For You, O Democracy


I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.




The calamus grouping seems to draw its title from the Greek work by Nonnus, where two lovers compete in a swimming contest and one drowns.  In his grief for his lost love, Calamos allows the river to sweep him up and drowns himself.  He gives his name to the Calamus plants that grow along the riverside, and the homosexual relationship seems to color the prose of the poems in the section by Whitman.

Basis for the name of group of poems “Calamus” in Leaves of Grass


 [463] “So he spoke, with streams bubbling from his eyes. To honour the dead he cut with sorrowful steel a dark lock of his hair, long cherished and kept, and holding out this mourning tress to Maiandros his father, he said these last words: `Accept this hair, and then my body; for I cannot see the light for one later dawn without Carpos. Carpos and Calamos had one life, and both one watery death for both together in the same stream. Build on the river bank, ye Naiads, one empty barrow for both, and on the tombstone let this verse be engraved in letters of mourning: “I am the grave of Carpos and Calamos, a pair of lovers, whom the pitiless water slew in days of yore.” Cut off just one small tress of your hair for Calamos too, your own dying brother so unhappy in love, and for Carpos cut all the hair of your heads.’

[478] “With these words, he threw himself into the river and sank, as he swallowed the sonslaying water of an unwilling father. Then Calamos gave his form to the reeds which took his name and like substance; and Carpos grew up as the fruit of the earth.”



In Paths Untrodden

from Calamus, 1860 

In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond-waters,

Escaped from the life that exhibits itself,

From all the standards hitherto publish’d—from the pleasures, profits, eruditions, conformities,

Which too long I was offering to feed my soul;

Clear to me, now, standards not yet publish’d—clear to me that my Soul,

That the Soul of the man I speak for, feeds, rejoices most in comrades;

Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can respond as I would not dare elsewhere,

Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains all the rest,

Resolv’d to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment,

Projecting them along that substantial life,

Bequeathing, hence, types of athletic love,

Afternoon, this delicious Ninth-month, in my forty-first year,

I proceed, for all who are, or have been, young men,

To tell the secret of my nights and days,

To celebrate the need of comrades.

The class itself has covered minorities in literature, and the effects of repression, assimilation, and marginalization on their cultures.  For the purposes of this presentation, we may consider the following points, in regards to the poem, In Paths Untrodden.

5c. To regard literacy as the primary code of modern existence and a key or path to empowerment.  In other words, how has the rise of Whitman as the “father of free verse” and the father of American poetry, helped to influence and empower the GLBT movement?

5e. To emphasize how all speakers and writers may use common devices of human language to make poetry, including narrative, poetic devices, double language,  and figures of speech. Also, how has the use of double language helped to both develop bonds with other writers and within the GLBT community, as well as brought about a dialogue with mainstream social powers?

6b. To question sacred modern concepts like "individuality" and "rights" and politically correct ideas like minorities as "victims"; to explore emerging postmodern identities, e. g. “biracial,” “global,” and “post-national.”  Leaves of Grass was rewritten and republished numerous times from 1855-1892, during the most turbulent years, “the adolescence” of the United States.  What sort of impact did the Age of Enlightenment, growing women’s rights and abolition movements, as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction time periods have on the establishment of the American identity?  Did the socio-political upheaval help to challenge the notion of what a red-blooded American was, and how did this affect the popularity of the pseudo-homosexually themed work of Walt Whitman?


Works Cited

Nonnus, Dionysiaca. Translated by Rouse, W H D. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 344, 354, 356. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1940.

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass.” New York, NY, M. Kennerley Press, 1897 (digital version, downloaded April 20, 2010)