So, today I’ve received over a hundred hits for folks looking for some variation of Walt Whitman’s procreant urge. I assume some large U.S. lit class must have just gotten an assignment.
I thought I’d mull it over, too (wink, wink, spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t read ‘Song of Myself’).
This ‘procreant urge’ comes up in the third section of ‘Song of Myself.’ To bring you up to speed, in the first part, Whitman is loafing around and getting ready to start his poem. In the second section, Whitman starts in with how wonderful it is to be alive and how wonderful it is to enjoy being alive, without looking for the deeper meaning in it, and the importance of trusting the authority of your own experience and not relying on anyone else, even him, to tell you what things mean (which is, in part, why it’s so cute that folks are searching for someone to tell them what Whitman means when he talks about the procreant urge).
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. [emphasis mine]
Which brings us to the third section, where Whitman is going to start teaching us how to look through our own eyes at the world. First, he acknowledges that we often rely on folks we think are smarter than us to tell us how to interpret things:
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But he doesn’t bother with all this talk of the beginning and the end. He says, basically, that it’s a waste of time.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Okay, but if we don’t have ‘progress’ in the sense of there being more things being invented or more young people or more old people or better things or worse times, what do we have?
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Yes, what’s driving the world is not ‘progress’ but horniness, the constant urge to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck fuck. Now, Whitman says that there’s no use in elaborating–that we know this is true, because we feel it–but it’s never that easy with Walt, especially because when, at the end of part 3, he gets down to post-coital bliss, he’s deliberately vague about the gender of the person he’s just been fucking. And, when his soul is busy ticking his beard, I think we have to assume his soul shares his gender.
I mention this because I think, for Whitman, this procreant urge is not simply about the urge to make a baby. To me, the emphasis in these lines is on that “always a knit of identity, always distinction.”
I’ll admit, I’m not sure what he means by “always a breed of life,” but “always a knit of identity, always distinction”? That’s a kind of truth I feel in my bones. Which is, of course, the kind of truth Whitman wants us to learn to value.
He devotes the rest of this section to pointing out that we spend a lot of time divvying up the world into what’s good and what’s bad and what has value and what doesn’t and he doesn’t see any use to it. As he points out, when you’ve just been properly fucked by a person who also leaves you towel-covered baskets of goodies around the house, why would you waste time turning your attention away from them to sit down and sweat over whether having two cents is better than having none?
If I had to translate what Whitman is getting at when he talks about recognizing the beauty of the procreant urge into language you youngsters could understand, I’d say that, in this section, what Whitman is saying is “Dude, it’s all good.”