Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exploring Motifs: Hair


“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
Whitman introduces the motif of hair in "Song of Myself" in the middle of his refusal/attempt to define grass, with the "uncut hair of graves" being one of his definitions. This image transforms the site of decay into a new kind of living organism, with grass as the hair atop something now characterized by life instead of death. Like hair, the grass curls and can grow from a man's chest. Whitman not only infuses death with life but unites plant life with human life.

“And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.”

“On a bank lounged the trapper...he was dressed mostly in skins...his luxuriant
beard and curls protected his neck,
One hand rested on his rifle...the other hand held firmly the wrist of the red girl.
She had long eyelashes...her head was bare...her coarse straight locks
descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.”
I have not included all of the references to beards which Whitman uses throughout "Song of Myself," preferring to concentrate on specific hair references (because there is no shortage of them). That said, this is a good example of how the references to beards function similarly to the references to hair, and we even have some eyelashes to contend with. The trapper is a man who makes his living from the wild, and this guy is even dressed in skins, which associates him closely with animals. His hair, in the form of both curls and beard, is a source of protection and finery, much like how animals have unique physical resources for defense against predators or for display during mating rituals. This scene even takes place during what is a common part of the human mating ritual: the wedding. The description of the bride's hair also emphasizes her fitness for an "open air" life; she needs no ornament for her "coarse" hair and her body is fertile, not fragile. To continue with the association of uncut, tangled hair with nature, this girl's hair is so long that it reaches her feet, and even her eyelashes are long, so her natural ways are well established.