Everybody Sings the Body Electric

In 1855, Walt Whitman self-published the first version of Leaves of Grass. This version of the book was only 95 pages long and did not include the poem “I Sing the Body Electric.” It would have to wait for the 120 page, 1871 edition. (The final edition was 438 pages in 1891.) Don’t believe the many sources that claim the poem was published in 1855. Regardless of the extra 16 years, this is by far the first time anyone wrote or (following Chomsky) said these words:[1]

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

I bring this up only because there seems to be a lot of confusion over this point, because a lot of people have borrowed from Whitman without mention. I suspect many were more influenced by Ray Bradbury than Walt Whitman. Bradbury does mention Whitman. In the screenplay of The Twilight Zone episode “I Sing The Body Electric” (Season 3, Episode 35) three lines from the beginning of the poem are heard. I assume it is based on an earlier short story with the same title. It is a strange little tale about a widower who needs someone to care for his children after their mother dies. Human replacements like nannies and babysitters don’t seem to be working, so they go to a company called “I Sing the Body Electric.” This company creates an electronic grandmother—who looks human—for the family. With her love and care, the family is saved. Then she goes back to the factory. The crowd goes wild.

Today, most people know Whitman’s line from the song sung in the film Fame. You can watch and hear it in all its glory on YouTube (more and more stuff on YouTube is not allowed to be embedded—I don’t know why). Alan Parker makes it all work far better than it deserves; the man is amazing. The song itself only includes the one line; the rest of the lyrics (which are pretty cheese if you listen) are by Wade Lassister. (Sorry Wade, but the song wouldn’t have been a hit if they hadn’t been.)

When you think of “I sing the body electric,” you have Walt Whitman to thank. Certainly Bradbury gets some credit for moving the line into science fiction (although it does seem obvious). All the others are just lifters. That’s fine: Whitman belongs to us all. But he ought to get the credit.

[1] This is the first of nine parts—most much longer.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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