Ruth Le Prade’s “The Song of a Woman Free”: A Feminist Reply to Whitman’s Song of Myselfby Patricia Cherin
Ruth Le Prade, an early twentieth century Los Angeles writer, was touted in her day as a female Walt Whitman, and her 85-line poem “The Song of a Woman Free,” which she published in 1917, can be read as a feminist reply to Whitman’s epic Song of Myself. This essay explores the circumstances of Le Prade’s poem and her lifelong poetic project “The Poet’s Garden,” in addition to musing on the dynamics of influence that come into place when a precursor text is adapted by a writer not as historically enfranchised as the antecedent author.
The Song of a Woman Free
I am a woman free. My song
Flows from my soul with pure and joyful strength.
It shall be heard through all the noise of things—
A song of joy where songs of joy were not.
My sister singers, singing in the past,
Sang songs of melody but not of joy—
For woman’s name was Sorrow, and the slave
Is never joyful tho he smiles.
I am a woman free. Too long
I was held captive in the dust. Too long
My soul was surfeited with toil or ease
And rotted as the plaything of a slave.
I am a woman free at last
After the crumbling centuries of time.
Free to achieve and understand;
Free to become and live.
I am a woman free. With face
Turned toward the sun, I am advancing
Toward love that is not lust,
Toward work that is not pain,
Toward home which is the world,
Toward motherhood which is not forced,
And toward the man who also must be free.
With face turned toward the sun,
Strong and radiant-limbed,
I advance, singing,
And my song is as free
As the soul from which it flows.
I advance toward that which is, but was not;
Toward that which is not, but is yet to be.
I, the free woman, advance singing,
And with face turned toward the sun.
Let Ignorance and Tyranny
Tremble at the sound of my feet.
I am a woman free.
Singing the song of joy,
Strong and radiant-limbed,
I advance toward the work which waits for me,
The joyful work out in my home the world;
And toward the man who is my mate.
Oh I am strong and magnetic—
I have not wasted myself in sensuality;
And equally strong and magnetic
Is the man who is my mate.
For the glory of Motherhood
I have conserved my strength.
And for the glory of Fatherhood
He has conserved his strength.
I have passed by the lovers
Who passionately called to me in the name of love,
But whose lips were only hot with lust.
I have remained true to my own soul
And to the souls which are enfolded within me.
And no man shall mingle his body with mine
Who is not pure.
I am the free woman,
No longer a slave to man,
Or anything else in all the universe—
Not even to myself.
I am the free woman.
I hold and seek that which is mine:
Strength is mine and purity;
World work and cosmic love;
The glory and the joy of Motherhood.
I am not strong and clean for myself alone
But for all people;
My work and my love are for all people;
And I shall not be the mother of one child,
But of all children—
For I myself am the daughter of all women and all men.
Oh I am free! My song
Flows from my soul with pure and joyful strength;
It shall be heard thru all the noise of things—
A song of joy where songs of joy were not.
Oh I am free! I thrill
With radiant life and gladness.
I advance toward all that waits for me.
I chant the song of Freedom as I go.
My face is toward the sun,
My soul is toward the light,
My feet are turned toward all that waits for me.
I advance! I advance!
Let Ignorance and Tyranny
Tremble at the sound of my song!
This is the title poem of Le Prade’s first book, A Woman Free and Other Poems, published using only her first name. The first of 70 poems in 72 pages, it proclaims a female self who is not only emancipated, but exults in that emancipation. Although her works are significantly more strident than those of Whitman (and I will suggest some reasons for this more polemic tone), they do offer the same sense of self-celebration and joy that Whitman’s works do.
Le Prade was a political activist and garden salon hostess who is, for the most part, unknown. She is mentioned briefly in Cary Nelson’s book Repression and Recovery, which alerts us to the eclipse of many radical writers of the early part of the twentieth century. And Le Prade may be known to scholars of Upton Sinclair, who published one of her books. But for the most part her work and memorabilia have lain in archives pretty much unlooked at. During her lifetime, she engineered a literary, social, and political construct she called the Poet’s Garden, which constitutes, I believe, a feminist pastoral project. How established literary modes such as the pastoral are appropriated by subsequent—and different—users depends upon cultural conditions. Pastoral yearning, traditionally a desire for retreat from places of polity, is for those not privy to those arenas. For the historically unlicensed, the pastoral location cannot serve so readily as a place of tranquility; succor must be negotiated.
Walt Whitman did enjoy those pastoral rights and called on them without hesitation in order to enter that arcadian place from which he muses and wonders. In Song of Myself, Whitman uses an existing botanic, the famous blade of grass, as a means of transport. Much has been written about the phallic symbolism of this green sheath. Whitman’s pastoral reverie, perhaps the most significant poem in the American idiom, is available to him by rights as a male, even a gay male: “Sprouts take and accumulate, stand by the curb prolific and vital, / Landscapes project masculine, full-sized and golden.” However, Le Prade, who as a woman does not have such immediate access, must cultivate a pastoral site from which to create and reap. Unlike grass, gardens don’t exist without human thought and work. Gardens require effort to bring them to bloom. That place from which Le Prade will propel her musing and wondering must be fashioned: She must establish a pastoral site for herself.
Ruth Le Prade was born probably in 1895 and grew up in the little agricultural town of Hughson near Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley of California. She came to Los Angeles in about 1913 and spent the rest of her life there. One day as she was rushing to class at Manual Arts High School, the inspiration for the poems later to be collected in A Woman Free came to her. She cut class and went to the garden to write her poems. She believed it was “the perfume of the flowers blowing in from the garden…mingling with the drone of Mr. Chase’s lecture that made [her] want to ‘loaf and invite [her] soul’.” In what will become a fateful move, one of Le Prade’s teachers at Manual Arts takes her to see Edwin Markham, the poet who had galvanized America with his poem about the spent laborer, “The Man with the Hoe.” Markham took her on as a protégée and the Los Angeles Evening Herald ran a feature story entitled “Edwin Markham Discovers Poetic Genius in L.A. Girl.” Markham remained significant in Le Prade’s life and was one of the many poets, including John Masefield, Poet Laureate of Britain, who came to plant trees in her annual Poet’s Garden ceremonies. These pastoral salons, which she held every spring in the backyard of her working class neighborhood in the South Wilshire district of Los Angeles, included along with poetry readings such pastoral props as dancing girls in togas and flute processionals. The layout was a parody of the convention and, at the same time, a means toward an alternative georgic. During these occasions, Le Prade planted trees for the women poets of the future; the pastoral site served for those not historically enfranchised not only as a place of respite and renewal, but of radical action as well.
The poems in A Woman Free which follow the initial “Song of a Woman Free” also deal with social and political conditions. In “Solidarity,” Le Prade emphatically proclaims the importance of contemporary organized labor to counter those who would “feed on children’s blood and women’s flesh” (39). And she deplores the chauvinism she sees fomenting World War I: “I see the harvest of this thing called Nationalism / Which sets the nations at each other’s throats” (71). The book was reviewed on both coasts. The Boston Evening Transcript reported that “this lady is a legitimate heir to old Walt’s manner of striding along the heights of Olympus, mantle and all.” But the reviewer for the Los Angeles Evening Herald was so addled by what he called its “ultra-radical philosophies” that he inverted the title of his subject’s work from A Woman Free to A Free Woman, perhaps hoping that normalizing the syntax would neutralize the politics. Taking the polemics for granted, the writer for the International Socialist Review pronounced, “This is a book of charming verses.” 
As I want to argue, although both Whitman in “Song of Myself’ and Le Prade in “Song of a Woman Free” use specific images for synecdochic effect, the instantiations are more anchored in a specific historical dialectic in Le Prade. As Whitman absorbs and subsumes common Western tropes of time, place, and situation to a beatific occasion that is transtemporal, ubiquitous and pancontextual, he imagines himself a universal representative. Female and other singers who have not had a hand in making up traditional and encompassing tropes perform a healthy debilitation of that universalizing when they offer their own altered poetic resonances. This may be true of any derivative influence: There really is no veracious replication, but only re-texting, the again rendering of ontogenetic text through the crucible of history.
Whitman’s poem begins, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” offering in the first line one subject performing two perhaps simultaneous or perhaps sequential actions. The only element of the line that is repeated is the pronominal reflexive, signaling that both these predications are emphatically intimate ones. Le Prade’s first line, “I am a woman free. My song /…” announces her gender as her identity, and rather than immediately and decisively declaring active predications, she defers to a qualifier, albeit one as important as her emancipation. That adjective “free” and the subject of her subsequent clause, “song,” by its separation from its predicate, deferred to the next line, are elevated to positions of considerable weight. Here, that important proprietary pronoun belongs not to the sayer but to the song itself. In “Song of Myself” the singer self is set up as rhetorically prominent, while in “Song of a Woman Free” it is the gendered nature of the singer and the song she sings that are salient.
Le Prade’s singer is a synecdochic Everywoman, certainly, but it is a persona who serves her “sister singers” in discrete historic moments. We might call Le Prade’s speaker a diachronic synecdoche, where Whitman’s, perhaps less dependent on the realities of history than the workings of the cosmos, is a synchronic one. Whitman at the moment of “Song of Myself,” “observe[s] a spear of summer grass.” His contemplation is more atemporally meditative, as Le Prade’s is particularly epideictic, and more strident. Whitman, in spite of having experienced a harsh childhood and poverty, is on more comfortable terms with the doings of the human condition, and feels in synch with the ways of the world.
Whereas in Le Prade’s poem, the noise of the world must compete with her own song, in Whitman’s work the poet’s song becomes a complement to the natural world: “I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following[.]” (l. 586). In “Song of a Woman Free,” the “noise of things” (l. 3) is a din to be overcome by the decibels of the singer, but in Whitman, no such shouting is necessary. In Le Prade’s song, the first specific aural image, “the sound of the belched words of [the poet’s] voice,” comes from the poet himself, and “the words [are] loosed to the eddies of the wind […]” (l. 25). The songs of both poets, however, emanate from within. Le Prade’s ode also “[f]lows from [her] soul….” (l. 2).
Although the subjectivities of both speakers project likewise centrifugally, there is a different target for these transitivities in each. A social compact between singer and reader is implicit in “Song of Myself.” Whitman directly solicits the reader with urgent inquiries to share in the perceiving of his images and to participate through those acts in the meaning making. In “Song of a Woman Free,” there is no address, only declaration. Again, Whitman can be solicitous and inviting because he writes from an assumed central position. Le Prade, on the other hand, is struggling from an inferior one and cannot so readily give up what meager position she has; she must appropriate the conventions before she can transcend them.
Whitman, privy to and practiced in those sanctioned protocols, can afford to be encompassing and expansive, multi-personaed; he can even transcend traditional notions of historic time. And he does disable any conventional sense of chronology: “There was never any more inception … youth or age … perfection … heaven or hell … than there is now” (ll. 40-44); he tells us that “[He] know[s] the amplitude of time” (l. 421). But Le Prade is very conscious of historic conditions. There is a march of the dialectic, a melioristic imperative, in her poem. She does not yet “loafe and invite [her] soul” (l. 4) with the reflexive, meditative and encompassing mien that Whitman does because she is still in the process of “advancing” toward “love that is not lust, /…work that is not pain, /…home which is the world, /...motherhood which is not forced, / and the man who also must be free” (ll. 18-23). “Advance” and “advancing,” five times appearing as predicates in the poem, become the primary means of moving the song forward on its time-constrained trajectory. The historical moment of “Song of a Woman Free” has just passed the threshold of freedom, and its speaker is advancing toward that time when she, too, may loaf with ease. Four times throughout the course of this short poem, as Le Prade “advance[s] toward all that waits for [her]” (l. 78), her face is turned “toward the sun.” This is a singular sun in a set, and up to now, unjust universe. For Whitman, “(there are millions of suns left)” (l. 34). But then Whitman contains multitudes, and Le Prade, although poised to do so at some point in the future, does not.
The most interesting line in “Song of a Woman Free,” I think, is “I am the free woman,/ No longer a slave to man, / Or anything in all the universe— / Not even to myself” (l. 59). Le Prade is on a verge here, just barely past a threshold, but still very much in history; she is not yet ready to merge in an enterprise that is as ahistorical and encompassingly gendered as Whitman’s project is. Whitman can presume to be the universal sayer and proclaimer as “the poet of the woman the same as the man, / And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” (ll. 425-426). Le Prade’s lines, “I shall not be the mother of one child, / But of all children— / For I myself am the daughter / Of all women and all men” (ll. 68-71) are directly reminiscent of Whitman’s “I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men” (l. 427). But Le Prade acknowledges in these echoic lines the historic particulars of both generation and gender. Whitman can be magnanimously associative, but Le Prade must act as a single and particularly gendered person in history, as a free woman, prior to merging.
A major departure in “Song of a Woman Free” from “Song of Myself” is in the respective poets’ attitudes toward lust. Adrienne Rich notes that “Whitman really does accept woman’s lust as a good and natural part of her being, rather than as a devouring force or a self-destructive drive” (Miller 55). Whitman himself says, “I believe in the flesh and the appetites.” (SOM 522). The 22 year old Le Prade, politically and socially sophisticated, is still pretty puritanical in idealizing “love that is not lust” (l. 19). Although she does celebrate “the [b]eauty of the [b]ody” elsewhere in A Woman Free (43), she is attached to that radicalism of her time that valued a chaste heterosexuality. Cary Nelson rightly sees a conflux of refined gentility and radicalism in Le Prade.
The point I want to make is not that the two poems are equal or even comparable in traditional ways, but that the Le Prade poem is a descendant text of “Song of Myself” that helps us explore how descendent texts conduct themselves. Female and other differently gendered, classed and raced texts often concern themselves with more historically anchored images and stylistic mechanisms than their ontogenic foretexts. There is never an easy recapitulation unless historical conditions remain static, and whenever is that? Whitman was an enormous and necessary influence on Le Prade but “Song of a Woman Free” is an uneasy replication of “Song of Myself,” not one that is elegantly derivative in a linear sense. When texts become altered, they become not mimetic in the sense of the same constituents becoming somehow just later engaged, but the constituents themselves are altered so that the replication is always “off.” It is the very tracks of this “offness” which are worthy of investigation.
In Le Prade’s case, “Song of a Woman Free,” with all it owes to the steward “Song of Myself,” is not a “lesser” palimpsest, but one that is anchored, moored in historical context. Before Le Prade can unmoor herself and her poem from dialectical process, she must “cultivate,” that is, go through the construct of history. We know Le Prade was conscious of the importance of cultivation all her life as she maintained and promoted her Poet’s Garden. The aesthetic-political site from which she writes is one that allows both renewal, a traditional pastoral activity, and radical action, an atypical pastoral pursuit. Le Prade’s “Song of a Woman Free” is a successor text to “Song of Myself,” but it also becomes a precursor one in its own right; Whitman has provided a conductor text and Le Prade has produced a text that will provide new tracks and new conductions. Ruth Le Prade must cultivate history, tend it and garden it (rearranging that which will flourish, and weeding and extirpating what will not) before she can sing not solo of her own emancipation, but in a chorus of voices to pronounce her progeny of women free.
Le Prade, Ruth. A Woman Free and other poems. Los Angeles: J.F. Rowny P, 1917.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Mosaic of Interpretations.
Iowa City: University of Iowa P, 1989.
Miller, James E. Jr., Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne, 1990.
---. Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd, Mead
& Co., 1964.
Nelson, Cary, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of
Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 1989.
Poets Garden Collection. University of Southern California Special Collections Library.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Barnes & Noble,
 The modest attribution “By Ruth” recalls, of course, the famous omission of any mention of Whitman’s authorship in the initial facts of publication of Leaves of Grass. I believe this “half-hearted” attempt to emulate Whitman’s practice is evidence of Le Prade’s discomfort with allowing herself to speak for everywoman.
 Nelson 135. EDIT
 Sinclair makes a rare exception to his policy of not printing any but his own works from his Pasadena press by publishing in 1920 Le Prade’s second book, Debs and the Poets, a collection of testimonials from well known writers (including Carl Sandburg, Max Eastman, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman) solicited by Le Prade in order to instigate the release of Eugene Debs from the Atlanta Penitentiary.
 When exploring dissertation topics, I found this unknown woman’s project, The Poets Garden, on a list of special collections at the University of Southern California. When I opened a cardboard box and found a journal marked, “Not to be opened during the lifetime of Ruth Le Prade,” I was hooked.
 See E. Miller, (50-51) for discussion of this “dominant symbol.”
 This and all subsequent references to “Song of Myself” will be from the 1892 edition cited in James E. Miller Jr.’s Whitman’s “Song of Myself” unless otherwise noted. (SOM 646-7)
 So, of course, do women need human care and effort to cultivate them to orgasm.
 Poet’s Garden Collection. University of Southern California. Box 48, Edwin Markham biography, Book 1, ch 2, 6.
 Markham, in Los Angeles to give a reading, invited Le Prade to come to the Clark Hotel on Fifth Street to show him her poems.
 Poets Garden Collection. University of Southern California. Box 48, Edwin Markham biography, Book 1, ch 2, 26.
 Maesfield takes part in this tree planting ritual in Le Prade’s backyard in the mid Wilshire district of Los Angeles in 1936. Actually, he plants two trees, a fruit tree which he wants to plant and an oak tree which Le Prade has “visioned.”
 Poets Garden Collection. University of Southern California. Box 6, Pamphlet announcing Ruth Le Prade’s return to Southern California in ’23-’24.
 January 13, 1917, Part 2, 1.
 Poets Garden Collection. University of Southern California. Box 6.
 Michael Robert Breitwieser has commented on “the transtemporal and transspatial mobility of the spoken “I[.]” See E. Miller, 46.
 Malcom Cowley has noted that “It was not until 1881 that the poem became “Song of Myself,” a phrase that …is completely false to its original intention. …Whitman had originally been writing about a not-myself, a representative figure….” (Whitman, xxxii).
 I am using the later editions of “Song of Myself,” in which Whitman has added the second clause to the first line of the poem.
 Le Prade’s poem is published three years before Article XIX of the U.S. Constitution, granting suffrage to women, is ratified.
 Of course, Whitman’s entire poem is a synaesthetic “Song.” As the poet is pervasively singing from every sense, so do all the reader’s senses receive stimuli throughout the entire reading.
 In lines 30-33, he asks the reader four times “Have you….” We might even call these four questions the four questions of the Hebrew Seder, the Manishtanah, of SOM.
 “I am large…. I contain multitudes” (line 1317) of the 1855 edition becomes “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” (line 1326) by 1892. Perhaps the demoting of the bold declarations to the subsequent parenthetical is also a reflection of the waning of romanticism and the waxing of pragmatism.
 Interesting is that what in 1855 had been part of the regular text is so taken for granted by 1892 that in the later edition the statement is only worthy of afterthought, parenthetical status.
 I am thinking here of Whitman’s “Who need be afraid of the merge.” (line 136, 1855). E.H. Miller reports that “[Albert] Gelpi finds in the emphasis upon ‘merge’…confirmation of the poet’s androgynous nature.” (70)
 In the same paragraph where Nelson mentions Le Prade’s Debs and the Poets as an example, he speaks of “[a] whole series of volumes of poetry in which genteel values often struggle with socialist or Marxist commitments [which] begins to appear and continues on into the twenties.” (135)
 Yes, there is a debt. And what is the tender of literary, political, social, aesthetic and human gift?
 Of course this chorus will sing in multiple chords of both harmony and discord!
 I do not intend that feminist or female be interpreted in any essentialist, biological sense. Any subjectivity that experiences difference is connoted.