Of all the groups in Leaves of Grass the "Calamus" poems, first appearing in the text in 1860, posess the closest autonomy, held together by a sentiment of manly attachment ("adhesiveness" was Walt Whitman's term) which some readers find more intimate and compelling than that of "Children of Adam " (Enfants d'Adam).
Their beginning may be surmised in a manuscript cluster of twelve poems (out of sequence in their present position) which appear originally to have been intended for a commemorative notebook, of like pen and ink and marked by Roman numerals. These poems reveal a story of attachment and renunciation whose symbol at first was not "Calamus" but "Live Oak with Moss." See Bowers, lxiii-lxxiv.
For the benefit of his English editor, W.M. Rossetti, Walt Whitman defined his symbol as follows: "Calamus' is a common word here. It is a very large & aromatic grass, or rush, growing about water-ponds in the valleys--spears about three feet high--often called 'sweet-flag'--grows all over the Northern and Middle States. . .The recherche or ethereal; sense of the term, as used in my book, arises probably from the actual Calamus presenting the biggest & hardiest kind of spears of grass--and their fresh, aquatic, pungent bouquet." (Corr. I, 347). That the symbol also possessed a specific sexual significance is apparent from its use five years earlier in "Song of Myself"(see line 535). To John Addington Symonds, who inquired whether the "Calamus" sentiment was homo-erotic, Walt Whitman gave an emphatic denial, alleging his normal sexuality. (See Blodgett, Walt Whitman in England 61--69 and 205- 208)
Both in Democratic Vistas and in his 1876 preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman was at pains to insist that the meaning of "Calamus" resides mainly in its political significance,--e.g., "It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it,) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization therof." However, mistaken such a hope, there is no question that for the poet the "Calamus" sentiment possessed a power both tragic and idealistic, from whose inner turmoil was to emerge compassion, sympathy, and balance.
Through the remaining six editions of Leaves of Grass, this group of poems retained its identity with surprisingly little change. The forty-five poems of 1860 were reduced in 1867 to forty-two, with three poems rejected; in 1871 one poem was added and four were transferred to Passage to India to make a total of thirty-nine, which is the number retained for the final arrangement of 1881.