Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:



Did you fear some scrofula out of the unflagging pregnancy? p.48 “Song of Myself”.

“Scrofula” (AKA King’s Evil) historically referred to a type of tuberculosis that affects the lymph glands of the neck. Today there is disagreement among medical professionals about its relationship to tuberculosis.  The word is adapted from the latin scrofa meaning “female swine”,  which was once thought to be the origin of the disease. In medieval times, scrofula was called the “King’s Evil.” It was believed that the touch of the King of France or England could the cure the disease. Scrofula was common in Whitman’s time but very rare today due to the near eradication of tuberculosis.

This is one of Whitman’s nastier lines and a welcome contrast to his universal warm and fuzzy side (he would have the loved “E”-popping rave culture of the early 1990s). It’s a rhetorical question in the vein of the Joker asking,  “have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”  Its context in the poem is interesting and brings up more questions than answers. Did the mother fear getting scrofula or giving birth to scrofula? By scrofula, does he mean the disease or the sow from which it supposedly came?  Whitman’s having a little fun with this vagueness. I think this is an example of him being the poet of wickedness that he referred to earlier on the same page. But it fits into his universal vision—who we are and what we give birth to is all the same.


“scrofula” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <>.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself (1855).” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. 48.

Image : Absolute Astronomy collection, photographer, date unknown < >.

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  1. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    Thank you for doing this post. I thought about doing scrofula for my image gloss but after I googled it I went with something much less disgusting. Glad to see my squeamishness didn’t rpevent it from being blogged about.

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    adamb » Blog Archive » Image Gloss — scrofula

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