Commentary

Selected Criticism

Walt Whitman: A Dialogue

George Santayana


McStout. Coming?

Van Tender. What, is it time?

McStout. Fifteen minutes before the game begins. We might take a stroll. It is such splendid weather!

Van Tender. Yes, and this is the best place to enjoy it. The warm wind blows in over you, and you can almost fancy how the trees feel when they thaw, and the sap begins to run, and the buds throb till they burst, and every leaf breathes and trembles. The plants don't have to move from their places to feel that it's spring. Why should we? You know my motto:

"Better than to stand to sit, better than to sit to lie,
Better than to dream to sleep, better than to sleep to die."
But you can't expect to attain the highest good at one bound from the depths of Philistia. You can't do better for the present than to come in and stretch your energetic self on the other half of the window seat. Isn't it delicious? What better apology for idler? Here you can breath the air and look at the fresh grass, while you read a poet and cut a lecture. He tells you how in another country, perhaps, he felt what you are feeling now, as he watched the spring of another year. that is the best part of the pleasure, to know that it's human, and that all men have had it in common, from Adam down.

McStout. And who is your poet now? Swinburne?

Van Tender. Oh, no.

McStout. Keats?

Van Tender. No; it's Walt Whitman. There is a time for everything, you know.

McStout. If, like you, one does nothing. No wonder you like Walt Whitman now and then for a change. You must be so tired of poetry.

Van Tender. Isn't this poetry? What is poetry?

McStout. A matter of words-more of words than matter. But if Walt Whitman is poetry, it isn't on account of the words. You don't pretend he can write English?

Van Tender. Not according to the English department. But that is a local standard. Could Homer pass an examination in Goodwin's moods and tenses? And doesn't he say ΣμιυΘεὓ, which is a ἄπαξ λϵγόμνον.

McStout. I dare say Homer talked as it was the fashion to talk in his day. And when English becomes a dead language and nothing survives but Leaves of Grass, Whitman's style will be above criticism. But now english has the misfortune of being in use. A man can't make it to suit his fancy, and if he won't trouble himself to write the language of his fellows he can't expect them to learn his. How can you endure a man who has neither the accent of Christians, nor the style of a Christian, pagan, nor man?

Van Tender. Precisely for that reason: he produces a new effect, he gives you a new sensation. If you will show me a well-written book that contains the same emotion, I agree to bind the leaves of grass into bundles and cast them into the furnace. If only a man could become an artist in his words, and yet retain the innocence of his feelings! But to learn a method of expression is to become insensible to all it can't express. The schools don't teach us to paint what we see, but to see what others have painted.

McStout. I've heard of an old master who used to say to his pupils, "Copy if you want to be copied." When people are fascinated by the extravagant they show they haven't experience and training enough to appreciate what is sane and solid. Would you make no distinction between the normal and human and the eccentric and perverse? You toss sense and grammar to the Philistines, who ought to be correct since they can't be original. But your geniuses, you think, mustn't submit to standards: they create standards. IF they didn't seem ridiculous to the vulgar, would they be truly sublime? You may say that if you like, but if originality is genius there are more great men at Somerville than at Cambridge. You can't get over the difference between sense and nonsense between beauty and caprice. Any one can produce a new effect when fools are impressed by his blunders. You may like to hear Whitman's "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," but you must confess it is a whim of yours, and that a yawp is one thing and a poem another.

Van Tender. Certainly, I admit that a barbarism is an annoyance. When I come upon one it gives me a little shock, and I wish for the moment that it wasn't there. But there are models of English enough. I don't read Whitman for his verbal graces, although he has them, after his own fashion. If you wrote me a letter it might not be a model of style either, yet I should read it with interest if it told me what I wanted to hear. And Whitman does that. He hasn't the merits of Keats or of Shakspere, but he has merits of his own. His verses bring a message theirs couldn't bring, so I read theirs for their style and his for his inspiration. It is the voice of nature crying in the wilderness of convention.

McStout. I wish you could tell me what you mean by that. The only novelty I can see in him is that he mentions all sorts of things and says nothing about them. If you like pantheism and indecency, why aren't you satisfied with French novels and German philosophy? These are the same things in their genuine form.

Van Tender. It's not a theory or a description of things I get from Whitman. It's an attitude, a faculty of appreciation. You may laugh at his catalogues of objects, at his enumeration of places. But the hurrying of these images through the mind gives me a sense of space, of a multiplicity of things spread endlessly around me. I become aware of the life of millions of men, of great stretches of marsh, desert, and ocean. Have you never thought of the poetry of the planet? Fancy this little ball spinning along so fast, and yet so little in a hurry. Imagine the film of blue-gray water and the flat patches of land, now green, now brown, and the dim clouds creeping over all. And near the ocean, here and there, conceive the troops of men and animals darkening the earth like so many ants. And think how little the murmur of one thousand jargons ruffles the air, and how the praises of each god are drowned in the vaults of his temple!

McStout. But all that is very different from Walt Whitman. Astronomy may have its impressive side, and even geography, when you connect it with the fortunes of mankind. Science is interesting, and if you can manage to make poetry out of it we shall have the first poetry in the world not resting on illusion. It seems to me that the illusion is what is poetic, and the fact is so only when in fancy we assimilate it to the fiction. The migrations of men from one land to another, for instance, are important events, and you may cast the glamour of poetry over them for a moment by dramatizing them. You may call the Strait of Magellan a Hellespont and himself a Jason. You may say the whole world is a Troad and the history of civilization a war of heroes. But if you mention the heroes, and their real qualities, where is the poetry? And if you revese the process and try to explain the fables as history symbolized, or what not, you degrade the ideal and distort the facts. The reason why Walt Whitman is ridiculous is that he talks of real objects as if they could enter into poetry at all. It isn't art to objects, nor poetry to turn out "chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota." Poetry deals with sensuous attractions, found nowhere on the map. to see then you must have a passport into fairy land.

Van Tender. Ah, you are caught at last! You have defined poetry. Now I wouldn't for a moment defend metaphysical confusions. The trouble with the German sort of criticism is that it isn't satisfied with the fact, but goes in search of a theory, as if a theory could be anything real and ultimate, or more than the flight of the soul from perception to perception, from emotion to emotion, on which alone she can alight to find rest and truth.

"Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum."
But what makes you think the essence poetry distils can't be extracted from every object? Why should one thing leave its type in the world of ideas, and not another! Trust me, beauty is everywhere, if we only had the genius to see it. If a man has the ability to make us feel the fitness, the necessity, the beauty of common things, he is a poet of the highest type. If some objects seem to you poetic rather than others, if Venice can be apostrophised and Oshkosh is unmentionable, it's because habit makes it easier to idealize them. This beauty has been pointed out so often that we know it by heart. But what merit is to repeat the old tricks, and hum the old tunes? You add nothing to the beauty of the world. You see no new vision. You are the author of nothing, but merely an apprentice in the poetic guild, a little poet sucking the honey with which great poets have sweetened words. You are inspired by tradition and judged by convention. Yet this very convention must have been inspired at first. The real objects about a man must have impressed him and he must have found words fit to communicate his impression. These words in that way became poetic, and afterwards any man who used them was an artist.

McStout. And you think literary tradition wholly arbitrary? You think it a mere accident that all hearts were touched by one man's words, and that all generations adopted his words and imitated his methods? Why was one poet's inspiration turned into a convention rather than another's? Evidently because he discovered and selected the truly interesting aspects of life, and dwelt upon those things which of themselves are beautiful. Don't you know how every age fancies it has a poet of original genius, that afterwards turns out to have been nothing but a fashionable mountebank? He had some trick that appealed to a particular mood or passion of the time, and his success in drawing attention for the moment is mistaken for a sign of greatness. That happens to Walt Whitman. the times are favorable to his vague pantheism, his formlessness, his confusion of values, his substitution of emotion for thought, his trust in impulse rather than experience. Because we are too ignorant or too wilful to see the distinctions of things and of persons, we decree that there are no distinctions, and proceed to remodel literature and society upon that principle.

Van Tender. If the distinctions are real, there is no danger of their being destroyed. Things have different values, as one star differs from another star in brightness. All I insist on is that in all you can see light, if your eyes are open. Whitman would teach you, if you would only read him, to see in things their intrinsic nature and life, rather than the utility they may have for one another. That is his great merit, his sublime justice. It is a kind of profound piety that recognizes the life of every thing in nature, and spares it, and worships its intrinsic worth. There is something brutal and fatuous in the habit we commonly have of passing the parts of nature in review and pronouncing them good or bad according to the effect they have on our lives. Aren't they as real as ourselves? In practical life we have to override them, for if we waited for justice and the ultimate good to direct what we should do, we should die before we had done anything. but it's the privilege of contemplation to be just. Listen to what Whitman says here:

"I do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me
And the look of the bay mare shames stillness out of me."

McStout. This justice of yours may be sublime, but isn't it a trifle dangerous? By admiring the beasts so much we may come to resemble them,-or perhaps the resemblance is the cause of the admiration. You may say it is brutal to make ourselves a standard for other creatures; yet a human standard is better than none at all, and can we have any other? But Walt Whitman, I understand, would think it a great improvement if men imitated the animals more than they do.

Van Tender. Undoubtedly, in some respects. Here he explains it perfectly: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,

I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth."

McStout. And not one writes bad prose or worse poetry, not one is untrue to his instincts as all this talk is untrue to the better instincts of man.

Van Tender. I knew it would came at last: Walt Whitman is immoral!

McStout. It isn't immoral to call a spade a spade, but it is immoral to treat life as a masquerade, as a magic pantomime in which acts have no consequences and happiness and misery don't exist.

Van Tender. Ah, but Whitman is nothing if not a spectator, a cosmic poet to whom the whole world is a play. And good and evil, although not equally pleasant to experience, are equally interesting to look at. Is it wrong to enjoy our misery when its distance from us makes contemplation of it possible? How else can the gods have been happy? to refuse us this pleasure is to deprive us of a consolation without preventing our suffering. Or do you think the knowledge of what life is would make us unfit to live? Should we be really more wicked if the sun were not a Puritan and dared to look on the world through the twenty-four hours?

McStout. Perhaps not, but the trouble with your contemplation and impartiality is that it unnerves a man and makes him incapable of indignation or enthusiasm. He goes into raptures over everything, and accomplishes nothing. The world is so heavenly to him that he finds nothing to do in it.

Van Tender. Except play his harp and wear his crown. Is it nothing to perceive the beauty of the world, and help other men to perceive it? I don't mean simply the pleasure of art itself. I mean the widening of your sympathies, your reconciliation with nature. What better thing is there for a man than to remember now and then that the stars are laughing at him, to renounce his allegiance to his own preferences and passions and by understanding to enter into those of other men? We can't play at life without getting some knocks and bruises, and without running some chance of defeat. But our best moments are the breathing spells when we survey the field and see what a glorious game it all is.

McStout. I'm glad we may do that, especially as the other game is over.


Publication Information
"Walt Whitman: A Dialogue," by George Santayana, first appeared in the Harvard Monthly 10.3 (May 1890): 85-91.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00253


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