Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1881–82 edition
Author:
Renner, Dennis K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman recognized that the timing of the 1881–1882 edition of Leaves of Grass was fortunate because it was a chance to consolidate and unify his work late in his career. He could achieve "the consecutiveness and ensemble " he had always wanted, he told his friend John Burroughs ( Correspondence 3:231). To accomplish this goal, Whitman regrouped many poems in five new subtitled sections or clusters, a formal device with which he had long been experimenting. Generally recognized as the definitive edition of his poems, this edition was published in Boston by James R. Osgood and Company in October 1881. It was the seventh edition, counting a pirated typesetting distributed in England. Other than adding supplements of later poems, Whitman did not change the design of the volume in the final decade of his life. The last of fifteen printings of the edition occurred in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death.

The Osgood edition is notable both for its legacy of clustering and because for the first time Whitman’s book was being distributed by a mainstream publisher; Osgood’s authors included James, Howells, and Twain. Whitman’s book sold more than 1,500 copies before the publisher withdrew it after a district attorney objected to the sexual content and threatened to prosecute the company for selling obscene literature. The poet soon arranged to resume printing with Philadelphia publishers—first Rees Welsh, then David McKay when McKay acquired Leaves and other non-legal titles from Welsh, who specialized in law books. Spurred by publicity, Philadelphia sales eventually surpassed 6,000 copies, earning Whitman more than $1,000 in royalties by December 1882.

In the summer of 1881, Whitman spent three weeks revising his book in New York City, then oversaw publishing details for two months in Boston. He cut 39 poems in their entirety, added seventeen new ones, and modified hundreds of lines, but many of the changes were minor adjustments of punctuation. For his final edition of Leaves Whitman focused his editorial efforts on regrouping poems to create the sequence and unity of dramatic effects he had in mind.

Whitman’s remarks are sketchy about the formal device of clustering, but the evidence supports James E. Miller’s conclusion that Whitman envisioned the overall organization of his poems in dramatic terms, with a protagonist and a narrative divided into acts. In his preface for the Centennial edition, whose structure was transitional toward the final arrangement of the poems, Whitman explains the function of the "Passage to India" cluster in this way: "As in some ancient legend-play," these poems serve "to close the plot and hero’s career" ( Comprehensive 745). In the same preface, Whitman also makes a distinction between the spiritual poems—his thoughts "on Death, Immortality, and a free entrance into the Spiritual World" (746)—and the political poems that presumably advance the career of his protagonist, which may be understood as the poet’s conflation of a poet figure and the American people, struggling to achieve the ideals of the Revolution.

Whitman published the "two altogether distinct veins" (746) of his poetry—spiritual and political—in separate volumes for his Centennial printing. Spiritual poems—combined with prose works in a second volume, Two Rivulets —were understandably ascendant in Whitman’s final arrangement of his poems. He was mindful of the transience of his own life "at the eleventh hour, under grave illness" (744), he explained, having suffered a paralytic stroke and the loss of his mother, who had died three years earlier. In spiritual poetry, Whitman offered elaborate poetic visions of immortality, post-Christian in imagery, yet largely compatible with Christian hopes.

In the final arrangement of his poems, Whitman reintegrated the spiritual poems from the second volume of his 1876 printing back into a single volume of Leaves of Grass. Critics differ over whether this reintegration succeeds or fails. Those who presume that the primary literary intention of the text was putting the imaginative life of a poet into a sequence of poems tend to discern miscellaneous instead of purposeful regroupings in the 1881–1882 edition. Bradley and Blodgett complain that "Autumn Rivulets" lacks a common theme or progression of ideas, James E. Miller, Jr., finds only a casual thematic unity in "By the Roadside," and Allen concludes that Whitman erred when he did not arrange poems according to the chronology of their composition or his autobiography. Assuming that Whitman used clusters to deal with the tension between the private origin of lyrics and the public setting he established for his poems, however, Warren concludes that clustering in the 1881–1882 edition succeeds. Critics who read the literary intention of Leaves from historical perspectives also are favorable about Whitman’s final design.

Starting with the observation by editors of the Variorum edition that Whitman seemed to have rejected nearly one of ten poems not for aesthetic reasons, but because the poems did not fit his plan for the book and drawing upon historical criticism by Erkkila and Thomas, Mary Virginia Stark offered the first extensive explications of new clusters in the 1881–1882 edition. Stark concludes that in his final design Whitman groups poems to create the dramatic effect of rising action, crisis, and resolution common in the narratives of Western literary culture. He portrays the aspirations of his protagonist-speaker under cluster subtitles from earlier editions—"Children of Adam" and "Calamus"—and in unclustered political poems like "Song of Myself," other "Songs," and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." These poems are all placed before the "Drum-Taps" cluster of Civil War poems Whitman called pivotal.

Stark observes a foreboding and intensifying somberness in the three new clusters placed before the crisis Civil War poems in the 1881–1882 edition. The "Birds of Passage" cluster opens with "Song of the Universal," in which images of hope are surrounded by images of peril and defeat: "From imperfection’s murkiest cloud, / Darts always forth one ray of perfect light" (section 3). The "Sea-Drift" cluster expands war imagery and amplifies the somber tone presaging the crisis of civil war. The third new cluster, "By the Roadside," opens with the harshly satirical "A Boston Ballad (1854)" and closes with scathing lines about the last three prewar "presidentiads"—"scum floating atop of the waters . . . bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol," while "these States sleep" ("To the States"). The roadside metaphor suggests the journey of American promise is being thwarted or delayed.

Following the crisis Civil War poems in "Drum-Taps" and "Memories of President Lincoln" groupings come the fourth new cluster, healing poems of "Autumn Rivulets"—"songs of continued years," Whitman called them in the first poem of the cluster ("As Consequent, Etc.")—and of peace and hope born by the "rivulets" swelled by the storm of the war.

Spiritual poems in the last new cluster—"From Noon to Starry Night"—provide comforting resolution for the conflicts and suffering of the tragic narrative, leading to "Songs of Parting," the grouping with which Whitman had ended each edition since he began experimenting with cluster arrangements in 1860. In all of the new clusters Stark discerns structural parallels to Shakespeare’s tragedies about Britain and episodes of crisis in the history of Israel from the Bible—literary models for Whitman’s work. Penultimate poems, first poems, repeated metaphors, and allusions also unify the clusters in relation to the Civil War and Leaves of Grass as a whole, Stark has shown.

Even granting the coherence of Whitman’s final design, the superior literary standing of prewar poems and clusters will probably endure. However, instead of blaming the abstractness of postwar poems and programmatic clusters in the 1881–1882 edition on a waning of poetic powers—a subtle form of ageism—critics can recognize the logic of the volume as Whitman designed it, acknowledging that twentieth-century readers have admired Whitman’s achievement as a lyric poet more than the larger communal and national purposes he envisioned for his work.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Bradley, Sculley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Introduction. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Bradley, Blodgett, Golden, and White. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1980. xv–xxv.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Stark, Mary Virginia. "Clustered Meaning in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass." Diss. U of Iowa, 1990.

Warren, James Perrin. "The ‘Paths to the House’: Cluster Arrangements in Leaves of Grass, 1860–1881." ESQ 30 (1984): 51–70.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. "Preface 1876— Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets." Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 744–754.


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