Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads, A" (1888)
Author:
Shucard, Alan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman published "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" in November Boughs (1888), not long before his seventieth birthday. Although he put the entire essay together from segments of four previously published essays—"A Backward Glance on My Own Road," "How 'Leaves of Grass' Was Made," "How I Made a Book," and "My Book and I"—"A Backward Glance" is a unified statement of the influences on Whitman and of his purposes in the composition of Leaves of Grass. The essay is also, to a lesser extent, a document of poetic theory.

Among the influences, Whitman names Sir Walter Scott's poetry; the Bible; Shakespeare; Ossian; and, in the best available translations, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, the Nibelungen cycle, ancient Hindu poetry, and Dante. But where he read them was also of great importance; "those mighty masters" did not overwhelm him, he says, because he had read them in "the full presence of Nature" (723). He names Edgar Allan Poe, too, as influential—not Poe's poems, which he did not admire, but Poe's idea that "there can be no such thing as a long poem" (723) (an extraordinary notion for the expansive Whitman to praise!). Of all the external influences that Whitman mentions, however, the "Secession War," as he calls the American Civil War, is clearly the most salient. He calls the period from 1863 through 1865 "the real parturition years" (more than 1776–1783) of "this henceforth homogeneous Union" and claims that without the experience of those years, "'Leaves of Grass' would not now be existing" (724), an extravagant claim reflecting the effect that the war had on him. It is noteworthy that in this late self-examination Whitman omits from his list of influences Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Whitman had extolled decades before for bringing him from simmering "to a boil."

Nevertheless, Emerson's expression "autobiography in cipher" reverberates through Whitman's statement of his main purpose in writing Leaves of Grass (Miller 37). The center, "to which all should return from straying however far a distance, must be an identical body and soul, a personality—which personality," Whitman recalls, "after many considerations and ponderings I deliberately settled should be myself—indeed could not be any other" (723). Toward the end of this retrospective essay Whitman reemphasizes the biographical imperative that drove his composition, speaking of "an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record" (731).

Establishing himself as the universal paradigm, Whitman carried out his other intentions for Leaves. He wanted to make process, which he calls "Suggestiveness" in the essay, his approach: "I round and finish little, if anything; and could not, consistently with my scheme. . . . I seek less to state or display any theme or thought" than to cause "you, reader . . . to pursue your own flight" (725). Other qualities which he aimed to suffuse through his Leaves were "Comradeship . . . Good Cheer, Content, and Hope." He wished to instill in his reader habits of "vigorous and clean manliness, religiousness, and . . . good heart" (725). He wanted to explain that although science and technology may seem to be destroying the majesty of the human soul, they are enhancing it. He intended to make his poems agents of light, and to make them gender neutral and geographically impartial. He set out to sing a song of "Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality," whereby he might change his readers' perception of sexuality (727–728). He wanted to impart a sense of religion and morality—a "record of that entire faith...which is the foundation of moral America"—along with his transcendental belief in nature as an expression of a spiritual entity (729).

Of course, some of Whitman's stated intentions for Leaves were chauvinistic: to chant "the great pride of man in himself," which is essential for an American as "counterpoise to the leveling tendencies of Democracy" (726); to "help the forming of a great aggregate Nation . . . through the forming of myriads of fully develop'd and enclosing individuals" (726); "to show that [Americans], here and to-day, are eligible to be the grandest and the best" (727); and to proclaim and help fulfill the prediction "that the crowning growth of the United States is to be spiritual and heroic" (729).

As with any poet's contribution to poetic theory, Whitman's in "A Backward Glance" mirrors his own purposes and practice. Thus, when he asks for "a readjustment of the whole theory and nature of Poetry" (719)—despite all the "divine works" of the poetic tradition, to which he pays greater homage in this essay than he cared to pay earlier in his life—he insists that "the first element" of excellence in poetry must be "a sufficient Nationality." He well knows, he says, that his Leaves could have grown only "in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century" and only in "democratic America, and from the absolute triumph of the National Union arms" (718). Finally, he postulates, quoting Taine, that all original art is "self-regulated" and "lives on its own blood" (730).

Far from being the maudlin retrospective of a failing old man, "A Backward Glance" concludes with a strong reiteration of the core of Whitman's poetic theory and a reflection of his undying optimism. He avers first, "what Herder taught to the young Goethe, that really great poetry is always . . . the result of a national spirit," and second—here Whitman's spirit can still be seen soaring—"that the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung" (731–732).

Bibliography

Bradley, Sculley, and John A. Stevenson. Introduction. Walt Whitman's Backward Glances. By Walt Whitman. Ed. Bradley and Stevenson. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1947. 1–13.

Miller, James E., Jr. The American Quest for a Supreme Fiction: Whitman's Legacy in the Personal Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Whitman, Walt. "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads." Prose Works 1892. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 711–732.


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