Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
British Isles, Whitman in the
Author:
Thomas, M. Wynn
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Despite Walt Whitman's efforts to put wildly favorable words into the mouths of his British reviewers, the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass was met in London for the most part either with frosty silence or with scathing condescension: "Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics," snorted the Critic (Allen and Folsom 22). In a private letter of 1866, Matthew Arnold deplored the "eccentric and violent originality" of the poetry (Allen and Folsom 25). Yet by 1876 Whitman's friends in England were sufficient in number to muster a hefty subscription to help the by then ailing and impoverished poet. This action lent at least some credence to Whitman's claims that England had been much readier than his native country to recognize his genius. And yet no complete, unexpurgated edition of Leaves of Grass was published in Britain during the author's lifetime.

Although Whitman's late-nineteenth-century admirers in Britain were a fairly motley crowd, they were by and large middle class, bookish, socially and politically radical, and more attracted to the gospel he preached than convinced by his means of preaching it. Inclined as many of them were to view him as prophet, pioneer, and liberator, they valued his writings for their egalitarian spirit, healthy optimism, spiritual uplift, cosmic vision, nature philosophy, frank physicality and sexual openness. Their attraction to him was often a function of their reaction against established Victorian practices and values, a reaction that in some cases could be accommodated within the mainstream sociopolitical reform movements of the period, but in other cases contributed to a developing counter-culture, including utopian socialism, an inchoate feminism, and attempts to liberalize, or even revolutionize, sexual issues.

Whitman was disappointed in his hopes that W.M. Rossetti's 1868 publication of a bowdlerized selection from Leaves of Grass would take Britain by storm, but it was nevertheless a landmark edition that more or less coincided with the switch of readers' interests from European to American literature, following the ending of the Franco-Prussian war (1870). By then, the anti-democratic prejudice that had helped prolong Britain's colonialist attitude toward the United States had been eroded by the steady democratization of British politics, and the great Education Acts of the seventies also helped produce a new breed of reader, avid for transatlantic reading matter. But, unlike the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman's poetry still appealed only to a minority. Even discriminating writers like George Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed only a nervous interest in his work; Alfred, Lord Tennyson responded to Whitman's personal overtures in carefully measured tones of baffled respect; and Algernon Charles Swinburne ended as fierce enemy to the poetry, although he had begun as brilliant advocate of its Blakean power of visionary utterance. It was, in fact, by relating Whitman to William Blake, or to Percy Bysshe Shelley, that many radicals were able to claim him as heir to a British tradition of revolutionary poetics. It was in these terms that Henry Salt recommended Whitman's poetry to proletarian readers in his radical anthology Songs of Freedom (1884), intended to challenge Francis Turner Palgrave's enormously influential Golden Treasury (1851). The popular journalistic pieces about Whitman by James Thomson ("B.V."), author of The City of Dreadful Night (1880), were, however, much more effective attempts at crossing the class barrier and drawing the poetry to the attention of the lower classes with whom Whitman so yearned to connect.

That Whitman's work could indeed appeal to politicized sections of the lower middle classes was proved when a group of working men in industrial Bolton (Lancashire) began discussing his work and entered into prolonged correspondence with Whitman himself. The poet was so touched by their interest that he later bequeathed to them the stuffed body of the little canary bird whose singing had consoled him in old age. As the labor movement began to turn to the new secular religion of socialism, the new "labor churches" in several industrial towns, including Birmingham, adopted Whitman as their prophet. His poetry, or at least the diluted Whitmanesque poetry of his British epigone, Edward Carpenter, affected the climate of thinking of the Independent Labor party and was an acknowledged influence on the great Keir Hardie, elected the first Labor party M.P. in 1900. By the turn of the century Whitman was a significant presence in the thinking of many working class progressivist groups, and it was probably in this context that the young D.H. Lawrence first encountered him. But as the labor movement was increasingly forced by economic and political circumstances into militant unionism and the politics of class struggle, Whitman's writing lost its appeal.

In the earlier period, when Whitman's poetry excited the attentions of crusading middle-class socialists, one of his most devoted acolytes was Ernest Rhys, who believed strongly in producing cheap books to educate the masses and was later instrumental in establishing the enormously influential Everyman Library. Rhys was one of many British visitors to Whitman's little house in Camden, others including the young Oscar Wilde and the famous actor Sir Henry Irving. Rhys's Welshness is a reminder that Whitman's appeal extended to all the nationalities of the British Isles. Other Welsh writers who came under his influence were the colorful communist dentist and populist versifier T.E. Nicholas (Niclas y Glais), the great Welsh-language poet Waldo Williams, and of course Dylan Thomas, who kept a photograph of Whitman pinned to the wall of the Laugharne boathouse that served as his "study." Whitman's poetry was translated into Welsh by M. Wynn Thomas in 1995.

Since Ossian, Robert Burns, and Thomas Carlyle had meant so much to Whitman, it was appropriate that Scottish writers and academics should take a particular interest in his work. Three important studies of his work appeared in Scotland even before his death. The young Robert Louis Stevenson was besotted with his poetry; the Edinburgh town planner and polymath Patrick Geddes was enthusiastic about his social utopianism; and the omnivorousness of Whitman's imagination appealed enormously to that giant, maverick figure of the modern Scottish Renaissance, Hugh MacDiarmid. Such contemporary poets as Robert Crawford, W.T. Herbert, and the veteran experimentalist Edwin Morgan are therefore only the latest in a long line of distinguished Scottish Whitmanians.

Similarly, the contemporary Ulster poets Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon, drawn respectively to Whitman's antiauthoritarianism and his tangy use of the vernacular, have behind them a century of Irish interest in his writing. Even the great modernists W.B. Yeats and James Joyce were passingly taken with him, unlike the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who memorably dismissed him as "a writer who tried to bully his way to prophecy" (qtd. in Allen and Folsom 18). Among his many Irish admirers were Sean O'Casey, Frank O'Connor, Padraic Colum, Oscar Wilde, and AE (George Russell), but his appeal extended well beyond Irish literary circles to include labor leader James Larkin and freedom fighter James Connolly. Indeed, Whitman's nationalistic poetry contributed significantly to the cultural fashioning of an independent Ireland, as is evident both from the letters of the young Yeats and from the early writings of Standish O'Grady, one of the key figures in the Irish literary awakening during the closing years of the last century.

O'Grady studied at Trinity College, Dublin, with Edward Dowden, a representative figure of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy whose early study of Whitman in The Poetry of Democracy (1878) provided a judicious assessment of his unorthodox talent, much appreciated by the poet himself. Others who wrote in measured, academic terms were the distinguished bookmen George Saintsbury and Edmund Gosse (who memorably described Whitman's poetry as "literature in the condition of protoplasm" [Allen and Folsom 48]). But in the latter part of the nineteenth century the most strikingly original British response to Whitman was expressed in a much more excited, and exciting, form. "An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" (1870) consisted of remarkable letters about Whitman's poetry written to W.M. Rossetti by Anne Gilchrist, the widow of a great Blake scholar. Hearing in the poetry a call to resensualize the female body and to shatter the Victorian constraints on female sexuality, Gilchrist responded with an emotional nakedness conveyed through surges of ecstatic prose. Her writing departed from the "masculine," rational norm in ways that approximate to what feminists would now call écriture féminine (womanly writing). Gilchrist also wrote love letters to Whitman himself and eventually took her family to Boston to visit him, probably with a view to taking him as her spouse or partner. In the face of Whitman's kind but distant response, however, her ardor cooled to a warm respect and steadfast friendship.

Whitman's real sexual orientation, guardedly expressed in "Calamus" and guardedly recognized by the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in a remarkable private letter to Robert Bridges (1882), was intuited by three important British disciples. The freethinking Edward Carpenter, whose Towards Democracy (1883) consisted of over five hundred closely printed pages of Whitmanesque poetry, claimed (unconvincingly) in old age to recall in detail how he had granted the aged Whitman his sexual favors. Havelock Ellis included Whitman in his pantheon of sexually liberated cosmic philosophers, precursors of a new age. Most interesting of all, the frail scholar-aesthete John Addington Symonds credited Whitman not only with breathing into him a new robust spirit of physical health but also with a celebration of comradeship conceived of as passionate male bonding. However, when Whitman was privately pressed by Symonds in 1890 to admit his homoeroticism, he reacted with alarm, angrily repudiating the imputation and claiming to have fathered six children. Some recent scholars have read this incident not as an outright denial by Whitman of his homosexuality but as a rejection of that kind of homosexual character (aesthetic, upper-class, "effeminate") which to him Symonds seemed to represent.

Another figure preoccupied with the turbid sexuality of Whitman's writing was D.H. Lawrence, whose obsession with his work was reflected in the many essays he drafted on the subject before the appearance of the epoch-making chapter in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). At once infatuated with Whitman and exasperated by him, Lawrence wrote in wonderfully comic terms of the American's grossly egotistical voraciousness. But he also recognized his "classic" greatness and his massive importance as the originator of free verse. Probably the only great British writer to have benefited creatively from Whitman's example, Lawrence drew upon the rhythms of Leaves of Grass in writing his own fluid "poetry of the moment." Other writers who honored Whitman, but whose style was not marked by his, included the ascetic nineties poet Lionel Johnson; the war poets Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney; the liberal humanist and homosexual author of A Passage to India, E.M. Forster; the major modernist novelist Virginia Woolf; and the eccentric genius John Cowper Powys.

While naturalized Americans such as Thom Gunn and David Hockney have recently demonstrated how much Whitman's work can still matter to British poets and artists, for most of this century the study of Whitman in Britain has been largely confined to academic scholars, men and women of letters, and freelance critics. Regardless of whether they have belonged to the nativist, conservative, anti-American tradition or to the progressivist, modernist, Poundian tradition, British poets have tended to overlook Whitman. But, as the novelist Anthony Burgess pointed out, distinguished British composers have remedied this deficiency: Ralph Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony and Toward the Unknown Region, Frederic Delius's Sea-Drift, Gustav Holst's Dirge for Two Veterans, and Sir Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes are all important works based on Whitman's poetry.

Bibliography

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

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Blodgett, Harold. Walt Whitman in England. 1934. New York: Russell and Russell, 1973.

Clarke, Graham, ed. Walt Whitman: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. Robertsbridge: Helm Information, 1994.

Crawford, Robert. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Gohdes, Benjamin. American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1944.

Grant, Douglas. Purpose and Place: Essays on American Writers. London: Macmillan, 1965.

Hindus, Milton, ed. Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Lease, Benjamin. Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Murphy, Francis, ed. Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.


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