Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
British Romantic Poets
Author:
French, R. W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

While Whitman was reasonably well acquainted with the works of the British Romantic poets, none of them mattered to him as did William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, his favorite British writers. His readings in Romantic poetry were fleeting, tangential, and largely insignificant, except insofar as they influenced him by negative example and made him ever more confident of the directions, both artistic and thematic, in which he wanted to go.

Politically, the British Romantics were suspect, since Whitman believed they shared in the attachment to Old World feudalism that made British writers irrelevant, if not inimical, to the needs and concerns of nineteenth-century democratic America. A notebook entry probably dating from 1855 or 1856 specifically rebuked Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth for turning away from human rights in order to embrace "kingcraft, priestcraft, obedience, and so forth" (Notebooks 5:1778).

Even where Whitman found much to admire, he generally qualified his views. Robert Burns, for example, appealed to Whitman because of his democratic sympathies as well as his attractive personality, yet Burns was finally found wanting. In an 1882 essay, "Robert Burns As Poet and Person," Whitman condemned the Scottish poet for one telling defect, a lack of spirituality that prevented him from rising to the heights of the truly great, like Homer or Shakespeare, or even to the levels of such lesser eminences as Tennyson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The criticism may reflect the importance that Whitman attached in his later years to his own growing sense of spirituality.

Blake, too, was found deficient, despite the force of his prophetic energies. In 1868 Whitman read A.C. Swinburne's William Blake, which concluded with a laudatory comparison of Whitman and Blake. While Whitman responded courteously to this comparison, in his own mind he was intent on putting some distance between himself and the British poet. In a manuscript fragment of the time, Whitman noted that he and Blake were both "mystics, extatics," but went on to record a major difference: while Blake's visions were "wilful & uncontrolled," he, Whitman, "never once loses control, or even equilibrium" (Notebooks 4:1502–1503). Ten years later, Whitman had apparently not changed his opinion, as he referred in an 1878 newspaper article to Blake's "half-mad vision" (Prose Works 2:670).

Whitman also found Wordsworth to be significantly flawed. In a marginal annotation of 1849, Whitman scribbled, "Wordsworth lacks sympathy with men and women" (qtd. in Stovall 128). For a poet of Whitman's extensive sympathies, such a charge would be conclusive. All indications are that Whitman found in Wordsworth's poetry too much attention to nature, too little to humanity. Furthermore, as noted above, Whitman considered Wordsworth a political reactionary, far removed from Whitman's democratic values.

In 1847 Whitman briefly reviewed in the Brooklyn Eagle two prose works by Coleridge, whom Whitman praised for being "like Adam in Paradise, and almost as free from artificiality" (Uncollected 1:131). The characterization is such as Whitman would have gladly claimed for himself. As for the poetry, however, Coleridge's use of the mythical and supernatural was too remote from Whitman's own practices to be appealing. In an 1880 entry in Specimen Days, Whitman complained of the "lush and the weird" then in favor among readers of poetry (Prose Works 1:232). The second adjective would seem to apply to Coleridge, as the first would apply to Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.

In 1888 Whitman claimed to have read all of Keats's poetry, but the response was conventional and superficial: "he is sweet—oh! very sweet—all sweetness: almost lush: lush, polish, ornateness, elegancy" (With Walt Whitman 3:83). Whitman had little use for Keats, considering him too remote from the times, thematically as well as stylistically, to compel attention. In a note probably dating from the 1850s, Whitman complained that Keats's poetry reflected the sentiments of the classical deities of twenty-five hundred years earlier rather than the concerns of its own age. "Of life in the nineteenth century," Whitman wrote, "it has none any more than the statues have. It does not come home at all to the direct wants of the bodies and souls of the century" (Notebooks 5:1770).

Shelley, too, represented the "lush" in poetry that Whitman rejected. Particularly objectionable was Shelley's prolific use of figurative language, so far removed from the strong, simple language that Whitman valued. Shelley's extensive use of classical mythology, like Keats's, also provided cause for rejection, and while Whitman could admire Shelley's ethereal qualities, he knew they were not for him. Shelley, Whitman remarked to Horace Traubel in 1888, "was not sensual—he was not even sensuous" (With Walt Whitman 1:41). The same year, again speaking to Traubel, Whitman remarked that he was not a reader of Shelley, then added, "Shelley is interesting to me as Burns is, chiefly as a person: I read with most avidity not their poems but their lives..." (2:345). Whitman was often more interested in poets' biographies than in their poetry.

Such is the case with George Gordon, Lord Byron, although Whitman apparently knew the poetry well enough by the mid-1840s to quote from it. In an 1848 review he referred to Byron's "fiery breath" (Uncollected 1:121), and forty years later the metaphor still held. As Whitman remarked to Traubel in 1888, "Byron has fire enough to burn forever" (With Walt Whitman 1:41). He further commented that his attitude toward Byron had remained unchanged during all those years. Whatever the concern with the poetry, however, the biography was of particular interest.

In an 1880 entry in Specimen Days, Whitman grouped Byron with Burns, Friedrich von Schiller, and George Sand as representatives of the admirable type of person in whom "the perfect character, the good, the heroic, although never attain'd, is never lost sight of, but through failures, sorrows, temporary downfalls, is return'd to again and again" (Prose Works 1:231). In 1889, Whitman remarked to Traubel that Byron (in contrast to Keats) "prospered" under "scurrility, abuse, contempt" (With Walt Whitman 6:154). Whitman apparently saw in Byron an example of courage and fortitude in the face of adversity that served his own needs in difficult times. Early in 1889, Whitman listed Byron and his poetry among those poets and works referred to as "my daily food" (With Walt Whitman 4:67). That Byron is cited along with such longtime favorites as Homer, Epictetus, and Scott would seem to indicate high regard.

Even so, on various grounds the British Romantic poets as a group had little appeal for Whitman. Particularly objectionable, in his view, were the ornate and decorated qualities of their language, the apparent lack of concern for ordinary humanity, and the remoteness from the life of the century. In sum, they represented, as Whitman fully recognized, directions opposed to his own.

Bibliography

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 vols. Vols. 1–3. 1906–1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992; Vols. 8–9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.


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