Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Faces" (1855)
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Untitled in the first edition, this exquisite, if sometimes enigmatic, lyric is a testimonial to Whitman's faith in mankind and his belief that "red, white, black, are all deific" (section 4). Titled "Poem of Faces" in 1856 and "A Leaf of Faces" in 1860 and 1867, it acquired its present title in the 1871 edition.

The first two of its five sections, particularly the thirteen-line opening catalogue, contain imagery derived from the popular pseudosciences of physiognomy (the crude analysis of the temperaments by "reading" the features of the face) and phrenology (the analysis of putative mental faculties by interpreting the contours of the head). Physiognomists maintained that the most advanced persons on the evolutionary scale displayed noble Germanic features, the most retarded, crude animalistic features. Underlying both pseudosciences were sexual/evolutionary assumptions. Whitman was aware that "reading" facial and cranial features was largely an intuitive process. Probably expecting that the readers of "Faces" would recognize the poem's physiognomic and phrenological terminology, he identifies the countenance of each passerby by assigning to it a brief (usually pseudoscientific) clue from which the readers could be expected to conjure up an image of the corresponding human type. In poetic terms, this technique is a bold exercise in synecdoche.

Viewing a diverse succession of human beings, the persona declares: "I see them and complain not, and am content with all" (section 1). The persona assures the laggards—those personified by such animalistic features as "the tangling fores of fishes or rats" (section 3), "a dog's snout" (section 2), a "milk-nosed maggot" (section 2), and other loathsome visages—that they are "my equals" whose "never-erased flow" toward evolutionary perfection he can perceive through "the rims of your haggard and mean disguises" (section 3). In "a score or two of ages," he predicts, they will be "unmuzzled" (their animalistic features cleared away) and be "every inch as good as myself" (section 3), because each person contains "the ovum" of eugenic and spiritual perfectibility (section 4).

In section 4, the vanguard of the evolutionary procession are seen advancing in their "pioneer-caps" to usher in a race of wholesome democratic persons. Their prototype is the "face of a healthy honest boy," "commanding and bearded"—a variant of the Whitman persona, who exemplifies "the programme of all good." In a sensuous passage, the persona is invited to mate with the sexually aggressive, ideal Nordic woman with "the full-grown lily's face" and thus produce a superior progeny. In the closing bucolic vignette (section 5), the "lily" woman has been transformed into a beautiful Quaker grandmother, surrounded by generations of splendid descendants: "The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go." Like some of his feminist contemporaries, Whitman believed that motherhood holds the key to human progress.

"Faces" illustrates Whitman's profound compassion and his faith that an ongoing mystical process will eventually liberate the divinity in each person. Despite its initial linguistic difficulty, the poem is inventive, richly lyrical, and filled with striking images and vital insights into Whitman's thinking in 1855.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. "A Reading of Whitman's 'Faces.'" Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 37–48.

____. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Fowler, Orson Squire. Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1859.

Lavater, Johann Caspar. Essays on Physiognomy for the Promotion of Knowledge and the Love of Mankind. 15th ed. London: W. Tegg, 1878.

Sizer, Nelson. Heads and Faces, and How to Study Them. 1885. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1891.

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


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