Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Ireland, Whitman in
Author:
Murphy, Willa
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Walt Whitman never realized his plan to visit Ireland, his presence was significant in Dublin literary circles during his lifetime and beyond. As a nationalist poet who also claimed a cosmopolitan scope, as a respecter of native traditions who was at the same time a bold literary experimenter, Whitman provided a model for Irish writers of opposing literary creeds and political purposes.

Whitman's poetic project deeply influenced the Irish Literary Revival, the movement fathered by Standish O'Grady (1846–1928) to generate a national literature and culture. Known to don a floppy Whitmanesque hat and sprinkle his discourse with "Calamus" quotes, O'Grady's self-construction as bard of his country included imitating Whitman's epic, energetic style and proclaiming comradeship with workers on the land. Mapping a Gaelic project onto Whitman's cultural nativism, the minstrel of Ireland believed with his American counterpart that the essential character of a people inheres in its language, songs, and stories. O'Grady popularized ancient Celtic legends, raised Ireland's consciousness about its mythic past, and was joined in this cultural crusade by fellow Whitmanites W.B. Yeats (who in his letters called Whitman "the greatest teacher of these decades" [9]) and Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932).

To the embattled Irish, Whitman's voice fulfilled the best intentions of a nationalist spirit. His metaphysic of wholeness and image of an undivided society particularly appealed to cultural nationalists, most of whom were Protestants facing a turbulent political present, but whose work envisioned a prelapsarian Ireland free from sectarian strife. This Whitmanesque turn to culture was meant as a corrective to a sterile political Irish nationalism (from which such writers would have much to lose). Whitman's sympathy with the aggressively nationalist Fenian Brotherhood, to which "Old Ireland" refers, and his declared support for a free Ireland, suggests that cultural nationalists followed him when it suited them. O'Grady expressed his aversion to the democratic fervor of Leaves of Grass and envisioned for Ireland instead a feudal society of born-again Celtic chiefs. Like Whitman, however, cultural nationalists baptized the language of daily social intercourse as poetry, and called the nation to look to native folk traditions to rediscover its identity.

Whitman's chief liaison officer and greatest promoter in Ireland was far from the camp of cultural nationalists. Edward Dowden, professor of English at Trinity College from 1867 to 1913 and a frequent correspondent of Whitman's, introduced Leaves of Grass to his students (including Dracula author Bram Stoker, who as a student wrote Whitman an embarrassing love letter and later visited him in Camden; and T.W. Rolleston, who went on to translate Whitman into German and was the first to connect the American with German idealism). Dowden sought Whitman converts (including J.B. Yeats, father of the poet) throughout Ireland, and his public lectures and subscriptions established the poet in Dublin literary circles. It was Dowden who invited Whitman to Ireland and began preparations for his visit, informing him that there were "Whitmanites" connected with "three principal Dublin newspapers" and assuring him that he had "many readers" (Letters 62) in Ireland (though Leaves of Grass was later removed from the Trinity library). His seminal article on Whitman, which acclaimed him as the poet of democracy, took over a year to get into print, rejected by several British reviews for being too "dangerous."

Far from dangerous and revolutionary, Dowden's criticism took a purely scholarly interest in Whitman, coolly analyzing the character of democratic poetry. Bitterly opposed to Home Rule for Ireland, Dowden did not share Whitman's concept of democracy. A true Irish Victorian, the professor admired the poet for celebrating the Spirit of the Age—human progress, evolution, scientific law, and universal culture. Clearly, writers like O'Grady and Yeats had reasons for promoting Whitman different from those of Dowden, who sneered at the parochialism of the literary revival and declared that his position was "cosmopolitan and imperial" rather than "provincial" (qtd. in Blodgett 44). In his rejection of the Irish renaissance as so much "intellectual brogue" (Transcripts 19), Dowden failed to recognize in Ireland what he applauded in America—the birth of a new literature. Though Whitman thought Dowden "bitten with the frost of the literary clique" (qtd. in Blodgett 45), he was forever grateful to the critic for promoting his reputation abroad—a recognition that ricocheted back across the Atlantic to improve his reception at home.

Oscar Wilde's (1854–1900) first exposure to Whitman was from his mother, fervent nationalist Lady Wilde, who read to him from an early edition of Leaves of Grass. Wilde admired the poet throughout his life, beginning with his student days at Oxford, where he carried Leaves of Grass with him, and where he defended the poet in response to an exam question asking how Aristotle would evaluate Whitman. Whitman appealed to Wilde less as a poet than as a prophet and personality; Oscar recognized himself in Walt's personal and literary experiment, in his self-construction and self-promotion. The Irish dandy visited the American rough twice in Camden in 1882, and later acclaimed him as the herald of a new era and a factor in the spiritual evolution of humanity.

George Moore's (1852–1933) Hail and Farewell, which explores the relation between autobiography and nation, also appreciated Whitman's "unashamed" self as just what Dublin—where "everyone is afraid to confess himself"—needed (652). Joyce scholars point to Finnegans Wake for traces of Whitman, or, as the Wake calls him, "old Whiteman," whose cataloguing style and capacity to merge with the universe "foredreamed" Joyce's novel.

Whitman once wrote in a letter to Dowden that he always took "real comfort" in his many "friends in Ireland" (134). Writers in an Irish nation struggling to be born often took comfort in and cues from the poet of that other newborn nation across the Atlantic.

Bibliography

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

Blodgett, Harold W. Walt Whitman in England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1934.

Brown, Terence. Ireland's Literature. Dublin: Lilliput, 1988.

Dowden, Edward. Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents. London: Dent, 1914.

____. Transcripts and Studies. 2nd ed. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1896.

Fleck, Richard F. "A Note on Whitman in Ireland." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 160–162.

Howath, Herbert. "Whitman and the Irish Writers." Comparative Literature: Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association. Ed. Werner P. Friedrich. UNCSCL 24. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1959. 479–488.

Marcus, Philip. Standish O'Grady. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell UP, 1970.

Miller, Edwin Haviland, ed. A Century of Whitman Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

Moore, George. Hail and Farewell. Ed. Richard Allen Cave. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smyth, 1985.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1961.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. Ed. John Kelly. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.


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