Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"My Picture-Gallery" (1880)
Author:
Rietz, John
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in The American in 1880 and incorporated into Leaves of Grass in 1881, "My Picture-Gallery" is a (revised) six-line excerpt from a much earlier and longer poem entitled "Pictures" (1925), which Whitman never published. An important pre-Leaves exercise from the early 1850s, "Pictures" shows Whitman experimenting with many of the elements that were to become his hallmarks: the rejection of European literary models (it appears to be a response to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Palace of Art" [1842]); the catalogues of (mostly visual) images of daily life; the poet-speaker as container of those images; the loose, free-associational structure; the sprawling lines; the ecstatic tone.

"My Picture-Gallery," which originally served to set up the 115-line catalogue of "Pictures," is a riddle poem in which the speaker's head is presented as "a little house," a gallery displaying the images that follow. That conceit reflects a number of Whitman's preoccupations during the gestation of Leaves of Grass in the early 1850s, when he frequented the various galleries along Broadway. The archaeological and artistic galleries are represented in the catalogues of ancient treasures and carefully composed historical and allegorical images, but Whitman's "little house" is most closely modeled after the daguerreotype gallery, with its precise, unadorned reflections of the visible world. Whitman undoubtedly also had in mind Orson Fowler's phrenological gallery, with its charts, in turn, depicting the human head as a symbolic gallery.

But if the poet's head is depicted as a photographic gallery displaying images, it simultaneously stands for the camera recording them. Moreover, "My Picture-Gallery" closes with the image of "cicerone himself, / With finger rais'd," suggesting that the poet also serves as a guide to the show. With the catalogue of "Pictures" excised, the emphasis of "My Picture-Gallery" is shifted away from the world as observed and onto the complex role of the poet, who is simultaneously collector, container, and presenter of "all the shows of the world."

Bibliography

Holloway, Emory. "Whitman's Embryonic Verse." Southwest Review 10 (1925): 28–40.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

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

Soule, George H., Jr. "Walt Whitman's 'Pictures': An Alternative to Tennyson's 'Palace of Art.'" ESQ 22 (1976): 39–47.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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