Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: [Review of November Boughs]

Creator: William Morton Payne [unsigned in original]

Date: April 1889

Publication information: The Dial 9 (April 1889): 323-4.

Source: The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00129

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Todd Stabley


"November Boughs" is a title due to the same sense of literary fitness as that which inspired the naming of Landor's1 "Dry Sticks" and "The Last Fruit off an Old Tree." Indeed, paradoxical as the statement may seem, a sense of fitness is the predominant impression remaining from the study of Whitman's work, and this in spite of its indefensible rhythmic and verbal vagaries. It is the fitness, in the large sense, of thought and language to the character and mood of the writer. "Unstopp'd and unwarp'd by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record"—this is what Whitman tells us in the "Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" which prefaces the new volume. The absolute honesty of his work, coupled with the genius for style which it displays, ensure for it both permanence of influence and the respectful consideration of future years. Enlarge upon its faults as we may, the work still has rare qualities of power and beauty which it takes no extended search to discover. Let us quote the two poems entitled "Halcyon Days" and "Queries to my Seventieth Year." He must be dull of soul who has no sense of the beauty of the one or the power of the other.

"Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of
politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like fresher,
balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at
last hangs really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the
tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days."

It is the reverse of the shield that comes to view in the other poem:

"Approaching, nearing, curious,
Thou dim, uncertain spectre—bringest thou life or
death?
Strength, weakness, blindness, more paralysis and
heavier?
Or placid skies and sun? Wilt stir the waters yet?
Or haply cut me short for good? Or leave me here as
now,
Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack'd voice harping,
screeching?"

The poems in this volume fill but a score of pages, but every page has its charm. Upon one we find this faultless epigram on "The Bravest Soldiers":

"Brave, brave were the soldiers (high named to-day)
who lived through the fight;
But the bravest press'd to the front and fell, unnamed,
unknown."

Upon another we are greeted with this word for Lincoln's birthday:

"To-day, from each and all, a breath of prayer—a pulse
of thought,
To memory of Him—to birth of Him."

Still another gives us this picture of the resurrection that comes with the springtide:

"Then shalt perceive the simple shows, the delicate
miracles of earth,
Dandelion, clover, the emerald grass, the early scents
and flowers,
The arbutus under foot, the willow's yellow-green, the
blossoming plum and cherry;
With these the robin, lark, and thrush, singing their
songs—the flitting bluebird;
For such the scenes the annual play brings on."

We find verses like these, scattered in rich profusion through the songs:

"Possess'd by some strange spirit of fire."
"With husky-haughty lips, O sea!
Where day and night I wend thy surf-beat shore."
"Old age land-lock'd within its winter bay."
"Isle of the salty shore, and breeze, and brine."

It is the very magic of style that informs these lines. For the rest, these "Sands at Seventy" contain no word that is objectionable as certain passages of the "Leaves of Grass" were objectionable. Nor do we find in them the violent distortion of speech—the "barbaric yawp,"—or the endless catalogues of attributes and things which made the poet's earlier work æsthetically offensive. Of the prose work which makes up the greater part of the volume, this is not the place to speak at length, and we will only remark that much of it seems to us as suggestive and beautiful as the poetry. The writer takes occasion, in his preface, to justify the passages in the "Leaves of Grass" which have been the subject of so much discussion, and "to confirm these lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of thirty years."

[ . . .]


Notes:

1. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) was an English poet most noteworthy for his Imaginary Conversations, imagined prose dialogues between historical figures published between 1824 and 1829. [back]


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