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Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman's New Book

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: January 13, 1883

Publication information: The Critic 3 (13 January 1883): 2-3.

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.00108

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


Walt Whitman's New Book.*

THERE is a word which is a great favorite of Mr. Whitman and will be found in the little motto he has written under his portrait. It is not an English word, nor is it Americanized, according to the standard dictionaries; yet Mr. Whitman has made it good American, so far as in his power lies, and stamped it with more than ordinary significance. Ensemble. What does Walt Whitman mean by that pet word? He brings it in at the oddest moments. It is one of many (such as, for instance, Libertad, clair-obscure, laying-off, barbaric yawp, arrieres, melange, and twenty more) at sight of which, judicious critics educated at universities and suckled on Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, are seen to be affected by a peculiar spasm of the features that leaves no doubt concerning their views on such additions to the language. Whatever the rights in the case may be, whatever sense there is in tying down the English language to words that have their patents from the old masters, this word is of such importance in examining understandingly the prose and poetry of Whitman, that it alone would be a fitting inscription to his monument. It is a word without legal status, an innovation, a piece of piracy from the French—an awkward word, if the truth must be told. And yet it signifies more than any other the striving which gives the work of Whitman its chief value, its main grandeur. A Democratic Prometheus, Walt Whitman has been battling during most of his literary career against the complacent Jupiter of conventional, popular literature. His chains have been poverty, contempt, shallowness of critics, bad taste on his own side. He has been a failure; even now he is not a success; but every decade of the century will show more clearly that his failure is better than the successes of Longfellow and Tennyson. The selection of the word Ensemble is not the happiest; but he has made it, and it should be respected for the great idea, let us say the grand failure, that lies behind it.

What has impressed Whitman most during his intimate comradeship with Long Island farming folk, New York workmen and roughs, New Jersey 'mudsills,' and the thousands of soldiers belonging to every state of the Union, and both parties to the Civil War, whom he came in personal contact with in the Capital of the country? It is size, quantity, greatness, mass, extent. He sees everything on the biggest scale. A reader of palms who reads his books will assert beforehand that he has broad, long and thick hands, with fingers thick and shorter than those of most people. He sees in everything the big masses, not the little particulars. Hence his love for the gigantic; the tremendous impression crowds, armies, the terrible wastes, the sublime prairies of the West, make on his peculiar individuality. Hence his early discarding of the ordinary forms of versification, and his molding out of the prose of Carlyle, and the prose and poetry of Victor Hugo, a new literary form of expression, which is all that its enthusiastic admirers claim for it, although not always equally successful, and more than any one could have expected, looking merely at Whitman's chances in life. It is only half knowledge that demands absolute originality; for that is something which does not, can not exist. So far as is humanly possible, Whitman is an original poet, representative in literature of a great fact, and, like all such representatives, harder for those to estimate who are near by than those at a distance. For the present, he is a poet for poets and connoisseurs; the people neglect him utterly for men who follow the traditions; woman, the half of humanity which holds to old ideas most tenaciously for good or for evil, rejects him, chiefly because in his gigantic wrestling with the impossible in literature he offends her by writing of things which modesty conceals, but also because woman looks backward instead of forward, and so prevents a too rapid advance over ground not thoroughly discussed and proved. Now what is the task Whitman -half aware of it, half unaware—has grappled with? It is to sing the 'Ensemble,' the whole—everything! He is the painter who, unchastened by failures in the studio, rushes out into the fields and tries to paint a panorama of the whole horizon. Nothing shall be lacking. The microcosm must yield its nudities and sexual impulses, its pangs of agony at being unable to describe the indescribable, its delight in sounds made by human art, its overflow of affection and tenderness toward man, woman and child. The macrocosm must be depicted in the effects on man of its cosmic forces, of the sun and stars, of night and dawn, and effects of fog, haze, atmosphere. The effort made by all this striving must be painful to some sensitive natures; certainly in 'Leaves of Grass' and in a hundred passages of this collection under a still queerer name, the struggle beats through in a magnificent, chaotic fashion, which eventually masses itself into something like order, and now discovers to the patient and sympathetic reader that here is the reign of law.

Ensemble is Whitman's strength and his weakness. He fails magnificently, where a better instructed man, or a cautious, would have remained fatally mediocre. It is curious to find in his case, as in many others here, that so far from having no ancestry, Whitman can read back through a line of sturdy, fairly-taught yeomen, to dates which are very often unattainable by Europeans who make such things their greatest boast. He has a good deal of Dutch blood, and his predilection for adaptations of French words may mean that he has some of the old French Protestant blood which did more to form New York in Dutch times than the historians are yet prepared to tell. His fearlessly egotistical account of his derivation and life will be just what readers of 'Leaves of Grass' have wanted, for it throws the strongest light on the origin and meaning of that work. Patriotic people, who are not utterly at odds with Whitman, will be glad to find further notes taken during his hospital work at Washington. THE CRITIC might be half filled with passages deserving quotation. The recent Western and Canadian notes show his healthy and big views of things in nature; they are fine, but tantalising in their shortness. What Whitman has to say about Carlyle and Emerson was too recently published (in these pages) to need present notice, and so were 'The Poetry of the Future' and 'A Memorandum at a Venture' (in The North American). Many pieces in 'Specimen Days' appeared in this paper. The most curious in the 'Collect' are poetical pieces printed long ago in New York papers, before Whitman broke with ordinary verse restrictions, and carved out for himself the elastic system of poetry-prose, in which 'Leaves of Grass' appeared. That poem and this volume of essays and notes form in themselves a literary inter-state exhibition or American Institute Fair, such as Whitman has attempted to describe in measures. Every sort of thing is crammed into it, and the manager is the big, good-natured, shrewd and large-souled poet, whose photograph shows him lounging in smoking-jacket and broad felt hat, gazing at his hand, on which a delicate butterfly, with expanded wings, forms a contrast to the thick fin-gers and heavy ploughman's wrist.

———

Specimen Days and Collect By Walt Whitman. Author of 'Leaves of Grass.' Philadelphia: Rees, Welsh & Co.


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