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Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: Henry Clapp [unsigned in original]

Date: May 19, 1860

Publication information: The New York Saturday Press 19 May 1860: 2.

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.00035

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


WALT WHITMAN.

Leaves of Grass.*

We announce a great Philosopher—perhaps a great Poet—in every way an original man. It is Walt Whitman. The proof of his greatness is in his book; and there is proof enough.

The intellectual attitude expressed in these Leaves of Grass, is grand with the grandeur of independent strength, and beautiful with the beauty of serene repose. It is the attitude of a proud, noble, vigorous life. A human heart is here in these pages—large, wild, comprehensive—beating with all throbs of passion—enjoying all of bliss—suffering all of sorrow that is possible to humanity. "This is no book," it says; "whoever touches this, touches a man." It is the electrical contact of a great nature.

—"No dainty dolce affettuoso I;
Bearded, sunburnt, gray-necked, forbidding, I have
arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass, for the solid prizes of the
universe,
For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them. . . .
I, exultant, will now shake out carols stronger and
haughtier than have ever yet been heard upon the
earth. . . .
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with
reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem, nor the least part of a
poem, but has reference to the Soul,
Because, having looked at the objects of the universe,
I find there is no one, nor any particle of one, but
has reference to the Soul.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed
babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots . . .
I exist as I am—that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content,
And if each and all be aware, I sit content. . . .
I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of
hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself—the latter I
translate into a new tongue.
I know perfectly well my own egotism. . . .
I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am an en-
closer of things to be."

Such is the intellectual attitude of the Leaves of Grass; such the position and purpose of their author. To accept everything as liberally as Nature accepts everything; to rightly appreciate all laws and all things, each thing in its place; to realize, reflect, and reproduce the emotions of every heart and the experiences of every person; to recognize and assert the universal harmony of creation; to know the beautiful union of Body and Soul in the individual, sublime in the present, and with a sublime destiny for the future; to repose in the certainty of infinite development and progression; to assert the individual above all things, knowing that 'nothing endures but personal quality'; to express for all mankind what all mankind feel without the power of expressing; to live the comprehensive life of the Philosopher, of the Poet, broad and vigorous, all lives in one,—reaching up into heaven, reaching down into hell, stretching backward over all the Past to gather up its results, throbbing with all the vital activity of the Present, making the Future glorious with more than hope,—this is the aim and the mission of Walt Whitman, this the felicity of his life as expressed in his poems. No man could utter himself more fully and truly. No book exists anywhere more beautifully in earnest than this. To the intelligent, sympathetic mind, none can explain itself with keener accuracy.

—"I will make the poems of materials, for I think
they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mor-
tality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems
of my Soul and of immortality. . . .
I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe, and salute cour-
teously every city large and small;
And employments! I will put in my poems, that with
you is heroism, upon land and sea. . . .
And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in
me—For I am determined to tell you with coura-
geous clear voice, to prove you illustrious. . . .
Omnes! Omnes!
Let others ignore what they may,
I make the poem of evil also—I commemorate that
part also,
I am myself just as much evil as good—And I say there
is in fact no evil,
Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to
the earth, or to me, as anything else.
I too, following many, and followed by many, inaugu-
rate a Religion—I too go to the wars,
I will effuse egotism, and show it underlying all—And
I will be the bard of Personality;
And I will show of male and female that either is but
the equal of the other,
And I will show that there is no imperfection in male
or female, or in the earth, or in the present—and
can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it
may be turned to beautiful results—And I will
show that nothing can happen more beautiful
than death;
And I will thread a thread through my poems that no
one thing in the universe is inferior to another
thing,
And that all the things of the universe are perfect
miracles, each as profound as any. . . . .
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands—they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine, they are
nothing, or next to nothing.". . . .

The leading idea in the philosophy of the Leaves of Grass is the idea of grandeur and supremacy in the Individual. It asserts that there is nothing more divine than the human soul, and impels to a knowledge of living motive behind each thing and every action. It will have the singer and not the psalm, the preacher and not the script he preaches. It will not ignore the Body, but asserts its beauty and the divine harmony of Body and Soul.

…"I believe in you, my Soul—the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other. . . . .
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of
any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile, and none
shall be less familiar than the rest…
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, and feeling are miracles, and each tag
and part of me is a miracle.—

It finds all things embraced and comprehended in the individual, to whom indeed the universe belongs and who belongs to the universe. It recognizes the common brotherhood of mankind, and the same human nature repeated in every person. Its aspiration is for a noble race of human creatures, healthy and beautiful, living delightfully, in sympathy with Nature, their perfect lives in a perfect world.

Perhaps the scope and significance of Walt Whitman's poetry may be more clearly indicated by contrasting its character with that of the poetry ordinarily accepted and popular at the present time. The latter is rhymed and measured. It is sometimes powerful with passion and sometimes stately with thought. It is generally sweet and graceful—expressing mild and monotonous sentiments in a thousand respectable ways. It is gay for a feast and sorry for a funeral. It is sweet as to Spring-time, and thoughtful as to sober Autumn days. It rhymes 'kisses' with 'blisses,' and expresses its writer's willingness to partake of the same. It mourns persistently for dead infants, for those who are snatched away in beauty's bloom, and for blighted blossoms generally. It has an amatory tendency, of a sentimental description, and wastes a good deal of miscellaneous sweetness. It presents its author as one who desires burial under a sweet- apple tree, and will not have a decent graveyard on any terms; it affects to ignore and despise the human body; it dwells fondly upon the sublime nature and destiny of the soul; and passing smoothly over all that is significant in this actual present life, it hints lugubriously at another and a better world. On the other hand these poems of Walt Whitman concern themselves alike with the largest and with the pettiest topics. They are free as the wandering wind that sweeps over great oceans and inland seas, over the continents of the world, over mountains, forests, rivers, plains, and cities; free as the sunshine are they, and like the sunshine ardent and fierce. Nothing in the creation is too sacred or too distant for the lightning glance of their aspiration; nothing that in any way concerns the souls and the bodies of the human race is too trivial for their comprehension. Everywhere they evince the philosophic mind, deeply seeking, reasoning, feeling its way toward a clear knowledge of the system of the universe.

On my way a moment I pause,
Here for you! And here for America!
Still the Present I raise aloft—Still the Future of The
States I harbinge, glad and sublime,
And for the Past I pronounce what the air holds of the red
aborigines. . . . .
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall pos-
sess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—there
are millions of suns left;
You shall no longer take things at second or third
hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor
feed on the spectres in books. . . . .
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of
my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my
own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers,
and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love. . . .
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-
work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand,
and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all
machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses
any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions
of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look
at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle
and baking short-cake."

In this liberal scope of vision and purpose are indicated the insight and the earnestness characteristic of a poetic nature. Other elements of that poetic nature are evident in the vigor of imagination and splendor of imagery which make certain of these poems so truly remarkable. In the 'Salut au Monde'; in the poem called 'A Word Out of the Sea'—which, under the title of 'A Child's Reminiscence,' was printed in this paper last December; in the poem of 'Brooklyn Ferry'; in that of 'Sleep Chasings,' and that of 'Burial';—in these, and in others, such qualities largely and beautifully appear.

Some reflections may properly be submitted here, relative to the form in which Walt Whitman's poems are embodied and expressed. It is a form so rough and rugged—so careless, variable, and peculiar—that perhaps it is very natural the poetry should sometimes degenerate into prose. Something is to be said, however, in defence of this system of versification. It is at least original. The theory would seem to be, as Walt has variously indicated, that always the thought or the passion of the poet should determine itself in natural, congenial expression. It is assumed in this theory, and indeed it is very true, that much of the verse ordinarily written, is written without a sincere motive, and has therefore neither power nor value. It is further assumed that the styles of versification generally accredited and employed are inadequate to the utterance of earnest thought and feeling. Consequently, Walt Whitman, who presents himself as the Poet of the American Republic in the Present Age, who is actuated by a sincere motive, and has earnest thought and feeling to express, refuses to confine and cripple himself within the laws of what to him is inefficient art. Reverencing the spirit of poetry above the form, he submits that the one shall determine the other. That his volume is poetic in spirit cannot rationally be denied; and, whatever the eccentricities of its form, no critical reader can fail to perceive that the expression seems always the suitable and natural result of the thought. It is indeed tame and prosy in the conveyance of any commonplace idea or feeling, but it rises and melts into sweet and thrilling music whenever impelled by the beautiful impulse of a grand thought or emotion.

A fine example of this felicity of style occurs in the following beautiful passage, which also delightfully illustrates the poet's ardent and profound love of Nature:

"I am He that walks with the tender and growing Night,
I call to the earth and sea, half-held by the Night.
Press close, bare-bosomed Night! Press close, magnetic,
nourishing Night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still, nodding night! Mad, naked, summer night.
Smile, O voluptuous, cool-breathed Earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains, mis-
ty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with
blue!
Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the
river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds, brighter and clear-
er for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed Earth! Rich, apple-blossomed
Earth!
Smile, for YOUR LOVER comes! . . . .
I hear you whispering there, O stars of heaven,
O suns! O grass of graves! O perpetual transfers and
promotions!
If you do not say anything, how can I say anything?
Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the soughing twilight.
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk! toss on the black
stems that decay in the muck!
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs."

Another fine example is found in the following bit of description, which has all that simplicity can give of power, pathos, and music:

"Cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf—posh and ice
in the river, half-frozen mud in the streets, a gray
discouraged sky overhead, the short last daylight
of Twelfth Month,
A hearse and stages—other vehicles give place—the
funeral of an old Broadway stage-driver, the cor-
tege mostly drivers.
Steady the trot to the cemetery, duly rattles the death-
bell, the gate is passed, the new-dug grave is halt-
ed at, the living alight, the hearse uncloses,
The coffin is passed out, lowered and settled, the whip
is laid on the coffin, the earth is swiftly shovelled
in,
The mound above is flatted with the spades—silence,
A minute, no one moves or speaks—it is done,
He is decently put away—is there anything more?
He was a good fellow, free-mouthed, quick-tempered,
not bad-looking, able to take his own part, witty,
sensitive to a slight, ready with life or death for a
friend, fond of women, gambled, ate hearty, drank
hearty, had known what it was to be flush, grew
low-spirited toward the last, sickened, was helped
by a contribution, died, aged forty-one years—and
that was his funeral.

Of the defects in this book something also may properly be said. They are not trivial and they are not few. It is the law of a great nature to err greatly as well as to be greatly wise. Walt Whitman has exemplified that law. There are, as it seems to us, defects alike in his philosophy, art, taste, and style. It is fair to say there is much in his book that, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding, and that it does not lack passages which should never have been published at all. We may have occasion to refer to this book again, and to explain ourselves more fully in these regards. Meantime we submit, as appropriate in this connection, the following critical remarks from the North American Review:

"For the purpose of showing that he is above every conventionalism, Mr. Whitman puts into the book one or two lines which he would not address to a woman nor to a company of men. There is not anything, perhaps, which modern usage would stamp as more indelicate than are some passages in Homer. There is not a word in it meant to attract readers by its grossness, as there is in half the literature of the last century, which holds its place unchallenged on the tables of our drawing-rooms. For all that, it is a pity that a book where everything else is natural, should go out of the way to avoid the suspicion of being prudish."

We should not conclude our notice of the Leaves of Grass without expressing our very great delight at the sumptuous elegance of the style in which Messrs. Thayer & Eldridge have published Walt Whitman's poetry. The volume presents one of the richest specimens of taste and skill in book-making, that has ever been afforded to the public by either an English or an American publisher.

Leaves of Grass By Walt Whitman. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge. Year 85 of the States (1860—61).


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