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Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Leaves Of Grass

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: July 14, 1860

Publication information: The Spectator 33 (14 July 1860): 669-70.

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.00046

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


LEAVES OF GRASS.

AMERICA is unreasonably impatient to possess a great national poet as intrinsically her own as Shakespeare is English, Burns Scotch, Goethe German, and Dante Italian. She may have an emperor sooner—ubsit omen! Young as she is, the land of the stars and stripes has within her plenty of the stuff of which emperors can be made; but poets are a choicer growth, and need more years than the Union numbers from its birth to acclimatize their race in a new country. Of the few poets born in America, not one is distinctively American in his poetry; all are exotics, and their roots are nurtured by pabulum imported from the old country. In process of time, the foreign stock will accommodate itself to the new conditions by which it is surrounded; it will gradually undergo a transformation of species and become racy of the soil, but the soil itself must meanwhile pass through a corresponding change. It is still too crude; there is in it, as Oliver Wendell Holmes avows, "no sufficient flavour of humanity," such as inheres in every inch of ground belonging to some of the ancient seats of civilization. These truths are plainly discerned by the most cultivated minds in the States, and by them only; others believe that a great poet has actually arisen amongst them, and they hail his appearance with the more rapture because there has certainly never been anything like him in the guise of a poet since the world began. In the year 1855, this prodigy, this "compound of the New England transcendentalist and the New York rowdy," as a friendly critic calls him with literal truth, put forth the first issue of his "Leaves of Grass"—videlicet Scurvy grass—twelve poems, or rather bundles, in ninety-five pages, small quarto. The book was immediately pronounced by Ralph Waldo Emerson to be "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Other critics followed suit, and Walt Whitman became as famous as the author of the Book of Mormon. A second edition of his "Leaves of Grass," with twenty additional bundles, making together 384 pages, was published within a year after the first; and now there lies before us a new, enlarged, and glorified edition, for which the publishers "confidently claim recognition as one of the finest specimens of modern book-making." The paper, print, and binding are indeed superb; but one thing these gentlemen have forgotten: where are the phallic emblems, and the figures of Priapus and the Satyrs that should have adorned the covers and the pages of this new gospel of lewdness and obscenity? Its frontispiece should have been, not the head and shoulders of the author, but a full-length portrait drawn as he loves to depict himself in his "poems"—naked as an Anabaptist of Munster,1 or making love like Diogenes coram populo—with his own lines for inscription:—

"Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding,
No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
∗∗∗∗∗∗
Arrogant, masculine, naïve, rowdyish,
Laugher, weeper, worker, idler, citizen, countryman,
Saunterer of the woods, stander upon hills, summer swimmer in rivers or
by the sea,
Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from
taint from top to toe, free for ever from headache and dyspepsia,
clean-breathed,
Ample limbed, a good feeder, weight a hundred and eighty pounds,
full-blooded, six feet high, forty inches round the breast and back,
∗∗∗∗∗∗
Countenance sunburnt, bearded, calm, unrefined,
Reminder of animals, meeter of savage and gentleman on equal terms.
Never offering others, always offering himself, corroborating his phrenology,
Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative, conscientious, alimentive, intuitive,
of copious friendship, firmness, self esteem, comparison, individuality,
form, locality, eventuality.
Avowing by life, manners, works, to contribute illustrations of the results
of the States,
Teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism,
Inviter of others continually henceforth to try their strength against his.
∗∗∗∗∗∗
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

Such is the man, and such the sort of poetry, which have inaugurated "an athletic and defiant literature," destined, it is said, to supersede for the great republic the effete theories and forms that still amuse the senile decrepitude of the old country. Vast beyond comparison are the immunities enjoyed by the new school of poetry; it needs no intellectual capital to work with, disdains all submission to the laws of art as well as to the restraints of common decency, and may yawp away to its heart's content, never bothering itself about such trifles as rhythm or melody, rhyme or reason, metre or sense. Never was there so free and easy a school, and surely its founder, who announces himself as a "teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism," will not find it a very hard task to teach the young American idea how to shoot in that direction. Walt Whitman's egotism is twofold—swaggering and brutish by virtue of his rowdyism, all conglomerating and incomprehensible by virtue of his pantheistic transcendentalism. As a rowdy, he asks, "Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?" since, after the closest inquiry, "I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones." Presently rising into a pantheistic strain he exclaims:—

"Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or
am touched from,
The scent of these arm pits, aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship any particular thing, it shall be some the spread of my
own body."

A perfectly logical deduction from the premises. Since all things are divine, Walt Whitman's body, with each several part and function of it, is divine, and it becomes him to sing hymns to them all. To refrain from celebrating their praises would be rank impiety. Another corollary from the same principle is that there is not a pin's point to choose between good and evil:—

"What blurt is this about virtue, and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me—I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder's or rejecter's gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown."

All things being good, and equally good, all are alike fit for the poet's use, and he may jot them down pell-mell, without regard to order, proportion, or perspective. If he wish to cram as much poetry into his pages as they can hold, he has only to fill them with compendious inventories of all sorts of things. Pages by the score of Walt Whitman's poetry are made up of simple enumeration:—

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday,

is almost as rich a line as any among them, and so is—

Moses, Homer, Neptune, Hercules, Wat Tyler, and Tycho Brahe.

According to the Emersonian jargon, the Ego and the Non Ego are one. The "eternal and universal I" embraces and comprehends all nature. Walt Whitman is everything, and everything is Walt Whitman. He is here, there, and everywhere at the same moment. He is not born yet; he is dead and buried, alive and kicking. He is his own father and mother, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, lots of cousins, and all their progenitors; likewise his own children, nephews, and nieces, and all their posterity, for ever and ever. He is you and I, and the beef we eat, and the butcher that kills it, and the fire that cooks it; and he got drunk upon himself tomorrow, and will wake with a headache yesterday. Our own heads ache in trying to make head or tail of some of the polyphone utterances of this Protean, ubiquitous, and multitudinous person. Here is a whole poem of his, hers, its, or theirs, printed in duplicate, the copy in the left-hand column being by Walt Whitman's Ego, and the other by his Non Ego, a writer in the New York Saturday Press:—

"1. With antecedents,
With my fathers and mothers, and the
accumulations of past ages,
With all which, had it not been, I would
not now be here, as I am,
With Egypt, India, Phenicia, Greece,
and Rome,
With the Celt, the Scandinavian, the
Alb, and the Saxon,
With antique maritime ventures—with
laws, artisanship, wars, and journeys,
With the poet, the skald, the saga, the
myth, and the oracle,
With the sale of slaves—with enthusiasts
—with the troubadour, the crusader,
and the monk,
With those old continents whence we
have come to this new continent,
With the fading kingdoms and kings
over there,
With the fading religions and priests,
With the small shores we look back to,
from our own large and present shores,
With countless years drawing themselves
onward, and arrived at these years,
You and Me arrived—America arrived,
and making this year,
This year! sending itself ahead count-
less years to come.
"1. With antecedents and consequents,
With our fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles,
and the family at large accumulated by
past ages,
With all which would have been nothing
if anything were not something which
everything is,
With Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Peo-
ria, and New Jersey,
With the Pre-Adamite, the Yarab, the
Guebre, the Hottentot, the Esquimaux,
the Gorilla, and the Nondescriptian,
With antique powwowing—with laws,
jaws, wars, and three-tailed bashaws,
With the butcher, the baker, the candle-
stick-maker, and Ralph Waldo Car-
lyle,
With the sale of Long Island railway
stock,—with spiritualists, with the
yawper, with the organ-grinder and
monkey,
With everybody and everything in gene-
ral and nothing and nobody in particu-
lar, besides otherbodies and things too
numerous to mention,
Yourn and Mine arrived,—the Arrival ar-
rove, and making this Nonsense:
This Nonsense! sending itself ahead of
any sane comprehension this side of
Jordan.
2. O but it is not the years—it is I—it
is You,
We touch all laws, and tally all antece-
dents,
We are the skald, the oracle, the monk,
and the knight—we easily include
them, and more,
We stand amid time, beginningless and
endless—we stand amid evil and good,
All swings around us—there is as much
darkness as light,
The very sun swings itself and its system
of planets around us,
Its sun, and its again, all swing around
us.
2. O, but it is not the Nonsense—it is
Mine,—it is Yourn,
We touch all 'effects,' and tally all bread-
sticks,
We are the Etceteras and Soforths,—we
easily include them, and more;
All obfusticates around us,—there is as
much as possible of a muchness;
The entire system of the universe dis-
comboborates around us with a perfect
looseness.
3. As for me,
I have the idea of all, and am all, and
believe in all;
I believe materialism is true, and spirit-
ualism is true—I reject no part.
3. As for Mine,
Mine has the idea of my own, and what's
Mine is my own, and my own is all
Mine and believes in it all,
Mine believes meum is true, and rejects
nix.
4. Have I forgotten any part?
Come to me, whoever and whatever, till
I give you recognition.
4. Has Mine forgotten to grab any part?
Fork over then whoever and whatever is
worth having, till Mine gives a receipt
in full.
5. I respect Assyria, China, Teutonia,
and the Hebrews,
I adopt each theory, myth, god, and
demi-god,
I see that the old accounts, bibles,
geneaologies, are true, without excep-
tion.
I assert that all past days were what
they should have been,
And that they could no-how have been
better than they were,
And that today is what it should be—
and that America is,
And that today and America could no
how be better than they are.
5. Mine respects Brahma, Vishnu, Mum-
bo-Jumbo, and the great Panjandrum,
Mine adopts things generally which are
claimed by Yourn,
Mine asserts that these should have been
my own in all past days,
And that they could not no how have
been nobody else's,
And that today is neither yesterday nor
tomorrow,—and that I-S is is.
6. In the name of These States, and in
in your and my name, the Past,
And in the name of These States, and in
your and my name, the Present time.
6. In the name of Dogberry,—and in
Mine and Yourn,—Bosh!
And in the name of Bombastes Furioso,
—and in Yourn and Mine,—Gas!
7. I know that the past was great, and
the future will be great,
And I know that both curiously conjoint
in the present time,
(For the sake of him I typify—for the
common average man's sake—your
sake, if you are he;)
And that where I am, or you are, this
present day, there is the centre of all
days, all races,
And there is the meaning, to us, of all
that has ever come of races and days,
or ever will come."
7. Mine knows that Dogberry was an Ass
and Bombastes Furioso a likewise,
And that both curiously conjoint in the
present time, in Yourn and Mine,
And that where Mine is, or Yourn is, this
present day, there is the centre of all
Asininities,
And there is the meaning to us, of all
that has ever come of Yourn and Mine,
or ever will come."

We must not leave our readers under the impression that there is nothing in Walt Whitman's book but nonsense, coarseness, and filth. He has strong perceptive faculties and a vivid imagination, and he can express his human sympathies in language that becomes a man. Look on this picture:—

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the
wounded person,
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe,
I am the mashed fireman with breastbone broken,
Tumbling walls buried me in their debris,
Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades,
I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels,
They have cleared the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt—the pervading hush is for my sake,
Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy,
White and beautiful are the faces around me—the heads are bared of their
fire-caps,
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches.

Leaves of Grass Boston: Thayer and Eldridge. London: Trübner and Co.


Notes:

1. Jan van Leiden (d. 1536) was an Anabaptist leader during the Münster Rebellion. He and his fellow Dutchman, Jan Matthys, along with other Anabaptists, briefly established a theocracy in the city of Münster, Westphalia. Van Leiden was reputed to have run naked through the streets of Münster, after which he fell into a coma, and revived three days later having received a divine vision that prompted him to abolish the old constitution and institute the practice of polygamy. The Münster Rebellion ended when Protestant and Catholic armies took over the city; van Leiden was executed in 1536. [back]


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