Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: [Review of Leaves of Grass (1881–82)]

Creator: Francis F. Browne [unsigned in original]

Date: January 1882

Publication information: The Dial 2 (January 1882): 218-19.

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.00087

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


AFTER a quarter of a century's probation in the obscurity of author's editions and desultory proofsheets, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" have at last been taken in hand by a reputable publisher. To Mr. Whitman, this success, after so long a period of suppression and literary outlawry, is no doubt particularly grateful; and in the enjoyment of his triumph he may not unnaturally reject all hints afforded by its long postponement as to the value of his literary wares. Though the period during which he has been known as a writer has been one of great activity and enterprise in the publishing trade, and one in which publishers have keenly sought for what was new and fresh in literature, none of them have been willing to risk either money or reputation on him in an unedited state, and his refusal to abridge or modify his work is understood to have been imperative. He is doubtless glad now that it was so, and will be very likely to find his personal independence and self-sufficiency reinforced by the event: though we could not easily call to mind a case in which reinforcements of this sort are less needed. The self-poise of one whose motto is "I blab myself" is not to be suspected lightly. Not wishing to repress sympathy rightly due to perseverance in the face of obstacles, we would yet suggest that congratulations in the present case may not imprudently be restricted as regards both promptness and effusiveness. A literary revolt, like a political one, must not be lauded too hastily. Having found a publisher, it remains to be seen if Mr. Whitman shall find a public. Before declaring him to be the new messiah of poetry, it may be well to take time at least to note the magnitude of the task to which he has set himself—which, practically, is not to found a new poetic school, but to work a poetic revolution. We do not purpose to undertake now any extended analysis of Mr. Whitman's characteristics. The most obvious and distinguishing of them—that which relates to poetic form—is, in our judgment, one which it is a waste of time to consider seriously. If his method of writing poetry be correct or even admissible, we might as well drop distinctions between poetry and prose, at least so far as expression is concerned,—a merchant's inventory or lawyer's brief being as good poetry as a ballad or sonnet, and the average political "leader" being as truly poetical (we will not say imaginative) as Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. The untutored citizen who avowed his inability to see anything in Whitman's poetry beyond "a lot of——cataloging" is an entirely competent witness in the case; and we would be quite willing to rest it upon his evidence, without recourse to the concurrent testimony of all poets who ever wrote—from the Hebrew melodists and the "impudent Highlander" Macpherson1 to the Sweet Singer of Michigan.2 Mr. Whitman, indeed, appears not to be content with the abrogation of all conventional notions of poetry and artificial contrivances for constructing and testing it. Not only are rhymes avoided by him and even measures shunned—spondees, dactyls, trochees, iambics, anapests, odes, ballads, and sonnets, kicked into chaos together, as frippery suited only to poets who lull their readers with "piano tunes,"—but he overrides and crushes out with remorseless effort even those innocently recurring cadences and natural rhythms which are so often the involuntary accompaniment of the expression of impassioned thought. He thus succeeds not only in avoiding all semblance of piano tunes or any other musical thing, but in producing singularly harsh and disagreeable prose. Whatever may be Mr. Whitman's powers of imagination and description, his lack of a sense of poetic fitness, his failure to understand the business of a poet, is certainly astounding. His disqualifications in these respects are scarcely less phenomenal than those of a painter who should be insensible to shades of color, or of a draughtsman without perception of form. As the particular apostle and expounder of Nature, there is something inexplicable in his obtuseness to the existence of rhythm and cadence as elements in both Nature and the human soul. In view of his savage contempt for anything musical in poetry, it will be a fine stroke of the irony of fate if he shall be destined to be remembered only by the few pieces which are marked by the "piano-tune" quality that he derides—the true and tender lyric of "My Captain" and the fine poem on "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors." These pieces, with the magnificent threnody on Lincoln—"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed"—and a few others in which there is an approach to metrical form, with fine lines and passages scattered here and there, are likely to be preserved in memory when his more characteristic pieces—those which are without form and void—shall exist only as curiosities of literature or are performing for their author the very proper function of sounding his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Of the more purely intellectual quality of these writings we have but little to say. It is not to our taste, even in prose, to dissociate the thing said from the manner of saying it; and such separation is quite impossible in poetry. We are aware how strongly Mr. Whitman is praised for his virility and freedom; but his virility, as applied to the purposes of poetry, seems to us not unlike what the virility of a buffalo bull might be as applied to carriage purposes, and his freedom such as might more properly be expected of an irresponsible and rampant savage. His democracy, so loudly proclaimed and oft reiterated, is of a sentimental and dramatic kind which addresses everyone with stage—cries of "Camerado," salutes as equal the "Caffre, Patagonian, Hottentot, Feejeeman, Greenlander, Lapp, Austral Negro, naked, red, sooty, with protrusive lip," and causes surprise only at his moderation in not including in his good-fellowship apes and baboons also. The grossness of Mr. Whitman's poetry is also a matter on which we do not care to dwell. In fact, some of his pieces are so very gross that it is almost indelicate to call attention to them even for purposes of condemnation. Grossness in literature is bad enough when introduced incidentally and apologetically; but when it is paraded without veil or foil, and not only toleration for it but admiration for its author's candor is demanded, it is difficult to avoid a feeling of injury and resentment. We have no wish to make this matter in any way a question of personal moral quality. We are inclined to the opinion that if Mr. Whitman had been possessed of but a little humor, his poetry would have been less immoral; and we prefer to think that it is but a part of his general lack of the sense of poetic fitness and propriety that he fails to distinguish between what is erotic in poetry and what is simply bestial. The pieces of this class are not numerous in his volume, but it would be both difficult and undesirable to express their rankness of quality. The real gems which he offers us are furnished with a most unclean and offensive setting—in disregard of the fact that selection and decoration are precisely the business of the poet. It is doubtful if there was ever before a writer, much less a poet, who showed such utter lack of taste in the selection of material. Under the plea—repeated so often as almost to discredit its sincerity, that he despises affectations and hypocrisies, and wishes to be as open and as free as Nature is, he invites us to clinical studies of men's lusts and to æsthetic considerations of carrion. The really good and beautiful things in his pages are blotched and fouled by their associations. The literary delicacies which he offers are garnished with garbage; he requires his readers to extract scattering grains of nourishment after the fashion of barnyard fowls. Perhaps his most serious error is in estimating the strength of the common poetic stomach by his own. Nature's impulses are usually unmistakable; and it is a triumph of that original Adam in man which Mr. Whitman celebrates that most unvitiated stomachs reject with involuntary but decided symptoms of disapproval the mixture of wine and bilge-water, nectar and guano, which he has compounded and for which Messrs. Osgood & Co. have consented (let us hope not without some furtive qualms and indignation of the nostrils)to become the cup-bearers.


Notes:

1. The Works of Ossian is an influential cycle of poems translated and published by James Macpherson in 1765. Macpherson's claim that the poetry was of ancient Scots Gaelic origin resulted in a long running controversy over its authenticity. [back]

2. Julia Ann Moore (1847-1920), an American poet, was dubbed the "Sweet Singer of Michigan" by James F. Ryder, a Cleveland publisher, who republished Moore's first collection of verse under the title The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public (1876). Moore's poetry, though it received much attention, was considered notoriously bad to the point of amusement. [back]


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