Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: G. C. Macaulay

Date: December 1882

Publication information: The Nineteenth Century 12 (December 1882): 903–918.

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.01079

Contributors to digital file: Nicole Gray, Kyle Barton, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Ken Price, and Elizabeth Lorang


WALT WHITMAN.

In publishing, some fifteen years ago, a volume of selections from the works of Whitman, Mr. Rossetti considered that he was preparing the ground for the ultimate publication in England of a complete edition of the poems of that remarkable, if rather eccentric, writer. That event has now at length taken place (though not, it seems, without unforeseen difficulty of some kind, marked by a long interval between the advertisement and the appearance of the volume, and by a change of publishers apparently at the last moment), and London can at length supply us from its own resources with copies of Leaves of Grass, under which title the author apparently now wishes to include all his poetical works up to the present time.* We are presented at the same time with another work of the same author, the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (published 1855 in a thin quarto, type set up by the author himself), which is now not easily to be met with. This preface was not reprinted in subsequent editions, but was prefixed with some omissions by Mr. Rossetti to his volume of selections. For what has been given us we must be thankful, though we may mildly complain that Whitman's other prose works, consisting of two books—one a magnificent political prophecy, and the other a personal narrative of deep interest—are apparently to be withheld from the English reader, though long ago advertised as published or to be published in company with the preface afore-mentioned. Even in America, says a personal friend of the author, these books can hardly be said to have been published, though readers occasionally find them out, and certainly in England they are little enough known. The reader at the British Museum may find there a copy of Democratic Vistas, but he will search in vain for Memoranda during the War.

Meanwhile, however, a real service has been rendered to us by the publication in London of Leaves of Grass, and against the printing of the volume there is nothing to be said; it is, in fact, a fine specimen of typography, with few apparent misprints, excellencies which no doubt are fully appreciated by the author, who knows practically what printing is. For those who are acquainted with previous editions of the poems this publication has an interest of its own quite apart from the fact that it is the first complete English edition. There are poems contained in it which have either never appeared before, or only in a separate form not readily to be obtained in this country, as, for instance, the 'Song of the Exposition,' 'After all not to create only,' with its funeral chant for feudalism, which has passed now to its charnel vault—

Coffin'd with crown and armour on,
Blasoned with Shakespere's purple page
And dirged by Tennyson's sweet sad rhyme.

There are also throughout the poems changes of title, omissions, and corrections, such as the author continually makes in his works, for, rough as they seem and often are, the roughness is not caused by want of revision; and, finally, the poems are rearranged, sometimes under new heads altogether, such as 'Autumn Rivulets,' while 'Passage to India' remains only as the title of a single poem, which in 1872 gave its name to a whole volume. But to mention these in detail, and to estimate the effect of them taken together, would be impossible without assuming in the reader a previous knowledge which in most cases he would not possess. We must confine ourselves at present to more general considerations.

Whitman has been the object of a good deal of enthusiastic and rather undiscriminating admiration, and also of a certain amount of furious and equally undiscriminating abuse. Neither is deserved, but he lays himself open, it must be said, almost equally to both. It is time, however, that an attempt were made to arrive at a sober estimate of his real value; and to the formation of such an estimate those should contribute who, having carefully considered the writings of the man, feel his influence strongly indeed, as all such will, but are not overpowered by it, and see his great merits plainly without being thereby prevented from seeing plainly also his great excesses and defects. A few of such critics have already essayed the task, but it will hardly be said that there is no room for more.


I.

It is said, and, so far as I know, said truly, that this prophet is not honoured in his own country. This does not mean that his books have not been bought and read: indeed, the number of copies sold of the first editions of Leaves of Grass is to me rather a subject of surprise. Astonishment at the audacity of the venture must have had some share in raising the public interest, for the book unquestionably sold well. Nor does it mean that the merit of the author was quite unrecognized: on the contrary, by some who were most competent to judge, he was estimated at a very high value. 'The most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed' was Emerson's verdict on the book, and Thoreau thought he saw something almost more than human in the personality of the man. But the mass of his countrymen were not and are not strong enough to accept him; they have perhaps too little confidence in their own literary originality to appreciate duly one from among themselves who breaks through all the conventional usages of literature; they have too much squeamish delicacy to admit to their society one who is so brutally outspoken and unrefined. It is necessary perhaps that this writer, for we need not be zealous to claim for him the title of poet, should be first accepted in the Old World before he can be recognised by the New, which at present can see nothing in literature but by reflected light. Strange irony of fate, if such should be the destiny of one who cast off the conventional forms in order to free himself and his country from Old World influences! 'The proof of a poet shall be sternly deferr'd till his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.' This he has said and still believes, waiting in confidence for that proof of his title to be forthcoming. But there are many reasons why he should be slowly if at all admitted to his rights, whether in Old World or in New, and to glance at some of these reasons before we proceed further will not be amiss.

He is perhaps of all writers the most repellent to the reader who glances at him superficially. In the first place he is indecent, and that too not accidentally but on principle. Whatever may be thought of his morality, and that I hold to be essentially sound and healthy, it cannot be denied that in one section of his work, and occasionally throughout the poems and prose, he outrages every ordinary rule of decency. There is nothing impure in this kind of exposure; it has indeed the direct antithesis to prurient suggestion, and the intention of it is unquestionably honest, but from an artistic point of view it is the gravest of faults, it is essentially and irredeemably ugly and repulsive. We are most of us agreed that there is and ought to be a region of reticence, and in to this region the writer had rushed himself and drags us unwillingly after him. He stands convicted of ̓πειροκαλία, if of nothing worse. Akin to this first instance of defect in artistic perception is a second—his use, namely, of words which are either not English or essentially vulgar; and to this must be added a not unfrequent neglect of syntax, which, together with looseness in the application of some words, makes him at times vague or unintelligible. Occasionally there occur words or expressions which, though not ordinarily found in literature, have a native force which justifies them; but generally it is the case that for the French word or for the vulgarism savouring either of the gutter on the one hand or of the Yankee penny-a-liner on the other might be substituted a good English word equally expressive. But here also we too probably have before us a fault of willfulness, for we know that he will not allow the language of English literature to be large enough for the poets of America, but expects accessions to it from Tennessee and California. If, however, he has in his choice of words sought that simplicity which (to quote his own words) is 'the art of art, the glory of expression, and the sunshine of the light of letters,' he has certainly not seldom failed to attain it, and it was hardly to be attained by pouring out indiscriminately into his pages the words which ran naturally off his pen. The 'art of sinking' is illustrated in his juxtaposition of the most incongruous things, and this especially in his well-known catalogues, which, though sometimes picturesque and interesting, are generally only absurd and dull. The fact that they are introduced on principle is not to be admitted as an excuse for the inartistic and formless character, any more than a similar excuse is to be allowed for offences against decency. From many of these faults a sense of humour would have protected him; and this also might have preserved him from some of that violently feeble exaggeration with which he speaks especially of his own countrymen and their institutions, and from the parade with which he sometimes announces truisms, as if they had been just now for the first time discovered by himself. His defence on the general charge is finely given in a poem now published for the first time, written in Platte Cañon, Colorado.

Spirit that formed this scene,
These tumbled rock-piles grim and red,
These reckless heaven-ambitious peaks,
These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this naked freshness,
These formless wild arrays . . .
Was't charged against my chants they had forgotten art? . . .
But thou that revelest here, spirit that formed this scene,
They have remembered thee.
But the grandeur of nature is not always to be attained by heaping together uncouth masses. We complain not so much that the work lacks polish, as that the writer has not been preserved by his own native genius from ugly excrescences.

These artistic defects and his general disregard of form make many of his works repulsive, and do not allow us to accept any one as faultless. But they are mostly such as expurgation could remove, and therefore are not vital. The characteristic which cannot be got rid of, and yet repels, is his intense egotism and self-assertion. His longest, and in some respects most important, work—a poem of twelve or fourteen hundred lines, with which the original Leaves of Grass opened—has or had his own name as the title† and his own personality as the subject; and this self-assertion of the individual is perhaps the prevailing characteristic of Whitman's work, that which makes it in fact representative in some degree of the spirit of the age; and the egotism, after all, is not so much personal as typical. The poet is a Kosmos, and contains within himself all unity and all diversity. What he claims for himself he thereby claims for others on the same terms. 'Underneath all, to me is myself, to you yourself.' We feel when the poet proclaims himself 'an acme of things accomplished,' for whose birth all the forces of the universe have been a preparation, he is speaking less for himself individually than for humanity, the humanity of his own day and of future days. The egotism becomes more offensive when it is obviously personal and indicates himself as the Michael Angelo of literature; and that, it must be admitted, is not unseldom, though here too he claims to be speaking less for himself than for the future of democratic poets. To these charges it may be added that, notwithstanding his boasted freedom from the trammels of conventionality, he is in his more ordinary work a mannerist of the most vulgar kind. 'Oh! to realise space!' 'Have you reckoned a thousand acres much?' 'Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die.' 'I have said that the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul.' 'I swear I think there is nothing but immortality, that the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is for it, and the cohering is for it!' If these are not all exact quotations, every one will recognise them as genuine types. No style lends itself more readily to parody and burlesque. But when he is at his best the mannerism is in a great measure shaken off.

The disregard of metrical uniformity is another fact which is observed by the most superficial reader, and probably repels him, but with far less reason than the points above mentioned. It is not indeed correct to say that 'there is no trace of rhyme or metre' in these poems. There is at least one poem which affords an instance of perfectly regular metre and rhyme throughout, and in another the regularity in these respects is all but complete; while in some others, such as 'Pioneers' and the 'Dirge for two Veterans,' though there is no rhyme nor an absolute uniformity in the length of lines, there is a stanzaic uniformity, which satisfies, or almost satisfies, the conventional expectations. As for the rest, some is quite formless; but for the most part there is a strongly marked and characteristic rhythm, not strictly metrical, though with metrical tendencies, nor properly to be called the rhythm of prose. It has rather the monotony of a chant than the varied tones of the best rhythmical prose, though it must be said that it not only resembles but is identical with the early prose rhythm of the same author.‡ Every reader of the preface before us will perceive this; and we are relieved from the possibility of doubt by the fact that passages from this preface have been introduced word for word, or with insignificant changes, into subsequently published poems, being divided stichometrically into lines by the natural pauses of the sentence. The words which he himself uttered in this preface on the subject of the rhythmical uniformity are among the best which have been spoken on that subject yet, and no apology is needed for quoting them.

The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity. . . . but is the life of these and much else, and is in the soul. The profit of rhyme is that it drops seeds of a sweeter and more luxuriant rhyme, and of uniformity that it conveys itself into its own roots in the ground out of sight. The rhyme and the uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of material laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts, and oranges, and melons, and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems, or music, or orations, or recitations are not independent but dependent. . . . Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost.

It has been said already that though Whitman's lines are not ordinarily metrical, yet they have metrical tendencies, and this will readily be perceived by any one who reads them aloud. The prevailing rhythm is dactylic. Every reader of Whitman will recognise as characteristic the following examples, chosen purely to illustrate the movement:—

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night;
When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave, which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget;
One touch of your hand to mine, O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle. . . .
Or again—
It is well—against such I say not a word, I am their poet also;
But behold such swiftly subside, burnt up for Religion's sake;
For not all matter is fuel to heat, impalpable flame, the essential life of the earth,
Any more than such are to Religion.

Not unseldom we find regular or slightly irregular hexameters, sometimes several in succession, and occasionally also pentameters, e.g.

Do you not know, O speech, how the buds beneath you are folded?
Or,
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierced with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody.
Or again (an elegiac couplet)—
Chants going forth from the centre, from Kansas, and thence equidistant
Shooting in pulses of fire, ceaseless, to vivify all.
But these are accidents. Let me call the reader's attention to one form of this rhythm which is doubtless the result of design, the occasional lengthening of line in passionate lyrical outbursts, which produces sometimes a remarkable effect of intensity in that it 'crowds and hurries and precipitates' the notes in the eagerness as it were of the verse to find a cadence.
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again, if you only would.

From these dactylics we pass to the inspiriting trochaics of 'Pioneers,' and finally, as the poet grows graver in the more deeply spiritual songs of the soul and of death, which are among his last productions, with the rapid flow of the earlier rhythm mingles the graver tone of the iambic, as in the remarkable poem called 'Passage to India.'

Passage indeed, O soul, to primal thought,
Not lands and seas alone, thy own clear freshness,
The young maturity of brood and bloom,
To realms of budding bibles.
Or again, in the still more recent 'Song of the Redwood Tree'—
Nor yield we mournfully, majestic brothers,
We who have grandly filled our time;
With nature's calm content, with tacit huge delight,
We welcome what we wrought for through the past,
And leave the field for them.

But enough of the outward form; it is time that we examine more closely the value of the contents.


II.

If we were asked for justification of the high estimate of this poet, which has been implied, if not expressed, in what has been hitherto said, the answer would be perhaps first, that he has a power of passionate expression, of strong and simple utterance of the deepest tones of grief, which is almost or altogether without its counterpart in the world. Not often has he exerted his power, but often enough to let us understand that he possesses it, and to stamp him as a poet inferior to few, if any, of our time in strength of native genius, however he may fall behind many in artistic perception. Two poems of death, indicated often by himself as the highest theme, though not faultless, for none of his work is so, are enough in themselves to rest his claim upon. The first is 'Out of the Cradle endlessly rocking;' and the other that funeral hymn for President Lincoln which begins, 'When Lilacs last in the Door-yard bloomed.' Nothing illustrates more strongly than these two poems the intense sympathy of the writer with nature, animate and inanimate, and the deep emotional significance which it has for him. Both are saturated with influences of sky, sea, or forest. The first is of the ocean, whose husky meaning is a fit accompaniment to the song of desolate loneliness; the second is of the forest, whose pine-fragrance is as the perfume of the sweet soul that is gone. In both the most passionate outpourings come forth in the notes of birds—the mocking-bird, the most magnificent of songsters, and the hermit thrush, the grey-brown minstrel of the cedar swamp, lyrical mourners whose chant is fused and translated into words by the ecstatic listener. Shelley's skylark pours forth a harmonious madness of joy, Keats' nightingale seems to be intoxicated with passionate yearning; but never before has a bird poured forth to a poet a song so capable of stirring the depths of emotion in the heart, as heart-breaking indeed in its intensity of grief, as that of the lone singer 'on the prong of a moss-scalloped stake, down almost among the slapping waves.' The burden of the first division of the chant is 'Two together.'

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Such is the joyous and careless song of the two feathered guests on the seashore of Paumánok, when the snows had melted and the lilac scent was in the air, while every day the boy, curious but never disturbing them, peered cautiously at the he-bird flitting to and fro, and the she-bird 'crouch'd on her nest, silent with bright eyes,' till on a sudden, 'may-be killed unknown to her mate,' she disappeared, nor returned that day nor the next, nor ever appeared again. And thenceforward all the summer, day and night over the surging of the fierce mother the sea, the boy hears at intervals the solitary one who is left.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea winds, along Paumánok's shore,
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.

Often the child, gliding down to the beach, had stood with bare feet, the wind wafting his hair, with 'the white arms out in the breaker tirelessly tossing,' to listen and translate the notes of the demon or bird.

Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind, embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves.
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon, do not keep her from me any longer.
Land! land, O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again, if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.

———

But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment, you husky-noised sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
Hither, my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustained note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you, my love, for you.
Do not be decoyed elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice;
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray;
Those are the shadows of the leaves.
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.

———

O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.

It stirs the boy's heart, and he feels that it is toward him and not really toward its mate that the bird sings, and a thousand echoes have started to life in his soul.

O give me the clew! (It lurks in the night here somewhere),
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whispered me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisped to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd child's heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

This is the only solution of the cries of unsatisfied love, and here lies the highest problem which awaits the poet always with its unconquerable, almost unassailable, mysteriousness. This word it is which he gives as the key to the thousand responsive songs awakened in him from that hour, the word which the sea whispered, 'like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside.'§ 'Whispers of Heavenly Death' is the title of one section of these poems, and it is the 'Carol of Death' which forms the centre of the second of the two poems to which attention has not been called. Splendidly imaginative is this 'nocturne,' with its three ever-recurring chords, 'lilac, and star, and bird.' Of more intricate construction than the other and less directly passionate, because expressive of a more reflecting sorrow, it is yet a composition which few can read or hear unmoved.

Ever-returning Spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

The star is disappearing in the black murk of clouds, while cruel hands hold him powerless; but his senses are steeped in the perfume of the lilac and the song from secluded recesses, 'death's outlet song of life,' of the singer among the cedars, while 'over the breast of the spring,' through lanes and through streets of cities,

Passing the yellowspear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

To the coffin that slowly passes, with the great cloud darkening the land, with the people's mourning and 'the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang,' he brings a sprig with its flower broken from the lilac bush, with its delicate blossoms and heart-shaped leaves. Nor for this coffin alone, but for all he would bring blossoms and branches and chant a song 'for you, O sane and sacred Death.' This, after all, was what the great star must have meant a month since—

As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,
As you drooped from the sky low down as if to my side, while the other stars all look'd on,
As we wander'd together the solemn night (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep).

But he is drawn by the song of the bird, though for a moment he lingers, detained by the star, his departing comrade, and by the mastering odour of the lilac. Sea winds blown from east and west, from the Atlantic and from the Pacific, shall be the perfume for the grave of the man he loves. Pictures of growing spring 'with flood of the yellow gold of the gorgeous indolent sinking sun,' of all the scenes of life in country or city of this varied and ample land, these shall adorn his burial house. But over all these falls the dark cloud,

And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

The bird sang the 'Carol of Death.'

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

The hearer stands rapt by the charm and holding as if by the hand his mystic companions, while the sight that was bound in his eyes 'unclosed, as to long panoramas of visions.' He sees the vision of armies, of battle flags borne through the smoke, of the corpses of all the slain soldiers of the war, and he sees that they were not as had been thought.

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not;
The living remained and suffer'd.

Passing from the visions and from the song, he unlooses the hold of his comrades' hands, and leaves the cedars and the lilac with heart-shaped leaves; yet each and all he keeps.

The song, the wondrous chant of the grey-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.


III.

The passage from the region of pure imagination and passion to the other works of the same writer compels us to deal with his religious and political philosophy. In religion, if he is to be labelled with a name, it must be perhaps 'Pantheist;' he is an exponent of 'Cosmic Emotion.' 'I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand not God in the least.' It is the contemplation of 'the fathomless universe,' and all its movements and rests, its organic and inorganic existences, which stirs the religious emotion in his soul. Men are inclined to cry, 'What is this separate nature so unnatural? What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth without a throb to answer ours, cold earth, the place of graves).' To answer this question is the function of the poet, to soothe 'the sad incessant refrain, Wherefore, unsatisfied soul? and Whither, O mocking Life?' His answer is, 'Bathe in the Spirit of the Universe, intoxicate thyself with God.'

Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time, and Space, and Death, like waters flowing,
Bear me indeed as through the regions infinite,
Whose air I breathe, whose ripples bear, lave me all over,
Bathe me, O God, in thee, mounting to thee,
I and my soul to range in range of thee,
O Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,
Light of the light, shedding forth universes. . . .
Thou pulse, thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how speak, if out of myself
I could not launch to those superior universes?

God, as he includes all, includes personality, and from God will come somehow a satisfaction of the longing of the soul. What conclusions, if any, are to be drawn from the alteration in the new edition of the poem called 'Gods,' I leave it to the curious to consider; but in it clearly, as elsewhere, we find anticipation of the

Lover divine, and perfect comrade,
Waiting content, invisible yet, but certain,
of whom, whether he be ideal or real, we cannot pronounce.

About immortality he doubts, yet strongly believes. In moments of cool reflection he feels that the questions of 'identity beyond the grave' is the great unsolved problem. Yet his poetical optimism continually leads him to assert immortality, and that not merely the merging of our life in the vital forces of the universe, though that is sometimes his meaning, but actual personal identity of the human soul after death. We have, on the one hand, among his first utterances—

I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
and, on the other hand, we have later the picture of the chamber of death, where
The living look upon the corpse with their eyesight,
But without eyesight lingers a different living and looks curiously on the corpse;
and again the cry—
If maggots and rats ended us, then alarum! for we are betrayed,
Then indeed suspicion of death.

On the whole he seems to become more definite as he proceeds, in his anticipation of 'identity after the grave.' As for defined creeds, it is not they which give the life;

Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth, than they are shed out of you.

God and the soul are not to be argued about;

Logic and sermons never convinces;
The damp of the night strikes deeper into my soul.
But religion is the thing above all, and he rarely fails to point the way to spiritual meanings.

His morality is almost comprised in the one word 'health,' health of body and health of soul, the healthy and sane man to be the ultimate standard. These are Greek ethics, and the maxim on which they seem to be based—

Whatever tastes sweet to the most perfect person, that is finally right—
is thoroughly Aristotelian. A 'sane sensuality,' as it is called by one of his friends, is a necessary part of the ideal man. The body is sacred as well as the soul, and to assert is sacredness is the purpose of his sometimes outrageous physiological details, which can hardly have the desired effect, but are clearly not meant, nor indeed adapted, to minister to vicious tastes; they may disgust, but they can hardly corrupt. There is indeed something in this tearing away of veils which, however justly it may offend true modesty, is to unhealthiness and pruriency as sunlight and the open air; they shrink from the exposure, and shiver at the healthy freshness; it is not an atmosphere in which they can long survive: mystery is the region in which they thrive, and here all mystery is rudely laid bare. This man's nature is itself as healthy as the sea, which endangers not us with all the fevers deposited in it.

His judgment of actions is rather aesthetic than strictly moral, and he admires the unconscious blossoming out of good and kindly deeds more than all the moral struggles which proceed from religious introspection. He envies the careless rectitude of the movements of animals who are placid and self-contained, and do not 'sweat and whine about their condition.' He is sure that good deeds have their happiness in themselves and not in any external or future reward, and that bad deeds have their misery in themselves and not in any external or future punishment.

The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him;
The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him;
The theft is to the thief, and comes back most to him;
The love is to the lover, and comes back most to him;
The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him, it cannot fail.

And again of a future life—

I have dreamed that we are not to be changed so much, nor the law of us changed;
I have dreamed that heroes and good-doers shall be under the present and past law,
And that murderers, drunkards, and liars shall be under the present and past law,
For I have dreamed that the law they are under now is enough.
But underlying all, so far as he himself is concerned, is a sympathy embracing all human beings, however vile, and all animals and plants, however irresponsive. It is this which leads him at times to emphasise his own sensuality, that he may make himself the equal of the most depraved, to draw them if it may be in the bonds of sympathy to himself. It is this which is the open secret of that magnetic influence which he is said to exercise over those whom he casually meets. It was this which led him to the hospitals rather than to the field of battle, and makes him recall in memory now the experiences of the 'Dresser,' rather than the great battles and sieges at which he was present. No study of the poet would be complete which did not include the section of his work which deals with the war and after, which indeed contains some of the most magnificent and spirit-stirring trumpet-blasts, as well as some of the most deeply-moving aspects of suffering and death ever expressed by poet. Here was a great theme, and he treated it nobly; with all notes of patriotism and devotion to the flag is beautifully blended sympathy for the vanquished, and deep desire to relieve the sufferings of the wounded. On the whole no part of his work is more interesting than this; it is as if he were the born poet of emancipation, tender to all suffering persons, yet with nerve strong enough to endure without fainting or shrieking the stroke of necessary surgery. Magnificent is his war cry, as in the 'Song of the Banner at Daybreak,' and his note of triumph, 'The war is completed, the price is paid, the title settled beyond recall;' yet finer still is the 'Vigil on the Field of Battle,' the memories of the hospital tent with its long row of cots, the vision of the Mother of All gazing desperate on her dead, the reflection on those 'Camps of Green' where friend and foe without hatred sleep, and need not any longer provide for outposts, nor word for the countersign, nor drummer to beat the morning drum. Other things, too, he gathered from the experiences of the war: he gathered from them more than from all else the steadfastness of his belief in democracy, in the nobleness and courage of common men. But to speak of this would belong rather to a review of the Democratic Vistas, which is not my task; the poetical aspects of the theme are enough. The poet then believes in the power of sympathy, but he believes also in individuality 'underneath all—individuals.' At least half his work is devoted to the assertion of this, and yet with this sympathy and 'adhesiveness' is to go hand in hand, and he has as his watchword still the word of democracy, the word En-masse. The reconciliation is to be found in the prose more clearly than in the verse, but Whitman is not over-anxious for reconciliation; he is large, he contains multitudes, and has room for contradictions.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
That being so, his optimism is the more comprehensible; and it is upon a basis of optimism after all that he builds his whole religion and philosophy. He has too firm a grasp of fact to ignore the existence of evil. If he exclaims at times, 'There is no evil,' he adds, 'or if there is, it is just as important to you as anything else.' 'I am not the poet of goodness only; I am just as much the poet of evil.' But he believes that evil is transient and relative; he holds that the drift of things is towards good; that all is, not at once, but finally for the best. This he said, in plain prose, is the growing conviction of his life, and in verse, of the souls of men and women going forward along the roads of the universe,
They go, they go, I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go forward toward the best.
This it is which makes him so much at peace about God and about death. 'No array of words can describe how much I am at peace about God and about death;' the heroic failures of this world are to him eternal successes. 'Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won;' therefore, 'Vivas to those who have failed!' And above all the cause of liberty will finally succeed.
Revolt! and still revolt! revolt!

———

When liberty goes out of a place, it is not the first to go nor the second or third to go,
It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last.
When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,
And when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth,
Then only shall liberty, or the idea of liberty, be discharged from that part of the earth,
And the infidel come into full possession.
Too much, perhaps, has been said of the religion and morality of the poet, and too little of the literary aspect of his works. But this it is difficult to illustrate sufficiently by quotation, and impossible to set forth without illustration. It seemed to me that suggestions of the drift of the whole were more likely to be useful than attention to particular points. Everyone will remark first the too frequent infelicity of sentiment and phrase, and then the striking directness of utterance, and the stumbling, as if by accident, on the absolutely best words in the absolutely best order, which characterises his finest work. Whether these be truly poems, or fine imaginings only, we need not be much concerned to inquire. His own claim to be the poet of America is based on other than purely literary grounds.
Give me the pay I have served for,
Give me to sing the songs of the great Idea, take all the rest.
I have loved the earth, sun, animals; I have despised riches;
I have given alms to everyone that asked….
I have dismissed whatever insulted my own soul or defiled me body,
Claimed nothing to myself which I have not carefully claimed for others on the same terms,
Sped to the camps, and comrades found and accepted from every state,
(Upon this breast has many a dying soldier leaned to breathe his last).

———

Say, O mother, have I not to your thought been faithful?
Have I not through life kept you and yours before me?

G.C. MACAULAY.

———


* Leaves of Grass. By Walt Whitman. London, David Bogue, 1881. Leaves of Grass. Preface to the original edition, 1855. London, Trübner & Co., 1881.

† The title 'Walt Whitman,' which this poem has originally borne in American editions, is now altered to 'Song of Myself.'

‡It should be observed that in the later prose of Democratic Vistas, a book which is comparatively free from his characteristic weaknesses, the writer attains to a prose style of much greater excellence. This book, with its Carlylian eloquence and anti-Carlylian optimism, is not more remarkable on account of the robust faith of the writer in the future of American Democracy, than on account of his keen perception and vigorous denunciation of its present faults and failings, and is enough by itself to stamp him as a master of the English language and a prose poet of the first order. The English reader who would understand the author's drift and hear the key-note of his philosophy could not do better than begin with this book, but that it is in England almost unobtainable.

§ A line added in this edition.


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