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Contemporary Reviews

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Title: [Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: 1856

Publication information: The Christian Spiritualist 1856: [unknown].

Source: The electronic text for this file was prepared by Whitman Archive staff, who transcribed the text from a representation of the original (e.g., digital scan or other electronic reproduction, microfilm copy).

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00015

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Charles Green, and Franklin E. Menius Jr.


Carlyle represents a contemporary reviewer taking leave of the Belles-Lettres department somewhat in this abrupt manner:

The end having come, it is fit that we end—Poetry having ceased to be read, or published, or written, how can it continue to be reviewed? With your Lake Schools, and Border-Thief Schools, and Cockney and Satanic Schools, there has been enough to do; and now, all these Schools having been burnt or smouldered themselves out, and left nothing but a wide-spread wreck of ashes, dust, and cinders—or perhaps dying embers, kicked to and fro under the feet of innumerable women and children in the magazines, and at best blown here and there into transient sputters, what remains but to adjust ourselves to circumstances? Urge me not, [continues this desperate litterateur] with considerations that Poetry, as the inward Voice of Life, must be perennial; only dead in one form to become alive in another; that this still abundant deluge of Metre, seeing there must needs be fractions of Poetry floating, scattered in it, ought still to be net-fished; at all events, surveyed and taken note of. The survey of English metre, at this epoch, perhaps transcends the human faculties; to hire out the reading of it by estimate, at a remunerative rate per page, would, in a few quarters, reduce the cash-box of any extant review to the verge of insolvency.

Such is the humorous but essentially truthful picture of the condition and product of the creative faculties during the second quarter of the present century. The great poets, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Goethe, and Schiller, had fulfilled their tasks and gone to other spheres; and all that remained with few exceptions, were weak and feeble echoes of their dying strains, caught up and repeated by numerous imitators and pretenders. And so has it ever been; the visions and perceptions of one man become the creed and superficial life-element of other minds. Swedenborg1 is worthy to be enrolled among the master minds of the world, because he entered for himself into the Arcana of the profoundest mysteries that can concern human intelligences; his greatest thoughts are revolved, quoted and represented in all 'New Church' publications, but very rarely digested and assimilated by those who claim to be his followers. Still more rare is it to find any receiver of 'the heavenly doctrines' determined to enter for himself into the very interiors of all that Swedenborg taught—to see, to the mighty reflections that Swedenborg was able to give of interior realities, but their originals as they stand constellated in the heavens!

But Divine Providence, leading forth the race, as a father the tottering steps of his children, causes the outward form, on which all men are prone to rely, to be forever changing and passing away before their eyes. The seeds of death are ever found luring in the fairest external appearances, till those externals become the mere correspondences and representatives of interior realities, and then, though enduring as the fadeless garments of the blest, they are ever-varying, as those robes of light change with each changing state. The Coming Age will recognize the profoundest truths in the internal thought of the Swedish sage, while his most tenacious adherents will be forced to admit that, in externals, he often erred, and was not unfrequently deceived. But the discovered error will not only wean them from a blind and bigoted reliance upon frail man, but confirm the sincere lovers of truth in loyalty to her standard. So also, the spiritualists are being taught a severe but salutary lesson, that if they will penetrate into the heavenly Arcana of the Inner Life, they must do so by purifying and elevating their own minds, and not by 'sitting in circles' or ransacking town and country to find the most 'reliable Mediums.' Still no step in human progress and development is in vain; even the falls of the child are essential to his discipline. The mistakes and errors of men are needful while in their present imperfect state. They are to the seekers of truth what trials and losses are to those in the pursuit of wealth; they but enhance the value of the prize, and confirm the devotion of the true aspirant as frowns rekindle the ardor of lovers.

Moreover, as man must ever enter into the kingdom of a new unfolding truth with the simplicity and teachableness of little children, it is well that the outer form of the old disappear, that the new may stand alone in its place. It seems also to be a Law that when a change entire and universal is to be outwrought, the means preparatory to its introduction shall be equally widespread, and ultimated to the lowest possible plane. Hence the Spiritual manifestations meet the most external minds; and allow even the unregenerate to know by experience the fact and process of Spiritual inspiration; so that scepticism becomes impossible to the candid and living mind. The second step will be, after such have been convinced that Spiritual intercourse is possible, that they learn that it is worse than useless for the purpose of attaining anything desirable, beyond this conviction—except so far as is orderly and directed, not by the will of man, but of God. But as the old form of poetic inspiration died out with Byron and Shelley, Wordsworth and Goethe, and the miscellaneous Spirit-intercourse itself also as quickly passes away, there will, we apprehend, spring up forms of mediatorial inspiration, of which there will be two permanent types. The first and highest, as it seems to us, will be the opening of the interiors to direct influx to the inspiring sources of love and wisdom. The heavens will flow down into the hearts and lives, into the thought and speech of harmonic natures, as the silent dews impregnate the patient earth. Men will live in heaven, hence they must be inspired by that breath of life that fills its ethereal expanse. A second class of Media will be used for the ultimation, for ends of use and in accordance with Laws of Order, of the creative thoughts and hymns, the Epics and Lyrics, of individual Spirits and societies of Spirits. These will be to the former Media as the youthful artist who copies the work of a master, to the Angelos and Raphaels, who both design and execute their plans, though they themselves, in their deepest interiors, are instructed and sustained from above.

But in the transition period in which we now are, many varieties of Mediumship must be expected. There are those who stand in rapport with the diseased mentalities of the past and present and pour forth as Divine Revelations the froth and scum of a receding age; they are the sponges who absorb the waste and impurities of humanity. They are also like running sores that gather the corrupt humors and drain the body of its most noxious fluids. There are others who come in contact with the outmost portion of the Spirit-life. These give crude, and in themselves, false notions of the state of man after death; yet they prepare the way for more truthful disclosures; if in no other way by stimulating the appetite for more substantial nourishment. There are those who are lifted by genial inspirations to receive influxes from the upper mind-sphere of the age. They stand, as it were, on clear mountains of intellectual elevation, and with keenest perception discern the purer forms of new unfolding truths ere they become sufficiently embodied to be manifest to the grosser minds of the race. Of these Ralph Waldo Emerson is the highest-type. He sees the future of truths as our Spirit-seers discern the future of man; he welcomes those impalpable forms, as Spiritualists receive with gladdened minds the returning hosts of Spirit-friends.

There are other mediatorial natures who are in mental and heart-sympathy with man, as he now is, struggling to free himself from the tyranny of the old and effete, and to grasp and retain the new life flowing down from the heavens. And as the kindling rays at first produce more smoke than fire, so their lay is one of promise rather than performance. Such we conceive to be the interior condition of the author of Leaves of Grass. He accepts man as he is as to his whole nature, and all men as his own brothers. The lambent flame of his genius encircles the world—nor does he clearly discern between that which is to be preserved, and that which is but as fuel for the purification of the ore from its dross. There is a wild strength, a Spartan simplicity about the man, and he stalks among the dapper gentlemen of this generation, like a drunken Hercules amid the dainty dancers. That his song is highly mediatorial he himself asserts, though probably he is unacquainted with the Spiritual developments of the age.

Through me [he sings] many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of the diseased and despairing.
Voices of the cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of threads that connect the stars,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon.
Through me forbidden voices—voices veiled,
Voices indecent, by me clarified and transfigured.

We omit much even in this short extract, for the book abounds in passages that cannot be quoted in drawing-rooms, and expressions that fall upon the tympanums of ears polite, with a terrible dissonance. His very gait, as he walks through the world, makes dainty people nervous; and conservatives regard him a social revolution. His style is everywhere graphic and strong, and he sings many things before untouched in prose or rhyme in an idiom that is neither prose nor rhyme, nor yet orthodox blank verse. But it serves his purpose well. He wears strange garb, cut and made by himself, as gracefully as a South American cavalier his poncho. We will continue our quotations.

Such are the graphic pictures which this new world-painter flings from his easel and dashes upon the moving panorama of life. His night-thoughts are not less striking, as borne by the Muse, he looks into every chamber, and hears the quiet breathing of slumbering humanity.

As the volume advances towards its conclusion, the Spirit of the poet becomes calmer and more serenely elevated. But everywhere his sympathy is with man, and not with conventionalisms.

We cannot take leave of this remarkable volume without advising our friends who are not too delicately nerved, to study the work as a sign of the times, written as we perceive, under powerful influxes; a prophecy and promise of much that awaits all who are entering with us into the opening doors of a new era. A portion of that thought which broods over the American nation, is here seized and bodied forth by a son of the people, rudely, wildly, and with some perversions, yet strongly and genuinely, according to the perception of this bold writer. He is the young Hercules who has seized the serpents that would make him and us their prey; but instead of strangling, he would change them to winged and beautiful forms, who shall become the servants of mankind.


Notes:

1. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist, Christian mystic, philosopher and theologian. He wrote prolifically about his dream- and vision-inspired interpretations of the Scriptures and Christianity. His followers formed the Church of the New Jerusalem or, New Church, based on his principles. [back]


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