Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Leaves of Grass

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: July 7, 1860

Publication information: The Literary Gazette 106 (7 July 1860): 798-9.

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.00043

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


LEAVES OF GRASS.

NOT the least surprising thing about this book is its title. Had it been called "Stenches from the Sewer," "Garbage from the Gutter," or "Squeals from the Sty," we could have discerned the application. But "leaves"—which, we take it, is the Transatlantic for blades—"of grass" have nothing of irreligion or indecency about them. Mr. Walt Whitman—for it is with that choice spirit we are now dealing—might as well let them alone.

It is, for reasons we shall presently specify, rather a difficult matter to give the class of readers for whom we write, any adequate notion of this remarkable volume. Let them, however, imagine a Mormon, a medical student, and Miss Eugenie Plummer combining to draw up a treatise in the style of "Proverbial Philosophy," and they will have a faint idea of the last production of Mr. Walt Whitman.

The folly of the work is its least defect. The gregarious qualities of birds of a feather furnish matter for a very common aphorism, and we therefore see no reason to question the correctness of the subjoined assertion:—

"The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an
invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen close,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry
sky."

The following forms the conclusion of a pretty long rhapsody of the author concerning himself. We extract it because it is more decent and not more foolish than the rest of the volume:—

"I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness, after the rest, and true as any,
on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the run-away
sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I
love,
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.
"You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."

It is related of poor crazy Nat Lee that when a small poet asked him if it was not very easy to write like a madman, he replied, "No; but it is very easy indeed to write like a fool, as you do." Doubtless Mr. Walt Whitman imagines he is writing like a madman, when, as a matter of fact, he is only writing like Nat Lee's friend.

He tells us that the world is not devout enough—that he understands "Him who was crucified;" and in general tries to impress upon us that he is an apostle of no mean pretensions. But his creed, so far as we understand it, consists in a peculiarly coarse materialism. He tells us pretty roundly that he worships his own body, and people who would like to learn a great number of particulars about Mr. Walt Whitman's body, may find them in Mr. Walt Whitman's book.

Throughout the work there is a tone of consistent impurity which reaches its climax in some compositions entitled "Enfans d'Adam"—a designation which we can only explain by imagining it to contain some allusion to the Adamites, of which interesting, though as we had supposed, extinct sect, Mr. Walt Whitman is a very fair representative. For the downright foulness of some of these passages we do not believe that a parallel could be found even by ransacking the worst classical poets from Aristophanes to Ausonius, and we are rather surprised that with John Lord Campbell on the woolsack,1 and a certain act of his still unrepealed on the statute-book, Mr. Walt Whitman should have found a London vendor for his uncleanly work.

This is more decided language than we generally employ, and our readers may ask us for some justification of it. Let us remind them of Lord Macaulay's description of Wycherley,2 which we can certainly apply to Walt Whitman. "His indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe because it is too filthy to handle, and too noisome even to approach." There are certain criminals whom even literary judges must try with closed doors, and our readers must deduce from our verdict that "the evidence is unfit for publication." We say, then, deliberately, that of all the writers we have ever perused, Mr. Walt Whitman is the most silly, the most blasphemous, and the most disgusting; if we can think of any stronger epithets, we will print them in a second edition.

Leaves of Grass (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States—1860–61. London: Trübner.)


Notes:

1. The Woolsack is the seat from which the Lord Chancellor presided in the House of Lords of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Woolsack is a large, wool-stuffed cushion, meant to signify the England's prosperity. [back]

2. Lord Macaulay's description of Wycherley refers to Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), who was an English poet, historian and Whig politician. William Wycherley (1641-1716) was an English playwright whose plays juxtaposed deep-seated Puritanism with an ardent physical nature. In 1841 Macaulay offered a scathing assessment of William Wycherley's work. [back]


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