Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Leaves Of Grass

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: July 7, 1860

Publication information: The Saturday Review 10 (7 July 1860): 19-21.

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.00044

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


LEAVES OF GRASS.

IT is now four or five years since we reviewed Mr. Whitman's Leaves of Grass. On that occasion we were spared the trouble of setting forth the new poet's merits, as he or his publisher was good enough to paste into his presentation-copy a number of criticisms from American periodicals, which we were satisfied to reprint along with a few extracts illustrative of the volume they recommended. We cannot treat a new edition of Leaves of Grass in the same way. It is, we believe, the sixth or seventh which has appeared in the United States, and shows, both externally and internally, that Mr. Whitman is now much too confident in his own popularity and influence to care for directing English reviewers in the way they should go. The volume itself is splendid. The type is magnificent, the paper is as thick as cardboard, and the covers, ornamented with an intaglio of the earth moving through space and displaying only the American hemisphere, are almost as massive as the house-tiles which, according to Mr. Gladstone, are produceable from rags boiled to pulp. It is a book evidently intended to lie on the tables of the wealthy. No poor man could afford it, and it is too bulky for its possessor to get it into his pocket or to hide it away in a corner.

This is simply astonishing to us, for Mr. Whitman reappears with all his characteristics. He is still

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding;
No sentimentalist—no stander above men or women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest—

in short, one of the most indecent writers who ever raked out filth into sentences. Such books as this have occasionally been printed in the guise of a

scrofulous French novel,
On grey paper with blunt type,

but this, we verily believe, is the first time that one of them has been decorated with all the art of the binder and the pressman. The odd thing is, that it irresistibly suggests its being intended for the luxurious and cultivated of both sexes. We are almost ashamed to ask the question—but do American ladies read Mr. Whitman? At all events, it is startling to find such a poet acquiring popularity in the country where piano-legs wear frilled trousers, where slices are cut from turkeys' bosoms, and where the male of the gallinaceous tribe is called a "rooster." The theory that the affectation of an artistic object will justify any conceivable mode of treatment has never been carried farther.

Poetry of so singular a kind deserves some degree of analysis. Mr. Whitman's first characteristic is, that he is an Emersonian. It is curious to observe the effect of the secondary Carlylism of Emerson on a thorough American rowdy. It is generally the weak through over-refinement who are imposed on by that philosophy which pre-eminently affects to disdain conventionalities; but here is a "disorderly, fleshy, sensual" nature, which takes the disease in quite a new form. Mr. Whitman is a professed Pantheist, but he draws from his Pantheism some conclusions not dreamed of by his teachers. From the principle that all things are divine, he derives the inference that all things are equally beautiful and equally fitted for poetical treatment, and this is his justification for writing with the utmost minuteness on subjects on which Nature herself has sometimes been thought to command silence to everybody except doctors. Mr. Whitman's philosophy seems also to deny that man has any personality distinct from the rest of the universe. A very large part of his poetry is taken up with assertions that he is everything else, and everything else is he; nor do we remember to have come across a doctrine more convenient for a poet. It relieves one from the necessity of doing more than enumerating the various elements of which the moral and material worlds are composed, the various scenes of which they are the theatre, or the various passions they include, and then the enumeration may be closed with the remark that all these things are equally godlike, or are equally dear to the poet, or are equally part of him, or have an equal claim on him as a part of themselves. We take, almost at random, the following passage, to give a notion of Emersonianism done into verse by Mr. Whitman:—

Good in all,
In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals,
In the annual return of the seasons,
In the hilarity of youth;
In the strength and flush of manhood,
In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age,
In the superb vistas of Death.
Wonderful to depart!
Wonderful to be here!
The heart, to jet the all-alike and innocent blood,
To breathe the air, how delicious!
To speak! to walk! to seize something by the hand!
To prepare for sleep, for bed—to look on my rose-coloured flesh,
To be conscious of my body, so amorous, so large.
To be this incredible God I am,
To have gone forth among other Gods—those men and women I love.

∗∗∗∗∗∗

I sing the Equalities,
I sing the endless finales of things,
I say Nature continues—Glory continues,
I praise with electric voice,
For I do not see one imperfection in the universe,
And I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last in the universe.

These lines will show that Mr. Whitman has adopted a metre which, like his philosophy, is calculated to make the labour of writing poetry much slighter than it has been usually considered. He has a better ear than Mr. Tupper,1 and his versification has occasionally a vague rhythm about it, but it is evidently the free and easy Tupperian pseud-hexameter which he has taken for his model. The elasticity of the rules by which this peculiar metre is governed here and there receives startling illustration in Leaves of Grass, as in the last two verses of the following extract:—

Who are you, indeed, who would talk or sing in America?
Have you studied out MY LAND, its idioms and men?
Have you learned the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography, pride,
freedom, friendship, of my land? its substratums and objects?
Have you considered the organic compact of the first day of the first year
of the independence of The States, signed by the Commissioners,
ratified by The States, and read by Washington at the head of the
army?

The same metrical oddities appear in another passage, which we quote because it gives us Mr. Whitman's description—doubtless a faithful one—of himself and his habits:—

His shape arises,
Arrogant, masculine, näive, rowdyish,
Laugher, weeper, worker, idler, citizen, countryman,
Saunterer of 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 forever 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 sun-burnt, bearded, calm, unrefined,
Reminder of animals, meeter of savage and gentleman on terms,

∗∗∗∗∗∗

Never offering others, always offering himself, corroborating his phre-
nology,
Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative, conscientious, alimentive, intuitive,
of copious friendship, sublimity, firmness, self-esteem, comparison,
individuality, form, locality, eventuality,
Avowing by life, manners, works, to contribute illustrations of results of
The States,
Teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism,
Inviter of others continually henceforth to try their strength against his.

It will be seen that Mr. Whitman calls himself "näive," in the feminine. One of his peculiarities is that he mixes up French words, generally much misspelt and otherwise abused, with the English or American of his verses. In one poem, each stanza begins with "Allons." In another, the words "Accouche; accouchez" form a whole line; and elsewhere he calls upon the world to "respondez." But if his French is a new ingredient in poetry, still newer is his American slang, particularly journalistic and debating slang, with which he sometimes fills entire pages. Nothing can be absurder than the way in which the commonplaces of public speaking are occasionally intruded, as in this couplet:—

I say, nourish a great intellect, a great brain;
If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it.

Or in the following:—

I, an habitué of the Alleghenies, treat man as he is in the influences of
Nature, in himself, in his inalienable rights.
I do not tell the usual facts, proved by records and documents;
What I tell (talking to every born American) requires no further proof
than he or she who hears me will furnish, by silently meditating
alone.

The extracts we have given will perhaps lead the reader to wonder by what extraordinary hallucination as to the character of poetry Americans have been led to regard Mr. Whitman as a poet. Yet we are far from saying that he has nothing of the poetical fibre. He is certainly an unredeemed New York rowdy of the lowest stamp. He is absolutely without sense of decency. He has obviously no sort of acquaintance with the masters of his art, and his studies have been apparently confined to Mr. Tupper, his news-paper, and the semi-lyrical rhapsodies of the Boston transcendentalists. But his taste, now hopelessly perverted, seems to have been naturally delicate, and he has a very vivid imagination. When his pictures happen (as is rarely the case) to be neither befouled with filth nor defaced by vulgarity, they are, for the most part, strikingly presented. A sort of catalogue of scenes of American life, which, according to Mr. Whitman's easy method, is continued for half-a-dozen pages and results in nothing particular, gives a good idea of his descriptive power. We can only quote the beginning:—

Over the growing sugar—over the cotton plant—over the rice in its low
moist field,
Over the sharp-peaked farm house, with its scalloped scum and slender
shoots from the gutters,
Over the western persimmon—over the long-leaved corn—over the deli-
cate blue-flowered flax,
Over the white and brown buckwheat, a hummer and buzzer there with
the rest,
Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze,
Scaling mountains, pulling myself cautiously up, holding on by low
scragged limbs,
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of the
brush,
Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheat-lot,
Where the bat flies in the Seventh Month eve—Where the great gold-
bug drops through the dark,
Where the flails keep time on the barn floor,
Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the
meadow,
Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous shuddering
of their hides,
Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen—Where andirons straddle
the hearth-slab- Where cob-webs fall in festoons from the rafters,
Where trip-hammers crash—Where the press is whirling its cylinders,
Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes out of its ribs—

there, and everywhere else, is Mr. Whitman.

We conclude with some lines which are more like true poetry than anything else in the volume. They are fished out from the very midst of a sea of foul impurities:—

Press close, bare-bosomed Night Press close, magnetic, nourishing
Night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still, nodding night! Mad, naked, summer night.
Smile, O voluptuous, cool-breathed Earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains, misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid grey of clouds, brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed Earth! Rich, apple-blossomed Earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!
Prodigal, you have given me love! Therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love!

Leaves of Grass By Walt Whitman. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge. Year 85 of the States. London: Trübner and Co. 1860.


Notes:

1. The English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) wrote Proverbial Philosophy, didactic moral and religious verse published in the mid 1800s. [back]


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