Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Leaves of Grass

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: February 1882

Publication information: The Catholic World 34 (February 1882): 719-20.

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.00090

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


LEAVES OF GRASS.

The animus underlying the songs of Walt Whitman entitled Enfans d'Adam is characteristic of nearly all he has written, and if these had been given their true heading they would have been entitled Enfans de la Bête. Why not? The animal in Walt was free from all conscious restraint, young and lusty, and why should he not sing of its liberties and joys, such as they are? Had not his master proclaimed the precept, "Act out thyself"? and, having the courage of his convictions, with youthful vigor on his side, the disciple was resolved, in spite of obtrusive advice, to act out fearlessly, at least as far as language and type serve, what was in him.

Walt Whitman is a more recent and more genuine outcome of transcendentalism. Less tutored, and for that reason—education being what it is—less perverted, he is more a creature of his instincts, and, as it happens, not of the higher sort; and taking his stand on these, he utters himself in accents which at times make the more cultivated transcendentalists hold their breath. Walt is the "enfant terrible" of transcendentalism. His birth was hailed by the corypheus of this sect with a burst of parental joy; subsequently, on close inspection, he appeared to entertain suspicions of his legitimacy, but now, with maturer examination, his doubts have vanished and he recognizes his lineage.

The difference between the master and the disciple is this: Mr. Emerson revolted against the false restraints of Calvinism, and, in the righteous indignation of his repressed nature, expressed himself passionately and not seldom unguardedly; while Walt Whitman, unconscious of the impious and paralyzing repression of Puritanism, not having the inherited restraints of seven or eight Puritan ministers wrapt in his skin, takes his master's utterances to the letter and acts them out with all the force of the characteristics of his personality, and in great glee "sounds his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

Is it a matter for congratulation that the sage of Concord, so-called by his disciples, has not sufficiently recovered from the early strain which was put upon him, seriously to listen in his advanced age to wise misgivings and lawfully-begotten fears?

But man is a rational animal, and not like the beasts, which have no sense; and all effort on his part to play the irrational beast would be ridiculous, were it not a degradation exacting so great a depravation of his nature. But this attempt is never made with impunity, for man's rational nature sooner or later will surely take revenge on him who makes, whether maliciously or otherwise, the experiment. No, it is not a thing for laughter, but a serious matter, when a man is led to believe that he can with impunity violate any one essential law of his rational being. It is a more serious matter when the leaders of public opinion encourage in a community a belief of this kind, or aid in the spreading of literature infected with such opinions. It is a most serious matter, considering their effect on the coming generation; for the harvest of the poisonous seeds sown in the tender minds of this, will be reaped in the next. And until men gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles every intelligent, every religious, every moral man, every sincere lover of his race, will set his face fixedly against the teachers and upholders of opinions so degrading to man and so pernicious in their tendency.

Let us have songs of the "Enfans d'Adam"—not of the old Adam, but the new! Let us have songs of that blissful communion which existed between God and man in the Garden of Eden—communion lost, alas! by the first Adam, but graciously restored by the second Adam. Songs that spring from this source rise upward and imparadise men's hearts! These are the songs men's souls crave, the age hopes for and is ready to receive.


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