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About this Item

Title: Whitman, Poet and Seer

Creator: unknown [listed as G. E. M.]

Date: January 22, 1882

Publication information: The New York Times 22 January 1882: 4.

Source: The electronic text for this file was prepared by Whitman Archive staff and affiliates, who transcribed the text from a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, digital scan or other electronic reproduction, microfilm copy). The electronic text was originally prepared in Microsoft Word for submission to the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The transcription was then exported from Microsoft Word as plain text and encoded for publication on the Whitman Archive.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00216

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


WHITMAN, POET AND SEER

———

A REVIEW OF HIS LITERARY SCHEME, WORK, AND METHOD.*

I.

No writer has been more persistently condemned, and none more persistently and passionately praised, than Walt Whitman has been. He is, we are constantly told, a great poet and a big wind-bag, a profound seer and a boisterous humbug. He disgusts or inspires, he awakens either disdain or devotion. The fine tone of truth has seldom been touched in his case, by even trustworthy critics—although Mr. Stedman has made a temperate and discriminate review of his work.1 This poet must be, it is insisted, rejected wholly or accepted, and to those who accept him—especially to the young hearts and minds that look straight and sharply to the future—he is an interesting and suggestive personality. It is certainly true that the large reading public, and above all the masses whom Whitman celebrates and extols, have barely an acquaintance or none at all with his books. They have heard of him by way of much acrimonious controversy, and they have perhaps learned by this time that he counts his supporters among some of the liberal and trained minds of Europe. But his public has been, unfortunately, a narrow circle, and his books have not, therefore, been tested after the usual and trying fashion. A chance is now offered to readers who wish to find out for themselves what sort of a poet Whitman is, for his stray writings, collected in a single and convenient book, have just been published, rearranged and edited by the author. This book is the life work, the first and final word, of Walt Whitman. It presents him—or, as he would probably say, his personality—under all possible lights. It brings together, at last, the fractions and outgrowths of his poetic scheme; and it gains thus a harmony and an intellectual completeness which have been heretofore distinctly wanting. If there is clear purpose, and if there is philosophical conception, in Whitman's poems—"ravings" is the word more often said—they should be apparent now. As to his poetic scheme, aside from quality and method of endeavor, that has a breadth and an originality which criticism cannot lessen if it would. Just what this scheme is may be briefly pointed out. Whitman holds himself to be, in the first place, the representative of new forces in society and in nature. He stands for the American democracy, for the unity and supremacy of the mass, for a nationality which may be regarded as the focus and adjustment of all past nationalities, and for a liberty of body and spirit which no other people save the American people has been finally crowned with. So much for his Americanism, which has an inherent meaning and a power, in spite of all that is said to the contrary. The new forces of nature which Whitman represents in his scheme are scientific forces. As Shelley and Hugo have stood forth and sung for revolutionary progress, he stands forth and sings for scientific progress. Others have pictured the future through clamor and fire of struggle; he pictures it through the spiritual and material evolution of man. It is here that Whitman is most personal and original. He is the first poet who has touched nature through close knowledge; the first poet who has suggested amply(?) the law and the harmony of the universe, the first who has looked upon external life as a cosmos. He—the leader of his line—has attempted to express what Henry Sedgwick called "cosmic emotion."2 He has undertaken to grasp the facts of the world and to make these known as poetic facts; to avoid those new literary idealisms and conventionalisms which, to the naturalist and thoughtful observer, are empty child-talk. Poets have written nobly and feelingly of the force and mystery of nature, but always with the slightest possible bulk of learning. Nature is fittingly, truthfully, and powerfully described in the great books of science, not in the songs of the poets. Whitman must have felt this long ago, and he threw himself into the spirit of his century, a century of broad inquiry, keen analysis, and wonderful synthesis. Many of his poems contain the only glimpses to be found in poetry of the real order and meaning of nature. His poetic scheme, therefore, may be rightfully called original.

Democracy and cosmos—these, then, are the two starting points in Whitman's ambitious undertaking. His ideas radiate from these points. They lead to his views upon humanity, personality, individual freedom, fraternity, and labor; to his notion of the identity of body and spirit; to his theory of chastity and morality; to his idealization of peoples and trades; to the necessity of egotism and charity; to his conception of progress, and to the essential godhead of man. He seeks, perhaps unconsciously, to stand as an idealist and as a realist, to make democracy and men seem what they are not, and to tell plain facts about them at the same time. Toward nature he is, so far as he goes, a realist; because he is always striving to realize the truth—absolutely the scientific truth—of nature. He is, it is plain, an optimist and an egotist of the most pronounced type; for to be these is to arrive, with him, at natural conclusions. His motive as a poet is essentially a manly and straightforward one, however far and wrong of the mark he may occasionally go; for he preaches purity, courage, virility, liberty, and effort. It is one of his doctrines that there is nothing immoral in fact or in act: there is simply immorality of purpose. He believes that there is forgiveness for all sins, and, perhaps, that Walt Whitman is especially designed to define such forgiveness. He believes in the strength and glory and security of humanity, and, by a clear deduction, in the immensity of self. He incarnates humanity in himself, and his mission, in his own eyes, becomes Christ-like. He disdains, of course, the accepted laws of art. He imagines that he can do without these. He constructs, therefore, a language fitted to himself. He stands—so he seems to think—too high for art. Beauty of form may be left to the polishers and piano players; it is not for the prophets and the Whitmans. On the whole, we have here a poet who has frankly tried less to write a book than to find voice for a man. In one of his first poems he exclaims: "The modern man I sing." In one of his last he adds: "Who touches this touches a man." His text is—and it is a stalwart text: "I stand in my place, with my own day, here!"


II.

It has been shown what Whitman has striven to be and to do. No one could be more in sympathy with what is real and vital in his scheme than the present writer is. But conception is not execution, and Whitman's plans are infinitely better than his work. One should hardly need to be told, in an epoch so critical and so keenly alive to humor as our own, that mere brag and buncombe and assertion do not pass unchallenged as strength; that noise and strain are not power; that extravagance is not inspiration; that orphic talk is not prophecy. It is right, of course, to credit Whitman with sincerity, with the honesty of his convictions. Many are loth to own this much; though no person, minded to learn and see the truth, can read this poet's work through and fail to feel its occasional fire and stir. Whitman writes, at his best, with deep emotion and conviction. He rises at moments to heights of poetic insight and inspiration. There are a fine lyrical sweep and a genuine epic breadth in a few of his poetic rhapsodies. This would be more clearly felt if his work were not so thickly rutted with that insane kind of nonsense which some devoted worshipers persist in calling great thought and great poetry. Whitman's work is like a rich garden embedded in weed. Flower and weed are here inextricably blended. The brag, and assertion, and wrench of this American seer will never be accepted above their value by those who know that the finest art is a result of the finest sifting of thought, intelligence, emotion, and vigor. Art, in a high sense, is the test of strength, not the sign of weakness. In placing himself above art, in confounding the ability to discriminate and shape with mere technical dexterity, Whitman puts himself on the wrong side of nature. This would not be a matter of much moment, it is true, if his clamorous upholders were not seemingly bent upon elevating his method to a doctrine. The poet who labors with no fetters runs to chaos. Nature is like true art in this; it creates within laws. What is more simple and lovely to the sight than a flower? Yet consider the forces that make the flower, the elements that are parts of it, the intricacy of its mechanism; and compare these with the exquisite grace and appropriateness of its outward form. It is a rule in nature that all chaos shall tend to form and harmony; the universe is, when looked at singly, as simple a thing as the cup of a lily. Whitman and writers with his disposition pretend to be the true sight-seers of nature, while they awkwardly reflect its lawlessness and complexity. The harmony and the simplicity of nature are not shown in Whitman's poems, even when these are most true and suggestive. To teach a doctrine of lawlessness, therefore, is about the least intelligent project that his blind followers have tried to carry out.

Destructive criticism might be applied to Whitman's little understood and much discussed Americanism. There is certainly a thing which may be called Americanism. This is frequently flashed out in these poems, but it is not lucidly expressed. At times it amounts to palpable rigmarole, which no one but a jaded European nurtured amid the tiresome and mournful strife of the Old World could mistake for the real thing. Our country, it may be explained, represents certain new ideas of nationality and advancement. It represents at the present moment, more strikingly and splendidly than any other land under the sun does, scientific progress as opposed to revolutionary progress. It is a land to which all the currents, and longings, and peoples of history move like rivers converging to one stream and one mouth. It is the mother of individual liberty, freedom of thought, and peaceful labor; a land , therefore, in which the researches of the world are most nobly welcomed, which leads the nations toward a righteous justice, which gives a home to all aliens. What progress may do will awaken here, above all, response and sympathy. Our country illustrates, in brief, the advancing spirit of the nineteenth century. This is certain and clear. On the other hand, we are not a people of the old rugged and uncivilized sort. We are not like those for whom Homer sang, and we stand in no need of a Moses nor of a Mohammed. We are not chiefly—as some of the exuberant persons on the other side of the Atlantic seem to think—hewers of wood and drawers of water. Our lasting honor is—and this is certainly overlooked—that our pioneership is above all intellectual. A ripe and vigorous civilization is at the heart of the land. The rabble and the unthinking mob do not represent our real vitality and progress. It should be plain, then, that our country has a peculiar individuality and a decisive mission. It is a strange union of past, present, and future. A poet like Whitman—who rhapsodies more often than he thinks and sings—is sure to suggest something of our individuality and he has, without doubt, gone further than other poets. But his conception of our land and people is full of inexactitude, full of false idealism, and loaded with extravagance. There is too much of the red-shirted Hoosier3 about it. It comes close at times to the spread-eagleism of our astonishing orators, and to the fraternity of the bar-room. Its permanent merit is that it reflects, after all, something of the free and creative sprit which is the spring-source of our life. It tells us of our liberty—a small matter which our ancestors strove mournfully through hundreds of years to win, and which, now that we have got it, we are apt to prize rather loosely and humorously.

All that has been written above might be illustrated by columns of extracts from "Leaves of Grass." But others may pick these out for themselves. I have simply sought to show broadly that there are radical sins and false premises at the very basis of these poems. Whitman's theory of life and humanity, and his absolute lack of sound artistic instinct and taste, lead him into extravagances which have as much relation to strong and true song as a fishmonger's bawl has to the melody of birds, or to the musical roll of water upon a stretch of shore. They lead him, also, into some monstrous excesses, and the poems comprised in "Children of Adam" are naked exhibitions of these. The poems in question have been struck by many lances, denounced by many mouths. Good ink has been wasted upon them. They are over-Whitmanish and not beautiful. In these fleshly diatribes the poet sets out to "make illustrious" that which is not commonly discussed in sensible and good company. He throws off his shirt, so to speak, and cries lustily. "Behold, I am Walt Whitman, I am moral." Poets have sung with more or less sense of creation—Whitman goes down to the actual facts. This may be moral. It is intended as an illustration of the highest morality. But it is—unless the world has gone wrong since the beginning of time—indecent and vulgar, not one degree above the loose talk which is, unfortunately, common enough in low places and high. As to its pretentious morality, that does not deceive, and it is solely justified in the poet's inner consciousness. The things here uttered by Whitman may be, unquestionably, thought of chastely, but they cannot be written down and seem either pure or modest. At best, they are coarse commonplace, imposed upon the reader with prophetic earnestness. At worst, they are unlawful exposures of the person.

It is a relief to turn from this fustian to the "Song of Myself," which is a healthy expression of vigorous humanity and imaginative egotism—a poem in which the relation of a man to his fellow-creatures, and to his world, and to the universe, is set forth at moments with real power of manner, breadth of sympathy, and original feeling. The contradictions in this poem are clearly the result of forethought and design, for it is the good and bad in a man, according to Whitman, that awake the unchecked energy of his nature. "I resist anything better than my own diversity," he says. And he adds, with rare courage: "I accept Reality and dare not question it." There is the right sort of materialism in the following chant:

"Smile, O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset—earth of the mountain's
misty topt:
Earth of the vitreous form of the fall moon just
tinged with blue:
Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the
river:
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds, brighter and
clearer for my sake.
Far-swooping elbow'd earth—rich apple-blossom'd
earth.
Smile, for you lover comes.
"Prodigal, you have given me love—therefore I
to you give love.
Oh, unspeakable, passionate love!"

Here is another passage from the same poem, and in the poet's less rhapsodic manner:

"I think I could turn and live with animals, they
are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them long and long.
"They do not sweat and whine about their condi-
tion,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for
their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty
to God.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with
the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that
lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable and unhappy over the
whole earth."

There is, of course, the usual bulk of orphic and oracular utterance in the "Song of Myself," and much of this is solemn commonplace merged into a species of transcendentalism. Its meaning is not always clear. But, on the other hand, the poetry in this song has strength and reach. The following verses were admiringly quoted by Prof. Clifford in his essay on "Cosmic Emotion:"

"I open my scuttle at night and see the far-
sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher,
edge but the rim of the farthest systems.
"Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always
expanding.
Outward and outward and forever outward.
"My sun has his sun, and round him obediently
wheels,
He joins with his partners a group of superior
circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the
greatest inside them.
"There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage,
If I, you, and all beneath or upon their surfaces,
were this moment reduced back to a pallid
float, it would not avail in the long run,
We should surely bring up again where we now
stand,
Ana surely go as much farther, and then farther,
and farther.
"A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of
cubic leagues, do not hazard the span, or
make it impatient,
They are but parts, anything is but a part.
"See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of
that."

In the "Song of the Open Road," "Song of the Answerer," "Song of Joys," "Song of the Exposition," "Song for Occupations," and in other poems more or less identical in spirit with these, there is expressed with undoubted sincerity and vigor, entire sympathy with the moods of nature, with the longings and work of mankind, and with the various sides of life. They are singular combinations of triviality, prosiness, poetic feeling, and arrogant personality. They lack, above all, the fine simplicity and clear brevity of songs meant for the popular ear and heart. Yet they have an intensely modern and popular spirit:

"Away with themes of war! away with war
itself!
Hence from my shuddering sight to never more
return that
Show of blacken'd mutilated corpses!
That hell unspent and void of blood, fit for wild
tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reason-
ing men,
And in its stead speed industry's campaigns,
With thy undaunted armies engineering,
Thy pennants labor, loosen'd to the breeze,
Thy bugles sounding loud and clear."

That is Whitman at his best, free of verbiage and pretension, and with something to say worth saying, with honest emotion and good sense. The same lyrical sincerity is felt in the invocation to America, ("Song of the Exposition,") when he speaks of "the common indivisible destiny for all." The "Song of the Redwood Tree" is throughout a fine poem, full of brain and freedom, and the real hope and faith of our time are simply expressed in the "Song for Occupations:"

"The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the
drift of them is something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand
and that it is happiness."

There are truth, ardor, and inspiration in some of the songs included in "Bird of Passage," the best of these being "Pioneers, Oh Pioneers," which has a rugged rhythmic movement uncommon in Whitman's writings, although the opening to the "Music of the Storm" is equally fine, while some few other passages which have an exceptional quality of sound and rhythm are quickly remarked. The tenderness, pathos, and manhood in the series of poems called "Drum-taps" are, perhaps, the most natural and sympathetic touches in Whitman's copious and curious work, and it may be said of this work, finally, that Whitman himself marks their surest claim to attention in some of his closing verses:

"Comrades, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold, and who hold you,
I spring from the pages into your arms."

III.

The permanent value of these poems, in fact, is to be sought in their two clear merits: in their modernness, breadth, and originality of purpose, and in their presentiment of a strong and fresh individuality. The aim of these poems, and the man behind them, are more distinctive than the poems themselves. "Who touches this touches a man" is an assertion which is felt to be perfectly just. The book—judged by the standard of all great books—falls far below greatness. There is no single poem in it which could be safely compared with any single great poem in our language. Whitman's work is fine in flashes, in strong passages, or in sudden descriptions. It is weighed down, on the other hand, with extravagances and excesses like those already spoken of, with a mass of ill-digested learning, with long stretches of windy prose, with violent and insecure handling of deep themes, with all kinds of crudity and with a manner which is seldom effective and impressive. This manner has been considerably praised by some for its originality and free musical movement, and it has been called by others a formless manner. But it is surely not formless, since it has a perfectly definite form, deliberately chosen and full of artifice. Its rhythm, however—when it has a rhythm—is perfectly commonplace. The prose of Fénélon4 and Carlyle and the verse of the Bible have incomparably more poetic color, strength of language, melody and harmony of sound, than Whitman's verse at its best. The laws of natural verse are here ignored, and the result is, of course, unnatural. Compare this verse with the unrhymed movement of Shakespeare and Shelley, with that of Wordsworth's sonnets and Keats's odes, and with the rhythmic freedom of Swinburne's "Song Before Sunrise;" or compare it with the Biblical verse in the Song of Solomon. As to its utility as a medium for the transparent expression of high thought, compare the most intellectual of Whitman's poems with Tennyson's "In Memoriam." These comparisons will serve better than criticism—to persons at least who have ears open to musical sound and minds open to conviction. Language is to the poet what color is to the painter, and great and genuine thoughts should have great and genuine expression. To master language, to garment genius fittingly—this is the art of the poet, and this is the art which Whitman and some others appear to despise. It is art that divides truth and passion from commonplace and rant, that draws a sharp line between sustained strength and hyperbolic bluster. Whitman, however, deserves our deepest gratitude for the stand he has taken, in face of this present age, in the fore of its creative work of reconstruction, in front of its iconoclasm and science. Most of the poets—especially the American poet—are probably against him, but the spirit of our time is not to be quenched by literary conventions, and the strong minds of our time are with him. His courageous appeal for more knowledge and still more might be fitly contrasted with the sentimental snivel of those timid creatures who weep at the passing of the good old days. These sad persons are typified by the æsthetic Mr. Wilde:

"All romance has flown
And men can prophesy about the sun.
And lecture on his arrows—how, alone
Though a waste void the soulless atoms run,
How from each tree its weeping nymph has fled,
And that no more, 'mid English reeds a Naiad shows
her head.
"Methinks these new Actæons boast too soon
That they have spied on beauty: what if we
Have analyzed the rainbow, robbed the moon
Of her most ancient, chastest mystery,
Shall I, the last Endymion, lose all hope
Because rude eyes peer at my mistress through a
telescope?"5

Those two last lines are worthy of Bunthorne6; but they show about as much unconscious humor as most of Bunthorne's contemporaries exhibit when they begin to vent their feelings about romance and science. Weigh such words in the balance with the wise words of Prof. Clifford: "To some minds there is hope and renewing of youth in the sense that the last word is not yet spoken, that greater mysteries yet lie behind the veil. The prophet himself may say with gladness, 'He that cometh after me shall yet be preferred before me.' But others see in the clearer vision that approaches them the end of all beauty and joy in the earth; because their old feelings are not suited to the new learning they think that learning can stir no feelings at all."7 In his article upon "The Poetry of the Future" (published some months ago in the North American Review,) Whitman wrote these words, which are, I believe, good prophecy: "Science, having extirpated the old stock fables and superstitions, is clearing a field for verse, for all the arts, and even for romance, a hundred-fold ampler and more wonderful, with the new principles behind. Republicanism advances over the whole world. Liberty, with Law by her side, will one day be paramount—will, at any rate, be the central idea. Then only—for all the splendor and beauty of what has been, or the polish of what is—then only will the true poets appear, and the true poems. Not the satin and patchouly of to-day, not the glorification of the butcheries and words of the past, nor any fight between Deity on one side and somebody else on the other—not Milton, not even Shakespeare's plays, grand as they are."

G. E. M.

———

Leaves of Grass Boston: JAMES R. OSGOOD & Co.


Notes:

1. Edmund Clarence Stedman, "Walt Whitman," Scribner's Monthly 21 (1880): 47-65 [back]

2. Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) was an English philosopher. Sidgwick and William Clifford were both members of "The Apostles," the famous elite literary society of Cambridge. Other members included Frederick Dennison Maurice, Alfred Tennyson, James Clerk Maxwell, James and Leslie Stephen, Bertrand Russell, Maynard Keynes, and Leonard Woolf. The idea of "cosmic emotion" is one that Clifford discusses in his 1877 essay by that title. [back]

3. A correspondent for the Providence Journal gives this account of the origin of the term "Hoosier": "Throughout all the early Western settlements were men who rejoiced in their physical strength, and on numerous occasions, at log-rollings and house-raisings, demonstrated this to their entire satisfaction. They were styled by their fellow citizens, 'hushers,' from their primary capacity to still their opponents. It was a common term for a bully throughout the West. The boatmen of Indiana were formerly as rude and as primitive a set as could well belong to a civilized country, and they were often in the habit of displaying their pugilistic accomplishments." Quoted in Dictionary of Americanisms (1848). Interestingly, Whitman once described Lincoln as follows: "I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion." See Correspondence, 1:82. [back]

4. François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon was a French theologian and writer and the archbishop of Cambrai. [back]

5. From Oscar Wilde's "The Garden of Eros" (1890). [back]

6. Bunthorne is a reference to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera titled "Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride" (1881). [back]

7. Professor Clifford and the source of this quotation are unidentified. [back]


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