POEMS BY WALT WHITMAN.†
Englishmen know nothing of Walt (Walter) Whitman, except the occasional brilliant scraps which English papers copy from their American contemporaries. Englishmen know nothing—excepting the very few cultivated Englishmen who have crossed the Atlantic, met the author, and learned to admire him and his books. Mr. William Michael Rossetti has been for some time what may be called a disciple of Whitman. If he did not absolutely discover him, he was at least one of the very first who heard of the discovery. Here is the result: a volume, a selection of Mr. Whitman's poems, containing probably one-half of what he has written, and that half not necessarily the best. And here it must be said, that having read the volume with great interest—for Rumour had been busy—and with deep gratification, for the present we must suffer description to assume the place of criticism, since one reading is quite insufficient, and time is required in order that the strangeness of the beauty may be absorbed and assimilated, before any proper estimate of it could be formed. It is strange, at the outset, to find that the other half of the author's writings is so disfigured by violation of morality and decency, as to be rather too much for the English reader; and, stranger still, to hear Mr. Rossetti praying for a complete edition. As far as can be made out, Mr. Whitman considers everything noble, because of divine origin, and everything a fair subject for words. Therefore he goes on about matters fleshly, spiritual, and mixed—always calling spades spades, in a fashion not to be tolerated by ordinary nerves. It will be observed that the volume is called "Poems," and it is certain that not one man in a thousand would so describe them. And yet we can say that there is not one page which is not thoroughly poetic. The simple thing is, not that there is no rhyme—which is, of course, unessential; but that there is no rhythm, no measure, no attempt at complying with any of the universally known demands of versification, and which we are still simple enough to consider one of the absolute demands of poetry. A skin of kid is not a kid glove. This is a dilemma which the ordinary English reader will find difficult to get over; but he must read Mr. Rossetti's prefatory sketch, which is in every way an excellent piece of writing from an accomplished man, and which seems to err only on the side of absolute infatuation. Mr. Rossetti insists that it must be taken as an altogether new poetry: as something as distinctively American as Niagara and the Rocky Mountains, and having no more in common with English poetry than Niagara has with the dripping well at Hastings,1 or the Rocky Mountains with Primrose-hill!2 A specimen or two of these strange productions shall be given; but it is proper to say that they are amongst the most musical we can find, and the easiest to understand. The author is always mystical—always democratic—always speaking in ghastly praise of death. But he roams over every or any kind of subject, and seems always to be in "communion with nature." He chatters with the birds, and is sometimes as incomprehensible. And he hurls large sayings at the mountains, who echo back peal after peal, and all of which enthusiasts are humbly entreated to suppose that the author understands! Here is an exquisitely musical little piece, the commencement of President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn:—
Page after page of this curiously poetical "Funeral Hymn" might be reprinted here, for the reader's pleasure; but our object is to provoke, not to appease, the taste. Here is another short piece which is perfect—that is, complete. In it may be seen with what brilliant novelty the poet can handle the grimmest possible of all earthly and spiritual subjects:—
TO ONE SHORTLY TO DIE.
Let people quarrel as they please about what is or is not poetry; but Mr. Walt Whitman is beyond all question a poet.
† "Poems by Walt Whitman." Selected and edited by William Michael Rossetti —J.C. Hotten.
[Anonymous]. "Poems by Walt Whitman." Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper (19 April 1868): 8.
1. The Dripping Well was a popular Victorian Era natural attraction located in the town of Hastings, in Southeast England. (Back)
2. Primrose Hill is located on the north side of Regent's Park in north London. (Back)
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