[Review of Poems by Walt Whitman]
Poems. By Walt Whitman. Selected and edited by William Michael Rossetti (Hotten.)
THE selections here given from the poems of Walt Whitman form, we are told, nearly half of his entire works. Mr. Rossetti's objects in the present compilation have been, first, to exclude every poem that could fairly be deemed offensive; and, secondly, to include whatever, being free from just or unjust censure on the ground of decorum, is at the same time highest as poetry and most characteristic of the writer. The editor has wisely, and with a proper reverence for one in whose genius he believes, refrained from culling what are called "beauties" from such poems as might be thought objectionable. He has hacked and spoilt no piece by depriving it of the unity and continuity which make it vital; and thus, though we have not here the whole of Whitman, what we have is genuinely his own. It follows from the process adopted that we are not now called upon to weigh the accusations which have been brought against the writer in America for his license of expression in morals (morals being, of course, to be understood in a special and restricted sense), but simply to examine his credentials as a poet.
In a Preface which, on the whole, is written with his usual discernment and happiness of exposition, Mr. Rossetti observes of Whitman, "He may be termed formless by those who, not without much reason to show for themselves, are wedded to the established forms and ratified refinements of poetic art; but it seems reasonable to enlarge the canon till it includes so great and startling a genius, rather than to draw it close and exclude him." We see, however, no reason why the usual definition of an art should be changed for the sake of embracing in its limits one who might otherwise stand without them. The question now at issue, is not whether Mr. Whitman is a great thinker, but whether he is a great poet. Now, by common consent the vital constituents of poetry are emotion and imagination. By imagination we mean the power of conceiving ideas and of representing them by adequate symbols to the senses.
Judged by this admitted test, what shall we say of Walt Whitman? That some entire poems in this collection, and many scattered passages in other poems, bear the test triumphantly, few, if qualified to judge, will doubt. On the other hand, we have here many pages (probably the greater number) of which it would be difficult to maintain that they are poetry in any sense of that word which has yet been accepted. Thus, in the address 'To Working Men,' who can say that, however exalted by the prevailing idea of the piece, any item in the following catalogue, with the one exception marked in italics, is in itself poetical?—
Even in the composition called 'A Poet,' which, besides its high strain of thought, is very interesting as a revelation of Whitman's individuality, there is far more of theory than of imagination. When he writes of the poet—
the reader may or may not find in the lines truth of doctrine, but he assuredly will not find beauty of expression. Turning, on the contrary, to the pieces named respectively 'Assimilations,' 'Burial,' 'The Waters,' 'A Ship,' 'President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn,' and 'A Word out of the Sea,' he will scarcely deny that they possess striking truth and beauty of description, and, still better, that subtle and informing power which unobtrusively converts all outward things into symbols, just as the soul makes for itself a symbol of the body which it pervades and rules. This unconscious power of symbolization—quite distinct from, and even opposed to, the mechanical ingenuity of allegory—is nowhere more delightfully evinced by Whitman than in 'A Word out of the Sea,' to our thinking the poem of the book. A boy discovers a bird's-nest in some briars that skirt the sea-shore. Day after day he watches the movements of the male bird and his mate, listens to the singing and the chirping by which they express their happiness. At length,
The boy continues to note the solitary bird flitting restlessly from spot to spot on the shore, and at times pouring forth a mournful song, the desolation, the longing and the brief beguiling hope of which the listener translates into human speech. To the boy's ear the bird sings as follows:—
The plaint of the bird arouses in the boy, too, the sense of something missed and yearned for. A joy has vanished from the soul as its mate from the bird. Shall the ideal of youth that has taken wing return to earth no more? Shall the yearning for it ever be satisfied, and by what?—
Of the sublimated passion and sweetness of the above, of the minuteness with which the most delicate transitions of feeling are caught, and of the grand yet melancholy suggestiveness which sets the whole picture, as it were, in a frame of sad sunset glory, we can hardly speak in terms of praise too high. That Whitman can write noble poetry, this one example conclusively testifies.
Of the writer, generally, it may be said, that he is universal in his sympathies, (with the sole exception that he cannot recognize the possibility of goodness in any man who happens to be born an aristocrat,)—that (with this exception) he believes in the capacity for virtue, latent or developed, of all his fellows—believes that the best man is but the full and perfected expression of the worth and power hidden in the worst,—believes that in point of art it is right to express in speech all that is true in fact, and to regard all processes and things, natural or mechanical, that have once been associated with man as sanctified thereby. The "homo sum" and the deductions drawn from it, have never found a more zealous advocate.
It is difficult to describe a mind so varied and yet so peculiar in a few phrases. Yet we will venture to designate Mr. Whitman as a wide, sincere, passionate thinker,—presenting in himself a new combination of separate views, which are not particularly new in themselves. This is not said to his disadvantage, for truisms, after all, lie at the root of the world's progress. The expansiveness of his mind includes imagination, no doubt, but rather as a constituent than as a characteristic. He resembles those vast tracts of country in which is found the utmost diversity of surface, and in which long intervals of homely or even barren scenery precede and succeed glorious manifestations of Nature. He is so large and generic in his mode of thinking that he often scatters beauty in the seed rather than reveals it in the flowers; at other times, nothing can surpass the truthful minuteness with which he paints the most delicate nuances of feeling. He is a fine poet, though it would be a great error to say that all is poetry to which he has given the name.
For a brief and excellent summary of Whitman's life and writings, we refer the reader to Mr. Rossetti's Preface—a composition disfigured only by a somewhat puerile display of contempt for his fellow critics. His allegations against them may or may not be just; but their errors, if real, would have been more gracefully improved by that superior example which Mr. Rossetti so consciously affords, than by his unnecessary invectives.
Marston, John. "[Review of Poems by Walt Whitman]." The Athenæum 2113 (25 April 1868): 585-6.
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