American Poets [Part 2]
We endeavoured in our last number to show the natural advantages possessed by American poets, and the clear reflection of national scenery to be found in their works. We traced the rise of American poetry, and passed briefly in review the writings of Mrs. Sigourney, the chief poetess of the United States, of the classical William Cullen Bryant, the Catholic aspects of Longfellow, the Quaker-like purity of Bayard Taylor's verse, the Catholic poetry to be found in periodicals, and the moralizing humour of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Resuming our subject at the point where we were obliged to break off, we now proceed with our intended sketch of those poets in America who have distinguished themselves most highly in their own country, and have the best claim to be welcomed in ours.
In his "Incident in a Railway car," James Russell Lowell has inserted what seems to give his ideal of poetry—at least of poetry in his own hands.
In accordance with this view, James Russell Lowell has declined from the higher walks of poetry—from rivers raging among rocks and trees bronzed with Indian summers—from ideas and scenes such as would have rejoiced Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson$to give vent to his political principles in humorous pieces written in the Yankee dialect. His fame was made by the "Biglow Papers," which may be regarded as an anathema on the Mexican War; and in these Papers his democratic proclivities and his burning hatred of slavery recommend themselves to notice in musical and comic verse. They are pervaded also with moral earnestness, and marked by strange spelling, colloquial familiarities, and frequent allusions to Holy Writ. The phraseology is often scriptural, and the irreverence which they display must be ascribed, not to the author, but to the habits of the people whose patois he adopts. Englishmen cannot but be shocked when the Supreme Being is treated with American freedom. But beneath Lowell's free-and-easy diction, his rude and homely satire, and never-failing fun, there is a substratum of fine feeling, scholarship, and sound sense, which compensates for many flaws. We would rather see the name of God used with honest, though undue familiarity, than ignored altogether, as by Walt Whitman, the apostle of matter and the idolater of the flesh. The following stanzas, taken from the anti-slavery poem, the "Cruetin Sarjint," will illustrate our point.
Who would suspect that this comic strain proceeded from the author of "My Study Window," and "Among my Books"—volumes of essays replete with every sign of extensive learning and refined taste? If Lowell's Essays have a literary fault, it is that they are too clever—full to over flowing of pointed allusions, images, and anecdotes. It would be well sometimes if his mind were less wealthy, or if he forgets some of his riches. He takes us too often off the line, to pick up a beautiful shell, or admire a choice plant. He overcharges his page with illustrations. His luxuriance resembles that of many a plain in Southern climes, where you are knee-deep in flowers and cannot make way through the long grasses and aromatic shrubs. If such be the opulence of Lowell's prose, it would be surprising if his poetry, whether serious or humorous, were not marked by peculiar beauties. The "Cathedral" and "Under the Willows, and other Poems" cannot fail to gratify all who can distinguish between verse and poetry. Lowell does not merely imitate beauty, he creates it; and the creation of beauty is the essence of poetry. In all compositions which have been really received as poems, we shall find that the imaginative or, speaking more properly, the creative parts only, have insured them their success. This essential, for which we sigh so often in reading what would be poetry and is only rhyme, or perhaps not even that, is decidedly not wanting in Lowell's effusions. They have in them a principle of life, a subtle ingenuity and an inward glow. The word and the thought are as bride and bridegroom, according to that spirited precept:—
"The Heritage," for example, concentrates much power and feeling in exalting the lot of the poor above that of the rich. There may be some straining of the argument, some special pleading, some designed forgetfulness of the many temptations inseparable from poverty, but poetry is not always to be taken au fond de la lettre; it is enough for poetic purposes that it treats any one subject beautifully and satisfactorily from a particular point of view. "The Dandelion" is another of Lowell's poems enfolding in its bosom much poetic wealth. He speaks of the flower as "fringing the dusty roads with harmless gold"; of children as "high-hearted buccaneers," who pluck and hold up the dandelion, "o'erjoyed, that they an El Dorado in the grass have found"; he calls it "the Spring's largess," which most hearts never understand to take at God's value. He encircles it, in short, with the rainbow colours of a heart alive to the delicate traceries of Nature's hand. He is full of feeling, without sentimentality, and full of art without being artificial. Granted that the highest and most spiritual condition of man is one of continuous joy and content, there is, nevertheless, something in humanity so sad, so compassed about with every species of infirmity, that poetry loses half its power and sweetness when it ceases to make pain beautiful and sighs melodious. Lowell has all the wailing which belongs to a child of song, and perfectly understands how tears are expressive of the deepest emotions, whether of sorrow or joy. Yet he is full of hope, and believes that mainspring of all heroic deeds and sufferings to be divine in its nature and origin:—
Rich as we are in poets of our own country, we often find it difficult to believe that, in the commerce of the mind, we have much to gain by the importation among us of poetry of the United States. Longfellow, indeed, we have long regarded almost as one of ourselves, but with this exception there is among English readers in general little knowledge or appreciation of American poetry. We are apt to look on Yankees in the mass as vulgar, sectarian, swaggering, democratic, money-worshiping folk, who have degraded the English language to a colonial level. But whatever advantages the Mother Country may have over the new Republic, they are balanced, and the Americans would think overbalanced, by advantages on the other side. Purity of style and diction is certainly not lost among their writers of the higher order, and in the vast territory of the United States there is more than enough material for artists, novelists, and poets of every kind and degree. John Greenleaf Whittier is a poet who deserves to be better known in England for his "Songs of Labour," "Home Ballads," and "Voices of Freedom." He is doubtless a mild poet; but mild poetry, like mild air, mild weather, and a mild climate, has its charm. Let no one think that genius is absent from smooth and faultless versification. It may not indeed be genius of the highest order, yet without genius metric melody can never be produced. A critic of some ability has said "This power over verse, as it is one of the most primary, so also do we regard it as one of the most final tests of a true poetic vocation. . . . other powers may be preferred for dignity or value; none is more of the essence of the art of poetry, or so positively discriminates that from all other forms of art. None, therefore, is more essential the poet, or more symptomatic of his rank." Metric melody, also, seldom stands alone; the very power which produced it is a guarantee for the possession of other cognate powers; and hence we find that, in almost all cases, the melody of a composition is the measure of its ideas and images also. There is another piece by Whittier well known among us in consequence of its being so often recited at Penny Readings and such-like entertainments. It is "Maud Miller," she who—
Well; it is a simple tale—a mere nothing to tell—but very beautiful and very touching. A judge rides by; he draws his bridle in the shade of the apple-trees, and asks for a drink of water from the spring at the hands of Maud Miller. And she thinks and she sighs, and sighs and thinks how she should like to be a judge's wife; and the judge, riding away, thinks and dreams, and dreams and thinks how he should like to quit the dusty purlieus of the law, and exchange the weary fencing of stifling courts for the
But the judge marries a wife of rich dowry, who lives for fashion, as he lives for power. But often his thoughts revert to the vision of the barefoot maiden raking her hay; and Maud Muller's musings no less often turn on the rider who thanked her so graciously for the cooling draught, and talked so kindly of the hay and the weather,
Now mark the conclusion, which for delicacy of touch may match with the workmanship of any master-hand.
It is better to analyze one poem than to make general remarks on a dozen. The "Brother of Mercy" exhibits Whittier's peculiar style and distinctive merits in a brief compass. A porter by the Pitti wall in the Val d' Arno is lying on his mat, about to die, while a barefoot monk of La Certosa sits at his side. A Brotherhood of Mercy, in their black masks, is seen moving in that direction, and Piero Luca, the porter, laments that, for the first time their bell has sounded during forty years, he is unable to join in their merciful task. He loved the work, he says; it was its own reward. He did not count on it as an offset against his sings, or as lessening his debt to the free grace and mercy of his Lord. The monk endeavours to console him with the prospect of eternal rest, the white robe and the golden crown. But Piero tosses on his sick pillow, and says in the most naïve humility and, if we may say so, hallowed misconception of the heavenly world—
The perceptions of the poor monk reach no further than those of the poor dying porter. He thinks Piero's words profane; he crosses himself; cries "Madman! thou art lost!" and flies with the pyx in his hands. The conclusion cannot be told better than in the writer's own words:—
One cannot, of course, fail to see with regret that the god man who wrote this beautiful poetry indulged a perverse animus against the Catholic religion. He might have portrayed the character of Piero equally well without making the monk so stupid as to mistake the dying man's spiritual condition, and so harsh and unjust as to withdraw the last sacrament; for "he took up his pyx and fled." That the humble porter should outwit the priest, ad that the angel's face should shine where the monk's was stern, is a transparent Protestant trick. It will suit a large majority of American readers, perhaps of English too, but this is a poor criterion of merit. Il y a parier, says a French writer, que toute idée publique, toute convention reçue, est une sottise, car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre.9
The life of Edgar Allen Poe is a melancholy one—the record of a wandering star—of life, genius, happiness, and usefulness marred by the one degrading vice of intoxication, to which he owed his untimely end. With an acute ear for the music of verse, and a keen sense of the beautiful, he wove the chains of earthy passion round the wings of his soul, and dragged her into the dust of death. He might have used the words of the Bishop of Hippo in the "Confessions," and have said:— "Amabam pulchra inferiora et ibam in profundum, et dicebam amicis meis: Num amamus aliquid nisi pulchrum?" Five-and-twenty years have passed away since he expired in a hospital at Baltimore at the age of thirty-eight. He who had himself asked in the "Black Cat," "What disease is like Alcohol? " died of delirium tremens, yet he still lives in the poems which he wrote, as he himself assures us, without a purpose, because they have each a music inseparable from the sentiment they breathe, and a finish due to consummate taste. "He had," says one of his critics, "an exquisite eye for proportion, and every little poem is carved like a cameo."
The misfortunes of many other children of song met in Edgar Allen Poe. Like Bryon, he was a spoilt child, and, like that noble poet also, he lampooned his patron. Like Shelly, he was expelled from his University. Like Sheridan, he married a girl without dowry, like Burns he caroused, and like Savage, he ate in misery the bitter fruits of dissipation. He was as precocious as precocious as Chatterton; and among his misfortunes may be numbered that of having published a volume of poems while still a boy. The strength of wing expended in such premature flights would be turned to better account if reserved to a later day. The rise and growth of youghful vanity would be checked, and more correct taste cultivated for higher efforts. Poe's early effusions, however, were fully of promise, and Mr. James Hannay dwells with enthusiasm on one in particular, entitled "Helen." "Could anything," he asks, "be more dainty, airy, amber-bright than this is?" Its elegance is Horatian. It is merum nectar, as Scaliger says of the Ode to Pyrrha." Yet this poem is said to have been written at fourteen. His playful sonnet "To Science" may be quoted as a specimen of his youthful faculties. It sins against the laws of the sonnet in its structure, but the expression is graceful, especially in the concluding line.
With all his faults, it is to Poe's credit that he has not transferred the irregularities of his life into his verses in any offensive and immodest way. They are like wild flowers, and for the most part, they breathe sweetly. In one, and in one only, we even catch a glimpse of an aspiration after the highest created Beauty in the person of the blessed Mother of our Lord; but we can draw from it no grave conclusion, so incongruous does it seem with the sparking levities in the midst of which it is found, and which moralize too plainly, and say:—
The "Hymn" is as follows, and it is so devoid of poetic merit, that the writer could hardly have thought it worth preserving except as a record of something which God had done for his soul. Yet we cannot be sure even of this much, for in the midst of his orgies he was always conversing with spirits, and pitying beautiful angels seemed, to his disordered fancy, to spread their wings over the living ruins of his soul and body.
If he had felt this intensely, he would probably have expressed it in finer poetry, and have applied to it that melodious system of repetition and refrain of which he was a master and the inventor. Tennyson and Swinburne have often imitated his recurrent music, and though this is frequently nothing more than a poetic trick, there are cases in which it admirably expresses genuine and deep feeling. It is on the "Raven" that Poe's reputation is mainly founded. It was received in the United States with rapturous applause, and the author himself was so intoxicated with vanity as to pronounce it the best poem that ever had been or would be written! It is beyond doubt a masterpiece of versification, and the delight of Music Halls and Assembly Rooms when recited by readers such as Fanny Kemble and Mr. Montesquieu Bellew. It is highly characteristic of Poe when Poe is at his best, yet it is surprising rather than great. "It may be described," Lady Pollock says, "as the remorseful shriek of a troubled conscience; it projects strange phantoms, it is a startling representation of a special form of delirium in a diseased mind, and its peculiarities of rhyme and rhythm force it upon the attention. . . . . .It has more of spasm than of true vitality; but it is not altogether devoid of beauty. Its tricks of manner recommend it to vulgar tastes, and having enjoyed an immense immediate popularity, it is likely to be rated much lower a few years hence than it is now. Already it has sunk below the first estimate formed of it." The author was indeed poetic rather than a poet. He looked on Life and Nature with a poet's eye, and he encircled himself wherever he went with gorgeous images and smooth cadenzas. Yet with the exception of the "Raven," "Lenore," and the "Bells," he has written sacredly anything that will long defy the rust of time. We cannot do more at present than ring one of his own changes on the "Bells."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, now upwards of seventy years of age, was the son of a Unitarian minister, and at one time discharged the like office with his father in Boston, his native city. The charms of literature, however, and of a literary career, withdrew him from the pulpit at an early period of life, and led him to devote all his time and attention to pursuits congenial to his taste. Brighter talents and keener sensibilities than his have seldom been united; but, although they have made him a most successful writer of prose, they have not sufficed to make him a popular or even an agreeable poet. We read his best pieces with an uneasy feeling, and it seems as if the author had composed them with effort and under restraint. Yet, speaking artistically, they are full of truth and beauty. They are poetry, and being such, we can sometimes hardly account for their giving so little pleasure. They rise and fly above the common level; but they lack sunlight on their joyful way, and freedom on their wings. They have no sustained flight. They do not move like Virgil's Dove, who—
They limp, and halt, and start, and leap, and fairly tumble; then mount and play fantastic tricks, sparkle with a sudden fire, and as suddenly are lost in mist. No one can read the forty pages which "May Day" fills withough feeling convinced that it brings together more lovely images of Spring than were probably ever before collected into so small a compass:—
Yet the effect on the whole is not pleasing. Bewildered with a multitude of beautiful objects, we ask for the genius which can reduce them to order, and give them significancy. Seven-syllable lines, moreover, are too jingling to satisfy the ear except in brief lyrics. No amount of exquisite fragments will produce a whole without an adequate design. All Emerson's poems are fragments, and these again are fragmentary. His disjecta membra wants a uniting idea. What are oases of surpassing beauty, if severed from each other by sands, and brushwood, and swamp? Of all he has written in verse the "Poet" and the "Humble Bee" are the least open to this censure. There we find a store of poetic ideality, the finest perception, and a way of expressing things truly original. If he only had a true system in his head, he would be a glorious poet in spite of artistic defects. But he has one. He has all his life been striving to elaborate one, and he has not succeeded. An oppressive vagueness and insufficiency pervades his verse, because he is ever teaching what he has not learned. He would be an apostle of truth, and he knows not what truth is. Beauty, that is created beauty, he knows and loves. He has been from his youth
Almost all the requirements of poetry are fulfilled in these suggestive lines; but it is not often that we find in his verse a long passage so well sustained, so delicate and perspicuous. Thirty-five years have passed since public attention was called to the strangely perplexed system of thought which he had to propound. It was on a Sunday evening in July, 1838, that he delivered an address to a senior class in Divinity College, Cambridge, and discussed from the most transcendental point of view the questions of man in his relations to the universe; of Christ and Christianity; the actual state of religion, and similar lofty themes. He developed in his lecture what some termed a "Sublime Creed," and others described as an "Idealistic Pantheism." It was, in fact, like many of his subsequent works, a rifacimento of the speculations of Carlyle and Coleridge, hard to be understood, and strongly spiced with the transcendentalism of Germany. A definite creed only can support a solid superstructure of verse. The mythology of ancient Greece and Rome had a certain grandeur, artistically considered, because it was at least definite, and the same may be said of Protestant poetry, so far as it retains the fundamental doctrines of the Faith; but when a poets brains are addled by the pantheistic doctrines of Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, and Jean Paul, his verses are inevitably marked by feebleness and obscurity. This it is which mars the music of many a mighty master of German song, and often makes their hymns and aspirations like sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And this leads us to observe another fatal blemish which Emerson has in common with many writers of the Victor Hugo stamp. He insults the majesty of the Son of God by extolling Him as a man, by placing Him in the list of heroes and sages, side by side with reformers and legislators, "kings and saviours" of high repute. Thus in his "Song of Nature" he speaks of
And so again in one of those quatrains in which he was fond of completing a thought, in imitation of Goethe and Schiller:—
"Hans Breitmann's Ballads," by Charles G. Leland, are one of the many offshoots of Lowell's "Biglow Papers." They have imported, however, a new element into the composition of American humorous poetry. The hero, Hans Breitmann, is a native of Germany, and has not been long in the United States. His language, therefore, is a ludicrous mixture of two others, easily amalgamated, because of kindred origin. De Quincey informs us that "the absurdissimo proposalio" of making English more musical by introducing Italian forms and terminations, "met with no encouraggimento whaterino;" but he would not have said as much of an alliance between English and German if he could have read Hans Breitmann. There is a coarseness in these poems which will often be offensive to a refined English taste; but in sly satire and broad fun it would be difficult to find anything to surpass them. The bad spelling, the German pronunciation of English, and the admixture of German words, are not mere tricks; there is, besides all this, a substratum throughout of genuine humour. The author's keen sense of the ludicrous is contagious, and he who does not laugh over Hans Breitmann's abandon has no laughter in him. He would be proof against Molière, and Liston could not have disturbed his gravity. The dash of sentiment—and German sentiment too, vague as a mist smitten with a sunbeam—that Hans often throws into his merriest strain is as perfectly amusing as the most patient jokes:—
Can anything represent more exactly the way in which Germans too often make sentiment take the place of virtue, and principle, in their words and writings, flies of in moonlit effervescence?
In the "Philosopede," again, we have a most facetious skit on the nineteenth-century-men, each of whom strides his bicycle and out runs everybody if he can.
Of course, Shnitzerl and his philosopede came to grief—a circumstance deplored with much pathos:—
One of the editors of the Breitmann Ballads, in speaking of them has said, "There are abysses under abysses of cryptic and concealed fun"; and it would be difficult to invent a higher commendation. The grotesque language in which they are clothed is not unreal. It is the droll broken English (quite distinct from the Pennsylvanian German) spoken by millions of uneducated or half-educated Germans in America, immigrants chiefly from Southern Germany. They roll on a variety of subjects, social and political, and lay bare many of the rascalities of United States politicians no less than many of the absurdities of German philosophers. Thus in a poem n which the superiority of Germans to all the rest of mankind is maintained, and in which we are told
the speaker frankly avows his inability to understand himself, and adds:—
Some slight knowledge of German is necessary in order to take in the wit of these Ballads and even their sense, but the editions published by Trübner & Co. are amply provided with glossaries. Mr. Charles G. Leland has just published "Gaudeamus; Humorous Poems—translated from the German of Joseph Victor Scheffel and others." The translations are cleverly executed, but translated wit is always cumbrous. Even the "Jobsiad" of Kortüm is heavy in Mr. Brook's English. The best of the pieces in "Gaudeamus" are travesties of science, and some of them are occasionally rather coarse. The same may be said of the poems of Bret Harte, which have acquired a popularity in America and in this country far beyond what their merits justify. They are often not only vulgar but profane, and the only excuse for him is, that, having chosen to mould his characters out of the commonest and coarsest kind, he puts such language into their lips as becomes their origin. Sometimes he glazes the clay; paints tender pictures on it; adorns it with little gems of virture or feeling, all the more resplendent because set in a sordid frame. He finds, in short, noble qualities in the loest and roughest of the human race. He has the dry, quaint humour of Artemus Ward and Mark Twain, plus a Bret-Hartean pathos.
"That Heathen Chinee," the famous cheater at Euchre, or the American écarté, was Bret Harte's first and great success. There is, no doubt, a depth of humour in it which is very ingenioius, but the wit of Jim and Dow's Flat has too much dross mixed with it to be recommended or approved. Reading poetry used to be regarded as a recreation; it is now made a labour. Persons are now continually exhorted to read what they cannot understand, or what they find as difficult as a Sphinx's enigma. It is not enough that serious poetry, or as it is called, philosophical poetry, should be obscure, humorous verse as well is made as hard to work as a sum in the Binomial theorem. Bret Harte is not free from this algebraic kind of wit. Of course, he would complain of the dulness of his readers and critics. But readers are dull—that is, very often;—and critics—well—they are not impossible to please. When Bret Hare wills, he can be perspicuous enough, as in a fine song called the "Reveille." It is worthy of its name. It reminds us of Bürger and Beck, of Simrock, Mosen, Strackwitz, and Herwegh. Bret Harte can be clear even when witty, as in "Penelope." He can be almost pathetic, as in "Fate," and tenderly descriptive, as in the "Seabird," and the "Mountain Heart's ease." Here is a specimen of his best manner—peculiar enough, thoughtful, and suggestive. A stranger elegy was never written; yet it scarcely requires a comment. The "In Memoriam" explains itself,—the "Watchman of Ephriam," as Osee says, "was with my God."
T.S.K.—Obiit March 4, 1864.
It is now nearly twenty years since Walt Whitman's "Blades of Grass" were first published, and as they have undoubtedly exercised a wide and lasting influence, notwithstanding their peculiar form, we feel bound to submit them to a careful analysis. Mr. William Michael Rossetti was principally concerned in introducing his works into the English market; and when it is remembered that Mr. Rossetti is the bosom friend of Swinburne, our readers will not be surprised to hear that Walt Whitman, as an author, is the embodiment of all that is most opposed to the Catholic religion. It is curious also to observe that Mr. Rossetti's first estimate and admiration of the works of this poet appeared in the Chronicle for July 6, 1867, under the article "Walt Whitman's Poems." In consequence of this article, as he himself informs us, he was requested to edit a selection from Whitman's writings. Happily these poems, or Ossianic effusions, fraught with the most dangerous principles, do not come before the world in an attractive shape. A certain rhythm runs through them, but they have no rhyme, except in a few instances, nor are they even in blank verse. They are far less poetic in form than the Psalms and Prophets in Hebrew, or Southey's "Thalaba the Destroyer," and may be regarded, as some one has said, "as a warp of prose amid the weft of poetry."1 Thus even in composition, they are but a mongrel breed—a hybrid monstrosity. For this reason indeed, Walt Whitman has adopted his strange attire. It strikes the eye; it imposes by its novelty; it bespeaks the audacious personality of the man himself. He claims to be the man of the period—the voice of Republican America. His claim is admitted by his admirers. He cannot be dealt with as a child or a fool. He is neither. He is the exponent of democracy; the champion of humanity; the nineteenth century incarnate. Man, individual and en masse, that is his theme. For him, evil has no existence, or if it exists, it is well that it should exist.
His grandfather was "the great Quaker Iconoclast, Elias Hicks," and as dispositions of mind and body are alike hereditary, we find in the grandson an Iconoclast of another type. Whitman's ambition is to break into pieces every sacred image and construct a theory of humanity entirely his own. That his enthusiasm is genuine may be inferred from the fact of his devoting himself to the care of the sick and wounded, in the field and in the hospitals, during the Civil War between the North and South. It is not, however, the less to be dreaded on that account. Benevolence and Atheism were combined in Shelley, and so are self-sacrifice and Materialism united in Walt Whitman. He was in advance of his time, as to his new doctrine, when he first wrote, and though his materialistic ideas have now become far more common, he is in some respects in advance of his time still. The day of his influence, therefore, is not over, for he is more logical than many of his fellows, and carries out their notions into results from which they themselves would perhaps recoil. He is come, this Auguste Comte in verse, this demolisher of all religion, to "inaugurate a religion." They are his own words.
There is vigour and power enough here, and truth too, if the words were interpreted in a right sense, but whether these long, wavy "Leaves of Grass" deserve, as poetry, the praises lavished on them by Messrs. Emerson, Rossetti, and Swinburne, we leave to our readers to judge. It is more to our purpose to inquire what is the "greater religion," the germs of which Walt Whitman dropped into the earth. It is not, you may be sure, the Catholic religion, nor is it Christianity in any sense, though the Bible is one of the writer's favourite books. It is, as nearly as it may be described, the Religion of Humanity-the religion for which Mazzini fought with the pen and Garibaldi2 with the sword. You may infer what it is from a passage in the Preface to "Leaves of Grass" written by the poet himself:—
There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile—perhaps a generation or two—dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place—the gangs of Kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the Kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future.
Though this passage is printed as prose, it is quite as much poetry as the "Leaves of Grass." It represents the ideas of Comte as developed in his "Positive Religion."3 Yet it must not be supposed that Walt Whitman is a plagiarist in any sense. He does not strictly follow Comte, Mazzini, Victor Hugo, Huxley, or Tyndall , though he may by accident agree with each of them in turn.4 His system, with its rotten basis, its hideous defects, and its strange admixture of the beautiful and the grand, is all his own. Materialist though he be, to such an extent as to make matter in general, and our bodies in particular divine, he is not a pure materialist; he teaches the immortality of the soul and the body, and in his poems, as by the bedside of the dying, he predicts with the confidence of faith the existence of the soul after death clothed in a finer frame of matter elaborated within us during our earthly life. This is, we believe, a doctrine of many Spiritualists; but Whitman is not properly a Spiritualist any more than a mere Materialist. When we consider the breadth of his system, and the multitude of beautiful truths he has incorporated into it, we cannot but deeply lament that, either through perversity or defective education, or both, he has not been intromitted into the glorious heritage of the Catholic faith, where he would find all that he now holds of good and true under the seal of the Blood of an Incarnate God, to the exclusion of all that he holds also which is earthly, sensual, and devilish. For him, as for Catholics, but under very different conditions, the air around is full of spirits released from their mortal coil. Yet with this and similarly sublime and consoling reflections, he associates occasionally passages and entire poems so corrupt in morals and so indecent in language that they are omitted in English editions of his works. With Whitman, the body is the soul, and the soul is the body; the corpse that we drop in the grave is "excrementitious"; the real body survives:
It is the soul-body of which he speaks, the magnetic or ethereal body, supposed by some to be formed and still forming within the grosser body which will die. If Whitman could be described in one word, we should call him a Universalist. He has no antagonisms. He accepts all, admires all, loves all. He would embrace all objects, material and spiritual, as if the grasp of his finite intellect were the underlying principle that welds things together, harmonizes all discords, annihilates all distinctions of good and evil, of pain and pleasure, of past and future, time and eternity:—
If in this place we were discussing systems of philosophy in the United States instead of poetry, it would be necessary to enter more fully into the subject of Walt Whitman's speculations. He is not a mere rhapsodist, nor can he be dismissed as a dreamer or an imbecile. There is more bone and sinew in his pages than in those of any other American poet, and that mainly because his ideas are often new and always daring. But enough has been said here for the guidance of those who are curious about his school of thought, and we must make but one further remark on his character as a poet. Of all American poets he is the most intensely national, and in him the great Democracy of the West has found a man who, as Carlyle says, "will speak forth melodiously what the heart of it means."5 He has given scope to the gigantic ideas of his people, and to their unparalleled activity and progress in every social and scientific department. His verses, like his genius, are shaggy and unshorn, and they shake the land like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairie. Nothing more national than his "American Feuillage," "Drum Taps," and poems on the death of President Lincoln, was ever written; and deeply as we deplore the erratic path into which his eager mind has wandered, we cannot but recognize in his talents a gift of the Most High, and in his writings much that is beautiful and precious in the midst of much that is dangerous and base. Any study of American poetry which did not embrace his works would be imperfect, because he has given it a direction in the line of original and powerful thought. If the Catholic religion should spread more widely in the United States, and obtain a firmer hold, directly or indirectly over the public mind, the divine alchemy of which they are possessed who "have the unction from the holy One and know all things" might turn much of his alloyed metal into refined gold.6 Fresh and athletic poetry was what, before Whitman's time, America wanted; and now that the want has in some degree, and under great disadvantage, been supplied, it only remains to impart to the new importation that religious and Christian character which made Dante and Milton rulers in the realms of mind. It is, doubtless, by permission of the All-Wise that poets as well as professors, in America as in England, are ranging themselves with new energy in the ranks of unbelief; but it will be, as ever, the sublime office of the Catholic Church to strike the weapons from their hands, to enrich herself with their spoils, and to yoke them to the triumphant car of him who cometh with dyed garments from Bosra.7
Having said this much of Walt Whitman's compositions, and believing, as we do, that in matter of poetry they represent the American mind and the state of American society more faithfully than any other poems—shadowing forth with a certain wild magnificence the rapid, gigantic, and terrible growth of principles false and true—we ought perhaps to give a further specimen of the strange long sweep and Hebraic recurrences in the verse of this thorough Yankee:—
In America, as in England, the great poet is still to arise. It is essential that he should be a Catholic—"a poet," as Emanuel Geibel says, "by the grace of God" (Poet von Gottes Gnaden).10 Not that Catholicism need be his subject, but it should underlie it, and circumscribe it, and hold it in solution. He should see all things from a Catholic point of view, yet see more than most who are round about him, and see farther than his age in general. He should have the versatility of Shakspeare, the might of Milton, the faith of Dante, and the perfect language of Tennyson. He should embrace, so far as one man can embrace, all sciences, have the liveliest affinity for the true and the beautiful, wherever found, and the tenderest sympathy with human suffering. He should pierce to the principles underlying facts and binding together disjointed phenomena. He should be as orthodox as the see of S. Peter, yet discern in every error its basis or contingent of truth. He should leave his moral lessons to be inferred, and remember that, for the most part, the mission of the poet is to please rather than to teach. Relying with full confidence on the all-embracing character of his divine religion, he should avoid as a pestilence every species of narrowness, and be content to be often misinterpreted and misunderstood. Originality in a poet is impossible if he be always writing down to the level of inferior understandings. He must be judged by the few, that he may delight the many; and in saying this, we do not for a moment forget that simplicity, directness, perspicuity are the crowning glory of all composition, and especially of poetry. Never before, in the history of mankind, were the materials at a poet's command so rich and varied as they are now. All things are assuming giant proportions—commerce, locomotion, social questions, politics, education, war, sciences, arts. Nature was never observed before as she is now observed, and the novelist's art has laid bare the human heart and depicted the characters of men in such vivid and varied colours as we never saw till of late. Religion itself—our own holy religion—has developed within the present generation, and presented itself to us in a more definite and extended shape than ever. The times are ripe for great poetry and a great minstrel of mankind. Man, the Kosmos, the Bible, the infallible Church, Time, Futurity—what themes! The mere mention of them is inspiring; for what is poetry but the highest truth and the deepest emotion? Express them as you will, there is music in the sound and rhythm in the language. Where will this poet of the future, who makes Catholicism his standpoint, arise? Will England or America have the honour of giving him birth?
[Earle, John Charles]. "American Poets [Part 2]." The Dublin Review (July 1874): 64-86.
1. W. M. Rossetti's comment on Whitman in his introduction to Poems by Walt Whitman, 3. (Back)
2. Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) was an Italian patriot, philosopher, and politician. Mazzini helped to bring about the modern Italian state, which replaced the system that had existed until the nineteenth century of several separate states dominated by foreign powers. He also helped define the modern European movement for popular Democracy in a Republican State. Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) was an Italian patriot and soldier of the Risorgimento. He personally led many of the military campaigns that brought about the formation of a unified Italy. He was called the "Hero of the Two Worlds," in tribute to his military expeditions in South America and Europe. (Back)
3. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) was a French positivist thinker who came up with the term sociology to name the new science made by Saint-Simon. Comte saw himself as founder and prophet of a new "religion of humanity." (Back)
4. Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), an English biologist, was a forceful proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and a key leader in the development of scientific education in Britain. John Tyndall (1820–1893) was an Irish natural philosopher who, along with Darwin and Huxley, helped spread popular knowledge of physical science and helped make modern science widely accepted. (Back)
5. In "The Hero as Poet" in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (New York: Frederick A. Stokes & Brother, 1888), 127. (Back)
6. John I, 2:20. (Back)
7. Isaiah 63:1. (Back)
8. Omitted: "--or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love," (Back)
9. German poet, the quote is from "An Georg Herwegh." (Back)
10. Quote by the French writer Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-94), which Edgar Allen Poe uses in his review of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Ballads and other Poems for Graham's Magazine. Poe translates the quote as: "One would be safe in wagering that any given public idea is erroneous, for it has been yielded to the clamor of the majority." Poe, Edgar Allen. Essays and Reviews. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Viking Press, 1984. 679. (Back)
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