NOTES OF A READER.
WALT WHITMAN, THE AMERICAN POET OF DEMOCRACY.
A LITTLE over six months ago we came across an edition of the Works of Walt Whitman, selected and edited by William Michael Rosetti, an Englishman of no mean literary fame, and who possesses the critical faculty in a high degree. Up to the time mentioned, the facts that a new poet had arisen in America, and that much difference of opinion existed as to his merits, were of no special interest.
Every author has, at one period or another, met with the cross of harsh, undeserved criticism. And with many, such injustice is prejudicial to the acquisition of fame. With Walt Whitman the case is different. He has a self-imposed task to perform; he is to furnish the great "psalm of the Republic," the poem of Personality—Personality as it exists in America; and, wrapped in "sublime egotism"—the egotism of a man who feels himself a king upon earth, not "wearing the purple," but in the humble guise of a working man, one whose genius
he has gone through with his work. The vastness of the territory of America, the grandeur of her natural scenery, the magnitude of her undertaking, and the greatness of her democratic institutions—are themes that, up to the present time, have needed a poet who can enter into the true spirit of the American nation, and think and speak in a way to illustrate such spirit.
Old world poets, fettered by rules, chained down to precedents, fearing the critic's scourge, thinking less of the affection of the "common people" than of the admiration of literary circles, have not attained the high level of this new world theme. The tendency of English and American poetry has been hitherto chastening and refining; the Titanic vigour, energy, and intensity of Whitman, seem like the growth of an American forest tree beside a lovely English garden plant; each in its kind is beautiful, but the soul is far more deeply stirred by the former.
In order fully to understand the character of Walt Whitman's writings, the reader should first be made acquainted with the man and his history. Biography affords valuable aid to the student seeking to fathom the depths of poetry. The outward life of a man is often the key to the inner—the working of the mind. In Whitman this is noticeable. He was born at the farm village of West Hills, Long Island, in the Manhattan state, "well begotten and raised of a perfect mother," on the 31st of May, 1819. His family, of English origin, had been settled in the locality for five generations. Walt was one of a large family. The father, Walter Whitman, after whom he was christened, was a farmer, and afterwards a carpenter and builder, adhering in religion to the great quaker iconoclast, Elias Hicks. Walt was schooled at Brooklyn, and began life in a printing office, at the age of thirteen, subsequently turning his attention to teaching, and later still becoming a "miscellaneous press-writer" in New York. In 1849 he began to travel, and became newspaper editor at New Orleans, and afterwards a printer at Brooklyn, the place of his schooldays. With that versatile genius which enables Americans of every class to adapt themselves to circumstances, and follow every pursuit, he next followed his father's business of carpentry. This was his occupation until the outbreak of the great civil war in 1862, when he undertook the duty of nursing the sick and wounded. Mr. Rosetti, to whom I am indebted for these particulars, adds that it was through Emerson's intervention that Whitman obtained President Lincoln's sanction to carry on this work of charity "without fee or reward," and to draw army rations. Howe'er it be, we know that the "Concord sage" was one of the first to recognise Whitman's merits, in a letter addressed to the poet, greeting him "at the beginning of a great career;" and pronouncing Leaves of Grass "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." As a hospital nurse, Whitman proved the nobleness of his nature by his untiring devotion to the sick and wounded, and a tenderness almost womanly in its extremity. Some of his most striking poems are the outcome of his experiences whilst fulfilling the self-imposed duties of this charitable office. In 1864, Whitman caught his first severe illness, from the absorption of poison into his system whilst attending to "some of the worst cases of gangrene," and was incapacitated for a period of six months, but in 1865 returned to the hospitals, and also obtained a clerkship in the department of the Interior, from which he was dismissed because of the free speech on things of a gross nature, in Leaves of Grass. He has since obtained, like many other eminent American writers, a post under Government, in the department of the Attorney-General. Whitman's dismissal from the department of the Interior, which was enforced by Secretary Harlan, caused some little indignation and a pamphleteering controversy: hence his reinstatement to Government employment.
In manners and habit of life, Whitman is peculiar. The privilege of genius to be eccentric would appear to be exercised in his case to the full; but his eccentricity and genius are en rapport, and bear a singular consistency. Rugged, plain, outspoken, and sensitive in his verse, the poet is the same in his daily life. Mr. Conway has, however, in an article in the Fortnightly Review for October, 1866, given an admirable account of a visit to the poet who, he states, he searched out with a view of giving some report concerning him to his friends. After detailing how he found the small, wooden house of two stories, in which Whitman resided, "after journeying through the almost interminable and monotonous streets which stretch out upon the fish-shaped Panmanok," Mr. Conway adds:—
"The day was excessively hot—the thermometer at nearly 100 deg., and the sun blazed down as only on sandy Long Island can the sun blaze. The common had not a single tree or shelter, and it seemed to me that only a very devout fire worshipper could be found there on such a day. No human being could I see at first in any direction; but just as I was about to turn, I saw, stretched upon his back and gazing up straight at the terrible sun, the man I was seeking. With his grey clothing, his blue grey shirt, his iron grey hands, his swart sun-browned face and bare neck, he laid upon the brown and white grass—for the sun had burnt away its greenness—and was so like the earth upon which he rested, that he seemed almost enough a part of it for one to pass by without recognition. I approached him, gave my name, and my reason for finding him out, and asked him if he did not find the sun rather hot. 'Not at all too hot,' was his reply; and he confided to me that this was one of his favourite places and attitudes for composing 'poems.' He then walked with me to his home, and took me along its narrow ways to his room—a small room of about fifteen square feet, with a single window looking out on the barren solitude of the island—a small cot, a washstand, with a little looking glass hung over it from a tack in the wall, a pine table with pen, ink, and paper on it, an old line engraving representing Bacchus hung on the wall, and opposite a similar one of Silenus. These constituted the visible endowments of Walt Whitman. There was not, apparently, a single book in the room. In reply to my expression of a desire to see his books, he declared that he had very few. I found upon further inquiry that he had received only such a good English education as every American lad may receive from the public schools, and that he now had access to the libraries of some of his friends. The books he seemed to love best, were the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare; these he owned, and probably had in his pocket while we were talking. He had two studies, where he read; one was the top of an omnibus, and the other a small mass of sand—then entirely uninhabited—far out in the ocean, called Coney Island. ... I could not help suspecting that he must have had masters, but he declared that he had learned all that he knew from omnibus drivers, ferry boat pilots, fisherman, boatmen, and the men and women of the markets and wharves. These were all inarticulate poets, and he interpreted them. The only distinguished contemporary he had ever met, was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, who had visited him. He had, he said, asked Mr. Beecher what were his feelings when he heard a man swear; and that gentleman having admitted that he felt shocked, he (Whitman) concluded that he still preferred keeping to the boatmen for his company." Mr. Conway says that Walt Whitman impressed him favourably, socially, physically, and intellectually, and he adds his praise, not unmixed with surprise, to the testimony of Emerson in his favour. Thoreau, Robert Buchanan, Swinburne, and others, have also recognized Whitman's genius; and what, perhaps, is even more satisfactory still to Whitman, he has gained the love and admiration of thousands of his countrymen, who see in his poems the expression of their national nature and spirit.
Space does not allow of a criticism of Whitman's poetry, but we subjoin a specimen of his verse. The spirit of Democracy breathes through every line that he has set to paper, although in many of his pieces he mistakes the conception of a poetic idea in his own mind for the expression of it.
In the case of Whitman's poetry comparison becomes impossible. He stands single and alone in the poetic circle—the personification of Democracy. The verses given below are not chosen because of superior merit, but simply as illustrating different phases of the poet's mind:—
NOCTURN FOR THE DEATH OF LINCOLN.
[Anonymous]. "Walt Whitman, The American Poet of Democracy." The Australian Journal: A Weekly Record of Literature, Science and the Arts 54 (November 1869): 164–67.
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