POEMS OF WALT WHITMAN.*
Some eight or ten years ago there was delivered to the world a volume of what were called poems by a being who called himself in the preface a "Kosmos," but who in the flesh—and he was very much in the flesh—was known as Walt Whitman. The Kosmos hailed from America, and was introduced to the reader in a frontispiece which represented an unkempt, dishevelled person in long hair and impossible eyes, crowned with a wide-awake hat. This picturesque ruffian announced himself as "of the Manahatta, singing thereof, and no less in myself than the whole of Manahatta in itself." In order to make himself and his mission still clearer to the minds of men, he thus spoke in his preface:—
"This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school, or church, or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body."
Unimpressed by these warnings, the critics scoffed at Leaves of Grass. They could not discover that the Kosmos wrote either poetry or sense. They could perceive that he was obscene, filthy, and blasphemous—that he knew his filth and revelled in it—calling upon us to admire in him that which was most nasty—shouting and gibbering like an ill-conditioned chimpanzee. What small gleams of meaning there lay in these simious utterances was the veriest commonplace, the baldest platitude. In fact, the critics declared that this new poet from beyond the seas was but a wild and inflated Tupper, that he was nebulous only because he had no meaning, that even when most distinct he was incoherent, and that altogether it was a very foolish and dull sort of monster.
Mr. W. M. Rosetti1 calls upon us now with much gravity to reverse all these judgments. Walt Whitman, we are told, is not a man to be overlooked. Walt Whitman is a true seer, a most subtle and profound poet. Rough he may be, but he is the child of Nature. Wild he may be, but he is the Spirit of the Young World. In Walt Whitman we are called upon to recognise "the founder of American poetry rightly to be so called, and the most sonorous poetic voice of the tangibilities of actual and prospective democracy." Before Walt Whitman we are called upon to bow, as the genius of the Future, the expounder of the To Be. As for Mr. Rosetti, who, in other respects, is a sensible and decent man, and a delicate and acute critic; he is overwhlemed with the contemplation of this huge, blurred figure of a Titan which rises out of chaos. He prostrates himself before the uncouth image of Whitman, just as a Hindoo grovels before Siva. In the writings of Walt Whitman Mr. Rosetti discovers "a waif of prose amid the weft of poetry, such as Shakespeare himself furnishes the precedent for in drama." Evidently Mr. Rosetti is only restrained by a feeling of delicacy towards public opinion from pronouncing Whitman a much greater man than Shakespeare. "The entire book" (Leaves of Grass) he declares to be "the poem of the natural man, not of the merely physical, still less of the disjunctively intellectual or spiritual man, but of him who, being a man first and foremost, is therein also a spirit and an intellect." Certainly, nothing like this could be said of poor William Shakespeare. He was but a small creature, and never wrote anything like "a poem of the natural man." Of the disjunctively intellectual, it is probable that an English bard had but the dimmest notion. He was all very well for his time, but he was not a Kosmos. It is probable that he never thought of a "mission" at all, and we are very sure that he received no hint in his soul of "the tangibilities of actual and prospective democracy."
By way of showing us what a superior animal is this American poet, Mr. Rosetti has given us a selection of his works, with which he has taken what we must consider the unwarrantable liberty of cutting out all the blasphemies and obscenities. Surely this is but scurvy treatment for the poet of the Future. Surely the pæan of the natural man" ought to be given to us entire, as the prophet himself delivered it. What right has Mr. Rosetti to blurt and spoil the great message which is intended for our salvation? The excuse that an editor gives for leaving out about one-half of what Walt Whitman really wrote, and for dressing up the remainder with headings and cutting it into arbitrary lengths, we must hold to be very insufficient. Mr. Rosetti tells us that he has omitted "every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age"—which is but a clumsy way of serving either the poet or the age. Surely a Kosmos knows better than Mr. Rosetti what is best for the age. The pæan of the natural man, to be of any value, should be given in the singer's own words. How are we to judge of whole man Whitman if we are to see only the most decent part of him? Those who are acquainted with Leaves of Grass in their original form know that it is this very indecency and bold out-speaking upon which Walt Whitman prides himself—which are his claims to the Kosmical distinction. We presume it is not by school-girls that Whitman's place in literature is to be fixed. Why then this foolish and insulting squeamishness?
How the purged and shaved Whitman looks under Mr. Rosetti's hands we can best show by specimens of his poetry. Here is one passage, which we are led to believe is a favourable sample of our poet's quality, which may be supposed to be valuable as explaining the "tangibilities of the prospective democracy":—
To those who may still hold that the tangibilities of democracy are a little hazy we can give no consolation. If they will not believe Mr. Rosetti they will not believe Walt Whitman, who sent him. The poetry of the future may be considered to be slightly wanting both in rhythm and reason; but those who make this objection are vulgar persons to whom the vision has never come. They are only to be pitied and passed by—according to Mr. Rosetti. To the enlightened few it will be only necessary to quote such a passage as this, and all is clear:—
And part of another poem is as follows:—
According to one of Walt Whitman's admirers, this is one of those portions of the work by which we perceive that "life is everything, that man is an integral part of the world's life, and that it is by the full unfolding of man's powers that life is ennobled and the world made beautiful." After this, may we not put in a claim for our own Tupper? Has he not written to show that "life is everything," and that "man is an integral part of the world's life?" What is the burden of our latter-day Solomon, if not that it is by the full unfolding of a man's powers that life is to be ennobled? It is true that our Tupper does not violate the decencies, nor call himself a Kosmos. But surely it is but a dissolute and an inebriate Tupper who writes most of the lines which Mr. Rosetti so admires. What shall we say to this, for instance:—
Or in a higher key and in the most prophetic manner this, which really contains the only gem of a poetic idea which to our common understandings is perceptible in Walt Whitman:—
We are entreated to give this kind of thing a patient hearing, and are asked to recognise it as at least a real voice arising out of the motion of the universe. It may be that Walt Whitman is a true poet and that to him is given the key which is to unlock the secret of the future. If so, we can only say that the world has been all wrong as to what constitutes poetry. If Walt Whitman is a poet, then we have greatly to enlarge the circle of Parnassus, and to make easy the way to the summit. If to discharge one's imagination of all the crude shapes which gather there be to write poetry, then there are some thousands who have only to print what comes apparent to their mind to earn the title of seer. Let it be cut into lengths, with a capital letter at the beginning of each length, and lo! it is a poem. Neither rhyme nor reason is required, and very little decency. One has but to secure an editor like Mr. W. M. Rosetti, and the world is made acquainted with a new poet.
In the present instance it will require more than Mr. Rosetti's authority, we fear, to make Walt Whitman an acceptable poet to the multitude. However familiar with the future, he is likely to remain a sealed book to the present. This cannot be, of course, any disadvantage to a Kosmos—a Manahatta—a professor of the Tangibilities of Democracy—a singer of the pæan of natural life. Being all these things, Walt Whitman can afford to wait, and it is highly probable that to wait will be his only alternative.
*"Poems by Walt Whitman." Selected and edited by W. M. Rosetti. London: J.C. Hotten. 1868.
[Anonymous]. "Poems of Walt Whitman." The Australasian 118 (4 July 1868): 8.
1. This is a misspelling. The correct spelling is "Rossetti." (Back)
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