Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

NEW WORK BY WALT. WHITMAN.

(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)

NEW YORK, FEB. 23.

The only American prophet to my knowledge who enjoys a fame in England not accorded him in his own country is the prophet of the new Democratic school of poetry, Walt. Whitman. Although his earlier publications attracted here a certain degree of attention in literary circles, and aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among some of the "plain people," whose singer he especially desired to be called, it can hardly be said that his claims to the rank of poet were seriously considered in America until they had been discussed by Mr. W. M. Rosetti [sic], Mr. Robert Buchanan, and other authorities in London. The dubious position which he won here by their help he has not been able to hold. To-day he probably has ten admirers and readers abroad for every one that he has at home. There is a rough honesty, a wild sort of sweetness in the strange man's character, an evident genuineness in his eccentricities, both personal and literary, which have won for him general respect and even a great deal of popular affection, while the estimate of his poetical powers, accepted a few years ago, has been steadily declining. He is no longer one of the curiosities of the Republic; and while the stories of his extreme poverty and suffering which recently obtained circulation are, I am glad to say, untrue, he has fallen into obscurity, if not into positive neglect, and apparently into a mood of sorrow. The impression which one gathers from a few sheets of his forthcoming volume is at any rate rather a melancholy one. He calls the new book "Two Rivulets," for it contains a stream of prose and a stream of verse:

Two Rivulets side by side,
Two blended, parallel, strolling tides,
Companions, travelers, gossiping as they journey;

And he sends it out 'partly as my contribution and outpouring to celebrate, in some sort, the feature of the time, the first Centennial of our New World Nationality, and then as chyle and nutriment of that moral and indissoluble union, equally representing all, and the mother of many coming centennials.' Nor is it only in the form of the pieces composing the book that he follows a double line. There are two distinct veins of thought-Politics and Immortality. The rivulets are rude, brawling streams, no doubt, but they keep within much narrower bounds than the turbulent streams of his earlier poems. He has no respect for artificial barriers to poetic inspiration:

In my opinion the time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry. I say the latter is henceforth to win and maintain its character regardless of rhyme, and the measurement-rules of iambic, spondee, dactyl, etc., and that even if rhyme and those measurements continue to furnish the mediums for inferior writers and themes, (especially for persiflage and the comic, as there seems henceforward, to the perfect taste, something inevitably comic in rhyme, merely in itself and anyhow,) the truest and greatest poetry, (while subtly and necessarily always rhythmic, and distinguishable easily enough,) can never again, in the English language, be expressed in arbitrary and rhyming meter, any more than the greatest eloquence, or the truest power and passion. . . . In my opinion, I say, while admitting that the venerable and heavenly forms of chiming versification have in their time played great and fitting parts, that the pensive complaint, the ballads, wars, amours, legends of Europe, &c., have, many of them, been inimitably rendered in rhyming verse—that there have been very illustrious poets, whose shapes the mantle of such verse has beautifully and appropriately enveloped—and though the mantle has fallen, with perhaps added beauty, on some of our own age—it is, not withstanding, certain to me, that the day of such conventional rhyme is ended. In America, at any rate, and as a medium of highest esthetic practical or spiritual expression, present or future it palpably fails, and must fail to serve. The muse of the prairies, and the peaks of Colorado, dismissing the literary as well as social etiquette of over-sea feudalism and caste, joyfully enlarging, adapting itself to comprehend the size of the whole people, with the free play, emotions, pride, passions, experiences, that belong to them, body and soul—to the general globe, and all its relations in astronomy, as the savans portray them to us—to the modern, the busy nineteenth century, (as grandly poetic as any, only different), with steamships, railroads, factories, electric telegraphs, cylinder presses—to the thought of the solidarity of nations, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the entire earth—to the dignity and heroism of the practical labor of farms, factories, foundries, workshops, mines, or on shipboard, or on lakes and rivers—resumes that other medium of expression, more flexible, more eligible—soars to the freer, vast, diviner heaven of prose.

But there is much less than his olden extravagance in this poem, characteristic as it nevertheless is:

                        EIDÓLONS.

   I met a Seer,
Passing the hues and objects of the world,
The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
   To glean Eidólons.

   Put in they chants, said he,
No more the puzzling hour, nor day—nor segments, parts,
     put in,
Put first before the rest, as light for all, and entrance-
     song of all,
   That of Eidólons.

   Ever the dim beginning;
Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle;
Ever the summit, and the merge at last, (to surely start
     again,)
   Eidólons! Eidólons!

   Ever the mutable!
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohereing!
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
   Issuing Eidólons.

   Lo! I or you!
Or woman, man, or State, known or unknown;
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
   But really build Eidólons.

   The ostent evanescent;
The substance of an artist's mood or savan's studies
     long,
Or warrior's, martyr's, hero's toils,
   To fashion his Eidólon.

   Of every human life,
(The units gather'd, posted—not a thought, emotion,
     deed, left out;)
The whole or large or small summ'd, added up,
   In its Eidólon.

   The old, old urge;
Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo! newer, higher pin-
     nacles;
From science and the Modern still impell'd,
   The old, old urge, Eidólons.

   The present, now and here,
America's busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate, for only thence releasing,
     To-day's Eidólons.

   These, with the past,
Of vanish'd lands—of all the reigns of kings across the
     sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors' voyages,
   Joining Eidólons.

   Densities, growth, façades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
   Eidólons everlasting.

   Exalté, rapt, extatic,
The visible but their womb of birth,
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
   The mighty Earth-Eidólon.

   All space, all time,
(The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending—serving their longer, shorter
     use,)
   Fill'd with Eidólons only.

   The noiseless myriads!
The infinite oceans where the rivers empty!
The separate, countless free identities, like eyesight;
   The true realities, Eidólons.

   Not this the World,
Nor these the Universes—they the Universes,
Purport and end—ever the permanent life of life,
   Eidólons, Eidólons.

   Beyond thy lectures learn'd professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen—
     beyond all mathematics,
Beyond the doctor's surgery, anatomy—beyond the chemist with his chem-
     istry,
   The entities of entities, Eidólons.

   Unfix'd yet fix'd;
Ever shall be—ever have been and are,
Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
   Eidólons, Eidólons, Eidólons.

   The prophet and the bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves—in higher stages yet,
Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy—interpret
     yet to them,
   God, and Eidólons.

   And thee, My Soul!
Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations!
Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet
   Thy mates, Eidólons.

   Thy Body permanent,
The Body lurking there within thy Body,
The only purport of the Form thou art—the real I my-
     self,
   An image, an Eidólon.

   Thy very songs, not in thy songs;
No special strains to sing—none for itself;
But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
   A round, full-orb'd Eidólon.

The verses "To a Locomotive in Winter" have perhaps a stronger flavour of the author of "Leaves of Grass":

               TO A LOCOMOTIVE IN WINTER.

Thee for my recitative!
Thee in the driving storm even as now—the snow—the
      Winter-day declining;
Thee in thy panoply, thy measured dual throbbing, and
      thy beat convulsive;
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel;
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods,
      gyrating, shuttling at thy sides;
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar—now tapering
      in the distance;
Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front;
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with deli-
      cate purple;
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy
      smoke-stack;
Thy knitted frame—thy springs and valves—the tremu-
      lous twinkle of thy wheels;
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily
      careering;
Type of the modern! emblem of motion and power! pulse
      of the continent!
For once, come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even
      as here I see thee,
With storm, and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling
      snow;
By day, thy warning, ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night, thy silent signal lamps to swing.
Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music! thy
      swinging lamps at night;
Thy piercing, madly-whistled laughter! thy echoes,
      rousing all!
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding;
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano
      thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return'd,
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide—across the lakes,
To the free skies, unpent, and glad, and strong.

Whitman gives his own portrait from life in the book-a large, bending gray-haired man, 'looking at you'—and the picture is illustrated by the following verse:—

Out from behind this bending rough-cut Mask,
(All straighter, liker Masks rejected—this preferr'd,)
This common curtain of the face, contain'd in me for me,
      in you for you, in each for each,
(Tragedies, sorrows, laughter, tears—O heaven!
The passionate, teeming plays this curtain hid!)
The glaze of God's serenest, purest sky,
This film of Satan's seething pit,
This heart's geography's map—this limitless small continent
      —this soundless sea,
Out from the convolutions of this globe,
This subtler astronomic orb than sun or moon—than
      Jupiter, Venus, Mars;
This condensation of the Universe—(nay, here the only
      Universe,
Here the Idea—all in this mystic handful wrapt;)
These burin'd eyes, flashing to you, to pass to future time,
To launch and spin through space revolving, sideling—
      from these to emanate,
To You, who'er you are—a Look.

And doubtless this is intended as a portrait also:

       WHEN THE FULL-GROWN POET CAME.

When the full-grown poet came,
Out spake pleas'd Nature (the round impassive Globe,
      with all its shows of day and night), saying, He is
      mine;
But out spake too the Soul of Man, proud, jealous and
      unreconciled, Nay, he is mine alone;—
—Then the full-grown Poet stood between the two, and
      took each by the hand,
And to-day and ever so stands, as blender, uniter, tightly
      holding hands,
Which he will never release until he reconciles the two,
And wholly and joyously blends them.

I close my extracts from advance sheets of the book with two little pieces of a political character:

            THE BEAUTY OF THE SHIP.

When, staunchly entering port,
After long ventures, hauling up, worn and old,
Better'd by sea and wind, torn by many a fight,
With the original sails all gone, replaced, or mended,
I only saw, at last the beauty of the ship.

               SHIP OF DEMOCRACY.

Sail—sail thy best, ship of Democracy!
Of value is they freight—'tis not the Present only,
The past is also stored in thee!
Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone—not of thy
      western continent alone;
Earth's resume entire floats on thy keel, O ship—is
      steadied by thy spars;
With thee Time voyages in trust—the antecedent nations
      sink or swim with thee;
With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes, epics,
      wars, thou bear'st the other continents;
Theirs, theirs as much as thine, the destination-port
      triumphant;
—Steer, steer with good strong band and wary eye, O
      helmsman—thou carryest great companions,
Venerable, priestly Asia sails this day with thee,
And royal, feudal Europe sails with thee.



Publication Information
[Anonymous]. "New Work by Walt. Whitman." The London Daily News  (11 March 1876): 5-6.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00201


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