Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: [Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]

Creator: Charles Eliot Norton [unsigned in original]

Date: September 1855

Publication information: Putnam's Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Arts 6 (September 1855): 321-3.

Source: The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00011

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, Charles Green, and Todd Stabley


WHITMAN'S LEAVES OF GRASS.—Our account of the last month's literature would be incomplete without some notice of a curious and lawless collection of poems, called Leaves of Grass, and issued in a thin quarto without the name of publisher or author. The poems, twelve in number, are neither in rhyme nor blank verse, but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at measure or regularity, and, as many readers will perhaps think, without any idea of sense or reason. The writer's scorn for the wonted usages of good writing; extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect on the reader's mind; and not only is the book one not to be read aloud to a mixed audience, but the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable. But, as the writer is a new light in poetry, it is only fair to let him state his theory for himself. We extract from the preface:—

"The art of art, the glory of expression, is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity, and the sunlight of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity—nothing can make up for excess, or for the lack of definiteness***To speak in literature, with the perfect rectitude and the insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods, is the flawless triumph of art***The greatest poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thought and things, without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest, like curtains. What I feel, I feel for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt, or startle, or fascinate, or soothe, I will have purposes, as health, or heat, or snow has, and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side to look in the mirror with me."

The application of these principles, and of many others equally peculiar, which are expounded in a style equally oracular throughout the long preface,—is made passim, and often with comical success, in the poems themselves, which may briefly be described as a compound of the New England transcendentalist and New York rowdy. A fireman or omnibus driver, who had intelligence enough to absorb the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston some fifteen or eighteen years ago, and resources of expression to put them forth again in a form of his own, with sufficient self-conceit and contempt for public taste to affront all usual propriety of diction, might have written this gross yet elevated, this superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow fascinating book. As we say, it is a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism, and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony. The vast and vague conceptions of the one, lose nothing of their quality in passing through the coarse and odd intellectual medium of the other; while there is an original perception of nature, a manly brawn, and an epic directness in our new poet, which belong to no other adept of the transcendental school. But we have no intention of regularly criticising this very irregular production; our aim is rather to cull, from the rough and ragged thicket of its pages, a few passages equally remarkable in point of thought and expression. Of course we do not select those which are the most transcendental or the most bold:—

"I play not a march for victors only…I
play great marches for conquered and
slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain
the day?
I also say it is good to fall…battles are
lost in the same spirit in which they are
won.
I sound triumphal drums for the dead…
I fling through my embouchures the
loudest and gayest music to them—
Vivas to those who have failed, and to those
whose war-vessels sank in the sea, and to
those themselves who sank in the sea.
And to all generals that lost engagements,
and to all overcome heroes, and the number-
less unknown heroes equal to the
greatest heroes known."
"I am the mashed fireman, with breast-bone
broken…tumbling walls buried me in
their debris—
Heat and smoke, I respired…I heard
the yelling shouts of my comrades—
I heard the distant click of their picks and
shovels.
They have cleared the beams away.…
they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt…
the pervading hush is for my sake.
Painless after all I lie, exhausted, but not so
unhappy.
White and beautiful are the faces around
me…the heads are bared of their fire-
caps—
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches."
―――
"I tell not the fall of Alamo…not one
escaped to tell the fall of the Alamo:
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at
Alamo.
*****
They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with a horse, a rifle, a song, a
supper, or a courtship:
Large, turbulent, brave, handsome, gener-
ous, proud and affectionate—
Bearded, sun-burnt, dressed in the free cos-
tume of hunters."
―――
"Did you read in the books of the old-
fashioned frigate fight?
Did you learn who won by the light of the
moon and stars?
Our foe was no skulk in his ship, I tell you,
His was the English pluck, and there is
no tougher or truer, and never was, and
never will be:
Along the lowered eve he came, terribly
raking us.
We close with him: the yards entangled…
the masts touched:
My captain lashed fast with his own hands.
We had received some eighteen-pound
shots under the water—
On our lower gun-deck two large pieces
had burst at the first fire, killing all
around and blowing up, overhead.
Ten o'clock at night and the full moon shin-
ing, and the leaks on the gain, and five
feet of water reported;
The master-at-arms loosing the prisoners in
the after-hold, to give them a chance for
themselves.
The transit to and from the magazine was
now stopped by the sentinels—
They saw so many strange faces, they did
not know whom to trust.
Our frigate was a-fire—the other asked if
we demanded quarters? if our colors were
struck and the fighting done?
I laughed content when I heard the voice
of my little captain—
`We have not struck,' he composedly cried.
`We have just begun our part of the
fighting.'
Only three guns were in use.
One was directed by the captain himself,
against the enemy's mainmast:
Two, well served with grape and canister,
silenced his musketry and cleared his
decks.
*****
Not a moment's cease —
The leaks gained fast on the pumps…the fire eat toward the
powder magazine:
One of the pumps was shot away; it was generally thought we
were sinking.
Serene stood the little captain:
He was not hurried…his voice was neither high or low—
His eyes gave more light to us than our battle-lanterns.
Toward twelve at night, there in the beams of the moon, they
surrendered to us."
―――
"As to you, life, I reckon you are the leav-
ings of many deaths:
No doubt I have died myself ten thousand
times before.
I hear you whispering there, O stars of
heaven—
O suns! O grave of graves! O perpetual
transfers and promotions, if you do not
say anything, how can I say anything,
Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn
forest—
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the
soughing twilight?
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk —toss on the
black stems that decay in the muck—
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry
limbs!"
―――
"A slave at auction!
I help the auctioneer…the sloven does
not half know his business.
`Gentlemen, look on this curious creature:
Whatever the bids of the bidders, they
cannot be high enough for him—
For him, the globe lay preparing quintil-
lions of years, without one animal or
plant—
For him the revolving cycles truly and
steadily rolled:
In that head, the all-baffling brain—
In it, and below it, the making of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white…
they are very cunning in tendon and
nerve;
They shall be stript, that you may see them.
*****
Within there runs his blood…the same
old blood…the same red running
blood—
There, swells and jets his heart…there
all passions and desires…all reachings
and aspirations;
Do you think they are not there, because they
are not expressed in parlors and lec-
ture rooms?
This is not only one man…he is the father
of those who shall be fathers in their
turns:
In him the start of populous states and rich
republics;
Of him, countless immortal lives, with
countless embodiments and enjoyments.
How do you know who shall come from the
offspring of his offspring, through the
centuries?
―――
A woman at auction!
She, too, is not only herself…she is the
teeming mother of mothers:
She is the bearer of them who shall grow
and be mates to the mothers.
Her daughters, or their daugh-
ters' daughters…who knows who shall mate
with them?
Who knows, through the centuries, what
heroes may come from them?
In them, and of them, natal love…in
them the divine mystery…the same
old, beautiful mystery."
―――
"Behold a woman!
She looks out from her Quaker cap…her
face is clearer and more beautiful than
the sky,
She sits in an arm-chair, under the shaded
porch of the farm house—
The sun just shines on her old white head.
Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen:
Her grandsons raised the flax, and her grand-
daughters spun itwith the distaff and the
wheel.
The melodious character of the earth!
The finish, beyond which philosophy cannot
go, and does not wish to go!
The justified mother of men!"
―――
"Old age superbly rising! Ineffable grace of dying days."
―――
"Day, full-blown and splendid…day of
the immense sun, and action, and ambi-
tion, and laughter:
The night follows close, with millions of
suns, and sleep,and restoring darkness."

As seems very proper in a book of transcendental poetry, the author withholds his name from the title page, and presents his portrait, neatly engraved on steel, instead. This, no doubt, is upon the principle that the name is merely accidental; while the portrait affords an idea of the essential being from whom these utterances proceed. We must add, however, that this significant reticence does not prevail throughout the volume, for we learn on p. 29, that our poet is "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." That he was an American, we knew before, for, aside from America, there is no quarter of the universe where such a production could have had a genesis. That he was one of the roughs was also tolerably plain; but that he was a kosmos, is a piece of news we were hardly prepared for. Precisely what a kosmos is, we trust Mr. Whitman will take an early occasion to inform the impatient public.


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