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Title: The Poetry of the Period

Creator: Alfred Austin [unsigned in original]

Date: October 1869

Publication information: Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers October 1869: 314-27.

Source: The electronic text for this file was prepared by Whitman Archive staff, who transcribed the text from a representation of the original (e.g., digital scan or other electronic reproduction, microfilm copy).

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00195

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Beverley Rilett, and Vanessa Steinroetter


The Poetry of the Period

———

THE POETRY OF THE FUTURE

MANY people will, we daresay, be surprised to find that we have not yet exhausted the Poetry of the Period, and still more astonished at our placing in that category the "Poetry of the Future." But have they not heard of the "Music of the Future;"1 and not only heard of it, but heard it? It is not a thing promised, but a thing accomplished. The foundations of it at least are laid; and even these are pronounced by its prophets to be already superior to the highest summits ever attained by such puny composers of the past as Mozart, Handel, and Beethoven. So is it with the Poetry of the Future. It consists of no merely prophesied strains: the first singer of it is here and amongst us, and his previous productions are to be had at the circulating libraries. True, he is only the first of a long succession of coming bards; but these will follow in his footsteps, as Virgil is said to have trodden in those of Homer, Dante in those of Virgil, Milton in those of Dante, and so on through the sustained inheritance of song. If, as has been seen, we are not overwell satisfied with such productions of the muse as are vouchsafed us by living English bards, we have no reason to distress ourselves, or even to cast fond eyes upon the bygone days of a happier poetical literature, in order to find consolation. We must look forwards, not backwards. Not Byron and his predecessors, but Mr. Walt Whitman and his successors, constitute the balm that still abides in Gilead. The Old World is done up, no doubt; but Apollo has taken refuge in the United States. The pottering little fountain of Hippocrene, now run dry, has been replaced by the tremendous waters of the everlasting Mississippi, and the Parnassian and Heliconian ranges have abdicated in favour of the Alleghanies and the setting sun.2

That our readers may not think we are setting up imaginary claims, we must beg to be permitted to lay before them the proofs of their existence; and we have less scruple in doing so, as we fancy we have in store for them no mean entertainment. To some of them the name of Mr. Walt Whitman will be faintly familiar; but to others, and indeed the majority, we imagine it will represent nothing at all. It is highly desirable that they should become more intimately acquainted with a gentleman who, both through his own voice, and (as we shall shortly see) through the voices of some exceedingly well-known English admirers, affects to be doing so much for the present and future literary greatness of the human race.

Mr. Walt Whitman was incited to compose the various poems, from which we will make copious citations as we proceed, by a contempt for the Poetry of the Period; and it is obvious that he, therefore, has a special claim upon our attention. His opinion of it is, that it is either "the poetry of an elegantly weak sentimentalism, at bottom nothing but maudlin puerilities, or more or less musical verbiage, arising out of a life of depression and enervation as their result; or else that class of poetry, plays, &c., of which the foundation is feudalism, with its ideas of lords and ladies, its standard of gentility, and the manners of high life below stairs in every line and verse." From him we are to expect no such feminine and frivolous stuff; he is as masculine—again another reason for our examining his pretensions—as any of us, sick of the feminine twang of other lyres, can possibly desire:—

"No dainty dolcè affetuoso I;
Branded, sunburnt, grey-necked, forbidding, I have arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass, for the solid prizes of the universe."

He is declared by one of his most ardent admirers, Mr. W.M. Rossetti—to whom we shall have to revert more than once in this paper, and who is esteemed, by a select but somewhat notorious circle, a mighty authority in poetical matters—to "occupy at the present moment a unique position on the globe, and one which, even in past times, can have been occupied by only an infinitesimally small number of men. He is the one man who entertains and professes respecting himself the grave conviction, that he is the actual and prospective founder of a new poetic literature, and a great one-a literature proportional to the material vastness and the unmeasured destinies of America. He believes that the Columbus of the Continent, or the Washington of the States, was not more truly than himself the patron and founder and upbuilder of this America."

That this is no exaggerated account of Mr. Walt Whitman's estimate of himself is apparent on almost every page of his writings, for on page after page it is distinctly laid down:—

"See, projected through time,
For me an audience interminable.
Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions;
With faces turned sideways or backward towards me, to listen.
With eyes retrospective towards Me."
"Americanos! conquerors! marches humanitarian;
Foremost! century marches! Libertad! masses!
For you a programme of chants!"
"In the year 80 of the States,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here, form parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-six old, in perfect health begin.
Hoping to cease not till death."

At another time he exclaims:—

"For your life, adhere to me;
Of all men of the earth, I only can unloose you and toughen you.
None have understood you, but I understand you.
I have the idea of all, and am all, and believe in all.
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens."

It is very likely to be objected, that though, perhaps, no such wonderful phenomenon has previously been witnessed as a person believing that within him has taken place so supernatural an operation as the one intimated in the above concluding line, yet the world has seen a goodly number of individuals who proclaimed themselves to be the coming man; and that the estimate formed by Mr. Walt Whitman of himself, is no test of the estimate other people form of him. Let us then come to that; for, after all, that is the most wonderful as it is the most important part of the affair. And, to begin with, let us see what is thought of this poetical avatar by Mr. Rossetti; cramming (for brevity's sake) into one paragraph the diffuse eulogies which this gentleman has passed upon him:—

Mr. Whitman's poem, he says, "is, par excellence, the modern poem. . . . It forms incomparably the largest performance of our period in poetry. . . . He breaks with all precedent. . . . His work is practically certain to stand as archetypal for many future poetic efforts. The entire book may be called the pæan of the natural man. . . . This most remarkable poet is the founder of American poetry, rightly to be called, and the most sonorous poetic voice of the tangibilities of actual and prospective democracy. . . . If any thing can cast, in the eyes of posterity, an added halo of brightness round the unsullied personal qualities and the great doings of Lincoln, it will assuredly be the written monument reared to him by Whitman. I sincerely believe him to be of the order of great poets, and by no means of pretty good ones. . . . I believe that Whitman is one of the huge, as yet unrecognized, forces of our time-privileged to evoke, in a country hitherto still asking for its poet, a fresh, athletic, and American poetry, and predestined to be traced up to by generation after generation of believing and ardent disciples. . . . Poets, said Shelley, are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. Whitman seems in a peculiar degree marked out for legislation of the kind referred to. His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken—that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere, the uttermost avatars of democracy will confess him not more their announcer than their inspirer."

We think that, after these samples of Mr. Rossetti's opinion as to Mr. Walt Whitman, it will be confessed we have not begun by exaggerating his pretensions as acknowledged in certain quarters. Mr. Rossetti has given utterance to his views in the columns of highly influential critical journals; and his views plainly are, that Mr. Whitman is the Homer of the New World, and that his "Leaves of Grass" and "Drum Taps" will be regarded by "Americanos" to come with the same love and veneration with which European men of letters regard the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Another of the admirers of this "unacknowledged legislator" is Mr. Robert Buchanan, himself by profession both a poet and a critic. Mr. Buchanan's opinions on the subject are embodied in a paper published some little time back in the Broadway3 ; and though he does not like to talk of his author as an artist, and sees plainly enough that he is obviously deficient in certain qualities which have hitherto been deemed indispensable in a poet, he has formed an estimate not much less flattering than Mr. Rossetti's. We will apply to it the same method of compression which we have already employed in the case of the latter:—

"Walt Whitman," writes Mr. Buchanan, "is already exercising on the youth of America an influence similar to that exercised by Socrates over the youth of Greece, or by Raleigh over the young chivalry of England. In a word, he has become a sacer vates 4—his ministry is admitted by palpable live disciples. . . . We are in concert with those who believe his to be a genuine ministry, large in its spiritual manifestations, and abundant in capabilities for good. . . . He professes to sow the first seeds of an indigenous literature, by putting in the music the spiritual and fleshly yearnings of the cosmical man. . . . He sees in the American future the grandest realisation of centuries of idealism. . . . Thoughts crowd so thick upon him that he has no time to seek their artistic equivalent;* he utters his thoughts in any way, and his expressions gain accidental beauty from the glamour of his sympathy. . . . He is inspired. . . . In actual living force, in grip and muscle, he has no equal among contemporaries. . . . He is the voice of which America stood most in need. . . . He is the clear forerunner of the great American poet, long longed for, often prophesied."

This, in substance, is Mr. Buchanan's conclusion. But Mr. Rossetti, besides favouring us with his own opinion on the subject, is good enough to inform us of various other critical authorities who are pretty much of his way of thinking. Amongst these he names Mr. William Bell Scott5, a name perhaps not very familiar to most of our readers, but which Mr. Rossetti answers for as belonging to "a true poet and a strong thinker"; and Mr. Scott, he says, considers that the value of Mr. Whitman's poetry is real and great. The name of Mr. Swinburne, however, is known far and wide; and Mr. Rossetti informs us that "he also is an admirer of Whitman." Of English newspapers which have paid him a proper tribute, he mentions the Dispatch, the Leader, the London Review, and the Pall Mall Gazette. We have not seen the notices referred to, but we are quite willing to take Mr. Rossetti's word for it that the journals in question have shown themselves "discerning" in the matter. What meaning Mr. Rossetti attaches to "discernment," in estimating Mr. Whitman's literary merits and position-unless, indeed, he would allow that his own estimate is very undiscerning-we have already seen; and though we may be surprised to hear that a journal so little disposed to deal in extravagances on its own account, or to welcome them in others, as the Pall Mall Gazette, has been "discerning" towards Mr. Walt Whitman in Mr. Rossetti's sense, we suppose it is so. After naming various other literary authorities, who, he says, "express themselves with no measured enthusiasm," and referring to an anonymous critic, "highly entitled to form an opinion on any poetic question, whose admiration and enjoyment of Whitman's greatness grow keener and warmer every time he thinks of him," Mr. Rossetti crowns his array of flattering testimonies by appealing to Mr. Emerson. The opinion of the latter gentleman is that " 'Leaves of Grass' is the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."

So much for what are called critical opinions. Some people, however, opine that the proof of a poem is in the selling; but here, again, Mr. Walt Whitman's admirers may fairly claim to be able to produce satisfactory evidence. The first edition of "Leaves of Grass," consisting of about a thousand copies, was sold off in less than a year. A second edition excited, we are told, "a considerable storm," and a further edition, now of between four and five thousand copies, followed. Other editions have since been issued.

It is perfectly clear, therefore, that, whether we appeal to the judgment of individuals supposed to be possessed of due literary qualifications, or to the great American public, we must accept it as a fact that we are pressingly invited to recognize Mr. Walt Whitman as "the founder of American poetry," rightly to be called, "as one of the order of great poets," as "one of the huge forces of our time," as an "unacknowledged legislator," as a voice "potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken," as "the announcer and inspirer of the uttermost avatars of democracy"—in a word, as the founder of the Poetry of the Future.

Such being the case, let us boldly look this bold man in the face, and see what he is like; for if he really be not only of the order of great poets, but the founder of an absolutely new school of poetry, evidently he is a pearl beyond all price. His fundamental notions of poetry are, we must confess, for the most part correct. "The direct trial of him," he says in his preface to "Leaves of Grass," "who would be the greatest poet, is to-day. As if it were necessary to trot back generation after generation to the Eastern records!" We have ourselves so strongly insisted on this point, that we need scarcely say we cordially agree with the sentiments thus expressed. The trial of the great poet is undoubtedly to-day. We, however, have asserted in no doubtful terms that the trial is too great, and that to-day has produced and can produce no great poet. Mr. Whitman says it can and has, and he is the great poet it has produced. The present age has broken with the past, and he has done the same; and he is the great poet of to-day, and the founder of the great Poetry of the Future.

"See, projected through time,
For me an audience interminable.
"Whoever you are! to you endless announcements."
"Daughter of the lands, did you wait for your poets?
Did you wait for one with a flowing mouth and indicative hand?"
"Toward the male of the States, and toward the female of the States,
Give words—words to the lands."
"Still the present I raise aloft—still the future of the States I harbinge,
glad and sublime."

Mr. Whitman then sings of to-day, and does so of set purpose—a purpose with which we should heartily sympathise if we did not feel the profound conviction that doing so is only lost time. The next question is, What does he see in to-day to sing? He sees four things: namely, America, Democracy, Personality, and Materialism. These for him are the subjects of song both in the present and the future; and he would be a bold man who would deny that, if to-day be the trial of a great poet, these four things may, if not must, properly constitute the great poet's themes. Let us see what he has to say concerning each of them in succession.

The references to America—its greatness, bigness, wonderfulness—in Mr. Whitman's "Poems" are incessant; and certainly the glory of one's country has ever been deemed a worthy subject for the muse:

"Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions,
For you a programme of chants.
Chants of the prairies;
Chants of the long-running Mississippi, and down to the Mexican
sea;"
"Chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota;
Chants going forth from the centre, from Kansas, and thence equi-
distant,
Shooting in pulses of fire, ceaseless, to vivify all."
"Take my leaves, America! take them South, and take them North!
Surround them, East and West! for they would surround you."
"I will report all heroism from an American point of view."
"America always!
Always our own feuillage.
Always Florida's green peninsula! Always the priceless delta of
Louisiana! Always the cotton-fields of Alabama and Texas!
Always," &c.

And so on, through pages of what Mr. Rossetti calls "the first order of poetry." We need scarcely load our pages with quotations from well-known poets on the subject of their country; we think we may rest content to say that, if the foregoing be poetry at all, all that Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan have written about Rome—all that Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, and Alfieri have written about Italy—all that Scott and Burns have written about Scotland6—had better be flung into the dusthole and forgotten. In his preface to "Leaves of Grass," Mr. Whitman informs us that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;" and farther on, in the same production, he declares that "of all nations, the United States, with veins full of poetical stuff, will doubtless have the greatest poets"—he himself being, as we have seen, the forerunner and first of them. All this, as anybody can perceive who possesses an atom of penetration, arises simply from Mr. Whitman's admiration of bigness—which he mistakes for greatness—attempting to carry it on his shoulders, and staggering under it most woefully. In fact, all the quotations we have as yet made from his "poems"—and we have so far quoted only the most rational of them—will, we fancy, strike our readers as resembling more what they will imagine must have been the improvising of savages in their literary moods before (if we may be pardoned the bull) letters were known at all.

"O Camerado close!
O you and me at last—and us two only!
O a word to clear one's path ahead endlessly!
O something ecstatic and indemonstrable! O music wild!"
"All these States compact—every square mile of these States without
excepting a particle.
O land! O all so dear to me—what you are (wherever it is). I become a
part of that, whatever it is!
Southward, then, I go screaming, with wings slowly flapping, with the
myriad of gulls wintering along the coasts of Florida."

We confess we think the picture not an inaccurate one. Mr. Walt Whitman screaming, and with wings slowly flapping, realises our notion of him in his poetical condition—this Gull of Mississippi, as opposed to the Swan of Avon7—as perfectly as language could well present it to us.

In connection with this wild inarticulate worship of America must be noticed Mr. Whitman's attempts at what may be called Universality. It is one of the tricks of our time, and, as a matter of course, he is infected with it. Unable, just like many of his somewhat less boisterous contemporaries, to understand the vast problem presented by the past, present, and future of the world, like them again he fancies he has solved it by a clumsy application of the Bene quodcunque est 8 doctrine. Here is his way of expressing himself on the subject:

"I respect Assyria, China, Teutonia, and the Hebrews;
I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demigod;
I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true without excep-
tion.
I assert that all past days were what they should have been.
And that they could nohow have been better than they were;
And that to-day is what it should be, and that America is,
And that to-day and America could nohow be better than they are."

It is just possible that some people will find this assuring; but we should vastly like to see the person who thinks it poetry, let alone "the highest order of poetry." In one of his "poems," called "Salut Au Monde," he gets hold of the atlas, enumerates nearly every spot on the face of the globe, and says that he sees, hears, and belongs to it. It is done in this fashion:

"I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of
them;
I am a real Parisian;
I am a habitant of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople;
I am of Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne;
I am of London, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Limerick;
I am of Madrid, Cadiz, Barcelona, Oporto, Lyons, Brussels, Berne,
Frankfort, Stuttgart, Turin, and Florence."

And so on, varied by "I see," "I hear," "I behold." But he goes still farther than this. His "Universality" embraces not only all places, but all persons, and everything they can do, good, bad, or indifferent:

"Good or bad, I never question—I love all—I do not condemn any-
thing;
To me detected persons are not, in any respect, worse than undetected
persons—and are not in any respect worse than I am myself.
To me any judge, or any juror, is equally criminal with criminals—and
any reputable person is also—and the President is also."
"Omnes! Omnes! let others ignore what they may;
I make the poem of evil also—I commemorate that part also;
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is—
And I say there is in fact no evil;
Or, if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the land, or to
me, as anything else."

There is much more to the same effect which we cannot possibly quote; but when we add that he avers ugliness to be as welcome to him as beauty, and declares, on one occasion, "I will sleep with the cleaners of ——" (there is no blank in the original), a fair notion of Mr. Whitman's poetical universality—springing from and invariably returning to the central notion that everything either is America or has been made for it—has been obtained by the reader.

America thus being the very stock-in-trade of his compositions, democracy, as a matter of course, comes in for considerable glorification, after the author's tumultuous fashion:

"Democracy!
Near at hand to you a throat is now inflating itself and joyfully
singing!
Ma femme!
For the brood beyond us and of us!
For those who belong here, and those to come.
I exultant, to be ready for them, will now shake out carols stronger
and haughtier than have ever yet been heard upon earth."

A story is told of a countryman of Mr. Walt Whitman, who, after reading Mr. Tennyson's "In Memoriam," passed on it the not inapt criticism, "What on airth is the use of screaming against the calm facts of creation?" Mr. Whitman evidently thinks that at any rate, there is a good deal of use in screaming for them. He wishes to see democracy screaming too:

"Thunder on! stride on. Democracy! strike with vengeful stroke!
And do you rise higher than ever yet, O days, O cities!
Crash heavier, heavier yet, O storms! you have done me good."

Borne almost beyond himself, he in one place exclaims:

"Bully for you! you proud, friendly, free Manhattanese!"

But, of course, all Americans are equally proud, friendly, and free, and every one of them is just as proud, friendly, free, and everything else, as every other:

"The wife—and she is not one jot less than the husband
The daughter—and she is just as good as the son;
The mother—and she is every bit as much as the father."

One more quotation, and we will leave this second theme of Mr. Walt Whitman's:

"I sing the Equalities.
I sing the Finale of things.
I announce natural persons to arise.
I announce uncompromising liberty and equality.
I announce splendors and majesties to make all the previous politics
of the earth insignificant."

His glorification of the individual, or Personality, as he himself loves to call it, is nearly as frequent, and to the full as conspicuous. He never alludes to subordination or co-ordination; he knows them not. The doctrine of Pope, that:

"Order is Heaven's first law; and, that confessed,
Some are and must be better than the rest;"9

or that of Shakespeare:

"Take but degree away, untune that string,
And mark what discord follows"10

are unknown to him; or, if they are known, he utterly contemns them. As he says, he sings the Equalities, with a large E.

"I will effuse egotism, and show it underlying all-and I will be the
bard of personality."

Sometimes he glorifies it in himself, sometimes in another, sometimes in himself and another together:

"Rest not, till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
Go, mon cher! if need be, and inure yourself to self-esteem—ele-
vatedness."
"I celebrate myself.
And what I assume you shall assume.
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you."
"O my comrade!
O you and me at last, and us two only!
O to level occupations and the sexes! O to bring all to common
ground! O adhesiveness!
O the pensive aching to be together—you know not why, and I know
not why."
"Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale, nor discarded;
I see through the broadcloth and gingham, whether or no."
"Me imperturbe,
Me standing at ease in Nature.
Master of all—aplomb in the midst of irrational things.
Me private or public (I am eternally equal with the best—I am not
subordinate)."

And, as a matter of course, You doing the same thing, and occupying the same proud position!

We now arrive at the fourth of the main themes whose glories Mr. Walt Whitman and his admirers consider that he is specially commissioned to sing, or (as he himself expresses it) to "yawp over the roofs of the world." We mean—Materialism. We are informed, by one of the many curiositymongers who have busied themselves with Mr. Whitman's private habits—with which we have nothing to do—that he is exceedingly communicative on all subjects save one. If interrogated as to his theological opinions, he turns dead silent. In his compositions, however, he is garrulous enough upon the subject, and, some will think, rather contradictory. We are not of that opinion. It is true he speaks continually of the Soul; but then there is, we should imagine, no word in the language capable of a vague signification, and of being commenced with a capital, that does not find its way into his tumultuous tossing together of the component parts of the dictionary. How far he understands the Soul in any recognized acceptation of the word, our readers will judge for themselves, when they have seen a few of his utterances on the subject:

"Was somebody asking to see the Soul?
See! your own shape and countenance-persons, substances, beasts,
the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands!
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Behold! the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern—
and includes and is the soul.
Whoever you are! how superb and how divine is your body, or any
part of it!"

With him this is a rooted conviction. He says that he is "divine inside and out," and with a license of language—which is a mere nothing to what he often indulges in, but which in this instance makes us lose our sense of profanity in an irresistible peal of laughter—he assures us that "the scent of these armpits is an aroma finer than prayer!" If he worships any particular thing, he says it shall be "some of the spread of my own body." One long passage commences thus:

"O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in either men or women,
nor the likes of the parts of you;
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul
(and that they are the Soul).
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck slue,
Upper arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
The thin red jellies within you, or with me—
O, I say now, these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but
of the Soul!
O, I say these are the Soul!"

It must not be supposed we have quoted the entire passage. We dare not, even if we had space. Suffice it to say that the enumeration covers two long pages, and that, physiologically speaking, it is exhaustive. Nor is his admiration confined to the human body:

"Beef in the butcher's stall, the area of pens of live pork, the killing-
hammer, the hog-hook, the scalder's tub, gutting, the gutter's
cleaver, the packer's maul, and the plenteous winter-work of pork-
packing.
In them poems for you and me.
I say that none lead to greater than those lead to."

As a concluding and crowning embodiment and expression of Mr. Whitman's Materialism, let us take the following:—

"I will make the poems of materials, for I think these are to be the
most spiritual poems.
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I shall then supply myself with the poems of the Soul, and of
immortality.
Strange and hard that paradox true I give;
Objects gross and the unseen Soul are one."

We trust that no one has supposed that, in giving extracts from Mr. Walt Whitman's "poems," as far as they relate to America, Democracy, Personality, and Materialism, we have been intending to turn his opinions into ridicule, or even to quarrel with him in the least for holding them. We need scarcely say that his opinions are not ours, but neither are those of Mr. Swinburne or Doctor Newman; yet we believe it will be allowed that we attempted to cast no slur on the opinions of either of those writers. That is not the function of the purely literary critic. Mr. Whitman is as heartily welcome to his views of the Universe, as far as we are concerned, as anybody else is: and if we have brought them into prominence, it is only because we thought that our account of him would thus be made both more entertaining and more complete; whilst at the same time we should be compelled to make quotations from him with obvious impartiality, and the reader would obtain just as fair an idea of his literary merits as if we had proceeded in a less methodical fashion.

Mr. Whitman's opinions, therefore, be his own, without any controversy from us! But we do not think we should be doing our duty, either to ourselves or the true interests of literature, if we did not inform our readers, who may possibly have been just a little offended by certain of the passages we have cited, that his "poems" swarm with pages upon pages of whose horrible and ineffable nastiness they cannot possibly form any conception. Mr. Rossetti—who is the editor of the English edition, and who has omitted from it the parts to which we chiefly refer—considers that most of them would be better away, and doubts whether even one of them, deserves to be retained in the exact phraseology it at present exhibits. We wish Mr. Rossetti had contented himself with this avowal, quite insufficient under the circumstances as we think it. Unfortunately, he has blanced this mild reprobation by the averment, in another place, that he has excluded the "poems" to which we refer, out of deference to "the propriety of the peculiarly nervous age," and that he "sacrifices them grudgingly." We think we have shown ourselves not particularly squeamish; but if we were to print the very least offensive of the passages alluded to—though they circulate freely in America—the days of this magazine would very justly be numbered.

Anybody who considers the matter will see that this has a direct bearing on the purely literary side of the question. Mr. Whitman over and over again protests that he has no shame. As Mr. Buchanan—mildly even—puts it for him, "He sees that the beasts are not ashamed; why, therefore, should he be ashamed?" here we have it. He recognizes no shame, no law, no forms, no good, no evil, no beauty, no ugliness, no distinctions, differences, or limitations. This, of course, will account for the disconnectedness of his utterances, and the utter disorder of his language. We suspect that many of our readers will here be inclined to say, what doubtless they have long been thinking—"What is the use of proving the self-evident, that all which Mr. Walt Whitman writes is stark staring nonsense, both in substance and in form equally?" We can fully sympathise with the impatience which prompts such an interruption; but whilst doing so, we would ask them to turn once again to the encomiums passed by others upon these productions, which we cited at starting in order to protect ourselves against the notion that we were wasting our powder. With regard to the form of Mr. Whitman's compositions, we would ask them to attend for a moment to what Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Buchanan, let alone others equally pretending to authority, have to say on this particular point.

"Whitman's poems," writes the former, "present no trace of rhyme save in a couple or so of chance instances. Parts of them, indeed, may be regarded as a warp of prose amid the weft of poetry, such as Shakespeare furnishes the precedent for in drama. Still there is a very powerful and majestic rhythmical sense throughout."

Mr. Buchanan, as we have seen, writes with much more moderation than Mr. Rossetti; but even he asserts that Mr. Whitman's language is "strong, vehement, always forcible, and sometimes even rhythmical, like the prose of Plato;" that his lines are "lines of unrhymed verse, very Biblical in form, and showing indeed on every page the traces of Biblical influence;" and that he has "risen on the States to point the way to new literatures."

Such, then, being the opinions which, it must be presumed, some people in these strange days entertain, since they express them, of Mr. Walt Whitman's literary claims, we think it right, if only to liberate our souls—and we should imagine those of most of our readers—emphatically, but in all serious calmness, to declare, on the contrary, our opinion, that his style has nothing in common with either the Bible, Shakspeare, Plato, or any other hitherto honoured name in literature; but that his grotesque, ungrammatical, and repulsive rhapsodies can be fitly compared only to the painful ravings of maniacs' dens.

Such, however, is the Poetry of the Future? Perhaps it is. If so, we must console ourselves by reflecting that, unsatisfactory as may be the Poetry of the Period, if we had been born a generation later still, our poetical plight would have been yet worse than it is. Yet we shrewdly suspect that one is the child of the other. Mr. Whitman himself distinctly says that it is. As we have already stated, he informs us that he was urged to lay the foundations of the Poetry of the Future, because, in his opinion, that of the Period is "the poetry of an elegantly weak sentimentalism, at bottom nothing but maudlin puerilities, or more or less musical verbiage"—in a word, because, as we ourselves have been urging in those papers, it is deficient in all masculine and lofty qualities. Mr. Whitman revolts against it; and his is a revolt with a vengeance. Mr. Tennyson and his admirers have been fancying that they had swept and garnished the Halls of Literature, got rid of all such objectionable robustness as figures in the verse of Shakespeare, a Byron, or a Burns, and made the place sweet, trim, and pretty for all time. But, alas! seven devils worse than the first have entered, and its state promises to be more terrible than ever. Nor are we sure that there is not a good deal of truth in what Mr. Whitman says of the same school of poetry being based on a now extinct feudalism, and on standards of gentility belonging to a somewhat later period. At any rate, he will have none of these. As Mr. Rossetti reminds us, it has been said of Mr. Whitman by one of his warmest admirers, "He is Democracy." We really think he is—in his compositions, at least; being, like it, ignorant, sanguine, noisy, coarse, and chaotic! Democracy may be, and we fear is, our proximate future; and it will, as a matter of course, bring its poetry along with it. The prospect is not an agreeable one; but, as a protection both against it and our present condition, we can always fall back upon the grand old masters of the Past, from whom it is quite certain that singers, whether insipid or insane, will never succeed in weaning the healthy opinion of mankind.

———

*As if poetical thoughts did not always bring their artistic equivalent with them!-the thought and the form, or expression, being one. Mr. Buchanan is evidently just as much at sea as are most of his contemporaries as to the genesis of poetry, and just as little aware that poetry, like the poet, is born, not made. Does he suppose Shakspeare went "seeking" for "artistic equivalents"?


Notes:

1. In an 1849 essay, "The Art-Work of the Future," Wagner described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork" in which music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft came together. [back]

2. Mentioned several times in the Bible, the Balm of Gilead refers to a healing compound made from a plant that grew in the area of Gilead. Apollo is the Greek and Roman god of music and poetry (as well as medicine and healing). In Greek mythology, Hippocrene is a fountain on Mt. Helicon whose water when drunk led to poetic inspiration. Parnassus and Helicon are mountains in Greece mentioned in mythology. [back]

3. See the note about Buchanan above. [back]

4. Sacred poet. [back]

5. William Bell Scott, British poet and artist, introduced Rossetti to the 1855 Leaves of Grass. [back]

6. Well-known poets recognized for the strong national character of their work. [back]

7. A reference to Shakespeare. [back]

8. "Bene quodcumque est" is "[It is] well, whatever it is." That is, "Say nice things about everything." [back]

9. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle IV, lines 49-50. [back]

10. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, lines 109-110. [back]


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