Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Leaves of Grass

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: c. 1882–1883

Publication information: The Detroit Post and Tribune c. 1882–1883: [unknown].

Source: The electronic text for this file was prepared by Whitman Archive staff and affiliates, who transcribed the text from a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, digital scan or other electronic reproduction, microfilm copy). The electronic text was originally prepared in Microsoft Word for submission to the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The transcription was then exported from Microsoft Word as plain text and encoded for publication on the Whitman Archive.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00213

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


LEAVES OF GRASS.

———

Walt Whitman's Poems of Nature.

"A child said, What is the grass, fetching it to me
with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know
what it is any more than he
—I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly
dropt
Bearing the owner's name some way in the corn-
ers that we may remark and say Whose?
—And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut
hair of graves."

There never was a happier title than the one which is the caption of this paper, nor one that has attracted more attention in the American world of literature. It is the title of a book that has been challenged by the conservers of public morals as unfit to be read, and legislation has been appealed to unsuccessfully to prohibit its publication. As usual in such cases, the reaction increased the demand for the book to such an extent that several new editions have been called for and it is found on the shelves of book stores side by side with Longfellow and Tennyson, in the home and in public libraries, where the critical reader or student of verse can have access to it, and the human nature that can suffer from any undue license of the poetic imagination which Walt Whitman has transcribed on these pages must be very weak indeed and easily harmed.

There is not a line of prefatory writing in Leaves of Grass, not a foot note to clear up the passages in nature which God has left obscure; the writer does not explain that the poems were a result of a few idle hours or the reveries of an invalid convalescing from an attack of mania a potu or typhoid fever; he pours out his thoughts about everything in a flood of incoherent and incohesive language, and borne on its resistless flow we find all that floods bear with them, debris, flotsam jewels—tarns of still deep beauty jewels—precious, perishing lovely things that we haste to snatch from the rubbish and make our own. His interest in humanity and his claim that all the world is kin, he expresses with natural humility:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all
ages and lands, they are not original with me;
If they are not yours as much as mine they are
nothing or next to nothing;
If they are the riddle and the untying of the
riddle, they are nothing or next to nothing;
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is
and the water is;
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

Can any pen-picture of nature be finer than his apostrophe to the earth on page 76?1

"Smile O voluptuous cool-breathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunsets—earth of the mount-
ains misty top!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just
tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and
clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth—rich apple-blos-
somed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love—therefore I to
you give love.
O unspeakable passionate love!

There seems to be no earthly property however small, insignificant and remote, that this grand poet of nature does not invest with the beauty and glory of poesy as he does when he calls the common field grass "the beautiful uncut hair of graves," a line that in itself should immortalize him; he walks among the herds of cattle and gives us this lesson:

"I think I could turn and live with animals, they
are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long;
They do not sweat and whine about their condi-
tion;
They do not lie awake in the dark and whine
about their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty
to God.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with
the mania of owning things.
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that
lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the
whole earth."

The self-elected critic who said that Shakespeare was not a poet—his verses didn't rhyme—would make a similar objection to Walt Whitman. To the dull, untuned ear of the prosaic soul they would convey neither rhythm nor rhyme, but Poetry herself might sit entranced at his feet as the mellow numbers flow in tranquil rhythmic measure from his lips. Here are snatches selected at random, any one of which would be sufficient to redeem a volume from wastage:

The old face of the mother of many children,
Whist! I am fully content.
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 it with 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.
MOTHER AND BABE.
I see the sleeping babe nestling the breast of
its mother,
The sleeping mother and babe—hush'd, I study
them long.
A CHILD'S AMAZE.
Silent and amazed, even when a little boy,
I remember I heard the preacher every Sunday
put God in his statements
As contending against some being or influence.
BEAUTIFUL WOMEN.
Women sit, or move to and fro—some old,
some young.
The young are beautiful; but the old are more
beautiful than the young.

The poet's allusions to death are among the finest passages in his works, and his songs of parting are something more than tricks of pathos; they are the outcome of sorrow's cleansing fires in his own heart. The Camps of Green is a poem engendered by war scenes.

"To the camps of the tents of green,
Which the days of peace kept filling,
And the days of war kept filling.
With a mystic army; is it too ordered
Forward? is it too only halting awhile,
Till night and sleep pass over?
JOY, SHIPMATE, JOY!
Joy, shipmate, joy.
Pleased to my soul at death I cry
Our life is closed, our life begins
The long, long anchorage we leave;
The ship is clear at last she leaps,
She swiftly courses from the shore
Joy, shipmate, joy.

The exquisitely mournful tribute to the memory of President Lincoln is familiar [to] the reader but it will bear producing here.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN!
O Captain, my Captain! our fearful trip is done
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we
sought is won
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all
exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel
grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain, my Captain, rise up and hear the bells.
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the
bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you
the shore a crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager
faces turning.
Here Captain, dear father
This arm beneath your head
Is it some dream that on the deck
You've fallen cold and dead?
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale
and still
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse
nor will
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage
closed and done
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with
object won.
Exult O shores, and ring O bells,
But I with mournful tread
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

To analyze a flower is to kill it; the same might be said of the majority of even fine poems, but there are some that dissected fall into pictures and the above is one of these; the two lines

"Here, captain, dear father,
This arm beneath your head"

have the heroism of a soldier and the tenderness of a woman in them, while they instantly convey to the mind a picture, alas! too common to excite alarm or wonder, but inexpressively touching. It has been Walt Whitman's destiny to commemorate in verse the deaths of two captains of the ship of state, but to him the first was a personal loss. Of the last, midnight, September 19, he writes of

The sobbing of the bells—
—Those heart-beats of a nation in the night

Emerson appears to have accepted the poet, if we may believe the assertion of an unknown writer that he approved of Leaves of Grass. It would need one of Emersonian breadth to appreciate the vigor, the intensity, the strong balancing of all mental and physical forces in this redundancy of verse. The book is full of such salt-sea breezes of expression as these:

O the joy of a manly selfhood!
To be servile to none to defer to none, not to any
tyrant known or unknown;
To walk with erect carriage, a step springy
and elastic;
To look with calm gaze or with a flashing eye;
To speak with a full and sonorous voice out of a
broad chest;
To confront with your personality all the other
personalities of the earth."

That verse or sentence alone could be profitably engraved upon the pages of every school reader in the land, yet doubtless there are hypercritical readers who would cavil at the second line and find in it a furtive attack on all the known systems of theology.

And is there nothing in the book to condemn? Yes, there are whole pages of "magnificent uncleanness"2 which have no excuse for being. They are gross with the grossness of the 18th century, when people do not call a spade a spade, and are shocked by ungloved hands. In reference to the position which a part of the public has taken towards the book we are reminded of the answer Henry Ward Beecher gave to a gentleman who at an exhibition of statuary asked, "Are those statues indecent, Mr. Beecher?"

"No, sir," was the severe answer, "but your question is."

The poet is an old man now, the fires of youth have burned themselves to ashes, yet when he was called upon to revise the present edition of his work he would not alter or omit a line of his earlier writings. The calm pulse of age approved the turbulent blood of his youth when he wrote of himself:

Walt Whitman, a Kosmos, of Manhattan the
son
Turbulent, fleshly, sensual, eating, drinking and
breeding
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and
women, or apart from them,
No more modest or immodest.
A morning glory at my window satisfies me more
than the metaphysics of books."

And this man in his old age is beloved of women and children, and the childlike tenderness and simplicity of his nature are revealed in the following incident:

"In the middle of the room in its white coffin, lay the dead child, the nephew of the poet. Near it in a great chair, sat Walt Whitman surrounded by little ones, and holding a beautiful little girl on his lap. She looked wonderingly at the spectacle of death and then inquiringly into the old man's face. "You don't know what it is, do you, my dear," said he, and added, "we don't either."


Notes:

1. This is actually on p. 46. [back]

2. Richard Bentley, Cometh Up as a Flower: An Autobiography (New Burlington Street, 1867), 40. [back]


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.