Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: The Poems of Walt Whitman

Creator: William Howitt [listed as W. H.]

Date: September 1870

Publication information: The Spiritual Magazine 5 (September 1870): 34-40.

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.01071

Contributors to digital file: Kyle Barton, Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Ken Price, and Janel Cayer


The Poems of Walt Whitman

The poems of Walt Whitman have been much praised and wondered at in this country since they were published here by Trübner and by Hotten, but though they are of the most decidedly and avowedly spiritualistic character, nobody seems to see that fact. They are in a singular, unrhymed style; sometimes in irregular hexameters, sometimes in the Ossianic metre, sometimes in that of Hiawatha, sometimes absolutely prosaic, but always original and audaciously American. We do not rate him, like one of his editors here, as one of the greatest poets that ever lived, but he is unquestionably a great and original poet. He sets all conventionality at defiance. He is as free in his style, his thoughts, his sentiments, as the most Yankee and pretentious of his countrymen. His brag about the Great Republic and everything belonging to the States is of the most preposterous and laughable kind. His exuberance of imagery, his cataloguings of everything that comes in his head of every possible thing in this globe, or in the universe, is frequently oppressive; but amidst all this extravagance, verbiage, and tautology there rises a continual stream of the brightest new thoughts, the tenderest and most dewy sentiments and kindly human feelings, like the cool and rapid rushing of a mountain-born river beneath the green boughs of the forest or through the flowery grass of the summer meadow. The character of the philosophy of these poems, however, is what we desire now particularly to call attention to. It is of that advanced and transcendental kind which belongs only to writers who have been baptized into the true Jordan of Spiritualism, and have ascended from its banks into the borders of the Summer Land, walking there with ever-increasing wonder, and bringing thence the flowers and fruits of a new and eternal promise; grapes of the true vine; and golden gatherings from the trees of both knowledge and life. All such visitors of the world beyond come back with a newness of aspect, of manner, of speech, and tone of mind, that are unmistakable. We know them at once by the eye beaming with the light that shines on the mountains of the imperishable; by the joy that flushes the features of those who have walked and talked with the angels; by the broad spirit of sympathy which brings to the earth the illimitable fervour of the heavens, and sees in the smallest thing, in the humblest mortal, the signs of the wonder-working of the Infinite Spirit of creative and supporting Love. This is what we see at once in the poems of Walt Whitman: and he at once responds to our challenge, "Poet, thou art one of us!" with these words:

As for me (torn, stormy, even as I, amid these vehement days;)
I have the idea of all and am all, and believe in all:
I believe Materialism is true, and Spiritualism is true—I reject no part.

Nor do we: Materialism is as true as Spiritualism when it is united to Spiritualism; it is false, or rather defective only, when it is a mere part.

In a succeeding poem, we have him clearly in trance, and the impressing spirit speaking through him:—

Take my hand, Walt Whitman!
Such gliding wonders! such sights and sounds!
Such joined unended links, each hooked to the next!
Each answering all—each sharing the earth with all.
What widens within you, Walt Whitman?
What waves and soils exuding?
What climes? what persons and lands are here?
Who are the infants? some playing, some slumbering?
Who are the girls? who are the married women?
Who are the three old men going slowly with their arms about each other's necks?
What rivers are these? what forests and fruits are these?
What are the mountains called that rise so high in the mists?
What myriads of dwellings are they, filled with dwellers?
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens;
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in the west:
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator;
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends;
Within me is the longest day—the sun wheels in slanting rings—it does not set for months
Stretched in due time within me the midnight sun just rises above the horizon and sinks again;
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, plants, volcanoes, groups,
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian Islands.
What do you hear, Walt Whitman?

But Walt Whitman sees and hears everything in the earth. The poem which he calls "Salut au Monde" is a long one. We have enough of it here to understand it, which readers at large both in America and here have not done, but have showered on the mediumistic poet all the epithets of "fool, madman, idiot," which the critic vocabulary can so plentifully furnish, with occasional praise equally extravagant. We have the key, and all is to us lucid as the sky and saner far than his deriders. How perfectly spiritual is this passage,—amongst the sights "of the deaths of the bodies of Gods"—Christ and others:—

I see Hermes, unsuspected, dying, well-beloved, saying to the people, Do not weep for me,
This is not my true country, I have lived banished from my true country— I now go back there;
I return to the celestial sphere, where every one goes in his turn.

In the "Song of the Broad Axe" we have the same unmistakable spirit vision:—

I see the European headsman:
He stands masked, clothed in red, with huge legs and strong, naked arms,
And leans on a ponderous axe.
Whom have you slaughtered lately, European headsman?
Whose is that blood upon you, so wet and sticky?
I see the sunset of the Martyrs;
I see from the scaffolds of the descending ghosts,
Ghosts of dead lords, uncrowned ladies, impeached ministers, rejected kings,
Rivals, traitors, poisoners, disgraced chieftains, and the rest.
I see those who in any land have died for the good cause;
The seed is spare, nevertheless the crop shall never run out.
(Mind you, O foreign kings, O priests, the crop shall never run out).

But let us take a few passages as they occur seriatim in the volume. Here is one which again proclaims his purpose:—

I stand in my place, with my own day, here.
Here lands female and male;
Here the heirship and heiress-ship of the world—here the flame of materials;
Here Spirituality, the translatress, the open-avowed,
The ever-tending, the finale of visible forms;
The satisfier, after due, long waiting, now advancing,
Yes, here comes my mistress, the Soul.
The Soul!
For ever and for ever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer than water ebbs and flows.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems;
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and immortality.

To be truly spiritual is to be devout, and he adds—

I say no man has ever been half devout enough,
None has ever yet adored or worshipped half enough;
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain the future is.

But the spiritual poet must shew this:—

The unseen and the seen;
Mysterious ocean where the streams empty;
Prophetic spirit of materials shifting and flickering around me;
Living beings, identities, now doubtless near us, in the air, that we know not of;
Contact daily and hourly that will not release me.

And he proceeds:—

I will make the true poem of riches,—
To earn for the body and the mind whatever adheres, and goes forward and is not dropped at death.

And again, of death and the soul:—

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.
All hold spiritual joys, and afterwards loosen them:
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Of your real body, and any man's or woman's real body,
Item for item, it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners, and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.

In the most outward city pageant the open-eyed poet sees what the mere world-eyed mass never sees. In the reception of the Japanese Embassy at New York, he says:—

I do not know whether others behold what I behold,
In the procession, along with the Princes of Asia, the errand-bearers,
Bringing up the rear, hovering above, or in the ranks marching;
But I will sing you a song of what I behold
* * * * * *
Not the errand-bearing princes, nor the tanned Japanese only;
Lithe and silent the Hindoo appears—the Past, the Dead.
The murky night-morning of wonder and fable, inscrutable,
The enveloped mysteries, the old and unknown hive-bees,
The North—the sweltering South—Assyria—the Hebrews—the Ancient of ancients,
Vast, desolated cities—the gliding Present—all of these, and more are in the pageant procession.

Yes! to the poet of the opened eye—the spiritual poet and seer—all worlds and ages are open. The walls of Time, the barriers of the distant and of ages are thrown down; the manacles of the flesh are rent asunder; the mortal film has fallen from the eye of the temporal probationer, and, spirit-like, he walks cognizant amid the free things of the imperishable spheres. All times, people, regions, are present with him. He sees everything as it is, and knows better than ever that everything is miracle.

Let us see what he says on this point:—

MIRACLES.
1.
What shall I give? And what are my miracles?
2.
Realism is mine—my miracles—Take freely,
Take without end—I offer them to you wherever your feet can carry you, or your eyes reach.
3.
Why! who makes much of miracles?
As for me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,*
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet, along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk with any one I love,
Or sit at the table with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy round the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of stars shining, so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best—mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans—or to the soirée—or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in the hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring—yet each distinct and in its place.
4.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same;
Every cubit foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these are to me unspeakably perfect miracles.
To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

But enough: our object is not to bring forward all the spiritual matter of the volume—for it is all spiritual; we want only to shew our readers that another spiritual poet is amongst us, whom the world accepts because it thinks him merely eccentric and original. The poetry of Harris is very fine, but then he said out plumply that the spirits of departed poets gave it him, and the wise ones turned up their eyes and went on. Walt Whitman does not say that any spirit gave him these poems, but he shews it in every line to the initiated. It is alive with that fresh, new, piquant, magical life that no mere poet of the world, no Browning, or Swinburne, or Locker has. The moment that you dip into this poetry, you feel the stir and heavings of the limitless ocean of the God-world of deathless powers beneath; you are immersed in the eternal springs and streams of primal being. The harmonies and airs of the Summer Land are around you. You see and hear and feel and know with a new rush of faculties and consciousnesses which make even the most surprising of material discoveries flat and poor, for they penetrate only into the outer surface of outer things. Here you touch the fire-springs of creative life; you bathe in the life fountains; you are one with the countless hosts of the wise, the beautiful, the loving, who have emerged from the larva cells of earth into the perfected zones of eternal peace and poetry. What says your poet of his state there?

I lie abstracted, and hear beautiful tales of things and the reasons of things:
They are so beautiful I nudge myself to listen.

His companions are yours: hear again!

Wild flowers and vines and weeds come up through the stones, and hardly cover them.—Beyond these I pass,
Far, far in the forest, before I think where I go,
Solitary, smelling the earthly smell, stopping now and then in the silence;
Alone I had thought—yet soon a silent troop gathers around me;
Some walk by my side, and some behind, and some embrace my arms and neck.
They, the spirits of friends dead or alive—thicker they come, a great crowd, and I in the middle,
Collecting, dispensing, singing in spring, there I wander with them.
* * * * * * *
And twigs of maple, and a bunch of wild orange, and chestnut,
And stems of currants, and plum-blows, and the aromatic cedar.
These, I, compassed around by a thick cloud of spirits,
Wandering, point to, or touch as I pass, or throw them loosely from me,
Indicating to each one what he shall have—giving something to each.

With your poet you say finally—

Now, while the great thoughts of space and eternity fill me, I will measure myself by them;
And now, touched with the lives of other globes, arrived as far along as those of the earth,
Or waiting to arrive, or passed on farther than those of the earth,
Thenceforth I no more ignore them than I ignore my own life,
Or the lives of the earth arrived as far as mine, or waiting to arrive.
O I see now that life can not exhibit all to me—as the day can not,
I see that I am to wait for what will be exhibited by death.

Thus daily, whilst the earth porers of science pause and wonder, and then shrink from their own wondering, the broad day of the soul breaks more broadly; rushes on more peremptorily; spirits, issuing from their shy seclusion, speak out aloud, sing in troops and choruses to ears no longer astonished; come visibly and palpably; scatter over us flowers of heaven and of earth, make fire innocuous and touch disease into health; and poets, springing up here and there in the crowds, utter words of faith and vision ever and ever more startling and strong. It is high time that he that would have the credit of being wise should revise his wisdom, and let the mingling earth and heavens speak out to him of the new birth of things—new facts, new perceptions, new sights more wonderful than dreams, new sense of things, of justice, love, truth, pacification, and law—God in his world living through all in one perpetual and illimitable miracle.

I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!
That the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is for it, and the cohering is for it!
And all preparation is for it! and identity is for it! and life and death are altogether for it!

And this invincible conviction is the backbone and substance of the new dispensation in which the poet tells us in his preface,"From the eyesight proceeds another eyesight, and from the hearing proceeds another hearing, and from the voice proceeds another voice, eternally curious of the harmony of things with man."

True, Walt Whitman! True! Sing on, and let the whole world know it.

W. H.

———

* New York.


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.