In Whitman's Hand

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Title: Christopher under Canvass

Creators: Walt Whitman, [John Wilson?]

Annotation Date: June 1849 or after

Base Document Citation: [John Wilson?], "Christopher under Canvass," Edinburgh Magazine 65 (June 1849), 763–766.

Source: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Transcribed from digital images of the original item.

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00015

Contributors to digital file: Lauren Grewe, Nicole Gray, and Matt Cohen


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Whitman's Hand | Highlighting | Paste-on | Erasure | Overwrite



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Some ideas on Hexameters Poetry & Prose, and on Milton

[illegible]Christopher under Canvass.763

BULLER.

That the Earth is justly governed.

6

NORTH.

Dim foreshadowings, which Milton, I doubt not, discerned and cherished. The Iliad was the natural and spiritual father of the Paradise Lost—

SEWARD.

And the son is greater than the sire.

NORTH.

I see in the Iliad the love of Homer to Greece and to humankind. He was a legislator to Greece before Solon and Lycurgus—greater than either—after the manner fabled of Orpheus.

SEWARD.

Sprung from the bosom of heroic life, the Iliad asked heroic listeners.

NORTH.

See with what large-hearted love he draws the Men—Hector, and Priam, and Sarpedon—as well as the Woman Andromache—enemies! Can he so paint humanity and not humanise? He humanises us—who have literature and refined Greece and Rome—who have Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton —who are Christendom.

The Paradise Lost is (to us,) nonsense, any how, because it takes themes entirely out of human cognizance and treats them as Homer treats his siege and opposing armies, and then disputes.— The Iliad stands perfectly well and very beautiful for what it is, an appropriate blooming of the poet and what he had received and what he believed, and what to him was so, and what was so in a certain sense.— The Paradise Lost is offensive to modern science and intelligence—it is a poetical fanaticism, with a few great strong features, but not a great poem.— over

SEWARD.

He loves the inferior creatures, and the face of nature.

NORTH.

The Iliad has been called a Song of War. I see in it—a Song of Peace. Think of all the fiery Iliad ending in—Reconciled Submission!

SEWARD.

"Murder Impossibility," and believe that there might have been an Iliad or a Paradise Lost in Prose.

NORTH.

It could never have been, by human power, our Paradise Lost. What would have become of the Seventh Book? This is now occupied with describing the Six Days of Creation. A few verses of the First Chapter of Genesis extended into so many hundred lines. The Book, as it stands, has full poetical reason. First, it has a sufficient motive. It founds the existence of Adam and Eve, which is otherwise not duly led to. The revolted Angels, you know, have fallen, and the Almighty will create a new race of worshippers to supply their place—Mankind.

SEWARD.

For this race that is to be created, a Home is previously to be built—or this World is to be created.

NORTH.

I initiated you into Milton nearly thirty years ago, my dear Seward; and I rejoice to find that you still have him by heart. Between the fall of the Angels, and that inhabiting of Paradise by our first parents, which is largely related by Raphael, there would be in the history which the poem undertakes, an unfilled gap and blank without this book. The chain of events which is unrolled would be broken—interrupted—incomplete.

SEWARD.

And, sir, when Raphael has told the Rebellion and Fall of the Angels, Adam, with a natural movement of curiosity, asks of this "Divine Interpreter" how this frame of things began?

NORTH.

And Raphael answers by declaring at large the Purpose and the Manner. The Mission of Raphael is to strengthen, if it be practicable, the Human Pair in their obedience. To this end, how apt his discourse, showing how dear they are to the Universal Maker, how eminent in his Universe!

SEWARD.

The causes, then, of the Archangelic Narrative abound. And the personal interest with which the Two Auditors must hear such a revelation of wonders from such a Speaker, and that so intimately concerns themselves, falls nothing short of what Poetry justly requires in relations put into the mouth of the poetical Persons.


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"The verse makes present."

764Christopher under Canvass.[June,

Another point of difference is, the Iliad was wanted to give body and shape to the nebulous float of traditions . . . . and it gives them the beautiful oval ^ swift‑ rolling, continuing shape.—The Paradise Lost was not wanted for any such purpose
What is in the Bible had better not be paraphrased
The Bible is indescribably perfect— putting it in rhyme, would that improve it or not?

NORTH.

And can the interest—not now of Raphael's, but of Milton's "fit audience" —be sustained throughout? The answer is triumphant. The Book is, from beginning to end, a stream of the most beautiful descriptive Poetry that exists. Not however, mind you, Seward, of stationary description.

SEWARD.

Sir?

Think of a sing writer going into the creative action of deity!

NORTH.

A proceeding work is described; and the Book is replete and alive with motion—with progress—with action—yes, of action—of an order unusual indeed to the Epos, but unexcelled in dignity—the Creative Action of Deity!

SEWARD.

What should hinder, then, but that this same Seventh Book should have been written in Prose?

NORTH.

Why this only—that without Verse it could not have been read! The Verse makes present. You listen with Adam and Eve, and you hear the Archangel. In Prose this illusion could not have been carried through such a subject-matter. The conditio sine quâ non of the Book was the ineffable charm of the Description. But what would a series of botanical and zoological descriptions, for instance, have been, in Prose? The vivida vis that is in Verse is the quickening spirit of the whole.

BULLER.

But who doubts it?

NORTH.

Lord Bacon said that Poetry—that is, Feigned History—might be worded in Prose. And it may be; but how inadequately is known to Us Three.

BULLER.

And to all the world.

NORTH.

No—nor, to the million who do know it, so well as to Us, nor the reason why. But hear me a moment longer. Wordsworth, in his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, asserts that the language of Prose and the language of Verse differ but in this—that in Verse there is metre—and metre he calls an adjunct. With all reverence, I say that metre is not an adjunct—but vitality and essence; and

very true

that verse, in virtue thereof, so transfigures language, that it ceases to be the language of prose as spoken, out of verse, by any of the children of men.

SEWARD.

Remove the metre, and the language will not be the language of Prose?

NORTH.

Not—if you remove the metre only—and leave otherwise the order of the words—the collocation unchanged—and unchanged any one of the two hundred figures of speech, one and all of which are differently presented in the language of Verse from what they are in Prose.

SEWARD.

It must be so.

NORTH.

The fountain of Law to Composition in Prose is the Understanding. The fountain of Law to Composition in Verse is the Will.

SEWARD.

?

NORTH.

A discourse in prose resembles a chain. The sentences are the successive links—all holding to one another—and holding one another. All is bound.

SEWARD.

Well?

NORTH.

A discourse in verse resembles a billowy sea. The verses are the waves that rise and fall—to our apprehension—each by impulse, life, will of its own. All is free.

good


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1849.]Christopher under Canvass.765

SEWARD.

Ay. Now your meaning emerges.

NORTH.

E profundis clamavi. In eloquent prose, the feeling fits itself into the process of the thinking. In true verse, the thinking fits itself into the process of the feeling.

SEWARD.

I perpend.

NORTH.

In prose, the general distribution and composition of the matter belong to the reign of Necessity. The order of the parts, and the connexion of part with part are obliged—logically justifiable—say, then, are demonstrable. See an Oration of Demosthenes. In verse, that distribution and composition belong to the reign of Liberty. That order and connexion are arbitrary—passionately justifiable—say, then, are delectable. See an Ode of Pindar.

SEWARD.

Publish—publish.

The best poetry is simply that which has the perfectest beauty— beauty to the ear, beauty to the brain beauty to the heart beauty to the time & place —and tThere cannot be a true poem, unless it satisfies the various needs of beauty

NORTH.

In prose the style is last in verse first; in prose the sense controls the sound—in verse the sound the sense; in prose you speak—in verse you sing; in prose you live in the abstract—in verse in the concrete; in prose you present notions—in verse visions; in prose you expound—in verse you enchant; in prose it is much if now and then you are held in the sphere of the fascinated senses—in verse if of the calm understanding.

BULLER.

Will you have the goodness, sir, to say all that over again?

NORTH.

I have forgot it. The lines in the countenance of Prose are austere. The look is shy, reserved, governed—like the fixed steady lineaments of mountains. The hues that suffuse the face of her sister Verse vary faster than those with which the western or the eastern sky momently reports the progress of the sinking, of the fallen, but not yet lost, of the coming or of the risen sun.

BULLER.

I have jotted that down, sir.

NORTH.

And I hope you will come to understand it. Candidly speaking, 'tis more than I do.

SEWARD.

I do perfectly—and it is as true as beautiful, sir.

BULLER.

Equally so.

NORTH.

I venerate Wordsworth. Wordsworth's poetry stands distinct in the world. That which to other men is an occasional pleasure, or possibly delight, and to

Wordsworth lacks sympathy with men and women—that does not pervade him enough by a long shot.—

other poets an occasional transport, THE SEEING THIS VISIBLE UNIVERSE, is to him—a Life—one Individual Human Life—namely, his Own—travelling its whole journey from the Cradle to the Grave. And that Life—for what else could he do with it?—he has verified—sung. And there is no other such Song. It is a Memorable Fact of our Civilisation—a Memorable Fact in the History of Human Kind—that one perpetual song. Perpetual but infinitely various—as a river of a thousand miles, traversing, from its birthplace in the mountains, diverse regions, wild and inhabited, to the ocean- receptacle.

BULLER.

Confoundedly prosaic at times.

NORTH.

He, more than any other true poet, approaches Verse to Prose—never, I believe, or hardly ever, quite blends them.

BULLER.

Often—often—often, my dear sir.

VOL. XLV.48

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The difference between perfect originality and second‑hand originality is the difference between the Bible and Paradise Lost.

766Christopher under Canvass.[June,

NORTH.

Seldom—seldom—seldom if ever, my dear sir. He tells his Life. His Poems are, of necessity, an Autobiography. The matter of them, then, is his personal reality; but Prose is, all over and properly, the language of Personal Realities. Even with him, however, so peculiarly conditioned, and, as well as I am able to understand his Proposition, against his own Theory of writing, Verse maintains, as by the laws of our insuppressible nature it always will maintain, its sacred Right and indefeasible Prerogative.

To conclude our conversation—

BULLER.

Or Monologue.

NORTH.

Epos is Human History in its magnitude in Verse. In Prose, National History offers itself in parallelism. The coincidence is broad and unquestioned; but on closer inspection, differences great and innumerable spring up and unfold themselves, until at last you might almost persuade yourself that the first striking resemblance deceived you, and that the two species lack analogy, so many other kinds does the Species in Verse embosom, and so escaping are the lines of agreement in the instant in which you attempt fixing them.

BULLER.

Would that Lord Bacon were here!

NORTH.

And thus we are led to a deeper truth. The Metrical Epos imitates History, without doubt, as Lord Bacon says—it borrows thence its mould, not rigorously, but with exceeding bold and free adaptations, as the Iliad unfolds the Ten Years' War in Seven Weeks. But for the Poet, more than another, ALL IS IN ALL.

Whoever believes in the Calvinistic theology
—to him the thread of Paradise Lost may
seem strong—to all others it will be weak.—

SEWARD.

Sir?

NORTH.

What is Paradise Lost, ultimately considered?

BULLER.

Oh!

NORTH.

Milton's mind seems to have had the grandest sort of muscle —and much of the ^ other stuff that poetry wants.— His descriptions are large and definite.— He has nothing little or nice about him—but he was in too much with ^ sectarian theology and with the disputes between puritans and churchmen.—For instance what nations in Asia or Africa ? not Christian, would see any great point in his poem, if read to th[cut away]

It is, my friends, the arguing in verse of a question in Natural Theology. Whence are Wrong and Pain? Moral and Physical Evil, as we call them, in all their overwhelming extent of complexity sprung? How permitted in the Kingdom of an All-wise and Almighty Love? To this question, concerning the origin of Evil, Milton answers as a Christian Theologian, agreeably to his own understanding of his Religion,—so justifying the Universal Government

[illegible]Yes, but the point is wrong at the start If a po[cut away] take what is largely dou[cut away] even he shall surely fa[cut away]

of God, and, in particular, his Government of Man. The Poem is, therefore, Theological, Argumentative, Didactic, in Epic Form. Being in the constitution of his soul a Poet, mightiest of the mighty, the intention is hidden in the Form. The Verse has transformed the matter. Now, then, the Paradise Lost is not history told for itself. But this One Truth, in two answering Propositions, that the Will of Man spontaneously consorting with God's Will is Man's Good, spontaneously dissenting, Man's Evil. This is created into an awful and solemn narrative of a Matter exactly adapted, and long since authoritatively told. But this Truth, springing up in the shape of narrative, will now take its own determination into Events of unsurpassed magnitude, now of the tenderest individuality and minuteness; and all is, hence, in keeping—as one power of life springs up on one spot, in oak-tree, moss, and violet, and the difference of stature, thus understood, gives a deep harmony, so deep and embracing, that none without injury to the whole could be taken away.

BULLER.

What's all this! Hang that Drone—confound that Chanter. Burst, thou most unseasonable of Bagpipes! Silence that dreadful Drum. Draw in your Horns—


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