Title: Rules for Composition
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: Early 1850s
Whitman Archive ID: duk.00130
Source: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Transcribed from digital images of the original. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the manuscripts, see our statement of editorial policy.
Editorial note: Based on the handwriting, Edward Grier dates this manuscript to the early 1850s (Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts [New York: New York University Press, 1984], 1:101). The discussion about the importance of a lack of "ornament" in literature is similar to lines from the preface to the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman reworked some of those ideas on ornament and they appear in the poem "Says" in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.
Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Janel Cayer, Kevin McMullen, Nicole Gray, Kenneth M. Price, and Brett Barney
Rules for Composition
A perfectly transparent, plate-glassy style, artless, with no ornaments, or attempts at ornaments, for their own sake,—^they only coming in where answering looking well when like the beauties of the person or character, by nature and intuition, ^and never lugged in [in?] in by the colla to show off, which founders nullifies the best of them, no matter under when and where, or under of the most favorable cases.
Take no illustrations whatever from the ancients or classics, nor from the mythology, nor Egypt, Greece, or Rome—nor from the royal and aristocratic institutions and forms of Europe.—Make no mention or allusion to them whatever, except as they relate to the new, present things—to our country—to American character or interests.—Of specific mention of them, even infor these purposes, as little as possible.—
Too much attempt at ornament is the blur upon nearly all literary styles.
Clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences, at all—the most translucid clearness without variation.—
Common idioms and phrases—Yankeeisms and vulgarisms—cant expressions, when very pat only.—
Mention not God at all