Life & Letters


About this Document

Title: Walt Whitman: Preface to the Sixth Edition

Author(s): Álvaro Armando Vasseur

Publication information:

Whitman Archive ID: med.00644


Preface to the sixth edition

I have always deplored the fact that Martí, who felt so much admiration for the orchestral Bard, should not have translated—or suggested one of his companions attempt translating—the most characteristic of the Leaves.1 Instead of so many novelistic banalities. So many ephemeral chronicles. That neither did a certain Colombian poet attempt it, who already in 1896 wrote in rhythmic verses—Lopez-Penha2 (see a sample in some number of The National Review, 1896-97). Varona, Nervo, or Tablada3 might also have done it before 1900. These, not to mention the Hispanics, residents or tourists, who knew him directly.

Of Darío, who read him before writing "The Song of Gold" (in Azul), it could not have been expected.4 An exploration of Whitman's lyrical possibilities, yes; as can be perceived in some of Darío's prose poems: ("Sing for the mariner who will depart on a long journey"); ("Oh faraway star, who would kiss your luminous lips"), etc. Never a translation of him designed to enrich the sensibility and modernize the imagination of hispanoamericanos. Most of them, impoverished by the various traditional rhetorics; a minority of them, devastated by the "fine herbs" of the symbolists and the neo-mystical spices of the century's end.5 Nor even would he have included him in his gallery of "Raros,"6 just as were excluded Thoreau, Hawthorne, Mallarmé, Verhaeren, René Ghil, Laforgue, Vielé-Griffin, Gs. Skampf, de Quental, etc.7 He was satisfied with his outmoded fetishes and exotic bibelots. In the preface to "Prosas Profanas" he puts it well and concretely: The rest is yours W. Whitman.

I saw a copy of the 6th edition of Leaves of Grass on Lugones's small work-table, towering over the piles of French modernist volumes.8 Open to the page with the portrait in shirtsleeves and broad-brimmed hat. It must have been a gift from Darío during one of those sudden changes of residence made necessary by the Buenos Aires landlords who wouldn't consent to sheltering him ad honorem...

Lugones discovers him in 1896. He is already effecting, with Hugo, lyricism's transformation from its callow youth. It breathes palpably in "La Voz contra la Roca," which Groussac9 publishes in 1898 in a number of La Biblioteca; it shows up as an introduction to "Las Montañas del Oro" (first edition underwritten by Luis Berisso, the distinguished patron of "La Siringa").10 Of the four great poetic oracles Lugones evokes, Whitman is the second: Hugo, Whitman, Dante, Homer. The volume concludes with the "Hymn of the Towers," blown in the trumpet tones of the Yankee: "Trompettes tout haut d'or pamés sur des velins."11

In any given anthology of Hugo's poetry one could find multiple verses in which the "blade of grass," the feuille, the drop of water, of dew, appear as antitheses to the greatest abstractions: Mouth of Shadows,12 Pan, Zeus, Ocean, Universe, Providence, God, eternity. So Vacquerie,13 a close friend of Hugo's during the exile on the Nordic island of Guernsey, writes to his friend Lefèvre14 on the publication of Contemplations (1856): "Materially they are ten thousand poetic lines; morally they are all the earthly problems: "depuis la plainte du brin d'herbe jusqu'au sanglot du père. He calmly mentions "l'âme du caillou, du roc, de la bête, de la plante, etc."15

Hence the title of Whitman's poems might have alluded to Hugo, as might some of his "democratic vistas."

They justify the wisdom that those bards model this way: "Dieu dit son secret a la feuille d'herbe." "L'éternite parie ä la rosée. Lá vague exprime l'oceân." An Alexandrine from Lugones's "La Voz" translates: "Dios dice su secreto a la hoja de hierba."16 Dunque17: the volume and the portrait of Whitman preside over the rustic table, against the wall, in the little apartment on Balcarce street whose two windows open onto the River Plate. That perch—where he made his first marital nest, and where his only child was born:—"No longer am I the sinister corsair of destiny, A flower has budded over my crucifix" (1898).

That barcarolle: "Dusk goes to the riverbanks, all the water reverberates: Might some treasure have sunk beneath the undulating sea?"

A little apartment perhaps non-existent today, where he hammered out so many innovative poems and prose pieces; "The Old Bachelor," "The Towers," much of the "Garden Twilights," the foundational chapters of "La Guerra Gaucha" and the "Oración pro Cuba Libre" (1898).

One day a commemorative placard will have to be affixed to the façade corresponding to that house and flat in old Balcarce street; since, if we dig a bit deeper, we see that the criticisms made about lyric modernism—as an adaptation of French modernism—meter, rhyme, tone, imagery, even to a point certain themes—could also be extended to criollo18 poetic genres, in language, meter, rhythm, tone, and heroic criteria, analogous to those of Hispanic romances.

The same objections can be levied against the verses of the Leaves; similar ones, against the Judeo-Christian scriptures, or against the Babylonian verses offering prayers to Ishtar, describing her "Descent to Hell," or narrating the pilgrimages of Gilgamesh!

With each language were imported poetic, artistic, and cultural seeds. The personal manifests itself in circumstantial psychological complexes; in emotional and intellectual modes and tones. It is as humble in the poetical and philosophical as in the biological or morphological. Although humble, it can and tends to be precious: like flowers, wild or of the hothouse variety, pebbles or rare metals, spices or odoriferous substances.

The aesthetic aroma of these quintessentials endures a little longer. Enough to perfume a region, a nation, a civilization. Leafing through Lugones' Lyrical Anthology in 1942, I could once again verify the cisplatine literary brotherhood: In some poems from "The Mountains of Gold" (1896) vibrates the suggestion of "Songs of Maldoror"; in the prose of "La Guerra Gaucha" the most epic pages of Javier de Vaina's Campo; in "El Lunario," the absurd humor of Laforgue (Complaintes de Notre Dame la Lune); in the "Secular Odes" (1910) the augural accent and intonation that would inspire "La Colina de Belvedere," "La Tierra Uruguaya," "La Oda a Montevideo," and the "Oda a Atlántida" (1904-1906).19

When a great poet wants to confer distinction, glorifying the grain fields, the flocks, the riches of the flood plains and mountain chains of his country, he adopts the intonation, the augural accent, magnifying them in his loud voice, realistic, descriptive, capable of all the transfigurations of rhythm and color.

In 1902, in the Comini Bookstore in Montevideo, I found the two short volumes of the Italian version of the Leaves, published by Sonsogno (Milan, 1896). Some verses appeared at the head of one or two chapters of Augural Songs (Montevideo, 1904).20 As did the euphoric, wildly free fervor, in the "Psalm to the Trees" (1905) in Songs of the New World (1906).

In the summer of 1908, in San Sebastian, Spain, I found out from L. Tailhade21 (he of the "beau geste") that Bazalgette22 had been convinced to undertake the arduous task of translating it into French, a quarter-century after the imitations and translations by the initial French nucleus: Laforgue, René Ghil, Viélé-Griffin. And, since 1895, by Verhaeren. If I am not mistaken—given the long time elapsed—Bazalgette's version was put out by "The Mercury of France" press in 1908 or 1909. Having arrived in March of 1907, I had resided in the Balnearic capital for almost two years. Most of my friends were English. In one of those pleasant homes (he, retired old colonel, she dedicating some hours to English lessons), among many other books of prose and verse; some by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rossetti, Tennyson, Symonds,23 Longfellow, Poe—Whitman: Leaves of Grass. It was the third encounter. The second had been in the library of Dr. Vitale, during 1905 to 1906, in Montevideo.

The stanzas of these lyrics served him as the honey with which he used to sweeten the rim of the cup of his language lessons. In oral instruction and in workbooks. He had notebooks of summaries, of quotations... It was the method my mother had followed, when I was four or five, to facilitate my reading Spanish, since my mother tongue, that of my parents' home, was French, until I was older than fifteen. I remember that upon mentioning to Lugones in 1897 that my mother had taught me to read Spanish using Martín Fierro, in those 1880 paperback editions, he emphasized with delight, to signal to me how much he knew and loved it:

The hands I held and the cards I played.And the stakes I lost and won.24

Neither in La Plata—where I had an old friend who was English, never without The Odyssey in Greek—nor in Buenos Aires, nor in San Sebastian, nor in Naples, where we also had an English teacher, could I go so far as to assimilate Anglo-Saxon voices and accents. In spite of the notebooks full of exercises and the dictionaries, my wife and son assimilated them better than I. In general, when I needed to translate I undertook it well accompanied.

My concerns tended to be quite diverse and simultaneous. Particularly during that first Hispano-Anglo-French stage.

Much music, classical and modern; meta-psychic studies and experiences. Contemporary philosophical studies of varying orientations. Cultural relations with Boutroux, Hoffding, Lalande, Bergson, X. Leon, Mme. Adam, Mauclair, Verhaeren, Tailhade, Schiller, of Oxford.25 Commentaries and critiques of their works, likewise for those of the English, Gurney, Myers; of the Russian Adkassoff, of Delacroix, Weber, Peirce, Eucken, Simmel, Meyerson, Feuillee, Brunschvicq, etc.26 Collaboration with local daily papers under various pseudonyms, always in defense of "The Old Cause." Some of them significant. In addition, the labor and launching of some quick crafts: "Songs of the Other I," "Songs of the Penitent." The drama "Gloria"; an essay on "Ideas of the material, of reason," "of Spirit." The essay on "Social Ideas of Equality and Solidarity." Translations of the studies by Delacroix and Hoffding on Kierkegaard's personality. Half of Whitman's poems; the translation of Lalande's "Civic Catechism"; of "Proportional Representation." The short piece on "The First Congress of the Syndicalist International at Paris" (1908) with the speeches of the Syndicalist leaders. The memorandum on "The Schools for Nurses" in London (1908).

All that, plus what has been forgotten, amidst numerous concerns and much activity, all centered around that summer hub of artistic culture that was the great Casino, where the divas of music, song, dance, and play paraded before audiences of sumptuous cosmopolitan variety.

I have never commented on, nor, in the face of certain objections, defended, the Spanish translation of the "Poems." I undertook it, like so many other undertakings, with an educative spirit. Selecting the most enthusiastic, the most meaningfully Americanist psalms. Making myself read the original, verifying the translations, preferring the most rhythmic. Purifying, pruning, and at times enriching it with some spark. Like that of "the Cathedrals strung with stars." Poetic follies less childish than the one by Darío:

Oh faraway star, who would kiss your luminous lips;

or that brash exclamation, in the final verse of the poem to the first Roosevelt, in which he treats as "one thing" the concept of the Infinite sum: "And if you have it all you lack one thing: God."27

I left aside crude paths, redundancies, trivialities. Particularly weaknesses and mawkish senilities.

In this way the selection proved to be the sursum that those directionless generations needed.

Revitalization of poetical thematics—it does not emanate from the mutiny of the Indo-Hispano-Gallic "Camelot." Burns initiates it, Wordsworth continues it, Whitman accentuates it democratically.28 We continue it with the Augural Songs and then with the translation of the Leaves. We have always congratulated ourselves for having hit upon what had to be done. It was a great, an opportune, wager. And as such, thanks to incalculable subsequent reverberations, a cultural event. Of moral and poetical import superior to the stir caused, in the English language, by Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. The best that could be attempted in the format of the volumes—for pennies—of Sempere's Popular Library (Valencia, Spain).

Ours is not a "sectarian version," nor is it polemical, nor corrupt. It is the re-creation of a thinker ("mais vous, vous étes un philosophe," in Bergson's phrase of 1909)29 that sows seed to nourish, to fortify, to exalt youth. Poetic prose, prosaic poetry, with a vitalist ethic, of a homo faber, conscious of continental destinies: That proclaims its faith in technological and social progress. The march of American generations toward ever more prosperous ends; confidence and hope in everything and for everyone.

It is not the same thing to do something in 1900 to 1910 as it is to do it from 1934 to 1938, or 1942 to 1945. Consider again the Hispanic situation then: in 1909, Ferrer, founder of the "Modern School," is shot in Montjuic by order of the academic Maura and his minister La Cierva.30 Those who propagated or possessed books from [Sempere's] Library, one of whose branches was directed by our friend Odon de Buen, were suspect. Marquina would go to Palacio to read his historical dramas. Valle Inclán evoked the figures of mounted Carlist rebels. Machado confessed "that in spite of his drops of Jacobin blood, his verses gushed forth from a serene fount." Unamuno, preaching in Salamanca, pressed on with his dexterous cleverness. Nervo wondered—perhaps with humor more political and literary than mystical—"Where do the dead go, Lord, where do they go?"31

Amidst that traditionalist sybaritism—the model for our oligarchies, masked as democracies—rare were they who, like Galdós, Iglesias, Blasco Ibáñez, Giner, Cossío, Soriano,32 some at Modern Spain and the White Review, conserved the sacred fire; the critical, rationalist, civilizing fire.

Sempere brought out our commentaries on Marx and Engels' Origins of the Family and the State in 1908, comments written in Montevideo from 1901 to 1903. Pueyo was publishing El Memorial—1908, where genuinely rationalist pages abound, like "The Word-game," an insert in The Day, in 1906, and Ovid's Exile in 1908.

I should point out that in the same year—1912, or the following—in which Sempere issues the two works, Songs of the New World and Poems of Walt Whitman, various lyric renovations blossom in the United States: the magazine Poets [Poetry], Ezra Pound's "Cantos"; then Sandburg's "Chicago Poems"; and around 1915 Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology.33

Considering the power of diffusion achieved in both worlds by the economical editions of the Sempere Press, it should come as no surprise that the launching of our works—daughter and goddaughter—should have contributed to these and other poetic renaissances.... In particular the preface, enthusiastic, augural, to the Poems of the Yankee.34

Our object at present is defensive; of the selective character of the translation; and of the arbitrary, contradictory opinions of Santayana... (Whence his echoes among Selenites, mounted upon cold-blooded Pegasuses...).

I give three aspects of these, written in different moments. The second, in which he recognizes that "there can be no better knowledge than that which rests on animal faith"; that natural science is the human symbol of these facts, emends no small number of the critical objections exhibited in the first.35

"His world," he says, "knows no personal passions, characters, destinies. It is a world without consistency or plan; rather, a chaos, a fantasmagoria of continuous internal visions, vivid, but monotonous and difficult to distinguish [!] in the memory, like sea-waves or the decorations of a barbaric temple. Sublime, only by the infinite aggregation of parts": Sublime!

"Richness of perception without intelligent order, of fantasy without taste, is what characterizes his genius. There is no poet who equals him in apprehending the elemental aspects of things. His vision of the immediate and primary, of the concrete and individual, is united with a power of graphic characterization whose lack of sustained style, of a fixed principle of selection, permits him to express aspects of things and of emotions that are hidden to a more polished writer. His poetry is not governed by the mentality of a coordinator, nor by a formal mold that organizes its fragments into unity, nor by the memory of other poets. In the face of this baptismal style, all the old poets appear artificial and conventional [what praise!]. He submerges himself in the common life without confronting it with some precious ideal: he considers it as effect and index of the more indeterminate and elemental forces. Thus vulgarity, in the midst of a cosmic scene, ends up appearing sublime.

"He is the poet of the common man; and he would wish all men to be common ['I would also forge great individuals']. In his work there is no story, there are no characters. His hero is 'I,' the man of today and of tomorrow, vigorous, cordial, rough, handy, of the fields and of the cities, particularly, wanderers, drivers, pioneers. Those who believe that he represents the North American spirit are foreigners, desirous of finding some grotesque [?] expression of the genius of such an astonishing people." The foreigner is Santayana.36 Neither is he popular, for all that his verses might have sentiments of gregariousness, friendship, and human brotherhood. If he had been able to plumb and comprehend the common people of his lands he would have demonstrated the truth that nothing is farther from the common man than "the perverse desire to be primitive." The poor profess the cult of heroes, and believe that riches, power, knowledge, and love are undeniably good. The work of W. is "that of a barbarian" as much for its philosophy as for its form. "Its value must be sought in the simple and elemental grandeur that his thought and art customarily achieve. Since, does he not definitively appeal, rather than to reasoned social aspirations—to more generic and primitive impulses? He speaks to those souls and those circumstances of the soul in which a sensuality infused with base mysticism dominates. Freeing us from traditional conventions, descending to the level of the feelings and instincts, he creates the illusion that by doing so we return to the natural; or we soar to the infinite. Mysticism makes us proud and devout in renouncing the works of intelligence, as much in thought as in life; it persuades us that we will be divine in continuing to be rudimentarily human."

No doubt one would need to know when, where, why the professor who as a youth happened to enjoy Whitman's poetry until he sickened of it, or never could stand its "Fugues" and "Sonatas," then attacked the Leaves. Often emotional vicissitudes, irrational circumstances, provoke the spirit, trigger one's intimate springs, determining attitudes, conduct, diatribes. Passionate experiences that, once understood, would explain the enthusiasms of youth, the reactions of maturity. Or it concerns lucid, synthetic types, for whom incoherencies and superabundances are displeasing. The absence of delicacy and refinement, of the exquisite; the banality of those ingenuous realisms that do not reach the high spirituality of the critical intelligence...

No doubt the countryless Santayana is aggravated by Latino "translations" and exaltations of the bard of percussion: Drum-taps. The ecumenical diffusion of that evangelist of the "sans façons," of that hobo in shirtsleeves, of accordion and saxophone!

To allow Hispanic communities to be invaded like this, nursed as they are "on the difficult facility and the arduous simplicity" of heroic romances! To disseminate the accordionist when symbolist lyric, poetry, and abstract philosophy—the highest qualitative games—had reached their peak. To drag poetry back to its theogonic babblings—when in the faunal caverns the goats played at being oracles. To so profane the deity of magic gestures and syllables; the sober technique of the sorcerers! And once more the philosopher denounces the fact that the "brutal law of success is not ethical, nor aesthetic, nor metaphysical." No doubt in some measure his lyrical expansion proceeds from a dynamic character; exalter of the vital values. Disdainful of the old poetries of discontent, of weakness; of yearning. Of the plaintive gushings of Poe, Leopardi, Baudelaire. In Santayana's critique of Egotism in German Philosophy impartial considerations stand out that give fresh value to Whitman's bright and powerful naturalism.37 "Christianity no less than romanticism had habituated men to disdain the intrinsic value of things. Things had to be useful to 'salvation,' had to be symbols of other, better, although unknown, things. This life could only be justified when it took the form of a servile labor or odious task. Not in healthiness or artistic expression. The romantic poets, by means of pride, worry, yearning for things vague, impossible, arrived at the same conclusion the Church did. To be unsatisfied seemed the mark of distinction. How could the romantics believe such falsehoods? By way of their erroneous mystical interpretation of human nature, which is perhaps the essence of romanticism. They imagine that what they desire is not this or the other: nourishment, progeny, triumph, culture, or whatever other specific objective. Instead, an abstract and perpetual happiness, that would exist beyond such necessities or interests. But an abstract happiness is impossible, for the fundamental reason that we possess no abstract and perpetual instinct to satisfy. Whatever supreme good one yearns to obtain, separated from all specific interest, is more than unattainable; it is unthinkable. They could have learned from Plato or any given sound moralist that man's wellness consists in the harmony of those particular functions that express his temperament. In spite of feeling life to be a tragedy, Schopenhauer understood the intrinsic value of fortune. He instinctively felt the richness of the moral world. It was, then, this secret sympathy toward nature that distanced him from Christianity and from transcendental metaphysics. Nevertheless, as the good things of nature cannot be desired or possessed for all time, he deprecated their value, believing that those who desired or possessed them disdained them, too.

"The romantic leavening that still fermented in him was what impeded his recognition of the kingdom of nature in which vital harmony can be established. Nietzsche inherited this romantic parody of life, this standard drawn from metaphysical anarchy. Schopenhauer's pain at the tragic accidents of nature and history, his desperate solution—the negation of living—his contemplative pessimism, were so many homages to the faith he had lost."

Now we see the still more naturalist opinions of the philosopher's maturity:38 "ideas have a symbolic, expressive value. They are inner notes that the passions and art make resound. They come to seem rational through their vital harmony (reason is a harmony of the passions) and by their connection to external contingencies (for reason is a harmony of the inner life with destiny and truth).

"I had then to discover what kind of wisdom can be achieved by an animal whose mind is poetical. And I found that it cannot imply the lack of sincerity that supposedly rejects poetry in favor of a science that one judges truthful and enlightened. Wisdom consists in considering everything with a certain good humor, with a grain of salt. Science is the intellectual accompaniment of art. How can universal experience support itself on any base other than the fantasy of either the psychologist or the poet?

"I have arrived, then, at observing the emergence of conscience in an organism. A psyche, of hereditary mechanism, administers every animal organism, to the point of constituting a mind that suffers, dreams, and hopes. Fraser no less than Freud has offered evidence of how rich and wonderful the mind is, in essence. How deep is its play in animal life. How prohibitively remote its deepest impressions for any interpretation of their true causes. Bodily life, modified, develops in a closed circuit of habits and actions. The mind is its concomitant spiritual expression, epiphenomenal or hypostatic. Since the motive and the organic, animal tensions synthesize on another plane of being: in the intuitions and authentic sentiments. This spiritual fertility of living bodies is the most natural of things. I am, then, a naturalist, an animalist, a fantasist. Nature, history, soul, are phantasmal presences, or notions of them; the existence of such images amounts to something purely inward in them. They possess neither substance nor hidden content. They are pure appearance. Such beings or qualities of so being we call 'essences.' Their kingdom is external, infinite. Seen as essences, ideas are compatible and complement each other as means of expression.

"Animal faith—as much in the sensations as in idea-essences. Thus all the sensual and intellectual furnishings of the mind become a reserve from which it draws its formulas, and confabulates the puerile inner poetry with which it speaks to itself of all that occurs to it. Everything becomes a story, hatched by a dreamer.

"And so the philosophy of art—and the philosophy of history—turn out to be mere verbalisms. In art, manual skill, professional tradition; and in the contemplative plane, the intuition of essences, with intellectual enjoyment, characteristic of all intuition. I do not distinguish between moral and aesthetic values; beauty, if moral good is beautiful, understood as an economy or a useful distraction. Goodness, carried out, is a fount of joy, and thus aesthetic. When joy is blind, it is pleasure; when it takes sensual form, it is beauty. When it diffuses itself in our minds it is consolation, happiness, love. Art does not lack madness. It is full of inertia, affectation, and can appear ugly, to a cultivated spirit."


How different would his comments have been had he considered Whitman's Leaves with the naturalist healthiness with which he analyzed German speculative egotism; and still more, with the poetically animalist criteria that characterize the opinions of his full maturity.

Many of these exalt the work and life of our cheerful bard. Free of so many musty romantic ferments, of rhetorical affectations, mystagogies and illuminisms.

Feeling, expressing what a half-century later his critic, in the "Dialogues," would specify.39 That lyrical experience, as well as literary psychology, are vital modes for an animal race in one corner of the natural world. All the activities that we call "rational" proceed from the animal life of man amidst nature. The poetic animal is susceptible to spiritual adaptation, education, and elevation. Its life, worthy to be lived; all offices, divine, insofar as they further health and personal independence. Death as natural and beautiful as life. Celebrating the common man, the masses of common people, as he celebrates the prairies and the farmlands, first plantings and harvests vegetable, human, social. Contemplating all, freed of want, of the perverse will to dominate, that in so many ways goads the masses and their manipulators.

Thus, what the critic—"for whom all ethics are expressions of animal life"—terms "fluid fantasmagoria, without order or plan," is that temperamental loftiness, which poeticizes the prosaic, ennobles the vulgar, above the comic, dramatic, or tragic game of antagonisms. If we leaf through Kempis's40 Imitation we are surprised by its tone of resignation and relinquishing of life. If we immerse ourselves in Whitman's Poems we are comforted by the symphonic happiness of images and perspectives, joyful or grave, trivial or solemn. This euphoric richness, which takes pleasure in itself, with beings, and with forms in the environment, this exceptional magnitude of cordiality, emanates from the same surging of heroic vocation that did Spinoza's jungle of high equanimities so admired by Heine. It is what, in everyday miseries and creative anguish, we tend to consider sublime. Magical poetic gift, of comprehending, mastering, transcending, that the simple artisan, raised in an artisan home, son of the Van Velsors, possessed; and he has carried away with him the gift and secret of such loftiness.

It was this—which still surprises us when we leaf through our "Selection"—that most seduced us; that spurred us to the task of collating, selecting themes, and, when possible, of refining them. Many times we have thought that such ethnic quintessence nourished itself at the Netherlandish udder more than on the sap of Anglo-Saxon roots. It would be the secret heritage of the Van Velsors.

His infancy and adolescence unfold by the sea. This explains in part his predilection for outdoor occupations and recreations. His wanderings on Long Island during his youth, similar to the famous ones of Hugo's adulthood on the shores of Guernsey during the long exile: 1858-1871.

Je suis le vieux rodeur sauvage de la mer, Qui rode nuit et jour autour des sombre ilès.41

Later, wherever his residence, Whitman works and rests with the windows open.

He needs to air himself, feel himself lulled by atmospheric murmurs, to contemplate the circulating masterpieces of his art gallery: dawns, auroras, noons, afternoons, twilights, flashes of moonlight, stellar seas, fiery festivals of the tempests.

His pastorals, like his urban sketches, have the unevenness, accidents, zigzags of native panoramas: muddy banks, rocky deserts, sandy spots, hidden oases, misleading paths, public ways. Where other poets dream of glimpsing celestial mirages, he sees the elements of both processes: the natural and the historical, fusing appearances and characteristically national dreams towards the apogee of the great Republic of Comrades. On all sides, the surge and buzz of human hives, in thousands of towns, millions of homes. In this geohistoric clime, his autodidacticism flowers, elucidates the emotional response to Emerson's augural pronouncement: "We owe you the discovery and conquest of the new moral continent of America: individuality. To these shores, discovered by you, you have guided the United States, and you have guided me."42

A doubly sensational acknowledgment: to owe to Emerson the consciousness of his particularly American moral individuality. And the consciousness of being the poet of such Americanness. From these wellsprings will then flow, in every higher geysers, Personality, Nationality, Universality.

Thus he will come to dream of the confederation of the cities of the States of the Union, bound together, arm-in-arm, as we dreamed circa 1916, making Paul Fort's song ours: we were dreaming the dance of world Peace: "What a dance for the end of war—if all the human race—wanted to join hands—around the Earth."

[Whitman] frequently reminds us that slavery has been the basis of the economy and culture of the ancient societies; and nevertheless, the victory of the North over the South, of the modern metropolis; in all those occupations, industries, and businesses in which labor is the slave to the employer's control and advantage. Only in later years, after his voluntary social service in hospitals and ambulances, will he submit to administrative hierarchies.

Like the poet La Fontaine, with whom he shares several features, like Rousseau, like the Lake Poets, especially Wordsworth, his life as well as his work represents a turn to nature. Poetic art in the open air; an anticipation of impressionism.43

Among Santayana's other "pruderies" figures the censure of [Whitman's] sensualism. How could the friend of the pre-Socratics, the disciple of Heraclitus, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius forget the classical sources of art and poetry?

"Ce qu'on apelle gloire—n'est que toi divine volupté—Pourquoi sont fait les dons de Flore?44 Les soleils couchants, les aurores? Les forets, les eaux, les prairies? Meres des douces reveries?—J'aime le jeu, l'amour, les livres, la musique. La ville, et la campagne, en fin tout. Il n'est rien. Qui no me soit souverein bien. Jusqu'au sombre plaisir d'un cœur melancolique.

Oh Venús, rien ne manque a ton etre—ni les lis ni les roses : ni le melange exquis des plus belles choses, ni le charme secret dont l'œil est enchanté. Ni la grace, plus belle encore que la beauté. Il n'est soldat ni capitaine, ni prince ni sujet—Qui ne t'ait pour objet.

Viens done; et de ce bien, o douce volupté. Peux tu savoir, combiens? Il m'en faut au moin. Bien plus que j'en ai besoin... Le doux ressouvenir de ces choses charmantes me suit dans les deserts. Hante mon cœur."45

What is the Greco-Latin tradition, from Anacreon to Ovid, whose coals still smolder beneath Judeo-Christian ashes—in the Archpriest of Hita, in the highlands of Santillana, from Villon to Ronsard, Apuleius to the Decameron, from the romance of Tristan to the songs of Goethe, from Marlowe to Swinburne's "Laus Veneris," from Dante to Quevedo, Ariosto to the erotics of Carducci?

What is the root of human lineage, in De Rerum Natura? Whom does Lucretius celebrate?

Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas?46 And Alighieri, in the closing verses of each Canto?

"L'amor che muove il sole et le alter stelle..."47 Does not its inspiring fire perchance flash in the pupils of the "philosopher," in his later years, as we perceive in some of his portraits? Was it not one of the inner motors of his projects, his ambitions, his dreams of spiritual glory?

Doubtless a range of similar lyrical influences have converged in Whitman's poetic formation, besides temperamental dispositions, familiar routines and environments. The democratic orientation and the lively spontaneity of Burns; the predilection for rustic themes, the humble lives, the simple people of Wordsworth. "In general"—the latter wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads— "humble and rustic lives were chosen because in that state the primitive sentiments manifest themselves more vividly and deeply, in their struggles and labors with nature."48

Since the modest and rebellious Burns, no Anglophone poet had felt as Wordsworth did "the happiness that emanates from nature, from simple duties, from elemental activities. None has expressed them in a more picturesque style, nor partaken of them with more intensity." So Coleridge cast his sympathy and admiration for the emotional eclogues of his friend Wordsworth, in the beautiful critical essay he dedicates to him. (Olivero, Studies in English Literature, vol. 1:30-71, Madrid, 1917. Translation by A. A. Vasseur).49

Wordsworth's rustic naturist influence—Coleridge observes—extends to Tennyson, Arnold, and Browning. Such influence, both direct and mediated by these last poets, who were his contemporaries, had to extend to Longfellow and Whitman, as did that of Coleridge to Poe. The same sympathy, that, by contrast, Wordsworth's rustic ballads with their magical mysticism wakened in Coleridge, explain our old fervor for Whitman's exalted, profane psalms.

We do not find in Whitman's poems traces of the genius irritabile. Perhaps that only manifested itself in his daily life. It would help explain certain collapses and occupational changes, certain of his peregrinations, a fluctuating humor towards relatives and old friends.

His glands appear to divide their tasks normally, amidst the harmony of his basic organs. He does not manifest as satirical, or sarcastic, or epigrammatic. He shows himself to be simple, tolerant, cordial. Riverine rhythms, of overflowing fluency, as well as the majesty of the Bard, evoke the power and character of Bach. When we listen to [the latter's] concertos, masses, or oratories, we forget the doctrinal plot, the mystical assumptions. As when the "Requiem" of Mozart or that of Beethoven enrapture us. We always liked the "Poems of Whitman" in the same way. Letting ourselves rock on the waves of his sequences, savoring the poetic charm of his evocations, his theo-metaphysical chimeras. Grateful for the absence of journalistic truculence, melodramatic pathos, traces of the grotesque, of so many improbabilities and affectations of imagination and style that mar the works of other great poets.

In traversing his woodsy dominions one must set aside European rhetorical models; English or French parks of the seventeenth century; Italian gardens, the retiros of Madrid or Aranjuez.

Whitman is the American of those formative generations and states, that live again in the narratives of Cooper and Bret Harte, and in his own reminiscences.50 Now in the greening meadows of the North, now in the warm lands of the South, now in the harbors and avenues of populous cities.

He would like to saturate the workshops, schools, libraries, and museums with the wild fragrances of the forests, the gusts of the prairies, the balmy emanations of the plateaus, the clear light of the Floridas, the blue immensities of the lakes. And as background, the contrabass of the sea on the shore, the dull roar of the oceans that feed oxygen to the States of the Union.

An autodidact like our Bard could not deprive himself of the oratorical magic of the last "transcendentalists," nor renounce, without perishing ruined, the splendor of his imaginative riches. "I, my soul, and my body go together, a singular threesome." He is too much the bard to divest himself of verbal riches, which imply the faith—still so alive—"in the invisible world, in the soul, and in immortality."


The archaic dualisms that animate the cults and cultures of the Ganges, the Nile, Greco-Egyptian, Judeo-Christian, duplicate human nature and the cosmic stage. They fallaciously divide the concrete frame of events, as in a hall of mirrors. From the myth of the descent of Ishtar to Hell, to the myth of the descent of Ulysses, or Aeneas, to the poetical descent of Alighieri, or Mohammed's flight to the Islamic Eden, the process of cementing belief seems more and more loaded with "spiritual" prestige. These fantasies, turned cultural rites, then cultural abstractions, poetic religious hypostases, seem capable of substituting any being—homo faber, homo credulus—for the immortal mammal of these pseudo-spiritual odysseys.

Names become men. Voices demigods:

Wordiness, Word. Any word, god of a race.

With concrete reality thus fallaciously doubled, beings become substantial "essences." "These supposed quintessences appear subject to the intellectual consequences of their errors, or to Karmic regressions, 'owing to their sins...'"

How to demand that he master those dualisms of the eastern philosophical tradition? Substance and spirit. Good and Evil, visible world, invisible world, body and soul, Light and Darkness, Beauty and Loyalty, Order and Chaos. Did even his greatest contemporaries overcome them? Emerson, Poe, Longfellow, Tennyson, Carlyle, Eucken? Decades later, did not more systematic, more universal thinkers continue to perform theological and theosophical somersaults?

"He appears magnificent because he is diffuse, like gaseous nebulae. Without an original ideological nucleus." He has a wise excuse. None of the more or less neoplatonic masters of his epoch could supply him that nucleus. And to manage it himself would have been fully more prosaic than poetic, more gravitational than weightless! Nearly half a century would have to pass before the mysticisms and idealisms of the fin-de-siècle would be exegetically blasted away. Before the spiritualisms would be rubbed out in the face of co-existential criteria. And they would only reappear, artificially elaborated, by antiquated alchemists like Dilthey, Heidegger, etc.

The military thesis that Thucydides propounds with respect to the Peloponnesian War would imply adaptation and selection: "Only to a small degree does war unfold according to the same laws. It creates its forms as it develops, according to circumstances." Circumstantial accidents keep affecting morphology; organs, instincts, neuropsychic networks. More important than the effects of an internal energetic spring will be circumstantial results. This holds for natatory vesicles turning into airy lungs, the contractile pocket into cardiac muscle, the dorsal nerve cord into the spinal column, nerval antennae into the nervous system, the superior vertebra into the cranial cupola; the hormonal glands, determining sexual, physical, and psychic characteristics. On the quality of endocrine secretions, the fundamental equilibrium of the glands, depend sex, organ development, functional harmony, and neuro-psychic potential. What we call mental energy will be fanned, stimulated by the quality of glandular secretions.

The glands being, biologically, functionally primary, and sexual, physical, and psychic character secondary, speculations about the primacy of "spirit"—fundament of Eastern-mystic and Western philosophies—evaporate. Experiments and discoveries in the endocrine field strengthen the basis of experimental psychology: they confirm the biological truth of the co-existential thesis. That some injections of glandular extracts can effeminize men, masculinize women, repair ovarian deficiencies and illnesses, rejuvenate senilities, normalize psychopathic anomalies! What they cannot yet do is infuse high culture and critical sensibility into those who have not acquired them through arduous selective labors; nor that ethical purification, impervious to social seductions.

These experimental prodigies confirm the intuitions of the Aeda faber, the lattice of hopes in his psalms to the progress of industries and sciences in "Song of the Exposition." His faith in the wholesome and creative future of the common people. He projects his vitalist ethic to the humanities and to future worlds. Despite disasters and partial defeats, everything marches towards ever more global ends. Never, even in the obscurities of old age, does he admit the theocratic prospects to which Nietzsche once alluded: "Do not allow yourself to deceive. Nor consent to such deception. Nor collaborate in deception." Neither does he denigrate by choleric counterpoint like Thoreau: He does not apostrophize the political impresarios; "men of straw who preach to puppets of straw." He does not design temples as "houses of cards adorned with the faces of cards." He does not affront demagogues, the mule-drivers of confessional mobs, holding a mirror to their hypocrisy. He does not denounce the perversion of councils of "philanthropic" institutions in the service of plutocratic hypocrisy, for the domestication of the needy classes.

At the end of his essay on "Germanic Egotism," Santayana mentions a paragraph of Montaigne—steward of the Greco-Latin rationalists, Plutarch and Seneca: Whitman, too, repeats with Girondin savvy: "He who puts before him, as in a painting, this vast image of our mother Nature, in all her majesty. He who sees in her manifestations so much universal and continual variety; he who sees himself within her, simply, like the most delicate of her creatures; and not just himself, but a whole kingdom (the mass of common people), only he tallies things in accord with the true measure of her grandeur."

To give new life to such a sentiment—ancient and modern, in Nature and History—we must reaffirm the civil rights of peoples, untiringly carry on the fight in defense of the civilizing Old Cause. Secularize institutions, secularize culture, secularize education and primary, secondary, normal, and superior instruction. Secularize customs, arts, occupations. For to civilize is to secularize: to secularize is to civilize.

Pursue, teachers, poets, philosophers, statesmen, the eternal civilizing war against "the fierce Eumenides of private interest," incarnate in the Tartuffes in democratic masks, in philanthropic masks, in so many masks by which they carnivalize the servitude of the masses and the commerce in superstitions.

"Let us support the enjoyment of civil privileges, faithfully venerate the Code, immune, glorious."

As for Santayana's animula vagula,51 we shall see whether the spirits of Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Steinach manage to keep it—in the Roman cartouche—from sliding into the limbo of neo-Thomist sublimities.

The paperback copy of Poems of Whitman, in Sempere's first popular edition of 1912, sent to the California International Exposition, was awarded a Gold medal. To the great annoyance of our publisher, we refused the medal—which he would have liked to exhibit in the windows of his editorial office. Our colleague, the American Consul General, told us by way of excuse: "When a great medal is desired an exemplar of luxury was sent..."

In 1942, the [Roosevelt] administration's cultural mediator Rockefeller52 had recorded, on eight large records, some of the most characteristic poems from our translation, recited by an outstanding Mexican actor. The records were then broadcast by the continent's leading stations. We keep those that he had sent to us, as if they were another sort of enormous gold medal.

What we did with Whitman we had done around 1902-1903 with some themes from the ethnographic work of the great Lewis Morgan, author of Ancient Society, in our critical essay The Origin of Institutions, published by Sempere in 1908.

We repeated it in 1918 in our translations of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and Poe's "Raven" and "Ulalume," in collaboration with Olivero.



1. José Martí (1853-1895). The translation of the title of Leaves of Grass, here rendered as Briznas, has long been a point of difference among translators into the Spanish. While briznas captures the particular form of the blade of grass, the more uncomfortable phrase hojas de hierba conveys the pun in Whitman's title on the "leaves" of a book. [back]

2. Abraham Zacarías López-Penha (1865-1927; or possibly his brother David). [back]

3. Enrique José Varona (1849-1933); Amado Nervo (Juan Crisóstomo Ruiz de Nervo) (1870-1919); José Juan Tablada (1871-1945). [back]

4. Félix Rubén García Sarmiento (1867-1916). [back]

5. The phrase "finas hierbas" here can refer to grass, herbs, or poisonous or noxious weeds; the terms also play on the translation of Whitman's title. [back]

6. Darío's 1896 book Los Raros was a compilation of essays about other period writers of what he perceived to be a modern, or modernista, bent: Poe, Ibsen, Martí, Nordeau, etc. [back]

7. Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916); René Ghil (1862-1925); Jules Laforgue (1860-1887); Francis Viélé-Griffin (1864-1937); Antero de Quental (1842-1891). [back]

8. Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938). [back]

9. Paul Groussac (1848-1929). [back]

10. As Vasseur suggests, Lugones references Whitman in the "Introduction" to Gold Mountains, itself in verse form: "Whitman entona un canto serenamente noble./ Whitman es el glorioso trabajador del roble./ Él adora la vida que irrumpe en toda siembra,/ El grande amor que labra los flancos de la hembra;/ I todo cuanto es fuerza, creación, universo,/ Pesa sobre las vértebras enormes de su verso" (15). [back]

11. "Golden trumpets [sounded?] on vellum." [back]

12. Possibly an allusion to Hugo's poem "Words Spoken in the Shadows." Stephen Monte, trans., Victor Hugo Selected Poetry (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001), 129. [back]

13. Auguste Vacquerie (1819-1895). [back]

14. Ernest Lefèvre (1833-1889). [back]

15. As best we can ascertain, there is no English translation of Vacquerie. This may be from "Centenaire de Victor Hugo" (Paris: E, Fasquelle, 1902). [back]

16. These passages are left in the original to preserve Vasseur's comparisons. The French passages read: "God tells his secret to the blade of grass. Eternity wagers on the dew. The wave expresses the ocean." Lugones's passage reads: "God speaks his secret to the leaf of grass." [back]

17. "Therefore." [back]

18. "Creole," e.g. Latin American (rather than Peninsular Spanish). [back]

19. Leopoldo Lugones. Antología Poética. Ed. Carlos Obligado. Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe Argentina, 1941. [back]

20. Vasseur's own book of poems. [back]

21. Laurent Tailhade (1854-1919). [back]

22. Léon Bazalgette (1873-1928). [back]

23. John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). [back]

24. José Hernández. The Gaucho Martín Fierro. Trans. Walter Owen. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1936 (3). [back]

25. Étienne Émile Marie Boutroux (1845-1921); Harald Høffding (1843-1931); André Lalande (1867-1963); Henri Bergson (1859-1941); Xavier Léon (1868-1935); Juliette Adam (née Juliette Lambert) (1836-1936); Camille Mauclair (Séverin Faust) (1872-1945); Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1864-1937). [back]

26. Edmund Gurney (1847-1888); Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901); Sergei Alexseevich Askol'dov (Alekseev) (1870-1945); Henri Delacroix (1873-1937); Rudolf Eucken (1846-1926); Emile Meyerson (1859-1933); Léon Brunschvicq (1869-1944). [back]

27. The final line of Darío's poem "A Roosevelt" ("To Roosevelt"). [back]

28. Robert Burns (1759-1796). [back]

29. "But you, you are a philosopher." [back]

30. Francesc Ferrer i Guardia (1859-1909); Antonio Maura y Montaner (1853-1925); Juan de la Cierva y Peñafiel (1864-1938). [back]

31. Eduardo Marquina (1879-1946); perhaps Armando Palacio Valdés; Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936); Antonio Machado (1875-1939); Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936). [back]

32. Pablo Iglesias Posse? (1850-1925); Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928); Francisco Giner de los Rios (1839-1915); José María de Cossío? (1892-1977); Juan Soriano? (Juan Rodríguez Montoya, 1920-2006). [back]

33. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). [back]

34. This preface is available in English and the original Spanish in the Walt Whitman Archive's digital edition of the 1912 Poemas. [back]

35. In the section following, emphasis and parenthetical and bracketed comments and exclamations in quotations by Santayana are added by Vasseur. This first long quotation treating Whitman specifically is from George Santayana, "The Poetry of Barbarism," in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, first published in 1900. [back]

36. The word "extranjero," here rendered as "foreigner," can also mean "alien" in Spanish. [back]

37. Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy (New York: Scribner's, 1915). [back]

38. The following quotations from Santayana are based on parts of "A Brief History of My Opinions," which discusses the genesis of Santayana's book The Life of Reason. See Santayana, The Philosophy of Santayana, ed. I. Edman (New York: Scribner's, 1953), esp. 14-15. Vasseur does not discuss (or may not have known) other Santayana texts that discuss Whitman: The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (New York: Scribner's, 1896); "Walt Whitman: A Dialogue," Harvard Monthly 10 (May 1890): 85; and "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," in Winds of Doctrine (New York: Scribner's, 1913): 186-215. Taken together, Kenneth Price argues, Santayana's essays reveal a "divided mind" about Whitman. Price, Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in His Century (New Haven: Yale UP, 1990), 133. [back]

39. Santayana, Dialogues in Limbo (London: Constable, 1925). [back]

40. Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471). [back]

41. "I am the savage old prowler of the sea,/ Who roams night and day about the somber isles." Vasseur is likely citing a poem by Hugo that begins, "J'etais le vieux rôdeur sauvage de la mer,/ Une espèce de spectre au bord du gouffre amer" ('Octobre I', L'annee terrible); it is not clear from which poem Vasseur cites his second line. [back]

42. This comment by Whitman is from the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, from Whitman's response to Emerson's famous letter of praise in response to the first edition of 1855 (Vasseur's emphasis). [back]

43. Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695). [back]

44. This section is taken from Jean de La Fontaine's seventeenth-century poem "Invocation." See Lucas, St. John, comp., The Oxford Book of French Verse, XIIIth century-XIXth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1920). Vasseur has, characteristically, considerably pared down and altered the order of La Fontaine's poem. [back]

45. "What we call glory—it's you, divine voluptuousness. The gifts of Flora, why have they been made? The setting suns, the auroras? The forests, the waters, the prairies? Mothers of sweet reveries? I love games, love, books, music. The city, and the countryside, everything. There is nothing. Nothing that isn't supremely good to me. Even the somber pleasure of a melancholic heart. "Oh, Venus, your being lacks nothing: neither the lilies, nor the roses: neither the exquisite mix of the most beautiful things, nor the secret charm that enchants the eye. Not even grace, more beautiful than beauty itself. There is no soldier, no captain, no prince, no subject, who does not have you as his object.

"Come then; and of this goodness, oh sweet voluptuousness, can you know how much [I want]? I need at least... more than I need. The sweet recollection of these charming things follows me in the deserts. Haunts my heart." [back]

46. Lucretius, from De rerum natura, invoking Venus: "Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men...." [back]

47. The love that moves the sun and the other stars... [back]

48. In the original: "Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a planer and more emphatic language...." [back]

49. Federico Olivero, El romanticismo inglés, trans. Álvaro Armando Vasseur (Madrid: América, 1917). [back]

50. James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). [back]

51. "Little wandering soul." From a poem by Hadrian, written as an epitaph: "Animula vagula blandula/ hospes comesque corporis/ quae nunc abibis in loca/ pallidula rigida nudula/ nec ut soles dabis iocos." [back]

52. Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979). [back]


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