Walt Whitman's Good-Bye My Fancy
"The Second Annex to Leaves of Grass."
(September 1891), 51-2.
In one way Walt Whitman may be said to be very unlike his poet-compeers,
ancient or modern - in his inability in any sort to efface, in prose or
poem, his own personality. It is all a part of him. His life is in
it all: 'tis what he is, thinking, seeing, hearing, feeling - more outwardly
than inwardly, perhaps. He has no characters; is never dramatic. He is
always on the march -
"I tramp a perpetual journey;" -
going somewhere - seeing somewhat, hailing, greeting, saluting - reverencing,
too, in the good sense of the term. One may not care for this or that so-called
poem - think it no poem, for that matter; but take his book, with its accumulating
"annexes," for all in all, and you cannot well get away from it, are glad
to have it around, lying near handy; and are more apt than otherwise to
light on a line, or many lines, that go to the spot, as he himself might
say, and yield full satisfaction. In reading Emerson's verse to others,
I have at times found a disturbance from the thought and beauty of it all
(with a secret wish that I had not begun to read and a vow that I would
never do the like again), by my auditor's smile or half sneer at the author's
sometimes forced rhymes or prosy lines; as though that were the point,
and mattered at all. To hear a poem only with the outer ear is not to hear
it at all - nine times in ten. And the tenth time, more than likely, there
is no poem to hear. Reading Whitman aloud is even more difficult. Not for
the faulty rhyme - for the absence of any intention of that sort eliminates
that difficulty - but for the same inability of average mortals to detect
beneath the strange in form, or the supposed want of proper poetic form,
the breathing of a poet-spirit. Lowell voices in the best way it can be
voiced this limitation, or to my mind wrong poetic notion, in his "Fable
"Then comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one,
The critic could hear the poem underneath Emerson's prose, because
Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on;
Whose prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows,
Is some of it pr - - No, 'tis not even prose."
"Aye climb for his rhyme,"
closes the finer ear to the revelation.
"In the worst of his poems are mines of rich matter.
And beyond, amid, or underneath the "crash" and the "clatter" there
is no vibratory soul-music. And yet -
But thrown in a heap with a crash and a clatter."
"Now, it is not one thing nor another alone
When the critic in the next line intimates that this "something pervading,
uniting the whole" may be lost "just in moving this trifle or that," and
Makes a poem, but rather the general tone,
The something pervading, uniting the whole,
The before unconceived, unconceivable soul."
"Take away, as it were, a chief limb of the statue."
he is intent on the perfection of the artificer or builder, so seeking
the poem's life, loses it. Lost to him because of faulty form; but for
another, willing the "unconceivable soul" should build its own form, not
dictatory, not outwardly measuring, there may abide all the force and beauty
of a spiritual or poetical vision; the glimpsing of that which, after all,
for the most part, lies beyond the ken of sight, or power of words or painter's
brush to report, - "the unconceived, unconceivable soul." Poetry is ever
suggestion; never "a twice-told tale of God." There is Lowell's "Foot-Path."
"It mounts athwart the windy hill
What lies beyond?
Through shallow slopes of upland
And fancy climbs with footfall still
Its narrowing curves that end in
"What Nature for her poets hides,
The "prying, peeping critic" here takes to his heels; the poet comes
joyously forward, and modestly:
'Tis wiser to divine than clutch."
"The bird I list hath never come
Within the scope of mortal
My prying step would make him dumb,
And the fair tree, his shelter,
"Behind the hill, behind the sky,
Behind my inmost thought,
No feet avail; to hear it nigh,
The song itself must lend
"I know not, and will never pry,
The culture, the skill, the art, that close this "open sense," turns the
poet blind from his vision.
But trust our human heart
Wonders that from the seeker fly
Into an open sense may fall."
Art lies in knowing how little is needed. A new vista, and the work
is done. This is the "open secret" in all true civilizing - to get rid
of the superfluous and be not only content but well supplied with little.
Neither too much, nor too much finish. Whitman speaks of "the last polish
and intellectual 'cuteness of Emerson," but just whether to like it or
not, I don't make out. To my reading the "polish" and the "'cuteness" both
go to rendering best things in smallest compass. In this respect Whitman
does not himself, certainly, err. He owns up for himself: "I have probably
not been enough afraid of careless touches from the first - and am not
now - nor of parrot-like repetitions, nor platitudes and commonplace."
And yet, perhaps again, he would have spent it all or very much of it had
he faltered for such "intellectual "'cuteness" or to give a "last polish."
One may with profit to himself do considerable editing, abbreviating or
omitting altogether phrases and lines. But solely, as I think, it is their
redundancy that is disturbing - this however, in his longer poems, wherein
one at times loses himself in nothing special or tires of too much "cataloguing."
Whitman says, "Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances." (Of this
much talk of the "democratic" there may be something to say another time.
Just now to say that it sometimes reminds me of my Sunday-school teacher's
encomium of the universal, democratic, paternal idea of "the good God,
who knows and has numbered every hair on your head, even the hairs of your
eyebrows, and each drop of blood in your entire system." But it always
seemed to me there was no small "waste of powder" in such exactitude: as
though a few hairs more or less, or drops of blood, much mattered - to
the soul of me!)
To leave preface just at the end and come to the book - most welcome
is this 'Second Annex.' No, you had "not better withhold." There is no
"old age" nor "paralysis" here that tires, or makes me sorrow that you
have kept and given forth these
"Last droplets of and after spontaneous rain."
"This little cluster" brings fragrant memories and old-age excellencies
- "from sane, completed, vital, capable old age." Well, I agree (and it
please me) - "The final proof of song or personality [and I have but stumbled
on this now after penning the above] is a sort of matured, accreted, superb,
evoluted, almost divine, impalpable diffuseness and atmosphere or invisible
magnetism, dissolving and embracing all - and not any special achievement
of passion, pride, metrical form, epigram, plot, thought, or what is called
beauty." You have done well to "improve to-day's opportunity;" but
do not "wind up" - till you do wind up. All these last little chants, songs,
greetings, come with especial flavor of friendliness, as do all the bits
of reminiscence. Especially have I enjoyed "Old Actors, Singers, Shows,
etc." - you say in "New York;" but I had my hearing of most of those you
mention elsewhere. The sad thing of it all is the "sooner or later inevitably
wending to the flies or exit-door - vanishing to sight and ear - and never
materializing on this earth's stage again!" Why things cannot stay and
be and remain on and on, when once they come - that is the question. And
the answer is, "Perhaps, most likely, they do - and will, forever!"
The two poems that always appear to my mental view when I think of or
turn Leaves of Grass are: "The Song of the Open Road" and "The Mystic
That they are so much different from or superior to others in the same
volume, I do not presume to say; but they for some reason have fixed themselves
in among my likings, and I turn the leaves sometimes with a sort of half
fearing they may have some way escaped their rootings, and are no longer
there. I am sorry the book is not now before me, that I may refresh myself
with lines that it would also be here a pleasure to quote. But here at
hand is "When the Full-Grown Poet Came" - a short poem, but one that holds
philosophy for all - poet or non-poet - if such there be - equally concerned
with the same reconciliation and harmony. I will read it again for myself
and write it out as I read:
"When the full-grown poet came,
Out spake pleased Nature (the round, impassive globe, with all
its shows of day and
Saying, He is mine;
But out spake, too, the Soul of man, proud, jealous and unreconciled,
Nay, he is mine
- Then the full-grown poet stood between the two, and took each
by the hand;
And to-day and ever so stands, as blender, uniter, tightly holding
Which he shall never release until he reconciles the two,
And wholly and joyously blends them."
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