Walt Whitman's Good-Bye My Fancy
Critic [New York] n.s. 16
(5 September 1891), 114.
The Greeks put in their graves an image of Hermes the psychopompos
to convey the spirit over into the land of shades. 'Good-bye, my Fancy!'
is Walt Whitman's Hermes-image to convey his parting salutations to the
afterworld. In its sixty-six pages we have a medley and motley of prose
and verse like what the countryman calls the rich 'strippings' of the cow's
milk, the last and oiliest, the most nutritious and creamiest of the lacteal
fountain. A few things here have been published before. The Critic's readers
have tasted and enjoyed the uncloying 'Old Man's Rejoinder,' 'For Queen
Victoria's Birthday,' 'The Pallid Wreath' and 'Unassail'd Renown'; but
the bulk of the book - its stem, stalk and flower - is new to the public
and has not before tempted the intellectual palate.
I sing of life, yet mind me still of Death,
is the keynote of the volume, in which the author humorously calls
himself a sea-shell cast up by the sea. Yet does he not remember the wonderful
susurrus of that Wordsworthian shell which, though far inland, whispered
of its native place even as that susurrus in the soul whispered of immortality?
The almost dead shell of the 'greybeard sufi' has a live soul in it capable
still of radiant abalone-like iridescences. The chemist's tincture brings
out these wondrous tints even as opportunity will elicit them from the
'conch' of Camden.
In fact, here I am these current years 1890 and '91 (each successive
The 'shell' is indeed a part of the 'frolicsome wave' which laves it into
exquisite curves and colors. This is Whitman's universal quality, his sympathy,
his world-wide hand-clasp, his general salutation to the universe. The
shell and the sea are comrades, and so is every creeping and smiling or
sailing and winged creature - comrades all in that catholic- apostolic
camaraderie which includes every sprout and germ of the divine energy -
a camaraderie as close and as kind as that which clasped hamadryad and
enclosing oak together. Death, which inspires so many of these beautiful
irregular lines, looms up magical and benign before a mind simply wondering,
not abashed - the 'eidólon-yacht' of his soul ready to put forth
on its mirage-haunted seas with utmost trustfulness. Whitman's beliefs
come out singularly strong and triumphant here and there among the creed-leaves
of the book: beliefs in future personality, identity, immortality, a merciful
and loving God, progress, consciousness: he peoples that dim world with
these, and it becomes immediately lustrous. These brave beliefs ring almost
gayly through 'An Ended Day,' 'The Pallid Wreath,' 'My 71st Year,' 'Shakespeare-Bacon's
Cipher,' and other protests against materialism, often as beautifully expressed
as Tennyson's or Whittier's vital faith. Indeed, the whole book is a book
of 'last words' from dying lips sealing a life that has been blameless.
There is no sound of lamentation or Job-cry in it, pervaded as it is with
bright, broad optimism, the grace of benignant utterance, the egoism of
a healthy and gracious child. Almost the only querulous note is the plaintive
reference to rejected MSS. sent in to the 'great magazines.' The generous
recognition of Tennyson and Ruskin and the other English and American admirers
has offset this, and kept the paralyzed author from real want. The last
twenty pages or so are full of Pascal-like pensées grouped in paragraphs,
vividly poetic, many of them, with Whitmanesque threads and colorations
running all through. Such are 'A Death-Banquet,' 'Some Laggards Yet,' 'Splinters,'
'Health,' 'Crossing from Jersey City,' 'An Engineer's Obituary' (his brother),
and the 'Old-Age Jottings.' Histrionic New York of thirty or forty years
ago reappears delightfully in 'Old Actors, Singers, Shows, etc.' - a tell-tale
bead of personal recollections in which the author suspends a votive offering
before each vanished image and lingering voice, all quaintly carved in
his own rich involved English. Much ruddy philosophy courses through these
recollections - healthy love of the drama, love of a beautiful voice, love
of Shakespeare and the great artists - of Alboni and Jenny Lind and Fanny
Kemble and fine reading.
getting stiffer and stuck deeper), much like some hard-cased dilapidated
ancient shell-fish or time-bang'd conch (no legs, utterly non-locomotive)
up high and dry on the shore-sands, helpless to move anywhere - nothing
but to behave myself quiet, and while away the days yet assign'd, and
if there is anything for the said grim and time-bang'd conch to be
got at last
out of inherited good spirits and primal buoyant centre-pulses down
deep somewhere within his gray-blurr'd old shell.... And old as I am
I feel to-
day almost a part of some frolicsome wave.
The author turns the kodak on himself and reveals each inner sanctuary
of his moral and physical nature. Now in his seventy-third year, he is
as fresh and piquant as ever, as devoted to his great 'America,' his ideal
Democracy, his poetic theories as he was in 1855, when he began jotting
down his revolutionary memoranda. And at the forefront of it all looks
out a portrait - profile rounded like the arch of the full moon, nebulous,
Ossianlike, but striking in its filmy vagueness.
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