Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future" (1881)
Author:
Barnett, Robert W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This essay, Walt Whitman's most succinct commentary on the evolution of poetry in America, was written in 1881 and published in the February issue of the North American Review. It first appeared under the name of "The Poetry of the Future" and was later included in Whitman's collected works. Historically, it has remained in the shadows of his other, more prominent prose pieces.

In the essay, Whitman argues that America must produce a class of poets that reflects not only the democratic principles of our country, but one that moves beyond the feudalism of Europe, illustrated most obviously by Shakespeare—and by his followers Sir Walter Scott and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His understanding of feudalism in the British Islands led him to see beyond its "tyrannies, superstitions, [and] evils" and to believe that from the great poetry it produced, America could learn valuable lessons in the development of its own democratic society and representative bards. It was Whitman's firm belief that the United States should, from the "mass of foreign nutriment" found in the feudalism of Europe, expand, nationalize, and—through its growth process—present its own great literatures (476).

Whitman's praise for Shakespeare's profound influence on American literature and its poets did not, however, preclude him from waging "hornet-stinging criticism" (477) on Shakespeare's representation of the feudalistic society in his writing. Such representation, in Whitman's mind, served to undermine the development of great poetry in America because of Shakespeare's (and other great writers') portrayal of the caste system, which the United States had come to destroy. Whitman's reference in the article to Thomas Jefferson's verdict on Scott's Waverley novels suggests that they shed "entirely false lights and glamours over the lords, ladies, and aristocratic institutes of Europe" (477), and then ignored the suffering of the lower class citizens. Whitman rejected this model as unfit for America because he believed that the emerging identity of a young and radical republic should be rooted in the identity and convictions of its great poets—past, present, and future.

The future of poetry in America becomes central to this essay. Whitman reiterated what he had earlier professed in 1855, when he wrote the Preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass that the poetry of the future would embody the individual, the free expression of emotion, the powerful uneducated masses, and the central identity of the country. He believed that liberty and freedom, cornerstones of a democratic nation, would become paramount in producing the true poets and the true poems of the world. Only then would the universal appeal of American literature rise above the great works of John Milton, Shakespeare, and others, and serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Whitman also believed that if a great literature of the United States was to emerge, the poets of the future would have to rely on nature as much as they would rely on history. His comparison of the future of poetry to "outside life and landscapes" (481) is a theme present not only in this essay, but one woven intricately into Leaves of Grass. For Whitman, nature represented a clear reflection of the individual, a reflection he believed must be fully absorbed by the poets of the future.

Bibliography

Clarke, Graham. Walt Whitman: The Poem as Private History. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Dvorak, Angeline Godwin. "A Response to Nature: Prelude to Walt Whitman." CEA Critic 54.1 (1991): 58–61.

Mulqueen, James E. "Walt Whitman: Poet of the American Culture-Soul." Walt Whitman Review 22.4 (1976): 156–162.

Whitman, Walt. "Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 474–490.


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