Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855 Edition
Author:
French, R.W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

It was the unfortunate fate of Whitman's Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to vanish almost immediately after publication into a shadowy existence that effectively obscured its place as a pioneering manifesto of American literary and cultural history. Whitman never allowed the complete text of 1855 to be reprinted in America during his lifetime, nor did he permit the Preface to be reissued in any form in an American edition of his poems.

After 1855, the next reprinting came in London thirteen years later, in the 1868 selected Poems of Walt Whitman edited by W.M. Rossetti. In this text of the Preface, punctuation was normalized, and with Whitman's consent deletions were made in a few passages in order to eliminate potentially objectionable language. After another thirteen-year interval, the Preface was again published in London, in an 1881 pamphlet issued by Trübner and Company under the title "Leaves of Grass By Walt Whitman. Preface to the Original Edition, 1855." The Trübner text restored deleted words and phrases, and in various other ways it was closer to Whitman's original.

The 1855 Preface was not reissued in America until 1882, in Specimen Days & Collect. For this printing Whitman made extensive revisions; besides changes in punctuation and style, and some slight additions, there were deletions that reduced the length of the Preface by about one-third, with a consequent diminution of force. This abbreviated version was reprinted in the Complete Poems & Prose of 1888 and in the Complete Prose Works of 1892.

At the same time that the 1855 Preface was disappearing as a prose document, it was taking on a new life, of sorts, in Whitman's poetry. Many of its lines and phrases were transcribed, revised, or paraphrased to become parts of poems, particularly in the 1856 and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass. Most indebted were (to give the poems their final titles) "By Blue Ontario's Shore" and "Song of Prudence"; other poems dependent in varying degrees on the Preface were "Song of the Answerer," "To You [Whoever you are...]," "Tests," "Perfections," "Suggestions," "Assurances," "A Child's Amaze," and "To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire." The ultimate transformation of the Preface into poetry was not, however, Whitman's; it came in 1982 when William Everson arranged the entire Preface into verse under the title American Bard.

That the Preface should be finally recast as poetry is entirely appropriate, since it shares many of the qualities of Whitman's early poems. Its voice is energetic and impassioned; its language is full of concrete imagery and specific details, including extended catalogues that would not be out of place in "Song of Myself." In structure the Preface is Emersonian, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet," which Whitman heard Emerson deliver in 1842 and to which the Preface may be profitably compared. The coherence of the Preface is not that of ordered development, but rather that of active thought, as it ranges freely over concepts of the American nation and of the poet; in addition, statements about the soul recur throughout, so that the word gathers the structural force of a leitmotif.

Whitman's primary focus is on the identity and aesthetics of the poet. He leads indirectly, although purposefully, into this subject by describing America as a nation still in the process of creating itself; the implication, as the rest of the Preface makes clear, is that the United States has yet to find the poet it deserves and requires. Calling America "a teeming nation of nations," distinguished from others by its "ampler largeness and stir," Whitman approaches his major theme by asserting that the nation is itself no less than poetry. "The Americans," he states grandly, "of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" (Comprehensive 709).

Most important in the composition of this "poem" are the characteristics of the common people: "these too," Whitman declares, "are unrhymed poetry" (Comprehensive 710). Now the time has come for the American bard to come forth and write the poetry of his nation and its people, giving his subject "the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it" (710). This treatment demands that the poet take into himself all the dynamic variety of America. First of all, the poet is to be "commensurate with a people," and second, he is to incorporate the landscape into his being: "His spirit responds to his country's spirit … he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes" (711). The poet must then write poetry both "transcendant and new," poetry suitable for the "psalm" of the American republic (712).

Restating a central assertion, Whitman declares that "Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest" (712). The Preface then turns from consideration of the American identity to focus in detail on characteristics of the poet, or, more particularly, of "the greatest poet," to use Whitman's dominant epithet. Although this poet will write the songs of America, he transcends nationality, as he is also a mythic poet "of the kosmos," godlike in knowledge and judgment, a true creator who brings the perceived world into being: "He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less" (712).

The poet is also a "seer" who guides his people into visionary knowledge (713). Depictions of "dumb real objects" are good in themselves, but, Whitman goes on to say, people expect the poet to do more: "they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls" (714). That purpose is central, as the soul itself is central: "Only the soul is of itself … all else has reference to what ensues" (724). Like Emerson, Whitman begins with an exalted concept of soul.

In order to accomplish his essential purposes, the poet must have aesthetic as well as political freedom. The form of poetry is crucial. "The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems," Whitman states, "show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form" (714). Poetic form must be organic, as free to follow its own development as any object in nature; otherwise the poem can never be wholly true.

Similarly, if the soul is to find its way into truth, it must follow its own laws above all. The poet is to be an Emersonian nonconformist, that "heroic person [who] walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not" (717). The truth cannot be imposed, for it comes from within: "Whatever satisfies the soul is truth" (725). This truth of the soul must be expressed simply and directly, unobscured by ornaments of style. "What I tell," Whitman declares, "I tell for precisely what it is" (717).

It follows from this aesthetic of truth that the findings of science are of central importance to poetry. "Exact science," Whitman insists, "and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet but always his encouragement and support" (718). The object, always, is to know reality, even at the cost of displacing traditional belief; confronted with scientific truth, Whitman writes, "The whole theory of the special and the supernatural and all that was twined with it or educed out of it departs as a dream" (719). In a revolutionary statement that leads directly into "Song of Myself," Whitman declares that it is "not consistent with the reality of the soul to admit that there is anything in the known universe more divine than men and women" (719).

The divinity of men and women demands their freedom; thus the poet must be liberator as well as creator. "In the make of the great masters," Whitman writes, "the idea of political liberty is indispensible"; and, he adds, "the attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots" (720). As the Preface nears its conclusion, Whitman presents a climactic apocalyptic vision in which figures of authority—he mentions priests in particular—will disappear, to be replaced by a new order of freedom in which "every man shall be his own priest" (727). Like the poet of "Song of Myself," the poet of the Preface points the way to freedom.

Although overshadowed by the poetry that followed, the 1855 Preface remains a major critical document and a compelling manifesto. In language of unusual excitement and vitality, it offers a compilation of romantic values and attitudes, including such central themes as these: exaltation of the common people; sympathy for the oppressed and unfortunate; rejection of traditional authority; affirmation of individual autonomy; insistence on human rights and universal freedom; commitment to progress; trust in the soul as the ultimate source of power and knowledge; love of nature; belief in the possibilities of apocalyptic renewal; assertion of the poetic imagination as an index of truth; and faith in the poet, and in poetry, as means to enlightenment. As this summary may suggest, Whitman's 1855 Preface deserves comparison with the works of Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and, of course, Emerson.

In 1855, the Preface closed with the sentence, "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it" (729). Whitman deleted that sentence from all future printings published in America during his lifetime, perhaps as a result of his awareness that the country had not absorbed him, affectionately or otherwise, and that the truth of the matter was what he expressed in that essay of his mellow old age (as the 1855 Preface is the essay of his iconoclastic youth), "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," published in 1888. In that work Whitman stated with disarming frankness, "I have not gain'd the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future" (Prose Works 2:712). In its revised and abbreviated text, the Preface concludes with the sentence, "The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets" (Prose Works 2:458). The burden of response is left with the nation.

Bibliography

Duerksen, Roland A. "Shelley's 'Defence' and Whitman's 1855 'Preface': A Comparison." Walt Whitman Review 10 (1964): 51–60.

Everson, William. American Bard. The Original Preface to Leaves of Grass Arranged in Verse. New York: Viking, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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