Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Our Book Table

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: February 27, 1856

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00020

Source: The New York Daily News 27 February 1856: 1. The electronic text for this file was prepared by Whitman Archive staff, who transcribed the text from a representation of the original (e.g., digital scan or other electronic reproduction, microfilm copy). For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the reviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Charles Green, and Todd Stabley

Our Book Table.

LEAVES OF GRASS. Entered according to Act of Congress, by Walter Whitman, &c., &c., Brooklyn.

A new edition, we believe, of the famous Whitman's poems, which made such a flutter among the "gray goose quills" of this city and "other quarters of the globe" some time ago. Of the poem which occupies the ninety-five pages of this folio, we have before briefly spoken. Upon examining it a second time, and pondering its aims and expressions, we feel constrained to say that it is certainly the strangest, most extraordinary production we have ever attempted to peruse. Still, like the rest of our countrymen, we are by no means either averse to extraordinary things or afraid of them. We enjoy enterprise in speech and writing as thoroughly as in steam vessels, revolving rifles or new-found Nicaraguas. Therefore we shall not quarrel with Mr. Whitman for being odd. Oddness is the normal condition of some natures—of the freshest and best, perhaps—at least when it means frankness and opposition to solemn propriety, alias humbug and red tape.

Mr. Whitman's preface is what the hum-drum world calls "queer" as entirely perhaps as his poem, yet we think a great deal of it both finely and bravely uttered as well as true. None can, more than we do, entirely hate that cant which always ascribes this or that kind of writing to this or the other "school," as if the young author had necessarily in every instance copied some model; as if two similarly constituted minds may not naturally seek similar expression! It is precisely this stupid, stereotyped classification adopted by indolent or clique-led reviewers, that has produced so many abortions in literature through the straining after at least the appearance of total originality, but to give future readers of this book some indication of its style, ere they have opened it, we will say that it is Germanic and Carlylean—even Emersonian—sometimes in the strain of Martin Farquhar Tupper,1 although far stronger and more pointed than the latter.

The poem exhibits undoubted and striking evidence of genius and power. But the author reasoning that the spirit of the American people, nay, of any people is chiefly represented by its uncultivated though, perhaps, naturally intelligent classes, falls into the error of mistaking their frequent uncouthness as a fair revelation of that spirit, and the bathos often produced in some of his finest passages by the presence of this idea defaces his work and repels hundreds of candid minds who would be eager to acknowledge his claims, but are thus prevented from reading enough to recognize them.

In glancing rapidly over the "Leaves of Grass" you are puzzled whether to set the author down as a madman or an opium eater; when you have studied them you recognize a poet of extraordinary vigor, nay even beauty of thought, beneath the most fantastic possible garments of diction. If Hamlet had gone mad, in Ophelia's way, as well as in his own, and in addition to his own vein of madness, he might, when transported to our own age and country, have talked thus.

In a crush hat and red shirt open at the neck, without waistcoat or jacket, one hand on his hip and the other thrust into his pocket, Walt Whitman the b'hoy poet, on his muscle, writes sentences like these:

"A child said, What is grass?—fetching it to me with
full hands.
How could I answer the child…I do not know what it
is any more than he.
. . . . . . . . .
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of
. . . . . . . . .
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of
old mothers.
Darker than the colorless bears of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
Oh I perceive, after all, so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.["]


["]Press close, bare bosomed night! Press close
magnetic nourishing night!
Night of South winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night! Mad naked Summer night!
. . . . . . . . .
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths!
Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshovelled and always ready

His own picture:

"Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a Kosmos,
Disorderly, fleshy, sensual…eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist…no stander above men and women or
apart from the,…no more modest than immodest."

Yet, he is a sentimentalist! Read the lines beginning

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey
work of the stars, etc.—"

He is a painter, carver and sculptor:

"A gigantic beauty of a stallion, fresh and responsive to my
Head high in the forehead and between the ears,
Limbs glossy and supple, tail dusting the ground,
Eyes well apart and full of sparkling wickedness…ears
finely cut and flexibly moving."

He is a genuine "rough"—a male muse in horse-blanket and boots. Sometimes he is "Mose;" sometimes almost a Moses.

He enjoys "he-festivals with blackguard jibes, and ironical license, and bull dances, and drinking, and laughter." Then he is

"Pleased with primitive tunes of the choir of the white-
washed church,"

And then you see him

"Walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle
god by his side."

Now, with him, we

"Visit the orchards of God, and look at quintillions green."


"Go hunting polar furs and the seal…leaping chasms
with a pike-pointed staff…clinging to topples
of brittle and blue.["]

Read this noble passage:

"How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of
steamship, and death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back one inch, and was
faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalked in large letters on a board; Be of good cheer,
We will not desert you;
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gowned women looked when boated from
the side of their prepared graves.
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the
sharp-lipped unshaven men;[.]"

We are tempted to quote many strophes from this remarkable collection of genius inebriated with its own overflowing fountains of fancy, but must conclude with the following fine lines, referring to past struggles for freedom, and predicting a future:

Meanwhile corpses lie in new-made graves…bloody corpses
of young men:
The rope of the gibbet hangs heavily…the bullets of princes
are flying…the creatures of power laugh aloud,
And all these things bear fruits…and they are good.
Those corpses of young men,
Those martyrs that hang from the gibbets…those hearts pierced
by the gray lead,
Cold and motionless as they seem…live elsewhere with
unslaughter'd vitality.
They live in other young men, O kings,
They live in brothers, again ready to defy you:
They were purified by death…They were taught and exalted.
Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for
freedom…in its turn to bear seed,
Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the
snows nourish.
Not a disembodied spirit can the weapons of tyrants let loose,
But it stalks invisibly over the earth…whispering counseling
Liberty let others despair of you…I never despair of you.
Is the house shut? Is the master away?
Nevertheless be ready…be not weary of watching,
He will soon return…his messengers come anon.

For the sum of 75 cents any reader may accompany Whitman through a poetic chaos—bright, dark, splendid, common, ridiculous and sublime—in which are floating the nebulae and germs of matter for a starry universe of organized and harmonious systems that may yet revolve, in all the magnificence of artistic order, through the highest heaven of fame!

As proof that whatever may be the merits or demerits of this singular production, we may state that very many thousand copies have been sold and the demand is still increasing.


1. Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) wrote Proverbial Philosophy, a book of didactic moral and religious verse. [back]


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