Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: Walker Kennedy

Date: June 1884

Whitman Archive ID: anc.01076

Source: North American Review 138 (June 1884): 11. 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: Ashley Lawson, Kyle Barton, Janel Cayer, and Elizabeth Lorang

Walt Whitman


TEN or twelve years ago I read in an English magazine a review of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." It contained several selections from the book which induced a feeling of utter bewilderment. Since that time I have read sundry other compositions of the "good gray poet," and always the effect has been the same. As one stumbles through the uncouth chants, the mixed metaphors, the hirsute style, the ragged similes, and the rickety grammar of the "Leaves of Grass," he begins to feel that he is lost in a wild jungle, and must trust to luck to get out. The ordinary compass will avail him naught. The poet must be judged by none of the received standards.

In a recent issue of a New York journal, Walt Whitman casts a backward glance on his own road. Even in this sketch, it is no easy task to divine what he is driving at. His vagueness of style and elusiveness of thought pervade even this prose article in which he endeavors to set forth some of the motives and theories involved in his "Leaves." Criticism on that extraordinary production has taken the shape of indiscriminate eulogy, or has confined itself to a condemnation of the glaring vulgarity of the book. This general arraignment of the work for its immorality has probably been the cause of its sale. Let it be announced that the author has expunged from it all the unseemly passages, and he will find that it will very soon die. Walt Whitman has been chanting his own praises so long, and has made such noisy claims for his writing, that a criticism of his "Leaves" may not be untimely. There is still considerable curiosity about him and his book, and some sort of settled opinion should be reached and a verdict pronounced upon the worth of his alleged poems. If they are rubbish, it is well enough to say so.

In his latest article Mr. Whitman says:

"Many consider the expression of poetry and art to come under certain inflexible standards, set patterns, fixed and immovable, like iron castings. To the highest sense, nothing of the sort. As, in the theatre of to-day, 'each new actor of real merit (for Hamlet or any eminent rôle) recreates the persons of the older drama, sending traditions to the winds, and producing a new character on the stage,' the adaptation, development, incarnation, of his own traits, idiosyncrasy, and environment,—'there being not merely one good way of representing a great part, but as many ways as there are great actors,'—so in constructing poems."

There are certain inflexible standards for fine art and poetry as well as for the stage, and the wings of genius have never lagged because of them. An actor recreates Hamlet by his personal magnetism, his subtler grasp of Shakespeare's meaning, his finer mastery of motives underlying the character, and his ability to project an animated, picturesque portraiture upon the sensibilities of the audience. Suppose, however, he undertook to play the part in a cutaway coat, a plug hat, corduroy trowsers, and green stockings; suppose he interpolated modern "gags" in the soliloquies, or recited "To be or not to be" while standing on his head! He would be original, but intolerable. However great might be his genius, however fiercely he might cast stage traditions to the winds, there are certain standards he could not destroy. He would have to preserve the dignity of the character, its psychological prominence, its intensity, and its morbid intellectuality. In literature it is the same. Standards of some kind must ballast the writer, or he may go on to Ursa Major. There are two kinds of literature,—prose and poetry; and, as Monsieur Jourdan says, everything written is either one or the other. Unless some kind of metrical arrangement is observed by a writer, then his production is prose. Emerson is allowed to diverge widely from ordinary rhythm, but no one doubts that he has written poetry. Whitman claims that his "Leaves" are poems, using the word in the old Greek sense, probably. It is hard to admit that the "Leaves" are either prose or poetry. Nothing but a purgatory of their own is adapted to their reception. They are literary mermaids, without the legendary interest associated with those mythologic characters.

But Mr. Whitman says "no one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism. I hope to go on record for something different—something better, if I may dare to say so." No one is likely to insist that the poet aimed very sedulously at art; but if "Leaves of Grass" is not a literary performance, what is it? It is surely not a scientific treatise nor a passage of music. It is a literary work, and when Mr. Whitman does not want it judged as such he appears in the part of the man endeavoring to escape the issues he himself has forced. There are curt, balky, uneasy writers who bring us divine messages in their ungraceful way; they leave with us burning thoughts leading to higher resolves and splendid aspirations. Their style may be deplorable, but we understand them. We know that they bear a message to us, and do not expect from them facility of verse or even pliancy of language. Their meaning is clear, their thought sharply outlined, their purpose tangible and coherent.

Is Mr. Whitman such a writer? Most assuredly he is not. While it would be unfair to him to judge his work by the "set patterns," it is certainly allowable to look at it from the standpoint of common sense. We have a right to insist that all reputable work shall have a meaning, and it is permissible to criticise its aim, to show where it has failed or succeeded, to point out its beauties or its defects. It is true that the violet-ink novelists, like Howells and James, decry all purpose in literature; but their own productions are sufficient refutation of their theories. The man who writes or acts without a purpose is a fool.

What is the raison d'etre of "Leaves of Grass"? Has the author ever stated in intelligible English the purpose of his book? Is its aim moral, political, scientific, aesthetic? Is it written in the interest of democracy, or of the intellectual classes? Very likely its author would claim that its purpose is collective. Has it inspired any one with greater love for humanity; has it caused the torch of patriotism in the hand of any individual to burn the brighter; has it lifted a single soul from its despair; has it brought sunshine to any heart; has it given new hopes; has it sweetened religion; has it encouraged science; has it given new wings to the imagination; has it led the intellect into new paths of light and knowledge; has it cleared up any of our doubts or thrown the slightest ray of helpful light upon our questionings? If it has done none of these things, the reason of its being is not apparent.

But, some of Mr. Whitman's admirers say, it is written from a democratic stand-point. If this is the case, the people ought to be able to understand it; but the ordinary man would regard "Leaves of Grass" as the production of a maniac. Only the "gifted few" can discover any sense in "Leaves of Grass"; and what particular message they get from it is past the comprehension of one of the ungifted many. The work, of course, is defective in its literary form. Even its author admits that. Moreover, it has the faults of bad grammar, incomplete sentences, misuse of words, and incoherence of ideas. There is about as much consecutiveness in the "Song of Myself" as there is in a dream originating in too much shrimp salad for supper. A transcript of the dream would be as valuable as the "Song of Myself."

Mr. Whitman says that "the volumes were intended to be most decided, serious, bona fide expressions of an identical individual personality—egotism if you choose, for I shall not quarrel about the word." In this connection, Mr. Whitman quotes a saying of Carlyle's, that "there is no grand poem in the world but is at bottom a biography—the life of a man." It is noticeable here that Carlyle does not say an autobiography. Mr. Whitman is mistaken. The "ego" is usually voted a nuisance in fiction and works of imagination. And it is just as well for us to continue setting down as a vain and disagreeable fellow the man who speaks always of himself as if he were the universe. Egotism hardly does justice to Mr. Whitman's condition. It should be termed the delirium of self-conceit.

The "Song of Myself" is probably a fair sample of Walt Whitman's style and purposes, and there is no injustice in judging him by it. If the critic or the laborious reader were to devote himself to this "poem," what would he find in it? I will attempt a partial summary of it. He begins by saying "I celebrate myself and sing myself." After celebrating and singing himself, he continues: "I loafe, and invite my soul." We may define him then to be a sort of loafer-poet. Having shown that he is not too much of a loafer to be a poet, and vice versa, he continues: "I harbor for good or bad. I permit to speak at every hazard nature without check, with original energy." In other words, he erases the words restraint, modesty, and shame from his vocabulary, and drops the distinction between decency and indecency. He would confound all our previous conceptions of good and evil; and, if his theory were carried out, where would be maidenly modesty and youthful delicacy? He might as well contend that everybody should forswear clothes and strut about in puris naturalibus. The poet begins his pilgrimage in houses full of fragrance; then he goes out in the air to the bank by the wood and becomes undisguised and naked. "I am mad," he says, "for the air to come in contact with me." This is the language of the lunatic asylum rather than that of poetry. Then follows an enumeration of abstract and concrete things, about which he predicates nothing. It reminds one of the negro's story of the storm that blew down the house but left the roof standing. The poet fails to provide an adequate support for his words, but leaves them suspended in mid-air. After he has made mincemeat of these barbaric phrases, he says: "Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems." In the phantasmagoria that follows, if the reader can discover the origin of anything, he is entitled to it. Whitman continues:

"There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there now."

This is the climax of nonsense, and carries one back to the alleged philosophers who claimed that motion was an impossibility, and pain a myth. What becomes of evolution, progress, civilization? There could be no more depressing belief than this, for it means nothing but universal death. Fortunately, it is disproved by science, by history, and by religion. After winging his way through another space of inky obscurity, the poet says: "The unseen is proved by the seen, till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn." Now what does this mean? He starts out with the seen, which needs no proof, and establishes from it the unseen. So far, it is clear; but now the seen becomes unseen, and receives proof in turn. Proof of what? That it is unseen. The necessity for proving the unseen is not apparent. If the poet intends to convey the idea that there is an invisible order of things, an unseen universe, why does he not say so? And if he did, it is not a matter of proof or demonstration, but of hope and conjecture. His dictum is mere verbal jugglery.

The poet then exalts his body, and this physical delirium runs all through the song at intervals; but there is no new and divine message here. The doctors tell us that the body is not vile, nor any of its parts; and when a genuine poet called it the temple of God, he said all that was necessary to say concerning it. Whitman "believes in the flesh and the appetites," meaning libidinous desire. In this respect he is not unlike the libertine. Indeed, this "Song of Myself" is the chant of the roué. Resuming, he enumerates the people around him, the events happening about him, the battles, the feelings, anything and everything that chances to run in his mind, and concerning them all he says:

"These come to me days and nights, and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself."

Has this passage any meaning? Whitman says he is not a battle, or a fever, or a dress, or a dinner, or a compliment. Neither is he a pancake, a turnip, or a sardine. If he means that his soul stands apart from and uncontrolled by matter, why not say so? If he means the contrary, why not say so? If he means that he is a mere isolated spectator of human events, is it not easy enough for him to make his meaning clear to the average intellect?

Then he announces to his soul that he believes in it, and goes on to chant: "Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat," etc. Naturally, one would infer that he was still addressing his soul. If so, he becomes ridiculous; for he gives the soul a throat and a voice. When we read farther we find he is addressing some one else, but whom we cannot divine. He says:

"I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning,"

etc. The matter that follows is too vulgar for quotation. The passage is simply nauseating and devoid of sense.

The next incident is a child's bringing him a handful of grass, and asking him what it is. Of course, he does not know, but he proceeds to make up a wild "yawp" about it, nevertheless; and he drifts next to the subject of death, and says it is as lucky to die as to be born, and he knows it. For one, I don't believe he knows anything of the kind. He says:

"I am not an earth, nor an adjunct of an earth;
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as
Immortal and fathomless as myself;
(They do not know how immortal, but I know)."

Nor is he a comet, a meteor, or a ring of Saturn. "They do not know how immortal they are, but I know," is evidently regarded by him as a valuable bit of confidence. The plebian mind, however, will wonder how there can be degrees of immortality. We could just as well ask how long a man would live if he lived forever.

Now follows another jungle of people and things, which he says are for him; but he omits to say why they are "for him," and what he intends doing with them. Let us catalogue them in regular order: Male and female, boys, those that love women, the proud man, the sweetheart, the old maid, mothers, mothers of mothers, lips, eyes, children, the baby, the youngster, the red-faced girl, the suicide, the corpse, the blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of promenaders, omnibus, driver, sleighs, clank of horses, jokes, snow-balls, hurrahs, the mob's fury, flap of litter, a sick man, meeting of enemies, oaths, blows, a fall, crowd, policeman, stones, groans, exclamations, speech, arrests, slights, assignations, rejections, etc. The writer gives us here a bare enumeration of living beings, inanimate objects, abstractions, that have no bearing on each other, obey no sequence, and teach no lesson. An inroad into Mitchell's geography would be far more significant and useful. As a description of a street scene it is lame, hueless, and unnatural.

The bard's next transition is to the country; but he fails to give us any connecting links to show whence he went, why he went, or whither he went, though he does not fail to tell us what he did when he got there. He did exactly what one would expect him to do, after one has read the "Song of Myself" up to this point. Instead of acting as a rational man, he "jumps from the cross-beams of the wagon, seizes the clover and timothy, and rolls head over heels and tangles his hair full of wisps." This kind of individual would jump out of a third-story window, instead of contenting himself with viewing the prospect through it. He is next hunting out in the wilds; then he is at sea; then at a clambake; then at the marriage of a trapper and an Indian girl. A runaway slave comes to his house and sits next to him at his table. This episode fixes his attention for a moment, and his mind wanders again, and he sees twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore—

"Twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly:
Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome."

In the next paragraph the poet says:

"She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank;
She hides, handsome and richly drest, aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah, the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you;
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather;
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glistened with wet, it ran from their long hair:
Little streams pass'd all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies;
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs."

Who they are, what they have to do with the poem, how they could lead twenty-eight years of "womanly" life, what difference it makes whether they were so friendly and so lonesome or not, how they could be so lonesome if there were twenty-eight of them, and how they could be so friendly if they were all lonesome, are a few of the riddles suggesting themselves to the mind of the unbeliever in reading this passage. It has been suggested to me that the paragraph is intended as a picture of twenty-eight women who are lonesome because deprived of the society of twenty-eight men who are accustomed to associate together to the neglect of the women; but the phrase "twenty-eight years of womanly life" is hardly synonymous with "twenty-eight women." And who is this mysterious "she," and what is she doing? Is she engaged in the unmaidenly act of watching the men bathe? If there is a suggestiveness here except the suggestiveness of an unclean mind, it is not apparent.

By this time the reader is in a positive whirl; but the poet continues to exhibit his wax-works, and introduces the butcher-boy, the blacksmith, and possibly the baker and the candlestick maker. He next sees a negro driving a dray, and from him he goes by the usual degrees to the wild gander leading his flock. A little further on, "the pure contralto sings in the organ loft," and "the carpenter dresses his plank." Another convulsion seizes the writer at this juncture, and he gives us a catalogue of all sorts of people and professions. He jumps from a steam-boat to a ball, from one of the seasons to one of the States. At one time he is in Missouri, and at another in a street-car. There is no telling where he will alight next.

It would not be profitable to carry the analysis further. It is evident that the "Song of Myself" leads nowhither, and that it is the unsystematic, unpruned expression of a very peculiar mind. A few more quotations may be pardoned, as showing to what extremes language can go. For instance, this abrupt paragraph:

"Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?"

It is, of course, impossible for the reader to say who goes there. Possibly he doesn't care. As for the second question, that may be respectfully referred to the physiologist, who can answer it to any man's satisfaction. One fails to see what the bard is hankering after, and why he is nude. The connection between his being mystical and his eating beef is also a mystery, from which he has not lifted the veil. Again he says:

"I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums, and the ground but wallow and filth."

In one place he says, "I know that I am deathless," and in another declares himself a materialist. He speaks of the sea as the "howler and scooper of storms." He finds the scent of the armpits "aroma finer than prayer." These quotations might be strung out endlessly, but they would afford merely cumulative proof of the rankest kind of rebellion against common sense. It is not to be denied that at times the reader detects the gleam of the diamond in this mass of rubbish. The poet has evidently thought and read of many things, but his comments convey a hint of indigestion. When one finishes reading the "Song of Myself," it is impossible for him to give a rational review of what it is, and what it is intended to teach. It is a failure, because the writer has neglected that very art which he professes to despise. The word "art," which is as wide in its significance as the heavens, has often been degraded by careless thinkers into a synonym of form, when it is in reality the execution of truth. Thought is never valuable unless it is clear and comprehensible. An obscure thought is hueless, tasteless, and devoid of nourishment. If Mr. Whitman's thinking is obscure, it is not worth the preserving. On the other hand, his thoughts may be true and clear, but he may lack fitting expression, just as a man may have a perfect conception of harmony and have no voice for song. It is in giving adequate, tangible expression to clean, valuable thinking, that the writer or poet justifies himself. He should have something to tell, and he should tell it. Unless he can do so, he has no business posing as a poet. Shakespeare found the English language and the established modes of composition spacious enough for his transcendent genius. Cicero, Virgil, and Horace were not trammeled by the polished completeness of Latin. Dante could express all his thoughts in artistic Italian, while Goethe and Schiller never thought of rebelling against the rules of German grammar and the accepted modes of composition. The man who has a story to build will never fail for want of verbal tools; if he falters, it will be because he knows not how to use them. If he has a message to deliver, wings are convenient; but he must know how to fly with them. We have a right to insist that a definite subject or story shall be selected, and that it shall be developed artistically, and in such a way as to be grasped. When Wagner, the musical revolutionist, set about the consummation of his theories, every musician understood perfectly what his theories were, though many angrily doubted and denied that music could respond to the call he made upon it. In all his labor there were system, consecutiveness, and art; otherwise, he would have failed. Has Mr. Whitman enunciated an intelligible theory? He speaks vaguely about poetry being written under the influence of our democratic institutions. Well and good. Now, Dame Columbia may insist on free thought and free speech; but she is not maudlin, nor incoherent. Her head is clear, her mien self-reliant, her actions brisk and animated, her perception acute, and her imagination warm and glowing. There is nothing confused or aimless about her. A literature in accord with democracy would partake of these attributes. If Mr. Whitman desires an original American literature, his plea is praiseworthy. The material for a literature that will do honor to the English tongue is to be found in this country, and the mine is now being worked. I feel no hesitation in saying that the spirit of Mr. Whitman's poetry is the contrary of the democratic spirit, because it is deficient in clearness, in consistency, in art, and in common sense. At first blush there may seem to be a kinship of liberty; but the liberty of democracy is the highest evolutionary step in the struggle for the rights of man, while the liberty of Walt Whitman's poetry is license of thought and anarchy of expression. Most people take pride in conquering the thoughts which he takes a riotous glee in giving vent to.

The thinking man of to-day finds himself beset with in-crowding problems, and the mission of literature should be to relieve him from the depressing sense of the infinities. In no way can cheer be flashed into his darkened, perplexed mind except by preserving as a holy thing his faith in the unseen and spiritual, by keeping a line perpetually drawn between the just and the unjust, by placing what is good aloft in conspicuous splendor and sending evil to the gloomy shadows below; by preserving the ideals of purity and "sweetness and light"; by fixing virtue on a lasting pedestal and dethroning vice from its seat in the hearts of men. The man who obscures these valuable results of moral teaching, who leaves a doubt in the mind as to whether good is preferable to evil, who exalts the flesh—that incubus upon the loftiest dreams of purity—and calls the soul the body, can hardly be considered as bringing with him a message that we are bound either to receive or to respect.



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