Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: Recent Poetry

Creator: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [unsigned in original]

Date: December 15, 1881

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00086

Source: The Nation 33 (15 December 1881): 476-7. The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here. 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, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Todd Stabley


[ . . .] We have read anew, from a sense of duty, the original and unexpurgated Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, as now reprinted, with some milder additions (Osgood). It cannot be said of them, as Sir Charles Pomander, in "Christie Johnstone," says of his broken statues, that "time has impaired their indelicacy." This somewhat nauseating quality remains in full force, and we see no good in their publication except to abate the outcries of the Liberal League against Mr. Anthony Comstock and his laws respecting obscene publications. So long as Leaves of Grass may be sent through the mails, the country is safe from over-prudery, at least. Mr. Whitman is often ranked with the "fleshly school," and his circle of English admirers is almost identical with the coterie whose apostles are Swinburne and Wilde. But the erotic poems of these authors are to those of Whitman as rose-water to vitriol. The English poets have at their worst some thin veneering of personal emotion; with Whitman there seems no gleam of anything personal, much less of that simple, generous impulse which makes almost every young man throw some halo of ideal charm about the object of his adoration. Whitman's love, if such it can be called, is the sheer animal longing of sex for sex—the impulse of the savage, who knocks down the first woman he sees, and drags her to his cave. On the whole, the condition of the savage seems the more wholesome, for he simply gratifies his brute lust and writes no resounding lines about it.

Leaving this disagreeable aspect of the matter, we are impressed anew, on reading these poems, by a certain quality of hollowness, which is nowhere more felt than in the strains called "Drum-Taps." It would be scarcely worth while to bring these strains to any personal test, perhaps, did not Mr. Whitman's admirers so constantly intrude his personality upon us; but we cannot quite forget what Emerson says, that "it makes a great difference to a sentence whether there be a man behind it or no." When Mr. Whitman speaks with utter contempt of the "civilian" (p. 252), and claps the soldier on the back as "camerado" (p. 251), we cannot help thinking of Thackeray's burly and peaceful Jos. Sedley at Brussels, just before the battle of Waterloo, striding and swaggering between two military officers, and looking far more warlike than either. One can be aroused to some enthusiasm over the pallid shop-boy or the bookish undergraduate who knew no better than to shoulder his musket and march to the front in the war for the Union; but it is difficult to awaken any such emotion for a stalwart poet, who—with the finest physique in America, as his friends asserted, and claiming an unbounded influence over the "roughs" of New York—preferred to pass by the recruiting-office and take service in the hospital with the non-combatants.

When we come to purely intellectual traits, it is a curious fact that Mr. Whitman, by the production of one fine poem, has overthrown his whole poetic theory. Dozens of pages of his rhythmic prose are not worth "My Captain," which among all his compositions comes the nearest to accepting the restraints of ordinary rhyme. His success in this shows that he too may yet be compelled to recognize form as an element in poetic power. The discovery may have come too late, but unless he can regard its lessons he is likely to leave scarcely a complete work that will be remembered; only here and there a phrase, an epithet, a fine note—as when the midnight tolling for General Garfield is called "The sobbing of the bells." These are the passages which his especial admirers style "Homeric," but which we should rather call Ossianic.1 The shadowy Gaelic bard rejected the restraints of verse, like Whitman, and reiterated his peculiar images with wearisome diffuseness and minuteness. To be sure, he was not an egotist, and he kept within the limits of decency; but he gave fine glimpses and pictures, while there was always a certain large, free atmosphere about all his works. They were translated into all languages; he was ranked with Homer and Virgil; Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte were his warm admirers—and the collections of English poetry do not now include a line of his composing. If Whitman, after the same length of time, proves more fortunate, it will be because he wrote "My Captain."

Extremes meet, and many of Mr. Whitman's admirers are also enamored of the peculiarly hot-house atmosphere of Mr. Rossetti. We may be mistaken, but we see in his new volume a healthier strain than before, both in the sonnets added and in the subtraction of others. [ . . .]


1. The Works of Ossian is an influential cycle of poems translated and published by James Macpherson in 1765. Macpherson's claim that the poetry was of ancient Scots Gaelic origin resulted in a long running controversy over its authenticity. [back]


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