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Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)

Leaves of Grass New York. 1855. London. Horsell.

WE had ceased, we imagined, to be surprised at anything that America could produce. We had become stoically indifferent to her Woolly Horses, her Mermaids, her Sea Serpents, her Barnums,1 and her Fanny Ferns;2 but the last monstrous importation from Brooklyn, New York, has scattered our indifference to the winds. Here is a thin quarto volume without an author's name on the title-page; but to atone for which we have a portrait engraved on steel of the notorious individual who is the poet presumptive. This portrait expresses all the features of the hard democrat, and none of the flexile delicacy of the civilised poet. The damaged hat, the rough beard, the naked throat, the shirt exposed to the waist, are each and all presented to show that the man to whom those articles belong scorns the delicate arts of civilisation. The man is the true impersonation of his book—rough, uncouth, vulgar. It was by the merest accident that we discovered the name of this erratic and newest wonder; but at page 29 we find that he is—

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a Kosmos, Disorderly, fleshly, and sensual.

The words 'an American' are a surplusage, 'one of the roughs' too painfully apparent; but what is intended to be conveyed by 'a Kosmos' we cannot tell, unless it means a man who thinks that the fine essence of poetry consists in writing a book which an American reviewer is compelled to declare is 'not to be read aloud to a mixed audience.' We should have passed over this book, Leaves of Grass, with indignant contempt, had not some few Transatlantic critics attempted to 'fix' this Walt Whitman as the poet who shall give a new and independent literature to America—who shall form a race of poets as Banquo's issue formed a line of kings. Is it possible that the most prudish nation in the world will adopt a poet whose indecencies stink in the nostrils? We hope not; and yet there is a probability, and we will show why, that this Walt Whitman will not meet with the stern rebuke which he so richly deserves. America has felt, oftener perhaps than we have declared, that she has no national poet—that each one of her children of song has relied too much on European inspiration, and clung too fervently to the old conventionalities. It is therefore not unlikely that she may believe in the dawn of a thoroughly original literature, now there has arisen a man who scorns the Hellenic deities, who has no belief in, perhaps because he has no knowledge of, Homer and Shakspere; who relies on his own rugged nature, and trusts to his own rugged language, being himself what he shows in his poems. Once transfix him as the genesis of a new era, and the manner of the man may be forgiven or forgotten. But what claim has this Walt Whitman to be thus considered, or to be considered a poet at all? We grant freely enough that he has a strong relish for nature and freedom, just as an animal has; nay, further, that his crude mind is capable of appreciating some of nature's beauties; but it by no means follows that, because nature is excellent, therefore art is contemptible. Walt Whitman is, as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics. His poems—we must call them so for convenience—twelve in number, are innocent of rhythm, and resemble nothing so much as the war-cry of the Red Indians. Indeed, Walt Whitman has had near and ample opportunities of studying the vociferations of a few amiable savages. Or rather perhaps, this Walt Whitman reminds us of Caliban3 flinging down his logs, and setting himself to write a poem. In fact Caliban, and not Walt Whitman, might have written this:

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Is this man with the 'barbaric yawp' to push Longfellow into the shade, and he meanwhile to stand and 'make mouths' at the sun? The chance of this might be formidable were it not ridiculous. That object or that act which most develops the ridiculous element carries in its bosom the seeds of decay, and is wholly powerless to trample out of God's universe one spark of the beautiful. We do not, then, fear this Walt Whitman, who gives us slang in the place of melody, and rowdyism in the place of regularity. The depth of his indecencies will be the grave of his fame, or ought to be if all proper feeling is not extinct. The very nature of this man's compositions excludes us from proving by extracts the truth of our remarks; but we, who are not prudish, emphatically declare that the man who wrote page 79 of the Leaves of Grass deserves nothing so richly as the public executioner's whip. Walt Whitman libels the highest type of humanity, and calls his free speech the true utterance of a man: we, who may have been misdirected by civilisation, call it the expression of a beast.

The leading idea of Walt Whitman's poems is as old as the hills. It is the doctrine of universal sympathy which the first poet maintained, and which the last on earth will maintain also. He says:

Not a mutineer walks handcuffed to the jail but I am hand- 
 cuffed to him and walk by his side,
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the  
 last gasp.

To show this sympathy he instances a thousand paltry, frivolous, and obscene circumstances. Herein we may behold the difference between a great and a contemptible poet. What Shakspere—mighty shade of the mightiest bard, forgive us the comparison —expressed in a single line,

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,

this Walt Whitman has tortured into scores of pages. A single extract will show what we mean. This miserable spinner of words declares that the earth has 'no themes, or hints, or provokers,' and never had, if you cannot find such themes, or hints, or provokers in

The veneer and gluepot . . .the confectioner's ornaments . . .the  
 decanter and glasses . . .the shears and flatiron;
The awl and kneestrap . . .the pint measure and quart measure  
  . . .the counter and stool . . .the writingpen of quill or metal;
Billiards and tenpins . . . . . . the ladders and hanging ropes of  
 the gymnasium, and the manly exercises;
The designs for wallpapers or oilcloths or carpets . . . . . . the  
 fancies for goods for women . . . . . . the bookbinder's stamps;
Leatherdressing, coachmaking, boilermaking, ropetwisting,  
 distilling, signpainting, limeburning, coopering, cotton- 
The walkingbeam of the steam-engine . . .the throttle and  
 governors, and the up and down rods,
Stavemachines and plainingmachines . . . . . . the cart of the  
 carman . . .the omnibus . . .the ponderous dray;
The snowplough and two engines pushing it . . . . . . the ride in  
 the express train of only one car . . . . . . the swift go through  
 a howling storm:
The bearhunt or coonhunt . . . . . . the bonfire of shavings in the  
 open lot in the city . . .the crowd of children watching;
The blows of the fighting-man . . .the upper cut and one-two-  
The shopwindows . . .the coffins in the sexton's wareroom . . . . . .  
 the fruit on the fruitstand . . . . . . the beef on the butcher's  
The bread and cakes in the bakery . . . . . . the white and red  
 pork in the pork-store;
The milliner's ribbons . . .the dressmaker's patterns . . . . . . the  
 tea-table . . .the home-made sweetmeats:
The column of wants in the one-cent paper . . .the news by  
 telegraph . . . . . . the amusements and operas and shows:
The cotton and woolen and linen you wear . . . . . . the money  
 you make and spend;
Your room and bedroom . . . . . . your piano-forte . . . . . . the stove  
 and cookpans,
The house you live in . . . . . . the rent . . . . . . the other tenants . . . . . .  
 the deposite in the savings-bank . . . . . . the trade at the  
The pay on Saturday night . . .the going home, and the purchases;

Can it be possible that its author intended this as a portion of a poem? Is it not more reasonable to suppose that Walt Whitman has been learning to write, and that the compositor has got hold of his copy-book? The American critics are, in the main, pleased with this man because he is self-reliant, and because he assumes all the attributes of his country. If Walt Whitman has really assumed those attributes, America should hasten to repudiate them, be they what they may. The critics are pleased also because he talks like a man unaware that there was ever such a production as a book, or ever such a being as a writer. This in the present day is a qualification exceedingly rare, and may be valuable, so we wish those gentlemen joy of their GREAT UNTAMED.

We must not neglect to quote an unusual passage, which may be suggestive to writers of the Old World. To silence our incredulous readers, we assure them that the passage may be found at page 92:—

Is it wonderful that I should be immortal? As every one is immortal, I know it is wonderful; but  
 my eyesight is equally wonderful, and how I was  
 conceived in my mother's womb is equally wonderful.
And how I was not palpable once but am now, and was born  
 on the last day of May 1819, and passed from a babe  
 in the creeping trance of three summers and three  
 winters to articulate and walk, are all equally wonderful.
And that I grew six feet high, and that I have become a  
 man thirty-six years old in 1855, and that I am here  
 anyhow,are all equally wonderful.

The transformation and the ethereal nature of Walt Whitman is marvellous to us, but perhaps not so to a nation from which the spirit-rappers sprung.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags; I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

Here is also a sample of the man's slang and vulgarity:

This hour I tell things in confidence, I might not tell everybody but I will tell you. Who goes there! hankering, gross, mystical, nude? How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat? What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you? All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own, Else it were time lost listening to me. I do not snivel that snivel the world over, That months are vacuums, and the ground but wallow and  
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the  
 end but threadbare crape and tears.

And here a spice of his republican insolence, his rank Yankeedom, and his audacious trifling with death:

I rose this morning early to get betimes in Boston town. Here's a good place at the corner. I must stand and see the  
I love to look on the stars and stripes. I hope the fifes will  
 play Yankee Doodle.
I will whisper it to the mayor, he shall send a committee to  
They shall get a grant from the Parliament, and go with a  
 cart to the royal vault.
Dig out King George's coffin, unwrap him quick from the  
 grave-clothes, box up his bones for a journey.
Find a swift Yankee clipper: here is freight for you, black- 
 bellied clipper.
Up with your anchor! shake out your sails, steer straight  
 towards Boston Bay.
The committee open the box and set up the regal ribs, and  
 glue those that will not stay,
And clap the skull on top of the ribs, and clap a crown on  
 top of the skull.
You have got your revenge, Old Buster!

We will neither weary nor insult our readers with more extracts from this notable book. Emerson has praised it, and called it the 'most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.' Because Emerson has grasped substantial fame, he can afford to be generous; but Emerson's generosity must not be mistaken for justice. If this work is really a work of genius—if the principles of those poems, their free language, their amazing and audacious egotism, their animal vigour, be real poetry and the divinest evidence of the true poet—then our studies have been in vain, and vainer still the homage which we have paid the monarchs of Saxon intellect, Shakspere, and Milton, and Byron. This Walt Whitman holds that his claim to be a poet lies in his robust and rude health. He is, in fact, as he declares, 'the poet of the body.' Adopt this theory, and Walt Whitman is a Titan; Shelley and Keats the merest pigmies. If we had commenced a notice of Leaves of Grass in anger, we could not but dismiss it in grief, for its author, we have just discovered, is conscious of his affliction. He says, at page 33,

I am given up by traitors; I talk wildly, I am mad.


1. The showman and entertainer Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) emphasized in his American Museum (purchased in 1842) sensational and even freakish attractions, some bogus and some legitimate. [back]

2. Fanny Fern was the pseudonym of Sara Payson Willis (1811-1872), an extraordinarily successful newspaper columnist and author of the semi-autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (1854). [back]

3. In Shakespeare's The Tempest Caliban is a half-human slave, son of the witch Sycorax and a devil and symbol of base and lustful urges. [back]

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