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Transatlantic Latter-Day Poetry


Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, New York: 1855. London: Horsell.)

—"Latter-day poetry" in America is of a very different character from the same manifestation in the old country. Here, it is occupied for the most part with dreams of the middle ages, of the old knightly and religious times: in America, it is employed chiefly with the present, except when it travels out into the undiscovered future. Here, our latter-day poets are apt to whine over the times, as if Heaven were perpetually betraying the earth with a show of progress that is in fact retrogression, like the backward advance of crabs: there, the minstrels of the stars and stripes blow a loud note of exultation before the grand new epoch, and think the Greeks and Romans, the early Oriental races, and the later men of the middle centuries, of small account before the onward tramping of these present generations. Of this latter sect is a certain phenomenon who has recently started up in Brooklyn, New York—one Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass, who has been received by a section of his countrymen as a sort of prophet, and by Englishmen as a kind of fool. For ourselves, we are not disposed to accept him as the one, having less faith in latter-day prophets than in latter-day poets; but assuredly we cannot regard him as the other. Walt is one of the most amazing, one of the most startling, one of the most perplexing, creations of the modern American mind; but he is no fool, though abundantly eccentric, nor is his book mere food for laughter, though undoubtedly containing much that may most easily and fairly be turned into ridicule.

The singularity of the author's mind—his utter disregard of ordinary forms and modes—appears in the very title-page and frontispiece of his work. Not only is there no author's name (which in itself would not be singular), but there is no publisher's name—that of the English bookseller being a London addition. Fronting the title is the portrait of a bearded gentleman in his shirt-sleeves and a Spanish hat, with an all-pervading atmosphere of Yankee-doodle about him; but again there is no patronymic, and we can only infer that this roystering blade is the author of the book. Then follows a long prose treatise by way of Preface (and here once more the anonymous system is carried out, the treatise having no heading whatever); and after that we have the poem, in the course of which, a short autobiographical discourse reveals to us the name of the author.

A passage from the Preface, if it may be so called, will give some insight into the character and objects of the work. The dots do not indicate any abbreviation by us, but are part of the author's singular system of punctuation:—

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies…but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors…but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships—the freshness and candour of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage…their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous, or soft, or mean—the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states—the fierceness of their roused resentment—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul…their good temper and open-handedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.

This "gigantic and generous treatment," we presume, is offered in the pages which ensue. The poem is written in wild, irregular, unrhymed, almost unmetrical "lengths," like the measured prose of Mr. Martin Farquhar Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy, or of some of the Oriental writings. The external form, therefore, is startling, and by no means seductive, to English ears, accustomed to the sumptuous music of ordinary metres; and the central principle of the poem is equally staggering. It seems to resolve itself into an all-attracting egotism—an eternal presence of the individual soul of Walt Whitman in all things, yet in such wise that this one soul shall be presented as a type of all human souls whatsoever. He goes forth into the world, this rough, devil-may-care Yankee; passionately identifies himself with all forms of being, sentient or inanimate; sympathizes deeply with humanity; riots with a kind of Bacchanal fury in the force and fervour of his own sensations; will not have the most vicious or abandoned shut out from final comfort and reconciliation; is delighted with Broadway, New York, and equally in love with the desolate backwoods, and the long stretch of the uninhabited prairie, where the wild beasts wallow in the reeds, and the wilder birds start upwards from their nests among the grass; perceives a divine mystery wherever his feet conduct or his thoughts transport him; and beholds all beings tending towards the central and sovereign Me. Such, as we conceive, is the key to this strange, grotesque, and bewildering book; yet we are far from saying that the key will unlock all the quirks and oddities of the volume. Much remains of which we confess we can make nothing; much that seems to us purely fantastical and preposterous; much that appears to our muddy vision gratuitously prosaic, needlessly plain-speaking, disgusting without purpose, and singular without result. There are so many evidences of a noble soul in Whitman's pages that we regret these aberrations, which only have the effect of discrediting what is genuine by the show of something false; and especially do we deplore the unnecessary openness with which Walt reveals to us matters which ought rather to remain in a sacred silence. It is good not to be ashamed of Nature; it is good to have an all-inclusive charity; but it is also good, sometimes, to leave the veil across the Temple.

That the reader may be made acquainted with the vividness with which Walt can paint the unhackneyed scenery of his native land, we subjoin a panorama:—

By the city's quadrangular houses . . . in log-huts, or camping with lumber-men, Along the ruts of the turnpike . . . along the dry gulch and rivulet bed, Hoeing my onion-patch, and rows of carrots and parsnips . . . crossing savannas . .  
 trailing in forests,
Prospecting . . . gold-digging . . . girdling the trees of a new purchase, Scorched ankle-deep by the hot sand . . . hauling my boat down the shallow river; Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead . . . where the buck turns  
 furiously at the hunter,
Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock . . . where the otter is feed- 
 ing on fish,
Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou, Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey . . . where the beaver pats the  
 mud with his paddle-tail;
Over the growing sugar . . . over the cotton plant . . . over the rice in its low,  
 moist field;
Over the sharp-peaked farmhouse with its scalloped scum and slender shoots from the  
Over the western persimmon . . . over the long-leaved corn and the delicate blue  
 flowered flax;
Over the white and brown buckwheat, a hummer and a buzzer there with the rest, Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze; Scaling mountains . . . pulling myself cautiously up . . . holding on by low  
 scragged limbs,
Walking the path worn in the grass and beat through the leaves of the brush; Where the quail is whistling betwixt the woods and the wheatlot, Where the bat flies in the July eve . . . where the great goldbug drops through the  
Where the flails keep time on the barn floor, Where the brook puts out of the roots of the old tree and flows to the meadow, Where cattle stand and shake away flies with the tremulous shuddering of their hides, Where the cheese-cloth hangs in the kitchen, and andirons straddle the hearth-slab,  
 and cobwebs fall in festoons from the rafters;
Where triphammers crash . . . where the press is whirling its cylinders; Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes out of its ribs.
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