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Review of Leaves of Grass (1856)

LEAVES OF GRASS.— Brooklyn, N. Y.

This is a new, enlarged and stereotyped edition of that singular production of "Walt Whitman," whose first appearance in '55 created such an extraordinary sensation in the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic. The first edition—which was duly noticed in these columns—contained twelve poems. In the present edition those poems are revised, and twenty others are added. The form of the book has been changed from 4 to 16mo, and the typography is much improved.

The work, in its singular character, we understand to be an assertion of a two-fold individuality for the author: of himself personally, and of himself nationally; and the author, by example at least, to be an advocate of as much for all of his nation. A bold example he sets. The titles of the poems are various, and the poems under them present differences; yet through them all, with whatever else, runs one vital view; one ontological lesson in the same idiosyncratic strain.

Fanciful, fertile, and free in words, yet often, conventionally speaking, inelegant, and sometimes downright low; simple, abrupt, and detached sentences; frequently aphoristic, yet diffuse and uniform, sometimes to tediousness; at times strikingly clear and forcible, and again impenetrably obscure; a meeting of the extremes of literalness and metaleptic figures—of tiresome superficial details and comprehensive subtle generalities, oddities, ruggedness and strength; these are the chief characteristics of his style. There occur frequent instances of all- important and majestic thought, and so fitly expressed that the dissonance to the unaccustomed ears of the reader cannot prevent his stopping to admire. The matter is characterized by thought rather than by sentiment. The right and duty of man with the passions are enjoined and celebrated, rather than the passions themselves. There are speculative philosophies advanced, upon which readers will differ with the author and with each other; and some of these to intolerant conventionalists will give offense. We are not prepared to endorse them all ourselves. And there are practical philosophies of which he treats, destined to encounter fiercer repugnance. But the book is not one that warrants its dismissal with disgust or contempt. There is a deep substratum of observant and contemplative wisdom as broad as the foundation of society, running through it all; and whatever else there is of questionable good, so much at least is a genuine pearl that we cannot afford to trample it under our feet. The poems contain some lessons of the highest importance, and possess a further value in their strong suggestiveness. We accord to the leading idea of the work alone, personal with national individuality, exemplified and recommended as it is, an incalculable value. The poems improve upon a second reading, and they may commonly require a repetition in order to [gain] a deserved appreciation, like a strange piece of music with subtle harmonies.

The work is altogether sui generis, unless we may call it Emersonian. That name is ample enough to cover a multitude of oddities and excellencies; but that it is not shaped to all the radiations of the unbridled muse of the author under notice we think a single extract from his first poem will show:

I am the poet of the body, And I am the poet of the soul. The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains  
 of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter  
 I translate into a new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a  
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother  
 of men.
I chant a new chant of dilation or pride, We have had ducking and deprecating about  
I show that size is only developement.
Have you outstript the rest? Are you the Presi-  
It is a trifle—they will more than arrive there every  
 one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing  
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosomed night! press close mag-  
 netic, nourishing night!
Night of south winds! night of the large few stars! Still, nodding night! mad, naked summer night!
Smile O voluptuous, cool-breathed earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees! Earth of departed sunset! earth of the mountains,  
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon, just  
 tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the  
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds, brighter and  
 clearer for my sake!
Far swooping elbowed earth! rich, apple-blossomed  
Smile, for your lover comes!
Prodigal! you have given me love! therefore I to  
 you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love!
Thruster holding me tight, and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the  
 bride hurt each other.
You sea! I resign myself to you also, I guess what  
 you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting  
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of  
We must have a turn together—I undress—hurry  
 me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse, Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Sea of stretched ground-swells! Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths! Sea of the brine of life! sea of unshovelled and al-  
 ways-ready graves!
Howler and scooper of storms! capricious and dainty  
I am integral with you—I too am of one phase, and  
 of all phases!
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