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The New Poets


LEAVES OF GRASS Boston: THAYER & ELDRIDGE. Year 85 of the States—1860-61. 1 vol., pp. 456.

Five years ago a new poet appeared, styling himself the representative of America, the mouthpiece of free institutions, the personification of all that men had waited for. His writings were neither poetry nor prose, but a curious medley, a mixture of quaint utterances and gross indecencies, a remarkable compound of fine thoughts and sentiment of the pot-house. It was not an easy task to winnow the chaff from the wheat, the tares came up in such heavy luxuriance that they stunted the chance kernels of the grain, and nothing but the most vigorous of threshing was adequate to the elimination of one pure thought. That first edition of the Leaves of Grass was the earliest appearance of Mr. WALT. WHITMAN as an author. For a debutant, he was sufficiently egotistic and assuming. He announced, with a degree of confidence which could only have been the natural result of unparalleled self-conceit, that his mission lay in the reformation of the public taste, that the American people were to be enlightened and civilized and cultivated up to the proper standard, by virtue of his superior endowments, and that, being "a Kosmos," and inclined to "loafe" at his ease, and "invite his soul," he could afford to wait for the public's warm appreciation of his self-sacrifice, and to recline in a comfortable attitude until the world saw fit to come round to him. Two years after the publication of the first thin and unprepossessing volume of the Leaves, a larger edition appeared, and that again is followed by a third and still more pretentious book, the present issue from the Boston house of THAYER & ELDRIDGE.

Mr. WHITMAN has added to this volume a large collection of his writings which have never been given to the public. If possible, he is more reckless and vulgar than in his two former publications. He seems to delight in the contemplation of scenes that ordinary men do not love, or which they are content to regard as irremediable evils, about which it is needless to repine. Mr. WHITMAN sees nothing vulgar in that which is commonly regarded as the grossest obscenity; rejects the laws of conventionality so completely as to become repulsive; gloats over coarse images with the gusto of a RABELAIS,1 but lacks the genius or the grace of RABELAIS to vivify or adorn that which, when said at all, should be said as delicately as possible.

Yet it would be unjust to deny the evidences of remarkable power which are presented in this work. In his hearty human sympathy, his wonderful intensity, his fullness of epithet, the author shows that he is a man of strong passion, vigorous in thought and earnest in purpose. He is uncultured, rude, defiant and arrogant, but these are faults of his nature which have not been tempered by severe training. Occasionally, a gleam of the true poetic fire shines out of the mass of his rubbish, and there are tender and beautiful touches in the midst of his most objectionable and disagreeable writings. A rough diamond, much in need of cutting and grinding and polishing, he has great intrinsic worth, but the impurities which cling about him must keep him out of the refined company he desires to enter. To be an agent for the civilization of men, he must first himself become civilized. He can do no manner of good by throwing filth, even though a handful of pure gold be sometimes mingled with a cast from his moral cesspool.

Nearly two hundred poems, of all sizes and qualities, are contained in this edition. Two dozens of these are properly the Leaves of Grass, grouped under that title, and mainly published in former editions. Chants Democratic and Native American comprise twenty- one curious specimens of composition, which are neither metrical nor harmonious. Fifteen others are collected under the comprehensive heading of Enfans d'Adam, and are humanitary. Fifteen others are Messenger Leaves. Four hundred and fifty pages of these productions establish the industry of the writer; and the fact that a respectable house has undertaken their publication, illustrates a lively faith in the eagerness of the public for the reception of novelties.

Some of the finer passages in this intricate maze of incongruous materials occur in the first hundred pages. Take the following weird conceit:

A child said: What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands. How could I answer the child? I do not know what  
 it is, any more than he.
…I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropped, Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,  
 that we may see and remark, and say, Whose?
…Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the pro-  
  duced babe of the vegetation:
…And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair  
 of graves.

In "Chants Democratic," the poet discourses of strong wills, and mirrors the image of the reformer.

How beggarly appear poems, arguments, ora- 
 tions, before an electric deed!
How the floridness of the materials of cities shriv-  
before a man's or woman's look!
All waits, or goes by default, till a strong being ap- 
A strong being is the proof of the race, and of the  
 ability of the universe;
When he or she appears, materials are overawed, The dispute on the Soul stops, The old customs and phrases are confronted, turned  
 back, or laid away.

Again, he studies faces, and draws sharply-lined portraits:

This face is a life-boat; This is the face commanding and bearded; it asks  
 no odds of the rest;
This face is flavored fruit, ready for eating; This face of a healthy, honest boy, is the programme  
 of all good.

Yet the tendency to fall into the vulgar, apparently ineradicable in Mr. WHITMAN'S composition, leads him to interlard with these such expressions as "abject louse, asking leave to be"—"milk-nosed maggot, blessing what lets it wrig to its hole"—"dog's snout, sniffing for garbage." He will be gross, and there is no help for it.

The egotism of the book is amusing. Mr. WHITMAN is not only "a man-myself, typical before all," but he is "a man thirty-six years old in the year 79 of America, and is here anyhow"—but, being here, lies in libraries "as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead," thereby evincing a hearty contempt for scholastic culture; but nevertheless avowing a stern determination to:

…make a song for these States, …and a shrill song of curses on him who would  
 dissever the Union.

It is fair to presume that this "song of curses," should it ever come to be sung, will be "shrill," and loud, not to say foul and abusive. Mr. WHITMAN is master of the art.

A better passage is that in which he describes the effect of music upon himself:

The orchestra wrenches such ardors from me, I did  
 not know I possessed them,
It throbs me to gulps of the farthest down horror; It sails me—I dab with bare feet—they are licked by  
 the indolent waves,
I am exposed, cut by bitter and poisoned hail, Steeped amid honeyed morphine, my windpipe throttled  
 in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles, And that we call Being.

There is great power in this passage;—rude strength, unpolished but vigorous.

A lover of nature, he sees all natural things through a pleasant medium. Trees, birds, fish alike delight him; he loves:

The cheerful voice of the public road—the gay fresh  
 sentiment of the road.

He sees Deity in everything:

…finds letters from God dropped in the street—  
 and every one is signed by God's name.

He loves the stillness of night, and apostrophizes it with passionate vehemence;

Press close, bare-bosomed Night! Press close,  
 magnetic, nourishing Night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large, few stars! Still, nodding Night! Mad, naked, Summer Night!

It is needless to multiply extracts from these extraordinary productions. We make room for one more passage—a description of the close of a sea-battle, which is strongly tinted;

Toward twelve at night, there, in the beams of the  
 moon, they surrendered to us.
Stretched and still lay the midnight; Two great hulls motionless on the breast of the dark-  
Our vessel riddled and slowly sinking—preparations  
 to pass to the one we had conquered—
The captain on the quarter-deck, coldly giving his  
 orders through a countenance white as a sheet;
Near by, the corpse of the child that served in the  
The dead face of an old salt, with long white hair and  
 carefully curled whiskers;
The flames, spite of all that could be done, flickering  
 aloft and below,
The husky voices of the two or three officers yet fit  
 for duty—
Formless stacks of bodies, and bodies by themselves;  
 dabs of flesh upon the masts and spars—
Cut of cordage, dangle of rigging, slight shock of the  
 soothe of waves,
Black and impassive guns, litter of powder parcels,  
 strong scent,
Delicate sniffs of sea-breeze, smells of sedgy grass  
 and fields by the shore, death-messages given in  
 charge to survivors,
The hiss of the surgeon's knife, the gnawing teeth of  
 his saw,
Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild  
 scream, and long, dull, tapering groan—
These so—these irretrievable.

We infer that this is not the last of Mr. WALT WHITMAN. In point of fact, he gravely tells us that he is "around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless and can never be shaken away;" he sings "from the irresistible impulses of me;" purposes to make "the Poem of the New World;" and "invites defiance to make himself superseded," avowing his cheerful willingness to be "trod under foot, if it might only be the soil of superior poems,"—from which latter confession it is clear that he regards himself as the fertilizing agent of American Poetry; perhaps all the better for fertilizing purposes that the rains and snows of a rough life have caused it to fester in a premature and unwholesome decay.


1. The comedic works of François Rabelais (c. 1490-1553) were known for their risqué quality. [back]

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