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Review of Leaves of Grass (1860–61)

Leaves of Grass Boston: Thayer and Eldridge. 1860–61. pp.456.

EVERY ONE RECOLLECTS THE STORY of the Scotch dramatic author who, when Garrick assured him his genius lay neither for comedy nor tragedy, asked him "Where the de'il it did lie?" Now Mr. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" puzzle us nearly as much as the Scotsman's query did the great actor. Are we criticising in these "Leaves" prose or poetry? or rather something of an epicene gender, which unites in itself the bad qualities of both one and the other? So far as our perusal of the handsome volume before us has extended—and we must admit that nothing can be more tasteful than its paper and typography—we have scarcely been able to find a single consecutive sentence or expression out of which a meaning can be cudgelled. Taking an odd line here and there, and sometimes even as many as half a dozen, we can extract some hazy nonsense out of them; but what they have to do with those which go before or follow, or why they should be styled "Chants Democratic," or "A Leaf of Faces," or "Calamus," or anything else but "sheer nonsense," we have in vain tried to find out. Nor are we, that we know of, dealing with the productions of a lunatic. Mr. Walt Whitman is sane enough to do the poetry for an American newspaper or two: from whose columns these Leaves are reprints. In this degenerate land of Britain the only persons who nowadays keep a poet are, we believe, the members of an eminent Jewish clothing firm; and though we do not profess to be well versed in the lays of the bard in question, our impression is that they are quite as musical, and at least ten times as intelligible, as these "Leaves of Grass". After all, a horrible idea strikes us that our native land is not entirely guiltless of the paternity of this production. Can it be possible that Mr. Tupper's "Proverbial Philosophy"1 has inspired Mr. Walt Whitman with the idea of his Leaves? We have most of us probably heard and read of persons who solved mathematical problems or composed poetry while asleep; and we think it just possible that the author of "Proverbial Philosophy" may unconsciously, while suffering from a fit of the nightmare, have had something to do with the composition of these American Leaves. At least we trace in them some wild fantastic resemblance to his style; such as to make us pretty sure that Mr. Whitman has occasionally "tasted the simple store and rested one soothing hour" with the English poetaster whose words we quote.

We give the five opening paragraphs or stanzas of a lucubration headed simply "Walt Whitman."

I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my Soul, I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass. Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation, it is odourless, It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me. The smoke of my own breath, Echoes, ripples, buzzed whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine, My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air  
 through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-coloured sea-  
 rocks, and of hay in the barn.
The sound of the belched words of my voice, words loosed to the eddies of the wind, A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms, The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag, The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides, The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting  
 the sun.

Now we assure our readers that these "belched words," to speak à la Walt Whitman, are a perfectly fair, honest specimen of the four hundred and fifty-six pages of the volume before us.

"Walt Whitman" extends over eighty pages, and contains three hundred and seventy-two paragraphs and stanzas. We are particular in stating these items; and lest our readers should suppose we are unfairly mutilating this production, we assure them that we give each paragraph in full in making the following extracts, and that, so far as we can make out, each is perfect in itself.

In the ninety-sixth stanza we are asked

What is man anyhow? What am I? What are you?

Possibly the four following paragraphs which we quote may be supposed to answer this question:

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 filth, the end but threadbare crape, That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at  
 and tears.
Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids —conformity goes to the  
I cock my hat as I please, indoors or out. Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?

Our poet goes on to say (105):

I know I am august, I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood, I see that the elementary laws never apologise, I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.

And again (109):

I am the poet of the body, And I am the poet of the soul.

Presently he dissects his own individuality a little more closely:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding, No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart from them, No more modest than immodest. Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me, And whatever I do or say, I also return. Through me the afflatus surging and surging—through me the current and index. I speak the pass-word primeval—I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the  
 same terms.

The succeeding "voices," though, as the writer tells us, they are "voices indecent, by me clarified and transfigured," strike us, so far as they can be conjectured to mean anything, as retaining all their pristine indecency.

And in this way our American nonsense-verse writer maunders on for some hundred pages, sometimes "doting on himself—there is that lot of me, and all is so luscious;" now "snuffing the sidle of evening," whatever that may be; or asking—

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.

Verily we for once agree with him when he says:

I am untranslatable: I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

One of the most curious whims of Mr. Walt Whitman is to give his readers from time to time inventories of the various component parts of some thing or person. Thus (in pages 300-2) we might for a brief moment fancy ourselves poring over a manual of surgery. The mention of the word "body" enables him to write down about one hundred and fifty different items which belong, or may be supposed by poetical licence to belong, to the human form divine. Some of the terms, as "neck-slue," "man-balls," "inward and outward rounds," "the flex of the mouth," are to us rather vague; and we scarcely wonder at their exciting "the curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of his own body or another person's body." So again we have lists, extending over more than a page, or an iron-monger's and carpenter's shop or store, &c. &c., interspersed with such lyric strophes as the following:

Because you are greasy or pimpled, or that you was once drunk, or a thief, or  
 diseased, or rheumatic, or a prostitute, or are so now, or from frivolity or impo- 
 tence, or that you are no scholar, and never saw your name in print, do you give  
 in that you are any less immortal?

There are some other specimens of Mr. Walt Whitman's muse—for we have now discovered that this amazing rubbish is meant for poetry—which we had rather not quote, for decency's sake; and we fancy our readers will by this time one and all be inclined to cry, Ohe jam satis! Nevertheless we have not altogether wasted their time. They ought to know that this pure unmitigated trash is read and admired by not a few persons in America; and that what would go far in England to stamp its inditer as a lunatic has earned in America for its writer a poet's crown.

Me quoque vatem Pastores dicunt; sed non ego credulus illis,

says Virgil's modest swain. Not so, however, with Walt Whitman. He tells us many times over that he is a son of song; and that the "daughter of the lands" (which we suppose means America) has been "waiting for a poet with a flowing mouth and indicative hand"—a vision realised doubtless in himself.

We shall conclude with saying that one of the most curious traits of this volume is the crazy earnestness with which the writer believes in his own poetical infallibility. He is not only a poet, but the poet; not only a teacher, but the teacher. To be sure, it follows that if Mr. Walt Whitman really be a poet, and if the contents of this book really be poetry, what Shakespeare and Milton have written must be styled by some new name. Sense, grammar, and metre are but very minor parts in the composition of poetry; but nevertheless, pace Walt Whitman, poetry cannot exist without this humble triad.


1. The English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) wrote Proverbial Philosophy, didactic moral and religious verse published in the mid 1800s. [back]

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