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Review of Leaves of Grass (1860–61)

Leaves of Grass Boston: Thayer & Eldridge. Year 85 of the States. (1860–61.)

Better dressed than we ever expected to see him, Walt Whitman again makes his bow, but with purpose unabated to "sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." The sensations of the roofs under this process are, as may be imagined, various and strong. "Some said that it thundered, others that an angel spoke." The Christian Examiner, with the unctuous air of one who has just read without blinking the accounts of Joseph and Potiphar, Judah and Tamar, pronounces it "impious and obscene." Mr. Emerson sends word, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." When doctors, etc. Well, we have gone to the book itself for a decision. The Leaves of Grass has been our companion out in the wild outlooks of Newport and Nahant, we have read it at night after following the throngs of New York by day, we have conversed with its music when the obligato was the whizz and scream of the locomotive which bore us across the continent, and have turned to it from the calm rush of the Father of Waters,1 from the loading here and there on its shores by the glare of pine-knot fires, from the eager crowd of men and women chatting, singing, gaming in the saloon, and we confidently announce that Walt Whitman has set the pulses of America to music. Here are the incomplete but real utterances of New York city, of the prairies, of the Ohio and Mississippi,—the volume of American autographs. To these formidable eyes the goddess Yoganidra, who veils the world in illusion, surrenders; to them there are no walls, nor fences, nor dress-coats, no sheaths of faces and eyes. All are catalogued by names, appraised, and his relentless hammer comes down on the right value of each.

We can not dwell on this remarkable work as much as we would like, because we wish to place here some extracts.

"O truth of the earth! O truth of things, I am determined to press my way toward you; Sound your voice! I scale mountains, or dive in the sea after you." "I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the  


"Oh, what is it in me that makes me tremble so at Voices? Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow, as the waters  
 follow the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe.
Now I believe that all waits for the right voices; Where is the practiced and perfect organ? Where is the developed soul? For I see every word uttered thence has deeper, sweeter new sounds, impossible on less  
I see brains and lips closed—I see tympans and temples unstruck, Until that comes which has the quality to strike and to unclose."

To a Common Prostitute.

"Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you; Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words  
 refuse to glisten and rustle for you."

The Child.

"There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder, pity, love or dread, that  
 object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for  
 many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child; And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song  
 of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-Month lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, and  
 the cow's calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side, And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and the beautiful curious  
And the water-plants with their graceful flat-heads—all became part of him. The strata of colored clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away by itself—the spread of  
 purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt-marsh and shore-mud— These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will  
 always go forth every day."

A friend of ours told us that once, when he was visiting Lizst,2 a fine gentleman from Boston was announced, and during the conversation the latter spoke with great contempt of Wagner (the new light) and his music. Lizst did not say anything, but went to the open piano and struck with grandeur the opening chords of the Tannhaser overture;3 having played it through, he turned and quietly remarked, "The man who doesn't call that good music is a fool." It is the only reply which can be made to those who do not find that quintessence of things which we call Poetry in many passages of this work.

We can not, nor do we wish to deny that biblical plainness of speech which characterizes these poems; we or nature are in some regards so untranslateable that in some of these pages one must hold his nose whilst he reads; the writer does not hesitate to bring the slop-bucket into the parlor to show you that therein also the chemic laws are at work; but to lose the great utterances which are in this work because of these, is as if one should commit suicide, refusing to dwell on the planet because it was not all an English Park, but had here and there a Dismal Swamp or a dreary desert. This Poet, though "one of the roughs," as he calls himself, is never frivolous, his profanity is reverently meant, and he speaks what is unspeakable with the simple unreserve of a child.


1. The "Father of Waters" is a nickname for the Mississippi River. [back]

2. Franz Joseph Liszt (1811-1886) was an innovative Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor. [back]

3. Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest on the Wartburg) is an opera by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) based on Germanic legends. [back]

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