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Review of Leaves of Grass (1860–61)

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If Mr. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass∗" had been printed on paper as dirty as his favourite topics,—if the book itself had presented the general aspect of that literature which usually falls under no other criticism than that of the police office, we should have passed it by without notice, as addressing only such a public as we have no concern with; but when a volume containing more obscenity and profanity than is perhaps elsewhere to be found within the same compass, presents itself in all the glories of hot-pressed paper, costly binding, and stereotype printing, and we believe as a fourth edition, it is manifest that it not only addresses, but has found a public of a much wider class, and it becomes a question how such a book can have acquired a vogue and popularity that could induce an American publisher to spend so much upon its outward setting-forth.

Perhaps loose thinking and tall talk are nowhere so efficacious in attracting notice as in the United States, and Mr. Whitman, by pretentiously assuming to be the exponent of Hegelian morality, by offering himself as the high-priest of that religion, whose sole dogma is comprised in the proposition Homo sibi deus [man is god to himself], attracts and perplexes readers, whose natural good sense would otherwise soon cast aside his frightful fustian. That he has any direct acquaintance with those forms of German speculation on which he falls back for the justification of the language he makes use of, we think may be confidently denied, not only from the manner in which he conceives its problems, but from the absence of any German catch words with which he would otherwise have infallibly adorned his motley, for even an ignorance of its grammar does not daunt him when the French language offers a term to his taste. Mr. Emerson has much to answer for, and will in reputation dearly pay for the fervid encomium with which he introduced the Author to the American public. That to the public defence of polygamy and slavery, should now be added that of the emancipation of the flesh, is an indication of a moral disorganization in the States, which is of every evil promise. That a drunken Helot should display himself without shame in the market place, speaks sad reproach to the public that does not scourge him back to his cellar.

In form these poems, if poems they can be called, are composed in irregular rhythmical lines, after the manner of Tupper,2 and in fact they may be described by the following equation,—as Tupper is to English Humdrum, so is Walt Whitman to the American Rowdy. They have been praised as containing many poetical passages; in this opinion we cannot concur. That sometimes a poetical expression occurs among a dreary waste of rhetorical verbiage may be allowed, but this might have been expected—a naked savage has often a wild grace of movement that a civilized man can hardly possess, but certainly not display.

These "Leaves of Grass" are the symptoms of a moral fermentation in America, which no doubt will result in a broader and clearer life—but the progress is painful and the yeast nauseous.

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"Leaves of Grass." Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, year 85 of the States. 1860—61. London: Trübner and Co.


1. This review is excerpted from an essay entitled Belles Lettres that includes reviews on Ethica; or Characteristics of Men, Manners, and Books, by Arthur Lloyd Windsor; A Sketch of the History of Flemish Literature and Its Celebrated Authors from the 12th Century Down to the Present Time, by Octave Delepierre; Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain, by James Kennedy; Scarsdale; or, Lancashire and Yorkshire Borders Thirty Years Ago; Elkerton Rectory, being Part Second of Twenty Years in the Church, by Rev. James Pycroft; Herbert Chauncy; a Man More Sinned Against Than Sinning, by A. H. Elton; The Queen's Pardon, by Mary Eyre; Castle Richmond; a novel, by Anthony Trollope; Vier Neue Novellen, by Von Paul Heyse; Maria Regina, eine Erzählung aus der Gegenwart, by Von Ida Gräfin Hahn-Hahn; Briefe an eine Freundin aus den Jahren 1844 bis 1853, by Von Varnhagen von Ense; Bilder und Busten, by Von M. Hartmann; Diana und Endymion, by Natalis Victor; and Gedichte, Jubilämus Ausgabe, by Friedrich Schiller. [back]

2. 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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