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Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman.*

THE grossest abuse on the part of the majority, and the wildest panegyric on the part of a minority, have for many years been heaped on the shoulders of the man who rests his claim for judgment on the book of miscellanies noted below. Luckily, the man is strong enough, sane enough, to take both abuse and panegyric with calmness. He believes hugely in himself, and in the part he is destined to take in American affairs. He is neither to be put down by prudes, nor tempted aside by the serenade of pipes and timbrels. A large, dispassionate, daring, and splendidly-proportioned animal, he remains unmoved, explanatory up to a certain point, but sphinx-like when he is questioned too closely on morality or religion. Yet when the enthusiastic and credulous, the half-formed, the inquiring, youth of a nation begin to be carried away by a man's teachings, it is time to inquire what these teachings are; for assuredly they are going to exercise extraordinary influence on life and opinion. Now, it is clear, on the best authority, that the writer in question is already exercising on the youth of America an influence similar to that exercised by Socrates over the youth of Greece, or by Raleigh over the young chivalry of England. In a word, he has become a sacer vates—his ministry is admitted by palpable live disciples. What the man is, and what the ministry implies, it will not take long to explain. Let it be admitted at the outset, however, that we are in concert with those who believe his to be a genuine ministry, large in its spiritual manifestations, and abundant in capability for good.

Sprung from the masses, as he himself tells us, Walt Whitman has for many years lived a vagabond life, labouring, as the humour seized him, and invariably winning his bread by actual and persistent industry. He has been alternately a farmer, a carpenter, a printer. He has been a constant contributor of prose to the Republican journals. He appears, moreover, at intervals, to have wandered over the North American continent, to have worked his way from city to city, and to have consorted liberally with the draff of men on bold and equal conditions. Before the outbreak of the war, he was to be found dwelling in New York, on "fish-shape Paumanok," basking there in the rays of the almost tropical sun, or sallying forth into the streets to mingle with strange companions—from the lodging-house luminary and the omnibus driver, down to the scowling rowdy of the wharf bars. Having written his first book, "Leaves of Grass," he set it up with his own hands, in a printing-office in Brooklyn. Some of our readers may dimly remember how the work was briefly noticed by contemporary English reviews, in a way to leave the impression that the writer was a wild maniac, with morbid developments in the region of the os pelvis. On the outbreak of the great rebellion, he followed in the rear of the great armies, distinguishing himself by unremitting attention to the wounded in the Ambulance Department, until, on receiving a clerkship in the Department of the Interior, he removed to Washington. Here, to the great scandal of American virtue, he continued to vagabondize as before, but without neglecting his official duties. At the street corner, at the drinking-bar, in the slums, in the hospital wards, the tall figure of Walt Whitman was encountered daily by the citizens of the capital. He knew everybody, from the President down to the crossing-sweeper.

"Well," said Abraham Lincoln, watching him as he stalked by, "he looks like a man."

Latterly, his loafing propensities appear to have grown too strong for American tolerance, and he was ejected from his clerkship, on the pretext that he had written "indecent verses," and was a "free lover." His admirers, indignant to a man at this treatment, have accumulated protest upon protest, enumerating numberless instances of his personal goodness and self-denial, and laying powerful emphasis on certain deeds which, if truly chronicled, evince a width of sympathy and a private influence unparalleled, perhaps, in contemporary history. With all this personal business we have no concern. His admirers move for a new trial on the evidence of his written works, and to that evidence we must proceed.

In about ten thousand lines of unrhymed verse, very Biblical in form, and showing indeed on every page the traces of Biblical influence, Walt Whitman professes to sow the first seeds of an indigenous literature, by putting in music the spiritual and fleshly yearnings of the cosmical man, and, more particularly, indicating the great elements which distinguish American freedom from the fabrics erected by European politicians. Starting from Paumanok, where he was born, he takes mankind in review, and sees everywhere but one wondrous life—the movement of the great masses, seeking incessantly under the sun for guarantees of personal liberty. He respects no particular creed, admits no specific morality prescribed by the civil law, but affirms in round terms the universal equality of men, subject to the action of particular revolutions, and guided en masse by the identity of particular leaders. The whole introduction is a reverie on the destiny of nations, with an undertone of forethought on the American future, which is to contain the surest and final triumph of the democratical man. A new race is to arise, dominating previous ones, and grander far, with new contests, new politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts. But how dominating? By the perfect recognition of individual equality, by the recognition of the personal responsibility and spiritual significance of each being, by the abrogation of distinctions such as set barriers in the way of perfect private action—action responsible only to the being of whom it is a consequence, and inevitably controlled, if diabolic, by the combined action of masses.

Briefly, Walt Whitman sees in the American future the grandest realization of centuries of idealism—equable distribution of property, luminous enlargement of the spiritual horizon, perfect exercise of all the functions; no apathy, no prudery, no shame, none of that worst absenteeism wherein the soul deserts its proper and ample physical sphere, and sallies out into the regions of the impossible and the unknown. Very finely, indeed, does the writer set forth the divine functions of the body—the dignity and the righteousness of a habitation existing only on the condition of personal exertion; and faintly, but truly, does he suggest how from that personal exertion issues spirituality, fashioning literatures, dreaming religions, and perfecting arts. "I will make," he exclaims, "the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems; and I will make the poems of my body and of mortality: for I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality."

This, we hear the reader exclaim, is rank Materialism; and, using the word in its big sense, Materialism it doubtless is. We shall observe, further on, in what consists the peculiar value of the present manifestation. In the meantime, we must continue our survey of the work.

Having broadly premised, describing the great movements of masses, Walt Whitman proceeds, in a separate "poem" or "book," to select a member of the great democracy, representing typically the privileges, the immunities, the conditions, and the functions of all the rest. He cannot, he believes, choose a better example than himself so he calls this poem "Walt Whitman." He is for the time being, and for poetical purposes, the cosmical Man, an entity, a representative of the great forces.† He describes the delight of his own physical being, the pleasure of the senses, the countless sensations through which he communicates with the material universe. All, he says, is sweet—smell, taste, thought, the play of his limbs, the fantasies of his mind; every attribute is welcome, and he is ashamed of none. He is not afraid of death; he is content to change, if it be the nature of things that he should change, but it is certain that he cannot perish. He pictures the pageant of life in the country and in cities; all is a fine panorama, wherein mountains and valleys, nations and religions, genre, pictures and gleams of sunlight, babes on the breast and dead men in shrouds, pyramids and brothels, deserts and populated streets, sweep wonderfully by him. To all those things he is bound:—wherever they force him, he is not wholly a free agent; but on one point he is very clear—that, so far as he is concerned, he is the most important thing of all. He has work to do; life is not merely a suck or a sell; nay, the whole business of ages has gone on with one object only—that he, the democrat, Walt Whitman, might have work to do. In these very strange passages, he proclaims the magnitude of the preparations for his private action:—

"Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude; How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat? What is a man, anyhow? What am I? What are you? 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; That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare  
 crape, and tears.
Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids—conformity goes to  
 the forth-removed​ ;
I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.
Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious? Having pried through the strata, analysed​ to a hair, counsel'd​ with doctors, and  
 calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.
In all people I see myself—none more, and not one a barleycorn​ less; And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them. And I know I am solid and sound; To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow; All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. I know I am deathless; I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter's compass; I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night. I know I am august; I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself, or be understood; I see that the elementary laws never apologize; (I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.) I exist as I am—that is enough; If no other in the world be aware, I sit content; And if each and all be aware, I sit content. One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself; And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait. My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite; I laugh at what you call dissolution; And I know the amplitude of time.
I am an acme of things accomplish'd, and I am an encloser of things to be. My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs; On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps; All below duly travel'd, and still I mount and mount. Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me; Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was even there; I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist, And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon. Long I was hugg'd close—long and long. Immense have been the preparations for me, Faithful and friendly the arms that have help'd me. Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen; For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings; They sent influences to look after what was to hold me. Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me; My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it. For it the nebula cohered to an orb, The long slow strata piled to rest it on, Vast vegetables gave it sustenance, Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths, and deposited it with care All forces have been steadily employ'd to complete and delight me; Now on this spot I stand with my robust Soul.

It is impossible in an extract to convey an idea of the mystic and coarse, yet living, force which pervades the poem called "Walt Whitman." We have chosen an extract where the utterance is unusually clear and vivid. But more extraordinary, in their strong sympathy, are the portions describing the occupations of men. In a few vivid touches we have striking pictures; the writer shifts his identity like Proteus,1 but breathes the same deep undertone in every shape. He can transfer himself into any personality, however base. "I am the man—I suffered—I was there." He cares for no man's pride. He holds no man unclean.

And afterwards, in the poem called "Children of Adam," he proceeds to particularize the privileges of flesh, and to assert that in his own personal living body there is no uncleanness. He sees that the beasts are not ashamed; why, therefore, should he be ashamed? Then comes passage after passage of daring animalism; the functions of the body are unhesitatingly described, and the man asserts that the basest of them is glorious. All the stuff which offended American virtue is to be found here. It is very coarse, but, as we shall see, very important. It is never, however, inhuman; indeed, it is strongly masculine—unsicklied by Lesbian bestialities and Petronian abominations. It simply chronicles acts and functions which, however unfit for art, are natural, sane, and perfectly pure. We shall attempt to show further on that Walt Whitman is not an artist at all, not a poet, properly so called; and that this grossness, offensive in itself, is highly significant—an essential part of very imperfect work. The general question of literary immorality need not be introduced at all. No one is likely to read the book who is not intelligently chaste, or who is not familiar with numberless authors offensive to prudes—Lucretius,2 Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Byron, among poets; Tacitus,3 Rabelais, Montaigne,4 Cervantes, Swedenborg,5 among prose thinkers.

The remainder of "Leaves of Grass" is occupied with poems of democracy, and general monotonous prophecies. There is nothing more which it would serve our present purpose to describe in detail, or to interpret. The typical man continues his cry, encouraging all men,—on the open road, in the light of day, in the region of dreams. All is right with the world, he thinks. For religion he advises, "Reverence all things"; for morality, "Be not ashamed"; for political wisdom among peoples, "Resist much—obey little." He has no word for art; it is not in her temple that he burns incense. His language, as even a short extract has showed, is strong, vehement, instantaneously chosen; always forcible, and sometimes even rhythmical, like the prose of Plato. Thoughts crowd so thick upon him, that he has no time to seek their artistic equivalent; he utters his thought in any way, and his expressions gain accidental beauty from the glamour of his sympathy. As he speaks, we more than once see a man's face at white heat, and a man's hand beating down emphasis at the end of periods. He is inspired, not angry; yet as even inspiration is not infallible, he sometimes talks rank nonsense.

The second part of the volume, "Drum-Taps," is a series of poetic soliloquies on the war. It is more American and somewhat less mystical than the "Leaves of Grass"; but we have again the old cry of democracy. Here, in proportion to the absence of self-consciousness, and the presence of vivid emotion, we find absolute music, culminating once or twice in poetry. The monody on the death of Lincoln—"when lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed"—contains the three essentials of poetic art—perfect vision, supreme emotion, and true music. This, however, is unusual in Walt Whitman. Intellectual self-consciousness generally coerces emotion, insincerities and follies ensue, and instead of rising into poetry, the lines wail monotonously, and the sound drops into the circle of crabbed prose.

For there is this distinction between Walt Whitman and the poet—that Whitman is content to reiterate his truth over and over again in the same tones, with the same result; while the poet, having found a truth to utter, is coerced by his artistic sympathies into seeking fresh literary forms for its expression. "Bawling out the rights of man," wrote Horne Tooke,6 "is not singing." Artistic sympathies Walt Whitman has none; he is that curiously-crying bird—a prophet with no taste. He is careless about beautifying his truth: he is heedless of the new forms—personal, dramatic, lyrical—in which another man would clothe it, and in which his disciples will be certain to clothe it for him. He sees vividly, but he is not always so naturally moved as to sing exquisitely. He has the swagger of the prophet, not the sweetness of the musician. Hence all those crude metaphors and false notes which must shock artists, those needless bestialities which repel prudes, that general want of balance and that mental dizziness which astonish most Europeans.

But when this has been said, all blame has been said, if, after all, a man is to incur blame for not being quite another sort of being than nature made him. Walt Whitman has arisen on the States to point the way to new literatures. He is the plain pioneer, pickaxe on shoulder, working and "roughing." The daintier gentlemen will follow, and build where he is delving.

Whitman himself would be the first to denounce those loose young gentlemen who admire him vaguely because he is loud and massive, gross and colossal, not for the sake of the truth he is teaching, and the grandeur of the result that may ensue. There are some men who can admire nothing unless it is "strong"; intellectual dram-drinkers, quite as far from the truth as sentimental tea-drinkers. Let it at once and unhesitatingly be admitted that Whitman's want of art, his grossness, his tall talk, his metaphorical word-piling, are faults—prodigious ones; and then let us turn reverently to contemplate these signs which denote his ministry, his command of rude forces, his nationality, his manly earnestness, and, last and greatest, his wondrous sympathy with men as men. In actual living force, in grip and muscle, he has no equal among contemporaries. He emerges from the mass of unwelded materials—in shape much like the Earth-spirit in Faust. He is loud and coarse, like most prophets, "sounding," as he himself phrases it, "his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." He is the voice of which America stood most in need—a voice at which ladies scream and gigmen titter, but which clearly pertains to a man who means to be heard. He is the clear forerunner of the great American poet, long longed for, often prophesied, but not perhaps to be beheld till the vast American democracy has subsided a little from its last and grandest struggle. Honour in his generation is of course his due, but he does not seem to solicit honour. He is too thoroughly alive to care about being tickled into activity, too excited already to be much moved by finding himself that most badgered of functionaries, the recognized Sir Oracle.

Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," "Drum-Taps," etc New York, 1867. Let it be understood, here and elsewhere, that we shall attach our own significance to passages in themselves sufficiently mystical. We may misrepresent this writer; but, apart from the present constructions, he is to us unintelligible.


1. Proteus is a figure from Greek mythology, an early sea-god known for his ability to foretell the future and to change shape and form at will. [back]

2. The Latin poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 1st century BC) gained fame for his epic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). [back]

3. The Roman orator and public official Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56- c. 120) mastered a weighty and pithy style. [back]

4. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote Essais and thereby popularized the essay as a literary form. [back]

5. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist, Christian mystic, philosopher and theologian. He wrote prolifically about his dream and vision inspired interpretation of the Scriptures and Christianity. His followers formed the Church of the New Jerusalem or, New Church, based on his principles. [back]

6. John Horne Tooke (1736-1812) was an English philologist and a radical politician. [back]

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