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Walt Whitman.—Second Notice


Somewhat more than a year ago (vide Sunday Times, March 3rd, 1867) we called the attention of our readers to the works of an American poet—Walt Whitman—at that moment all but unknown in England. While admitting all that was wild, disorderly, and extravagant in these writings, we did justice to the many high qualities they possessed, spoke of them as the most thoroughly national and characteristic poetry to which America had yet given birth, and anticipated for them, when the first feelings of dislike, which the violation of all received models had occasioned were repressed, a large measure of regard among the more cultivated classes of English readers. At the time we wrote, the volume containing Whitman's poems was one of the rarest in England. A few scattered copies could be found, belonging principally to those who had received the work in their capacity of reviewers. We spoke warmly of the desirability of placing it within the reach of a certain tolerably extensive class of readers, and discussed the feasibility of an English reprint. Sooner than we anticipated has such reprint come. It has taken, moreover, the form we expected a first edition of Whitman to bear;—a form not in itself attractive to scholars and students, but such as in the present case was alone to be expected, and such as the exceeding taste of the editor has rendered as little offensive as possible to the haters of expurgated editions. Many motives induce us to recur for a brief while to the works of Whitman, to do which the appearance of the first English edition affords a favourable opportunity. Enough has not yet been said about the man, and the edition itself is a novelty in English literature, deserving on its own account a few words of comment. Not, however, in the few phrases that follow, nor in many more, for which we have not space, should we hope to do justice to that remarkable kosmos, Walt Whitman. He is not a man to be easily dismissed. A few glibly-spoken phrases will not describe him or his work. His faults and excellences are of the kind least commonly encountered, and have phases enough to render just and satisfactory criticism a task of more than usual difficulty. Walt Whitman is undoubtedly a great man. His position as a poet is not likely to be conceded without much dispute. Conservatives in poetry will shrink from utterances which appear to defy all known canons, and possess scarcely one of the gifts hitherto judged indispensable to verse. Unreflective readers will see nothing but a harsh and over-daring Tupper.1 Those even, whose sympathies are broad, and who shrink from subjecting all poetry to the tape, may pause ere they bestow the title of verse on these strong and often inharmonious outpourings. But no thinking reader will dispute that he is in the presence of a man and a thinker. Whitman is entitled to rank with those men whose works are the scholar's especial delight. His mind is of the same order with that of Rabelais2 or Montaigne.3 Rightly to understand him, however, it is necessary to transport oneself in idea from the over-crowded and, in one sense, over-civilised world of Europe, to the great continent whose first seer he is. American life and institutions have impregnated Whitman's soul. American air has saturated his lungs. He knows nothing of old-world notions and conventions; laughs at them when he hears of them, or passes them by as things unworthy of a thought. He is an American, Manhattanese, a democrat. The world he lives in is untroubled with questions of kingcraft or priestcraft. Human nature, in the manifold developments which in its fight in city or backwood it assumes, he knows and loves. Comradeship is his motto. Men who work and love like he are his brothers. The question of success never enters into his calculations. He sings forgotten or unknown heroes as soon as those whose names are foremost in the scroll of fame. The imperfections of the human nature he contemplates are as well worthy of study as its perfections. Nothing about manhood is vile or unclean. His contempt for the assumptions of philosophy is not greater nor less than his disregard of the dogmatism of authority. He is the most pantheistic of pantheists. The God he worships reveals himself in all places, even where Egyptian or Phoenician would not have sought him. The divine in the human he understands and worships. Nothing with Whitman is unfit for the uses of poetry. Mr. Buchanan is not more ready to descend for the subject of his poetry to street or slum. Wordsworth is not more enraptured of solitude, or in closer communion with nature. His principal theme is, however, manhood; first, as he sees it in the individual that is himself, next as he sees it in the world at large, the American world that is. "Man's physiology complete, from top to toe, I sing. Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse: I say the form complete is worthier far. The female equally with the male, I sing." His book is, as Mr. Rossetti4 admirably observes, the poem of personality and democracy. It is strong, passionate, rhapsodical even, and yet pervaded with matter-of-fact plainness of speech. It is extravagant at times both in reality and ideality. One thing, at least, it never is—unhealthy or morbid. The edition of Whitman's poems which Mr. Rossetti has published does not pretend to completeness. It is but a book of extracts. In its class, however, it is a model. Never before has the public had a volume of extracts in which it might depend with greater confidence upon the taste of him who chose. Our own dislike to selections is not greater than that which Mr. Rossetti proclaims. If, however, there are books of which one should know much while one cannot afford him to know all, we should like always to have Mr. Rossetti to taste and select for us. Mr. Rossetti announces his volume as intended rather to herald the entire work than to render it unnecessary. He has felt it expedient to give the public some knowledge of the first truly national poet America has produced, and has determined not to frighten away the general reader by printing the poems in which the writer flies in the face of prejudices entertained by a large portion of Englishmen. But Mr. Rossetti is no Bowdler.5 He has given us many poems entire. Others he has entirely omitted. This we at once admit is the only principle upon which work of this kind can be done, and yet find favour with thoughtful readers. Into the question of the value of English prejudice Mr. Rossetti does not enter. His few remarks are explanatory of his motives, neither deprecatory nor justificatory. The greatest works of all times, from the earliest literature of Greek and Hebrew, to the latest of France and England, are offensive to English prudery. He has given to the English world those writings of a great and unknown writer, which it may read without being shocked. If after reading these the public wants more, and cares to risk the chance of being shocked, it can obtain them. That is its own affair. Only in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which Mr. Rossetti has most judiciously included in his volume, are one or two passages left out, and these he had the author's permission to omit. For it is a fact, creditable alike to editor and publisher, that this work is published with the express sanction of the author, who will receive a royalty on every copy sold, and who has accorded liberty for the sale of the volume in America, wherein at present the earlier editions of Whitman are scarce and expensive. In Mr. Rossetti's preface—a model of grave thoughtful criticism, and free and elegant English—we have a few particulars of Whitman's biography; a description of his personal appearance, and an account of the reception which attended the first publication of his works in America. Some account is also given of his heroic conduct during the late war. The remainder is composed of criticisms upon Whitman's works, and an explanation of the theory of his workmanship. A portrait of the author, very admirably engraven, accompanies the volume, which is unusually elegant and attractive in appearance. In our previous account of Whitman, to which the present notice is intended as an appendix, we quoted as liberally from the published works as our space would permit. We are now, accordingly, exonerated from the necessity of supporting by extracts the opinions we have pronounced. We regret that we cannot quote one passage from the prose preface of which we have spoken. The whole of the preface is wonderfully powerful, sonorous, and trumpet-like, and is in itself sufficient to render, a desirable possession the volume in which it appears. As an exposition of Whitman's views of art it is profoundly interesting. We trust that now that Whitman's works are easily accessible, few Englishmen will care to leave them unread. For ourselves, we confess to sharing the opinion eloquently expressed by his English editor, "His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken—that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere the uttermost orators of democracy will confess him not more their announcer than their inspirer."

Poems of Walt Whitman. Selected and edited by William Michael Rossetti John Camden Hotten.


1. The English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) was the author of Proverbial Philosophy, containing didactic moral and religious verse. [back]

2. François Rabelais's (c.1490-1553) comedic works are known for their risqué quality. [back]

3. Michel de Montaigne's (1533-1592) volume Essais popularized the essay as a literary form. [back]

4. William Michael Rossetti's edition of Poems by Walt Whitman (1868) included approximately half the poems found in the 1867 Leaves of Grass (poems that might have offended English readers were omitted entirely). [back]

5. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) produced a famous expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work entitled Family Shakspeare (1818). [back]

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