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Walt Whitman's Claim to Be Considered a Great Poet

Walt Whitman's Claim to Be Considered a Great Poet.

Extracts From and Opinions On His "Leaves of Grass."


Walt Whitman has issued a new and complete edition of his poems, with the same title as that given to his first volume, published in 1855, and reissued at Camden, N. J., some twenty years later. In his volume all the objectionable passages which were the cause of so much complaint at the time of their first appearance are given entire without a word changed or omitted. It was said of Mr. Mallock1 by an English reviewer, that in his last novel he had introduced "the beastly into literature." Considering some of the unexpurgated lines in this volume, Mr. Whitman is entitled to the honorable position of the apostle of the beastly in poetry. Nothing that Swinburne—a kindred unclean spirit, of greater intellectual power, however—ever wrote compares with the foulness of some of the "good gray poet's" verse. The lines might be appropriate over the portals of a bawdy house, but not in a volume of poetry from a respectable publishing firm, intended for general circulation.

Mr. Whitman has been so long silent that the leading facts in his career are generally forgotten. He is now in his 63d year, having been born in 1819 at West Hills, on Long Island. His father was an Englishman and his mother from Holland. During his life he has worked as printer, carpenter, school-teacher, army-nurse, and clerk in the office of the Attorney-General. He has traveled quite extensively, and has suffered of late years from partial paralysis. For a proper appreciation of his poetry a peculiarly cultured taste is required. Claiming to be a writer for and of the people, those to whom Whitman appeals have shown the least sympathy with him and the greatest ignorance of the inspirations of his muse. Possibly we do not comprehend Whitman. Certainly we fail to enjoy what he is pleased to call his poetry. To any of Carlyle's heavily-capitalized pages the same title might be applied with equal force. The difficulty is to understand why it would not be equally effective and striking if entitled "prose." Take as an instance the poem entitled "Our Old Feuillage":

Always our old feuillage! Always Florida's green peninsula—always the  
 priceless delta of Louisiana—always the cot-  
  ton-fields of Alabama and Texas,
Always California's golden hills, and hollows, and  
 the silver mountains of New Mexico—always  
 soft-breath'd Cuba,
Always the vast slope drain'd by the Southern  
 Sea, inseparable with the slopes drain'd by  
 the Eastern and Western Seas,
The eighteen thousand miles of sea-coast and  
 bay-coast on the main, the thirty thousand  
 miles of river navigation,
The seven millions of distinct families and the  
 same number of dwellings—always these,  
 and more, branching forth into numberless  
Always the free range and diversity—always the  
 continent of Democracy;
Always the prairies, pastures, forests, vast  
 cities, travelers, Kanada the snows:
Always these compact lands tied at the hips  
 with the belt stringing the huge oval lakes—

Thus, in the same strain, this so-called poetry runs on for four pages without a single period! It is true that Walt Whitman has been praised by such high authorities in literature as Emerson, Tennyson, and Ruskin. Their eulogies, however, were rather on the thoughts and sentiments of the author than praise of his versification. His power is rugged and his controlling impulse, apart from his egotism, is to say whatever occurs to him at the moment, whether relevant or irrelevant. He lacks both rhyme and rhythm. His is imaginative, but not metrical, composition; the fruit of an excited imagination, but without measured form. If we call him a great poet, and judge him by his writings, where shall we assign our Longfellow or Whittier, tried on the same kind of evidence? Macaulay2 has as broad and liberal a definition of ars poetica as anyone. "By poetry," he says, "we mean the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination; the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colors." Now, if we take one or two of Walt Whitman's best efforts, how does he fulfill these requirements? Here is a little bit called "Aboard at a Ship's Helm":

Aboard at a ship's helm, A young steersman steering with care. Through fog on a seacoast dolefully ringing, An ocean-bell—O a warning bell rocked by the  
O you give a good notice indeed, you bell by the  
 sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its  
For as on the alert O steersman, you mind the  
 loud admonition.
The bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds  
 away under her gray sails,
The beautiful and noble ship with all her pre- 
 cious wealth speeds away gayly and safe.
But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard  
 the ship!
Ship of the body, ship of the soul, voyaging,  
 voyaging, voyaging.

Or take a few lines from another poem:

Sauntering the pavement or riding the country  
 by road, lo, such faces!
Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity,  
The spiritual prescient face, the always welcome  
 common benevolent face,
The face of the singing of music, the grand faces  
 of natural lawyers and judges broad at the  
The faces of hunters and fishers, bulged at the  
 brows, the shaved blanched faces of ortho- 
 dox citizens,
The pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning  
 artist's face,
The ugly face of some beautiful soul, the hand- 
 some detested or despised face.
This now is too lamentable a face for a man. Some abject louse asking leave to be, cringing  
 for it,
Some milk-nosed maggot blessing what lets it  
 wrig to its hole.
. . . . . . .
The face is a haze more chill than the Arctic sea, Its sleepy and wabbling icebergs crunch as they  

Milton defines poetry as "thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers"; and Chatfield says, "Poetry is the music of thought, conveyed to us in the music of language." Joubert happily puts it, "Nothing which does not transport is poetry. The lyre is a winged instrument." Let us see, then how a few lines from Whitman's "Song of Myself" come up to the requirements of these authorities:

I celebrate myself, and sing 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.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd  
 from this soil, this air.
Born here of parents born here from parents  
 the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance, Retiring back awhile sufficed at what they are,  
 but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at  
 every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Take some of the shorter poems. Here is an ode to "Beautiful Women":

Women​ sit or move to and fro, some old, some  
The young are beautiful—but the old are more  
 beautiful than the young.

Here is another, entitled "Thought":

Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness; As I stand aloof and look there is to me some- 
 thing profoundly affecting in large masses  
 of men following the lead of those who do  
 not believe in men.

Ruskin considers that "It is a shallow criticism that would define poetry as confined to literary productions in rhyme and metre. The written poem is only poetry talking, and the statue, the picture, and the musical composition are poetry acting. Milton and Goethe, at their desks, were not more truly poets than Phidias3 with his chisel, Raphael at his easel, or deaf Beethoven bending over his piano, inventing and producing strains which he himself could never hope to hear"—and this great critic, Ruskin,4 say Whitman's admirers, has praised our hero! So be it! Phidias and Raphael and Beethoven were judged in accordance with the merits of what they produced. Their "acted poetry" stood the test of the most acute analysis and was given prominent rank because it was perfection. In the same manner "talking poetry," by whoever written, must satisfy the eye, the ear, the mind, the heart, all the higher mental faculties in order to be classed as true, genuine inspired poetry. Does this short poem meet these demands:


A Glimpse, through an interstice caught, Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar- 
 room around the stove late of a winter  
 night, and I unremark'd seated in a corner,
Or a youth who loves me and whom I love,  
 silently approaching and seating himself  
 near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and  
 going, of drinking and oath and smutty  
There we two, content, happy in being to- 
 gether, speaking little, perhaps not a word.

See how easily Whitman's verse becomes prose, and what would be the spontaneous criticism on any author who should write such prose:


Thou orb aloft full-dazzling, thou hot October noon! Flooding with sheeny light the gray beach sand, the sibilant near sea with vistas far, and foam, and tawny streaks and shades and spreading blue; O sun of noon refulgent! My special word to thee. Hear me illustrious! Thy lover me, for always have I loved thee, even as basking babe, then happy boy alone by some woodedge, thy touching-distant beams enough, or man matured, or young or old, as now to thee I launch my invocation. Thou that with fructifying beat and light, o'er myriad farms, o'er land and waters North and South, o'er Mississippi's endless course, o'er Texas' grassy plains, Kanada's woods, o'er all the globe that turns its face to thee shining in space; thou that impartially infoldest all, not only continents, seas; thou that to grapes and weeds and little wild flowers givest so liberally, shed, shed thyself on mine and me, but with a fleeting ray out of the million millions. Strike through these chants. Nor only launch thy subtle dazzle and thy strength for these; prepare the later afternoon of me myself—prepare my lengthening shadows, prepare my starry nights.

There is no thought of melody, of the mechanical requirements of verse. It is simply a combination of words like unto the bits of glass in the child's kaleidoscope. Is it the language of a real genius or the voice of a ponderous fool? Whitman himself partially answers the question in a song from which we have already quoted. He is:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the  
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and  
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and  
 women, or apart from them.
No more modest than immodest. . . . . . . .
I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all  
 so luscious.

This is the pen picture of himself by the man claiming to be the apostle of a new art, instead of being really the apostle of a great art in its most degraded form. There is no necessity for further quotation. We can admire the native, rugged strength of Whitman's unhampered genius. His active, brilliant imagination and his far-reaching enthusiasm seeking expression in language—in words that shall fire the heart and excite the mind—are characteristics of an extraordinary nature. So too his command of language and, apparently inexhaustible vocabulary is remarkable in a man with such antecedents and personal history. But these qualities do not make him a great poet. And to rank him as such is, to our thinking, to establish an entirely new standard from that which we have been wont to apply to the great masters of song. If they are true poets, then is Whitman a false one; if he is a poetic genius, then were the most honored names of literature but poetasters and "pitiful rhymers."

Published in Boston by J. R. Osgood & Co. Advance sheets.


1. William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923) was an English author. His satirical novel, The New Republic, was published in 1878, and is probably his best known work. [back]

2. Most famous for his History of England, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was also a poet, essayist, and Whig politician. [back]

3. Phidias (or Pheidias) (c. 480 BC-c. 430 BC) directed the artistic construction of the Parthenon. [back]

4. John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an influential art critic and spokesperson for cultural change in his role as a Victorian sage. [back]

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