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Review of Leaves of Grass (1881–82)

LEAVES OF GRASS By Walt Whitman. Boston: James B. Osgood & Co. Detroit: Thorndike Nourse.

That Walt Whitman is genuine and thoroughly believes in himself is beyond question. It does not therefore follow that he is a poet, though we have noticed that those who insist most strenuously upon his claim to be so considered, base the claim mainly on his genuineness and self-confidence, waiving for the moment all discussion as to the beastliness of certain of his verses—there really is no other word which fitly characterizes them—his poems, so-called, very rarely furnish any excuse for their appearance in the poetic form. There is no rhyme or pretense of any, nor is there any attempt at meter. With one or two exceptions they might just as well be written like other prose.

Of course this does not settle the question. There is a great deal of poetry in the English language without either rhyme or meter. But it is recognized as such in spite of the prosaic form; while Walt Whitman's ebullitions, if put in that form, would not be. Printed as prose they would strike the reader as grandiloquent, sonorous, rhetorical, sometimes as imaginative, almost always as egotistical, but very rarely as poetical. Take, for example, such a verse as the following, strike out the misplaced capitals and the spaces, in short, print it as prose is printed, and see how much of the "divine afflatus" can be detected in it:

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  
Some milk-nosed maggot blessing what lets it wrig  
 to its hole.

As for the beastly portion of the volume,"The Children of Adam," it is an outrage upon the decencies of literature. It is open, undisguised sensualism of the grossest sort; and its publication is a grave mistake. We have no special fear that it will corrupt the rising generation, for its indecency is so potent that intelligent parents and guardians will look out for it. But when such a work, with the imprint of a highly respected publishing house, has free circulation and transmission through the mails, an argument almost unanswerable is furnished for the professional perverters of youth whose vile trash, heretofore excluded from the mails, is really less indecorous in form—whatever it may be in spirit—than some portions of "Leaves of Grass."

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