Skip to main content

Leaves of Grass!


There are minds which, seeking beauty in all things, tint with their own iridescence of fancy whatever they gaze upon and claim the discovery of beauty where ordinary intelligences can perceive only ugliness, and the nakedness of ugliness! Such a mind seems to be that of the very eminent critic and scholar who not long since contributed an extraordinary eulogium to one of the leading magazines upon Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." After having read the essay, we sought in vain for those immortal beauties which he discovered in that eccentric, tiresome, flatulent, raw volume of rhapsodies by Walt Whitman, suppressed in Massachusetts. Mr. Whitman has found another publisher in Philadelphia, and a copy bearing the imprint of Rees, Welsh & Co., lies upon our table—entire, priapic, undraped.

The eminent critic himself, already alluded to, could not, with all his artistic ingenuity, discover any gems of fine thought in the scoriac deposit of that lava-flow of lust, that orgiastic outpouring of coarseness entitled "Children of Adam." He certainly did himself the justice to condemn this portion of the work, more or less mildly, to the great annoyance of its creator. Even granting that Walt Whitman has immense genius, lofty sentiment, artistic strength—which we cannot—the "Children of Adam" would condemn him beyond redemption. Piron was a genius, indeed; but his name will ever be associated with that infamous Ode which befouls his place in literature.1

Yet we would not pretend to judge this portion of Mr. Whitman's work from the standpoint of religious or purely social ethics. In art even that which is highly condemnable by such standards finds indulgence; and perfection of form excuses nudity. There is a holiness about the marble nakedness of an antique goddess that compels respect;—there is a holiness in the passion loveliness creates. The Soul of the Universe is love, permeating, divinizing—finding its loftiest expression in dreams marble-frozen and gem-chiselled—in songs of poets—in the wizard work of musicians—in all the longing of humanity for the Ideal and Impossible. But the duty of art is to elevate our conceptions, to inspire the desire for what is nobler and better than what we have known—to create ideals for future generations to realize—even as Greek mothers brought forth children comely and graceful as the statues of the sculptors. The Naturalists are not artists. They describe only that which is; they are mere dissectors when they are not mere photographers. They acknowledge their work disgusts; and by disgusting people with what is, they hope to inspire them with a thirst for what is not! They are the Nihilists of literature.

Well, Mr. Whitman is an American Naturalist, quite as reckless as Zola or Maupassant, but withal infinitely less talented, less skillful. The chief difference between the American Naturalist and his ultra-Atlantic brethren, is that he does not profess to revolt his readers for a good purpose—although he does revolt them to no purpose that we can discover. In fact, he imagines that he charms! He describes what is as he conceives it; and seems to imagine himself a great revelator of nature's secrets. There are things which should not be described unless idealized, and therefore only by the high-priests of art. Mr. Whitman imagines himself to be such; and breaks through all canons of good taste, all rules of decency, all conventionalities that the boldest art respects. The result is more or less disgusting;—it is like a navvy trying to model nudities out of mud!

Pages 86 and 87—("I Sing the Body Electric")—are evidence of this indecency of taste. We do not refer to lasciviousness so much as to coarseness—not to immorality, so much as vulgarity. Swinburne's muse is in some respects more immoral than Mr. Whitman's, but her nudity is of the grand antique sort and her dancing graceful. Her unclad splendor may be judged admiringly, apart from her reputation. But Mr. Whitman's muse is at once indecent and ugly, lascivious and gawky, lubricous and coarse.

What nobler theme for art than a perfect human body?—the noblest monuments of the world's literatures all contain niches for unclad types of beauty—from the earliest Indian epics to the latest masterpieces of modern verse! But what does Mr. Whitman offer us on these two hideous pages? A series of scenes alternately suggesting a dissecting room and a butcher's shop! He talks about "naked meat!" What is meat? It is dead flesh!


And "jaw-hinges," "roof of the mouth," "knee-pans," "leg-fibre," "thin red jellies," "lung-sponges," "bowels," "sweat," "scapula," "elbow-sockets," "the bones and the marrow within the bones"—and many other things which none but Mr. Whitman would mention at all!

But he tells us these things are the soul! Would it not be more decent to say that he does not believe in individual souls? Is it philosophy even to declare that the "sweat" and the "bowels" and "the toe-joints" are not only parts of the soul, but the soul itself!

In the downright lubricity of certain lines, we can only say that Mr. Whitman has fully equalled, if not exceeded the extant writers of antiquity, and has used phraseology only to be expected in those surreptitiously circulated works the publication whereof is accounted a crime by the law of all civilized nations.

He may claim to deal only with legitimate passion; but his treatment of it is illegitimate to the degree of outrage. He has one advantage over his critics, however;—they cannot quote him!

Elsewhere, there is some philosophy in the book; there are pages of force and rough beauty; there is originality, depth, strong feeling. The book is not the creation of a literary quack. It is the work of an honest man—rude in his conceptions, reckless in his expressions, erroneous occasionally in his deductions, eccentric, erratic, inartistic, enthusiastic, dogmatic likewise. What he writes he believes to be good and beautiful. Some agree with him. We do not. We hold much of his book to be infamous according to the universal code of ethics; and contrary to all just standards of taste; largely shapeless, nebulous—with here and there an appearance of bright and solid nuclei. "Leaves of Grass" may be preserved awhile by curiosity, like ferns in a mantel-vase;—but they will crumble away, withered by public contempt or indifference, just as soon as curiosity has been satiated.


1. Alexis Piron's (1689-1773) infamous ode was called "Ode à Priape." The ode was licentious enough to prompt King Louis XV to veto Piron's election to the French Academy. [back]

Back to top