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Review of Leaves of Grass (1881–82)

The new edition of Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, is a compact volume of four hundred pages, handsomely printed, and with all of the author's permanent verse included. There ever will be a divided opinion, probably, as to Whitman's claim to rank as a poet. Certain is it that he discards all the canonical rules pertaining to composition, and gives just the expression, regardless of "feet," that answers his thought's need. Much of his work, therefore, seems but the record of ideas in the baldest of prose. Here and there is a sentiment embodied which touches the highest poetic afflatus. Yet with a feeling throughout that conventional "poetry" has all been derided, we find many passages that bear reading again and again, and their strength grows upon one as familiarity is achieved. The author seems to us to be laboring with great thoughts, which he must indite at once to rescue from oblivion, with purpose later to set their excellence in flowing rhyme. They are rough diamonds of poetic thought awaiting the inspired lapidary's skill. The "fleshly" pieces, of which so much has been said, and which endangered the circulation of the book hereabouts, are to our mind but beatific adorations of the great gift of maternity, and to the purist can be as welcome as the nude statue. With the limitations of our civilization, however, there are but few purists, and the intent of the author can easily be misunderstood by very excellent people, and wholly perverted by the depraved. They are not necessary to any representation of the force or originality of the writer, and as they offend large sections of the community, and furnish prurient curiosity with food for lascivious thought, they had better, as Mr. Emerson originally suggested, be curtailed, if not wholly omitted. It is absurd, however, to rank the work as an obscene or reprehensible one in the broad and literal sense.— Philadelphia, Rees Welsh & Co.

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