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Walt Whitman's Prose

Walt Whitman's Prose.

The author of 'Leaves of Grass' has published a volume made up of odds and ends in prose and entitled 'Specimen Days.' It is a heterogeneous collection of autobiographical notes, extracts from diaries, early writings, and recent contributions to periodicals. It contains a good deal that is interesting, with a good deal that need not have been revived. Mr. Whitman himself does not seem to be quite sure why he has pursued so comprehensive a scheme of preservation. The explanation could perhaps be found in a certain naïve vanity which extends its protection to every scrap of paper bearing the memorandum of an idea or the record of a fact.

We are obliged to confess that Walt Whitman's prose is best when it is least characteristic. When he writes simply, forgetting himself and his responsibilities as the apostle of a new school, he is often very interesting, as notably in his accounts of hospital experience during the war. But he generally remembers himself pretty soon, and with the return to self-consciousness comes a certain straining after effect that is not always pleasant. Many passages have little but continuous typographical arrangement to distinguish them from his poetry. Here, for example, is a paragraph which we have divided into verses with other alteration. He has been describing a scene of massacre:

Multiply the above by scores, aye hundreds; Verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford; Light it with every lurid passion, the wolf's, the lion's lapping thirst for blood, The passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain; With the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers, And in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers— And you have an inkling of this war.

Mr. Whitman rescues from oblivion the names of some of the chieftains who flourished in the Homeric age of Broadway stage driving. In the days when the Red Birds and Yellow Birds, the Knickerbocker and Fourth avenue and the old Broadway lines were still crowding the thoroughfare now occupied by the Fifth and Madison avenue and Twenty-third street stages only, he used to study and admire the wonderful qualities of Broadway Jack, Dressmaker, Balky Bill, George Storms, Old Elephant (and afterward his brother, Young Elephant), Tippy, Pop Rice, Big Frank, Yellow Joe, Pete Callahan, Patsy Dee, and others of equal professional rank. He used to ride on top of the stages day and night beside these quick-eyed heroes, and astonish them by declaiming passages from Shakespeare above the rest of Broadway. 'I suppose the critics will laugh heartily,' he says, with unconscious humor, 'but the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly entered into the gestation of 'Leaves of Grass.'

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