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Walt Whitman's Prose Works


THE admiration for the writings of Walt Whitman which has been expressed by several cultivated writers and critics of our time has been a matter of much surprise to us. That Mr. Swinburne should have been moved to eulogy of Whitman's "poems" is natural enough. There is an old proverb about the gregariousness of birds of similar plumage which goes far to explain it, and we can understand how it is that many of the less cultivated of Whitman's compatriots should be won over by his gorgeous anticipations of the "fruitage" of American democracy; but that Emerson and Mr. Ruskin, to mention no others, should be found quoted in the advertisement of his book has long puzzled us. Mr. Ruskin is reported to have said that "it carries straight and keen as rifle-balls against our deadliest social sins;" Emerson wrote that it is "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." And besides those and several other eminent authorities, there are not a few of our younger writers who regard Whitman as the great poet of democracy and the pioneer of a new literary era. According to the accepted canons of criticism and taste—canons to which the best minds of the best epochs of civilisation have successively added, or from which they have subtracted—we should have expected that the greater part of Whitman's "poems" would be set down as mere egotistical mouthing of sentiments either trite or untrue, sometimes deliberately nasty, and exhibiting very few traces of the inner qualities or external characteristics of true poetry. What, then, is the explanation of the admiration and eulogy which they have provoked? It seems to us to lie in the following considerations. In his essay On Liberty, Mill says that in an age of conformity "exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. In other times, there was no advantage in their doing so, unless they acted not only differently, but better. In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bow the knee to custom, is itself a service." A half-unconscious conviction to this effect exists in most men; we often feel that we conform too much, although we see no point at which we had better cease to conform. There is a feeling of individualism, of self-assertion,—of manliness, if you like,—prompting a moment's sympathy with men or causes which reason immediately shows to be unworthy of it. It is hardly too much to say that for the first moment of thought upon a new subject—the Promethean moment—every man is a Radical. Defiance of established custom, though it may soon be seen to be mistaken and misleading, is, for the moment, a grateful testimony to the fundamental independence of our common nature. And the more closely any matter is confined within strict rules and customs, the more sure is any abrupt departure from these to secure a temporary approval and admiration. Now, in no field of modern thought is custom more imperious than in literature, and in no branch of modern literature is the tendency to lay down and follow strict rules so strong as in poetry. When, therefore, a writer appears, styling himself "poet," utterly defying and ridiculing all our rules and customs, he is almost certain to find a temporary circle of admirers who will exaggerate his merits and glorify his defects. This has been the case with Whitman. He comes with the latest version of the old heroic command, "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee;"1 and so at first men overlook all his defects and his emptiness,—they forget that they still find their daily spiritual and intellectual satisfaction in the long-accepted singers of mankind,—while the innate Radicalism of human nature is leading them to offer him a generous welcome.

The volume before us contains Whitman's complete prose works. The edition of Messrs. Wilson and McCormick2 is apparently printed from the same plates as the American edition, but upon better paper, with wider margins, and is therefore pleasanter to read. We may add, by the way, that the publication of Whitman's works by a Philadelphia house is doubtless accounted for by the fact that the Attorney-General of Massachusetts informed Messrs. Osgood and Co., Whitman's Boston publishers, that the issue of a second edition of Leaves of Grass would be followed by a prosecution for publishing obscene literature. Part of the present prose has appeared before in his books, part in the magazines, and part in the newspapers,—hence the title "Collect"—and the rest, consisting chiefly of items of autobiography, is now printed for the first time. "Specimen Days" occupy more than half the volume, and these are described as "a huddle of diary jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-65, Nature-notes of 1877-81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards." They average about half a page each, and are impromptu, unrevised, bits of description or reflection "pencil'd" (or sometimes "pencill'd"), about any person, place, or thing to which the author "feels to devote a memorandum," falling for the most part under the three heads of himself, nature, and literature. The following "day" will give the reader an adequate idea of Whitman's descriptions of Nature; his days are joined each to each in natural common- place, and to have read half-a-dozen is to have read them all.


"As I was crossing the Delaware to-day, saw a large flock of wild geese, right overhead, not very high up, ranged in V-shape, in relief against the noon clouds of light smoke-color. Had a capital though momentary view of them, and then of their course on and on southeast, till gradually fading—(my eyesight yet first-rate for the open air and its distances, but I use glasses for reading.) Queer thoughts melted into me the two or three minutes or less, seeing these creatures cleaving the sky—the spacious, airy realm—even the prevailing smoke-gray color everywhere, (no sun shining)—the waters below—the rapid flight of the birds, appearing just for a minute—flashing to me such a hint of the whole spread of Nature, with her eternal unsophisticated freshness, her never-visited recesses of sea, sky, shore—and then disappearing in the distance."

One quality, however, saves this passage from being pure common-place, viz., its egotism, which makes it offensive. It is a fair specimen of the assurance with which the author sets forth trite reflections, dressed up in a sledge-hammer style, and constantly interrupted by triv-ial personal parentheses. Here is a typical example of Whitman's literary criticisms, exhibiting the same characteristics. It is typical, we should add, in every respect but one,—in this instance, the reader can discover a definite meaning on the part of the author:—

"There is, apart from mere intellect, in the make-up of every superior human identity, (in its moral completeness, considered as ensemble, not for that moral alone, but for the whole being, including physique,) a wondrous something that realises without argument, frequently without what is called education, (though I think it the goal and apex of all education deserving the name)—an intuition of the absolute balance, in space and time, of the whole of this multifarious, mad chaos of fraud, frivolity, hoggishness,—this revel of fools, and incredible make-believe and general unsettledness we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leash'd dog in the hand of the hunter. Such soul-sight and root-centre for the mind—mere optimism explains only the surface or fringe of it—Carlyle was mostly, perhaps entirely without."

In this grandiloquent and verbose passage there is, at any rate, a very familiar idea to be found; but we have to confess that after careful reading we were unable to detect any definite meaning in the majority of Whitman's literary statements and prophecies, even in the cases where he puts a plain question, and professes to give a direct answer. As this may result from our inability to grasp the stupendous forecasts likely to be made by a man who calmly informs us that he found the Rocky Mountains to be the law of his own poems, we will leave our readers to judge between author and critic in a test case. Toward the end of Democratic Vistas (of which, by the way, we made a careful epitome, in a fruitless effort to follow the author's reasoning), Whitman says:—"Repeating our inquiry, what, then, do we mean by real literature? especially the democratic literature of the future?" This is admirably clear and to the point, but hardly has he asked the question before he begins to shuffle out of an answer to it. "Hard questions to meet," he goes on to say, and every succeeding clause takes us further from the point. "The clues are inferential, and turn us to the past. At best, we can only offer suggestions, comparisons, circuits." Then follows a page and a half of really eloquent tribute to the literature of the past, and an apostrophe to its great representatives:—

"Unknown Egyptians, graving hieroglyphs; Hindus, with hymn and apothegm and endless epic; Hebrew prophet, with spirituality, as in flashes of lightning; Christ, with bent head, brooding peace and love, like a dove; Greek, creating eternal shapes of physical and ‘sthetic proportion; Roman, lord of satire, the sword, and the codex."

This is good in itself, but the "circuit" is leading us further and further from the answer to the plain question with which the author started. When at length the answer does come, it is as follows (and who will interpret it for us?):—

"Ye powerful and resplendent ones! ye were, in your atmospheres, grown not for America, but rather for her foes, the feudal and the old—while our genius is democratic and modern. Yet could ye, indeed, but breathe your breath of life into our New World's nostrils—not to enslave us, as now, but, for our needs, to breed a spirit like your own—perhaps, (dare we to say it?) to dominate, even destroy, what you yourselves have left! On your plane, and no less, but even higher and wider, must we mete and measure for to-day and here. I demand races of orbic bards, with unconditional uncompromising away. Come forth, sweet democratic despots of the west!

By points like these, we, in reflection, token what we mean by any land's or people's genuine literature."

In the regretted absence of the sweet democratic despots of the west, we should have been grateful if a little more simple meaning had come forth from the many pages of discourse like the above, which duty has compelled us to peruse. Mr. Stevenson, in his charming eulogistic essay, says, "Whitman is too clever to slip into a succinct formula;" we think it would be truer to say that he is far too unenlightened.

Taken as a whole, however, this volume shows its author in a pleasanter light than is shed upon him by his "poems." The personal element in it is more modest, less vulgar; there are passages of considerable power and original insight, although in most cases his descriptions still depend for their effect more upon a catalogue-like exhaustive enumeration, than upon selective acumen; and he is occasionally very happy in his epithets. But the most interesting parts of the book are those in which he really has something to tell; his reminiscences of the war and his description of the assassination of Lincoln are worth more than all his literary prophecies and political rhapsodies put together. These "war memoranda" suggest one rather unpleasant question; he seems to have done good service in visiting the hospitals and purveying small comforts to the wounded, but when we read his enthusiastic account of the young Union soldiers who faced death so simply and bravely, and bore their fearful sufferings and neglect without a word of complaint, it gives us rather a shock to find him saying immediately afterwards, "During the war I possessed the perfection of physical health," and, "There has lately been much suffering here from heat; I go around with an umbrella and a fan." We cannot help asking what would have become of the Union if many men in the perfection of physical health had contented themselves with an umbrella and a fan and "diary-jottings," instead of shouldering a musket and giving their lives in silence. And while we freely admit the merits we have mentioned, the examination of this volume has confirmed us in our conviction of the absence of any real and permanent significance in Whitman's writings. It is difficult to escape the belief that much of them has been produced with a view to effect. A man who was thoroughly actuated by the principles of democratic independence professed by Whitman would hardly have taken from a private letter of Emerson the over-generous words, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," and have flaunted them upon the cover of his book. Occasionally he does give us what he terms "a radical utterance out of the emotions and the physique,"—a phrase intense in its expression, an idea startling in its originality and scope, an exhortation or an appeal powerful in its personal directness, but this is all.

But, in the first place, Whitman is ignorant: this book, with its scrawled title-age, furnishes abundant evidence that its author knows next to nothing of many things which he unhesitatingly exalts or denounces, and that he has no adequate conception of many of the problems he so confidently solves. He declares his determination to get "away from ligatures, tight boots, buttons, and the whole cast-iron civilized life;" he will have "no talk, no bonds, no dress, no books, no manners;" he tells us that Grant's life "transcends Plutarch," that "it was a happy thought to build the Hudson River railroad right along the shore," (what deadly social sin will Mr. Ruskin think that statement carries against?) that "the time has arrived to essentially break down the barriers of form between prose and poetry," that "the Muse of the Prairies, of California, Canada, Texas, and of the peaks of Colorado…soars to the freer, vaster diviner heaven of prose." What rubbish all this is! His grammar is constantly faulty, and much more so in his later works than in his earlier ones,—a suspicious inversion of the general rule. Why should any sane man prevent even his proof-reader from correcting blunders like "I do not know as," . . .? Unless, too, the reader possesses considerable familiarity with American slang, he will frequently be stopped by such expressions as "fetching up," "scooted," "derring-do," "out of kilter." But the English language, even when supplemented by the most forcible slang in the world, is still unequal to the expression of this man's thoughts, so that he is compelled to employ a large original vocabulary, e.g., "jetted," "gaggery," "compaction," "outcroppage," "literatus," "ostent," "philosoph," "to promulge," and "memorandize." Even in his own name he perpetuates what was doubtless his familiar title among his fellow-compositors on the old Long Island Patriot. Moreover, just as his one successful lyrical poem, "My Captain," is enough to disprove all his theories of poetry, so we have noticed a curious slip, which, though small in itself, still tends to show that his outspokenness is an affectation rather than a genuine impulse. In describing the scene of wild excitement that followed the assassination of Lincoln, he says that the soldiers of the President's guard charged the audience in the theatre, shouting, " Clear out! clear out! you sons of———…" Think of this for a moment: "no bonds, no mannerisms, no fossil-etiquettes," and then,—"you sons of———…" Why, even Shakespeare, whom Whitman calls the "tally of feudalism," "offensive to democracy," or Tennyson, "lush-ripening," and "quite sophisticated," would have ventured to write "Hell."

Whitman's second prominent characteristic is animalism, using the word in no specially bad sense. Not to renew an old and unpleasant controversy, we will let the statement pass that he has not written anything which is not pure in its intention although whatever the author's intention may have been, the intention of his American publisher is indicated by the announcement that the new edition of Leaves of Grass "contains every page, every line, every word attempted to be officially suppressed by the Massachusetts authorities." We will content ourselves with describing his characteristic as animalism—the emphatic expression of the simply animal side of human nature. His works simply raise again, with greater vehemence, perhaps, but with the same shallow views, the once famous cry, "Retourner à la nature!" If to sit naked on a gate in the sunshine, rubbing oneself scarlet with a flesh-brush—a process of which this volume contains a detailed account—were in any way symbolic of human life, then Whitman would be our proper teacher. But as far as this "al fresco physiology" is from being such a symbol, so far is Walt Whitman from holding such a position. And we have nothing to lose in discarding him; for all the radicalism, the love of truth, the independence, the faith in men, in democracy, and in America, which his admirers discover in him, is to be found in Emerson in purer, saner, higher form.

Specimen Days and Collect By Walt Whitman, Author of "Leaves of Grass." Philadelphia: David McKay. (1882–83). London: Trübner and Co. The Same. Glasgow: Wilson and McCormick. 1883.


1. Book of Ezekiel 2:1. [back]

2. The edition of Messrs. Wilson and McCormick refers to the 1883 edition of Specimen Days and Collect published in Glasgow. [back]

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