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Review of Specimen Days and Collect

Specimen Days in America By Walt Whitman. (Walter Scott.)

WALT WHITMAN and his admirers have good reason to be grateful to Mr. Ernest Rhys. A year ago he edited for the well-known series of "Canterbury Poets" a selection from Leaves of Grass for English readers; and now, in the companion "Camelot" series of which he has charge, he is reproducing Whitman's prose writings. In this way he has done more than has been attempted before to popularise these works. It is curious that the writings of the "Poet of Democracy" have had to wait so long before they were fairly laid before the democracy. Whitman's books have been expensive and scarce. Now, at length, the verdict of the people is asked, whose life and occupations he has studied and celebrated in poetry, and to whose ranks he does himself belong.

The present volume contains about one half of the work issued a few years ago with the title Specimen Days and Collect. The "Collect," with some additions, will form a companion volume. In a brief preface Whitman invites

"the reader in the British Isles" to "take the following pages, as you do some long and gossipy letter written for you by a relative or friend travelling through distant scenes and incidents and jotting them down lazily and informally, but ever veraciously (with occasional diversions of critical thought about somebody or something)."

They certainly contain a curious mixture: something about his family and ancestors; notes of his experiences during the Civil War, contributed at the time they were written to the New York Times or some other newspaper; his opinion of sundry great men whom he has known personally or through their books; a little philosophy, a little science, a little criticism, and numerous occasional notes on all sorts of themes. He has immense self-assurance. His ideas and impressions, like the ideas and impressions of other people, may be very well worth noting; but other people think their readers are entitled to some consideration in the manner the writings are set before them, whereas Whitman presents his promiscuously, as who should say, "If you don't like it, you must lump it;" or rather as though he did not dream fro one moment that any intelligent person could fail to like it. There are, doubtless, ardent disciples of Whitman to whom his slightest word is laden with wisdom, and who find infinite depth of meaing in his commonest utterance. They will be delighted to learn that he thought once of calling his book "Cedar Plums like," and will admire the reasons in favour of so singular a title which weighed with him before it "got its nose put out of joint." The ordinary reader, however, find such information insignificant.

If, however, this ordinary reader does not take offence at Whitman's unceremonious treatment of him—and there really is no good reason why he should—he will find much to instruct and much to charm him in this singular miscellany. The "familiar letter" method has advantages of its own, "portraying American eyesights and incidents as they actually occurred" with a freedom and realism which would be wanting in a more carefully prepared work.

Even persons who dislike Whitman as a writer cannot fail to honour him for his admirable services to humanity in the hospitals during the Civil War. The notes written at the time contain many touching records of suffering and heroism. After the war Whitman remained in government employ for some years until, in February 1873, he was stricken with paralysis, and had to relinquish active life. He retired into the country, where he wrote his nature-notes. These naturally recall the similar records of Thoreau. Thoreau, however, was a disinterested student of nature, whereas Whitman is always more or less concerned with the relation of nature to himself. He breaks off his description of some fine trees to relate a dream he had that his favourite trees stepped from their places and promenaded up and down "very curiously, with a whisper from one, leaning down as he passed me, 'we do all this on the present occasion exceptionally, just for you.'" In like manner he finishes a pretty passage about the birds by announcing his "positive conviction that some of these birds sing and others fly and flirt about here for my especial benefit." There is, however, no lack of sympathetic understanding in his intercourse with nature. He seems to include the very plants, animals, and sea, and sky in his "comradeship." Some of his descriptions of natural scenery are exceedingly fine. Night and the stars have a peculiar attraction for him:

"Perfect, or nearly perfect, days," he says, "are not so very uncommon; but the combinations that make perfect nights are few, even in a lifetime. We have one of those perfections to-night. . . . A large part of the sky seemed just laid in great splashes of phosphorus. You could look deeper in, further through than usual; the orbs thick as heads of wheat in a field. Not that there was any special brilliancy either—nothing near so sharp as I have seen of keen winter nights, but a curious general luminousness throughout to sight, sense, and soul. The latter had much to do with it. (I am convinced that there are hours of nature, especially of the atmosphere, mornings and evenings, addressed to the soul. Night transcends for that purpose what the proudest days can do.) Now, indeed, if never before, the heavens declared the glory of God. It was to the full the sky of the Bible, of Arabia, of the prophets, and of the oldest poems. There, in abstraction and stillness. . . . the copiousness, the removedness, vitality, [loose clear crowdedness] of that stellar concave spreading overhead, softly absorb'd into me, rising so free, [interminably] high, stretching east, west, north, south, and I, though but a point in the centre below, emobyding all. As if for the first time, indeed, creation noiselessly sank into and through me its placid and untellable lesson, beyond—O, so infinitely beyond!—anything from art, books, sermons, or from science, old or new. The spirit's hour—religion's hour—the visible suggestion of God in space and time, now once definitely indicated, if never again. The untold pointed at the heavens all paved with it. The Milky Way, as if some superhuman symphony, some ode of universal vagueness, disdaining syllable and sound—a flashing glance of Deity, address'd to the soul. All silently—the indescribable night and stars—far off and silently."

Among the judgments—well worth attention—that Whitman pronounces on some of his contemporaries one of the best is on Carlyle, in which he says that

"not for his merely literary merit (though that was great), not as a 'maker of books,' but as launching into the self-complacent atmosphere of our days a rasping, questioning, dislocating agitation and shock, is Carlyle's real value."

I apply the words to Whitman himself. Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson has, quite recently, made confession that Leaves of Grass was of singular service to him, because, he says, it

"tumbled the world upside down for me, blew into space a thousand cobwebs of genteel and ethical illusion, and, having thus shaken my tabernacle of lies, set me back again upon a strong foundation of all the original and manly virtues."

The stimulating quality of Whitman's work is great. As Prof. Dowden1 says, he may attract or repel or do "anything except leave us indifferent." When we go to him we know at any rate that we shall hear his thought, not an echo, and so shall receive moral inspiration and mental stimulus. He shames us out of too ready acquiescence in usage and custom. He seems to say Be yourself. I remarked at the beginning of this article that Whitman and his admirers have good reason to be grateful for these cheap editions of the poet's works. Still more should the people of this country be grateful that such works are brought within their easy reach.



1. Edward Dowden (1843-1913), Irish critic and writer noted for his work on Shakespeare, was also an early admirer of Whitman's writing. [back]

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