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Review of Democratic Vistas, and Other Papers

Democratic Vistas, and other Papers By Walt Whitman. (Walter Scott.)

A COMPLETE edition of Whitman's prose writings in the useful and convenient "Camelot" series would be very acceptable; and, as one more volume would secure this, I hope the publisher will see his way to it. There is a suggestion of incompleteness about this otherwise excellent series. The number of volumes of selections included in it seems rather excessive. It provides the British public with admirable samples of many authors, but even the British public cannot live well on samples alone. Complete sets of Landor,1 Swift, Leigh Hunt,2 and the rest, would, of course, be out of the question in such a series; but it might sometimes be better to give one complete work of an author than cuttings from half a dozen. At any rate, in the case of Whitman, the whole of his prose works are within reach; and, as the two volumes already issued omit several important pieces, there is a special reason why a third and concluding volume should follow. Perhaps the very best piece of prose from Whitman's pen is the preface to the first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass. Much of the substance of it appeared in another form in the second and subsequent editions, chiefly in the pieces which now bear the titles "Song of the Answerer" and "By Blue Ontario's Shore." It was, however, never reproduced in its original shape until 1868, when Mr. W. M. Rossetti gave an incomplete version of it in his English volume of Selections. In 1881, at the suggestion of the late Thomas Dixon, of Sunderland (to whom Ruskin's letters—entitled Time and Tide—"to a working man of Sunderland" were addressed), and, by permission of the author, I myself reprinted this preface unmutilated; and Whitman includes it in his Specimen Days and Collect. But, for some reason or another, it does not appear in either of the "Camelot" volumes. Other valuable prefaces and essays are also missing, quite enough in quantity, and quite good enough, to make a volume. Perhaps author, editor, and publisher, will consider the suggestion.

Leaving now the omissions, we find there is plenty of excellent matter in the present volume. Next to the "Preface" above named, "Democratic Vistas" is quite the best thing Whitman has produced in prose. Whatever may be said for the genius that created the peculiar style of Leaves of Grass (and, for my part, I think a great deal may be said on this point) Whitman's essays do not mark him out as a master of style in prose. They are fittingly described by a favourite word of his own—jottings. But what they may lack in style is more than compensated by the abundance of thought they contain. Jottings so valuable will easily pass muster, even though they be not arranged in accordance with high literary art. "Democratic Vistas" consists of jottings on the future of democracy and, incidentally, on many topics not suggested in the title. The "other papers" in the volume consist of jottings, variously named, on Shakspere, on Tennyson, on Burns, and on other subjects, including the author himself and his writings. Yet it would be wrong not to correct my criticism about Whitman's style by pointing out that there are numerous passages scattered through all these essays which are remarkable not only for the ideas they express, but for the finished beauty of their form as well.

The poet of the modern has some interesting things to say about those poets of other days whose reign is now drawing to a close; the singers of "those beautiful, matchless songs adjusted to other lands than these—other days, another spirit and stage of evolution." "What," he asks, and proceeds to answer,

"is Tennyson's service to his race, times, and especially to America? First, I should say, his personal character. He is not to be mentioned as a rugged, evolutionary, aboriginal force—but (and a great lesson is in it)he has been consistent throughout with the native, personal, healthy, patriotic, spinal element and promptings of himself. His moral line is local and conventional, but it is vital and genuine. He reflects the upper crust of his time, its pale cast of thought—even its ennui…He shows how one can be a royal laureate, quite elegant and 'aristocratic,' and a little queer and affected, and at the same time perfectly manly and natural" (p. 127).

Admitting that he may be himself "non-literary and non-decorous," Whitman is able and willing to appreciate in Tennyson that "latent charm in mere words, cunning collocutions and in the voice ringing them, which he has caught and brought out beyond all others." Burns, in some respects, comes closer to Whitman's heart. "There are many things in Burns's poems and character that specially endear him to America," he says. For one thing, he was "essentially a republican"; for another, he was "an average sample of the good-natured, warm-blooded, proud-spirited, amative, alimentive, convivial, young and early middle-aged man of the decent-born middle classes everywhere and anyhow" whatever all this may mean. In better style Whitman remarks, later on:

"There is something about Burns peculiarly acceptable to the concrete human point of view. He poetises work- a-day agricultural labour and life (whose spirit and sympathies, as well as practicalities, are much the same everywhere), and treats fresh, often coarse, natural occurrences, loves, persons, not like many new and some old poets, in a genteel style of gilt and china, or at second or third removes, but in their own born atmosphere—laughter, sweat, unction" (p. 118).

Yet, while anxious to give full honour to all poets of the past, Whitman does not forget for a moment that poetry of the future whose pioneer it is his mission to be. "Even Shakspere," he says, "belongs essentially to the buried past."

As to this mission of his, and the way in which he has fulfilled it, Whitman has several things to say—more, perhaps, than was necessary. For in these latter days, without explanation—which he never condescended to give while he was abused—he and his work have come to be pretty well understood. One of the best possible evidences of the inherent strength of Leaves of Grass and its author is that, under circumstances the most unfavourable, and against all kinds of impediments, they have held their own, and come to be esteemed. But Whitman, who would explain nothing in answer to abuse, is prepared to explain much in answer to sympathy; and, accordingly, in three separate articles in this volume, he discourses of himself and his book. Leaves of Grass, he says,

"is, or seeks to be, simply a faithful and doubtless self-willed record. In the midst of all it gives one man's—the author's—identity, ardours, observations, faiths, and thoughts, coloured hardly at all with any colouring from other faiths, other authors, other identities or times. Plenty of songs had been sung—beautiful, matchless songs—adjusted to other lands than these, other days, another spirit and stage of evolution; but I would sing, and leave out or put in, solely with reference to America and myself and to-day. Modern science and democracy seemed to be throwing out their challenge to poetry to put them in its statements in contradistinction to the songs and myths of the past. As I see it now (perhaps too late), I have unwittingly taken up that challenge, and made an attempt at such statements, which I certainly would not assume to do now, knowing more clearly what it means" (p. 87).

The book is valuable precisely because it is a faithful and self-willed record. It is, as I have said elsewhere, a biography, in poetry, of the human soul—of Whitman's own soul, ostensibly; really of all souls, for the experience of the individual is simply the experience of the race in miniature. That the record is "self-willed" is undeniable; and, in these days, when few persons dare to utter their own thought, while most are mere echoes or, at best, speak only when they are quite sure that their opinions are supported by precedent, surely the faithful, honest, uncompromising Whitman is a much-needed teacher.



1. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) was an English poet most noteworthy for his Imaginary Conversations, imagined prose dialogues between historical figures published between 1824 and 1829. [back]

2. Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) wrote essays, poems, and an autobiography along with being an editor of journals, including the Examiner. [back]

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