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Walt Whitman on "Leaves of Grass"

Walt Whitman on "Leaves of Grass."

There is something pathetic—almost painfully pathetic—in "A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads," which serves as an introductory chapter to "November Boughs" (David McKay, publisher), a collection of Walt Whitman's later poems and other writings. This opening chapter can scarcely be called autobiographical. It is rather the poet's review in his old age of what he conceives were his intentions in his manhood's prime when he wrote "Leaves of Grass." He confesses that as a poet he has not gained the acceptance of his own time—that from a worldly and business point of view "Leaves of Grass" has been worse than a failure. It is plain that even in his serene old age Mr. Whitman still feels the wounds made by the "marked anger and contempt" with which his book was received. What he considers that he has positively gained in the thirty years since "Leaves of Grass" was published is a hearing, and he is willing to leave the value of his work to be determined by time.

What Mr. Whitman claims as the motif of nearly all his verse is "the great pride of man in himself." The personality in his songs which such a motif implies the poet deliberately settled at the outset should be himself. "Leaves of Grass" he therefore claims as mainly the outcropping of his own emotional and other personal nature—as an attempt from first to last to put a person, a human being, himself, fully and truly upon record. Mr. Whitman does not deny but courageously avows that "Leaves of Grass" is a song of sex and amativeness—even of animality. "Of this feature," he says, "intentionally palpable in a few lines, I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted." And he stands by his guns to the last. "And in respect to editions of 'Leaves of Grass' in time to come, if there should be such," he declares. "I take occasion now to confirm those lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of thirty years, and to prohibit, so far as word of mine can do, any elision of them."

"November Boughs" is mostly made up of prose essays, the Bible as poetry, thoughts on Shakespeare, Burns and Tennyson, reminiscences of the Bowery Theatre, diary notes and war and Washington memoranda. The verse, "Sands at Seventy," occupies only a few pages of the book. But the volume is indispensible to every owner of "Leaves of Grass" and to every student of Mr. Whitman's claims as a poet.

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