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Whitman's November Boughs


AFTER all, what one finds most worthy of study in the works of Walt Whitman is Walt Whitman himself. The aggressive, virile personality of one who brooks no conventional limitations has here free and ample expression; and while we may question the literary value of much or of all that he has written, we cannot, if we are impartial in judgment, fail to recognize and in some sort to admire the native goodness of heart and the lofty ideals of the man. Through his printed words, from the introduction to Leaves of Grass to his latest messages inscribed in the volume now before us, there runs the self-same vigorous reiterated note—the note of comradeship, the yearning after that ideal democracy where fraternity shall be something more than a name and where each shall give of his best for the good of others. In this sense, as a prophet of the new era for which so many now long and wait, Walt Whitman stands on the whole preëminent among moderns. He has failed and failed lamentably in his attempt to construct a new technique in verse, but at least he has shattered the old bonds, he has broken the outworn mold, he has cast his ideas into natural forms, and in this he has conferred a benefit upon the world of writers which will in time be recognized. At a period filled to overflowing with the pettiest manifestations of art that ever stifled the intellect of humanity, he alone has dared to be wholly and entirely himself. He has taught, as far as his voice has reached, that literature is something more than a playing with words, that it is a vital thing, the expression of a nation's thought, and that before we can have a national literature we must think great thoughts and do great deeds. Success in barter does not make a nation and the heaping up of material luxury cannot make a national literature. The form of expression is something, but the idea back of the form is the main thing, and that is what the world, or at least the western part of it, has been prone to forget. "I say the profoundest service that poems or any other writings can do for their reader," Whitman remarks, "is not merely to satisfy the intellect, or supply something polish'd and interesting, nor even to depict great passions, or persons, or events, but to fill him with vigorous and clean manliness, religiousness, and give him good heart as a radical possession and habit." To give good heart as a radical possession and habit—that is not an ignoble standard in literature certainly, and yet how few there are in these days who even keep it in view. To satisfy the superficial appetite for sensation, to please, to cajole, to flatter, to titillate—to this end is the generality of literature in this country now produced. Whitman sounds the note of revolt against universal self-indulgence and boredom. To read him, even when he is at his worst, is for a healthy mind to get a bracing tonic. His poems (for we must call them so) are as suggestive in their way as the cartoons of the old masters. They foreshadow possibilities, they appeal in some inscrutable way to the imagination, they stimulate, for they are inspired by the optimism which sees in man something more than the grovelling component of a selfish herd, and which, looking to wider horizons and heights yet unattained, urges him onward in the struggle toward liberty. For these reasons we can welcome in behalf of reason and sanity whatever Walt Whitman chooses to give us, even these fruits of later years from November Boughs. Whether he is taking "A Backward Glance" over the road he has traveled; or poetizing in the old, familiar vein; or discoursing of the Bible, and Shakespeare, and Burns, and Tennyson; or giving reminiscences of Father Taylor, and Lincoln, and Elias Hicks; or detailing his memoranda of the war, he is in every instance supplying some hint or record which we should be sorry to lose. If we can thank the author for nothing else we can at least thank him for the candid revelation of his inmost thought, for the attempt, however ineffective, faithfully to portray the aspect of the universe as reflected from the mirror of his own soul.

November Boughs By Walt Whitman. David McKay.
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