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Walt Whitman Unbosoms Himself About Poetry

Walt Whitman Unbosoms Himself About Poetry.

NOVEMBER BOUGHS By Walt Whitman. With portrait. David McKay, Philadelphia.

This book is as varied in contents as its author's own mind. In it the reader will find poems, essays, biographies (these being of preachers only), war memoranda and extracts from diaries. Many of the poems have already been seen by the Herald's readers, being first published in these columns. The HERALD also gave some weeks ago a foretaste of the old poet's sketch of Elias Hicks.1

Everything in this book is interesting, though the portion which will probably be most closely read is the author's sketch of himself and his literary purposes. Necessarily it impels large mention of "Leaves of Grass," the best abused volume of verse ever published, "Don Juan" not excepted.

Behind all else that can be said, I consider "Leaves of Grass" and its theory experimental—as, in the deepest sense, I consider our American Republic itself to be, with its theory. (I think I have at least enough philosophy not to be too absolutely certain of any thing or any results.) In the second place, the volume is a sortie—whether to prove triumphant, and conquer its field of aim and escape and construction, nothing less than a hundred years from now can fully answer. I consider the point that I have positively gained a hearing to far more than make up for any and all other lacks and withholdings. Essentially, that was from the first, and has remained throughout, the main object. Now it seems to be achieved, I am certainly contented to waive any otherwise momentous drawbacks as of little account. Candidly and dispassionately reviewing all my intentions, I feel that they were creditable—and I accept the result, whatever it may be. After continued personal ambition and effort as a young fellow to enter with the rest into competition for the usual rewards, business, political, literary, &c., to take part in the great melee, both for victory's prize itself and to do some good; after years of those aims and pursuits, I found myself remaining possessed, at the age of thirty-one to thirty-three, with a special desire and conviction. Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, mostly indefinite hitherto, had steadily advanced to the front, defined itself and finally dominated everything else. This was a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form and uncompromisingly my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual and aesthetic personality in the midst of and tallying the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days and of current America, and to exploit that personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book.

That to this extent the author fully succeeded will be admitted by Walt's most savage literary and moral critics. But, regarding "Leaves of Grass," let the author speak further:—

I should say it were useless to attempt reading the book without first carefully tallying that preparatory background and quality in the mind. Think of the United States to-day—the facts of these thirty-eight or forty empires soldered in one—sixty or seventy millions of equals, with their lives, their passions, their futures—these incalculable, modern, American, seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable pairs! Think, in comparison, of the petty environage and limited area of the poets of past or present Europe, no matter how great their genius. Think of the absence and ignorance in all cases hitherto of the multitudinousness, vitality and the unprecedented stimulants as if a poetry with cosmic and dynamic features of magnitude and limitlessness suitable to the human soul were never possible before. It is certain that a poetry of absolute faith and equality for the use of the democratic masses never was. Does not the best thought of our day and Republic conceive of a birth and spirit of song superior to anything past or present? To the effectual and moral consolidation of our lauds (already, as materially establish'd, the greatest factors in known history, and far, far greater through what they prelude and necessitate and are to be in future)—to conform with and build on the concrete realities and theories of the universe furnish'd by science, and henceforth the only irrefragable basis for anything, verse included—to root both influences in the emotional and imaginative action of the modern time, and dominate all that precedes or opposes them—is not either a radical advance and step forward or a new verteber of the best song indispensable?

On a delicate division of his subject—or indelicate division, as many readers have insisted and will always continue to insist—the author says:—

From another point of view "Leaves of Grass" is avowedly the song of sex and amativeness, and even animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with those words are behind all and will duly emerge—and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere. Of this feature, 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. Difficult as it will be it has become, in my opinion, imperative to achieve a shifted attitude from superior men and women toward the thought and fact of sexuality, as an element in character, personality, the emotions and a theme in literature. I am not going to argue the question by itself; it does not stand by itself. The vitality of it is altogether in its relations, bearings, significance—like the clef of a symphony. At last analogy the lines I allude to and the spirit in which they are spoken permeate all "Leaves of Grass," and the work must stand or fall with them, as the human body and soul must remain as an entirety. Universal as are certain facts and symptoms of communities or individuals all times, there is nothing so rare in modern conventions and poetry as their normal recognizance. Literature is always calling in the doctor for consultation and confession and always giving evasions and swathing suppressions in place of that "heroic nudity" on which only a genuine diagnosis of serious cases can be built. And in respect to editions of "Leaves of Grass" in time to come (if there should be such) I take occasion now to confirm those lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of thirty years, and to hereby prohibit, as far as word of mine can do so, any elision of them.

The commonest question about Whitman has always been the same, although variously expressed, "What does he mean?" "What is his idea of his mission as a poet?" "At what is he driving?" In this book the answer is written simply enough:—

I say the profoundest service that poems or any other writings can do for their reader is not merely to satisfy the intellect or supply something polished 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.


1. Elias Hicks (1748-1830) headed one of the two factions in the first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends. A liberal Quaker preacher, he advocated abolition among other causes. [back]

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