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Walt Whitman's "November Boughs"

Walt Whitman's "November Boughs"*

ORDINARILY, one associates 'November boughs' with flown birds, vanished scents, tattered foliage, skies of steel. Nature like a Greek athlete is stripped for the winter wrestle. Already there is a shimmer of frozen rivers in the distance, a ripple of soft reverberations from vanished summer echoing in memory only -even a prophecy of the boreal flare in the northern sky. The sap is down: the skeleton arms are up: all the infinite articulations of tree and leaf, the lovely geometries of interlacing branches, bare to the quick: everything is ready for the long, long sleep.

Is this true of Walt Whitman's book? In a sense; it is a preparation for the long sleep—a touching, ave et vale; apparently the author's greeting and salutation and—good bye. But in another sense it might just as well have been christened 'May-blossoms' or 'Leafy June,' or anything else suggestive of richness, luxuriance, juice and bloom, for all are there in springtime abundance, even a group of new poems—'Sands at Seventy,'—delectably sandwiched between the Introduction and 'Our Eminent Visitors' (republished from THE CRITIC). Sap at seventy is seldom so affluent as it is in this striking volume, binding up the life-long thoughts of a revolutionist in verse, an evolutionist in belief; and it runs up and along these 'November boughs' with a great urge and palpitation that expands and freights them to bursting. One can fancy them all over tingling with red blood to their pith. Themistocles1 drank bull's blood and then died of it as a poison. Here there is no thought of poison or death except as the horizon of all things, the garde-fou that like a banister keeps men from tumbling over into annihilation. Succulence, marrow, poetic feeling course through the book exultantly.

All the author's essential things are here: beliefs, faiths, theories, practices; monologuing, apologuing; strong-hearted democracy; camaraderie and bonhomie; interspersed with wonderfully graphic tableaux of memoranda (if one may so speak) gathered and grouped from his hospital and Indian Bureau memories. So the prophets spake: in brief puffs and pulsations like these: Orphic utterances that expire in a sigh or a hexameter: moods of norn and sibyl run into speech as molten glass is run into forms; short, quick, pregnant flashes of reminiscence that expand into a picture or a pictured paragraph without a moment's hesitation. The most remarkable part of the book is its first heart-beat: 'A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads,' which one might number as strophe α in a Greek ode, all the other essays and fragments being epodes, after-songs, echoes of the initial trumpet-blast. In this preface the author reaffirms himself, his poetic position, his heresies, his art theory, his democratic dreams: he stands or falls by 'Leaves of Grass,' and he denounces with a Shakspeare-like malediction all who would disturb the 'bones' of his work or who would fig-leaf or expurgate it. Whether his theory of verse-form be true or false, it finds its justification in the times, which demand something new, and has at least a foundation in the noble unmetered verse of the Bible.

Along with this 'Everlasting Yea' or chapter of re-affirmation go little singing essays and excerpts in marvellously nervous prose labelled with this or that title: 'The Bible as Poetry'; 'Father Taylor and Oratory'; 'A Word about Tennyson' (originally published in this journal, together with 'What Lurks behind Shakspeare's Historical Plays,' 'Five Thousand Poems', and 'Yonnondio'). The soul looks out through these jewelled eyes: they are windows of the poet's soul looking toward Jerusalem. Father Taylor moved the 'good gray poet' as no orator had ever done before. In the essay on 'Slang in America,' there is food for the philologist. The War memoranda and glimpses of hospital life contained in them are Tacitean2 in brevity and picturesqueness, everywhere quick and alive with pathos and pity. The woes of Andromache3 quail before these. It is this great fiery chasm of woe into which the artist looked for an instant, with all its Dantesque horror, and then, brooding over brotherhood, union, democracy, sang 'Leaves of Grass,' 'My Captain,' 'Calamus,' and all that me quoque which forms the essential germ of the Whitman gospel: egotism not as an abstraction but as an intensely concrete, kindled, personal necessity of modern democratic verse asserting itself triumphantly. Other blossoms of these November Boughs are 'Abraham Lincoln,' which is as beautiful as an epigram of Simonides;4 'New Orleans in 1848'; 'Last of the War Cases'; 'Elias Hicks'; and 'The Old Bowery.' The latter is a theatrical efflorescence: full of notes and historiettes of the magical times of the elder Booth, Charles Kean, Mario, Alboni, and the old Park Theatre: a 'bough' hung thick with leaf and fruit and clustering recollection.

On the whole, all these 'boughs' together make a very rich bouquet, tied at every twig with a love-knot for the reader, and full of the unction and eloquence of a most sweet personality.

November Boughs By Walt Whitman. $1.25. Philadelphia: David McKay.


1. Themistocles (c. 524 BC-460) was an Athenian politician and navel strategist. According to legend, he died from drinking bull's blood. [back]

2. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-120) is regarded as one of the finest historians and prose stylists who wrote in Latin. [back]

3. In Greek mythology, Andromache, the wife of Hector, was taken as a concubine by Neoptolemus after the fall of Troy. [back]

4. Simonides (c. 556 BC-c. 468?) was a lyric poet and epigrammatist from the Aegean island of Ceos. [back]

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