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November Boughs


IN this small volume, by a man whose name has been the occasion of as much pen-and-ink fighting as most names in the last half of the nineteenth century, there is extremely little contentious matter. Most of it is prose—to anticipate the rather superfluous and stale jibes on the subject, let us say intentional prose—and the small section which is not contains nothing aggressive. Most of it is, again, a mere collection of the casual articles for newspapers and magazines by which the author is known to eke out his means of subsistence. Only in the first article, perhaps, which is a kind of review or reflection upon his own literary history, does Walt Whitman make much addition to his characteristic work; and this is not in the least combative. On the contrary, it seems to us to be singularly modest—not at all with the sham modesty which a vain old man who is proud of what he has done sometimes affects. Mr. Whitman says, in a manner which, if irony were not a mode rather foreign to him, we should consider ironical, that "William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke are much more peremptory" in estimating his value than he is. We should be very much surprised if they were not. William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke (we use these names with all apologies to the eminent possessors, of whom we know very little, as types) usually are "more peremptory," and may usually be neglected. We have no concern with William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke. If we have concern with Mr. Whitman (he would not like to be called Mr., but he has done what he likes himself for the most part, and we shall imitate him), it is less with this particular little volume than with his whole work. That work, or rather the important part of it—for little that has appeared since makes much difference—was reviewed in the earliest days of the Saturday Review by a very eminent hand. We shall not say that it was unjustly reviewed, nor do we think so. From certain points of view Walt Whitman deliberately laid himself open to what he has abundantly received—the process technically known as "slating." If a man will, by no means without truth, announce his completed intention of emitting a "barbaric yawp," he must reckon with the expression of the sentiments of persons who do not like barbaric yawps. If he will, in season and out of season, praise an irrational variety of polity, which has never yet been tried with real success in any age of the world's history, he must lay his account with harsh answers from people who utterly decline to sacrifice the freedom of forty-nine wise men to the tyranny of fifty-one fools. If he chooses to dilate on subjects which the world usually keeps sub rosa, for many wise reasons—not the least wise being that they lose half their charm and interest if the Rose presides not at the discussion of them—here, too, he must take the consequences. If, desiring to be new, he rushes to cheap and obvious ways of being, not new, but merely novel, employs a grotesque vocabulary, and discards the ornaments of rhyme and of recognized verse, he cannot eat the cake of eccentricity and yet have that of classic recognition. And we conceive that a critic has a right, if he likes, to visit all these provoked consequences on the provoker's head, whatever William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke may say. We must repeat that it does not in the least matter what they do say. The whole tale of this new "Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads" amounts to an acknowledgment by Walt Whitman himself, not that his critics were right—very far from that—but that he had nothing else to expect. Of course he reiterates—not vehemently, as of old, but vigorously enough—his standard doctrines that democratic America wants something newer and better than the old poetry, and that his poetry is not an achievement (William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke say that), but an experiment in the way of giving a new form to democratic America. There are even faint glimpses (though he seems to recoil from them with horror, and says "Great is democratic America!" as his new Om-mani-padmi-hom, many times to wash himself clean of the fact of sin) that "modern science and democracy appear to be eliminating something that gives the last majesty to man."

Now it seems to us that Walt Whitman's unfavourable critics hitherto have rather failed to distinguish between the faults which false premises to start from and a misconceived aim to tend to have produced in him on the one side, and the faculties, and even to a certain extent the accomplishments as a poet, which in spite of all these evil influences he has displayed on the other. It is very rare, indeed, to find an admirer of his who does not sympathize with some, at least, of his principles; it is almost an unknown thing to find a critic who dislikes him, and whose dislike is not based either on dislike of his political, religious, and moral standpoints, or else on an unwillingness to admit the "barbaric yawp" because there is so much yawp in it, and it is so barbaric. Yet this is certainly wrong, nor is it quite universal. We, for instance, who write here to-day willingly make a present of almost every general principle of his to the enemy to be given up to chaos and old night. So far is it from being the case that the United States of America present a higher type of civilization and of humanity, that we should count the grey New Yorker rather lower than the European child. Democracy, instead of being a great and beautiful goddess, is a dirty, half-witted trull. Instead of its being a good thing to do as Whitman has tried to do, to put a person fully, freely, and truly on record, the first and the last rule of the poet should be, not indeed to work impersonally, but to pass every personal emotion through the sieve of the universal, to "disrealize" everything, to bring it into union with the whole. We hold that, whether it is desirable or not to say to "the perfect girl who understands you" the things that Whitman says, it is infinitely better not to shout such conversation on the housetops; that to talk about "me imperturbe" is silly, not impressive; that rhythmical staves of prose are infinitely more difficult, as well as much more rarely effective, than the common rhyme-assisted measures, and so forth. All this is granted by us, or rather spontaneously asserted, and if William O'Connor and Dr. Bucke do not like it, we cannot help that. And then we face round, and ask simply whether this is not poetry?—

Come, lovely and soothing Death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, In the day, in the night, to all, to each, Sooner or later, delicate Death. Praised be the fathomless universe, For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious; And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death. Dark Mother! always gliding near, with soft feet, Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome? Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all; I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly. Approach, strong Deliveress! When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead, Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee, Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death! From me to thee glad serenades, Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for  
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are  
And life, and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
The night, in silence, under many a star; The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know; And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veiled Death! And the body gratefully nestling close to thee. Over the tree-tops I float thee a song! Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields and the prairies  
Over the dense-packed cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways, I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!

This exquisite poem—for we do not hesitate to call it so—was indeed not in the original "Leaves of Grass," as it appeared more than thirty years ago, nor were the "Sea-shore Memories," the next best thing that Whitman has done. But the quality, less conspicuously present and alloyed with much more base matter, is almost everywhere. That the alloy is almost everywhere, also, is perfectly true. But, when we are asked whether soil is auriferous or not, we do not pause to inquire whether it is nothing but auriferous. It may be annoying enough to come, after such a passage, upon such another as this:—"Thumb extended, finger uplifted, apron, cape, gloves, strap, wet-weather clothes, whip carefully chosen, boss, spotter, starter, hostler, somebody loafing on you, you loafing on somebody, headway, man before and man behind, good day's work, bad day's work, pet stock, mean stock, first out, last out, turning in at night." But for what was the divine art of skipping created, if a reader is not able to dodge things like this, and to go straight to others which the theory of poetry (and of common sense) will allow?

We cannot, for our part, conceive any theory of poetry which shall shut out stuff such as the Death Carol, because it is not in any of "the four-and-twenty measures," as Welsh critics say, or because it finds itself in the company of unwise laudations of a (to speak mildly) imperfect state of politics and manners, unwise excursions into tacenda, unwise catalogues of names and trades, and other unwisdoms not a few.

No; let us, if it be ours to lecture on poetry, hold up Walt Whitman as much as any one pleases for an awful example of the fate that waits, and justly waits, on those who think (idle souls!) that there is such a thing as progress in poetry, and that because you have steam-engines and other things which Solomon and Sappho had not, you may, nay must, neglect the lessons of Sappho and Solomon. But let us none the less confess that this strayed reveller, this dubiously well-bred truant in poetry, is a poet still, and one of the remarkably few poets that his own country has produced.

November Boughs. By Walt Whitman. London and Paisley: Gardner 1889.
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