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Walt Whitman's Prose


Specimen Days and Collect By WALT WHITMAN. Philadelphia: Rees, Welsh & Co.

The whole of Walt Whitman's prose writing is included in this closely printed book. So much has been said upon Whitman's place in literature, judgment upon his worth is so various and confused—Prof. Dowden, for instance, associates him with Shakespeare, and a recent commentator of American literature whistles him confidently down the wind to nothingness—that his own expression and elucidation of himself must be regarded with peculiar interest by large numbers of readers. The new book is certainly not wanting in versatility. It contains many of those brief, sketchily written notes on nature which were, it is apparent, jotted down in the open air, amid the freshness of fields and woods and streams; it contains the celebrated "Democratic Vistas," which tell of the politics, progress, and nationality of our Western world; and it includes, above all, those widely discussed prefaces, touching upon American poetry to-day, and especially upon the future of American poetry, as this is viewed by Whitman. At the end of the book there is a series of "notes left over," and there are reprinted some of the author's early work in prose and verse. Persons who are inspired by the cosmic exultation in Leaves of Grass should not fail to compare those radical poems with the poet's manner and thought in the verses called "Dough-Face Song," and in a highly moral tale like "Death in a Schoolroom." These early pieces are, it must be seen, not worth reprinting; and Whitman has set them, it is clear, in a somewhat frank spirit of defiance. It has often been stated by his critics that his youthful work was essentially mediocre and imitative, and that he changed his manner in order that he might be accounted an original poet; but Whitman takes the tenable ground, evidently, that he has outgrown his first work and has moved forward progressively. He believes that he can afford to compare Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days with the labor of his green literary years.

As to Whitman's prose manner—the manner which may be described as his style—that is found to be, throughout this book, a kind of cultivated affectation, not at all forcible because it is unconventional. It is an obscure, involved, harsh manner, frequently ungrammatical and cumbersome: seldom graceful, direct, or simple. It is best when it is most free from the writer's word-torturings. Occasionally Whitman throws off his affectations and composes with straightforward lucidity; the fact that he can do this and does it proves conclusively that he depends for one sort of effect upon literary eccentricity and trickery. It is probable, however, that he has faith to some degree in his own tricks. On the other hand, it may be said of him that he can rise to the dignity of a large subject, as in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass. He has, moreover, a certain mastery of picturesque word- painting, which finds an abundant, vigorous outlet in his works on nature. His prose, taken altogether, is not especially distinguishable from his verse—if, indeed, he can be said to have written verse. The constant use which he makes of the hyphen amounts to his fashion of breaking phrases and sentences in "Leaves of Grass."

The picturesqueness and the imaginative feeling, also the spirit of broad human tenderness, which are felt in the notes will, one is apt to think, win the attention of many readers who cannot find their way through the extravagance and garrulity of Whitman's verse; in spite of the fact, too, that his verse has, in a crude state, sound poetic qualities and robustly original conceptions. It is far less what Whitman writes that stirs many observant men than what he sees or suggests. His conceptions of mankind, of present nationality, of the real earth and the world, are vital to the imagination. He is not, it is discovered by thinkers who are abreast of the science of our time, a sentimental idealist. He does not regard longingly the world as it was or as it might be. He is not blind to the thousand and one facts of life to which, seemingly, poets are densely blind. He views broadly, radically, the evolution of man, of nature, and of society. It is his stand-point which is his strong point. His force, his purpose, is new in literature. A poet who searches so deep and high could hardly fail to gain his adherents. It is because Whitman is so little of an artist, because he is a rhapsodist rather than a poet, that he misses his mark with the bulk of readers. Nevertheless, he is more tempered in his prose. The condensation of prose appears to hold him in check. His notes might be read with delight—by one grown accustomed to his spasmodic style—under the open sky. Many of his descriptions charm the fancy. He speaks of "the beautiful, spiritual insects;" of the "rising and falling wind-purr from the tops of the maples and willows;" of "the indolent and spiritual night, inexpressibly rich, tender, suggestive;" of "the monotone and liquid gurgle from the hoarse, sumptuous, copious fall;" of "the flap of a pike leaping out and rippling the water;" of "the guttural twittering" of the kingfishers; of bumble-bees "humming their perpetual rich mellow boom;" and one might quote a long list of still happier phrases. The following note, placed at the end of some war reminiscences, is quite characteristic of Whitman, and exhibits his tendency to dwell on words, no matter how awkwardly he may employ his language: "As I have looked over the proof-sheets of the preceding pages, I have once or twice feared that my diary would prove at best but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke, and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness." It should be mentioned that Whitman's reminiscences of the civil war are honest, pathetic comments upon serious, at times tragic, episodes. Whitman knows what the war days were; he has felt their horror and mournfulness; and he writes about them with a sincere candor which cannot be confounded with his usual strain for effect. In his prose notes, as in his patriotic chants, his voice is sure and tender. Some of the most imaginative and also realistic of his notes are inspired by night, with all its stars and infinite distances, with its strange and solemn silence, with its universal beauty. He describes, for example, the emotion which is aroused in him by a Winter night: "I don't know anything more thrilling than to be on the wide firm deck of a powerful boat, a clear, cool, extra moonlight night, crushing proudly and resistlessly through this thick, marbly, glistening ice. The whole river is now spread with it—some immense cakes. There is such weirdness about the scene - partly the quality of the light, with its tinge of blue, the lunar twilight—only the large stars holding their own in the radiance of the moon. Temperature sharp, comfortable for motion, dry, full of oxygen. But the sense of power—the steady, scornful, imperious urge of our strong new engine, as she plows her way through the big and little cakes." In this brief paragraph there may be found that stalwartism of sense and soul which is so enthusiastically admired by the Whitman men, and which is, without doubt, an impressive trait in the poet.

Whitman's notes are not confined to war, reminiscences and descriptions; he gives in a few of them his opinions of certain men and his views upon various subjects. He writes upon the death of Carlyle, upon Carlyle from an American point of view, upon his visit to Boston, upon four American poets—Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, and Emerson. He rebukes a magazine critic who attacked him for his "attitude of contempt and scorn and intolerance" toward our leading poets. He says: "I can't imagine any better luck befalling these States for a poetical beginning and initiation than has come from Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, and Whittier." Emerson, he thinks, stands at the head of the four. He is at a loss to give precedence to either of the others. His description of them is flattering, not to put too fine a point upon it: "Each illustrious, each rounded, each distinctive." Emerson, he thinks, is noteworthy for his sweet, vital-tasting melody, rhymed philosophy, and amber-clear poems; Longfellow for rich color, graceful forms, and incidents, a competitor with the singers of Europe on their own ground; Bryant for pulsing the first interior verse-throbs of a mighty world; Whittier for the zeal, the moral energy that founded New-England. One can hardly assert hereafter that Whitman, the least satisfactory and the most original of all our poets, rejects and condemns the body corporate of American poets. It is unfortunate in the circumstances, that he has not presented his views upon more eminent American verse-writers, like Lowell, Stedman,1 Aldrich,2 Stoddard,3 and a few others. It is invariably pleasant to read the opinions, of poets upon poets. In one of his notes concerning Emerson, Whitman refers to the philosopher's condemnation—from a strict standpoint of morality—of that rather notorious and thoroughly objectionable poem, "Children of Adam." According to Emerson and most fine-sighted critics, the immorality of this poem is repulsive. Emerson argued on the subject with Whitman, who was not convinced. When Emerson asked him what he had to say in reply to arguments, Whitman—who is his own reporter here—said: "Only that while I can't answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory and exemplify it." The question is, then, between Whitman and the public taste, and we believe that public taste will decide it sharply. If Whitman's theory of morality, which is, briefly, that everything can be uttered honestly in literature, should be accepted, there would no longer be any mystery in social relation, no charm of modesty in sexual intercourse. It is interesting, however, to read Whitman's opinion upon the question at first hand.

There is some strong, practical writing in "Democratic Vistas," though the majority of persons who take up this book will turn their attention at once to the prefaces, all of them curious contributions to literature and more generally discussed than known. In the preface of 1855, which has aroused the most attentive consideration in England and throughout Europe, Whitman makes several aggressive assumptions. He asserts in the beginning that the Americans, of all the people of the earth, have the fullest poetical nature; that the United States are themselves a great poem. He declares, furthermore, that the American poets—meaning, of course, the poets of the future—are to inclose old and new, since ours is the race of races; they shall excite generosity and affection; they shall be cosmos. The boldest statement in this preface is the following radicalism: "Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet, but always his encouragement and support." In the preface of 1872 Whitman adds eloquently: "The mighty present age! To absorb and express in poetry anything of it—of its world—America—cities and States—the years, the events of our nineteenth century—the rapidity of movement—the violent contrasts, fluctuations of light and shade, of hope and fear—the entire revolution made by science in the poetic method—these great new underlying facts and ideas rushing and spreading everywhere—truly a mighty age." Again, in the preface of 1876, he says: "I count with such absolute certainty on the great future of the United States—different from, though founded on, the past—that I have always invoked that future, and surrounded myself with it, before or while singing my songs." At the end of his article on "Poetry To-day in America," Whitman writes prophetically: "Meanwhile, Democracy waits, the coming of its bards in silence and twilight—but 'tis the twilight of the dawn."

It is clear that Whitman's aspiration is noble and liberal, that his faith is founded in the history of humanity, and that his prophecy is the right prophecy of this "mighty age"—mighty and wonderful though a hundred Ruskins, though a thousand Carlyles had launched their invective against its penetrating power. On the whole, Specimen Days is an important contribution to our literature.


1. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) was an influential poet, critic, and editor. He was also a member of the New York Stock Exchange. [back]

2. The poet and short story writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) also served as editor of the Atlantic Monthly from 1881 to 1890. [back]

3. The American poet and critic Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903) was part of a circle of genteel writers in New York. [back]

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