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Walt Whitman's Yawp

Walt Whitman's Yawp.

The review by the Cincinnati Commercial of Walt Whitman's last yawp, which (the review) you were frank enough to print in your last issue, emboldens me to speak my sentiments. When I opened the PRESS containing that extraordinary concentration of words, I said to myself, here's something nice for Mrs. U. to listen to, this night, after the little U's have curled themselves up in bed. Accordingly, the desired hour having arrived, I opened the PRESS, and enquired of Mrs. U. what she knew of Walt Whitman, and I am happy to say,—happy, after reading what the Cincinnati paper says about his "Leaves of Grass,"—that she instantly disclaimed the remotest acquaintance with any one of that name. "Then," I proceeded to remark, "he must be a poetic luminary of the first magnitude—a sort of Fresnel light—who has been, like Alexander Smith1, hiding his brilliancy under dry goods boxes or flour-barrels, and now blazes forth to amaze the readers of the SATURDAY PRESS, and the rest of mankind. Listen; it's good, or it wouldn't be here."

I began. . . .

Last Winter I got on skates, my first appearance before an icy audience for fifteen years.

Happily for me, I selected the night and a retired spot. Unhappily, that the—infernal, I was going to say, hyperborean is better—hyperborean idea ever entered my wretched head; and for its weakness that head paid a fearful penalty.

I cherish a vivid remembrance, that on that fearful night there was an irrepressible conflict between my several members. No two of them would go the same way, and when they did, it was not the way I wanted them to go. The only consentaneous movement which they seemed at all disposed to execute, was a spasmodic, unsolicited, and uncontrollable flight ad astra, in which my head foolishly refused to participate, and for its contumacy was left behind, the stars being so obliging as to come down in dazzling throngs to gaze upon my helplessness. I remembered the story of Miller at Lundy's Lane, of Bruce (was it?) and the historical Spider, who tried twenty times before he hauled himself up, and I didn't give it up so, O Editor! but "tried, tried again," until I believe the closed-up sutures in my cranium were opened as widely as if the brains were out, and a pint of white beans were in with the whole caput-al arrangement-soaking in the Anatomist's basin. Such a wild, heterogeneous insane Saint Vitus-like, poly-maniacal orgie, as my shapely and generally well-behaved branches went into that night, will never be forgotten.2

I said I began to read Walt Whitman's Yawp.

Pardon my digression—I have been trying to say that I felt as I was reading, that Walt—whatever that stands for—was on his musical 3 skates for the first time.

O Shakespeare, O Milton, O Longfellow, O Henry Clapp junior, Editor of the nicest paper in the country—I couldn't see it!

I told Mrs. U. so—I asked her what you, O Editor meant by publishing such wretched trumpery! She had not been favored with your confidence, and said she didn't know. But she didn't think it trumpery—she thought there was something in it.

As Mrs. U. is the poet of my concern, her suggestion to that effect was a strong point in favor of Mr. Whitman's barbaric Yawp.

Furthermore, as Mrs. U.'s fondness for poetry doesn't at all interfere with the clearness of my café noir, the lightness of my muffins, or the integrity of my shirt-buttons, I respect her poetical opinions to every extent consistent with my lordly prerogative.

So I attempted the Yawp again.

Like as Mr. Webster said to the dandy who asked him if he never danced, "I never had intellect enough to learn," so I say—and I say it with grateful humility—"I haven't poetry enough to understand Walt's Yawp." More than that, I don't want to.

My private opinion expressed to you confidentially is, that Whitman found a lot of dictionary-pi going off at auction, bought it for a song, employed a Chinese type-setter from the Bible House to set if up in lines of unequal length, and then sold it to you as an original Poem.


1. In 1822 French physicist Augustin Fresnel invented a light with a concentrated and powerful beam that became common on the seacoasts of North America and Europe. Alexander Smith (1830–1867) was a Scottish poet of the so-called spasmodic school. [back]

2. In the Revolutionary War, Col. James Miller at Lundy's Lane said, "We can try" when asked if his regiment could capture a British battery. Robert the Bruce I (1274–1329), King of Scotland, escaped to a cave after defeat in battle. Legend has it that while waiting in the cave he watched a spider attempt to build a web in the cave's entrance. Despite falling down many times, the spider continued until the web was completed. Bruce determined to renew his fight and reportedly told his men, "If at first you don't succeed, try try and try again." See Saint Vitus is the patron saint of young people, dogs, and dancers. A disease is named after him, Sydenham's Chorea, which can sometimes cause dancing mania. [back]

3. In his next column a week or two later, Umos complains that his punning "muse-cal" was misprinted as "musical." [back]

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