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Review of Leaves of Grass (1860–61)

Leaves of Grass 12mo., pp. 456. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge.

If it be an essential attribute of poetry to afford pleasure and delight to the mind, in proportion as the latter is refined by culture, the performances, entitled "Leaves of Grass," have little claim, considered as a poem, to that title; for in no work of the same size have we ever read so much that is disgusting and repulsive. The author seems to exult in being as indecent, obscene, and profane as possible. This is the more to be regretted, because, in the midst of a great deal of the silliest twaddle, and the most unmeaning bombast, we find thoughts of rare beauty and striking force, wonderful felicity of expression, and imagery at once the boldest and most pleasing. Nor are the passages of the latter kind by any means few; although, undoubtedly, the predominating qualities throughout the book are coarseness and vulgarity; so that we often meet with whole stanzas which are too filthy to be quoted. There is a modesty in nature herself, which those who understand her will not overstep; but Walt Whitman (for this we understand is the name of the would-be Homer) goes beyond nature, or rather, in most cases he fails to reach her. Decency requires that we sometimes draw a veil over what is natural; but though such is hidden by common consent, it is not absurd or revolting like many of the images and precepts of Mr. Walt Whitman. We have, now, neither time nor space to illustrate our remarks by suitable extracts. We will, however, give two or three, which we think will sufficiently justify our views, if they do not give a correct idea of the true character of "Leaves of Grass." Such egotism and bravado as the following, are to be found at almost every page:

"I believe in the flesh, and the appetites, Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part  
 and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I, inside and out, and I make holy what- 
 ever I touch, or am touched from,
The scent of these arm-pits, aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds. If I worship any particular thing, it shall be some of  
 the spread of my own body."—p. 55.

Be it observed, that this is chaste and decent compared to what follows, but which we take care to omit. Nor is he, generally, much more pleasing or poetical in his scenic descriptions. Thus in describing a sea-fight, he sings (?):

"We had received some eighteen pound shots under the water, On our lower gun-deck two large pieces burst at  
 the first fire, killing all around, and blowing up over- 
 head."—p. 76.

As a specimen of his patriotism, we give one stanza:

"To you of New England, To the man of the sea-side State, and of Pennsylvania, To the Canadian of the North—to the Southerner I  
These with perfect trust, to depict you as myself—  
 the germs are in all men;
I believe the main purport of these States is to be found  
 a superb friendship, exalté, previously unknown,
Because I perceive it waits, and has been always waiting in all  
 men."—p. 374.

Leaving poetry out of the question, it would be difficult to find duller prose than this. Yet, as we have said, Walt Whitman can be occasionally musical, tender, and pathetic. As an instance, we quote a part of a death-bed scene, which is as beautifully drawn as it is truthful and touching:

"When the dull nights are over, and the dull days also, When the soreness of lying so much in bed is over, When the physician; after long putting off, gives the silent and  
 terrible look for an answer,
When the children come hurried and weeping, and the brothers  
 and sister have been sent for,
When medicine stand unused on the shelf, and the camphor smell  
 has pervaded the rooms,
When the faithful hand of the living does not desert the hand of  
 the dying,
When the twitching lips press lightly on the forehead of the dying, When the breath ceases and the pulse of the heart ceases, Then the corpse-limbs stretch on the bed, and the living look upon  
They are palpable as the living are palpable. The living look upon the corpse with their eyesight, But without eyesight lingers a different living and looks curiously  
 on the corpse."

Nor is this, by any means, the best we could cull from the pages of "Leaves of Grass." We have read and reread in it many passages much more exquisite; but nevertheless, we cannot regard Walt Whitman as a true poet. That he has genius there can be no doubt, though it is certainly not of a high order. In wading through his uncouth rhapsodies, we are reminded of the pompous, but generally empty speeches which Homer puts into the mouth of Paris, especially of that line in which he makes Helen inform us that the braggart libertine was but ill supplied with sense—

Τούτῳ δ' οὒτ' ᾶρ νῦν ϕρένεϛ ἔμεδοι, οὒτ' ἄρ' ὁπίδδω 

The publishers have done their part well. A better printed book, coming even from Boston, we have not seen in a good while. We have never seen Walt Whitman to our knowledge; nor do we know anything of him further than we learn from his book, but we think there is reason to fear that he will be too much read by a class of persons not capable of picking the diamonds out of the putrescent filth in which they are imbedded.


1. The Iliad 6.352–353: "His mind is not firmly grounded, nor will it ever be; he will reap the fruits of this." [back]

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