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A Wild Poet of the Woods


EACH literary man of any distinguished mark or position has raised at least one monster, who seizes his style, his principles, his peculiar modes of thought, and carries them headlong downwards into the great gulf of absurdity. This Frankenstein,—this attendant spirit,—is faithful, but unruly. It multiplies every action, whim, or fancy that it copies by three or four; it leaps higher, dives lower, speaks louder, and goes farther than its master; and often succeeds in so far dazzling a certain circle of admirers that they prefer the coarse copy to the pure original. Mr. Thomas Carlyle must be often haunted by some such phantom, who speaks to him in crabbed sentences more affected than his own, and exhibits even more fretful impatience of shams and windbags. Mr. Charles Dickens has often suffered from demons of this kind, who have visited him in huge genial masks, in huge pathetic masks, and in huge humourous masks; and Mr. Thackeray has been unable to shut out electro-plated familiars, who have shown him his own image, distorted and magnified.

Most authors of this rank have had their trials, and now comes the turn of Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. A nature worshipper so devout; a mystic so often incomprehensible; a prose poet who uses language, as some people think it ought to be used, to conceal thoughts, or perhaps the want of thoughts, could hardly hope to escape imitators, where imitation was so easy. He may have expected the visitation to fall rather heavily when it came in the fullness of time; but he could never have been prepared for such a muscular caricature as Walt Whitman. The sternest enemy of the American philosopher and of the great fog-bank school to which he, in some measure, belongs, cannot fail to pity him under such an affliction.

Walt Whitman, or, as we should prefer to call him, Emerson's monster, or wild poet of the woods, is a thoroughly untamed, muscular, unconventional writer. What Emerson talks about doing, or seems to wish to do, Walt Whitman to all appearance does. Emerson only asks for health and a day to make the pomp of emperors ridiculous; Walt Whitman has got health of the rudest kind, with many days, and he glorifies the whole weighable, pinchable, material universe. No form or manifestation of matter is mean or contemptible to him. Like the great practical poet, alluded to in our last number,1 he would chant a great guano2 lyric, though with a far louder voice, and in a very different tune. If he fell in a gutter, he would rise up shaking his muddy locks, and dash onwards like the "strong-breasted bull" which meets with his admiration. He describes himself in a coarse, sing-song, rugged stanza as,—

"Free, fresh, savage, Fluent, luxuriant, self-content, fond of persons and places, Fond of fish-shaped Paumanok, where I was born, Fond of the sea."

He might have added in plain prose, and no one would have discovered the difference,—"fond of rump steaks and oyster sauce, legs of mutton, pots of beer, cart-horses, wrestling, and lifting weights." He chants in this strain page after page:—

"No dainty dolce affettuoso I; Bearded, sunburnt, gray-necked, forbidding, I have arrived To be wrestled with as I pass, for the solid prizes of the uni- 
 verse. . . . .

The dustman, the "navvy," the slaughterer of oxen, have at length found their poet. He sings the song of all creation. His invitations have no limit:—

"This is the meal pleasantly set,—this is the meat and drink for natural hunger.

"It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous. I make appointments with all; I will not have a single person slighted or left away. The ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ , sponger, thief, are hereby invited. The heavy-lipped slave is invited,—the ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ is invited.

"There shall be no difference between them and the rest.3

The entertainment is the same, whether for man or for beast. If anything, perhaps, Walt Whitman has a partiality for the beast:—

"I behold the picturesque giant and love him,— And I do not stop there, I go with the team also." ∗∗∗∗ "Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade! What is that you express in your eyes? It seem to me more than all the print I have read in my life." ∗∗∗∗ "The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night, Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation; The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen close, I find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky. The sharp-hoofed moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill,  
 the chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats, The brood of the turkey-hen. . . . . I see in them and myself the same old law."

Every word of this might have been written by Emerson muscularized;—by Emerson at the age of thirty-two, trained by a New York "rowdy" into a state of firm, animal, pugilistic vigour. To come a little nearer home, every line might have been written by one of Barclay and Perkins's draymen, by a Rotherhithe coal-whipper4, by a Billingsgate fish-hauler, a canal bargeman, a sewer-cleanser, a meat-porter at Newgate market, or an average pot-boy who had learned to read and spell. What Dr. Johnson said of the famous Percy ballads5, may be said of poems like these "leaves of grass;"—they can be spun by one at the rate of six yards an hour. This is a chant of the lands:—

"O the lands! Lands scorning invaders! Interlinked, food-yielding lands! Land of coal and iron! Land of gold! Lands of cotton, sugar,  
Odorous and sunny land! Floridian land! Land of the spinal river, the Mississippi! Land of the Alle- 
 ghanies! Ohio's land!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! Land of wool and hemp! Land of the potato, the apple, and the grape!"

This goes on for many pages more, and there is really no reason why it should ever stop at all. Cyclopædias, commercial dictionaries, directories, and such books are plentiful enough, and in the slang of our wild poet of the woods they contain thousands, millions of such poems. Everything is a poem in the Walt Whitman sense, as everything, by a similar wrenching of language, might have been called a fish-kettle, a pitchfork, or a blacking-bottle. There used to be a favourite class of comic songs which proved all men to be gardeners, scrubbing-brushes, or lucifer-matches, according as the whim started. These dreary pieces of laboured humour are not as popular now as they were twenty years ago, but Walt Whitman, if he gains such a hearing here as he has in America, ought certainly to bring them once more into fashion.

There is a certain philosophy in all this muscular poetry,—the philosophy of making money by creating a sensation. The world is always on the look out for anything wild, strange, and eccentric. If Walt Whitman had had the power or the inclination to put his common-places into intelligible forms and language, the "leaves of grass" would never have made hay while the sun shone. The tricks of authorship are not yet half catalogued, or half exhausted. We must have treatises upon logic written by street tumblers, or rather we must have authors of such works keen enough to take to street tumbling to stimulate the sale of their books. We must have an epic poem written by the keeper of a Shoreditch baked-potato-can, or rather we must have the writer of an epic poem go out with a potato-can to make his poetry popular. The science of advertising is in its infancy, and America, so it seems, can give the mother country a "few wrinkles" on this subject. When Walt Whitman, as the story goes, drove an omnibus along Broadway to oblige the regular driver, who was laid up with a fever, we have no doubt that his charity proved a remarkably good investment. We have no means of overhauling his publishing accounts, to see what effect the public excitement had upon his "editions," but we have no doubt that many people never bought his book until after they found him driving an omnibus.

As it is not fair to blame the son alone while the father is living, we should like to have Mr. Emerson's calm opinion of his literary offspring. The rumour runs that the philosopher is rather proud of his wild poet of the woods, and reads the "leaves of grass" with infinite pleasure. If this is so, he must be deceived by the poet's "yearnings after the infinite," which are about as intelligible as a dog's baying at the moon. The inventory of nature is the only thing solid in a book, one-half of which is quite as coarse as Rabelais, and just as obscure. The passages that look profound are not worthy of sustained thought and investigation, because they are deliberately made nonsense-riddles that never had an "answer."

Leaves of Grass Boston (U.S.): Thayer and Eldridge. 1860–61.


1. J. T. S. Lidstone, who wrote many versions of "Londoniad." [back]

2. Guano is the excrement of sea birds, used as a fertilizer, and a major European import from the mid-century to the 1870s. [back]

3. These are slightly misquoted lines from the 1860 Leaves of Grass, pp. 46-47. The first omitted word is "kept-woman" and the second is "veneralee." [back]

4. Rotherhithe was a famous shipbuilding area and the major whaling base in London until the trade declined in the 1840s. A coal-whipper is a person employed in moving coal. This often involved raising coal out of a ship's hold through the use of a pulley. [back]

5. Samuel Johnson was not impressed with Thomas Percy's collection of Ancient English and Scottish Poems. Johnson observed in conversation that "he could rhyme as well, and as elegantly, in common narrative and conversation." See Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1897) 1: 314. [back]

6. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, John Hollingshead was a prolific London journalist who often wrote on urban working-class life, including a number of articles for Dickens's Household Words. [back]

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