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Walt Whitman's Works


To ninety-nine out of every hundred educated English readers, if not, indeed, to a larger proportion, the name Walt Whitman conveys no meaning or associations whatever. Of the few, moreover, who have previously heard the name still fewer have had the opportunity of seeing the work to which it owes whatever celebrity it may have attained. Yet its bearer is a man of some mark in America, and his work has not only startled the few educated Englishmen who have seen it, but is undoubtedly destined to hold a prominent position in American literature. Many causes contribute to render Leaves of Grass, as Walt Whitman's principal work is called, a sealed book to English readers. The first reason is its costliness. A dozen copies would scarcely, we should suppose, reward the most diligent search that could be instituted through England, and, probably, not a quarter of that number is on sale. When met with at the establishments of the principal American bookselling agents, the price of the volume is as much as is asked for the complete works of Tennyson or Swinburne. A second reason for the scarcity of the book is that the form of its composition is not at first glance attractive, and that its contents are such as cannot possibly be admitted into family reading. Leaves of Grass, is, however, the most thoroughly national and characteristic American poem that has yet seen the light, and is a work the influence of which will yet be felt. It is a book concerning which Englishmen ought to know at least a little. For various reasons, then, among which figures prominently the difficulty in obtaining the volume, we hold we are rendering a real service to our readers in bringing under their observation a few striking features in this remarkable and most suggestive work.

We have spoken of it as national and characteristic in the fullest sense, and so it is. An Englishman might have written ninety-nine hundredths of American poetry. Scarcely a line or stanza in Longfellow, Holmes, Bryant, Whittier, that is in the fullest sense American. The philosophical poems of Emerson have a flavour of nationality, and a very strong taste thereof pervades such comic works as the Big[e]low papers, and other similar productions. But those comic works which aim at satirising the manners and customs of every-day life are necessarily the first parts of a young nation's literature, in which local colour is observable. Before the appearance of Leaves of Grass, no serious American work was wholly or in any wide sense national. The spirit that pervades Leaves of Grass is essentially American. It is more. To use a word the author is fond of, it is Manhattanese. A resident in the capital of the Empire State alone could have produced it. The rowdyism and greed of New York life, as well as its higher qualities, pervade it. Walt Whitman is as completely a New Yorkist as Charles Lamb was a Londoner or Christopher North a Scot. Not that he is uninfluenced by preceding writers of other countries. On the contrary, his work is, to some extent, an olla podrida of other people's thoughts, manners, and forms, but the main current belongs to New York.1 The philosophy and theology are decidedly American, the ethics are altogether of New York. We seem to trace half-a-dozen authors in Walt Whitman. The freedom and coarseness of his phraseology recal[l] Rabelais. In his most poetical passages he reminds us of Ossian. His philosophy has a flavour of Emerson; his constant display of independence and his peculiar habit of self-assertion, find no parallel save in George Wither; and his didactic breathings are in form, if in nothing else, at times suggestive of Tupper.2

Leaves of Grass is a volume of nearly five hundred pages, of what the author considers and calls poetry. It is divided under several heads, the most important of which are "Walt Whitman," "Chants Democratic," "Leaves of Grass" (which gives its title to the whole), "Enfans d'Adam," "Calamus," and "Messenger Leaves." All are alike in shape. Though called poems, the contents of the entire volume, one short passage in which the rhyme may be the result of accident excepted, have neither rhyme nor metre. The poems have a long rhythmic flow, which bears about the same relation to ordinary poetry that the military or mournful music of a savage tribe does to music as understood in Western Europe. The verses are of unequal length, ordinarily possessing a caesura and a strongly-marked accent on the penultimate syllable. This last quality is, however, not always observable. To quit form, however, and come to what is more important, matter, there are three pervading ideas in the volume, which may be described as the apotheosis of the flesh, the exaltation of states life, and the promotion of comradeship. To deal with these seriatim, in the first Whitman takes part in a natural and easily comprehensible reaction, signs of which have of late manifested themselves, against the extreme glorification of the soul at the expense of the body, which has been one of the results of Christianity.3 Heathen teaching held soul and body of equal account, and the Greek regarding each with equal reverence, was at as much pains to cultivate the powers of the one as is the other. The belief in the equality of the body with the soul largely pervades the writings of Whitman. Next to this comes his exaltation of democracy in general, and of American democracy in particular. Lastly comes the notion of comradeship. This last we only partially understand, and are not in the least tempted to enter upon. These are the views which first recal[l] themselves upon rising from the accomplished perusal of Leaves of Grass. A hundred other points, however, require mentioning ere we can profess to bring before the reader Walt Whitman as he really is. It is time, however, to give the reader a few quotations illustrative of the author's modes of thought. Fortunately, in so doing we give an insight into the nature of his verse also. We are obliged to be guarded in our selections. It is not possible to quote the passages which are in the fullest sense characteristic. Neither is it possible in the space we have allotted ourselves to give more than the feeblest conceivable idea of the nature of the contents of the remarkable book before us. Here are four lines in which the author describes himself:—

"Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos. Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding, No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart  
 from men,
No more modest than immodest."

He continues with wonderful worship of himself in lines from which we extract almost at random:—

"I dote on myself—there is that lot of me, and all so luscious, Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with delight. O, I am so wonderful! I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the causes of my  
 faintest wish,
Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, not the cause of the friend- 
 ship I take again.
That I walk up my stoop, I pause to consider if it really be. That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors  
 and school.
A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the meta- 
 physics of books."

His general views may be gathered from one or two passage selected as illustrative of different phases of mind:—

"I play not here marches for victors only; I play great marches  
 for conquered and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say that it is good to fall—battles are lost in the same spirit in  
 which they are won.
I beat triumphal drums for the dead. I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest music to  
Vivas to those who have failed. And to those whose war vessels sunk in the sea; And those themselves who sank in the sea; And to all generals that have lost engagements; and all over- 
 come heroes;
And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes  

His transcendentalism finds vent in the lines in which, after praising the discoveries of Positive science and singing hurra for all exact demonstrators, he continues:—

"Gentlemen, I receive you and attach and clasp hands with  
The facts are useful and real—they are not my dwelling—I enter  
 by them to an area of the dwelling."

His theology is continually obtruded:—

"I do not despise you priests. My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths, Enclosing all worship, ancient and modern, and all between  
 ancient and modern."

Or again:—

"And I call to mankind, be not curious about God, For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God. No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God  
 and about death.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not  
 in the least.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each  
 moment then.
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face  
 in the glass.
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is  
 signed by God's name.
And I leave them where they are, for I know that they will punc- 
 tually come for ever and ever.
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to  
 try to alarm me."


"I do not understand the realities of death, but I know they are  
I do not understand the least reality of life; how, then, can I un- 
 derstand the realities of death?'

The "Chants Democratic" exalt everything American, the attributes of people and country alike, and are full of truly American exaggeration. They are far less interesting to English readers than the other portions of the volume. Everything American is the subject of his praises:—

"These states are the amplest poem. Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations. Here the doings of men correspond with the broadcast doings of  
 the day and night.
Here is what moves in magnificent masses—carelessly faithful  
 of particulars.
Here are the roughs, beards, friendliness, combativeness, the  
 soul loves,"
Here the flowing trains—here the crowds, equality, diversity, the  
 soul loves."

He sings the American wherever he is found:—

"Cutters down of wood and haulers of it to the Penobscot or  
Dwellers in cabins among the California mountains or by the  
 little lakes or on the Columbia.
Dwellers south on the banks of the Gila or Rio Grande—friendly  
 gatherings, the characters and fun,
Dwellers up north in Minnesota and by the Yellow Stone River—  
 dwellers on coasts and off coasts, etc"

But we can extract no more. Our space forbids, and, inadequately as our task is accomplished, we must retire from it. Our readers have seen enough of the book to have an idea of it and the author. To know all his talent and eccentricity is impossible till the book itself has been perused. The contents of the volume can by a stretch only be called poetry. They lack its first and most indispensable element, beauty. They are, however, strange and most suggestive reading, and such as a man of culture will not care entirely to ignore. Spite of barbarous expressions, vile Americanisms, and all faults of thought and expression, the writings of Walt Whitman are full of character, and well worthy of contemplation. They will in time attain a certain measure of celebrity even, and their author is surely entitled to a distinct niche in American literature. With this short notice we dismiss him as he dismisses himself—

"I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot soles."

Meantime, we hope, we have brought him before the reader as he stands—

"Sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Leaves of Grass Boston: Thayer and Eldridge. London: Trübner and Co.


1. A spicy stew (originally from Spain or Portugal). [back]

2. George Wither, seventeenth-century British poet who dedicated a book of satires to himself. Martin Farquhar Tupper was a popular British poet who wrote religious and philosophical free verse. [back]

3. Possibly a reference to "muscular Christianity," a movement to counter the traditional elevation of soul over body by emphasizing manly athleticism. It first appeared in Britain under this name in the late 1850s and quickly spread to the United States. [back]

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