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Walt Whitman


So far as the title-page of the well-printed volume before us furnishes any information, it is written by and published by New York, and doubtless such is the case. We understand it to be a collection of Walt Whitman's previous works, "Leaves of Grass," and "Drum-taps," with the addition of a work containing much that has not been before printed, entitled "Songs before Parting." A careful perusal of these remarkable productions has convinced us that the vague impression we have now and then encountered that Walt Whitman is a kind of "learned pig" is far from correct; we cannot pretend to name his species exactly, but it is certainly winged. That there is genius in these poems is unquestionable; yet it is difficult to assign their author any place in literature, unless, indeed, one may assume the veracity of metempsychosis, and say that here is Hafiz again, only drunk now with Catawba wine instead of the Saoma, and worshipping the Mississippi river instead of the Saravati, which, having dried up in Persia, may be supposed to have also transmigrated westward.1 Here is the lofty optimism of Hafiz preferring dust-grains to pearls, and his audacity believing that he will gain Paradise only by not shunning hell. And indeed there are some poems of Whitman's in which he seems to yearn towards the East from a westward outlook, as if he were more akin to it than to what America has inherited from Europe. Here is a brief example:—

"Facing west from California's shores, Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity,  
 the land of migrations, look afar,
Look off the shores of my Western sea, the circle almost circled; For starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of  
From Asia, from the north, from the God, the sage, and the hero, From the south, from the flowery peninsulas and the spice islands, Long having wander'd since, round the earth having wander'd, Now I face home again, very pleas'd and joyous, (But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?)"

Nevertheless, the Orientalism of the book is manifestly unconscious, it is really meant to be, and is, intensely American. It is but just, however, to say that the America it celebrates is a transcendental one, related to the world and the distant stars, and not "Uncle Sam's" fenced-in national farm. He sends a health to the world from himself and America—

"O vapours! I think I have risen with you, and moved  
 away to distant continents, and fallen down there  
 for reasons;
I think I have blown with you, O winds; O waters, I have fingered every shore with you."

Comparing this volume with the earlier editions of the "Leaves of Grass" we find that whilst all is retained, including some things that might better have been omitted, there is an entire rearrangement of the pieces, which greatly helps the reader who would find out just what are the central ideas under whose inspiration they have been composed. It is plain that, though the form is often chaotic, the work has a character as a whole. The poems may be classified as celebrations, first, of the individual, and next, of the mass. "My days I sing, and the land's:" this is the key-note. Himself stands for every individual, and America sums up all lands and ages. That universalism which Mr. Hepworth Dixon found to be the all-pervading element of the Churches and communities of America means much more with Walt Whitman than the future restoration of the wicked, as the following sentences will show2:—

"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 whatever I touch or am  
 touched from.
"I dote on myself—there is that lot of me and all so luscious; Each moment, and whatever happens thrills me with joy, O, I am wonderful! I cannot tell how my ankles bend, nor whence the cause of my  
 faintest wish,
Nor the cause of the friendship I emit, nor the cause of the friend-  
 ship I take again.
That I walk up my stoop! I pause to consider if it really be; A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the  
 metaphysics of books.
To behold the day-break! The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows; The air tastes good to my palate.
"Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me. We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun; We found our own, O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-  
"Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so; Only what nobody denies is so. A minute and a drop of me settle my brain; I believe the soggy clods shall become loaves and lamps, And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman, And a summit and flower there is the feeling they have for each  
And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it  
 becomes omnific,
And until one and all shall delight us, and we them."
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the  
 stars. . . . .
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's  
 girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking short-cake.
I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains,  
 esculent roots,
And am stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over, And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, And call anything close again, when I desire it."

When Walt Whitman says en masse, it is always to chant what he claims to be a new theme, only possible to be sung in America, which he calls friendship. He is never weary of celebrating the "love of comrades," the "boys together singing," the friends' "hand in hand." This is the soul of democracy. Here is his "Song":—

"Come, I will make the continent indissoluble; I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon; I will make divine magnetic lands, With the love of comrades, With the life-long love of comrades. I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of  
 America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over  
 the prairies;
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's  
By the love of comrades, By the manly love of comrades.
For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme! For you! for you, I am trilling these songs, In the love of comrades, In the high-towering love of comrades."

He dreams a dream of "a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth," which is the new City of Friends; and he calls East, West, North, South, to listen to these words:—

"I believe the main purport of These States is to found a superb  
 friendship, exalté, previously unknown,
Because I perceive it waits, and has always been waiting, latent in  
 all men."

There is in these poems fullness of expression for clear and vehement convictions; a stateliness of both thought and language; an innocent forgetfulness of all conventionalities; an unconscious nakedness of images; pictorial words without any of the usual poetic conceits and metaphors. There are also swamps and deserts to be passed through, and long stretches of the names of places and occupations which are evidently condensed poems to the author, but which become as hard to get over as Brighton shingles to the ordinary reader.3 It has, indeed, something of the vastness of the succession of objects in nature, as a forest or savannah, but one does not like to get lost even in forest sublimities. Nevertheless, we have no apprehension that any one with eyes who shall read this volume, will fail to place a very high value upon it. Much has been said of its coarseness. There are, indeed, a few-a very few-portions of it which are coarse, and there are others which, without being coarse, are plain-spoken to a degree not generally permitted to contemporaries, though sometimes praised in ancient books. Whatever may be said of the passages to which we refer, this at least should we say, that they are not written in any defiant or destructive spirit.

We many notice here that among the young Americans whom this strange poet or prophet has inspired, one, Mr. John Burroughs, has written an interesting account of him, the advance sheets of which a friend has kindly placed in our hands. The following extracts will doubtless interest our readers:—

"On his father's side his stock is English; on his mother's, Holland-Dutch. From his father he inherits his large frame and muscular build, his antecedents here being a race of farmers and mechanics, silent, good-natured, playing no high part in society, politics, or the Church, and noted chiefly for strength and size. His early life was passed partly in Brooklyn and partly in the country about forty miles east of Brooklyn, where he lived much in presence of the sea. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty he seems to have been mostly engaged in teaching country schools in his native town and vicinity. It was about this time that he began writing for the press. His first productions, mostly sketches, appeared in the Democratic Review, from which they were copied into some of the newspapers. Between the ages of twenty and thirty he was variously occupied as writer and editor on the press of New York and Brooklyn, sometimes going into the country and delivering political addresses. During this period he was on familiar terms of acquaintance with William Cullen Bryant, and the two were in the habit of taking long walks, which, of course, were equivalent to long talks, in and about Brooklyn. In 1850 he went to New Orleans in the capacity of editor, where he remained a year. On his trip to and from that city he made it a point penetrate various parts of the West and South-west, particularly to explore the Mississippi and its tributaries, searching, one might say, for hints and models to be used in the making of his poems.

"He does not seem to have conceived the idea of writing 'Leaves of Grass' till after his thirtieth year. How he was led to adopt this style of expression, thoroughly versed as he was in the literature of the day, is uncertain. The most probable explanation is that he felt hampered by the old forms and measures, and saw that if America ever came to possess a style of her own, it would be in the direction of more freedom and scope-a feeling in which many of his contemporaries are beginning to share. For three or four years before he began to write in this vein, and while his loaf was leavening, as it were, he was a diligent student of the critical literature of the age, delving into foreign magazines and quarterly reviews, and collecting a vast amount of matter, bearing upon poetry and literature generally, for further use and study. It is quite probable that this course of reading had some influence in determining his own course as a poet, and that he knew well beforehand wherein the head and front of his work would lie. It has not been with his eyes shut that he set himself against the popular tastes and standards, and wrote for an audience of which he did not count upon the present existence of a single member. It cannot be said with the same force of any other writer, living or dead, that he must 'wait to be understood by the growth of the taste of himself.'

"When 'Leaves of Grass' was written and published, the author was engaged in putting up small frame-houses in the suburbs of Brooklyn, partially with his own hands and partly with hired help. The book was still-born. To a small job printing-office in that city belongs the honour, if such, of bringing it to light. Some threescore copies were deposited in a neighboring book-store, and as many more in another book-store in New York. Weeks elapsed, and not one was sold. Presently there issued reports from both the stores that the thin quarto, for such it was, should be forthwith removed. The copies found refuge in a well-known phrenological publishing house in Broadway, whose proprietors advertised it and sent specimen copies to the journals and to some distinguished persons. The journals remained silent, and several of the volumes sent to the distinguished persons were returned with ironical and insulting notes. The only attention the book received was, for instance, the use of it by the collected attachés of a leading daily paper of New York, when at leisure, as a butt and burlesque-its perusal aloud by one of the party being equivalent to peals of ironical laughter from the rest.

"A small but important occurrence seems to have turned the tide. This was the appearance of a letter from the most illustrious literary man in America, brief, but containing a magnificent eulogium of the book. A demand arose, and before many months, all the copies of the thin quarto were sold. At the present date, a curious person, pouring over the shelves of second-hand book stalls in side places of the city, may light upon a copy of this quarto, for which the stall-keeper will ask him treble its first price."4

We feel a certain responsibility in alluding to this strange work; but there is that in it, with all its eccentricity and vagueness, which removes it from the category of common-place books, and places it among those of which a critic is bound to give a fair and impartial account. It is unfortunate that this odd poet should have spoiled so much beautiful work with even one smear of nastiness; but however we may regret his having done so, we cannot afford to lose what he has given us because he has not given it in a purer spirit. He is far more chaste than Mr. Swinburne, whom he resembles in many particulars; he is not more irreverent than Shelley; he is in some points more dramatic than either, and far less hurtful. There is a wild, natural exuberance of animalism displayed by Whitman of a thoroughly original kind, an open-air abandonment, a weird and exalted receptivity embracing the good and the bad, the vice and the virtue of life, with a power and comprehensiveness as striking as it is novel. If he will but learn to tame a little, America will at last have a genuine American poet.

We are not defending Whitman's audacity, nor maintaining that a poet may run counter to every social and religious belief and law, because he is a poet; but genius is too rare and too precious a gift to the world to be lost and forgotten simply on the score of its raving at times. Besides, Whitman removes grossness out of the reach of passion, renders it completely unsuggestive or alluring by his uncovered and unornamented distinctiveness. We have read leading articles in newspapers far more subversive of nicety in modest thought than the worst of Whitman's erotics, if erotics we can term his rhapsodical worship of form and flesh. At the same time Whitman is not a poet for the family circle, nor is his book one which could be allowed into everybody's hands. Taking "Leaves of Grass" on the whole, we have no hesitation in pronouncing them to be leaves containing noble and sublime images-leaves in which there is a throbbing and real pulse of that great sympathy which indicates the poet, and for which we are disposed to forgive a taint of earthiness and mould which may in a future edition be removed.


1. The Persian poet Shams-ud-din Muhammad (c.1300–1388) took the pen name of Hafiz. [back]

2. William Hepworth Dixon (1821–1879) was a British journalist and editor of the Athenæum from 1853–1869. He traveled to the U.S. in 1866 and published New America (1867). [back]

3. Brighton has a beach whose medium-sized pebbles, called shingles, make walking difficult. [back]

4. See John Burroughs, Notes on Walt Whitman, As Poet and Person , 1867. [back]

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