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Review of Poems by Walt Whitman

Poems by Walt Whitman. Selected and Edited by William Michael Rossetti London: John Camden Hotten. 1868.

Some years ago, when a few copies of a volume called Leaves of Grass found their way into this country from America, the general verdict of those who had an opportunity of examining the book was that much of it was indescribably filthy, most of it mere incoherent rhapsody, none of it what could be termed poetry in any sense of the word, and that, unless at the hands of some enterprising Holywell Street publisher, it had no chance of the honour of an English reprint. In part this opinion is already proved to have been a mistaken one, for a Westend publisher has taken compassion on the stranger, and now presents it to the British public in a comely form. It may be as well to state at the outset, that the volume published by Mr. Hotten is not precisely a reprint of the original Leaves of Grass. It contains much new matter written since the appearance of that work, and does not contain any of the pieces marked by that peculiar freedom of speech which is generally associated in men's minds with the name of Walt Whitman. For the sake of all parties, the prurient as well as the prudish, lest the one should be unnecessarily alarmed or the other led into an unremunerative venture, it is only fair to say that there is nothing in the present edition to disqualify it for decent society, not to say qualify it for a place in the Bibliothèque bleue 1. It has cost Mr. Rossetti severe pangs so he informs us, to part with so much as, from considerations of prudence, he has been obliged to exclude. "This peculiarly nervous age," this "mealy-mouthed British nineteenth century," with its present absurd notions about decency, morality, and propriety, could not be expected to receive "the indecencies scattered through Whitman's writings," in that æsthetic spirit in which they should be accepted; and, as he was unwilling to mutilate, "the consequence is that the reader loses in toto several important poems, and some extremely fine ones—notably one of quite exceptional value and excellence, entitled, Walt Whitman." In one respect we are willing to admit the loss sustained in this last instance. The "poem" here referred to is the one which contains the key to Walt Whitman's philosophy and poetic theory. It is in it that he describes himself and his qualifications for the office of poet of the future, grounding his claim upon the fact of his being "hankering, gross, mystical, nude, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshy, sensual, no more modest than immodest"; and proposing to produce poetry of corresponding qualities, a promise which we must say he most conscientiously fulfils. Its excellence may be open to question, but about its value to the reader who wishes to understand Walt Whitman there can be no doubt whatever.

The present edition is to be considered as an experiment. By excluding everything offensive, the editor hopes to induce people to reconsider the case of Walt Whitman, and reverse the verdict which has been already pronounced. This, we need scarcely observe, is rather more than they can be fairly asked to do, while the evidence which supports the gravest of charges brought against him is suppressed. But this is not all that Mr. Rossetti expects. The present selection is so to brace and fortify the British mind that in a short time, he trusts, it will be able to relish what now in its weakness it rejects. A complete edition of Walt Whitman, with all the dirt left in, he looks forward to as "the right and crowning result" of his labours. This is but the school-boy's pudding, which, if we only finish it off, is to be succeeded by a full meal of the uncommonly strong meat he has in reserve for us. We must confess we should very much prefer to see Mr. Rossetti employing himself on some task more worthy of his abilities. He has on many occasions done good service as a critic to literature and art, but we cannot look upon his present enterprise as one in any way beneficial to either. He desires to have Walt Whitman recognized, not merely as a great poet, but as the founder of a new school of poetic literature which is to be greater and more powerful than any the world has yet seen. He is not, it is true, entirely alone in this attempt. There have been already certain indications of a Walt Whitman movement in one or two other quarters. More than a year ago there was a paper in the Fortnightly Review 2, which, however, was not so much a criticism of his poetry as of his person, the writer having had, as well as we recollect, the privilege of reviewing him as he bathed-an important advantage, certainly, in the case of a poet whose principal theme is his own body. Then Mr. Robert Buchanan took him up in the Broadway magazine3, and, saying nearly all that has ever been said against Walt Whitman—that he is no poet and no artist, that he is gross, monotonous, loud, obscure, prone to coarse animalism and to talking rank nonsense—nevertheless arrived at pretty much the same conclusion as Mr. Rossetti, at least as to the powerful influence he is to exercise over the literature of the future. Something of this sort we might, indeed have expected. There are people whose reading of the Horatian saying about popular opinion is "nunquam vulgus rectum videt,"4 and who always set themselves to find virtues in everything that is generally condemned. Besides, it would be idle to deny that Walt Whitman has many attractions for minds of a certain class. He is loud, swaggering, and self-assertive, and so gets credit for strength with those who worship nothing that is not strong. He is utterly lawless, and in consequence passes for being a great original genius. His produce is unlike anything else that has ever appeared in literature, and that is enough for those who are always on the look-out for novelty. He is rich in all those qualities of haziness, incoherence, and obscurity which seem to be the first that some readers nowadays look for in poetry. But, above all, he runs a muck with conventionalities and decencies of every sort, which naturally endears him to those silly people who take a childish delight in seeing the respectabilities of the world pulled by the nose, and what they consider its stupid prejudices shocked. We need scarcely say we do not suspect a man of Mr. Rossetti's taste and judgment of this kind of enthusiasm. If we were to hazard a theory, we should be inclined to attribute his advocacy of Walt Whitman's poetical claims to an impatience of the feebleness, emptiness, and sentimentality so abundant in modern poetry. The feeling is one with which we do not quarrel; we only object to the form in which it finds expression. A plague of tinkling cymbals is not to be met by a counter treatment of sounding brass.

An admirer of Walt Whitman has one immense advantage. There is no standard by which his idol can be measured, no known test which can be applied to prove his quality. There is, therefore, a wide field for that dogmatic assertion which is the favourite argument of the transcendental critic. You must not object that his poetry has no melody, music, or form. It is something above and beyond all requirements of that kind. You are not to raise the objection that in a great deal of what he writes there is no meaning at all, and in a great deal more the meaning, when got at, is utterly commonplace. Poetry like Walt Whitman's is not to be judged of by any one who is influenced by narrow considerations of meaning. You are not to take exception to his language, that it is a vile jargon of his own coining. A poet of this order naturally rises above the trammels of precedent in the matter of language. As to the absence of imagination, invention, fancy, art, and sundry other things more or less looked for in poetry, to complain of this in the present instance only shows that you are incapable of understanding the subject. This sort of argument always tells powerfully with the timid, with those people who are haunted by a nervous dread of being set down as dull and commonplace if they allow common sense to influence their judgment; and besides, it has the merit of being unanswerable, except by contradiction. When a man shows you something with all the outward and visible signs of a wheelbarrow, and tells you it is an Act of Parliament, it is very hard to know what to say to him; and it is just as hard to know what to say when you are offered something like the following and told it as poetry, and poetry of a very high order. As the admirers of Walt Whitman always protest against his being judged of fragmentarily, we take the shortest poem we can find, instead of giving the queerest extract:—


Of the visages of things—And of piercing through to the accepted hells beneath. Of ugliness—To me there is just as much in it as there is in beauty—And now the  
 ugliness of human beings is acceptable to me.
Of detected persons—To me, detected persons are not, in any respect, worse than  
 undetected persons—and are not in any respect worse than I am myself.
Of criminals—To me, any judge, or any juror, is equally criminal—and any reputa- 
 ble person is also-and the President is also.

Now it may be that this is not balderdash, though we must confess to a strong suspicion that it is; but if it is poetry, all we can say is, we must find some other word for Shakspeare. Walt Whitman himself is much more candid on this point than his advocates. He certainly declares himself to be a poet, but at the same time he describes the offspring of his muse as a "barbaric yawp." We have no very definite idea as to the precise nature of a yawp, but, whatever it may be, it can scarcely be poetry.

We must do Mr. Rossetti the justice of admitting that he does not entirely rely on dogmatism in pleading the cause of his protégé. He does assign some few reasons why Walt Whitman should be accepted as "the poet of the epoch." In a paper which appeared in a weekly journal,5 he puts the claim on the rather curious ground of his being "an initiator in the scheme and structure of his writings, and an individual of audacious personal ascendant." But in the preface to the present volume he comes more plainly to the point. The reader, he says, is not to ask himself, or return any answer to the questions, whether or not Walt Whitman is like other poets, or whether or not the particular application of rules of art which is found to hold good in the works of other poets, and to constitute a part of their excellence, can be traced also in his work. "Let the questions rather be—Is he powerful? Is he American? Is he new? Is he rousing? Does he feel, and make me feel?" To each of these questions we should be disposed to answer simply "No," were it not that an unqualified negative is scarcely polite. We can see no reason for considering Walt Whitman powerful. Strong he may be, but it is only in the sense in which an onion is strong. His noise, bluster, and arrogance are no more indications of true strength than the swagger of the professional athlete at a country fair, who struts up and down the stage in salmon-coloured tights, and passes for a Hercules with the crowd from the way in which he feels his muscles in public. That he is American in one sense we must admit. He is something which no other country could have produced. He is American as certain forms of rowdyism and vulgarity, excrescences on American institutions, are American. But that he is American in the sense of being representative of American taste, intellect, or cultivation, we should be very sorry indeed to believe. New he certainly is, but it is only in his audacity, and in the abnormal structure of his poetry; there is not a new thought in his writings from beginning to end. As to the other questions, the answer must depend very much on individual temperament. Whether or not he himself feels we cannot tell, but, so far from being rousing or making his reader feel, we should say that with ninety-nine out of a hundred average readers Walt Whitman, taken in any quantity, would be found to be about as soporific a poet as ever produced a yawn. But even if all these questions could be answered in the affirmative—even if we were to concede that Walt Whitman is powerful and new and American and rousing, and throw into the bargain what his friends invariably lay great stress upon, his magnificent physique and his irreproachable character in private life—still all this, we submit, does not make him out to be a poet. To call a man a poet merely because he holds forth in rhapsodical style, about one man being as good as another, everything being all right, every one having a right "to do as he dam pleases"—if we may venture to quote the concise language of Transatlantic liberty—and other dogmas of the same sort, is to confuse the functions of the poet and the stump orator; and generally, when Walt Whitman has any meaning at all, it amounts to no more than this. Very often he has no meaning whatever. In his fury he breaks out into a mere perspiration of words, and strings substantives together for pages on a stretch, the result being a something which is as much like poetry as an auctioneer's catalogue. To be sure there is scattered through his pages a vast amount of that vagueness which to some tastes has the true poetic charm. No doubt there are people who consider this sort of thing very fine:—


The skies of day and night—colours, densities, forms—May-be these are (as doubt- 
 less they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known;
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from  
 my present point of view—And might prove (as of course they would) naught  
 of what they appear, or naught anyhow, from entirely changed points of view.

But if it is very fine, then so is Miss Codger's outburst on being introduced to Elijah Pogram:—

But why we call them so, or why impressed they are, or if impressed they are at all, or if at all we are, or if there really is, oh gasping one! a Pogram or a Hominy, or any active principle, to which we give those titles, is a topic, spirit-searching, light-abandoned, much too vast to enter on.6

But of course the special charm of Walt Whitman is that he is so—what his admirers call—unconventional; that is, that he says things which other people do not say, and in language which other people do not generally use. His unconventionality, however, is of a very cheap sort. It is nothing more than the unconventionality of the man who considers clothes conventional, and goes about without them. It is true that for the present we are spared the bolder strokes of his genius in this respect, but, as has been already mentioned, it is only for the present; and besides, Walt Whitman's grossness is not accidental, but constitutional. It arises partly from an insensibility to the difference between that which is naturally offensive and that which is not, partly from his peculiar theory of poetry. As it is a fundamental principle of his to recognize no law of any kind, and to submit to no restrictions of artistic propriety, it follows that with him all subjects are equally fit for poetic treatment. As Mr. Rossetti puts it, "he knows of no reason why what is universally seen and known, necessary and right, should not also be allowed and proclaimed in speech," and it is just this ignorance of his which, independently of other reasons, makes any attempt to set him up as a poetic model mischievous to the interests of literary art. It is not a question of squeamishness or hyper-sensitiveness. There is no prudery in objecting to nastiness, nor is there any originality, honesty, manliness, or courage in obtruding what even instinct teaches us to avoid. We cannot say, however, that we anticipate any serious injury to English or American literature from the influence or popularity of Walt Whitman's poetry, so long at least as people are courageous enough to use their common sense, and do not allow themselves to be led away by transcendental "high-falutin" into pretending an admiration which they do not feel.


1. A series of inexpensive chapbooks sold by traveling booksellers. [back]

2. Moncure Conway, "Walt Whitman," The Fortnightly Review 15 October 1866, 538-48.The reviewer may have in mind this passage from Conway's discussion of Whitman: "We passed the remainder of the day roaming, or "loafing," on Staten Island, where we had shade, and many miles of a beautiful beach. Whilst we bathed, I was impressed by a certain grandeur about the man, and remembered the picture of Bacchus on the wall of his room. I then perceived that the sun had put a red mask on his face and neck, and that his body was a ruddy blonde, pure and noble, his form being at the same time remarkable for fine curves and for that grace of movement which is the flower of shapely and well-knit bones." [back]

3. See Robert Buchanan. "Walt Whitman." Broadway Magazine 1 (November 1867), 188-95. [back]

4. The public never sees what is right. Originally "interdum vulgus rectum videt," meaning, "sometimes the public sees what is right," from Horace, Epistles ii, 1, 63. [back]

5. We have been unable to locate this article. [back]

6. From chapter 34 of Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. [back]

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