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"Leaves of Grass"


Kosmos, or Walt Whitman's Song of the Universe.

A Perfect Poem-Picture of American Democracy.

The Hermit Thoreau's Opinion of Our Good Gray Poet.

Should any one ask the question, "Will Walt Whitman, the poet, and 'Leaves of Grass' (the work on which his fame will rest, whatever he may write in the future), now that after upward of twenty-five years of patient waiting both have got within the sacred circle controlled by a syndicate of literary men and publishers, become rapidly popular?" The answer must be, "No." The book is too radical, too free, too independent and far too true to make its conquest of a popular verdict an easy matter. To the question, "Will the book and the man ever be popular?" the answer, in the opinion of the present writer, must be a qualified "Yes." Walt Whitman is, par excellence, the poet and priest of democracy—the American type of democracy; the democracy based upon individuality, though not, perhaps, the ultimate democracy; the democracy based upon I, the individual; not the democracy based upon we, the sum of all individuals. In "Leaves of Grass" Walt Whitman has personified—or rather, idealized—the genius of American democracy. The work cannot be separated into any number of complete and independent poems: it is one complete and all-embracing poem, the subject of which is the Kosmos. It is the Kosmos as viewed from the standpoint of the American idea of democracy—the sovereignty of each and every individual. Walt Whitman is an individualist of the most pronounced type. So, while admitting that his grand psalms of the Universe will attain a gradual and limited popularity, attaining such popularity only as fast as they become popularly understood, their influence may diminish should ever the American idea of democracy—individual sovereignty—lose its hold on popular opinion.

Walt Whitman has written the drama—it may be almost called the history—of the first century of American civilization. It may be doubted whether it will fit the second century as well; indeed, how could that be expected, for is it possible to write

The Drama of the Future!

All that we can know of the future we have learned from the past and from what we can understand of the tendencies of this present time; but what poet or seer, let him be ever so wise, can forecast the future development—even for one brief century—of the wonderful, creative, multitudinous human mind? But let us take a survey of the book. Let us see how far it fits the foregoing remarks. First, as to the title—why "Leaves of Grass?" The author himself evidently loves the title, as is evinced by the ornamentation not only of the latest but of previous editions. His very signature on the cover reminds one of grass—and it has a meaning. Let us read the opening in his own words:

"A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with  
 full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it  
 is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of  
 hopeful green-stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord. A scented gift and rememberance designedly dropt. Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,  
 that we may see and remark, and say whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced  
 babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, And it means, sprouting alike is broad zones and  
 narrow zones.
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I gave them  
 the same, I receive the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of  
. . . . . . . . The smallest sprout shows there is really no death. And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not  
 wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed,  
 and luckier."

"Leaves of Grass," then, are not only symbolical of all the great alchemy of nature, of all creation, all production, all evolution, but symbolical of immortality as well—the permanence and indestructability of all things. And so the title is good.

What of the man? What of Walt Whitman himself? This brings us to one of the most interesting features of the book; indeed, the key to its entire plan-its marked personality. It was not by mere whim or caprice—much less by accident or any publisher's device—that the unique portrait of the author (the only illustration of the volume) is not in the usual place, fronting the title-page, but incorporated in the verse, and accompanied by his account of his own relation to his work and to the reader. This is introduced as a

Song of Myself.

and is carried through fifty-two stanzas, occupying fifty pages. The portrait, copied from a daguerreotype taken in 1856, when he was a working carpenter, as well as an unhatched poet—represents him in the loose shirt, open at the neck and lapping over the waist of the unbraced pants of an ordinary mechanic; his flannel undershirt revealed; a broad-brimmed, soft felt hat carelessly thrown back sideways on his head, which is inclined in the same way. The expression on his face shows energy, self-reliance and is full of thought; his attitude is firm, careless and unstudied-the left hand in his pocket and the right resting with bent elbows on his hip, which is thrown up to support it. There he stands—Walt Whitman—a man and a workingman; every line, every shadow, "every atom of blood" and fibre of him. But let him speak for himself:

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to  
I loafe and invite my soul. I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of sum- 
 mer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this  
 soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the  
 Same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begins, Hoping to cease not till death. . . . . . . . . Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess  
 the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun (there  
 are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third  
 hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor  
 feed on the spectres of books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take  
 things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk  
 of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is  
Nor any more youth or age than there is now, And will never be any more perfection than there is  
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world. Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always  
 substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always  
 a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel  
 that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights,  
 well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical, I and this mystery here we stand. . . . . . . . . Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I  
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle,  
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm or an impalpa- 
 ble certain rest.
Looking with side-curved head curious what will  
 come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and won- 
 dering at it.
. . . . . . . . . Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your  
Not words, music or rhyme I want, nor custom or  
 lecture, not even the best.
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. . . . . . . . . . And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my  
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my  
And that all the men ever "born are also my brothers,  
 and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creator is love, And limitless are leaves, stiff and drooping in the  
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them, And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones,  
 elder, mullein and poke-weed."

"A child said, What is the grass?" etc., then comes in, and for several pages the reader's attention is chained to

A Beautiful Panorama of Human Life

in all its various aspects, civilized and uncivilized; to all possible life experiences of men, women and children; life animate and inanimate (if the term is admissible), all of which, and all actions and feelings and promptings and meanings, are embodied in himself, and felt and expressed by himself—Walt Whitman. We can only cull a specimen or two here and there as we turn over the charming pages:

"The little one sleeps in its cradle, I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently  
 brush away flies with my hand.
I am enamor'd of growing out-doors, Of men that live among cattle, or taste of the ocean or  
Of the builders and steerers of ships, and the wielders  
 of axes and mauls, and the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.
What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest is Me. Me coming in for my chances, spending for vast  
Adoring myself to bestow myself on the first that  
 will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my good will, Scattering it freely for ever. . . . . . . . . . And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the  
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, Material as well as paternal, a child as well as a man, Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with  
 the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the  
 same and the largest the same.
. . . . . . . . . A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thought- 
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seas- 
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and re- 
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, Quaker, Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist anything better than my own diversity, Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, And am not stuck up, and am in my place. . . . . . . . . . These are really the thoughts of all men, in all ages  
 and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are noth- 
 ing, or next to nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they  
 are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and  
 the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe."

Now comes a passage remarkable for its nobility:

"With music strong I come, with my cornets and my  
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play  
 Marches for conquer'd and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say it is good to fail, battles are lost in the same  
 spirit in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead, I blow through my embouchures my loudest and  
 gayest for them.
Vivas to those who have fail'd! And to those whose war vessels sang in the sea! And to those themselves who sank in the sea! And to all generals that lost engagements, and all  
 overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the  
 greatest heroes known!
. . . . . . . . . In all people I see myself, none more and not one  
 barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them. . . . . . . . . . I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content.
My foot-hold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite, I laugh at what you call dissolution, And I know the amplitude of time. . . . . . . . . . I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man, And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of  
. . . . . . . . . I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline  
 to be the poet of wickedness also.
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice? Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, I stand  
. . . . . . . . . Endless unfolding of words of ages! And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse.
A word of the faith that never balks, Here or henceforward it is all the same to me, I ac- 
 cept Time absolutely.
. . . . . . . . . I accept reality and dare not question it, Materialism first and last imbuing.

Now for the key-note of

Our Author's Cosmopolitan Personality:

"Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and  
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women,  
 or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs! Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. . . . . . . . . . I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of  
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have  
 their counterpart of on the same terms.

Here is a suggestive word to impatient revolutionists:

"All truths wait in all things, They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it, They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeons."

Listen to this, ye who see no poetry in "Leaves of Grass:"

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-  
 work of the stars,
And a pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand,  
 and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef d'œuvre for the highest, And a running blackberry would adorn the parlors  
 of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all  
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses  
 any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions  
 of infidels.
. . . . . . . . . I think I could turn and live with the animals, they  
 Are so placid and self-contain'd.
I stand and look at them long and long. . . . . . . . . . Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived  
 thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole  
So they show their relations to me."

Turning over page after page we reach the following:

"It is time to explain myself—let us stand up. What is known I strip away, I launch all men and women forward with me into the  
The dock indicates the moment—but what does eter- 
 nity indicate?
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and  
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of  
Births have brought us richness and variety, And other births will bring us richness and variety. I do not call one greater and one smaller, That which fills its period and place is equal to any. . . . . . . . . . I am an acme of things accomplish'd, and I am  
 encloser of things to be
. . . . . . . . . Immense have been the preparations for me, Faithful and friendly the arms that have help'd me. . . . . . . . . . Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like  
 cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings, They sent influences to look after what was to hold  
. . . . . . . . . All forces have been steadily employ'd to complete  
 and delight us.
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul."

Here we have in epitome the true story of

The Creation of Man.

And what comprehensive grasp of infinity, what far-reaching perception, is revealed in these lines!

"I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled  
And all I see, multiplied as high as I can cipher, edge  
 but the rim of the farther systems.
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always ex- 
Outward and outward and forever outward. My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels, He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit, And greater sets follow, making specks of the great- 
 est inside them.
There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage, If I, you and the worlds, and all beneath or upon  
 their surfaces were this moment reduced back  
 to a pallid float, it would no avail in the long  
We should surely bring up again where we now stand, And surely go as much farther, and then farther and  
A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic  
 leagues, do not hazard the space or make it im- 
They are but parts, anything is but a part. See ever so far there is linkless space outside of  

Here are a few lines that show the fulness of his fellowship with all others:

"I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!) My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff  
 cut from the woods.
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair, I have no chair, no church, no philosophy. I lead no man to a dinner table, library, exchange, But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a  
My left hand hooking you round the waist, My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents  
 and the public road.
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself. . . . . . . . . If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff  
 of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service  
 to me.
. . . . . . . . You are also asking me questions, and I hear you, I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for  
Long enough have you dream'd contemptible dreams, Now I wash the gum from your eyes, You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and  
 of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the  
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off into the midst of the sea, rise again, nod  
 ho me, shout, and laughingly dash with your  
. . . . . . . . I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the  
 time while I wait for a boat,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the  
 tongue of you,
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen'd.) . . . . . . . . If you would understand me go to the heights or  
 water shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or mo- 
 tion of waves a key,
The maul, the oar, the hand-saw, second my words. No shutter'd room or school can communicate with me, But roughs and little children better than they. . . . . . . . . There is that in me-I do not know what it is-but I  
 know it is in me.
. . . . . . . . I do not know it-it is without name-it is a word  
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol. . . . . . . . . Do you see, O my brothers and sisters? It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is  
 eternal life—it is Happiness."

Will what has been written and quoted serve to give some idea of the spirit and meaning of this wonderful poem of humanity and the universe? It has been written with the hope that it may, but with no expectation of doing anything like justice to the vast range of observation, profundity and minuteness of analysis, philosophic and religious interpretation, intimate knowledge and deep and earnest sympathy, not only with all humanity but with all nature, that

Place this Book in the Front Rank

of the highest branches of American literature. One might as well try to epitomize Shakespeare in a newspaper article as to try to do so with "Leaves of Grass." That all who read this imperfect review will be induced thereby to read and study the volume for themselves, and become greater, nobler and happier by the experience, is the earnest hope of the writer.

The following appreciative opinion of, that other faithful student of nature—Thoreau—written in 1856, and therefore at a time when even a man of his independence could hardly be expected to be very outspoken in the face of social prudery, will be read with interest, and will be a fitting appendix to what has been already said:

"He (Whitman) is apparently the greatest democrat the world has seen; a remarkably strong, though coarse nature, of a sweet disposition, and much prized by his friends. Though peculiar and rough in his exterior, his skin, all over, red, he is essentially a gentleman. I am still in some quandary about him—feel that he is essentially strange to me, at any rate; but am surprised by the sight of him. He is very broad, but not fine . . . . He has long been an editor and writer for the newspapers—was editor for the N.O. Crescent once . . . . Since I have seen him, I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He is a great fellow. There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable, at least, simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. I think men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason. No doubt there have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited, and it is no merit to compete with such. But even on this side he has spoken more truth than any modern I know. [What of Shakespeare, Byron and Burns?]1 I have found his poem exhilarating, encouraging. [Emerson uses a similar expression.] As for its sensuality—and it may be less so than it seems—I do not so much wish those parts unwritten, as that men were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is without understanding them (?) . . . . On the whole it is to me very brave and American. We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. How people must shudder as they read him? He is awfully good. To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness and broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders—as it were sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain—stirs me well up and then—throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude and sometimes ineffectual, it is a good primitive poem—an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that when I asked if he had read them he answered, 'No; tell me about them.'"2

Thoreau has evidently written just what he felt when the surprise and what may be called the shock of an unprecedented revelation was fresh upon him. His candor and his good judgment, under the circumstances, is worthy of all commendation, but he might write differently today were he alive.


1. These comments in square brackets appear in the original. [back]

2. This comes from two letters that Henry David Thoreau wrote to Harrison Blake on 19 November 1856 and 7 December 1856. Thoreau, Henry David. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode. New York: New York UP, 1958. 441-42, 444-46. [back]

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