Skip to main content

Leaves of Grass


Since the issue, years ago, of a strange, thin volume, bearing this title, the thinkers of the world have been busy in attempting to read the riddle of these poems and their author. The struggle has raged fiercely about every point, from the question whether the term "poem" can properly be applied to these odd recitatives at all, to the question of their meaning and their inspiration. The complete works of Walt Whitman are now put into the hands of the old generation and the new, to do what work they may; but by this time criticism should have crystallized into something definite, and the world ought not longer to go on wondering, each man scanning the face of his neighbor before venturing upon an opinion of his own. And first, let the old quarrel about the form of these poems be finally dismissed. The question of the fittest form for the expression of poetic ideas is as old as human thought, and different ages and nations have answered it differently. The modern rules of rhyme and accent would have seemed senseless to the Latin or Greek prosodists. All these matters are mere conventionalities; and if a man's genius direct him to write in measures hitherto unknown, why let him be judged independently of what are little more than the literary fashions of the day. Whitman's chants strike rudely on the ear at first; but there is in their very construction an element of the magnificent old Hebrew rhythm which marks the book of Job the grandest of epics. They are not mere accidental jumbles. The reader with an ear for music will detect a theme running through them all, which will satisfy him as well, if he be a thoughtful man, as if he could scan them glibly by anapests or trochees. That Whitman is a great poet, it does not require a long reading to discover. From this volume could be collected more absolutely fresh instances of that creative genius which is the progenitor of poetry than from any writer of modern times. Metaphors of singular fidelity and beauty, such as "the fan-shaped explosions," crowd upon and round out the lines. Who that has ever heard it can forget this one?—"The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp." Many of his short poems are as clean-cut as crystals, and as melodious as more strictly measured cadences. The "Drum Taps" are famous everywhere; and, though later efforts have been less happy, the one exquisite song, "O, Captain! My Captain!" written on the death of Lincoln, would make him one of our honored poets forever. When mere formal objections are laid by, the most obvious surface criticism upon Whitman is his apparent egotism. It is everywhere "I," "me imperturbe," "I project the history of the future," "You do not understand me, you cannot understand me, but I can wait hundreds of years for my audience, and they will understand and applaud me." If these were merely the mouthings of individual pride, they would inspire deserved disgust. But they are the words of a man who has a message and proves it. Everywhere, to him who reads aright, the personality of the prophet is sunk out of sight, and the prophecy is exalted. This man feels that he has a message to the multitudinous generations. The grandeur of humanity, the oneness of creation, the beauty and the glory in that one word, "life," the meanness of social and artificial distinctions, the grand eternal sweep of cosmic laws, the dignity of everything that is, simply because it is, and the onward march of all things mean and great toward a wondrous destiny,—these are the high thoughts which reduce language almost to incoherence, and fill the seer with unutterable exaltation. Is not this the true humility of one who thinks much of his message and little of himself?—

The words of my book nothing, the drift of it  
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt  
 by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies, will thrill to every  

His sympathy with everything in nature bea[rs] marks of that higher pantheism to which modern scientific and religious thought distinctly tend. His sinking of self, in the midst of seeming self-glorification, is the poet's tribute to the race. His apparently intuitive grasp of truth toward which knowledge laboriously gropes, has been firmly shown by Professor Clifford in his essay on "Cosmic Emotion."1 The wonderful new light that shines to-day upon poems written twenty years ago and since unchanged, but then unintelligible, is a better vindication of the inspiration behind them than all the work of critics and reviewers. Does any man claim that Whitman is weakly atheistic?

I say no man has ever yet been half devout  
None has every yet adored or worship'd half  
None has begun to think how divine he himself  
 is, and how certain the future is.
All the things of the universe are perfect mir- 
 acles, each as profound as any.
The wonder is always and always how there can  
 be a mean man or an infidel.

He is religious enough, though not with the faith of the creeds. "Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation." He looks through nature to ultimate forces and exults in them.

And as to you Death, and you bitter tug of mortal- 
 ity, it is idle to try to alarm me.
And as to you Life, I reason you are the leavings of  
 many deaths.
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven, O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers  
 and promotions.

He is, indeed a poet who sees far and keenly; and no doubt the reader of the future will believe it still more than we. One other current objection must be briefly met. Public and publishers have cried out upon his indecency. It is true that there are in this book things which no man observant of conventions would have dared to print. But it must be said of them, as he says of his poems, that the words are nothing, the tendency everything. His lines are bold and startling, but you can look them through and through and find no prurient suggestiveness. His aim is to glorify human nature as God made it, with powers complete but undefiled. Delicate modesty feeds upon Swinburne, but flees with down-drawn eyelids from Whitman; yet the pages of the latter are to those of the former what a gallery of Greek sculpture, filled with noble, life-like, marble figures, is to the cancan upon the stage of the Paris Varieties. The real, consistent criticisms upon Leaves of Grass have been uttered, if at all, but by few and with hesitation. Whitman seems to have in undue amount the author's tenderness, born perhaps, in this case, of his sense of the greatness of his mission, for every word he has written; and this has prevented the exclusion of worthless matter. The few lines, for instance, entitled The Ship Starting, contain neither thought nor figure of beauty that entitle them to life. And in his longer poems the tiresome enumerations of States, countries and avocations, which sometimes spread over pages, are but the wanderings of heated imagination and vivid fancy, detracting from both the inner thought and the outer artistic effect. To cut down the volume probably one-fourth, if judiciously done, would exclude nothing of present or possible future value. The constant use of such words as "ostent," "sidle," "sluing," and the like, is bad English and worse taste. Again, he is open to the charge of making his thought unnecessarily obscure. Doubtless he himself cannot grasp in their fullness all the mighty ideas which float illusively before him. He is like a child attempting to describe Niagara, or like him who could not utter a word of the things he saw and heard, when caught up to heaven in a vision. But he is, nevertheless, unnecessarily mystic and incoherent. Those who have penetrated to the heart of one of his Delphic sayings can see that its intent was purposely shrouded in vague, verbal involutions. Not only might he have sooner won his place, but he might have done better the work in which he glories, had he courted the strong simplicity which none is better able to master. Leaves of Grass has won its own way, and is sure of its place. Few American authors have the reputation abroad which Whitman has attained. At home he is destined to a closer and more admiring study as the years go by. From such a discipline it is not impossible that a greater future poet may draw virility and inspiration, while avoiding errors which impair the strength and the popular influence of a work unique, original, careless of standards and traditions, yet replete with beauty and power.


1. William Kingdon Clifford (1845–1879) was an English mathematician who also wrote on philosophy. "Cosmic Emotion" was published in 1877. In Birds and Poets, Burroughs explains Clifford's notion of "cosmic emotion": "a poetic thrill and rhapsody in contemplating the earth as a whole,—its chemistry and vitality, its bounty, its beauty, its power, and the applicability of its laws and principles to human, aesthetic, and art products. It affords the key to the theory of art upon which Whitman's poems are projected, and accounts for what several critics call their sense of magnitude,—'something of the vastness of the succession of objects in Nature.'" [back]

Back to top