Skip to main content

Review of Leaves of Grass (1881–82)

LEAVES OF GRASS BY WALT WHITMAN. One vol. 12mo (7 5/8 x 5 1/4 in.), 352pp. containing all his poems under the headings "Inscription," "Children of Adam," "Calamus," "Birds of Passage," "Sea-Drift," "By the Roadside," "Drum-Taps," "Memories of President Lincoln," "Autumn Rivulets," "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "From Noon to Starry Night," "Songs of Parting." Portrait; cloth; $2 00. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co.

The prophet, of whom it was once said that he was not without honor except in his own country, has now, if not a circle of disciples, certainly a large and increasing audience of admirers. Several magazines and newspapers, which either received the words of "the Good Gray Poet" with abuse, or refused to allow their pages to be sullied with a notice of his "monstrosities," now welcome his life-work with little short of unstinted praise. Nor is this due to the fact that a great publishing house gives its imprint to the title page. The reason lies deeper. While upon some natures his name still has the effect of the traditional red rag upon the angry bull, the majority of cultivated minds begin to see that Walt Whitman is the most American of poets and one of the brightest lights of American literature. It is worth while, then, for even very briefly to examine some of the adverse criticisms that have been passed upon Mr. Whitman, and to see how much weight they really have.

First, it is said that the form into which he throws his verse is chaotic, that his poems run to "a chaos of monotonies," and hence his book makes war upon all theories of true poetry. The same criticism would shut out of the category the English Psalms of David, and the best and most satisfactory translations of Homer and the Greek dramatists, Virgil and Dante, Goethe and Victor Hugo. These authors are still poets in the most literal translation, and the man who can read Whitman and find no rhythm lacks a musical ear. He has the most astounding variety of meters suited to every slightest change of sentiment, here lilting like a smooth flowing river, here carrying the reader along with all the rush of a Niagara, and again blocking itself with wonderful expressiveness. A study of Whitman's meters would be no more interesting and instructive than that which is spent on the complicated, and to us moderns the meaningless, systems of the Greek strophe and antistrophe. Take these four lines from "A Broadway Pageant." They are worthy of Horace:

"Over the Western sea hither from Niphon come, Courteous, the swart-cheek'd two-sworded envoys, Leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed,  
Ride to-day through Manhattan."

And hundreds of other instances could be given. Again, it is said that the catalogues with which Walt Whitman loads his poems are unpoetical. Without attempting to argue the point it may be said that were all records of America destroyed and Walt Whitman's poems preserved, the daily life of the nineteenth century might be pictured with almost photographic accuracy from the same much-abused catalogues; and, moreover, if anyone reads them understandingly he will not fail to be impressed with their picturesqueness and contrast their felicity of descriptiveness, and, taken in connection with the plan of the whole work, their appropriateness. And this brings us to a third adverse criticism: That the work has no unity of plan. To a narrow conception this is true. It needs a wide perspective, and, if these poems had been left to us by an ancient bard, they would have been prized as the most precious memorial of the past. The old story of the sculptor is not inapplicable here. Seen from a level at a short distance the statue appeared monstrous and coarse; but when erected upon its proper height, the rude lines melted into softness and the coarse features were seen to be simply majestic. His boldness of touch is admirable; his pages are veritable panoramas of life; his observation is all-embracing; nothing fails in the picture, and he is equally at home on the wide plains of the West, the wind-swept "gray beach" of the Paumanok shore, or amid the eddying swarms of the city. His adjectives are often worthy of Homer, and his view of the universe wider than Goethe's.

A common charge against Mr. Whitman, is that of his overweening vanity. It must be admitted that if his every utterance be taken as the expression of his personal individual feeling, vanity could not go further; it would be the acme of conceit. But this again is a narrow view. Mr. Whitman symbolizes himself in the grandeur, the spread, the vast liberty of the man. It is the ideal of self-conscious Pantheism. "The Song of Myself," is not Walt Whitman in any small way. Myself is man idealized, and every pleasure, every passion, every pain which goes to make up the life of the world, is centred upon him as a sentient being capable of all things. Looked upon ideally, therefore, there is no conceit in it; aside from its form, it is the grandest conception of poetry which this century has given, and, if read without prejudice, cannot fail to stir the heart. The egotism is the egotism of the poet, and may be seen in these lines from the greatest of the Welsh bards, which bear a curious similarity in form to Mr. Whitman's poems, though possessing individuality of their own:

"Primary chief bard am I to Elphin, And my original country is the region of the Sum- 
 mer Stars.
I was with my Lord in the highest sphere, On the fall of Lucifer into the depth of hell; I have borne a banner before Alexander; I know the names of the stars from North to South; I have been on the Milky Way at the throne of the  
I have been winged by the genius of the splendid  
I have been loquacious prior to being gifted with 
I am a wonder whose origin is not known; I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark; I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra; I have been with my Lord in the manger of the ass; I have been in the armament with Mary Magda- 
I have suffered hunger for the Son of the Virgin; I have been fostered in the land of the Deity; I am teacher to all intelligences; I am able to instruct the whole universe; I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the  
And it is not known whether my body is flesh or  

And it is said that when Taliesin had finished his song, the kings who heard it were filled with marvel.

A still further objection, and the most serious one which has been urged against Mr. Whitman, is on the score of morality. It is claimed that he sins against purity, that he is the poet of the phallus and unbridled lust and indecency. Such a charge is extravagant. The lines which could be condemned on such a plea bear but a small proportion to the rest, and it may be said in defense that were its immodesty to shut it out from libraries, the Bible, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, and most of the master-pieces of literature would have to suffer in the same way. Again, it was not written for babes and sucklings, and the person who can get food for vile imaginings from it would be fed equally from a thousand other sources; honi soit qui mal y pense.1 It can hurt no true man or woman. As regards the question of taste, the chemical view of matter which can reduce a vile and a pleasant odor, rot and sweet, smut and diamond-dust to the same elements is not the most conducive to poetry, and here it seems as though Mr. Whitman failed. Granting his premises that "If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred," still personal preferences, the love of the beautiful, the true, the high, the noble, the best that is meant in the word "taste," is also a part of human nature and therefore superior to the excremental, the disagreeably physical view of man. Mr. Whitman might have consistently taken this ground and raised his poems immeasurably in the eyes of the world which he claims to love, by expunging a few expressions which cannot fail to offend the taste of the reader. Some think it a greater sin to break the laws of good taste than those of morality. Moreover, it is a question whether the attempt to carry out his colossal plan of depicting humanity in its every phase is worth while, since it places his most stimulating, most inspired and grandest utterances out of the kin of the very boys and girls who are growing up into the future men and women, which his verse exalts. We believe in an expurgated Bible, an expurgated Shakespeare and an expurgated Whitman, at least for the use of the young. The question of Mr. Whitman's sins against the English language is of less consequence. Good taste would alter a few; others which make the critics howl are legitimate if North and South, East and West and the [sic] all the French, German, Spanish elements of our country be taken [into] consideration.

We have assumed all along that Mr. Whitman is a poet. Some critics deny this, but we venture to say that had Leaves of Grass come down to us from antiquity, it would be the universal claim that they had the sweep and magnificence of the epic and the variety and expression of the lyric. There are poems in "Drum Taps" which stir the heart like a bugle:

"Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow. Through the windows, through doors, burst like a  
 ruthless force,
Into the solemn church and scatter the congrega- 
Into the school where the scholar is studying; Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happine[ss]2  
 must he have with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing [his]  
 field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound yon drum—so sh[gap]  
 yon bugles blow."

King David would not have been ashamed [of] this psalm:

"Proud music of the storm, Blast that careers so fine, whistling among the [gap]  
Strong hum of forest tree-tops—wind of the [moun-]  
Personified dim shapes—you hidden [gap] You serenades of phantoms with instru[gap] Blinding with Nature's rhythmus all th[gap]  
You chords left as by vast composers [gap] You formless, tree, religious dan[gap]  
You undertone of rivers, roar of [gap] You sounds from distant [gap]  
Echoes of camps, with all th[gap] Trooping tumultuous, all[gap]  
 bending me powerless[gap]
Entering my lonesome [gap]  
 You seized me?"

Without even [gap] any definite way [gap] hesitate to place [gap] "though you are." Some of Whitman's readers have fancied that of late he would have been glad to omit some of the Adamic verse but for pride; and have in fact felt as if his theory of poetry might be the in some measure invented to fit the facts and justify them, rather than have been the source and mold of them. As good a thing as has ever been said of Whitman's work in this direction is contained in a review in a previous number of the Critic. Speaking of the old "dilettante atmosphere" of our literature, without vital connection with the life of the country, the reviewer says—

"Into this hot-house air of literature Walt Whitman bounded, with the vigor and suppleness of a clown at a funeral. Dire were the grimaces of the mourners in high places, and dire are their grimaces still. There were plenty of criticisms to make, even after one had finished crying Oh! at the frank sensuality, the unbelievable nakedness of Walt. Everything that decent folk covered up, Walt exhibited, and boasted of exhibiting! He was proud of his nakedness and sensuality. He cried, Look here, you pampered rogues of literature, what are you squirming about, when you know, and everybody knows, that things are just like this, always have been, always will be? But it must be remembered that this is what he wrote, and that he did it with a plan, and by order from his genius. It has never been heard of him that he was disgusting in talk or vile in private life, while it has been known that poets celebrated for the lofty tone of their morality, for the strictness of their Christianity, the purity of their cabinet hymns, can condescend in private life to wallow in all that is base."

Well worth quoting, before we leave the two great Americans, is what Walt says of Emerson: "Amid the utter delirium-disease called bookmaking, its feverish cohorts filling our world with every form of dislocation, morbidity, and special type of anemia or exceptionalism (with the propelling idea of getting the most possible money, first of all), how comforting to know of an author who has, through a long life, and in spirit, written as honestly, spontaneously and innocently as the sun shines or the wheat grows—the truest, sanest, most moral, sweetest literary man on record—unsoiled by pecuniary or any other warp—ever teaching the law within—ever loyally outcropping his own self only—his own poetic and devout soul!"


1. "Shame upon him who thinks evil of it." [back]

2. The copy we have transcribed here is damaged, and no better copy has been located. [back]

Back to top