Skip to main content

Walt Whitman


1. Leaves of Grass By WALT WHITMAN. Glasgow, 1883. 2. Specimen Days and Collect Same author. Glasgow, 1883. 3. Poems of Walt Whitman. Selected and edited by W. M. Rossetti London, 1868. 4. Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and Person By JOHN BURROUGHS. New York, 1871. 5. Walt Whitman By R. M. BUCKE, M.D. Glasgow, 1883.

IN a letter dated Concord, 6th May, 1856, Emerson wrote to Carlyle:—'One book, last summer, came out in New York, a nondescript monster which yet has terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American, which I thought to send you, but the book throve so badly with the few to whom I shewed it, and wanted good morals so much, that I never did. Yet I believe now again I shall. It is called Leaves of Grass, was written and printed by a journeyman printer in Brooklyn, New York, named Walter Whitman; and after you have looked into it, if you think, as you may, that it is only an auctioneer's inventory, you can light your pipe with it.'

The book referred to was a copy of the singular looking thin quarto volume of little more than a hundred pages, in which the Leaves of Grass originally appeared, and which is now so eagerly sought after by American book-collectors. What Carlyle's opinion of it was, whether, as Emerson thought he might, he used it for the purpose of lighting his pipe, or like Emerson, he held it in high esteem for its intrinsic excellence, we have no means of knowing. In the recently published Carlyle-Emerson correspondence there is no further reference to it, and so far as we can remember, no allusion is made to it in any of Carlyle's published writing.

The reception which this strange 'nondescript monster['] with 'terrible eyes and buffalo strength' met with at the hands of the public and in literary circles was almost as disheartening as possible. Of the thousand copies printed, some, Dr. Bucke informs us, were given away, most of them were lost, abandoned, or destroyed.∗ According to Mr. Burroughs, some sixty copies were deposited for sale in a bookseller's shop in Brooklyn, and as many more in another in New York. Weeks elapsed and not a single copy was sold. Presently there came the request from both the booksellers that the unfortunate thin quarto should be removed. Subsequently the copies found refuge in the warehouse of a phrenological publishing establishment in Broadway, the proprietors of which advertised the work, and sent out copies for review and to distinguished persons. 'The journals,' continues Mr. Burroughs, 'remained silent, and of the copies sent to distinguished persons several were returned with insulting notes. The only reception heard of, was such, for instance, as the use of the volume by the attaches of a leading daily paper in New York—collected in a swarm Saturday afternoon, waiting to be paid off—as a butt and burlesque, whose perusal aloud by one of the party, the other lounging or standing about, was equivalent to peals upon peals of ironical laughter from the whole assemblage.† Cold as its reception by the press was, it was scarcely so silent, however, as Mr. Burroughs' words might lead the reader to suppose. As we learn from Dr. Bucke's extremely useful and handy little volume, it was noticed, though certainly in no very complimentary terms, in the Brooklyn Daily Times, in the London Critic, and in the New York Criterion. Nor was it altogether ignored in higher quarters. It had the honour of being reviewed in Putnam's Magazine, then the most influential and best conducted of the American periodicals. The reception given to it there was probably under the circumstances the best possible. The reviewer filled three columns with extracts from its pages, selecting the most original and striking passages, and passing over those which were calculated to offend, and though he pronounced the new poems to be a 'mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism," which were here 'seen to combine in harmony,' and indulged in other pleasantries of a similar nature, he frankly acknowledged that there were to be found 'an original perception of nature, a manly temper, and an epic directness in the new poet, which belong to no other adept of the transcendental school.'

That any warmer or more encouraging reception should have been accorded to the book was scarcely to be expected. Its singular appearance, its peculiar lines, its utter want of conformity with most of the conventionalities of the poet's art, the obscurity of its author, and above all its seeming want of good morals were against it. Circumstances, however, soon conspired to lift both the volume and its author, if not out of derision, at least out of obscurity. The first and most weighty was the publication of a letter to Whitman from Emerson in which he declared the Leaves of Grass a 'wonderful gift,' and pronounced it 'the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.' 'I give you joy,' he wrote with his usual cheeriness, 'of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.    .   .   .  The solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.' Thoreau wrote of the book in a similar, if more guarded, strain. 'On the whole, it sounds to me,' were his words, 'very brave and American, after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons, so called, that have been preached in this land, put together, are equal to it for preaching. We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He sometimes suggests something a little more than human.' By these and other means public attention was gradually directed to the volume: and when at length a new and enlarged edition appeared in 1856, it awoke a perfect storm of derision and abuse. Indeed, so extreme were the feelings it excited, that, according to Dr. Bucke, a number of persons in New York seriously contemplated instituting proceedings against its author in the courts of law, and were only deterred by the consideration that, whatever might be the estimation in which his book deserved to be held, Whitman himself was so popular in New York and Brooklyn that it would be impossible to get a jury to find him guilty. But the best piece of good luck that befell Whitman was his dismissal in 1865, by Mr. Harlan, formerly a Wesleyan clergyman, but at the time secretary for the Interior, from a government clerkship he had obtained, on the ground of the alleged immorality of Leaves of Grass. This act at once put the climax to the discussion as to his merits and demerits, and aroused an intense curiosity respecting his volume, and not a little sympathy in his favour.

On Whitman himself the derision and abuse, which were heaped upon him in true Philistine fashion, had, and have had, little or no permanent effect. Least of all, have they induced him to modify the principles with which he started on his literary career, which, as Emerson rightly divined, 'had a long foreground.' Having carefully settled his principles at the beginning, Whitman has steadily adhered to them, never doubting, and never having the slightest misgivings as to their soundness. Respecting the matter in which he has applied them—a very different thing—he has now and again had serious doubts.

'Since I have been ill,' he writes in a note to the Preface of 1876, 'I have felt temporary depression more than once, for fear that in Leaves of Grass the moral parts were not sufficiently pronounced.' But in his clearest and calmest moods he has always realized, he tells us, that as the Leaves surely prepare the way for morals and necessitate them, and are adjusted to them just as nature does and is, so they are what, consistently with his plan, they must and should be. The scorn which he naturally felt towards his detractors was mainly of the silent sort. He neither sought to defend his reputation, nor to retaliate on those by whom it was so savagely assailed; nor did he care much whether he was understood or not. In a poem which does not seem to have been included in the earliest edition, and which is in some respects characteristic, he writes:—

'I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself, or to be understood; I see that the elementary laws never apologise; (I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by after all), '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; 'One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself; And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million  
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
'My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite; I laugh at what you call dissolution; And I know the amplitude of time.'

This bold and almost arrogant confidence is now apparently being justified. Though not popular in the sense that he is widely read, or that his works are to be found, as Whittier's are said to be, in almost every house in the United States, Whitman has on the American continent a large and increasing circle of readers. Outside of America his admirers are more numerous still. Like Fourier,1 he may be said to have his propagandists in many lands. On the continent of Europe some of his works have been translated into several languages, while in England, where his worth was early recognised, he has secured the warm, and on the whole judicious advocacy of poets and critics like Swinburne, Buchanan, W.B. Bell,2 W.M. Rossetti, Symonds, and Professor Dowden, and of his popularity amongst ourselves not the least significant sign is the publication of the two handsome volumes, the titles of which we have placed first at the head of this paper.

In these volumes is contained, it would appear, all that Whitman desires to be preserved of his published writings. The one bearing the title Specimen Days and Collect is, with the exception of one or two juvenile pieces, in prose, and as the title indicates, is of very varied contents. First of all, we have a number of pages in which Whitman gives an account—an account, we may remark in passing, which is not without interest—of his ancestry and early days. Next, we have a number of memoranda written during the war of attempted secession, and here copied verbatim from a series of 'soil'd and creas'd livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket,' and 'blotch'd here and there with more than one blood-stain,' having been 'hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom admit the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march.' The memoranda here given from these 'lurid and blood-smutch'd little note-books' bear all the marks of their origin. They are written in swift, vigorous, telling words; while the intense realism by which they are pervaded, and the terrible scenes which they depict, often make their reading exceedingly impressive. Following these, and forming the concluding part of the Specimen Days, is a number of memoranda written during and after the author's recovery from a serious and prolonged illness, brought on by his exertions during the war, and consisting, for the most part, of descriptions of natural and human scenes. They are full of fine thought and feeling, and are frequently not less poetical than some of the finer passages in his poems. In the Collect are included the remarkable essay entitled 'Democratic Vistas,' the prefaces to the various issues of his poems, and a paper on 'American Poetry.'

Whitman's prose is, in our opinion, not equal to his verse. Passages of great beauty and power occur; but taken as a whole the style is less terse and vigorous. It is marred, too, by mannerisms, and particularly by the frequent occurrence of long and often clumsy parentheses. As a rule the shorter pieces are written in much sounder and healthier English than the longer, though some of these are admirably written, and lead one to suspect, as a not unfriendly critic has observed, 'that his every-day prose is distorted intentionally.' For a right understanding of Whitman's poetry, however, a careful study of his prose writings, and more especially of the section having the somewhat strange, though not all together inappropriate, designation of 'Collect,' is indispensable. It is here that he explains himself, and unfolds the aims and principles by which he is guided and inspired.

Leaves of Grass, originally, as we have remarked, a thin quarto of about a hundred pages, has now grown into a goodly sized octavo of nearly four hundred closely printed pages, containing close upon three hundred separate poems. Whitman has given regular titles to comparatively few of them. Most of them are headed instead with their first line or phrase, as, e.g. 'As I pondered in silence,' 'I hear America singing,' 'When I heard at the close of the day.' The greater part of them are distributed under the headings—'Inscriptions,' 'Children of Adam,' 'Calamus,' 'Birds of Passage,' 'Sea-drift,' 'By the Roadside,' 'Drum-taps,' 'Autumn Rivulets,' 'Whispers of Heavenly Death,' 'From Noon to Starry Eye,' 'Songs of Parting.' Unconnected as they seem, however, it must not be supposed that they have no connection or are without arrangement. Though without formal connection, they have one which is real, and are intended to be read in the order in which they stand, as what may not unfitly be called an Epic of Life. On first reading, as most readers will probably acknowledge, they are somewhat repellent. There is so much in them we do not expect to find, so little respect is paid to our conventional ideas, and the author obtrudes himself so ostentatiously upon our attention, that after a few lines, we are disposed to throw the book aside as a compound of egotism and nonsense. On further reading, however, the illusion is gradually dispelled. First the attention is arrested by single lines or isolated passages, and as we proceed we become aware of an intellectual wealth and suggestiveness, a subtle charm, a personal force, a rush and glow of overmastering passion which we have seldom met with elsewhere; and though there are passages from which we turn away with repugnance, we cease to wonder at the warm and extremely eulogistic terms in which the admirers of Whitman are in the habit of speaking of him.

But whatever our estimate of Whitman's writings may be, Whitman himself is unquestionably a notable figure, certainly one of the most notable America has produced. As Professor Dowden has remarked,—'What cannot be questioned after an hour's acquaintance with Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, is that in him we meet a man not shaped out of old-word clay nor cast in any old-world mould, and hard to name by any old-world name. In his self-assertion there is a manner of powerful nonchalantness which is not assumed; he does not peep timidly from behind his work to glean our suffrages, but seems to say, "Take me or leave me, here I am, a solid and not inconsiderable fact of the universe."3 He disturbs our classifications; he attracts us; he repels us; he excites our curiosity, wonder, admiration, love: or our extreme repugnance. However we feel toward him we cannot despise him. He is a "summons and a challenge." He must be understood and so accepted, or must be gotten rid of. Passed by he cannot be.'‡ Nor are the sources of this singular power far to seek. They are to be found not so much in his art, for as an artist he is in some respects confessedly weak, but in the lofty purpose by which he is inspired, and in the ardent, and almost fierce enthusiasm with which he has from first to last devoted himself to it. This purpose, to put it in the fewest words, is nothing less than to inaugurate in America, by means of a genuinely native imaginative literature, a new era of intellectual and spiritual development. Or to put it differently, and to use the eloquent words of W. M. Rossetti, he 'occupies at the present moment a unique position on the globe, and one which, even in past time, can have been occupied by only an infinitesimally small number of men. He is the one man who entertains and professes respecting himself the grave conviction that he is the actual and prospective founder of a new poetic literature, and a great one—a literature proportional to the material vastness and the unmeasured destinies of America; he believes that the Columbus of the continent, or the Washington of the States was not more truly than himself in the future a founder and upbuilder of this America.'4 This purpose is surely a noble one, and which, if at all seriously followed, cannot fail to be fruitful in extraordinary power. And that this is the purpose which Whitman has continually set before him he has frequently declared. 'Democratic Vistas,' his various Prefaces, and several other of his prose essays may be taken as a sort of apology justifying it. But, nowhere has he given more noble utterance to it, as Mr. Rossetti has also pointed out, than in the following lines:—

'Come, I will make the continent indissoluble, I will make the most splendid race the sun ever 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 around each other's necks, 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.'

Besides an 'imperious conviction and the commands of his nature as total and as irresistible as those which make the sea flow, or the globe revolve,'5 Whitman's incentives to this great and unquestionably beneficent task are partly in the condition of American society, and partly in the character of American literature.

The spectacle presented by American society he describes as 'appalling.' Everywhere he sees hollowness, hypocrisy, deceit; in the business classes a depravity 'infinitely greater than has been supposed;' 'corruption, falsehood, and maladministration in branches and departments of the official services, whether national, state, or municipal;' in 'fashionable life flippancy, tepid armours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time;' 'in literature a scornful superciliousness;' 'in the churches and sects the most dismal phantasms usurping the name of religion.' 'The best class we shew,' he writes, 'is but a mob of fashionably-dress'd speculators and vulgarians.' Though an unwavering believer in democracy, and joyfully recognising the 'immense success of the New World democracy in lifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain species of intellectual culture,' he is nevertheless painfully oppressed by the conviction that so far 'in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, esthetic results, it is almost a complete failure,' 'in vain, he exclaims, 'do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander's, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain have we annexed Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north to Canada and south to Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.' Or take the following passage from the 'Democratic Vistas,' which, while it illustrates his style in prose writing, clearly indicates one at least of the reasons why he has devoted himself to his self-imposed task:—

'Let me illustrate further, as I write, with current observations, localities, &c. The subject is important, and will bear repetition. After an absence, I am now again (September, 1870) in New York city and Brooklyn, on a few weeks' vacation. The splendour, picturesqueness, and oceanic amplitude and rush of these great cities, the unsurpassed situation, rivers and bays, sparkling sea tides, costly and lofty new buildings, facades of marble and iron, of original grandeur and elegance of design, with the masses of gay colour, the preponderance of white and blue, the flags flying, the endless ships, the tumultuous streets, Broadway, the heavy, low, musical roar, hardly ever intermitted, even at night; the jobbers' houses, the rich ships, the wharves, the great Central Park and the Brooklyn Park of hills (as I wander among them this beautiful fall weather, musing, watching, absorbing)—the assemblages of the citizens in their groups, conversations, trades, evening amusements, or along the by-quarters—these, I say, and the like of these, completely satisfy my sense of power, fulness, motion, &c., and give me, through such senses and appetites, and through my esthetic conscience, a continued exaltation and absolute fulfilment. Always, and more and more, as I cross the east and north rivers, the ferries, or with the pilots in their pilot-houses, or pass an hour in the Wall Street, or the Gold Exchange, I realize (if we must admit such partialisms) that not Nature alone is great in her fields of freedom and the open air, in her storms, the shows of night and day, the mountains, forests, seas—but in the artificial, the work of man, too, is equally great—in this profusion of teeming humanity—in these ingenuities, streets, goods, houses, ships—these hurrying, feverish, electric crowds of men, their complicated business genius (not least among the geniuses), and all this mighty, many-threaded wealth and industry concentrated here.

'But sternly discarding, shutting our eyes to the glow and grandeur of the general superficial effect, coming down to what is of the only real importance, personalities, and examining minutely, we question, we ask—Are there, indeed, men here worthy the name? Are there athletes? Are there perfect women to match the generous material luxuriance? Is there a pervading atmosphere of beautiful manners? Are there crops of fine youths and majestic old persons? Is there a great moral and religious civilization—the only justification of a great material one? Confess that to severe eyes, using the moral microscope upon humanity, a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears, these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics. Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, bar-room, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity—everywhere the youth puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe—everywhere an abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignon'd, muddy complexions, bad blood, the capacity for good motherhood decreasing or deceased, shallow notions of beauty, with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners (considering the advantages enjoy'd,) probably the meanest to be seen in the world.'

Turning to the literature of America, any 'breath recuperative of sane and heroic life' to breathe into these lamentable conditions, Whitman nowhere finds. That which he observes to be everywhere lacking is native or original power. Workers in a certain sort of literature he sees in abundance; but 'touched by the national test, or tried by the standards of democratic personality, they wither,' he affirms, 'to ashes.' 'I have not seen,' he remarks, 'a single writer, artist, lecturer, or what not, that has confronted the voiceless, but ever erect and active, pervading, underlying will and typic aspiration of the land, in a spirit kindred to itself.' And, again, 'considered with reference to purposes of patriotism, health, and noble personality, religion, and the democratic adjustments, all these swarms of poems, literary magazines, dramatic plays, resultant so far from American intellect, and the formation of our best ideas, are useless and a mockery. They strengthen and nourish no one, express nothing characteristic, give decision and purpose to no one, and suffice only the lowest levels of vacant minds.' Morally and artistically, he affirms, America has as yet originated nothing. 'We see the sons and daughters of the New World,' he observes, 'ignorant of its genius, not yet inaugurating the native, the universal, and the near, still importing the distant, the partial, and the dead. We see London, Paris, Italy—not original, superb, as where they belong, but secondhand here, where they do not belong. We see the shreds of Hebrews, Romans, Greeks, but where on her own soil do we see, in any faithful, highest, proud expression, America herself? I sometimes question whether she has a corner in her own house.' The central point of a nation, and that whence it is swayed and sways others, that which consolidates its various parts, and is the source at once of its inspiration and influence, is, he believes, its national literature, and more especially its archetypal poems, but any such literature or poems America, he maintains, does not possess.

What then is the literature he desires and to what extent has he realised this desire in his own works? The answer to the first of these questions the foregoing paragraphs have already suggested. Those who wish for a fuller and more explicit answer we must refer to Specimen Days and Collect, and more especially to the 'Democratic Vistas,' the Prefaces of 1855 and 1876, and to the essay on 'Poetry To-day in America—Shakespeare—The Future,' where Whitman has unfolded his ideas at considerable length, and frequently with great eloquence and power. In the space now remaining at our disposal we shall point out one or two of the features of the literature he has produced, premising, however, that many of the questions we shall be obliged to pass over in silence.

Whitman's principle defect, as a poet, lies, as it seems to us, and as we have already said, in the direction of his artistic power. That which strikes the reader first on opening Leaves of Grass is the singular appearance of its pages. The ordinary forms of versification Whitman has discarded, and adopted in their stead one which reminds us of Ossian, the writings of the Hebrew prophets, and the Vedas. By his thorough-paced admirers this is claimed as a sign of originality and strength. In our opinion, it is a sign of weakness. A really great poet, one, that is, who is thoroughly perfect in all the branches of his art, is a master of expression. Whitman confessedly is not. After many trials he was forced, he tells us, to give up the attempt to express himself in the forms employed by the great poets of the principal literary nations, and to use the mode he has here adopted. There is running through his works, as Mr. Rossetti has very truly remarked, 'a very powerful and majestic rhythmical movement and a sustained melody which are admirable, as for example—'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,' 'O Captain, my Captain,' 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.' These, however, are exceptions. Generally speaking, Whitman's lines are deficient in melody. Music of a certain kind they certainly have; but they want the measured cadence, the flowing melody, that exquisite rhythmical charm which makes the words of the great poets take hold of the mind and live in the memory as the sweetest strain of a noble song. Nor can it be said that by adopting this peculiar mode of versification Whitman has secured any advantages superior to those afforded by the ordinary forms. That he has obtained a greater freedom may probably be admitted; but it is questionable whether it is not at the expense of effectiveness. To take but a single illustration. The thought of the following is admirable:—

'There was a child went forth every day: And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part  
 of the day,
Or for many years, or stretching cycles of years          .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .        The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt-marsh  
 and shore-mud;
These become part of that child who went forth every day, and  
 who now goes, and will always go forth every day.'

But compare with it Wordsworth's treatment of the same theme:—

'The stars of midnight shall be dear To her: and she shall lean her ear In many a secret place, Where rivulets dance their wayward round, And beauty born of murmuring sound Shall pass into her face.'6

Whatever may be said in favour of Whitman's treatment, the advantages, so far as general effectiveness is concerned, are plainly with Wordsworth. The last two lines, besides having a fulness and suggestiveness about them quite equal to all that Whitman has said, or has attempted to say, have a music and a charm of expression on which the ear delights to dwell. Whitman's neglect of the art of expression is calculated, we think, to tell greatly against him. That he is capable of great things in this way we do not doubt. The poems referred to above, and others we could name, are a proof of the consummate work he might have done, had he been less impatient of restraint and more devoted to the perfecting of his skill in what is in reality one of the main sources of the poet's power. It must not be supposed, however, that Whitman is indifferent to the charms of art, or that, in his revolt against conventionalism, he has no rules or principles of his own. To those who imagine so we commend the perusal of what follows from the Preface of 1855:—

'The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity—nothing can make up for excess, or for the lack of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subjects their articulations, are powers neither common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insousciance of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the road-side, is the flawless triumph of art. If you have look'd on him who has achiev'd it you have look'd on one of the masters of the artists of all nations and times. You shall not contemplate the flight of the grey gull over the bay, or the mettlesome action of the blood-horse, or the tall leaning of some flowers on their stalk, or the appearance of the sun journeying through heaven, or the appearance of the moon afterward, with any more satisfaction than you shall contemplate him. The great poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writings any elegance, or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. What I tell I tell precisely for what is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or soothe, I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has, and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.'

In 'Children of Adam,' Whitman has sinned, we think, against good taste, common sense, and, in fact, as one of his critics has pointed out, against one of his own canons. True, he has probably violated no moral law, and has simply spoken of what nature permits. It is true also that according to Schiller, whatever nature permits, is permitted also to art. Still, there are some things on which men have agreed to be silent, and though we are by no means disposed to regard conventionality as the standard of morals, we cannot avoid the conviction that by speaking of the sexual relations in the way in which he has, Whitman has violated a natural instinct of the human mind. That he is an immoral writer, as some of his critics have maintained, we do not believe. His fault is one of manner rather than of spirit, and has its origin in an error of judgement rather than in a wrong bias of the mind. His deepest spirit and highest aim are, it seems to us, religious; and nothing, we imagine, but a strong sense of duty could have made him withstand so patiently and persistently the fierce storm of invective and abuse which some of his poems have aroused against him.

Whitman's faults, however, are greatly outweighed by his merits. First we may notice that in spirit he is intensely American. In the poets of other lands he is evidently well read; yet, he is an imitator of none. His manner, style, and spirit are entirely his own. Previous to him the poetry of American was, as has been justly observed, merely the poetry of apt pupils, with an exuberance of gorgeous blossom, but no principle of reproduction. The poems of Bryant and Longfellow might have been written as easily on the banks of the Thames as on the banks of the Hudson. There is little in them that is distinctively American. Whitman's poems, on the other hand, are saturated through and through with the spirit of the New World. 'Starting from Paumanock,' 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,' 'A Song of Joys,' 'Song of the Broad Axe,' 'A Song for Occupations,' 'Pioneers! O Pioneers!' 'By Blue Ontario's Shore," 'Drum-taps,' and 'Sea Drift,' it may be safely said, could not have been written elsewhere than on the American Continent, or by one whose spiritual life had not been reared among its people, and nourished by a life-long communion with its magnificent natural phenomena. Whitman is American also in another sense. He is thoroughly democratic. The President is no more to him than a mason, or woodsman, or western farmer. Any breath of a political aristocracy, of feudalism, or of caste, is not allowed to taint his pages. Their ideas and institutions are entirely alien to his spirit. He could no more have written the idylls of the King, or a play of Shakespeare than he could have written the Iliad. The doctrine which he preaches on every page is the greatness of the individual soul. While Spencer writes 'to fashion a gentleman or nobleperson in virtuous and gentle discipline,' Whitman writes to build up a new and splendid race of average men. As a poet of Democracy, as Democracy exists in the New World, he stands alone.

'The messages of great poets to each man and woman,' he has remarked, 'are, Come to us on equal terms, only then can you understand us. We are no better than you. What we inclose you inclose, what we enjoy you may enjoy.' Of his own poems, this is a marked feature. Their directness is unquestionable. They place the reader on a level with themselves, and make him feel that he is being addressed by one who is of the same flesh and blood as himself, by one whose thoughts and feelings are, or may be his own. And the reason is that, subjective as Whitman's poems are, and distinctively as they teach the doctrine of individualism, they always rest on that which is universally human. Perhaps no other poet of the present has a larger vision of that 'great human heart by which we live,' or more persistently announces it. The 'self' of which he sings is not always his own individual self; as frequently, if not more so, it is the universal self, that universal being of which each individual is but a conscious manifestation. Of this any one can convince himself by a careful reading of the 'Song of Myself.' Take, for instance, the following lines:—

'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 now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now, And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now;'

or take the lines with which the song opens:—

'I celebrate myself, and sing of myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belongs to me as good as belongs to you;'

or these:—

'The city sleeps and the country sleeps, The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time, The old husband sleeps by his wife, and the young husband sleeps  
 by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, 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,'

This mysticism, indeed, forms the background of all Whitman's more important pieces, and is the key to their meaning. Without a clear apprehension of it it is impossible to understand the paradoxes in which his pages abound, or to reconcile his apparent contradictions. Were it not that we have Mr. Burroughs' assertion to the contrary, we should have attributed Whitman's mysticisms to a close study of Emerson. It seems, however, that before he published the first edition of the Leaves of Grass, Whitman had never read Emerson at all, and that he did not become acquainted with the Essay until the following summer. The similarity of their ideas is remarkable, and may probably be taken as significant of the tendency of American thought.

Whitman is pre-eminently a poet of the modern world. No other has more thoroughly adopted the conclusions of science, or made a more splendid and impressive use of them in his writings. Not unseldom they give a vastness and grandeur to his thought, which is well-nigh overwhelming. At the same time he is very far from being in any sense or degree a materialist. The supremacy of the spiritual he always loyally, and sometimes ostentatiously, recognises. Though almost Greek in his sympathy with nature, and notwithstanding the manner in which he has sung of man's physical constitution, the position which he assigns to the soul is always incomparably higher, as the following from his Preface of 1876 clearly shows:—

'Only (for me, at any rate, in all my prose and poetry), joyfully accepting modern science, and loyally following it without the slightest hesitation, there remains ever recognized still a higher flight, a higher fact, the eternal soul of man, (of all else too) the spiritual the religious—which it is to be the greatest office of scientism, in my opinion, and of future poetry also, to free from fables, crudities, and superstitions, and launch forth in renewed faith and scope a hundred-fold. To me, the worlds of religiousness, of the conception of the divine, and of the ideal, through mainly latent, are just as absolute in humanity and the universe as the world of chemistry, or anything in the objective worlds… To me the crown of savantism is to be, that it surely opens the way for a more splendid theology, and for ampler and diviner songs.'

Still, notwithstanding his modern tone of thought, and the democratic spirit which pervades his writings, the past is by no means disdained by Whitman. Past, present, and future, he holds, are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been. The present, he affirms, is but a stage in the eternal process of creative thought, and is what is through the past. At the same time, however, while admitting his indebtedness to the past, and claming kinship with it, he asserts also his independence, and claims to stand in his own place with his own day about him:—

'I conn'd old times, I sat studying at the feet of the great masters: Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me. In the name of These States shall I scorn the antique? Why these are the children of the antique to justify it. Dead poets, philosophers, priests, Martyrs, artists, investors, governments long since Language-shapers on other shores, Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate, I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted  
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it) Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more  
 than it deserves,
Regarding it all intensely a long while, then dismissing it, I stand in my place with my own day here.'

We are warned, however, that our space is already exhausted, and can refer to but one other of the many features of Whitman's poetry. After pointing out that formerly he was considered the best poet who composed the most perfect work, or the one which was most complete in every respect, Sainte-Beuve7 has remarked that for us in the present the greatest poet is he who in his works most stimulates the reader's imagination and reflection; not he who has done the best, but he who suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your turn.' Judged by this standard Whitman deserves to take a place among the foremost. His works are preeminently suggestive. Any finished picture he seldom presents. His poems are rather suggestions, arousing the reader, and leading him on and on, till he feels the fresher air of a freer thought breathing around him, and sees spreading out before him the limitless and unknown.

'I but write one or two indicative words for the future, I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness. I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a  
 casual look upon you, and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main things from you.'

To the religious spirit which breathes through Whitman's writings we have already referred; and our assertions on this point have been borne out by several of the passages we have cited for other purposes. Did our space permit, numerous other passages might be cited as bearing directly upon it. But as a last word, and as indicating with considerable fullness the scope and spirit of all that he has written, we transcribe the following:—

'And thou America, For the scheme's culmination, its thought and its reality For these (not for thyself) thou hast arrived. 'Thou, too, surroundest all, Embracing, carrying, welcoming all, thou, too, by pathways broad and  
To the ideal tendest.
'The measur'd faith of other lands, the grandeurs of the past, Are not for thee, but grandeurs of thine own, Deific faiths and amplitudes, absorbing, comprehending all, All eligible to all. 'All for immortality, Love like the light silently wrapping all, Nature's amelioration blessing all, The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain, Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening. 'Give me, O God, to sing that thought Give me, give him or her I love this quenchless faith, In Thy ensemble, whatever else withheld withhold not from us, Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space, Health, peace, salvation, universal. 'Is it a dream? Nay, but the lack of it the dream? And failing it life's lore and wealth a dream, And all the world a dream.'
P. 183. Notes on Walt Whitman, pp. 15-16. Studies in Literature, 1789–1877, p. 473.


1. [back]

2. [back]

3. [back]

4. [back]

5. [back]

6. [back]

7. [back]

8. [back]

9. [back]

10. François Marie Charles Fourier (1772–1837), a French utopian socialist whose works inspired the founding of several communist and utopian communities in the United States, including La Reunion in Texas and North American Phalanx in New Jersey. [back]

11. Probably a slip of the hand or printer's error for William Bell Scott. [back]

12. The quoted passage appears in the fourth paragraph of Edward Dowden's review of the 1871 Leaves of Grass in Westminster Review 96 (July 1871), 33-68. [back]

13. W. M. Rossetti, Poems by Walt Whitman, 26. [back]

14. Preface to "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free." [back]

15. Wordsworth, "Lucy," IV. [back]

16. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869) was a major French literary critic. [back]

Back to top