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Walt Whitman's Prose


Walt Whitman's "Specimen Days and Collect" is not, as its name might be supposed to imply, a book of religious exercises. It is a miscellaneous gathering of his prose writings, early attempts, bits of letters, extracts from note-books and diaries, and what not,—a pretty miscellaneous collection, without much connection except the author's personality, which looms up immensely through it, as it does through everything else he has written. The stories written while he was still in his teens are so melodramatic and unreal, that they would be unworthy of notice were it not for the premonitions they give of the author's powers. They have an intensity that almost reaches imagination, and they show also marked tendency to dwell upon the horrible. Out of nine tales seven are death-scenes, most of them with horrid accessories of cruelty and hate and lust. The melodramatic element in them belonged to his youth, and was entirely outgrown as his strength developed, but the brutal side of life has always retained a painful fascination for him. In the later writings in this volume he appears to much better advantage, notwithstanding their heterogeneousness. The passages about the civil war (he was in the hospitals through the greater part of the war) are very vivid, horribly so at times, with a fiery light like Carlyle's. The description of the death of Lincoln might have been a study for the "French Revolution." There is a milder description of Washington after the great defeat at Bull Run.

He had naturally a warm appreciation of Carlyle, and writes well of him. Emerson is too good and too beautiful, with too little of the wild bull to satisfy him. Occasionally he is extremely unfortunate in his comments, as when he says that it is as a critic and not as a poet or artist or teacher that Emerson excels—than which nothing could well be more erroneous. He had a keen appreciation of Carlyle's worship of force, and possessed his power of vivifying details, and even something of his style. He has a freshness and manly vigor that the dyspeptic Scotchman did not share. But he has shown none of the capacity for concentrated and prolonged effort that is essential for great work, and none of the aspiration for, or even conception of the ideal, which raises a work into art and made Carlyle a leader among men. In this volume Mr. Whitman adheres to his old theories, but his taste has grown purer, and there is comparatively little to offend.

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