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Verse—and Worse


FORMERLY everybody went to the East for marvels. Quacks got, or said they did, their pills from the Orient; astrologers sent to Egypt for stuffed crocodiles, and readers of romance pronounced the "Arabian Nights" the most wonderful of books. Things have altered. The arrival of an East-Indiaman is no longer regarded as an event, and, acting in obedience to the prophecy of Bishop Berkeley—

"Westward the course of empire takes its way."—

people now look across the Atlantic for the wonderful and strange. Every steamer from America bears a marvel of some sort or another. The old woman's tale of there being but eight wonders in the world has long been an idle story; a brick without the least straw in it, which fell to pieces the moment the first pedlar from Connecticut landed in Liverpool with a pine clock of home manufacture; the arrival, one after the other, of wooden nutmegs, scrubbing-boards, machines for doing all the reaping, washing, pill-making, shirt-sewing, and baby-rocking, only prove the inanition of the used-up East and the productiveness of the West,—or the Great West, as the playful Yankee prefers terming his native soil. There is one commodity, however, associated with the dusky East, which foolish people believe yet to come over in packages of tea and China jars—fine old unintelligible poetry, that imaginative compound which may be observed on the sides of tea-chests, and dancing over Indian porcelain. Ah, well! America now supplies that too, and the East is cheated out of a staple commodity.

At the present moment certain imaginative persons in the United States are engaged in crowning with laurel a new poet. Flaxen-haired Byronic youths have had their day, and now the path is cleared for the thick-necked "navvy" school. We learn that in certain quarters the muscular poet is popular, and whilst all the young ladies here, dotted up and down our coasts and in green arbours, are trusting their imaginations to the bewitching "Idyls" of Tennyson, their sisters across the water, at Saratoga, or the Falls, are in love with Walt Whitman.

It seems ridiculous, but still we are assured of the fact, that by many persons in the United States, the author of "Leaves of Grass" is regarded as not far short in powers of inspiration to Our Savior. The parallel is impious and disgusting, and but for our knowledge that there are such people as the Mormons, and such institutions as the Agapemone,1 we should be very loth to believe that it was ever instituted amongst even the weak intellects of the sister country.

From the circumstances, however, we may learn a lesson. Civilization kept at a very high point of pressure, the economy of life too refined, nature put back into the shade too far, produces strange tastes and fancies that are unknown to health. There is a certain stage in disease, the doctors tell us, when the patient has a keen appetite after all sorts of odd things,—slate pencil, corks, or leather. So with the literature of a crowded and anxious people, it occasionally exceeds its proper bounds, suffers plethors, and puts forth pimples which diseased minds mistake for true health. Such unhealthy excrescences are the "Leaves of Grass."

It appears that in New York, some years ago, a rough fellow was employed in a printing office. Nature had given him a strong constitution, and his features were those of a dreamy sensualist. Now, it is well known that nothing in the United States stands still—a servant to-day, master to-morrow; now teaching a school in the backwoods, anon the head of a bureau at Washington; therefore there is nothing wonderful in the fact that Whitman was soon holding the pen of a journalist, and writing for a democratic paper. After trying various schemes for the exercise of his muscular pen, he hit upon what he conceived to be a new vein of poetry. The "poetry" is not poetry, but "verse"—and worse, and the "vein" is of a kind that we are thankful is seldom opened. The metre of Longfellow's "Hiawatha,"2 it will be remembered, was peculiar, and, upon first acquaintance, not remarkably pleasant, but it is music compared with Whitman's lines. Here are a few selected at random. They remind one of so many negro shouts:—

"Americanos! Masters! Marches humanitarian! Foremost! Century Marches! Libertad! Masses! For you a programme of chants."

Other paragraphs—or muscular verses, we suppose the poet would term them—read like cuttings from a backwood's newspaper, or notes from a stump orator's speech. At page 119 we have—

"What does it mean to me? to American persons, progresses, cities?—Chicago, Kanada, Arkansas? the planter, Yankee, Georgian,—native, immigrant, sailors, squatters, old States, new States?"

We believe it is the author's boast that he is the sole discoverer of the metre in which he indulges, and that its originality is the delight of his poetic admirers. But the leading principle of the book, where the sense is intelligible, appears to be the praise of muscle, rude force, a strong arm, a stout body, and such a love for the softer sex as we may imagine to be common amongst the lusty black vagabonds of Central Africa. The writer describes himself in several places.

"Free, fresh, savage, Fluent, luxuriant, self-content, fond of persons and places; Fond of fish-shape Paumanok (where I was born), Fond of the sea—lusty-begotten and various. ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ Aware of the buffalo, the peace-herds, the bull, strong-breasted and hairy; Aware of the mocking-bird of the wilds at day-break, Solitary, singing in the west, I strike up for a new world. ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a Kosmos, Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or apart from them, No more modest than immodest."

But enough is better than a feast of this stuff. It would be impossible to transcribe from any part of the book without offending common sense, and it is difficult to select a passage that does not set all refinement and modesty at defiance. Any idea that presented itself to the author's mind, he appears to have jotted down as the poetry of inspiration. After this rule the whole vagrant thoughts of a London dustman or coalheaver, for twenty-four hours, would make a dainty little volume.

The very get-up of the book, with its rough bark-like binding, only bears out the author's idea of ruggedness. Nature without any trammels, in a sort of pre-Adamite costume of leaves, is what the author's mind continually runs upon. His portrait, given as a frontispiece, also assits the idea. his hair has been allowed to grow in an unkempt fashion over his face, his eyes look at you sleepily and sensually, whilst his shirt collar, undone, displays the hairy breast of a barge-man. In his verses he is continually speaking of love and brotherly feeling. Some time ago, so the story goes, he made the unpoetic acquaintance of a New York omnibus driver. The driver fell sick, and there, up and down Broadway for a fortnight, was the muscular verse-maker to be seen, with his sun-burnt face and flying shirt-collar, driving his friend's omnibus.

Think of Tennyson's "fooling" a Putney bus, and Tupper3 behind handing people in and out! The circumstances came to the knowledge of some sickly sentimental readers, and forthwith Whitman's poetry was called for. Another reason of the rugged versifier finding readers, may be found in the fact that Emerson, on more than one occasion, has patted him on the back approvingly. We pity the philosopher's selection, and can only conceive that the patronage was accorded in the belief that the muscular scribbler was trying to speak the voice of nature;—that so filled had the found the world with sham, that even the vulgar inditings of an uneducated man, free from any Old World philosophy, or Old World religion, were, in his opinion, worthy of approbation. Of a truth that philosophy may be doubted which would reduce society once more to a farm-yard, with such pastoral poets to sing of love and nature as Walt Whitman.

Leaves of Grass: Poems by Walt Whitman Boston: Thayer & Eldridge. Year 85 of the States.


1. Agapemone, also known was "The A," was a religious cult established by Rev. Henry Prince, in Somerset, England, 1846. Prince eventually declared himself the Holy Spirit; his successor, Rev. John Hugh Smyth-Pigott claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. [back]

2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855) told the story of the legendary chief credited as the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. [back]

3. The English poet Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) wrote Proverbial Philosophy, didactic moral and religious verse published in the mid 1800s. [back]

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