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Walt Whitman's Poetry


What a whirl of "new editions" we are in! Perhaps we must not complain—especially in those cases where the new edition is brought, by its price, within the reach of millions, instead of only thousands—if, when we turn them over, we find most disappointing omissions. Here is a new edition of the "Poems of Walt Whitman" (published by Chatto and Windus), selected and edited by William Michael Rossetti. It is of convenient bulk, and excellent in paper and type and binding; and we must be thankful, even though there be nothing added to it from the volumes Walt Whitman has published since 1868. Mr. Rossetti is a most loyal and charitable interpreter of this most unmelodious and unrhythmical of poets; this strong, self-assured 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 proportioned 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. Surely a sublime conviction, and expressed more than once in magnificent words—none more so than in the following poem"— "Love of Comrades":—

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble; I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet  
 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 about 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  
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs, In the love of comrades, In the high-towering love of comrades.

Mr. Rossetti believes that this idea of himself "is true, if not absolutely, yet with a most genuine and substantial approximation." He believes that Whitman "is one of the huge, as yet mainly unrecognized, forces of our time; privileged to evoke, in a country hitherto still asking for its poet, a fresh, athletic, and American poetry, and predestined to be traced up to by generation after generation of believing and ardent—let us hope not servile—disciples. 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' Shelley, who knew what he was talking about when poetry was the subject, has said it, and with a profundity of truth. Whitman seems in a peculiar degree marked out for 'legislation' of the kind referred to. His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken—that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere, the uttermost avatars of democracy will confess him not more their announcer than their inspirer."

Great is Walt Whitman, therefore, and W. M. Rossetti is his prophet. All the prophet says about his master may be well judged and true. We are glad we have no need to say it is or it is not. What we do say is that much beauty and much strength are in these poems; but the beauty is often very far to seek, and the strength is often provokingly tedious in its self-manifestations, and we heartily echo the hope of Mr. Rossetti that Whitman's "disciples" in the future will not be "servile." The only poem—assuredly a beautiful one—in the whole collection which can be called rhythmical (and there are in it also some rhymes) is the one "For the Death of Lincoln":

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done. The ship has weathered every wrack, the prize we sought 
 is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and 
But O heart! heart! heart! Leave you not the little spot Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells! Rise up! for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills: For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shores 
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces  
O Captain! dear father! This arm I push beneath you. It is some dream that on the dock You've fallen cold and dead! My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still: My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will. But the ship, the ship is anchored safe, its voyage closed 
 and done:
From fearful trip the victorship comes in with object won! Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with silent trade, Walk the spot my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

In this and in "President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn" Whitman is really at his best as a poet; and in some of the "Drum Taps," which are the outcome of his brotherly and tender devotion to the wounded soldiers of the North during the great war, the pathos that breathes up through the great jagged lines and sentences is an almost startling revelation of the warmth and depth of his nature. We are not sure that the prose "Preface to Leaves of Grass" is not greater than anything else he has written. It deserves to be read, and it can be read more easily than many of the poems.

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