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Review of Leaves of Grass Imprints

In this little supplement, (a sort of wake after the ship,) appear to be gathered a portion of those notices, reviews, &c., (especially the condemnatory ones,) that have followed the successive issues of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The history of that composition, so far, is curious. It has already had three births, or successive issues.

The first issue of the poems consisted of a thin quarto volume of 96 pages, in Brooklyn, in 1855. It comprised eleven pieces, and was received with derision by the literary law givers. The only exception was a note from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The work sold, however, and in 1857 a second issue, a very neat 16mo. volume of 384 pages, was published in New York, containing thirty-two poems.

The book now in the market, the third issue, containing, large and small, one hundred and fifty-four poems, superbly printed, (it is indeed universally pronounced, here and in England, a perfect specimen of choice typography,) came forth in Boston, the current year, 1860.

Such is the book to which this curious collection of "criticisms" refers. The poem itself, (for "LEAVES OF GRASS," all have a compact unity,) may be described, in short terms, as the Song of the sovereignty of One’s self—and the Song of entire faith in all that Nature is, universal, and particular—and in all that belongs to a man, body and soul. The egotistical outset, “I celebrate myself,” and which runs in spirit through so much of the volume, speaks for him or her reading it precisely the same as for the author, and is invariably to be so applied. Thus the book is a gospel of self-assertion and self-reliance for every American reader—which is the same as saying it is the gospel of Democracy.

A man “in perfect health” here comes forward, devoting his life to the experiment of singing the New World in a New Song—not only new in spirit, but new in letter, in form. To him America means not at all a second edition, an adaptation of Europe—not content with a new theory and practice of politics only—but above its politics, and more important than they, inaugurating new and infinitely more generous and comprehensive theories of Sociology, Literature, Religion and Comradeship.

We therefore do not wonder at the general howl with which these poem the "Imprints" refer to, has been received both in America and in Europe. The truth about the poem and its author is, that they both of them confound and contradict several of the most cherished of the old and hitherto accepted canons upon the right manner and matter of men and books—and cannot be judged thereby;—but aim to establish new canons, and can only be judged by them. Just the same as America itself does and can only be judged.

Neither can the song of "Leaves of Grass" ever be judged by the intellect—nor suffice to be read merely once or so, for amusement. This strange song, (often offensive to the intellect), is to be felt, absorbed by the soul. It is to be dwelt upon—returned to, again and again. It wants a broad space to turn in, like a big ship. Many readers, perhaps the majority, will be perplexed and baffled by it at first; but in frequent cases those who liked the book least at first will take it closest to their hearts upon a second or third perusal.

Permanency is written all over the poem, so far. Also, a peculiar native idiomatic flavor is in it, to many disagreeable. There is no denying, indeed, that an essential quality it takes from its author, is, (as has been charged,) the quality of the celebrated New York “rough,” full of muscular and excessively virile energy, full of animal blood, masterful, striding to the front rank, allowing none to walk before him, full of rudeness and recklessness, talking and acting his own way, utterly regardless of other people’s ways.

The cry of indecency against “Leaves of Grass” amounts, when plainly stated, about to this: Other writers assume that the sexual relations are shameful in themselves, and not to be put in poems. But our new bard, walking right straight through all that, assumes that those very relations are the most beautiful and pure and divine of any—and in that way he “celebrates” them. No wonder he confounds the orthodox. Yet his indecency is the ever-recurring indecency of the inspired Biblical writers—and is that of innocent youth, and of the natural and untainted man in all ages.

In other words, the only explanation the reader needs to bear in mind to clear up the whole matter is this: The subjects ("amativeness," &c.,) about which such a storm has been raised, are treated by Walt Whitman with unprecedented boldness and candor, but always in the very highest religious and esthetic spirit. Filthy to others, to him they are not filthy, but “illustrious.” While his “critics,” (carefully minding never to state the foregoing fact, thought it is stamped all over the book,) consider those subjects in "Leaves of Grass," from the point of view of persons standing on the lowest animal and infidelistic platform. Which, then, is really the “beast?”

Those who really know Walt Whitman will be amused beyond measure at the personal statements put forth about him in some of these criticisms. We believe it was Dr. Dictionary Johnson who said that persons of any celebrity may calculate how much truth there is in histories and written lives by weighing the amount of that article in the stuff that is printed about themselves.

The notices, &c., in this supplement, from pages 3 to 64, refer in their allusions to the typography, &c., to the first and second issues of “Leaves of Grass.” The paper, print, and binding of the present edition of the Thayer & Eldridge have, as we before said, received, as they deserve, unconditional applause.

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