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The Good Grey Poet


The Good Grey Poet.

THE last day of May 1819 gave a great man to the world. Opinion is still divided as to whether or not he is also a great poet, his friends being in doubt if there be any greater, and his enemies, whose name is legion, being very sure that he is not one at all. But in 1819 his parents simply called him Walter Whitman, and "Walt" for short, with no knowledge of the world-wide use that would come to that pet name for their baby. The boy was educated at the public schools in his native village of West Hills, Long Island. Then, like all good Americans, he became convinced that his mission was something else than a perpetual staying at home. With so great a parish, the Yankee cannot stay long in his own section. The lad was to be the first of the American authors who was at once thoroughly national and yet not provincial. His country was to be America, not New England, as is the case with Whittier, Emerson, Bryant, and Hawthorne, or California like Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller, or the sunny south like Cable and Chandler Harris, still less literary England, like Washington Irving and Lowell.

When yet a mere boy, Whitman varied his life by wandering over the country during the summer, getting employment as a carpenter or a compositor, and in the winter settling in some village to "teach school." These were the years when he laid in his vast store of impressions and pictures, his true graduation in the Wanderer's University, for such men the best of schools. During these years he edited various country papers for brief periods—much to the occasional surprise of the rural farmers who, expecting hints on their crops and notices of their giant early potatoes, received instead some Titanesque reverie in unrhymed prose. Whitman tells us that it took just about a month for any newspaper constituency to come to the conclusion that they had got a lunatic for an editor, and to demand of the proprietor his expulsion, even if the later had not taken Time by the forelock and arrived at that conclusion for himself. But Whitman could take good care of himself, as we can see from the picture of him in the early editions of the "Song of Myself," and the proprietor invariably "settled up" before his muscular editor "quit the office."

Whitman had not taken much part in the great Abolutionist​ propaganda which preceded the Civil War. Indeed, though his book, "Leaves of Grass" had been published, or rather printed by his own hands in 1855, and re-issued in 1856, it had achieved no reputation in America, save among a very few, and was only beginning to make its way into England, chiefly owing to the help of William Bell Scott and the Rossettis. But as soon as war was declared, Whitman threw up all other appointments and went in to serve as a nurse in the field and in the hospitals. He went a strong, health man, with muscles of steel and the constitution of a Samson. He nursed over a hundred thousand men with his own hands, for five years he had not more than two nights' sleep in the week, and at the end of the war he came out a man prematurely old—soon, while yet in his prime, to bear till the day of his death the affectionate soubriquet of "The Good Grey Poet." He was "rewarded" with a clerkship in a Government office, and while thousands were receiving indemnities for war claims, he was dismissed from his paltry employment because of the supposed tendency of some of his writings, by a superior who did not approve of his poetry—an act of which was received even in America with a storm of indignation. He received in time another clerkship, which he held for a few years; but his health had been permanently impaired by his devotion under the Red Cross of the ambulance, and he had soon to give up his position. Whitman has never received any reward or recognition from the Government he served so well, but a committee of those to whom he ministered on the field, and his friends over the civilised world have supplied the poet's modest wants. His latter days have been spent in a cottage house in Camden, New Jersey, among the plainest surroundings. In the richest country in the world, its greatest and most original genius has never made more than workman's wages or lived in a house bigger than a cottage. But like Macaulay's Puritans, "his palaces are houses not made with hands." In 1887 he was invited to give a lecture in New York on Abraham Lincoln, and this he did in the Madison Square Theatre, one of the largest in the country. His fellow authors, among whom were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Edmund Clarence Stedman, George Cable, and Frank Stockton acted as ushers and ticket collectors on that occasion. Surely an unprecedented honour. Here is a picture of the old man as he rises to greet a visitor in the plain room in Camden where he is wearing out with singular dignity the last threads of his long and well-used life. "The old man rose slowly from his seat to his full height . . . He was tall and stalwart, with uncovered head; a brow not large but full, and seamed with kindly wrinkles; a complexion of rosy clearness; heavy-lidded firm blue eyes, which had a steadfast and dreamy regard; a short thick grey beard almost white, and thinly flowing dark grey hair. His countenance expressed a rude sweetness. He was dressed in a long dark overcoat, of such uncertain fashion that it almost seemed a gabardine. As he stood there in the gracious darkling light, he looked an image of long and loving experience with men, of immovable composure and charity, of serene wisdom, of immortal youth in reverend age."

The feuds that have raged about the name of Walt Whitman have been fiercer than any others of this generation. His wild unkemptness is exceedingly distasteful to those to whom literature is necessarily form. His license of speech which is the fruit of his early theory that whatever is natural ought not to be cause for shame, has been misunderstood. In his hands there is no impurity in anything that he says. But it is a great and almost fatal mistake made from the purest motives. Emerson wrestled with him for days and weeks to leave out of his published work the series of poems called "Children of Adam," but his counsel was not taken. We think that the poet regrets the act now, but it is too late. He has set himself all his life to be the prophet of a new age and a new country. The past had no claims on him. He speaks the voice of the new age, and sings the life of stress and vigour, the strong endeavour of the multitudinous toilers. He must say this in his own way, as though he were the first to set words on paper—all classes, functions, actions he describes in the exactest language, language scientific in its accuracy, and if poetic in the ordinary sense always so only by accident, never by intention. Authority, convention, literary opinion—they do not exist. He will have absolute freedom of treatment, unbounded choice of subject. Poetry is not for him to be found in arrangements of words; the distinction of verse and prose is only an artificial one. The American lad, uneducated in anything save in the strong ready words of his mother tongue, set himself to break down a literacy convention as old as Homer. The wonder is, not that he has not more perfectly succeeded, but that he has won such a hearing that his greatest admirers are those who most successfully practise the old forms of literature. Whitman's success has been chiefly among his fellow-craftsmen, and his greatest success has been in the Old World which he despises. The New One which he glorifies remains practically untouched by his claims.

Yet there is no doubt that Whitman is a great lyrical poet. His verses on the Death of Lincoln settle that; but generally he is in too great a hurry and too much afraid of sacrificing the accuracy of a descriptive word to the exigencies of rhyme, to let his words swing with the true lyric fervour. At their best, however, his lines run on with the irregular sweep of an ocean roller, and suggest no parallels in literature except the prose of the Hebrew poets. He is an innovator by profession, an iconoclast, the Wagner of Poetry, as he likes to be considered. But nevertheless his best work was done when he was simply working ahead without system, in those early days before he had ever heard of Wagner.

How charming is this from the "Song of Myself":—

A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he. I guess it must be the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the Owner's name some whereon the corners, That we may see, and remark, and question, Whose?

But the ripe fruit of Walt Whitman will be found in the splendid verses on the Death of Lincoln—struck like a spark from the anvil of his heart:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; Our ship has weather'd every rack, 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 daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, 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 ribbon'd wreaths—for you're the shores a-crowding, For your they call the swaying mass, their eager faces, turning; Here Captain! dear Father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck 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; The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done; From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won. Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

His religious views have modified much from the frank paganism of his earlier years. Lately they have have​ taken on the hopefulness of a mystic Christian faith, or rather of a faith in the person of Christ. Whitman is still, when on the borders of the grave, the first of the optimists. One who knows him well in these latest days represents him answering thus when asked what he thought of Christ, "I think of Him always as the all-loving Man. Yes, He might come, perhaps as you fancy Him, into this house, come as cheer-bringer, dispeller of evil, uniter of the estranged, assuager of sorrows, reconciler, consoler. Always the wise friend, the true one, the lover true. Something so!"

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