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Review. Leaves of Grass (1856)

Table of Contents (1856)

From the Examiner. (London, England.) LEAVES OF GRASS. Brooklyn, New York.

We have too long overlooked in this country the great poet who has recently arisen in America, of whom some of his countrymen speak in connection with Bacon and Shakspeare, whom others compare with Tennyson—much to the disadvantage of our excellent laureate—and to whom Mr. Emerson writes that he finds in his book "incomparable things, said incomparably well." The book he pronounces "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed;" at which, indeed, says Mr. Emerson in the printed letter sent to us—"I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion."

No illusion truly is Walt Whitman, the new American prodigy, who, as he is himself candid enough to intimate, sounds his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. He is described by one of his own local papers as "a tenderly, affectionate, rowdyish, contemplative, sensual, moral, susceptible, and imperious person," who aspires to cast some of his own grit, whatever that may be, into literature. We have ourselves been disposed to think there is in literature grit enough, according to the ordinary sense, but decidedly Walt Whitman tosses in some more. The author describes himself as "one of the roughs, a kosmos;" indeed, he seems to be very much impressed with the fact that he is a kosmos, and repeats it frequently. A kosmos we may define, from the portrait of it on the front of the book, as a gentleman in his shirt-sleeves, with one hand in a pocket of his pantaloons, and his wide-awake cocked with a dammee-sir air over his forehead.

On the other hand, according to an American review that flatters Walt Whitman, this kosmos is "a compound of the New England transcendentalist and New York rowdy."

But as such terms of compliment may not be quite clear to English readers, we must be content, in simpler fashion, to describe to them this Brooklyn boy as a wild Tupper of the West. We can describe him perfectly by a few suppositions. Suppose that Mr. Tupper had been brought up to the business of an auctioneer, then banished to the backwoods, compelled to live for a long time as a backwoodsman, and thus contracting a passion for the reading of Emerson and Carlyle? Suppose him maddened by this course of   [ begin page 379 ]ppp.00237.387.jpg reading, and fancying himself not only an Emerson but a Carlyle and an American Shakspeare to boot when the fits come on, and putting forth his notion of that combination in his own self-satisfied way, and in his own wonderful cadences? In that state he would write a book exactly like Walt Whitman's "LEAVES OF GRASS."

(Extracts and Interlineated remarks.)

We must be just to Walt Whitman in allowing that he has one positive merit. His verse has a purpose. He desires to assert the pleasure that a man has in himself, his body and its sympathies, his mind (in a lesser degree, however) and its sympathies. He asserts man's right to express his delight in animal enjoyment, and the harmony in which he should stand, body and soul, with fellow-men and the whole universe. To express this, and to declare that the poet is the highest manifestation of this, generally also to suppress shams, is the purport of these "LEAVES OF GRASS." Perhaps it might have been done as well, however, without being always so purposely obscene, and intentionally foulmouthed, as Walt Whitman is.

(Extracts and Interlineations.)

In the construction of our artificial Whitman, we began with the requirement that a certain philosopher should have been bred to the business of an auctioneer. We must add now, to complete the imitation of Walt Whitman, that the wild philosopher and poet, as conceived by us, should be perpetually haunted by the delusion that he has a catalogue to make. Three-fourths of Walt Whitman's book is poetry as catalogues of auctioneers are poems. Whenever any general term is used, off the mind wanders on this fatal track, and an attempt is made to specify all lots included under it. Does Walt Whitman speak of a town, he is at once ready with pages of town lots. Does he mention the American country, he feels bound thereupon to draw up a list of barns, waggons, wilds, mountains, animals, trees, people, "a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye, a Louisianian, or Georgian, a poke-easy from sand-hills and pines," &c., &c. We will give an illustration of this form of lunacy. The subject from which the patient starts off is equivalent to things in general, and we can spare room only for half the catalogue. It will be enough, however, to show how there   [ begin page 380 ]ppp.00237.388.jpg arises catalogue within catalogue, and how sorely the paroxysm is aggravated by the incidental mention of any one particular that is itself again capable of subdivision into lots.

The usual routine, the workshop, factory, yard, office, store, or desk; The jaunt of hunting or fishing, or the life of hunting or fishing. Pasture-life, foddering, milking and herding, and all the personnel and  
The plum-orchard and apple-orchard, gardening, seedlings, cuttings,  
 flowers and vines,
Grains and manures, marl, clay, loam, the subsoil plough, the shovel  
 and pick and rake and hoe, irrigation and draining;
The currycomb, the horse-cloth, the halter and bridle and bits, the  
 very wisps of straw,
The barn and barn-yard, the bins and mangers, the mows and racks; Manufactures, commerce, engineering, the building of cities, and every trade carried on there, and the implements of every trade.

(Extract continued.)

Now let us compare with this a real auctioneer's catalogue. We will take that of Goldsmith's chambers, by way of departing as little as we can from the poetical. For, as Walt Whitman would say (and here we quote quite literally, prefixing only a verse of our own, from "A Catalogue of the Household Furniture with the select collection of scarce, curious, and valuable books of Dr. Goldsmith, deceased, which, by order of the admr, will be sold by auction, &c., &c.)

(The Examiner's burlesque of Walt Whitman.)

Surely the house of a poet is a poem, and behold a poet in the  
 auctioneer who tells you the whole lot of it—
The bath stone, compass front, open border, fender, shovel, tongs,  
 and poker,
The blue moreen festoon window-curtain, the mahogany dining-table  
 on the floor,
The six ditto hollow seat chairs covered with blue moreen, Covered with blue moreen and finished with a double row of brass  
 nails and check cases,
The Wilton carpet, sun shade, line and pulleys, the deal sideboard  
The teapot, five coffee cups, sugar basin and cover, four saucers and  
 six cups,
Two quart decanters and stoppers, one plain ditto, eleven glasses, one  
 wine and water glass,
A pair of bellows and a brush, a footman, copper tea-kettle and coal- 
Two pairs of plated candlesticks. A mahogany teaboard, a pet bordered ditto, a large round japanned  
 ditto and two waiters.
The Tragic Muse in a gold frame.

  [ begin page 381 ]ppp.00237.389.jpg After all, we are not sure whether the poetry of that excellent Mr. Good, the auctioneer who, at his Great Room, No. 121 Fleet Street, sold the household furniture of Oliver Goldsmith in the summer of 1774, does not transcend in wisdom and in wit "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that" (according to Mr. Emerson) "America has yet contributed."

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