|Walt Whitman (18191892). Prose Works. 1892.|
|5. Preface, 1872, To As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free|
THE IMPETUS and ideas urging me, for some years past, to an utterance, or attempt at utterance, of New World songs, and an epic of Democracy, having already had their publishd expression, as well as I can expect to give it, in Leaves of Grass, the present and any future pieces from me are really but the surplusage forming after that volume, or the wake eddying behind it. I fulfilld in that an imperious conviction, and the commands of my nature as total and irresistible as those which make the sea flow, or the globe revolve. But of this supplementary volume, I confess I am not so certain. Having from early manhood abandond the business pursuits and applications usual in my time and country, and obediently yielded myself up ever since to the impetus mentiond, and to the work of expressing those ideas, it may be that mere habit has got dominion of me, when there is no real need of saying any thing further. But what is life but an experiment? and mortality but an exercise? with reference to results beyond. And so shall my poems be. If incomplete here, and superfluous there, nimportethe earnest trial and persistent exploration shall at least be mine, and other success failing shall be success enough. I have been more anxious, anyhow, to suggest the songs of vital endeavor and manly evolution, and furnish something for races of outdoor athletes, than to make perfect rhymes, or reign in the parlors. I venturd from the beginning my own way, taking chancesand would keep on venturing.
(now Thou Mother with thy Equal Brood, in permanent edn.)
| I will therefore not conceal from any persons, known or unknown to me, who take an interest in the matter, that I have the ambition of devoting yet a few years to poetic composition. The mighty present age! To absorb and express in poetry, anything of itof its worldAmericacities and Statesthe years, the events of our Nineteenth centurythe rapidity of movementthe violent contrasts, fluctuations of light and shade, of hope and fearthe entire revolution made by science in the poetic methodthese great new underlying facts and new ideas rushing and spreading everywhere;truly a mighty age! As if in some colossal drama, acted again like those of old under the open sun, the Nations of our time, and all the characteristics of Civilization, seem hurrying, stalking across, flitting from wing to wing, gathering, closing up, toward some long-prepared, most tremendous denouement. Not to conclude the infinite scenas of the races life and toil and happiness and sorrow, but haply that the boards be cleard from oldest, worst incumbrances, accumulations, and Man resume the eternal play anew, and under happier, freer auspices. To me, the United States are important because in this colossal drama they are unquestionably designated for the leading parts, for many a century to come. In them history and humanity seem to seek to culminate. Our broad areas are even now the busy theatre of plots, passions, interests, and suspended problems, compared to which the intrigues of the past of Europe, the wars of dynasties, the scope of kings and kingdoms, and even the development of peoples, as hitherto, exhibit scales of measurement comparatively narrow and trivial. And on these areas of ours, as on a stage, sooner or later, something like an eclaircissement of all the past civilization of Europe and Asia is probably to be evolved.|| 2|
| The leading parts. Not to be acted, emulated here, by us again, that role till now foremost in historynot to become a conqueror nation, or to achieve the glory of mere military, or diplomatic, or commercial superioritybut to become the grand producing land of nobler men and womenof copious races, cheerful, healthy, tolerant, freeto become the most friendly nation, (the United States indeed)the modern composite nation, formd from all, with room for all, welcoming all immigrantsaccepting the work of our own interior development, as the work fitly filling ages and ages to come;the leading nation of peace, but neither ignorant nor incapable of being the leading nation of war;not the mans nation only, but the womans nationa land of splendid mothers, daughters, sisters, wives.|| 3|
| Our America to-day I consider in many respects as but indeed a vast seething mass of materials, ampler, better, (worse also,) than previously knowneligible to be used to carry towards its crowning stage, and build for good, the great ideal nationality of the future, the nation of the body and the soul, 1no limit here to land, help, opportunities, mines, products, demands, supplies, &c.;with (I think) our political organization, National, State, and Municipal, permanently establishd, as far ahead as we can calculatebut, so far, no social, literary, religious, or esthetic organizations, consistent with our politics, or becoming to uswhich organizations can only come, in time, through great democratic ideas, religionthrough science, which now, like a new sunrise, ascending, begins to illuminate alland through our own begotten poets and literatuses. (The moral of a late well-written book on civilization seems to be that the only real foundation-walls and basesand also sine qua non afterwardof true and full civilization, is the eligibility and certainty of boundless products for feeding, clothing, sheltering everybodyperennial fountains of physical and domestic comfort, with intercommunication, and with civil and ecclesiastical freedomand that then the esthetic and mental business will take care of itself. Well, the United States have establishd this basis, and upon scales of extent, variety, vitality, and continuity, rivaling those of Nature; and have now to proceed to build an edifice upon it. I say this edifice is only to be fitly built by new literatures, especially the poetic. I say a modern image-making creation is indispensable to fuse and express the modern political and scientific creationsand then the trinity will be complete.)|| 4|
| When I commenced, years ago, elaborating the plan of my poems, and continued turning over that plan, and shifting it in my mind through many years, (from the age of twenty-eight to thirty-five,) experimenting much, and writing and abandoning much, one deep purpose underlay the others, and has underlain it and its execution ever sinceand that has been the religious purpose. Amid many changes, and a formulation taking far different shape from what I at first supposed, this basic purpose has never been departed from in the composition of my verses. Not of course to exhibit itself in the old ways, as in writing hymns or psalms or the sickly yearnings of devotees, but in new ways, and aiming at the widest sub-bases and inclusions of humanity, and tallying the fresh air of sea and land. I will see, (said I to myself,) whether there is not, for my purposes as poet, a religion, and a sound religious germenancy in the average human race, at least in their modern development in the United States, and in the hardy common fibre and native yearnings and elements, deeper and larger, and affording more profitable returns, than all mere sects or churchesas boundless, joyous, and vital as Nature itselfa germenancy that has too long been unencouraged, unsung, almost unknown. With science, the old theology of the East, long in its dotage, begins evidently to die and disappear. But (to my mind) scienceand may be such will prove its principal serviceas evidently prepares the way for One indescribably granderTimes young but perfect offspringthe new theologyheir of the Westlusty and loving, and wondrous beautiful. For America, and for to-day, just the same as any day, the supreme and final science is the science of Godwhat we call science being only its ministeras Democracy is, or shall be also. And a poet of America (I said) must fill himself with such thoughts, and chant his best out of them. And as those were the convictions and aims, for good or bad, of Leaves of Grass, they are no less the intention of this volume. As there can be, in my opinion, no sane and complete personality, nor any grand and electric nationality, without the stock element of religion imbuing all the other elements, (like heat in chemistry, invisible itself, but the life of all visible life,) so there can be no poetry worthy the name without that element behind all. The time has certainly come to begin to discharge the idea of religion, in the United States, from mere ecclesiasticism, and from Sundays and churches and church-going, and assign it to that general position, chiefest, most indispensable, most exhilarating, to which the others are to be adjusted, inside of all human character, and education, and affairs. The people, especially the young men and women of America, must begin to learn that religion, (like poetry,) is something far, far different from what they supposed. It is, indeed, too important to the power and perpetuity of the New World to be consignd any longer to the churches, old or new, Catholic or ProtestantSaint this, or Saint that. It must be consignd henceforth to democracy en masse, and to literature. It must enter into the poems of the nation. It must make the nation.|| 5|
| The Four Years War is overand in the peaceful, strong, exciting, fresh occasions of to-day, and of the future, that strange, sad war is hurrying even now to be forgotten. The camp, the drill, the lines of sentries, the prisons, the hospitals,(ah! the hospitals!)all have passed awayall seem now like a dream. A new race, a young and lusty generation, already sweeps in with oceanic currents, obliterating the war, and all its scars, its mounded graves, and all its reminiscences of hatred, conflict, death. So let it be obliterated. I say the life of the present and the future makes undeniable demands upon us each and all, south, north, east, west. To help put the United States (even if only in imagination) hand in hand, in one unbroken circle in a chantto rouse them to the unprecedented grandeur of the part they are to play, and are even now playingto the thought of their great future, and the attitude conformd to itespecially their great esthetic, moral, scientific future, (of which their vulgar material and political present is but as the preparatory tuning of instruments by an orchestra,) these, as hitherto, are still, for me, among my hopes, ambitions.|| 6|
| Leaves of Grass, already publishd, is, in its intentions, the song of a great composite democratic individual, male or female. And following on and amplifying the same purpose, I suppose I have in my mind to run through the chants of this volume, (if ever completed,) the thread-voice, more or less audible, of an aggregated, inseparable, unprecedented, vast, composite, electric democratic nationality.|| 7|
| Purposing, then, to still fill out, from time to time through years to come, the following volume, (unless prevented,) I conclude this preface to the first instalment of it, pencild in the open air, on my fifty-third birth-day, by wafting to you, dear reader, whoever you are, (from amid the fresh scent of the grass, the pleasant coolness of the forenoon breeze, the lights and shades of tree-boughs silently dappling and playing around me, and the notes of the cat-bird for undertone and accompaniment,) my true good-will and love.|
Washington, D. C., May 31, 1872.
|Note 1. The problems of the achievements of this crowning stage through future first-class National Singers, Orators, Artists, and othersof creating in literature an imaginative New World, the correspondent and counterpart of the current Scientific and Political New Worlds,and the perhaps distant, but still delightful prospect, (for our children, if not in our own day,) of delivering America, and, indeed, all Christian lands everywhere, from the thin moribund and watery, but appallingly extensive nuisance of conventional poetry putting something really alive and substantial in its placeI have undertakenby to grapple with, and argue, in the preceding Democratic Vistas. [back]|