Reference > Cambridge History > Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I > Whitman > Leaves of Grass
  New Orleans Its Reception  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

I. Whitman.

§ 7. Leaves of Grass.

If Emerson’s American Scholar address was the intellectual declaration of American independence, this first edition of Leaves of Grass, though only a thin imperial octavo of ninety-five pages with a hastily written but vigorous and far-sighted explanatory preface, was the first gun in a major campaign of the war that was to win that independence. Of the form taken by so audacious a message space is wanting for accurate description. It may be said, however, that, denying to itself rhyme, regular metre, stanza forms, literary allusions, and “stock ‘poetical’ touches” in general, it frequently achieved, nevertheless, a deep and satisfying rhythm of its own—sometimes pregnant gnomic utterances, sometimes a chant or recitative, occasionally a burst of pure lyricism. Just where, if anywhere, Whitman found the hint for this flexible prose-poetic form critics have not agreed. Perhaps Biblical prosody, Ossian, the blank verse of Shakespeare and Bryant, the writings of Blake, the prose of Carlyle and Emerson, and his own impassioned declamation all assisted; but full allowance must be made for the unquestioned originality of his own genius, working slowly but courageously for the fuller liberation of song. 13    11

Note 13. In one of the anonymous reviews which Whitman saw fit to write, in 1855, of his own first edition, he disclaims any model: “The style of these poems, therefore, is simply their own style, just born and red. Nature may have given the hint to the author of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ but there exists no book or fragment of a book which can have given the hint to them.” In Re Walt Whitman, p. 16.

The first poem known to have been published in this measure was Blood-Money, which appeared in Horace Greeley’s Tribune (Supplement), 22 March, 1850. But Isle of La Belle Rivière, published in the Cincinnati Post, 30 April, 1892, was written, in what is now called imagist verse, at the age of thirty (1849–50), while New Year’s Day, 1848, written in an album just before Whitman’s departure for New Orleans, shows a tendency to break away from conventional forms. By far more important are the Harned manuscript notebook specimens already mentioned. [ back ]

  New Orleans Its Reception  

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