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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Burroughs (1837–1921)
  “WHO goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;”—
hankering like the great elk in the forest in springtime; gross as unhoused Nature is gross; mystical as Boehme or Swedenborg; and so far as the concealments and disguises of the conventional man, and the usual adornments of polite verse, are concerned, as nude as Adam in Paradise. Indeed, it was the nudity of Walt Whitman’s verse, both in respect to its subject-matter and his mode of treatment of it, that so astonished, when it did not repel, his readers. He boldly stripped away everything conventional and artificial from man,—clothes, customs, institutions, etc.,—and treated him as he is, primarily, in and of himself and in his relation to the universe; and with equal boldness he stripped away what were to him the artificial adjuncts of poetry,—rhyme, measure, and all the stock language and forms of the schools,—and planted himself upon a spontaneous rhythm of language and the inherently poetic in the common and universal.
  The result is the most audacious and debatable contribution yet made to American literature, and one the merits of which will doubtless long divide the reading public. It gave a rude shock to most readers of current poetry; but it was probably a wholesome shock, like the rude douse of the sea to the victim of the warmed and perfumed bath. The suggestion of the sea is not inapt; because there is, so to speak, a briny, chafing, elemental, or cosmic quality about Whitman’s work that brings up the comparison,—a something in it bitter and forbidding, that the reader must conquer and become familiar with before he can appreciate the tonic and stimulating quality which it really holds. To Whitman may be applied, more truly than to any other modern poet, Wordsworth’s lines,—
  “You must love him ere to you
He will seem worthy of your love.”
  As the new generations are less timid and conforming than their fathers, and take more and more to the open air and its exhilarations, so they are coming more and more into relation with the spirit of this poet of democracy. If Whitman means anything, he means the open air, and a life fuller and fuller of the sanity, the poise, and the health of nature; freer and freer of everything that hampers, enervates, enslaves, and makes morbid and sickly the body and the soul of man.  3
  Whitman was the first American poet of any considerable renown born outside of New England, and the first to show a larger, freer, bolder spirit than that of the New England poets. He was a native of Long Island, where at West Hills he was born on the 31st of May, 1819, and where his youth was passed. On his mother’s side he was Holland Dutch, on his father’s English. There was a large family of boys and girls who grew to be men and women of a marked type,—large in stature, rather silent and slow in movement, and of great tenacity of purpose. All the children showed Dutch traits, which were especially marked in Walt, the eldest. Mr. William Sloan Kennedy, who has given a good deal of attention to the subject, attributes Whitman’s stubbornness, his endurance, his practicality, his sanity, his excessive neatness and purity of person, and the preponderance in him of the simple and serious over the humorous and refined, largely to his Dutch ancestry. His phlegm, his absorption, his repose, and especially his peculiar pink-tinged skin, also suggested the countrymen of Rubens. The Quaker element also entered into his composition, through his maternal grandmother. Mr. Kennedy recognizes this in his silence, his sincerity and plainness, his self-respect and respect for every other human being, his free speech, his unconventionality, his placidity, his benevolence and friendship, and his deep religiousness. Whitman faithfully followed the inward light, the inward voice, and gave little or no heed to the dissenting or remonstrating voices of the world about him. The more determined the opposition, the more intently he seems to have listened to the inward promptings.  4
  The events of his life were few and ordinary. While yet a child the family moved to Brooklyn, where the father worked at his trade of carpentering, and where young Whitman attended the common school till his thirteenth year. About this time he found employment in a printing-office and learned to set type, and formed there tastes and associations with printers and newspaper work that were strong with him ever after. At the age of seventeen he became a country school-teacher on Long Island, and began writing for newspapers and magazines. We next hear of him about 1838–40 as editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper at Huntington, Long Island. After this enterprise was abandoned, he found employment for five or six years mainly in printing-offices as compositor, with occasional contributions to the periodical literature of the day. He also wrote novels; only the title of one of them—‘Frank Evans,’ a temperance tale—being preserved. In 1846–7 he was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. It was during this decade, or from his twentieth to his thirtieth year, that he seems to have entered so heartily and lovingly into the larger, open-air life of New York: familiarizing himself with all classes of workingmen and all trades and occupations; fraternizing with drivers, pilots, mechanics; going, as he says in his poems, with “powerful uneducated persons,”—letting his democratic proclivities have full swing, and absorbing much that came to the surface later in his ‘Leaves of Grass.’ He was especially fond of omnibus drivers,—a unique class of men who have now disappeared. It is reported of him that he once took the place of a disabled driver and drove for him all winter, that the man’s family might not suffer while he was recovering in the hospital. During this period he occasionally appeared as a stump speaker at political mass-meetings in New York and on Long Island, and was much liked.  5
  When about thirty years of age, he set out on an extended and very leisurely tour through the Middle, Western, and Southern States, again absorbing material for his future work, and fetching up finally in New Orleans, where he tarried a year or more, and where he found employment on the editorial staff of the Crescent newspaper. In 1850 we find him again in Brooklyn, where he started the Freeman, an organ of the Free-Soilers. But the paper was short-lived. Whitman had little business capacity, and was ill suited to any task that required punctuality, promptness, or strict business methods. He was a man as he says in his ‘Leaves,’ “preoccupied of his own soul”; and money-getting and ordinary worldly success attracted him but little. From 1851 to 1854 he turned his hand to his father’s trade of carpentering, building, and selling small houses to workingmen. It is said that he might have prospered in this business had he continued in it. But other schemes filled his head.  6
  He was already big with the conception of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ for which consciously and unconsciously he had been many years getting ready. He often dropped his carpentering to write away at his ‘Leaves.’ Finally, after many rewritings, in the spring of 1855 he went to press with his book, setting up most of the type himself. It came out as a thin quarto of ninety-four pages, presenting a curious appearance to the eye and making a still more curious impression upon the reader’s mind. It attracted little attention save ridicule, till Emerson wrote the author a letter containing a magnificent eulogium of the book, which Dana of the Tribune persuaded Whitman to publish,—to Emerson’s subsequent annoyance, since the letter was made to cover a later edition of the ‘Leaves’ in which was much more objectionable matter than in the first. This letter brought the volume into notice, and helped to launch it and subsequent enlarged editions of it upon its famous career, in both hemispheres. So utterly out of keeping with the current taste in poetry was Whitman’s work, that the first impression of it was, and in many minds still is, to excite mirth and ridicule. This was partly because it took no heed of the conventionalities of poetry or of human life, and partly because of the naïve simplicity of the author’s mind. In his poetry he seems as untouched by our modern sophistications, and the over-refinements of modern culture, as any of the Biblical writers.  7
  In the second year of the Civil War, Whitman left Brooklyn and became a volunteer nurse in the army hospitals in Washington. To this occupation he gave much of his time and most of his substance till after the close of the war. It is claimed for him that he personally visited and ministered to over one hundred thousand sick and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. Out of this experience grew his ‘Drum Taps,’ a thin volume of poems published in 1866. It was subsequently incorporated with his ‘Leaves.’ These were not battle-pieces, or songs of triumph over a fallen foe,
  But a little book containing night’s darkness, and blood-dripping wounds,
And psalms of the dead.”
  During these hospital years Whitman supported himself mainly by writing letters to the New York Times. His ‘Hospital Memoranda’ include most of this material. He wrote copious letters to his mother at the same time, which were issued in book form during the fall of 1897 by his new Boston publishers, and named ‘The Wound-Dresser.’ From 1865 to 1873 Whitman occupied the desk of a government clerk in the Treasury Department. Previous to that time he had been dismissed from a position in the Interior Department, by its head, James Harlan, because he was the author of ‘Leaves of Grass.’  9
  His services in the army hospitals impaired his health, and early in 1873 he had a light stroke of paralysis. In the spring of that year he moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his brother, Colonel George Whitman, was living. Camden now became his permanent home. His health was much impaired, his means very limited, but his serenity and cheerfulness never deserted him. Many foreign travelers made pilgrimages to Camden to visit him. He was generally regarded by Europeans as the one distinctive American poet, the true outcome in literature of modern democracy. He died March 26th, 1892, and his body is buried in a Camden cemetery, in an imposing granite tomb of his own designing. Whitman never married. He was always poor, but he was a man much beloved by young and old of both sexes, while in a small band of men and women he inspired an enthusiasm and a depth of personal attachment rare in any age. In person he was a man of large and fine physical proportions, and striking appearance. His tastes were simple, his wants few. He was a man singularly clean in both speech and person. He loved primitive things; and his strongest attachments were probably for simple, natural, uneducated, but powerful persons. The common, the universal, that which all may have on equal terms, was as the breath of his nostrils. In his ‘Leaves’ he identifies himself fully with these elements, declaring that—
  “What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me.”
He aimed to put himself into a book, not after the manner of the gossiping essayist like Montaigne, but after the manner of poetic revelation; and sought to make his pages give an impression analogous to that made by the living, breathing man. The ‘Leaves’ are not beautiful like a statue, or any delicate and elaborate piece of carving; but beautiful, and ugly too if you like, as the living man or woman is beautiful or ugly. The appeal is less to our abstract æsthetic sense, and more to our concrete everyday sense of real things. This is not to say that our æsthetic perceptions are not stimulated; but only that they are appealed to in a different way, a less direct and premeditated way, than they are in the popular poetry. Without the emotion of the beautiful there can be no poetry; but beauty may be the chief aim and gathered like flowers into nosegays, as in most of the current poetry, or it may be subordinated and left as it were abroad in the air and landscape, as was Whitman’s aim. His conviction was that beauty should follow the poet—never lead him.
  Whitman aimed at a complete human synthesis, and left the reader to make of it what he could; and he is not at all disturbed if he finds the bad there as well as the good, as in life itself. A good deal of mental pressure must be brought to bear upon him before his full meaning and significance comes out.  11
  Readers who idly dip into him for poetic tidbits or literary morceaux, or who open his ‘Leaves’ expecting to be regaled with flowers and perfumes, will surely be disappointed, if not shocked. His work does not belong to the class of literary luxuries or delicacies. It is primary and fundamental, and is only indirectly poetic; that is, it does not seek beauty so much as it seeks that which makes beauty. Its method is not exclusive, but inclusive. It is the work of a powerful spirit that seeks to grasp life and the universe as a whole, and to charge the conception with religious and poetic emotion; perhaps I should say religious emotion alone, as Whitman clearly identifies the two. Light readers only find now and then a trace of the poetic in his work: they fail to see the essentially poetic character of the whole; and they fail to see that there is a larger poetry than that of gems and flowers. The poetry of pretty words and fancies is one thing; the poetry of vast conceptions and enthusiasm, and of religious and humanitarian emotion, is quite another.  12
  Our pleasure in the rhymed, measured, highly wrought verse of the popular poets is doubtless more acute and instant than it is in the irregular dithyrambic periods of Whitman: the current poetry is more in keeping with the thousand and one artificial things with which the civilized man surrounds himself,—perfumes, colors, music; the distilled, the highly seasoned, the elaborately carved,—wine, sweetmeats, cosmetics, etc., etc. Whitman, in respect to his art and poetic quality, is more like simple natural products, or the everyday family staples meat, bread, milk, or the free unhoused elements frost, rain, spray. There is little in him that suggests the artificial in life, or that takes note of or is the outcome of the refinements of our civilization. Though a man of deep culture, yet culture cannot claim him as her own, and in many of her devotees repudiates him entirely. He let nature speak, but in a way that the uncultured man never could. In its tone and spirit his ‘Leaves of Grass’ is as primitive as the antique bards, while it yet implies and necessitates modern civilization.  13
  It is urged that his work is formless, chaotic. On the other hand, it may be claimed that a work that makes a distinct and continuous impression, that gives a sense of unity, that holds steadily to an ideal, that is never in doubt about its own method and aims, and that really grips the reader’s mind or thought, is not in any deep sense formless. ‘Leaves of Grass’ is obviously destitute of the arbitrary and artificial form of regular verse; it makes no account of the prosodical system: but its admirers claim for it the essential, innate form of all vital organic things. There are imitations of Whitman that are formless: one feels no will or purpose in them; they make no more impact upon the reader’s mind than vapor upon his hand. A work is formless that has no motives, no ideas, no vertebra, no central purpose controlling and subordinating all the parts. In his plan, as I have said, Whitman aimed to outline a human life, his own life, here in democratic America in the middle of the nineteenth century; giving not merely its æsthetic and spiritual side, but its carnal and materialistic side as well, and imbuing the whole with poetic passion. In working out this purpose we are not to hold him to a mechanical definiteness and accuracy: he may build freely and range far and wide; a man is made up of many and contradictory elements, and his life is a compound of evil and of good. The forces that shape him are dynamic and not mechanic. If Whitman has confused his purpose, if all the parts of his work are not related more or less directly to this central plan, then is he in the true sense formless. The trouble with Whitman is, his method is that of the poet and not that of the essayist or philosopher. He is not the least bit didactic; he never explains or apologizes. The reader must take him on the wing, or not at all. He does not state his argument so much as he speaks out of it and effuses its atmosphere.  14
  Then he is avowedly the poet of vista: to open doors and windows, to let down bars rather than to put them up, to dissolve forms, to escape boundaries, to plant the reader on a hill rather than in a corner,—this fact is the explanation of the general character of his work in respect to form.  15
  Readers who have a keen sense of what is called artistic form in poetry, meaning the sense of the deftly carved or shaped, are apt to be repelled by the absence of all verse architecture in the poems. A hostile critic might say they are not builded up, but heaped up. But this would give a wrong impression, inasmuch as a piece of true literature bears no necessary analogy to a house or the work of the cabinet-maker. It may find its type or suggestion in a tree, a river, or in any growing or expanding thing. Verse perfectly fluid, and without any palpable, resisting extrinsic form whatever, or anything to take his readers’ attention away from himself and the content of his page, was Whitman’s aim.  16
  Opinion will doubtless long be divided about the value of his work. He said he was “willing to wait to be understood by the growth of the taste” of himself. That this taste is growing, that the new generations are coming more and more into his spirit and atmosphere, that the mountain is less and less forbidding, and looms up more and more as we get farther from it, is obvious enough. That he will ever be in any sense a popular poet is in the highest degree improbable: but that he will kindle enthusiasm in successive minds; that he will be an enormous feeder to the coming poetic genius of his country; that he will enlarge criticism, and make it easy for every succeeding poet to be himself and to be American; and finally that he will take his place among the few major poets of the race, I have not the least doubt.  17

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