Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Two Rivulets, Author's Edition [1876]
Author:
Keuling-Stout, Frances E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The Author's edition of Two Rivulets is the companion volume to the 1876 Author's edition of Leaves of Grass. In the past, this two-volume centennial set was ignored in large measure by critics for a number of reasons. Whitman ran off only 750-800 copies of Rivulets at the New Republic Print shop in Camden (see Myerson 194-205 for detailed facts of publication). In addition to the scarce number of originals, the first known reprint or facsimile did not become available for over 100 years, in 1979. Also, up until recently, the volume was considered either a hodgepodge of printing methods and poetic techniques or simply the miscellaneous overflow from an already too bulky Leaves. Today, though, Rivulets's reputation is being rescued from obscurity and disrepute. Ed Folsom in 1994 offered the dramatic possibility that it—as well as the 1876 Leaves—might represent Whitman's culminating poetic moment. 

Indeed, rather than an illustration of the poet's decline, Rivulets presents an impressive number of graphic "firsts" to help make it a startling venture into breaking down "the barriers of form between Prose and Poetry" (Rivulets 28). Whitman clearly announces this poetic mission in "NEW POETRY"—a small prose unit of the first section in Rivulets. Further, by using the visible mediums of print and photo to "talk" to (Whitman's dialectical strategy) its verbal composition, Rivulets sets up novel typographic and visual experiments on the page. 

For the first time, Whitman creates a two-volume matched set which he imprints "Author's Edition" on the title pages of Rivulets and Leaves. And in an odd printing move, he transfers Passage to India out of Leaves and into Rivulets. He also has a photo (cf. Linton engraving) and a poem ("The Wound-Dresser") in Leaves talk to the poem "Out from Behind This Mask" in Rivulets. In Rivulets, Whitman interweaves prose sections with poetry sections: Two Rivulets (poetry with prose), Democratic Vistas (prose), Centennial Songs—1876 (poetry), As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (poetry), Memoranda During the War (prose), and Passage to India (poetry). In the first section of Rivulets, he has prose and a bold wavy line (a printer's ornament) run simultaneously under poetry for eighteen pages. Strangely, too, in the same printing issue of Rivulets, Whitman labels his book spine differently. He stamps "Verse" on some copies and "Prose and Verse" on others (Myerson 201). He also inserts not one but two prefaces in Rivulets (1876 and 1872). And finally, in the introductory Preface (1876), Whitman tries to define as well as market his 1876 set (Leaves and Rivulets) as one of his "wilful" and poetic "escapades" (11). 

In Rivulets, the poet seeks an original way to celebrate America's second century in this 1876 centennial year. He does so by envisioning an "ideal" America of limitless possibilities without relinquishing the "real" America of national, political, and economic embroilments. 

To give a sense of how radical an experiment this volume was, there follows a short lyric unit excerpted from the first section of Rivulets (28). The poem is entitled "Wandering At Morn" and its prose "rivulet" is entitled "NEW POETRY": 

Yearning for thee, harmonious Union! thee, Singing Bird      divine!  Thee, seated coil'd in evil times, my Country, with craft and      black dismay—with every meanness, treason thrust      upon thee; 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I see of course that the really maturing America is at least just as much to loom up, expand, and take definite shape; . . . from the States drain'd by the Mississippi and from those flanking the Pacific, or bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Whitman places his prose (set in smaller type) under a wavy line beneath the wings of his characteristically long lines of verse (set in larger type). The prose offers expansive assertions of hope in a typographically reciprocal reply to the poem's yearning apostrophe. Whitman thus attempts to bond poetry and prose together by a new form that can be seen as the visual interacting of texts. It is the poet's graphically symbolic model for overcoming traditional barriers between forms. 

At this juncture, an important question to ask is, why did Whitman call his new volume Two Rivulets? The OEDdefines Rivulets as both a small stream and as a specific type of moth/(butterfly?) called "GRASS RIVULET." So Whitman—from the very title itself—subtly fuses Leaves of "GRASS" to Two "RIVULETS" as he warns the reader in the 1876 Preface:  The arrangement in print of TWO RIVULETS—the indirectness of the name itself . . . —are but parts of the Venture which my Poems entirely are. (11)  It is this type of indirection that creates, drives, and sustains his 1876 two-volume, one-unit "Venture" for Leaves and Rivulets

To grant the possibility that Whitman, at age fifty-seven, still possessed his full poetic powers is to accept the 1876 Rivulets as the work of a mature master. And it permits us to see Rivulets as an effective literary composition rather than a mere bibliographic curiosity. 

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986. 

____. Introduction. Two Rivulets. By Walt Whitman. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood, 1979. iii-vi. 

Folsom, Ed. "Prospects for the Study of Walt Whitman." Resources for American Literary Study 20 (1994): 1-15. 

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993. 

Scovel, J.M. "Walt Whitman. His Life, His Poetry, Himself. 'The Good Gray Poet' Self-Estimated." Springfield Daily Republican 23 July 1875, sec. 3: 1-3. 

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.

____. Two Rivulets. Camden, N.J.: Author's Edition, 1876.


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