WALT WHITMAN'S POEMS.∗
THE critic who calls our attention to true poetry does us one of the best possible services; for no imagery derived from the beauty or the bounteousness of nature—from golden islands of the sunset or pearly dews of dawn, from corn, or wine, or glowing fruit—can express too strongly the goodliness of poetry that is really such; but in proportion to the gracious beneficence of this service is the maleficence of critics who, by their wit or their authority, beguile us into reading atrociously bad verse. If I ever saw anything in print that deserved to be characterized as atrociously bad, it is the poetry of Walt Whitman; and the three critics of repute, Dr. Dowden, Mr. W. Rossetti, and Mr. Buchanan, who have praised his performances, appear to me to be playing off on the public a well-intentioned, probably good-humoured, but really cruel hoax. I shall state briefly what I found the so-called poetry to be, presenting a few samples of Whitman's work: if these are such as the English public will regard with any other feelings but scorn and disgust, I for one have mistaken the character of my countrymen.
The "Leaves of Grass," under which designation Whitman includes all his poems, are unlike anything else that has passed among men as poetry. They are neither in rhyme nor in any measure known as blank verse; and they are emitted in spurts or gushes of unequal length, which can only by courtesy be called lines. Neither in form nor in substance are they poetry; they are inflated, wordy, foolish prose; and it is only because he and his eulogists call them poems, and because I do not care to dispute about words, that I give them the name. Whitman's admirers maintain that their originality is their superlative merit. I undertake to show that it is a mere knack, a "trick of singularity," which sound critics ought to expose and denounce, not to commend.
The secret of Whitman's surprising newness—the principle of his conjuring trick—is on the surface. It can be indicated by the single word, extravagance. In all cases he virtually, or consciously, puts the question, What is the most extravagant thing which is here in my power to say? What is there so paradoxical, so hyperbolical, so nonsensical, so indecent, so insane that no man ever said it before, that no man would say it now, and that therefore it may be reckoned on to create a sensation? He announced himself as poet with a contemptuous allusion—we shall see its terms farther on—to those poets whose fame has shed lustre on America, and he expressly declares war against all regulated and reasonable things.
Goethe said that the assent of even one man confirmed him infinitely in his opinion; Whitman is only the more peremptory in his egotism when he finds that people of sense disagree with him. In spite, however, of his Fakir-like gesticulations, his extravagance generally continues dull.
Mr. Ruskin insists that there are errors and blemishes of such exceeding and immedicable vileness that, if you find a single instance of their occurrence in the work of an artist, you may, with assured heart, turn once and for ever from his pictures, confident that, since the tree is corrupt, its fruit will always be noxious. Whether Mr. Ruskin is absolutely right as to the fact I shall not undertake to decide; but I challenge Professor Dowden, Mr. W. Rossetti, and Mr. Buchanan, to produce, from any poet of acknowledged excellence, a single passage so offensively silly as the preceding. I beg readers to force themselves to look well at the lines. It is a man who talks of himself as divine inside and out, and drivels nauseously about the scent of his armpits, whom we are called upon to welcome as a great poet. Whitman, as Professor Dowden will by-and-by attest for us, prints incomparably more indecent things than this, but the words are thoroughly characteristic. They have exactly the originality of Whitman, and we cannot refuse to admit that they are unique.
One of the most favourite extravagances of Whitman is extravagant conceit, and he occasionally indulges it in forms which in England would simply be regarded as evidence of idiocy.
Much good would it do them. Equally silly, but more pompous in its silliness, is what follows:—
Do men of talent mumble truisms like this? And is there any excuse for such pretentious twaddle after the doctrine that everything is right in its own place and time has been stated, with a pith and quaint humour not likely to be surpassed, by the author of the Proverbs of Solomon?
Whitman's writings abound with reproductions of the thoughts of other men, spoiled by obtuseness or exaggeration. He can in no case give the finely correct application of a principle, or indicate the reserves and exceptions whose appreciation distinguishes the thinker from the dogmatist: intense black and glaring white are his only colours. The mysterious shadings of good into evil and evil into good, the strange mingling of pain with pleasure, and of pleasure with pain, in the web of human affairs, have furnished a theme for musing to the deepest minds of our species. But problems that were felt to be insoluble by Shakespeare and Goethe have no difficulty for this bard of the West. Extravagant optimism and extravagant pessimism, both wrong and shallow, conduct him to the "entire denial of evil" (the words are Professor Dowden's), to the assertion that "there is no imperfection in the present and can be none in the future," and to the vociferous announcement that success and failure are pretty much the same.1
Mr. Carlyle's lifelong effort to show that the success of the hero is, on the whole, a proof that he deserves to succeed, has, it seems, been a waste of power. "Vivas to those who have failed!" "Hurrah for the gallows!" I do not know that a better illustration could be found of the evil effect of Whitman's obliterating extravagance than these lines. They contain the blurred and distorted lineaments of a mysterious and melancholy truth. Noble innocence and courage have been indeed laid low; beauty and virtue have in every age been seen "walking hand in hand the downward slope to death;"2 and all hearts thrill at the thought of murdered Naboth3 and his sons, and of Lear hanging over the white lips of Cordelia. But the soul of the pathos in all these instances lies in their exceptional nature. It is because we feel that they violate the law of justice, the fundamental ordinances of human society, that they move us. It is because, whether from a veracious instinct, or from a blissful illusion, we believe success to be the natural reward of merit, and happiness the natural guerdon of virtue, that we are agonized by the death-shrieks of Desdemona or the slow torture of Joan of Arc. If human affairs were a mad welter of causeless failure and unmerited success, as they are represented in this passage of Whitman's, there could be no such thing as pathos either in life or in art.
Whitman is never more audaciously extravagant than when he takes some well-known poetical idea, and inflates it into bombast.
It is a beautiful and touching thought that our joy brightens the summer flowers, and that our sorrow lends mournfulness to winter's snow; but it is mere extravagant nonsense to say that sunrise would kill a man unless he sent sunrise out of him. The sun has been the prey of poetical charlatans time out of mind, and Whitman cruelly bedrivels the long-suffering luminary:—
It would be interesting to know what meaning Whitman's admirers attach to the second of these lines; to my thinking it is not one whit more rational, and infinitely less amusing, than the talk of the walrus and the carpenter in "Alice through the Looking-Glass."
Whitman's eulogists tell us that he reads Shakspeare, Homer, and the Bible. Can they pretend to believe it to be anything but fantastic affectation to say that there is more in the eyes of oxen than in these? Whitman must have been consciously affected when he wrote the words: they are stupid as affectation, incredible as anything else. But the brutes are rather a favourite theme with our poet.
Wise men have long been, and are likely to be, content to learn from the bee and the ant; but neither the sage of the past nor the scientific man of the present can have anything to say for such teaching as this of Whitman's. His statements are neither accurate nor sagacious; they are a confused echo, extravagantly absurd, of teachings which he has not understood. Patiently and closely observant of the animals, Mr. Darwin and his followers have shown that they are much more like men than used to be thought; that they have, in germ, almost all human passions, as well as the institutions of marriage and property; that they exhibit in a pronounced form the human failings of jealousy, hatred, revenge, and cunning, and some faint adumbration of the human virtues of tenderness, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice. But it is a wild caricature of Darwin's teaching to panegyrize the animals for those qualities in which they are markedly below humanity; and there is curious infelicity in combining with this vague panegyric the particular libel of charging them with lack of industry, a virtue, which, on pain of death, they are bound to exhibit. "In beetledom are no poor laws," and the beast that will not seek its livelihood perishes out of hand. "Loafing and making poems," which Whitman describes as his favourite modes of existence, are privileges or perversities peculiar to human nature. Nor would Whitman have learned from Darwin the pitiful extravagance of despising, or affecting to despise, human qualities for no reason, suggested or implied, but because they are human. There is no apparent reason why it should be more contemptible for men to build temples than for crows to build nests; and since it has been in all ages and generations a habit with mankind to discuss their duty to God, it would have been less inhumanly insolent in Whitman to evince some respect for the practice than to say that it turns him sick. The sneer about weeping in the dark for sins might have been expressly directed against one of the best known verses of Goethe, a man not given to sentimental brooding or self-questioning, but who knew that tears shed at midnight on solitary beds are not unpleasing to "the heavenly powers."
Let it not be thought, however, that because Whitman speaks scornfully of duty to God and of sin, he never praises religion. Self-contradiction is one of the commonest freaks of affectation, and Whitman never hesitates to contradict himself. He oscillates, in fact, from extreme to extreme, and parades now this extravagance, now that, consistent only in avoidance of the golden mean. We have seen that it makes him sick to hear men discussing their duty to God. His extravagance in its pious tune is almost equally offensive.
This is just as silly as to praise pigs and foxes for not worshipping God. Here is another illustration of Whitman's habit of exaggerating truth or half-truth into falsehood.
This is exceptionally good for Whitman. Several of the lines have a picturesque felicity. So recently as a quarter of a century ago they might have passed for true science and sound theology; but progress in understanding the constitution of nature has within the specified period been unprecedentedly rapid; truths which, five-and-twenty years ago, were but as streaks of pale crimson on the horizon, have flashed into general recognition; and the natural theology which revelled in talk like this, about the miracles of nature and the impotence of man, is irrevocably superseded. Those who have read with any carefulness in modern science know that throughout nature there is no perfection discoverable by man; everything is in perpetual change, perpetual movement; and the "type of perfect," of which Plato dreamed and Tennyson has sung, can be found neither in mouse nor in mountain. It has been recognized that man invents, and that nature, with her task set her at every point by mechanical necessity, does not invent. The hinge in the hand does not put machinery to scorn; and Helmholtz, without incurring the charge of arrogance from any scientific man, pronounces the eye an instrument "full of defects."4 The line about the mouse convincing sextillions of infidels is a mere platitude of the kind for which Paley used to stand sponsor; and we have to recollect that if the sextillions of infidels, when convinced by the miraculous mouse, began to discuss their duty to God, they would immediately make Mr. Whitman sick.
It must be confessed that this last would be a frame of mind or of body much more customary with him than that in which he points out the unreasonableness of infidels in declining to be "staggered" by mice. Fierce disdain for faith in God, except as a phase of human fancying, is one of his recurrent moods, and though he may not express it in words, there is no maxim which he more energetically enforces than this—"Reverence nothing."
With a flourish of his pen, he accounts for and effaces all gods.
It is possible to hold with candid intelligence, and to teach without irreverence, the doctrine of man's divinity. The higher self of Mr. Matthew Arnold, the heroic in man of Carlyle, the rightly and perfectly developed humanity of Goethe, may, without much practical mischief, be an object of admiration to the pitch of worship. But theoretically the insanest, and practically the most pernicious of all faiths or no-faiths, is the crude self-worship, the deification of the profanum vulgus [vulgar crowd], which, in so far as it admits of definition, is the creed of Whitman. Until I examined his book, I did not know that the most venomously malignant of all political and social fallacies—that "one man is as good as another"—had been deliberately taught in print. "The messages of great poets," says Whitman, in his preface, "to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms—only then can you understand us. We are no better than you; what we enclose you enclose, what we enjoy you may enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered supremes, and that one does not countervail another, any more than one eyesight countervails another; and that men can be good or grand only of the consciousness of their supremacy within them." Neither in Goethe nor in Carlyle will Whitman find anything but detestation for the sentiment of these words. Those men might teach hero-worship; he teaches self-worship, and fool-worship. Goethe said that poets raised men to the gods, and brought down the gods to men; but that every man was himself as good as either god or poet, Goethe would have denied with keenest brilliancy of scorn. Carlyle bade men reverence the hero, discern the heroic in man as constituting his true majesty, detect and honour it under all disguises, refuse to accept any sham heroism, however dignified, in its place; but so disgusted was he to find that his unmasking of sham kings and nobles was being mistaken for a doctrine of anarchic levelling and the kingship of blockheads and scamps, that in too violent recoil, he has latterly insisted that the rule of one despot is better than that of multitudinous fools, each fool proclaiming his own "supremacy." It is because of their subtle and pervasive flattery of the mob that Whitman's writings are not harmless as they are worthless, but poisonously immoral and pestilent.
Whitman is an intrepid destroyer of other people's thoughts, but he sometimes speaks a language wholly his own. No other human being would have said this about "touch:"—
Thoughts quite his own being rare with him, he hugs them accordingly. No one, I suppose, will dispute his paternity of the thought, or rather the conceit, that grass is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." In my opinion it is a far-fetched and stupid conceit, but it might have passed without blame in half a line, if the reader's imagination had been left to make the best of it. Whitman wire-draws it thus:—
If this is not mawkish there is no passage known to me in literature deserving to be so characterized.
Whitman's "poetry" contains a vast deal about himself. "I celebrate myself," he frankly remarks. He professes to "inaugurate" a religion, of which the one duty, the sole worship, is to be the "dear love of comrades," and he speaks with the authority of a founder of a new church.
The two last lines either mean nothing at all, or announce that Whitman is a god. Whichever alternative is chosen, the man is a demonstrated quack.
Take another piece of self-portraiture.
Are these the words of a sane man? Is there common sense in saying that you stand plumb in the uprights, well entretied, strong as a horse, electrical, and side by side with a mystery?
If there is anything in Whitman decidedly better than mere extravagant affectation, anything that may claim the dignity of legitimate mannerism, it is a certain feeling for magnitude, and amplitude of mental vision and descriptive grasp. America he discerns to be a very large place, the United States a republic of federated nations, the Mississippi an immense river; and he is impressed with the idea that a specially redundant and sonorous style is appropriate to these conditions. This feeling for magnitude might be of value if associated with consummate power, if dominated by a fine sense of proportion, grace, and order. But an itch of hugeness has much more frequently aped than evidenced the strength of genius. Every one familiar with the history of art is aware that a multitude of bad painters have betrayed their badness by spasmodic aspiration after bigness, vapouring about their capacity to rival Angelo and Tintoret, if they had only walls large enough to display their conceptions. When they were permitted to work on their chosen scale, they did nothing but smear acres of canvas. It would be an insult to the memory of Barry or Haydon5 to compare them with Walt Whitman; but the long lists of names, the auctioneer catalogues, the accumulation of words out of all proportion to ideas, which made up the body of Whitman's poems, recall their vain attempt to prove themselves great painters by using very large brushes and filling very large frames. Whitman, however, must speak for himself. Here is part of a birds-eye view with which he favours us of sailors and their doings throughout the world:—
In ages when the science of geography was in its earliest dawn—when not one man in ten thousand had heard of towns or rivers beyond the frontiers of his own province—a catalogue of names and countries might be what only a pre-eminently well-informed poet could give, and what every intelligent listener would appreciate and admire. Many interests, besides those of geographical curiosity, interests of a patriotic and clannish nature, enhanced the eager fascination with which the old Greeks heard the names of the nations that sent ships to Troy, or of the ports at which Jason or Ulysses touched. But any boy or girl of twelve, who can spell names of places on a map and write them down on a page, could fill a volume with such descriptive lines as these of Whitman's. Observe, there is no concatenation, no ordered sequence, no quickening or illuminating thought, in the list. The conception of a coherent and reasoned account of the water-ways of the world, on the principle either of their historical development or their commercial or political importance, is beyond him. Nothing could be more void of significance than his throwing together the Wash and the Frith of Solway instead of the Thames, the Severn, the Mersey, or the Clyde, by way of indicating the marine activity of Britain. There is no cause why Bristol and London should not be named as well as Glasgow and Liverpool. The thing, in fact, could not be done more brainlessly. A poor piece of mannerism at best, it is here wretchedly worked, and though Whitman sometimes executes it with less dulness, this is a fair average sample of his success. When we consider that nine-tenths of Whitman's poetry consists of these catalogues—that they, in fact, constitute, in respect both of manner and of matter, one of the differentiating elements in his work—it will be seen that no small importance attaches to the facility of the artifice. It is, in fact, the most childishly easy of all artifices. Think of the materials afforded for such compilation in these days. Every town contains a library in which there are dictionaries of classical antiquity, translations from foreign languages, travellers' volumes on every country under the sun. Every daily newspaper contains correspondence filled with the most picturesque and exciting details the correspondent can rake together. There is absolutely nothing in Whitman's lists that you could not match after a few hours' turning over of the leaves of Lemprierre, Livingstone, Du Chaillu, Figuier,6 or a few volumes of any one of fifty encyclopædias. The world could, on these terms, be filled with poetry, if it were not an absurdity to apply the name to rant and rubbish. Having got at his secret, you soon learn to take stock of the American bard. Almost anything will do to start him off in his jingle, as all roads will suit if you don't want to go anywhere in particular, but merely to raise a dust. Take, for example, the glorious burst of noise which breaks from the minstrel when he mentions the broad-axe.
What not, indeed? There is no assignable reason why everything else that ever was made of wood might not be added. But why, it is relevant to ask, give these? Ought expression to have no relation to sense? Ought words to have no proportion to ideas? Is there any definition of linguistic silliness, of verbiage, of hopelessly bad writing, more just than that which turns upon extension of sound through corresponding extension of meaning? And this is what Mr. W. Rossetti publishes in England with eulogistic preface! This is the kind of thing which we are commanded to receive as the rhythmic utterance of Western democracy, the voice of America! It is pleasing to reflect that, if people like such poetry, they may have plenty of it. Every auctioneer's clerk will be a poet of the new era. Suppose the subject to be "Occupations"-a poetical subject enough. Who does not see how the bard of democracy would begin setting it to music? Here goes:—
Is this not up to Whitman's mark? Is it not the genuine gurgle of the democratic Castalia?7 Listen:—
The enlightened reader doubtless asks for more; and it is easy to oblige him:—
Am I outrageously caricaturing the favourite of Dr. Dowden, Mr. Rossetti, and Mr. Buchanan? Every line, or rather every amorphous agglomeration of broken clauses, is Whitman's own, Page after page of the like will be found flung together in what he calls a "Carol of Occupations." Mr. Rossetti expresses majestical pity for us if we have no ear for such music. Time was when Englishmen knew quackery when they saw it.
It must be evident that, on the terms and by the methods of which we are now able to form some idea, there would be no difficulty in multiplying the number, or expanding the dimensions, of Whitman's works. They are the most flagrant and offensive example ever met with by me of big badness trying to palm itself off as great excellence. Quantity of production is without question one index of power; and it is true not only that the poet who produces a hundred immortal poems is greater than the poet who produces one, but that the hand of the great artist has a sweep and freedom, corresponding to the largeness of scale on which he likes to work. No artist whose characteristic pictures cannot be appreciated without a lens—though he paint, fold for fold, on the limbs of Titania, the woven air of Cashmere8—is a great artist. But it is equally true, and it is much more apt to be forgotten, that, throughout nature as known to man, the transition from inorganic to organic, and from ruder forms to finer forms, is from largeness to smallness. A bird is a more exquisite piece of nature's workmanship than a megalosaurus. And if amount of work is one measure of greatness, there is perhaps no test of the quality of genius so sure as capacity to excel within narrow limits. A weak artist may mask his weakness by showing us enormous limbs a-sprawl on ceilings, but only a consummate artist will conceive and execute a faultless vignette. You might suspect sham work, random smudging and brush-fighting, in Turner's great storms, or billowy plains, or crowding hills, or scarlet and golden sunsets; but you learn to trust them when the same hand traces for you the shadows, and touches for you the rose-buds, in that garden arbour which forms one of the minor illustrations to Roger's poems, or when it works into a few square inches, with tiny flower-pots in fairy-like rows, and gem-like burnishing of flower-petals, a perfect picture of the conservatory at Farnley. All art which is great in quality as well in quantity presupposes such work as we have in Turner's drawing of Farnley conservatory.9 Turner could not have given the misty curve of his horizons, the perspective of his rivers winding in the distance, unless he had gone through such work as is attested in the minute drawing; and if you take any ten pages in Carlyle's greatest books, in his "French Revolution," or his "Cromwell," and examine them by reference to the sources, you will find that, broad and bold as is his touch, magnificently free as is his sweep of hand, he has been as strenuously careful in the preliminary mastery of details as was Turner in conning the grammar of his art. Magnitude without worth, breadth of scale without fineness of execution, is the refuge of aspiring and immodest incompetence both in painting and in literature.
But we must devote more particular attention to what Whitman's admirers have to say in his favour. We are met at the outset by the circumstance that they make admissions for a disparaging nature, such as no critical advocates ever made on behalf of their client. They enable me, to my extreme satisfaction, to refer judge and jury to them on certain points which it would otherwise have been impossible for me to make an English artist understand. Quotation of much that is most characteristic in Whitman's writings is out of the question, and I am not equal to the task of making description do the work of sample. "If there be any class of subjects," says Professor Dowden, "which it is more truly natural, more truly human not to speak of, than to speak of (such speech producing self-consciousness, whereas part of our nature, it may be maintained, is healthy only while it lives and moves in holy blindness and unconsciousness of self), if there be any sphere of silence, then Whitman has been guilty of invading that sphere of silence."10 This is a felicitously correct account of what Whitman has done; and most readers will, I think, agree with me that it is a grave offence, an abominable blunder. The man who does not know what to speak of, and what not to speak of, is unfit for society; and if he puts into his books what even he would not dare to say in society, his books cannot be fit for circulation. As Dr. Dowden has defined for us the nature, he will also kindly tell us the extent, of Whitman's offence against civilized manners. "Whitman," says Dr. Dowden, "in a few passages falls below humanity—falls even below the modest of brutes." This is strictly true; and would, I submit, be enough to sink a ship-load of poems with ten times the merits of Whitman's; and although I shall not say that he often falls below the modesty of brutes, I do say that, not in a few but in many passages, he is senselessly foul. But "it ought not," pleads Professor Dowden, "to be forgotten that no one asserts more strenuously than does Whitman the beauty, not indeed of asceticism, but of holiness and healthiness, and the shameful ugliness of unclean thought, desire, and deed." If such was his theory, the less pardonable would be his practice; but the truth—to which the critic's generosity seems to blind him—is that Whitman has no fixed theory or settled practice in this or in any other case, but confounds good and bad, delightful and disgusting, decent and indecent, in his chaotic extravaganza. He may be foul on one page and condemn himself for being so on another, just as he may say on one page that there can be no man or woman without religion, and on another that it makes him sick to hear people discussing their duty to God. Mr. Rossetti puts in the plea that eminent writers of all ages have sinned in this matter as well as Whitman. He cites no passages, names no authors, and I content myself with affirming generally that his plea cannot be sustained. There is no author of reputation of whom Dr. Dowden could say that he sinks in immodesty below the brutes. And there is no author whatever who, like Whitman, is indecent from mere extravagance and affectation. They all gives us something to redeem what, nevertheless are blots on their work. Chaucer is gross, but he has humour; Fielding, but he has wit; Whitman has no fun in him. Homer is never gross: he has a vehement sympathy with all natural joy, and there is no monastic coldness in his description of the embrace of Jupiter and Juno, or of the ivory bed of Ulysses; but he is the gentleman always, less than the gentleman never; and his heroes, though they may kill mutton, never infringe that first law of good manners which we have heard Dr. Dowden define. Had Whitman ventured upon the hundredth part of his grossness in the camp of the Greeks, he would have been cudgeled more cordially than Thersites.11
On the intellectual side, Whitman's critics make admissions which are almost as strange as that which certifies his occasional descent, in moral respects, below the level of the brutes. Dr. Dowden speaks of the "recurring tendency of his poems to become catalogues of persons and things." It is curious, by the way, that our bard's panegyrists cannot speak of him without using language that sounds like irony. "Selection," says Professor Dowden, "seems forbidden to him; if he names one race of mankind, the names of all the other races press into his page; if he mentions one trade or occupation, all other trades or occupations follow." Exactly; but it used to be understood that the poet was bound not only to apply the process of selection, but of selection so searching and so keen that, like dross and slag from metal placed in a furnace heated sevenfold, every imperfection was purged away from it, and only the fine stream of liquid gold flowed out. "Writing down the headings of a trades directory," says Dr. Dowden again, "is not poetry." No. "But this," he adds, "is what Whitman never does." I respectfully insist that it is a literal description of what Whitman, on Dr. Dowden's own showing, frequently does; but Professor Dowden must admit, at least, that there are no other compositions passing current as poetry of which he would have thought it necessary to make the remark. He states that "the logical faculty is almost an offence to Whitman," and owns to suspecting that his matter belongs at times rather to chaos than to cosmos, and that his form corresponds to his matter. But of all the concessions made by Whitman's eulogists, one tendered by Mr. Rossetti pleases me most. "Each of Whitman's poems is," he says, "a menstruum saturated with form in solution."12 To this I explicitly subscribe; when the solution crystallizes, it will be time to inquire whether the crystals are poetry. A marble statue in a state of solution is mud.
We find, then, that the gentlemen who propose to assign Whitman's writings a place of honour in the literature of the world admit that logic is an offence to him, that his matter is occasionally chaotic, that the form of his poems is "form in solution," and that his immodesty passes the immodesty of brutes. Having reached this point, might we not expect to be told that the right thing to do with his productions is to cast them away, accepting, with philosophical resignation, the implied suggestion as to their treatment made by the poet himself, in the most reasonable of all his prophecies?—
But Whitman's admirers, of course, refuse to take the hint, and we are bound to give them audience when they attempt to prove that the unparalleled concessions they have made as to his defects are more than balanced by his merits. The main ground on which they commend Whitman is, that he has at last founded a distinctively American school of poetry. The new world, argues Dr. Dowden, may be expected to give birth to "literary and artistic forms corresponding to itself in strange novelty," to "a fauna and flora other than the European," requiring a new nomenclature, like other American things—"hickory," for example, and "mocking-bird." American democracy being a great, new, unexampled thing, with faults enough, but yet deserving recognition and respect, the poet of American democracy may, in like manner, though his works are surprising and questionable, deserve applause. Whitman himself sets out, as was mentioned, with a determination to write differently from his contemporaries and predecessors. The American poetry which he found existing was, he intimated, "either the poetry of an elegantly weak sentimentalism—at bottom nothing but maudlin puerilities, or more or less musical verbiage, arising out of a life of depression and enervation as their result—or else that class of poetry, plays, c., of which the foundation is feudalism, with its ideas of lords and ladies, its imported standards of gentility, and the manners of European high-life-below-stairs in every line and verse." "I am the poet of America," virtually says the modest Whitman; and our English critics bow assent.
When we reflect that, among the American poets thus slightingly waived aside, were, to mention no others, Longfellow, Bryant, Emerson, Lowell, and Edgar Poe, the justice of the remark that Whitman shows effrontery will be apparent. But his feeling, as affected by the abundance, apart from all question as to the excellence, of existing poetry, when he first thought of becoming himself a poet, was not unreasonable. It arose from a more or less vague but substantially just perception of the fact that literature is old, that the libraries of the world are well stocked, that subjects, motives, images, incidents, plots, which were novel some thousands of years ago, have become stale. The first broad aspects, the salient facts and features, of that nature which man seeks to present again—represent—in his art, have long since been seized. The interest of dart-throwing and of heroic skull-cleaving was pretty well exhausted by Homer. Goethe says that if Shakespeare had written in German, he (Goethe) would have, at the outset of his literary career, have been oppressed with something like despair; and the years which have passed since Goethe experienced this feeling, with their Scott poetry, their Bryon poetry, their Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Campbell,13 Tennyson poetry, not to mention half a dozen American poets whose names are known throughout Europe, have incalculably enhanced the difficulty and hazard that face one who, using the English language, aspires to the fame of a poet. Under such circumstances, the temptation to false originality, to one or other forms of affectation, is almost irresistible. I am deliberately of opinion that no young poet or painter,—for what has been said applies mutatis mutandis, to pictorial as well as to literary art,—be his powers what they may, wholly escapes its influence. It causes men of undoubted genius to say things with a queerness, a quaintness, which I, at least, cannot conceive to be natural to them. Mr. Morris, for example, thus describes an occurrence which, though interesting and delightful, has for many ages been a poetical commonplace:—
To say that Lancelot and Guinevere kissed each other would have certainly been ordinary, and Mr. Morris's way of stating the fact is original; but since it is not possible that the kiss could have been performed as he describes it—for although the lovers might have restrained their natural impulse to embrace as well as to kiss, and might have kept their hands before them or at their sides, it is inconceivable that they should have poked their hands out behind them while craning their necks forward to bring their lips together—we must conclude that Mr. Morris considered it a less evil to be fantastic than to be commonplace. Mr. D.G. Rossetti has written several poems which seem to me imperishably great; but he also has suffered from the tyrannical necessity of being original, after nature has been laid under contribution by poets for thousands of years. It would have been as commonplace for Mr. Rossetti to say that he sat musing on the grass, as for Mr. Morris to say that Lancelot took Guinevere into his arms and kissed her. Accordingly Mr. Rossetti writes thus:—
Original, no doubt, but is it not somewhat odd? The posture described is grotesque, and in a room, when attempted by persons making no claim to the character of poet, cannot be achieved; but even on a peculiarly formed bank in the country, it would be uncomfortable. The feat performed by Mr. Rossetti might be recommended to professors of gymnastics, and, perhaps, if one sat with his head between his knees and his hair in the grass for an hour, the acoustic nerve would become so sensitive through torture that he could "hear the day pass;" but it is not easy to believe that the lines would have been as they are, [if] Mr. Rossetti had felt it admissible to say so commonplace a thing as that he sat on a green bank and meditated. From the works of Mr. Browning, and even from those of Mr. Tennyson, illustration might be derived of the shuddering horror with which modern poets avoid commonplace; and the oddities and eccentricities of painters during the present century have been equally conspicuous. I recollect seeing a picture of St. George and the Dragon, by an artist admired by many eloquent young ladies, in which the dragon looked like a large green lizard, and St. George like a medical gentleman administering to it, by means of a long glass bottle which he poked into its mouth, a dose of castor-oil. I was given to understand the piece had a profound spiritual significance, but I had not soul enough to comprehend it.
If the necessity of being original lies hard upon poets in these days, is it not all the more, on that account, the duty of critics to press upon them the equally inexorable necessity of resisting the fascinations of false and affected originality? Novelty is essential to art; every genuine art-product, in sculpture, in painting, in poetry, is unique: but it is intensely untrue that everything that is novel and unparalleled is art; and so easy is it to ape or to travesty right newness, that Whitman's conscious and trumpeted purpose to produce something original ought to have been, in the eyes of critics so acute as Dr. Dowden and so accomplished as Mr. W. Rossetti, a presumption that the originality forthcoming would be spurious. Every art-product is new, but every art-product is also old; and the operation of producing a true poem or picture—an operation too subtle to be described in words or executed by rule—consists essentially in combining newness of form and colour and musical harmony with oldness of principle and law. An illustration of this union, applicable, to my thinking, with scientific accuracy to the case in hand, is afforded by nature every spring. When the brown hill-side breaks, as Goethe finely says, into a wave of green, every hollow of blue shade, every curve of tuft, and plume, and tendril, every broken sun-gleam on spray of young leaves, is new. No spring is a repetition of any former spring. And yet the laws of chemistry and of vegetable life are unchanging. The novelty that the poet must give us is the novelty of spring; and the transcendent but inevitable difficulty of poetical originality lies in this, that the limits of variation within which he is permitted to work are narrow. His poetry must be as different from that of any other poet as one spring is different from another; but it must not be more so. It is a fundamental principle, laid down by that ancient nation which was inspired to write the bible of art, that all gigantesque, eccentric, distorted, extravagant art is barbarous. By working in the spirit of the lesson taught it once and for ever by Greece, Europe has gone beyond Greece; but as far as Europe, in Shakespeare, has transcended Greece, so far will America fall behind and below not Europe only, but Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria, if she casts the lesson of Greece to the winds and consent to the identification of democracy with lawless extravagance. It would, I believe, be unfair to the Americans to speak of them as pledged to admiration of Whitman. They are not afraid to give everyone a hearing, and in this they are bravely right; but they have a way, also, of getting, sooner or later, at the true value of a man, and I rather think they have found Whitman out. I have produced abundant evidence to prove that he exceeds all the bounds fixed to sound poetical originality, and is merely grotesque, and surprising.
It is instructive to note that, whenever Whitman is, comparatively speaking, rational and felicitous, his writing becomes proportionally like that of other people. Of really good poetical work there is, indeed, in those of his poems known to me—and I have read, with desperate resolution, a great deal both of his prose and his verse, including productions which his eulogists specifically extol—very little. Even his best passages have this characteristic of inferior writing, that they deal with sensational subjects and fierce excitements. His lack of delicate and deep sensibility is proved by his producing horror when he aims at pathos. The true masters of pathos obtain their greatest effects by means that seem slight. A Shakespeare, a Goethe, will make all generations mourn over the sorrows of an Italian girl, of a German grisette; a daisy, a mouse, a wounded hare, evoke touches of immortal pathos from Burns. Whitman must have his scores massacred, his butcherly apparatus of blood and mangled flesh, his extremity of peril in storm, his melodramatic exaggeration of courage in battle. But it is in the few sketches of such scenes, occurring in the poem called "Walt Whitman," that he is most successful; and then his affectations fall, to a refreshing extent, from his loins, and he makes some approach to the perspicuity, compression, vividness, and force of good writing in general. If his English critics had contented themselves with discriminating between what is passably good and what is insufferably bad in his work, commending the former and condemning the latter, not a word would have been written by me upon the subject. Dr. Dowden, Mr. Rossetti, Mr. Buchanan, and, most vociferously of all, Mr. Swinburne, accept him at his own valuation as "the greatest of American voices,"† and the poet of democracy. To do so is to wrong the true poets which America has produced, and to strike a pang as of despair into the hearts of those who, amid all shortcomings and delinquencies, amid Fiske tragedies and Tammany Rings,16 refuse to believe that democracy means dissolution, and that the consummation of freedom must be an exchange of the genial bonds and decent amenities of civilization for infra-bestial license. Originality, true and clear, characterizes the real poets of America. There is in them a fragrance and flavour native to the American soil, a something that gives them a character as distinctive as marks off the Elizabethans from Milton, or distinguishes Pope and his school from recent English poets. More than this was not to be looked for or desired; the strong presumption was that more than this would indicate monstrosity, debility, or affectation; and this presumption has been verified by Whitman. Nature in America is different from nature in Europe, but we do not, in crossing the Atlantic, pass from cosmos into chaos; and Mr. Carlyle's expression, "winnowings of chaos," would be a candidly scientific description of Whitman's poetry if only it were possible to associate with it the idea of any winnowing process whatever. Street-sweepings of lumber-land—disjointed fragments of truth, tossed in wild whirl with disjointed fragments of falsehood—gleams of beauty that have lost their way in a waste of ugliness—such are the contents of what he calls his poems. If here and there we have tints of healthful beauty, and tones of right and manly feeling, they but suffice to prove that he can write sanely and sufferably when he pleases, that his monstrosities and solecisms are sheer affectation, that he is not mad, but only counterfeits madness. He is in no sense a superlatively able man, and it was beyond his powers to make for himself a legitimate poetical reputation. No man of high capacity could be so tumid and tautological as he—could talk, for instance, of the "fluid wet" of the sea; or speak of the aroma of his armpits, or make the crass and vile mistake of bringing into light what nature veils, and confounding liberty with dissolute anarchy. The poet of democracy he is not; but his books may serve to buoy, for the democracy of America, those shallows and sunken rocks on which, if it is cast, it must inevitably, amid the hootings of mankind, be wrecked. Always, unless he chooses to contradict himself for the sake of paradox, his political doctrine is the consecration of mutinous independence and rabid egotism and impudent conceit. In his ideal city "the men and women think lightly of the laws." His advice is to resist much and to obey little. This is the political philosophy of Bedlam, unchained in these ages chiefly through the influence of Rousseau, which has blasted the hopes of freedom wherever it has had the chance, and which must be chained up again with ineffable contempt if the self-government of nations is to mean anything else than the death and putrescence of civilization. Incapable of true poetical originality, Whitman had the cleverness to invent a literary trick and the shrewdness to stick to it. As a Yankee phenomenon, to be good-humouredly laughed at, and to receive that moderate pecuniary remuneration which nature allows to vivacious quacks, he would have been in his place; but when influential critics introduce him to the English public as a great poet, the thing becomes too serious for a joke. While reading Whitman, in the recollection of what had been said about him by those gentlemen, I realized with bitter painfulness how deadly is the peril that our literature may pass into conditions of horrible disease, the raging flame of fever taking the place of natural heat, the ravings of delirium superseding the enthusiasm of poetical imagination, the distortions of tetanic spasm caricaturing the movements, dance-like and music-measured, of harmonious strength.17 Therefore I suspended more congenial work to pen this little counterblast to literary extravagance and affectation.
∗ "Leaves of Grass." By Walt Whitman. Washington and London.
† These words are Mr. Swinburne's, and perhaps could not be endorsed by the others. I take this opportunity of protesting against certain comments made by Mr. Swinburne (in a republished essay on the text of Shelly) on an article written by me for this REVIEW in the year 1867. I did not say what Mr. Swinburne represents me as saying, and what I did say can be proved to be grammatically correct. [A. C. Swinburne's discussion of Bayne can be found in "Notes on the Text of Shelley" Fortnightly Review Jan./June 1869 pp. 539-62: 557-8.]
Bayne, Peter. "Walt Whitman's Poems." The Contemporary Review (December 1875): 49-69.
1. In "The Poetry of Democracy" Westminster Review 96 July 1871, 31, Dowden remarks: "At times this optimism leads Whitman to the entire denial of evil . . . ; in some transcendental way, he believes, the opposition of God and Satan cannot really exist." The line about "no imperfection in the present" is from Whitman's "Starting from Paumanok." (Back)
2. From Tennyson's "A Dream of Fair Women." (Back)
3. In the Bible, Naboth was a Jezreelite stoned to death because he would not let King Ahab have his vineyard. Elijah's curse on the royal family for their treatment of Naboth forecast the downfall of the dynasty. (Back)
4. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), German scientist and mathematician, did important work early in his career on optometry and the physics of vision. (Back)
5. Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846) and James Barry (1741–1806). Both painters were denounced by John Ruskin in similar terms in Modern Painters, The Complete Works of John Ruskin (T. Y. Crowell & Co., 1905), 175-76. (Back)
6. G. Lempierre explored Morocco and Fez in 1790–1791. David Livingstone (1813–1873) was a Scottish explorer of Africa, and Paul Belloni Du Chaillu (1835—1903) was a French-American explorer of Africa. The Frenchman Louis Figuier (1819–1894), was a scientist and writer. (Back)
7. Castalia, in Greek and Roman mythology, was a nymph whom Apollo transformed into a fountain at Delphi, at the base of Mt. Parnassos, or at Mt Helicon. (Back)
8. Titania is the Queen of the Fairies and wife of Oberon in Shakespeare's Midsummer-Night's Dream. Cashmere is the archaic spelling of Kashmir. Kashmir goats are the source of luxuriously soft fibers. (Back)
9. Farnley Hall in North Yorkshire was owned by Walter Fawkes (1769–1825). Fawkes was a friend of J. M. W. Turner who depicted Farnley Hall in 1815 and housed many of his paintings there. (Back)
10. Dowden quotations come from "The Poetry of Democracy" Westminster Review 96 July 1871, 33-68. (Back)
11. Thersites was killed after he mocked Achilles for mourning the death of the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. (Back)
12. This remark has not been located. (Back)
13. Scottish poet (1777–1844), writer of the long narrative poem Gertrude of Wyoming. (Back)
14. William Morris, "The Defence of Guenevere." (Back)
15. The first two stanzas of "The Woodspurge." (Back)
16. Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865–1932), often billed merely as "Mrs. Fiske," was a leading American actress of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tammany Hall is famous as the democratic machine in New York city politics. In the 1870s, William Tweed, a New York politician, became implicated in a scandal involving the disappearance of about 200 million taxpayers' dollars. In a series of cartoons about the "Tammany Ring," Thomas Nast drew attention to the group of politicians involved in the scandal. Tweed's career was ruined, and he served time in jail. (Back)
17. Tetanic is the motion characteristic of the disease tetanus. (Back)
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