POEMS BY WALT WHITMAN
by WALT WHITMAN
SELECTED AND EDITED BY WILLIAM MICHAEL ROSSETTI
A NEW EDITION
"Or si sa il nome, o per tristo o per buono, E si sa pure al mondo ch'io ci sono." —MICHELANGELO.
"That Angels are human forms, or men, I have seen a thousand times. I have also frequently told them that men in the Christian world are in such gross ignorance respecting Angels and Spirits as to suppose them to be minds without a form, or mere thoughts, of which they have no other idea than as something ethereal possessing a vital principle. To the first or ultimate heaven also correspond the forms of man's body, called its members, organs, and viscera. Thus the corporeal part of man is that in which heaven ultimately closes, and upon which, as on its base, it rests." —SWEDENBORG.
"Yes, truly, it is a great thing for a nation that it get an articulate voice—that it produce a man who will speak forth melodiously what the heart of it means." —CARLYLE.
"Les efforts de vos ennemis contre vous, leurs cris, leur rage impuissante, et leurs petits succes, ne doivent pas vous effrayer; ce ne sont que des egratignures sur les epaules d'Hercule." —ROBESPIERRE.
TO WILLIAM BELL SCOTT.
DEAR SCOTT,—Among various gifts which I have received from you, tangible and intangible, was a copy of the original quarto edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which you presented to me soon after its first appearance in 1855. At a time when few people on this side of the Atlantic had looked into the book, and still fewer had found in it anything save matter for ridicule, you had appraised it, and seen that its value was real and great. A true poet and a strong thinker like yourself was indeed likely to see that. I read the book eagerly, and perceived that its substantiality and power were still ahead of any eulogium with which it might have come commended to me—and, in fact, ahead of most attempts that could be made at verbal definition of them.
Some years afterwards, getting to know our friend Swinburne, I found with much satisfaction that he also was an ardent (not of course a blind) admirer of Whitman. Satisfaction, and a degree almost of surprise; for his intense sense of poetic refinement of form in his own works and his exacting acuteness as a critic might have seemed likely to carry him away from Whitman in sympathy at least, if not in actual latitude of perception. Those who find the American poet "utterly formless," "intolerably rough and floundering," "destitute of the A B C of art," and the like, might not unprofitably ponder this very different estimate of him by the author of Atalanta in Calydon.
May we hope that now, twelve years after the first appearance of Leaves of Grass, the English reading public may be prepared for a selection of Whitman's poems, and soon hereafter for a complete edition of them? I trust this may prove to be the case. At any rate, it has been a great gratification to me to be concerned in the experiment; and this is enhanced by my being enabled to associate with it your name, as that of an early and well-qualified appreciator of Whitman, and no less as that of a dear friend.
Yours affectionately, W. M. ROSSETTI.
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION OF LEAVES OF GRASS
CHANTS DEMOCRATIC: STARTING FROM PAUMANOK AMERICAN FEUILLAGE THE PAST-PRESENT YEARS OF THE UNPERFORMED FLUX TO WORKING MEN SONG OF THE BROAD-AXE ANTECEDENTS SALUT AU MONDE A BROADWAY PAGEANT OLD IRELAND BOSTON TOWN FRANCE, THE EIGHTEENTH YEAR OF THESE STATES EUROPE, THE SEVENTY-SECOND AND SEVENTY-THIRD YEARS OF THESE STATES TO A FOILED REVOLTER OR REVOLTRESS
DRUM TAPS: MANHATTAN ARMING 1861 THE UPRISING BEAT! BEAT! DRUMS! SONG OF THE BANNER AT DAYBREAK THE BIVOUAC'S FLAME BIVOUAC ON A MOUNTAIN SIDE CITY OF SHIPS VIGIL ON THE FIELD THE FLAG THE WOUNDED A SIGHT IN CAMP A GRAVE THE DRESSER A LETTER FROM CAMP WAR DREAMS THE VETERAN'S VISION O TAN-FACED PRAIRIE BOY MANHATTAN FACES OVER THE CARNAGE THE MOTHER OF ALL CAMPS OF GREEN DIRGE FOR TWO VETERANS SURVIVORS HYMN OF DEAD SOLDIERS SPIRIT WHOSE WORK IS DONE RECONCILIATION AFTER THE WAR
WALT WHITMAN: ASSIMILATIONS A WORD OUT OF THE SEA CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY NIGHT AND DEATH ELEMENTAL DRIFTS WONDERS MIRACLES VISAGES THE DARK SIDE MUSIC WHEREFORE? QUESTIONABLE SONG AT SUNSET LONGINGS FOR HOME APPEARANCES THE FRIEND MEETING AGAIN A DREAM PARTING FRIENDS TO A STRANGER OTHER LANDS ENVY THE CITY OF FRIENDS OUT OF THE CROWD AMONG THE MULTITUDE
LEAVES OF GRASS: PRESIDENT LINCOLN'S FUNERAL HYMN O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN! (FOR THE DEATH OF LINCOLN) PIONEERS! O PIONEERS TO THE SAYERS OF WORDS VOICES WHOSOEVER BEGINNERS TO A PUPIL LINKS THE WATERS TO THE STATES TEARS A SHIP GREATNESSES THE POET BURIAL THIS COMPOST DESPAIRING CRIES THE CITY DEAD-HOUSE TO ONE SHORTLY TO DIE UNNAMED LANDS SIMILITUDE THE SQUARE DEIFIC
SONGS OF PARTING: SINGERS AND POETS TO A HISTORIAN FIT AUDIENCE SINGING IN SPRING LOVE OF COMRADES PULSE OF MY LIFE AUXILIARIES REALITIES NEARING DEPARTURE POETS TO COME CENTURIES HENCE SO LONG!
During the summer of 1867 I had the opportunity (which I had often wished for) of expressing in print my estimate and admiration of the works of the American poet Walt Whitman. Like a stone dropped into a pond, an article of that sort may spread out its concentric circles of consequences. One of these is the invitation which I have received to edit a selection from Whitman's writings; virtually the first sample of his work ever published in England, and offering the first tolerably fair chance he has had of making his way with English readers on his own showing. Hitherto, such readers—except the small percentage of them to whom it has happened to come across the poems in some one of their American editions—have picked acquaintance with them only through the medium of newspaper extracts and criticisms, mostly short-sighted, sneering, and depreciatory, and rather intercepting than forwarding the candid construction which people might be willing to put upon the poems, alike in their beauties and their aberrations. Some English critics, no doubt, have been more discerning—as W. J. Fox, of old, in the Dispatch, the writer of the notice in the Leader, and of late two in the Pall Mall Gazette and the London Review; but these have been the exceptions among us, the great majority of the reviewers presenting that happy and familiar critical combination— scurrility and superciliousness.
[Footnote 1: See The Chronicle for 6th July 1867, article Walt Whitman's Poems.]
[Footnote 2: Since this Prefatory Notice was written [in 1868], another eulogistic review of Whitman has appeared—that by Mr. Robert Buchanan, in the Broadway.]
As it was my lot to set down so recently several of the considerations which seem to me most essential and most obvious in regard to Whitman's writings, I can scarcely now recur to the subject without either repeating something of what I then said, or else leaving unstated some points of principal importance. I shall therefore adopt the simplest course—that of summarising the critical remarks in my former article; after which, I shall leave without further development (ample as is the amount of development most of them would claim) the particular topics there glanced at, and shall proceed to some other phases of the subject.
Whitman republished in 1867 his complete poetical works in one moderate- sized volume, consisting of the whole Leaves of Grass, with a sort of supplement thereto named Songs before Parting, and of the Drum Taps, with its Sequel. It has been intimated that he does not expect to write any more poems, unless it might be in expression of the religious side of man's nature. However, one poem on the last American harvest sown and reaped by those who had been soldiers in the great war, has already appeared since the volume in question, and has been republished in England.
[Footnote 3: In a copy of the book revised by Whitman himself, which we have seen, this title is modified into Songs of Parting.]
Whitman's poems present no trace of rhyme, save in a couple or so of chance instances. Parts of them, indeed, may be regarded as a warp of prose amid the weft of poetry, such as Shakespeare furnishes the precedent for in drama. Still there is a very powerful and majestic rhythmical sense throughout.
Lavish and persistent has been the abuse poured forth upon Whitman by his own countrymen; the tricklings of the British press give but a moderate idea of it. The poet is known to repay scorn with scorn. Emerson can, however, from the first be claimed as on Whitman's side; nor, it is understood after some inquiry, has that great thinker since then retreated from this position in fundamentals, although his admiration may have entailed some worry upon him, and reports of his recantation have been rife. Of other writers on Whitman's side, expressing themselves with no measured enthusiasm, one may cite Mr. M. D. Conway; Mr. W. D. O'Connor, who wrote a pamphlet named The Good Grey Poet; and Mr. John Burroughs, author of Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, published quite recently in New York. His thorough-paced admirers declare Whitman to be beyond rivalry the poet of the epoch; an estimate which, startling as it will sound at the first, may nevertheless be upheld, on the grounds that Whitman is beyond all his competitors a man of the period, one of audacious personal ascendant, incapable of all compromise, and an initiator in the scheme and form of his works.
Certain faults are charged against him, and, as far as they are true, shall frankly stand confessed—some of them as very serious faults. Firstly, he speaks on occasion of gross things in gross, crude, and plain terms. Secondly, he uses some words absurd or ill-constructed, others which produce a jarring effect in poetry, or indeed in any lofty literature. Thirdly, he sins from time to time by being obscure, fragmentary, and agglomerative—giving long strings of successive and detached items, not, however, devoid of a certain primitive effectiveness. Fourthly, his self- assertion is boundless; yet not always to be understood as strictly or merely personal to himself, but sometimes as vicarious, the poet speaking on behalf of all men, and every man and woman. These and any other faults appear most harshly on a cursory reading; Whitman is a poet who bears and needs to be read as a whole, and then the volume and torrent of his power carry the disfigurements along with it, and away.
The subject-matter of Whitman's poems, taken individually, is absolutely miscellaneous: he touches upon any and every subject. But he has prefixed to his last edition an "Inscription" in the following terms, showing that the key-words of the whole book are two—"One's-self" and "En Masse:"—
Small is the theme of the following chant, yet the greatest.—namely, ONE'S-SELF; that wondrous thing, a simple separate person. That, for the use of the New World, I sing. Man's physiology complete, from top to toe, I sing. Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the Muse: I say the form complete is worthier far. The female equally with the male I sing. Nor cease at the theme of One's-self. I speak the word of the modern, the word EN MASSE. My days I sing, and the lands—with interstice I knew of hapless war. O friend, whoe'er you are, at last arriving hither to commence, I feel through every leaf the pressure of your hand, which I return. And thus upon our journey linked together let us go.
The book, then, taken as a whole, is the poem both of Personality and of Democracy; and, it may be added, of American nationalism. It is par excellence the modern poem. It is distinguished also by this peculiarity— that in it the most literal view of things is continually merging into the most rhapsodic or passionately abstract. Picturesqueness it has, but mostly of a somewhat patriarchal kind, not deriving from the "word-painting" of the litterateur; a certain echo of the old Hebrew poetry may even be caught in it, extra-modern though it is. Another most prominent and pervading quality of the book is the exuberant physique of the author. The conceptions are throughout those of a man in robust health, and might alter much under different conditions.
Further, there is a strong tone of paradox in Whitman's writings. He is both a realist and an optimist in extreme measure: he contemplates evil as in some sense not existing, or, if existing, then as being of as much importance as anything else. Not that he is a materialist; on the contrary, he is a most strenuous assertor of the soul, and, with the soul, of the body as its infallible associate and vehicle in the present frame of things. Neither does he drift into fatalism or indifferentism; the energy of his temperament, and ever-fresh sympathy with national and other developments, being an effectual bar to this. The paradoxical element of the poems is such that one may sometimes find them in conflict with what has preceded, and would not be much surprised if they said at any moment the reverse of whatever they do say. This is mainly due to the multiplicity of the aspects of things, and to the immense width of relation in which Whitman stands to all sorts and all aspects of them.
But the greatest of this poet's distinctions is his absolute and entire originality. He may be termed formless by those who, not without much reason to show for themselves, are wedded to the established forms and ratified refinements of poetic art; but it seems reasonable to enlarge the canon till it includes so great and startling a genius, rather than to draw it close and exclude him. His work is practically certain to stand as archetypal for many future poetic efforts—so great is his power as an originator, so fervid his initiative. It forms incomparably the largest performance of our period in poetry. Victor Hugo's Legende des Siecles alone might be named with it for largeness, and even that with much less of a new starting-point in conception and treatment. Whitman breaks with all precedent. To what he himself perceives and knows he has a personal relation of the intensest kind: to anything in the way of prescription, no relation at all. But he is saved from isolation by the depth of his Americanism; with the movement of his predominant nation he is moved. His comprehension, energy, and tenderness are all extreme, and all inspired by actualities. And, as for poetic genius, those who, without being ready to concede that faculty to Whitman, confess his iconoclastic boldness and his Titanic power of temperament, working in the sphere of poetry, do in effect confess his genius as well.
Such, still further condensed, was the critical summary which I gave of Whitman's position among poets. It remains to say something a little more precise of the particular qualities of his works. And first, not to slur over defects, I shall extract some sentences from a letter which a friend, most highly entitled to form and express an opinion on any poetic question—one, too, who abundantly upholds the greatness of Whitman as a poet—has addressed to me with regard to the criticism above condensed. His observations, though severe on this individual point, appear to me not other than correct. "I don't think that you quite put strength enough into your blame on one side, while you make at least enough of minor faults or eccentricities. To me it seems always that Whitman's great flaw is a fault of debility, not an excess of strength—I mean his bluster. His own personal and national self-reliance and arrogance, I need not tell you, I applaud, and sympathise and rejoice in; but the blatant ebullience of feeling and speech, at times, is feeble for so great a poet of so great a people. He is in part certainly the poet of democracy; but not wholly, because he tries so openly to be, and asserts so violently that he is— always as if he was fighting the case out on a platform. This is the only thing I really or greatly dislike or revolt from. On the whole" (adds my correspondent), "my admiration and enjoyment of his greatness grow keener and warmer every time I think of him"—a feeling, I may be permitted to observe, which is fully shared by myself, and, I suppose, by all who consent in any adequate measure to recognise Whitman, and to yield themselves to his influence.
To continue. Besides originality and daring, which have been already insisted upon, width and intensity are leading characteristics of his writings—width both of subject-matter and of comprehension, intensity of self-absorption into what the poet contemplates and expresses. He scans and presents an enormous panorama, unrolled before him as from a mountain-top; and yet, whatever most large or most minute or casual thing his eye glances upon, that he enters into with a depth of affection which identifies him with it for a time, be the object what it may. There is a singular interchange also of actuality and of ideal substratum and suggestion. While he sees men, with even abnormal exactness and sympathy, as men, he sees them also "as trees walking," and admits us to perceive that the whole show is in a measure spectral and unsubstantial, and the mask of a larger and profounder reality beneath it, of which it is giving perpetual intimations and auguries. He is the poet indeed of literality, but of passionate and significant literality, full of indirections as well as directness, and of readings between the lines. If he is the 'cutest of Yankees, he is also as truly an enthusiast as any the most typical poet. All his faculties and performance glow into a white heat of brotherliness; and there is a poignancy both of tenderness and of beauty about his finer works which discriminates them quite as much as their modernness, audacity, or any other exceptional point. If the reader wishes to see the great and more intimate powers of Whitman in their fullest expression, he may consult the Nocturn for the Death of Lincoln; than which it would be difficult to find anywhere a purer, more elevated, more poetic, more ideally abstract, or at the same time more pathetically personal, threnody—uniting the thrilling chords of grief, of beauty, of triumph, and of final unfathomed satisfaction. With all his singularities, Whitman is a master of words and of sounds: he has them at his command—made for, and instinct with, his purpose—messengers of unsurpassable sympathy and intelligence between himself and his readers. The entire book may be called the paean of the natural man—not of the merely physical, still less of the disjunctively intellectual or spiritual man, but of him who, being a man first and foremost, is therein also a spirit and an intellect.
There is a singular and impressive intuition or revelation of Swedenborg's: that the whole of heaven is in the form of one man, and the separate societies of heaven in the forms of the several parts of man. In a large sense, the general drift of Whitman's writings, even down to the passages which read as most bluntly physical, bear a striking correspondence or analogy to this dogma. He takes man, and every organism and faculty of man, as the unit—the datum—from which all that we know, discern, and speculate, of abstract and supersensual, as well as of concrete and sensual, has to be computed. He knows of nothing nobler than that unit man; but, knowing that, he can use it for any multiple, and for any dynamical extension or recast.
Let us next obtain some idea of what this most remarkable poet—the founder of American poetry rightly to be so called, and the most sonorous poetic voice of the tangibilities of actual and prospective democracy—is in his proper life and person.
Walt Whitman was born at the farm-village of West Hills, Long Island, in the State of New York, and about thirty miles distant from the capital, on the 31st of May 1819. His father's family, English by origin, had already been settled in this locality for five generations. His mother, named Louisa van Velsor, was of Dutch extraction, and came from Cold Spring, Queen's County, about three miles from West Hills. "A fine-looking old lady" she has been termed in her advanced age. A large family ensued from the marriage. The father was a farmer, and afterwards a carpenter and builder; both parents adhered in religion to "the great Quaker iconoclast, Elias Hicks." Walt was schooled at Brooklyn, a suburb of New York, and began life at the age of thirteen, working as a printer, later on as a country teacher, and then as a miscellaneous press-writer in New York. From 1837 to 1848 he had, as Mr. Burroughs too promiscuously expresses it, "sounded all experiences of life, with all their passions, pleasures, and abandonments." In 1849 he began travelling, and became at New Orleans a newspaper editor, and at Brooklyn, two years afterwards, a printer. He next followed his father's business of carpenter and builder. In 1862, after the breaking-out of the great Civil War, in which his enthusiastic unionism and also his anti-slavery feelings attached him inseparably though not rancorously to the good cause of the North, he undertook the nursing of the sick and wounded in the field, writing also a correspondence in the New York Times. I am informed that it was through Emerson's intervention that he obtained the sanction of President Lincoln for this purpose of charity, with authority to draw the ordinary army rations; Whitman stipulating at the same time that he would not receive any remuneration for his services. The first immediate occasion of his going down to camp was on behalf of his brother, Lieutenant-Colonel George W. Whitman, of the 51st New York Veterans, who had been struck in the face by a piece of shell at Fredericksburg. From the spring of 1863 this nursing, both in the field and more especially in hospital at Washington, became his "one daily and nightly occupation;" and the strongest testimony is borne to his measureless self-devotion and kindliness in the work, and to the unbounded fascination, a kind of magnetic attraction and ascendency, which he exercised over the patients, often with the happiest sanitary results. Northerner or Southerner, the belligerents received the same tending from him. It is said that by the end of the war he had personally ministered to upwards of 100,000 sick and wounded. In a Washington hospital he caught, in the summer of 1864, the first illness he had ever known, caused by poison absorbed into the system in attending some of the worst cases of gangrene. It disabled him for six months. He returned to the hospitals towards the beginning of 1865, and obtained also a clerkship in the Department of the Interior. It should be added that, though he never actually joined the army as a combatant, he made a point of putting down his name on the enrolment- lists for the draft, to take his chance as it might happen for serving the country in arms. The reward of his devotedness came at the end of June 1865, in the form of dismissal from his clerkship by the minister, Mr. Harlan, who learned that Whitman was the author of the Leaves of Grass; a book whose outspokenness, or (as the official chief considered it) immorality, raised a holy horror in the ministerial breast. The poet, however, soon obtained another modest but creditable post in the office of the Attorney-General. He still visits the hospitals on Sundays, and often on other days as well.
The portrait of Mr. Whitman reproduced in the present volume is taken from an engraving after a daguerreotype given in the original Leaves of Grass. He is much above the average size, and noticeably well-proportioned—a model of physique and of health, and, by natural consequence, as fully and finely related to all physical facts by his bodily constitution as to all mental and spiritual facts by his mind and his consciousness. He is now, however, old-looking for his years, and might even (according to the statement of one of his enthusiasts, Mr. O'Connor) have passed for being beyond the age for the draft when the war was going on. The same gentleman, in confutation of any inferences which might be drawn from the Leaves of Grass by a Harlan or other Holy Willie, affirms that "one more irreproachable in his relations to the other sex lives not upon this earth"—an assertion which one must take as one finds it, having neither confirmatory nor traversing evidence at hand. Whitman has light blue eyes, a florid complexion, a fleecy beard now grey, and a quite peculiar sort of magnetism about him in relation to those with whom he comes in contact. His ordinary appearance is masculine and cheerful: he never shows depression of spirits, and is sufficiently undemonstrative, and even somewhat silent in company. He has always been carried by predilection towards the society of the common people; but is not the less for that open to refined and artistic impressions—fond of operatic and other good music, and discerning in works of art. As to either praise or blame of what he writes, he is totally indifferent, not to say scornful—having in fact a very decisive opinion of his own concerning its calibre and destinies. Thoreau, a very congenial spirit, said of Whitman, "He is Democracy;" and again, "After all, he suggests something a little more than human." Lincoln broke out into the exclamation, "Well, he looks like a man!" Whitman responded to the instinctive appreciation of the President, considering him (it is said by Mr. Burroughs) "by far the noblest and purest of the political characters of the time;" and, if anything can cast, in the eyes of posterity, an added halo of brightness round the unsullied personal qualities and the great doings of Lincoln, it will assuredly be the written monument reared to him by Whitman.
The best sketch that I know of Whitman as an accessible human individual is that given by Mr. Conway. I borrow from it the following few details. "Having occasion to visit New York soon after the appearance of Walt Whitman's book, I was urged by some friends to search him out.... The day was excessively hot, the thermometer at nearly 100 deg., and the sun blazed down as only on sandy Long Island can the sun blaze.... I saw stretched upon his back, and gazing up straight at the terrible sun, the man I was seeking. With his grey clothing, his blue-grey shirt, his iron-grey hair, his swart sunburnt face and bare neck, he lay upon the brown-and-white grass—for the sun had burnt away its greenness—and was so like the earth upon which he rested that he seemed almost enough a part of it for one to pass by without recognition. I approached him, gave my name and reason for searching him out, and asked him if he did not find the sun rather hot. 'Not at all too hot,' was his reply; and he confided to me that this was one of his favourite places and attitudes for composing 'poems.' He then walked with me to his home, and took me along its narrow ways to his room. A small room of about fifteen feet square, with a single window looking out on the barren solitudes of the island; a small cot; a wash-stand with a little looking-glass hung over it from a tack in the wall; a pine table with pen, ink, and paper on it; an old line-engraving representing Bacchus, hung on the wall, and opposite a similar one of Silenus: these constituted the visible environments of Walt Whitman. There was not, apparently, a single book in the room.... The books he seemed to know and love best were the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare: these he owned, and probably had in his pockets while we were talking. He had two studies where he read; one was the top of an omnibus, and the other a small mass of sand, then entirely uninhabited, far out in the ocean, called Coney Island.... The only distinguished contemporary he had ever met was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, who had visited him.... He confessed to having no talent for industry, and that his forte was 'loafing and writing poems:' he was poor, but had discovered that he could, on the whole, live magnificently on bread and water.... On no occasion did he laugh, nor indeed did I ever see him smile."
[Footnote 4: In the Fortnightly Review, 15th October 1866.]
The first trace of Whitman as a writer is in the pages of the Democratic Review in or about 1841. Here he wrote some prose tales and sketches—poor stuff mostly, so far as I have seen of them, yet not to be wholly confounded with the commonplace. One of them is a tragic school-incident, which may be surmised to have fallen under his personal observation in his early experience as a teacher. His first poem of any sort was named Blood Money, in denunciation of the Fugitive Slave Law, which severed him from the Democratic party. His first considerable work was the Leaves of Grass. He began it in 1853, and it underwent two or three complete rewritings prior to its publication at Brooklyn in 1855, in a quarto volume—peculiar-looking, but with something perceptibly artistic about it. The type of that edition was set up entirely by himself. He was moved to undertake this formidable poetic work (as indicated in a private letter of Whitman's, from which Mr. Conway has given a sentence or two) by his sense of the great materials which America could offer for a really American poetry, and by his contempt for the current work of his compatriots—"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 standard of gentility, and the manners of European high-life-below-stairs in every line and verse." Thus incited to poetic self-expression, Whitman (adds Mr. Conway) "wrote on a sheet of paper, in large letters, these words, 'Make the Work,' and fixed it above his table, where he could always see it whilst writing. Thenceforth every cloud that flitted over him, every distant sail, every face and form encountered, wrote a line in his book."
The Leaves of Grass excited no sort of notice until a letter from Emerson appeared, expressing a deep sense of its power and magnitude. He termed it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
[Footnote 5: Mr. Burroughs (to whom I have recourse for most biographical facts concerning Whitman) is careful to note, in order that no misapprehension may arise on the subject, that, up to the time of his publishing the Leaves of Grass, the author had not read either the essays or the poems of Emerson.]
The edition of about a thousand copies sold off in less than a year. Towards the end of 1856 a second edition in 16mo appeared, printed in New York, also of about a thousand copies. Its chief feature was an additional poem beginning "A Woman waits for me." It excited a considerable storm. Another edition, of about four to five thousand copies, duodecimo, came out at Boston in 1860-61, including a number of new pieces. The Drum Taps, consequent upon the war, with their Sequel, which comprises the poem on Lincoln, followed in 1865; and in 1867, as I have already noted, a complete edition of all the poems, including a supplement named Songs before Parting. The first of all the Leaves of Grass, in point of date, was the long and powerful composition entitled Walt Whitman—perhaps the most typical and memorable of all of his productions, but shut out from the present selection for reasons given further on. The final edition shows numerous and considerable variations from all its precursors; evidencing once again that Whitman is by no means the rough-and-ready writer, panoplied in rude art and egotistic self-sufficiency, that many people suppose him to be. Even since this issue, the book has been slightly revised by its author's own hand, with a special view to possible English circulation. The copy so revised has reached me (through the liberal and friendly hands of Mr. Conway) after my selection had already been decided on; and the few departures from the last printed text which might on comparison be found in the present volume are due to my having had the advantage of following this revised copy. In all other respects I have felt bound to reproduce the last edition, without so much as considering whether here and there I might personally prefer the readings of the earlier issues.
The selection here offered to the English reader contains a little less than half the entire bulk of Whitman's poetry. My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest. I have also inserted the very remarkable prose preface which Whitman printed in the original edition of Leaves of Grass, an edition that has become a literary rarity. This preface has not been reproduced in any later publication, although its materials have to some extent been worked up into poems of a subsequent date. From this prose composition, contrary to what has been my rule with any of the poems, it has appeared to me permissible to omit two or three short phrases which would have shocked ordinary readers, and the retention of which, had I held it obligatory, would have entailed the exclusion of the preface itself as a whole.
[Footnote 6: Compare, for instance, the Preface, pp. 38, 39, with the poem To a Foiled Revolter or Revoltress, p. 133.]
A few words must be added as to the indecencies scattered through Whitman's writings. Indecencies or improprieties—or, still better, deforming crudities—they may rightly be termed; to call them immoralities would be going too far. Whitman finds himself, and other men and women, to be a compound of soul and body; he finds that body plays an extremely prominent and determining part in whatever he and other mundane dwellers have cognisance of; he perceives this to be the necessary condition of things, and therefore, as he fully and openly accepts it, the right condition; and he knows of no reason why what is universally seen and known, necessary and right, should not also be allowed and proclaimed in speech. That such a view of the matter is entitled to a great deal of weight, and at any rate to candid consideration and construction, appears to me not to admit of a doubt: neither is it dubious that the contrary view, the only view which a mealy-mouthed British nineteenth century admits as endurable, amounts to the condemnation of nearly every great or eminent literary work of past time, whatever the century it belongs to, the country it comes from, the department of writing it illustrates, or the degree or sort of merit it possesses. Tenth, second, or first century before Christ—first, eighth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, or even eighteenth century A.D.—it is still the same: no book whose subject-matter admits as possible of an impropriety according to current notions can be depended upon to fail of containing such impropriety,—can, if those notions are accepted as the canon, be placed with a sense of security in the hands of girls and youths, or read aloud to women; and this holds good just as much of severely moral or plainly descriptive as of avowedly playful, knowing, or licentious books. For my part, I am far from thinking that earlier state of literature, and the public feeling from which it sprang, the wrong ones— and our present condition the only right one. Equally far, therefore, am I from indignantly condemning Whitman for every startling allusion or expression which he has admitted into his book, and which I, from motives of policy, have excluded from this selection; except, indeed, that I think many of his tabooed passages are extremely raw and ugly on the ground of poetic or literary art, whatever aspect they may bear in morals. I have been rigid in exclusion, because it appears to me highly desirable that a fair verdict on Whitman should now be pronounced in England on poetic grounds alone; and because it was clearly impossible that the book, with its audacities of topic and of expression included, should run the same chance of justice, and of circulation through refined minds and hands, which may possibly be accorded to it after the rejection of all such peccant poems. As already intimated, I have not in a single instance excised any parts of poems: to do so would have been, I conceive, no less wrongful towards the illustrious American than repugnant, and indeed unendurable, to myself, who aspire to no Bowdlerian honours. The consequence is, that the reader loses in toto several important poems, and some extremely fine ones—notably the one previously alluded to, of quite exceptional value and excellence, entitled Walt Whitman. I sacrifice them grudgingly; and yet willingly, because I believe this to be the only thing to do with due regard to the one reasonable object which a selection can subserve—that of paving the way towards the issue and unprejudiced reception of a complete edition of the poems in England. For the benefit of misconstructionists, let me add in distinct terms that, in respect of morals and propriety, I neither admire nor approve the incriminated passages in Whitman's poems, but, on the contrary, consider that most of them would be much better away; and, in respect of art, I doubt whether even one of them deserves to be retained in the exact phraseology it at present exhibits. This, however, does not amount to saying that Whitman is a vile man, or a corrupt or corrupting writer; he is none of these.
The only division of his poems into sections, made by Whitman himself, has been noted above: Leaves of Grass, Songs before Parting, supplementary to the preceding, and Drum Taps, with their Sequel. The peculiar title, Leaves of Grass, has become almost inseparable from the name of Whitman; it seems to express with some aptness the simplicity, universality, and spontaneity of the poems to which it is applied. Songs before Parting may indicate that these compositions close Whitman's poetic roll. Drum Taps are, of course, songs of the Civil War, and their Sequel is mainly on the same theme: the chief poem in this last section being the one on the death of Lincoln. These titles all apply to fully arranged series of compositions. The present volume is not in the same sense a fully arranged series, but a selection: and the relation of the poems inter se appears to me to depend on altered conditions, which, however narrowed they are, it may be as well frankly to recognise in practice. I have therefore redistributed the poems (a latitude of action which I trust the author may not object to), bringing together those whose subject-matter seems to warrant it, however far separated they may possibly be in the original volume. At the same time, I have retained some characteristic terms used by Whitman himself, and have named my sections respectively—
1. Chants Democratic (poems of democracy). 2. Drum Taps (war songs). 3. Walt Whitman (personal poems). 4. Leaves of Grass (unclassified poems). 5. Songs of Parting (missives).
The first three designations explain themselves. The fourth, Leaves of Grass, is not so specially applicable to the particular poems of that section here as I should have liked it to be; but I could not consent to drop this typical name. The Songs of Parting, my fifth section, are compositions in which the poet expresses his own sentiment regarding his works, in which he forecasts their future, or consigns them to the reader's consideration. It deserves mention that, in the copy of Whitman's last American edition revised by his own hand, as previously noticed, the series termed Songs of Parting has been recast, and made to consist of poems of the same character as those included in my section No. 5.
Comparatively few of Whitman's poems have been endowed by himself with titles properly so called. Most of them are merely headed with the opening words of the poems themselves—as "I was looking a long while;" "To get betimes in Boston Town;" "When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed;" and so on. It seems to me that in a selection such a lengthy and circuitous method of identifying the poems is not desirable: I should wish them to be remembered by brief, repeatable, and significant titles. I have therefore supplied titles of my own to such pieces as bear none in the original edition: wherever a real title appears in that edition, I have retained it.
With these remarks I commend to the English reader the ensuing selection from a writer whom I sincerely believe to be, whatever his faults, of the order of great poets, and by no means of pretty good ones. I would urge the reader not to ask himself, and not to return any answer to the questions, whether or not this poet is like other poets—whether or not the particular application of rules of art which is found to hold good in the works of those others, and to constitute a part of their excellence, can be traced also in Whitman. Let the questions rather be—Is he powerful? Is he American? Is he new? Is he rousing? Does he feel and make me feel? I entertain no doubt as to the response which in due course of time will be returned to these questions and such as these, in America, in England, and elsewhere—or to the further question, "Is Whitman then indeed a true and a great poet?" Lincoln's verdict bespeaks the ultimate decision upon him, in his books as in his habit as he lives—"Well, he looks like a man."
Walt Whitman occupies at the present moment a unique position on the globe, and one which, even in past time, can have been occupied by only an infinitesimally small number of men. He is the one man who entertains and professes respecting himself the grave conviction that he is the actual and prospective founder of a new poetic literature, and a great one—a literature proportional to the material vastness and the unmeasured destinies of America: he believes that the Columbus of the continent or the Washington of the States was not more truly than himself in the future a founder and upbuilder of this America. Surely a sublime conviction, and expressed more than once in magnificent words—none more so than the lines beginning
"Come, I will make this continent indissoluble."
[Footnote 7: See the poem headed Love of Comrades, p. 308.]
Were the idea untrue, it would still be a glorious dream, which a man of genius might be content to live in and die for: but is it untrue? Is it not, on the contrary, true, if not absolutely, yet with a most genuine and substantial approximation? I believe it is thus true. I believe that Whitman is one of the huge, as yet mainly unrecognised, forces of our time; privileged to evoke, in a country hitherto still asking for its poet, a fresh, athletic, and American poetry, and predestined to be traced up to by generation after generation of believing and ardent—let us hope not servile—disciples.
"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Shelley, who knew what he was talking about when poetry was the subject, has said it, and with a profundity of truth Whitman seems in a peculiar degree marked out for "legislation" of the kind referred to. His voice will one day be potential or magisterial wherever the English language is spoken—that is to say, in the four corners of the earth; and in his own American hemisphere, the uttermost avatars of democracy will confess him not more their announcer than their inspirer.
1868. W. M. ROSSETTI.
N.B.—The above prefatory notice was written in 1868, and is reproduced practically unaltered. Were it to be brought up to the present date, 1886, I should have to mention Whitman's books Two Rivulets and Specimen-days and Collect, and the fact that for several years past he has been partially disabled by a paralytic attack. He now lives at Camden, New Jersey.
1886. W. M. R.
PREFACE TO LEAVES OF GRASS.
America does not repel the past, or what it has produced under its forms, or amid other politics, or the idea of castes, or the old religions; accepts the lesson with calmness; is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms; perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house; perceives that it waits a little while in the door, that it was fittest for its days, that its action has descended to the stalwart and well-shaped heir who approaches, and that he shall be fittest for his days.
The Americans, of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical Nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings, necessarily blind to particulars and details, magnificently moving in vast masses.
Here is the hospitality which for ever indicates heroes. Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance, disdaining the trivial, unapproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective, spreads with crampless and flowing breadth, and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance. One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground, or the orchards drop apples, or the bays contain fish, or men beget children.
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies: but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlours, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people. Their manners, speech, dress, friendships,—the freshness and candour of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage—their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean—the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states—the fierceness of their roused resentment— their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul—their good temper and open- handedness—the terrible significance of their elections, the President's taking off his hat to them, not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen. Not nature, nor swarming states, nor streets and steamships, nor prosperous business, nor farms nor capital nor learning, may suffice for the ideal of man, nor suffice the poet. No reminiscences may suffice either. A live nation can always cut a deep mark, and can have the best authority the cheapest—namely, from its own soul. This is the sum of the profitable uses of individuals or states, and of present action and grandeur, and of the subjects of poets.—As if it were necessary to trot back generation after generation to the eastern records! As if the beauty and sacredness of the demonstrable must fall behind that of the mythical! As if men do not make their mark out of any times! As if the opening of the western continent by discovery, and what has transpired since in North and South America, were less than the small theatre of the antique, or the aimless sleep-walking of the Middle Ages! The pride of the United States leaves the wealth and finesse of the cities, and all returns of commerce and agriculture, and all the magnitude or geography or shows of exterior victory, to enjoy the breed of full-sized men, or one full-sized man unconquerable and simple.
The American poets are to enclose old and new; for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions: he gives them reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his country's spirit: he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes. Mississippi with annual freshets and changing chutes, Missouri and Columbia and Ohio and Saint Lawrence with the Falls and beautiful masculine Hudson, do not embouchure where they spend themselves more than they embouchure into him. The blue breadth over the inland sea of Virginia and Maryland, and the sea off Massachusetts and Maine, and over Manhattan Bay, and over Champlain and Erie, and over Ontario and Huron and Michigan and Superior, and over the Texan and Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas, and over the seas off California and Oregon, is not tallied by the blue breadth of the waters below more than the breadth of above and below is tallied by him. When the long Atlantic coast stretches longer, and the Pacific coast stretches longer, he easily stretches with them north or south. He spans between them also from east to west, and reflects what is between them. On him rise solid growths that offset the growths of pine and cedar and hemlock and live-oak and locust and chestnut and cypress and hickory and lime-tree and cottonwood and tulip-tree and cactus and wild-vine and tamarind and persimmon, and tangles as tangled as any cane-brake or swamp, and forests coated with transparent ice and icicles, hanging from the boughs and crackling in the wind, and sides and peaks of mountains, and pasturage sweet and free as savannah or upland or prairie,—with flights and songs and screams that answer those of the wild-pigeon and high-hold and orchard- oriole and coot and surf-duck and red-shouldered-bawk and fish-hawk and white-ibis and Indian-hen and cat-owl and water-pheasant and qua-bird and pied-sheldrake and blackbird and mocking-bird and buzzard and condor and night-heron and eagle. To him the hereditary countenance descends, both mother's and father's. To him enter the essences of the real things and past and present events—of the enormous diversity of temperature and agriculture and mines—the tribes of red aborigines—the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports, or making landings on rocky coasts—the first settlements north or south—the rapid stature and muscle—the haughty defiance of '76, and the war and peace and formation of the constitution— the union always surrounded by blatherers, and always calm and impregnable—the perpetual coming of immigrants—the wharf-hemmed cities and superior marine—the unsurveyed interior—the loghouses and clearings and wild animals and hunters and trappers—the free commerce—the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging—the endless gestations of new states—the convening of Congress every December, the members duly coming up from all climates and the uttermost parts—the noble character of the young mechanics and of all free American workmen and workwomen—the general ardour and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male—the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population—the factories and mercantile life and labour-saving machinery— the Yankee swap—the New York firemen and the target excursion—the Southern plantation life—the character of the north-east and of the north- west and south-west-slavery, and the tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases, or the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease. For such the expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new. It is to be indirect, and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to much more. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted, and their eras and characters be illustrated, and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative, and has vista. Here comes one among the well-beloved stone-cutters, and plans with decision and science, and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms.
Of all nations, the United States, with veins full of poetical stuff, most needs poets, and will doubtless have the greatest, and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall. Of all mankind, the great poet is the equable man. Not in him, but off from him, things are grotesque or eccentric, or fail of their sanity. Nothing out of its place is good, and nothing in its place is bad. He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportions, neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse, and he is the key. He is the equaliser of his age and land: he supplies what wants supplying, and checks what wants checking. If peace is the routine, out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce—lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality—federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, free-trade, intertravel by land and sea—nothing too close, nothing too far off,—the stars not too far off. In war, he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot: he fetches parks of artillery, the best that engineer ever knew. If the time becomes slothful and heavy, he knows how to arouse it: he can make every word he speaks draw blood. Whatever stagnates in the flat of custom or obedience or legislation, he never stagnates. Obedience does not master him, he masters it. High up out of reach, he stands turning a concentrated light; he turns the pivot with his finger; he baffles the swiftest runners as he stands, and easily overtakes and envelops them. The time straying toward infidelity and confections and persiflage he withholds by his steady faith; he spreads out his dishes; he offers the sweet firm-fibred meat that grows men and women. His brain is the ultimate brain. He is no arguer, he is judgment. He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing. As he sees the farthest, he has the most faith. His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things. In the talk on the soul and eternity and God, off of his equal plane, he is silent. He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement: he sees eternity in men and women,—he does not see men and women as dreams or dots. Faith is the antiseptic of the soul,—it pervades the common people and preserves them: they never give up believing and expecting and trusting. There is that indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius. The poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist. The power to destroy or remould is freely used by him, but never the power of attack. What is past is past. If he does not expose superior models, and prove himself by every step he takes, he is not what is wanted. The presence of the greatest poet conquers; not parleying or struggling or any prepared attempts. Now he has passed that way, see after him! there is not left any vestige of despair or misanthropy or cunning or exclusiveness, or the ignominy of a nativity or colour, or delusion of hell or the necessity of hell; and no man thenceforward shall be degraded for ignorance or weakness or sin.
The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into anything that was before thought small, it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer—he is individual—he is complete in himself: the others are as good as he; only he sees it, and they do not. He is not one of the chorus—he does not stop for any regulation—he is the President of regulation. What the eyesight does to the rest he does to the rest. Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own, and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man, and all the instruments and books of the earth, and all reasoning. What is marvellous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague? after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit, and given audience to far and near and to the sunset, and had all things enter with electric swiftness, softly and duly, without confusion or jostling or jam.
The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes: but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects,—they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls. Men and women perceive the beauty well enough—probably as well as he. The passionate tenacity of hunters, woodmen, early risers, cultivators of gardens and orchards and fields, the love of healthy women for the manly form, seafaring persons, drivers of horses, the passion for light and the open air, all is an old varied sign of the unfailing perception of beauty, and of a residence of the poetic, in outdoor people. They can never be assisted by poets to perceive: some may, but they never can. The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity, or abstract addresses to things, nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else, and is in the soul. The profit of rhyme is that it drops seeds of a sweeter and more luxuriant rhyme; and of uniformity, that it conveys itself into its own roots in the ground out of sight. The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent, but dependent. All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. If the greatnesses are in conjunction in a man or woman, it is enough—the fact will prevail through the universe: but the gaggery and gilt of a million years will not prevail. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body. The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured: others may not know it, but he shall. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches, and shall master all attachment.
The known universe has one complete lover, and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion, and is indifferent which chance happens, and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune, and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy. Other proportions of the reception of pleasure dwindle to nothing to his proportions. All expected from heaven or from the highest he is rapport with in the sight of the daybreak, or a scene of the winter woods, or the presence of children playing, or with his arm round the neck of a man or woman. His love, above all love, has leisure and expanse—he leaves room ahead of himself. He is no irresolute or suspicious lover—he is sure—he scorns intervals. His experience and the showers and thrills are not for nothing. Nothing can jar him: suffering and darkness cannot—death and fear cannot. To him complaint and jealousy and envy are corpses buried and rotten in the earth—he saw them buried. The sea is not surer of the shore, or the shore of the sea, than he is of the fruition of his love, and of all perfection and beauty.
The fruition of beauty is no chance of hit or miss—it is inevitable as life—it is exact and plumb as gravitation. From the eyesight proceeds another eyesight, and from the hearing proceeds another hearing, and from the voice proceeds another voice, eternally curious of the harmony of things with man. To these respond perfections, not only in the committees that were supposed to stand for the rest, but in the rest themselves just the same. These understand the law of perfection in masses and floods—that its finish is to each for itself and onward from itself—that it is profuse and impartial—that there is not a minute of the light or dark, nor an acre of the earth or sea, without it—nor any direction of the sky, nor any trade or employment, nor any turn of events. This is the reason that about the proper expression of beauty there is precision and balance,—one part does not need to be thrust above another. The best singer is not the one who has the most lithe and powerful organ: the pleasure of poems is not in them that take the handsomest measure and similes and sound.
Without effort, and without exposing in the least how it is done, the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons, some more and some less, to bear on your individual character, as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time. What is the purpose must surely be there, and the clue of it must be there; and the faintest indication is the indication of the best, and then becomes the clearest indication. Past and present and future are not disjoined, but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins, and stands them again on their feet: he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realise you. He learns the lesson—he places himself where the future becomes present. The greatest poet does not only dazzle his rays over character and scenes and passions,—he finally ascends and finishes all: he exhibits the pinnacles that no man can tell what they are for or what is beyond—he glows a moment on the extremest verge. He is most wonderful in his last half-hidden smile or frown: by that flash of the moment of parting the one that sees it shall be encouraged or terrified afterward for many years. The greatest poet does not moralise or make applications of morals,—he knows the soul. The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride, and the one balances the other, and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain close betwixt both, and they are vital in his style and thoughts.
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity,—nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse, and pierce intellectual depths, and give all subjects their articulations, are powers neither common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insousiance of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art. If you, have looked on him who has achieved it, you have looked on one of the masters of the artists of all nations and times. You shall not contemplate the flight of the grey-gull over the bay, or the mettlesome action of the blood-horse, or the tall leaning of sunflowers on their stalk, or the appearance of the sun journeying through heaven, or the appearance of the moon afterward, with any more satisfaction than you shall contemplate him. The greatest poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art,—I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or soothe, I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has, and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or pourtray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side, and look in the mirror with me.
The old red blood and stainless gentility of great poets will be proved by their unconstraint. A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not. Of the traits of the brotherhood of writers, savans, musicians, inventors, and artists, nothing is finer than silent defiance advancing from new free forms. In the need of poems, philosophy, politics, mechanism, science, behaviour, the craft of art, an appropriate native grand opera, shipcraft or any craft, he is greatest for ever and for ever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself, and makes one.
The messages of great poets 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. What do you think is the grandeur of storms and dismemberments, and the deadliest battles and wrecks, and the wildest fury of the elements, and the power of the sea, and the motion of nature, and of the throes of human desires, and dignity and hate and love? It is that something in the soul which says,—Rage on, whirl on, I tread master here and everywhere; master of the spasms of the sky and of the shatter of the sea, master of nature and passion and death, and of all terror and all pain.
The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and for encouraging competitors: they shall be kosmos—without monopoly or secrecy—glad to pass anything to any one—hungry for equals night and day. They shall not be careful of riches and privilege,—they shall be riches and privilege: they shall perceive who the most affluent man is. The most affluent man is he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth of himself. The American bard shall delineate no class of persons, nor one or two out of the strata of interests, nor love most nor truth most, nor the soul most nor the body most; and not be for the eastern states more than the western, or the northern states more than the southern.
Exact science and its practical movements are no checks on the greatest poet, but always his encouragement and support. The outset and remembrance are there—there the arms that lifted him first and brace him best—there he returns after all his goings and comings. The sailor and traveller, the anatomist, chemist, astronomer, geologist, phrenologist, spiritualist, mathematician, historian, and lexicographer, are not poets; but they are the lawgivers of poets, and their construction underlies the structure of every perfect poem. No matter what rises or is uttered, they send the seed of the conception of it: of them and by them stand the visible proofs of souls. If there shall be love and content between the father and the son, and if the greatness of the son is the exuding of the greatness of the father, there shall be love between the poet and the man of demonstrable science. In the beauty of poems are the tuft and final applause of science.
Great is the faith of the flush of knowledge, and of the investigation of the depths of qualities and things. Cleaving and circling here swells the soul of the poet: yet is president of itself always. The depths are fathomless, and therefore calm. The innocence and nakedness are resumed— they are neither modest nor immodest. The whole theory of the special and supernatural, and all that was twined with it or educed out of it, departs as a dream. What has ever happened, what happens, and whatever may or shall happen, the vital laws enclose all: they are sufficient for any case and for all cases—none to be hurried or retarded—any miracle of affairs or persons inadmissible in the vast clear scheme where every motion, and every spear of grass, and the frames and spirits of men and women, and all that concerns them, are unspeakably perfect miracles, all referring to all, and each distinct and in its place. It is also not consistent with the reality of the soul to admit that there is anything in the known universe more divine than men and women.
Men and women, and the earth and all upon it, are simply to be taken as they are, and the investigation of their past and present and future shall be unintermitted, and shall be done with perfect candour. Upon this basis philosophy speculates, ever looking toward the poet, ever regarding the eternal tendencies of all toward happiness, never inconsistent with what is clear to the senses and to the soul. For the eternal tendencies of all toward happiness make the only point of sane philosophy. Whatever comprehends less than that—whatever is less than the laws of light and of astronomical motion—or less than the laws that follow the thief, the liar, the glutton, and the drunkard, through this life, and doubtless afterward— or less than vast stretches of time, or the slow formation of density, or the patient upheaving of strata—is of no account. Whatever would put God in a poem or system of philosophy as contending against some being or influence is also of no account. Sanity and ensemble characterise the great master:—spoilt in one principle, all is spoilt. The great master has nothing to do with miracles. He sees health for himself in being one of the mass—he sees the hiatus in singular eminence. To the perfect shape comes common ground. To be under the general law is great, for that is to correspond with it. The master knows that he is unspeakably great, and that all are unspeakably great—that nothing, for instance, is greater than to conceive children, and bring them up well—that to be is just as great as to perceive or tell.
In the make of the great masters the idea of political liberty is indispensable. Liberty takes the adherence of heroes wherever men and women exist; but never takes any adherence or welcome from the rest more than from poets. They are the voice and exposition of liberty. They out of ages are worthy the grand idea,—to them it is confided, and they must sustain it. Nothing has precedence of it, and nothing can warp or degrade it. The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots. The turn of their necks, the sound of their feet, the motions of their wrists, are full of hazard to the one and hope to the other. Come nigh them a while, and, though they neither speak nor advise, you shall learn the faithful American lesson. Liberty is poorly served by men whose good intent is quelled from one failure or two failures or any number of failures, or from the casual indifference or ingratitude of the people, or from the sharp show of the tushes of power, or the bringing to bear soldiers and cannon or any penal statutes. Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement. The battle rages with many a loud alarm and frequent advance and retreat—the enemy triumphs—the prison, the handcuffs, the iron necklace and anklet, the scaffold, garrote, and lead-balls, do their work—the cause is asleep—the strong throats are choked with their own blood—the young men drop their eyelashes toward the ground when they pass each other ... and is liberty gone out of that place? No, never. When liberty goes, it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go: it waits for all the rest to go—it is the last. When the memories of the old martyrs are faded utterly away—when the large names of patriots are laughed at in the public halls from the lips of the orators—when the boys are no more christened after the same, but christened after tyrants and traitors instead—when the laws of the free are grudgingly permitted, and laws for informers and blood-money are sweet to the taste of the people— when I and you walk abroad upon the earth, stung with compassion at the sight of numberless brothers answering our equal friendship, and calling no man master—and when we are elated with noble joy at the sight of slaves— when the soul retires in the cool communion of the night, and surveys its experience, and has much ecstasy over the word and deed that put back a helpless innocent person into the gripe of the gripers or into any cruel inferiority—when those in all parts of these states who could easier realise the true American character, but do not yet—when the swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or Congress or the Presidency, obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people, whether they get the offices or no— when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer, with his hat unmoved from his head, and firm eyes, and a candid and generous heart—and when servility by town or state or the federal government, or any oppression on a large scale or small scale, can be tried on without its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion, against the smallest chance of escape—or rather when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth—then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.
[Footnote 1: This clause is obviously imperfect in some respect: it is here reproduced verbatim from the American edition.]
As the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the real body and soul and in the pleasure of things, they possess the superiority of genuineness over all fiction and romance. As they emit themselves, facts are showered over with light—the daylight is lit with more volatile light—also the deep between the setting and rising sun goes deeper many- fold. Each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty: the multiplication-table its—old age its—the carpenter's trade its—the grand opera its: the huge-hulled clean-shaped New York clipper at sea under steam or full sail gleams with unmatched beauty—the American circles and large harmonies of government gleam with theirs, and the commonest definite intentions and actions with theirs. The poets of the kosmos advance through all interpositions and coverings and turmoils and stratagems to first principles. They are of use—they dissolve poverty from its need, and riches from its conceit. You large proprietor, they say, shall not realise or perceive more than any one else. The owner of the library is not he who holds a legal title to it, having bought and paid for it. Any one and every one is owner of the library who can read the same through all the varieties of tongues and subjects and styles, and in whom they enter with ease, and take residence and force toward paternity and maternity, and make supple and powerful and rich and large. These American states, strong and healthy and accomplished, shall receive no pleasure from violations of natural models, and must not permit them. In paintings or mouldings or carvings in mineral or wood, or in the illustrations of books or newspapers, or in any comic or tragic prints, or in the patterns of woven stuffs, or anything to beautify rooms or furniture or costumes, or to put upon cornices or monuments or on the prows or sterns of ships, or to put anywhere before the human eye indoors or out, that which distorts honest shapes, or which creates unearthly beings or places or contingencies, is a nuisance and revolt. Of the human form especially, it is so great it must never be made ridiculous. Of ornaments to a work, nothing outre can be allowed; but those ornaments can be allowed that conform to the perfect facts of the open air, and that flow out of the nature of the work, and come irrepressibly from it, and are necessary to the completion of the work. Most works are most beautiful without ornament. Exaggerations will be revenged in human physiology. Clean and vigorous children are conceived only in those communities where the models of natural forms are public every day. Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told, there is no more need of romances.
The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks, and by the justification of perfect personal candour. Then folks echo a new cheap joy and a divine voice leaping from their brains. How beautiful is candour! All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candour. Henceforth let no man of us lie, for we have seen that openness wins the inner and outer world, and that there is no single exception, and that never since our earth gathered itself in a mass has deceit or subterfuge or prevarication attracted its smallest particle or the faintest tinge of a shade—and that through the enveloping wealth and rank of a state or the whole republic of states a sneak or sly person shall be discovered and despised—and that the soul has never been once fooled and never can be fooled—and thrift without the loving nod of the soul is only a foetid puff—and there never grew up in any of the continents of the globe, nor upon any planet or satellite or star, nor upon the asteroids, nor in any part of ethereal space, nor in the midst of density, nor under the fluid wet of the sea, nor in that condition which precedes the birth of babes, nor at any time during the changes of life, nor in that condition that follows what we term death, nor in any stretch of abeyance or action afterward of vitality, nor in any process of formation or reformation anywhere, a being whose instinct hated the truth.
Extreme caution or prudence, the soundest organic health, large hope and comparison and fondness for women and children, large alimentiveness and destructiveness and causality, with a perfect sense of the oneness of nature, and the propriety of the same spirit applied to human affairs— these are called up of the float of the brain of the world to be parts of the greatest poet from his birth. Caution seldom goes far enough. It has been thought that the prudent citizen was the citizen who applied himself to solid gains, and did well for himself and his family, and completed a lawful life without debt or crime. The greatest poet sees and admits these economies as he sees the economies of food and sleep, but has higher notions of prudence than to think he gives much when he gives a few slight attentions at the latch of the gate. The premises of the prudence of life are not the hospitality of it, or the ripeness and harvest of it. Beyond the independence of a little sum laid aside for burial-money, and of a few clapboards around and shingles overhead on a lot of American soil owned, and the easy dollars that supply the year's plain clothing and meals, the melancholy prudence of the abandonment of such a great being as a man is to the toss and pallor of years of money-making, with all their scorching days and icy nights, and all their stifling deceits and underhanded dodgings, or infinitesimals of parlours, or shameless stuffing while others starve,—and all the loss of the bloom and odour of the earth, and of the flowers and atmosphere, and of the sea, and of the true taste of the women and men you pass or have to do with in youth or middle age, and the issuing sickness and desperate revolt at the close of a life without elevation or naivete, and the ghastly chatter of a death without serenity or majesty,—is the great fraud upon modern civilisation and forethought; blotching the surface and system which civilisation undeniably drafts, and moistening with tears the immense features it spreads and spreads with such velocity before the reached kisses of the soul. Still the right explanation remains to be made about prudence. The prudence of the mere wealth and respectability of the most esteemed life appears too faint for the eye to observe at all when little and large alike drop quietly aside at the thought of the prudence suitable for immortality. What is wisdom that fills the thinness of a year or seventy or eighty years, to wisdom spaced out by ages, and coming back at a certain time with strong reinforcements and rich presents and the clear faces of wedding-guests as far as you can look in every direction running gaily toward you? Only the soul is of itself—all else has reference to what ensues. All that a person does or thinks is of consequence. Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month, or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death, but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime. The indirect is always as great and real as the direct. The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body. Not one name of word or deed—not of the putrid veins of gluttons or rum-drinkers— not peculation or cunning or betrayal or murder—no serpentine poison of those that seduce women—not the foolish yielding of women—not of the attainment of gain by discreditable means—not any nastiness of appetite— not any harshness of officers to men, or judges to prisoners, or fathers to sons, or sons to fathers, or of husbands to wives, or bosses to their boys—not of greedy looks or malignant wishes—nor any of the wiles practised by people upon themselves—ever is or ever can be stamped on the programme, but it is duly realised and returned, and that returned in further performances, and they returned again. Nor can the push of charity or personal force ever be anything else than the profoundest reason, whether it bring arguments to hand or no. No specification is necessary—to add or subtract or divide is in vain. Little or big, learned or unlearned, white or black, legal or illegal, sick or well, from the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous and benevolent and clean is so much sure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe and through the whole scope of it for ever. If the savage or felon is wise, it is well—if the greatest poet or savant is wise, it is simply the same—if the President or chief justice is wise, it is the same—if the young mechanic or farmer is wise, it is no more or less. The interest will come round—all will come round. All the best actions of war and peace—all help given to relatives and strangers, and the poor and old and sorrowful, and young children and widows and the sick, and to all shunned persons—all furtherance of fugitives and of the escape of slaves—all the self-denial that stood steady and aloof on wrecks, and saw others take the seats of the boats—all offering of substance or life for the good old cause, or for a friend's sake or opinion's sake—all pains of enthusiasts scoffed at by their neighbours—all the vast sweet love and precious suffering of mothers—all honest men baffled in strifes recorded or unrecorded—all the grandeur and good of the few ancient nations whose fragments of annals we inherit—and all the good of the hundreds of far mightier and more ancient nations unknown to us by name or date or location—all that was ever manfully begun, whether it succeeded or no—all that has at any time been well suggested out of the divine heart of man, or by the divinity of his mouth, or by the shaping of his great hands—and all that is well thought or done this day on any part of the surface of the globe, or on any of the wandering stars or fixed stars by those there as we are here—or that is henceforth to be well thought or done by you, whoever you are, or by any one—these singly and wholly inured at their time, and inured now, and will inure always, to the identities from which they sprung or shall spring. Did you guess any of them lived only its moment? The world does not so exist— no parts, palpable or impalpable, so exist—no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coining a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.... Whatever satisfies the soul is truth. The prudence of the greatest poet answers at last the craving and glut of the soul, is not contemptuous of less ways of prudence if they conform to its ways, puts off nothing, permits no let-up for its own case or any case, has no particular Sabbath or judgment-day, divides not the living from the dead or the righteous from the unrighteous, is satisfied with the present, matches every thought or act by its correlative, knows no possible forgiveness or deputed atonement—knows that the young man who composedly perilled his life and lost it has done exceeding well for himself, while the man who has not perilled his life, and retains it to old age in riches and ease, has perhaps achieved nothing for himself worth mentioning—and that only that person has no great prudence to learn who has learnt to prefer long-lived things, and favours body and soul the same, and perceives the indirect assuredly following the direct, and what evil or good he does leaping onward and waiting to meet him again—and who in his spirit in any emergency whatever neither hurries nor avoids death.
The direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet is to-day. If he does not flood himself with the immediate age as with vast oceanic tides— and if he does not attract his own land body and soul to himself, and hang on its neck with incomparable love—and if he be not himself the age transfigured—and if to him is not opened the eternity which gives similitude to all periods and locations and processes and animate and inanimate forms, and which is the bond of time, and rises up from its inconceivable vagueness and infiniteness in the swimming shape of to-day, and is held by the ductile anchors of life, and makes the present spot the passage from what was to what shall be, and commits itself to the representation of this wave of an hour, and this one of the sixty beautiful children of the wave—let him merge in the general run and wait his development.... Still, the final test of poems or any character or work remains. The prescient poet projects himself centuries ahead, and judges performer or performance after the changes of time. Does it live through them? Does it still hold on untired? Will the same style, and the direction of genius to similar points, be satisfactory now? Has no new discovery in science, or arrival at superior planes of thought and judgment and behaviour, fixed him or his so that either can be looked down upon? Have the marches of tens and hundreds and thousands of years made willing detours to the right hand and the left hand for his sake? Is he beloved long and long after he is buried? Does the young man think often of him? and the young woman think often of him? and do the middle-aged and the old think of him?