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WALT WHITMAN S POETRY
A STUDY & A SELECTION



By the Same Auihov

THE SILENCE OF LOVE

Fifth Thousand

WHAT is POETRY? AN ESSAY



WALT WHITMAN S POETRY
A STUDY & A SELECTION



BY

EDMOND HOLMES



JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD
LONDON & NEW YORK MDCCCCII



Printed by

Richard Folkard & Son,
Devonshire Street, London, W.C.



LIST OF SELECTIONS.



PAGE



In Cabin d Ships at Sea 81

From the " Song of Myself" - - 82

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances 83

Not Heat Flames Up and Consumes 84

Soon Shall the Winter s Foil be Here - - 84

Warbles for Lilac-Time 85

O Magnet-South 86

To a Locomotive in Winter 88

Spirit that Form d this Scene 89

Cavalry Crossing a Ford 9X3

Bivouac on a Mountain Side -..-. - 90

By the Bivouac s Fitful Flame 91

Lo, Victress on the Peaks - 91

Reconciliation 92

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom d 92

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking 102

Tears 109

To the Man-of- War-Bird no

Patrolling Barnegat - - - in



284102



With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea! 112

From Montauk Point 112

Proudly the Flood Comes In 113

Had I the Choice -113

By that Long Scan of Waves 114

Halcyon Days 114

A Prairie Sunset 115

Whispers of Heavenly Death 115

Assurances 116

Night on the Prairies 117

A Clear Midnight - - 118

Death s Valley - 118

Passage to India 119

That Music Always Round Me 130

The Unexpress d 131

A Riddle Song 131



WALT WHITMAN S POETRY



WHENEVER I find that an imaginative writer is
either idolised or derided, I always assume, before
I begin to study him, that he has a very strong
personality, and that the right attitude towards
him is (in all probability) one neither of blind
enthusiasm nor of angry ridicule, but of warm
admiration, tempered by intermittent antipathy.
It was under the influence of this conviction
that I first began to study Walt Whitman,
the best loved and best hated of modern poets ;
and though in literature, as in other matters,
one s assumptions are apt to dominate one s
experience, I think I can honestly say that in
this particular case my experience fully verified
my assumptions. For, long before I had finished
that extraordinary work (poem I cannot call it),
the Song of Myself, I felt that I was face to
face with an abnormally vivid and aggressive
personality by which I was alternately, not to



say simultaneously, fascinated and repelled.
Had Whitman been a lesser man, I should have
read his poetry, admired its beauties, laughed
at its eccentricities, shuddered at its crudities,
and then laid the book aside and gone on to
something else. But the very fact that his per
sonality seemed to be ever wrestling with and
striving to impose itself upon mine, made me
determine at all costs to understand him, to
discover the secret sources of his poetry, to
wrest from him the key to his heart and mind.

There are many ways in which we may
set to work to interpret an author in whom we
happen to be interested. The best way is, I
think, to study his writings, half-attentively,
half-broodingly, until some of the more salient
of their characteristics have detached themselves
from the rest and impressed themselves strongly
on our minds, such characteristics, let us say,
as are bound to disclose themselves, sooner or
later, to every thoughtful reader. Using these
as our base of operations, we may then advance
inferentially into the unknown country which
we wish to explore, taking care to secure our
communications as we proceed, by verifying
from our author s writings every conclusion that
we reach. We must beware (let me say in
passing) of allowing ourselves to be deluded
by the semblance of logic which our work of



research will inevitably wear. The movement
of a poet s thought and feeling is always more
or less circular, its starting-post and its goal
being that primary attitude towards " things-in-
general " which constitutes his idiosyncrasy in
the region of his inner life. The different
characteristics of his mind, so far as it reveals
itself in his poetry, are all vitally interconnected;
and though we find it convenient and even
necessary to regard one of these as cause and
others as effects, we know well enough (or at
any rate we ought to know) that this is a mere
matter of notation, and that what we are really
trying to do is to show that a secret and quasi-
organic logic gives unity and coherence to the
whole of the poet s work.

To determine the leading characteristics
of a strong personality like Whitman s is a
comparatively easy task. f It is impossible to
read Whitman s poetry with any degree of
attention without seeing clearly that he is
intensely emotional, intensely self -conscious > in
tensely optimistic and intensely American. )
These are his most prominent characteristics ;
and so entirely do they dominate the movement
of his poetic life, that there is nothing in his
poetry no beauty, no eccentricity, no height of
wisdom, no depth of folly which they cannot
help us to understand and account for.





Whitman s emotionalness is thanks to his
self-consciousness only too apparent. Other
poets are compelled by their artistic instinct to
impose on themselves some measure of reserve
and self-restraint ; but Whitman seems almost
to glory in " wearing his heart upon his sleeve,"
in unveiling all its wounds aad weaknesses, all
its passions and sympathies, to his own gaze
and to ours. Everything that he has written
is the overflow of strong feeling, and is to that
extent worthy of the sacred name of poetry.
The most beautiful, because the most sincere
and spontaneous, of all his writings is (as it
seems to me) a poem which he has named after
its first line "Out of the cradle endlessly
rocking," but to which he might well have given
the title of " Love and Death." From first to
last this poem thrills and glows with profound
and passionate emotion ; and I cannot imagine
anyone reading it without feeling that its author
had been endowed with no ordinary measure of
true poetic fire.

When I say that Whitman is self-conscious,
I do not merely mean that he is very fond of
using the pronoun,/. Many a poet has spoken
much about himself and yet been naively
unconscious. The Hebrew prophet is ever
obtruding his personality upon us ; but he
regards himself as the mouthpiece of the Lord,



and is not conscious of anything about himself
except that the Divine afflatus has taken
possession of him and that he is overshadowed
by the Most High. Whitman s egoism is of a
different type from this. He is self-conscious
in the fullest sense of the word. He turns the
light of a strong consciousness on all that he
thinks, on all that he feels, on all that he does,
on all that he is. He is conscious of his own
personality, conscious of his mission, conscious of
his aims, conscious of his methods, conscious
of his ideas, conscious of his theories, conscious
of his very formulae. He introduces himself to
us as

" Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and
breeding, &c.

The Hebrew prophet is content to tell us that
"the word of the Lord came to him." In his
own eyes he is nothing, and the word of the
Lord is everything.

Whitman s optimism is of the best and 1
most lasting kind, being no mere theory or
conviction but the direct outcome of physical
and spiritual joy. The saying "out of the
abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh " is
pre-eminently applicable to the Poet ; and it is
with joy, first and foremost, that Whitman s
heart overflows. He has indeed his fleeting






Y



moments of doubts and despondency ; but,
taken as a whole, his poetry is a veritable paean,
a song of thanksgiving and triumph. Here
again he shows himself to be a true poet ; for
the fountain-head of poetry is perception of
the half-hidden beauty of Nature, and beauty
must needs generate joy in all who are able to
discern it.

The flood of Whitman s optimism flows in
many channels, but in none more strongly or
more permanently than in the channel of his
Americanism, his enthusiastic faith in the social
and political constitution of the United States.

Having defined the leading characteristics
of Whitman s poetic personality, let us now try
to forecast their practical consequences ; let us
ask ourselves to what extent and in what direc
tions they are likely to affect the development
of Whitman s poetic genius.

The combination of intense emotionalness
with intense self-consciousness is very rare and
is sure to produce remarkable results. The
self-conscious poet is naturally disposed to take
himself very seriously and to think that all his
feelings are worth recording. Poetry has been
well defined as the " spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings." That the overflow should
be spontaneous is quite as important as that the



feelings should be powerful. The self-conscious
poet imagines that he has full control over the
fire-springs of his heart. If his feelings happen
to overflow, well and good. If not, he will
deliberately pump them up and pour them out.
When this happens, when he takes into his own
hands a work which he ought to leave to the
Muse, the chances are that feeling of the wrong
sort, feeling which is not genuinely poetical,
will find its way into his verse.

For, to begin with, in his desire to give
expression to all his feelings, the self-conscious
poet is apt to go very far afield. Everyone
who has ever communed with his own heart
knows well that it is haunted by strange and
obscure feelings, some transient, others more or
less permanent, vaporous feelings which now
and again condense into evanescent flakes of
cloud, but which remain for the most part
(like a thin haze on a summer s day) formless,
indeterminate and almost imperceptible. That
these feelings are genuine will be admitted by
all who have ever experienced them ; and some
of us will even affirm that for passing moments
they are intensely vivid and real. But those
who are most familiar with them will be the
first to insist that words cannot do justice to
them, and that they cannot be communicated to
other minds. It does not follow that they are




meaningless. They are symptomatic of real
movements of our inner being; and it may well
be that they give us hints and suggestions to
which our inner life owes much. It is clear
then that they cannot be ignored ; and as it is
equally clear that they cannot be adequately
expressed, common sense seems to demand
that he who experiences them should keep
them to himself, in the belief that, if they are
really worth expressing, they will eventually, in
the natural course of their development, win
expression for themselves. But this is what a
self-conscious poet, like Whitman, cannot bring
himself to do. He is the last man in the world
to consume his own smoke. He insists on
communicating to us every wisp and speck of
emotion, and he even tries to put us in posses
sion of all that floating haze of feeling, out of
which, if it has any meaning, his desires and
passions, his thoughts and fancies are being
gradually shaped. In his attempt to do this,
the outward form of his poetry is sure to suffer :
for if all his feelings are to be accurately
expressed, his medium of expression must, as
far as possible, be free from trammels and
restrictions ; in other words, it must be quite
lawless and even formless. It is not so much
inability to write metrical and musical verse
that constrains Whitman to adopt his favourite

8



recitative (if that is its correct title) as desire for
perfect freedom. He forgets that the freedom
which is not strong enough to submit to the
control of law is not really free, that it is ever
tending to degenerate into unbridled license.
Were he to adopt a harmonious and beautiful
form for his poetry, his obscurer feelings, in
their attempts to adapt themselves to it, would
either disappear from view or be entirely
transformed. One of the advantages of artis
tic form in poetry is that it makes for reserve
and self-control. The poet has to keep back
part of what he feels ; and this intensifies the
effect of what he says. His readers feel that
there is much behind his words, and their own
sympathetic imagination is stimulated by his
reticence. Another advantage of artistic form is
that it compels the poet to introduce (of course
more or less unconsciously) order and harmony
into the seething melee of his obscurer feelings,
and so lifts those feelings above the level of
mere potentiality by giving them formative
centres round which they may rally and re
organise their scattered forces.

It is, I suppose, vain to wish that a great
man had been other than he actually was,
or even to speculate on what he might have
been had he chosen to develop himself in this
direction rather than that. Still I cannot but



think that Whitman s deeper and larger feelings
would have done themselves more justice than
his words have done them had they been
compelled to express themselves in a beautiful
form ; that they would have revealed themselves
more clearly and more truly than they do now
had they been freed from all that medley of
grotesque fancies, from all those rags and tatters
of chaotic passion, from which Whitman, in the
excess of his self-consciousness, is unable to
dissociate them. Also, I cannot but think that
through the half-sensuous, half-spiritual emotion
which charm of rhythm and metre is sure to
kindle, he would have awakened feelings akin to
his own in many hearts which must ever remain
beyond the reach of his influence.

The self-conscious poet thinks that all his
feelings are worth recording. But if he finds
that in trying to record them he has taken upon
himself a task which " exceeds man s might,"
if he finds that he must discriminate amongst
them, he will as far as possible superintend this
work himself. He will not allow his feelings
to sift and organise themselves as they would
do, if he were less of a thinker and more of an
artist, under the control and guidance of the
feeling which ought to be paramount in his
heart, the love of and desire for ideal beauty.
He takes (or imagines that he takes) the control



10



of his inner life into his own hands, and
deliberately tries to interpret himself to his
fellow men. In making this attempt there are
at least two directions in which he is liable to go
astray. As the searchlight of his consciousness
falls on his inner life, he realises that the play of
his strongest passions is far removed from those
correct and conventional feelings which consti
tute the emotional life of so many excellent souls ;
and this sense of aloofness from the world of
tradition and routine fills him with a desire to
break loose from restraints of every sort, and
start afresh.

" O to escape utterly from others anchors
and holds ! " exclaims Whitman :

" O something pernicious and dread !
Something far away from a puny and pious life !
Something unproved ! Something in a trance !
Something escaped from the anchorage and driving
free."

This desire is one with which every poetical
nature does and must sympathise : for the poet,
with the vision of ideal beauty floating before
his inward eye, is always in a state of partial
revolt against what is established and accepted, \>
and is always striving to liberate himself and us
from the despotism of custom and convention.
But it is possible for this desire for a new start
and a new life to be carried too far ; and the



1 1



self-conscious poet is of all men the most likely
to carry it too far, for in becoming aware of it
he instinctively throws the whole weight of his
consciousness on its side, supporting it with all
the forces of thought and feeling that are in any
degree under his control. Whitman s desire to
"escape utterly from others anchors and holds"
will carry him very far : it will lead him to sigh
for a " world primal again," and do his best to
realise his dream : it will lead him to strip off
from himself all those garments which Nature
herself has woven through myriads of years,
the delicacy, the reserve, the reticence, the self-
control with which civilised men veil from one
another their grosser and more animal souls :
it will lead him at last to perpetrate strange
outrages always with the best of intentions
and in no spirit of prurience or even of coarse
ness on decency, on good taste and (last but
not least) on the common sense of Humanity.

This then is one way in which the self-
conscious poet will sift and arrange his feelings.
He will reject as unworthy of attention all the
feelings that seem to range themselves on the
side of what is established and accepted, and
will attach undue importance to those that are
struggling to escape from their anchorage and
drive free. But this is not the only way.
The self-conscious mind is always liable to



12



be dominated by theories of various kinds,
political, social, aesthetic, metaphysical, and so
forth : and the man who combines a self-
conscious mind with a passionate heart will hold
his theories, whatever they may be, not lightly,
as a more frivolous man might do; not half-
jestingly, as a man with a keen sense of humour
might do ; not " notionally," as a mere theorist
might do ; but with the whole-hearted earnest
ness of an intense and enthusiastic nature. It is
easy to see that when such a man tries to interpret
his own deeper and obscurer feelings, he will
be tempted to read into them the theory that
dominates his mind, and (if he happens to be a
poet) to make this theory, rather than his dream
of ideal beauty, the presiding genius of his poetic
life. No more fatal step could possibly be taken.
Social and political prejudices are things of to
day. They come and go. Beauty and the
pursuit of beauty are eternal. The poetry that
is composed under the influence of a theory is
charged from its very birth with the germs of
decay and death.

Now it happens, most unfortunately as I
must think, that Whitman brings to the inter
pretation of his deeper feelings a politico-social
theory which he holds with all the strength of
his ardent temperament. A theory I call it,
but it is far more than a mere theory. It is a







fervent conviction that Democracy (as exem- ]
plified in the social and political constitution of I,
the United States) is an ideal form of govern
ment and an ideal state of society. Whitman s
faith in Democracy is touching in its naivete.
Here is one expression of it.

" I was looking a long while for Intentions,
For a clew to the history of the past for myself and for
those chants and now I have found it.

It is in Democracy (the purport and aim of all the
past)."

" Sancta Simplicitas!" one may well mur
mur when one reads such words as these. Is
this indeed the final cause of all things ? The
Multi-millionaire, the worship of the Almighty
Dollar, the Wheat Corner, the Ice Trust, the
Tammany Ring and all its congeners, is the
system that has borne such fruits as these (let
its achievements in other directions be what
they may) the veritable end and aim of human
progress ?

I am not going to discuss the merits and
demerits of Democracy. I have a sincere admi
ration for the political constitution of the United
States, but I cannot think that wisdom said its
last word when that constitution was framed.
I have a sincere admiration for the people of
the United States, but I cannot think (and I am



sure they do not think) that their social condition
is within measurable distance of perfection.
Feudalism had its work to do and did it.
Democracy has its work to do and will do it.
Systems come and go, but the ideal of the soul
remains. Some, day, perhaps, we shall have
a higher Feudalism, in which wisdom (in the
Platonic sense of the world) will be the supreme
authority, and love a love which is near of kin
to reverence will be the only fountain of force.
And in that golden age we shall perhaps look
back to Democracy with the pity (though not,
I hope, with the contempt) with which the
whole-hearted Democrat looks back to the
Feudalism of Mediaeval Europe.

But be that as it will. One thing is clear,
namely: that the politico-social ideal, like every
other ideal, is unattainable, and that the poet
who regards Democracy or any other form of
government as the reXo? reXeiorarov of "all the
past," is guilty of treason to his Muse, who
dwells in his heart as a vision of ideal beauty,
and who will assuredly cease to inspire him if
he allows himself to accept as final any achieve
ment of the spirit of man.

Let us now ask ourselves how Whitman s
politico-social prejudices are likely to affect his
poetry. The cardinal doctrine of Democracy



is that all men are equal. Whitman pushes this
doctrine to its extreme limits, and follows it out
into all its consequences. His deification of
the " average man" is of course, mathematically
speaking, absurd. An average is struck among
unequals, not among equals. If all things were
equal, the notion of an average would never
have been generated. But though Whitman,
having adopted a technical term, has delibe
rately ignored its technical meaning, to criticise
his poetry from a mathematical standpoint would
scarcely be fair and would certainly be futile.
An " average " is an entirely different thing from
a "common factor;" but whenever Whitman
uses the former term it is quite clear (from the
context) that he is intending to use the latter,
that he has in his mind some "common factor"
of man s being, some common element in human
nature, the possession of which lifts the lowest
of men to the level of the highest.

O

What is this common element in human
nature which Whitman apostrophises as divine ?
For an answer to this question we must turn
to Whitman s prose works. One of the many
objections to theorising in poetry is that the poet
cannot, as a poet, even begin to do justice to
his theories. For theories need to be first ex
pounded, and then supported with arguments ;
and there is no place either for exposition

16



(properly so called) or for argument in poetry.
A great poet who happens also to be a great
artist (perhaps no poet is truly great who is
not also a great artist) may be able by some
" heavenly alchemy " to transmute a philoso
phical theory into a spiritual idea ; and having
done this he may be able to bring it home to
our hearts by illustration, by suggestion, by the
revelation of it in gleams and flashes, by the
prismatic decomposition of its abstract light.
But a poet, like Whitman, whose artistic
instincts are as weak as his poetic emotions
are strong, must present a theory to us in its
abstract nakedness or not at all. In other
words, since explanation and argument are for
bidden to him, he must give us a crude one-sided
statement of the theory by which his mind may
happen to be dominated, and then champion
this naked and inadequate formula with all the
zeal and vehemence of a prophet. Or, if he
does attempt to illustrate his theory, he will
draw outrageously paradoxical inferences from
it and submit these to us as self-evident truths.
When one has vainly tried to come to terms
with Whitman s doctrine of the " divine aver
age " and universal equality, as expounded in
Leaves of Grass, and then turned to the prose
essay called Democratic Vistas, in which he
handles the same theme (an essay, let me say

17 c



in passing, which is the work of a chaotic
thinker and incoherent writer), one cannot but
feel that the prose exposition, with all its faults,
is by many degrees more lucid than the poetical.
At any rate it is sufficiently lucid to enable
one to criticise its author s philosophy. In
a remarkable passage in Democratic Vistas
Whitman tells us that democracy is to do for
mankind in the socio-political field what Christ
did for it " in the moral-spiritual field," namely
to convince it that " in respect to the absolute
soul there is in the possession of such by each
single individual something so transcendent, so
incapable of gradations (like life), that, to that
extent it places all beings on a common level,
utterly regardless of the distinctions of intellect,
virtue, station or any height or lowliness what
ever." There is a deep truth in this sentence ;
but it is vitiated, in all its depth, by a subtle
error. The words that I have emphasised are
all-important, for they show that the doctrine
of universal equality is based (in Whitman s
mind) on the assumption that spiritual life, like
physical, is " incapable of gradations. " Whether
physical life is or is not "capable of gradations"


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Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWalt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection → online text (page 1 of 7)