Edmond Gore Alexander Holmes.

Walt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection online

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is a verbal problem which I will not attempt to
solve ; but that life (both physical and spiritual)
is capable of development^ and that in the course
of its development it passes through innumer-


able phases and stages, is a truth too obvious
to need demonstration. But if it is a truth, the
psychology that underlies Whitman s " sovereign
dogma" is false. All men are equal because
all men have souls; but in respect of their souls
men are all unequal, being all in different stages
of spiritual development. It follows that the
universal equality on which Whitman lays so
much stress is potential, not actual. All men
are equal and all men are divine because, though
all men are unequal and no man is divine, the
chief source of their inequality is also the chief
source of their manhood and the surest proof of
their kinship to God ;-for what is common to
alLjnen, and -therefore of the inmost essence of
human nature, is not the " average " FutTthe
germ of theddeal and the ideaL_is._dhdne,

Thus it is only from the standpoint of the
ideal that we can see a meaning in Whitman s
master theory. But the theory itself, as ex
pounded by Whitman in his poetry, is at open
feud with the ideal and with all that the pursuit
of an ideal involves. If all men are actually
equal, it is clear that there are certain qualities
of our complex nature which have no right to
exist. Humility, reverence, adoration, aspira
tion, what function do these fulfil if one man
is as good as another and if " there is no God
any more divine" than one s individual self?


Whitman sees clearly enough that if there Is
nothing ideal in human nature, Jth ere can be
nothing~13eal above human nature^ and th_ere-
fore that, if all men_are_jsqual, each .man_jn
turn _ js_an "incredible God/ The idealistic
conception of the potential equality of all men is
an argument in support of his favourite paradox
which he would certainly disdain to use. For it is
the presence, in an embryonic state, of the ideal
self in our hearts that convicts us of imperfec
tion and inclines us to humility ; and humility
is, in Whitman s eyes, the first and last of
human vices. It is strange, to say the least,
that one who is bound by the charter of his
very idiosyncrasy to tolerate all things, and
who certainly tolerates many things that are
commonly accounted evil, should be intolerant
of humility and all the feelings that are akin to
it, should be intolerant, in other words, of one
great natural phenomenon, of the struggle of
the soul to lift itself above itself in the direction
of its inward and spiritual ideal.

Whitman s hatred of humility will have far-
reaching consequences. It will compel him at

last to

avert his ken
From half of human fate.

The function of the Poet is to liberate the
human spirit, to free it from the control of its


narrower and more sordid self, by enabling it,
in each individual case, to escape through the
channel of disinterested emotion into the larger
life of Humanity and of Nature. Hence it is that
joy is of the essence of poetic genius. _ Pessimism
_is_always self-centred. Despair is the darkness
_jQ.f a self-regarding and self-imprisoned soul.
But joyjn its. purest form is an ecstasy, a trans
porting of the soul beyond Jts wonted ._ limits.;
and its presejice is a proof that the soul is trying
to outgrow ___ itself . ?ind_..ha.s. already won some
..measure i__of .._._freedom._ As Whitman s heart
overflows, with exultant joy, it is certain that his
will be a liberating influence, that he will work
with energy and enthusiasm for the emancipation
of the human spirit. But in what direction will
his influence exert itself? Through what outlet
will he pour his soul (and help us to pour our
souls) abroad ?

It will be easy for us to find an answer to
this question. In the act of escaping from its
narrower self, the soul necessarily expands its
being. Escape from self, emancipation of self,
and expansion of self are in fact interchangeable
terms. And in the case of a living thing
expansion always takes the form of growth.
The Poet helps us to grow. This is the most
concise account that we can give of his mission.
Intensely alive himself, he is ever tending to


vitalise us ; and the proof of vitality is con
tinuous growth. Now the growth of the soul,
if it is to be harmonious and complete, should
resemble that of a stately tree ; in other words
it should be both ^lp^vard and ontivard. The
tree that develops itself under perfectly favour
able conditions grows upward by means of its
aspiring " leader " and outward by means of its
innumerable branches ; and these two processes
are not merely contemporaneous but propor
tioned to and in a manner dependent on one
another. When trees are planted close together,
their struggle for light and air carries them up
to great heights, but they put forth very few
branches. Such trees are unsymmetrical and
imperfect. Their development is one-sided,
upward but not outward. When a tree has
been " pollarded " when its " leader " has been
excised it throws great energy into its lateral
growth, but its upward growth is entirely
arrested. Like the branchless giant, the pol
larded tree is unsymmetrical and imperfect.
Its development is one-sided, outward but not

It is the same with the growth of the soul.
Growth, whatever form it may assume, is always
the outward and visible sign of an inward and
invisible force. In the case of the soul this
inward and invisible force is love. Now love


is of two kinds, or rather it energises in two
principal directions. On the one hand there is
love of the ideal, the love that lifts us above
ourselves, the love that humbles us even while
it exalts us, the love that is partly compounded
of reverence and that looks in the direction of
worship. We call this upward^ mpvement^gf
On the other hand, there is

love of the actual, the love that carries us outside
^ourselves, the love that neither humbles us nor
exalts us, the love that makes us regard all things.
as^oujL kith and Jan. _ We call this outward
movement of love, sympathy. In the soul that
is growing as it ought to grow harmoniously
and symmetrically both kinds of love are strong
and active, and neither is allowed to develop
itself to the exclusion or even to the detriment
of the other.

Even on its more human and personal side
love presents this dual aspect. Thus on the
one hand we have the passionate love of another
human soul, the love that is ever tending to
idealise its object, the love that is not truly
love until it has begun to transform itself into
adoration. And on the other hand we have
comradeship, the love of one s fellow men as
one s companions and equals, the love of each
man as he actually is. There ought to be room
in the same heart for both these movements of

love. Indeed it may be doubted if either love
has found its true self until it has begun to
assimilate itself to the other. It may be doubted
if the lover love s his mistress perfectly until he
has learned to love all men for her sake ; and it
may be doubted if the philanthropist loves his
fellow men perfectly until he has learned to look
up, with an adoring love, to the common ideal
of Humanity.

It is easy to see in which direction Whit
man s emancipating influence will exert itself.
His political prejudices will forbid him to look

What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a

hundred ways

But that man or woman is as good as God,
And that there is no God any more divine than

This is no random utterance. It is in strict
accordance with the general tenor of his teaching.
To tell Man that he has attained to absolute
perfection (the words "as good as God" mean
this or they mean nothing) is to discredit and
discountenance the latent idealism of his heart.
Whitman s sincere hatred of humility will
make him impatient of spiritual aspiration
and incapable of understanding the passion
of adoring love. Debarred by one of his
strongest convictions from trying to rise above


himself, and yet impelled by his poetic nature
to try to escape from himself, he will seek the
outlet of outward growth, he will become the J
Poet Laureate _ of sympathy and comradeship. \
And because the outlet of upward growth is
closed against him, and because he is by nature
intense and vehement beyond measure, he will
throw himself with extraordinary force and
energy into the work of outward growth ;
though his leader" has been excised, or rather
because his leader has been excised, he will
put forth innumerable branches and a most
luxuriant growth of twigs and leaves.

The_desire to escape from self, which is of
the essence of the poetic nature, has its counter
part in a_.dsjre to merge one s being in the life
of the Universe_j(regarded as a living whole),
tcPbecome one with the very "soul of things."
This "soul of things" is in us quite as much
as it is outside us, and so far as it is in us it is
the object of aspiration and adoring love. For
Whitman it is outside, in Time and Space,
in the average man, in the animal world, in
inanimate nature. To become one with all
these, to merge his being in theirs, to clasp them
to his heart, to absorb them into himself is
the master passion of his life. Towards the end
of a poem on the music of Nature and of Art
(" Proud Music of the Storm") he exclaims


" Give me to hold all sounds (I madly struggling cry),
Fill me with all the voices of the universe,
Endow me with their throbbings, Nature s also,
The tempests, waters, winds, operas and chants,

marches and dances,
Utter, pour in, for I would take them all ! "

This wish comes straight from Whitman s heart,
and is typical of his general attitude towards
Nature. It is not to sounds only that the words
"For I would take them all" refer, but to all
existent things. The "soul of things" for him
is not behind the veil of what is outward and
visible : it does not even burn through the veil :
it is the veil and the veil is it. When a poet
is at once passionately optimistic and bitterly
hostile to spiritual idealism, he has no choice
but to deify the actual ; and this Whitman does
with all the energy of his nature. His faith in
equality follows him wherever he goes. To
apply the corresponding conception to man only
would be both illogical and unnatural. The
Universe is a vast democracy. All things in it
are equal and each thing is divine. He tells us
that " all the things in the Universe are perfect
miracles, each as profound as any ; " that the
" minutest thing upon the earth " is perfect, and
that he "does not see one imperfection in the
Universe." As all things are equally perfect,
as he cannot discriminate among them, he must


identify himself with each thing in turn, till he
has exhausted the Universe and made it all his
own. This is the explanation of those tedious
catalogues, often of sordid and unlovely things,
which are so repugnant to one s artistic sense.
Whitman is trying to make an inventory of the
contents of the Universe, so that he may make
us understand what he really is. "O lands"
he cries "all so dear to me, what you are,
whatever it is, I putting it at random in these
songs, become a part of that, whatever it is "
(he then proceeds to identify himself with gulls,
herons, king-birds, wild geese, the moose, &c.)
" Nativities, climates, the grass of the great
Pastoral plains, cities, labors, death, animals,
products, war, good and evil, these me." He is
the "hounded slave," the "wounded person," the
" mashed fireman," the " handcuffed mutineer,"
the "cholera patient," and so forth. His lateral
growth, now that his inconvenient "leader" has
been excised, is indeed enormous. Each detail
of the outward life is sacred in his eyes, glorious,
wonderful, divine. He longs to make it his
own, to give himself to it, to unite its being
with his. Well may he go into raptures over
the "vast elemental sympathy which only the
human soul is capable of generating and emitting
in steady and limitless floods !" "Vast elemental
sympathy" with all outward things, animate


and inanimate, and (in particular) a feeling of
impassioned comradeship with all his fellow-
men, these are the dominant emotions that
overflow into his verse. It is to be hoped that
they will continue to come forth in " steady and
limitless floods," for there is evidently much
work for them to do. What gives them their
peculiar character is that they are not modified,
even in the faintest degree, by aspiration, by
spiritual love. The divorce between the ideal
and the actual is complete in Whitman s mind.
The glory, the splendour, the divinity, which
we instinctively ascribe to the ideal, he transfers
or tries to transfer to every detail of the actual.
Frankest and most consistent of Eaiithei&ts, he
deifies Nature, not in her totality, not in the
unity of her infinite life, but in all the minutiae
of her phenomenal existence.

But does this vast overflow of elemental
sympathy bring him any nearer to the "soul of
things?" I think not. If each detail of the
actual is really divine, the " soul of things " is
ready to his hand, and he need not range over
the whole Universe in quest of it. But if it is
not to be found in the first detail that he meets,
it is not to be found in a billion details, and the
attempt to catalogue the contents of the Uni
verse had better be abandoned as futile. The
"soul of things " is the soul of Nature, and


Nature is " not an aggregate but a whole." A
whole and a living whole, a living, growing,
organic whole. As such it is like the tree to
which I have likened the human soul. How
ever vast may be its lateral expansion, still
through all the breadth and complexity of its
growth it aspires upward (by means of its
central leader), and the highest point that it
attains is, as regards the totality of its being,
both central and supreme. He does not see
Nature as she really is who cannot look upward
towards that ideal height; but in order to look
upward one must be able to look inward, for
the higher life of this living whole which we
call Nature is (humanly speaking) in the spirit
of man, and reveals itself to man s spiritual
senses. It will perhaps be said that this con
ception justifies Whitman s deification of hu
manity. But then he expressly deifies the
"average man," the actual self; and it is
not in the actual but in the ideal self that
the "soul of things," so far as it is inward
and spiritual, has its appointed home. In
deed, if choice had to be made between up
ward and outward growth, it would be better
for us to choose the former ; for it offers us a
direct, though interminable, road to our goal,
whereas if we follow the road of outward growth,
for its own sake alone, we run the risk of losing


ourselves in a labyrinth. But we are never
called upon to make this fatal choice. In the
life of Nature the two movements are not two,
but one. It is the whole tree the soaring stem,
with its immense outgrowth of branches that
is ever struggling upward through the central
leader. Aspiration, when divorced from sym
pathy, is aspiration no longer, but a refined form
of selfishness ; and sympathy, when divorced
from aspiration, is sympathy no longer, but the
mere overflow of animal " high spirits." Each
mode of growth has need of the other; and love
has need of both.

Is it through sympathy alone that we make
our way to the soul of outward things, the soul
of inanimate Nature ? No, for the soul of
things, as it burns through the veil of outward
Nature, reveals itself to us under the guise of
beauty ; and beauty always presents itself to
the heart that discerns it as an unrealised ideal,
as a vision which lures one onward, as the
object of aspiring love. Nor is it with the eye
alone that the lover of outward Nature sees the
beauty of what he admires (if it were, beauty
would be as palpable as colour) but with an
inward and spiritual sense by means of which
his soul looks through his eyes, just as the soul
of outward things looks through the veil of what
is visible, and makes it luminous and beautiful.

It is an outrage on common sense to say that
each detail of the material universe is divine,
glorious, beautiful, wonderful, perfect. Con
sidered as details, very few of the things that
lie around us are beautiful, and many of them
are sordid and even repulsive. The details of
outward nature must be grouped into artistic
wholes, if their hidden beauty is to become
manifest, and this work of grouping must be
done by the percipient eye under the guidance
of the spirit s dream of ideal beauty. So need
ful is it that the outward movement of the soul
should be supported at every turn by the upward
(or inward) movement ; and so useless is it to
seek for the soul of things in the chaotic multi
plicity of the actual !

I am trying to show that Whitman s pas
sionate desire to merge his being in that of the
Universe is thwarted by his refusal to look up
ward, and by his consequent inability to use the
outlet of upward growth. The exuberance of
his outward growth avails him nothing. The
tree that continues to grow upward has in reality
a larger and more harmonious outward growth
than the tree that has sacrificed its " leader " in
order that it may throw all its expansive energy
into the development of its branches. Until
Whitman can bring himself to look upward, he
will be blind to the ideal side of Nature ; and

until he can idealise the actual, instead of ac
cepting and deifying its actuality, the " soul of
things " (though he follow it through a million
details) will continue to elude him. The man
who can say that there will never be any more
perfection than there is now has fatally miscon
ceived of Nature, whose being is essentially a
life, and whose life expresses itself in eternal

If Whitman s "vast elemental sympathy"
is an inadequate outlet for the soul that desires
to escape from self, if even its "steady and limit
less floods " are unable to bring him into oneness
with the "soul of things," what will his sense
of comradeship the more human side of his
vast sympathy do for him? For Whitman
the man it will no doubt do much. Indeed, if
we may accept his own account of himself, it
will do everything. Of Whitman s life it is
impossible to speak except in terms of reveren
tial admiration. And no doubt he would tell
us that it was the sense of comradeship and
nothing more that made him, through the dark
and weary years of the great Civil War, the
friend, the nurse, and the consoler of thousands
of wounded and dying men. But I must be
allowed to believe that he was inspired by a
deeper and more spiritual emotion than this.
We shall presently see that, in defiance of his

political and social theories, he was at heart
(after a fashion of his own) an ardent idealist ;*
and I cannot but think that there was a strong
strain of idealism in the sympathy that made
him do so much, at so great a cost to himself,
for his fellow men.

But we need not pause to discuss this ques
tion. It is with the Whitman of the " vision
and the faculty divine " that we are now con
cerned, not with the Whitman of the Civil War.
For the latter comradeship is a motive to action.
For the former it is a faith, a dream, a spiritual
idea. What is the value of this new religion
which Whitman is commissioned to reveal ? Is
the Gospel of Comradeship an adequate substi
tute for, or an adequate interpretation of, the
Gospel of Love ? It is as such that Whitman
preaches it. Of the higher and more spiritual
movements of love he knows nothing. The
passion of adoring love such a love as a man
might feel for a high-souled woman he does
not understand and is content to ignore. The
reason of this is that some strain of reverence
always enters into such a passion. When two

* We must always draw a distinction between
Whitman the self-conscious thinker and Whitman the
spontaneous poet. While the former is deifying the
actual, the latter is, unknown to himself, dreaming of the
ideal ; and sooner or later he will become conscious of
his dream.


human beings love one another perfectly, they
do not love as equals. Each looks up to the
other. For though each loves, and passionately
loves, the actual self of the other, his love is not
limited to this. Love, which is the greatest of
all seers and initiators, gradually unveils to the
lover s eyes the beloved one s ideal self ; and as
this higher and purer beauty begins to dawn
upon him, something of reverence and adoration
begins to weave itself into his love. We laugh
at love for idealising its object ; but love is wiser
than we are. By idealising its object it both
proves the continuance of its own growth and
tests the sincerity of its passion. An unworthy
passion cannot idealise ; a misdirected passion
withers away when the test of idealisation is
applied to it. But the love that survives the
test, that grows stronger the more ardently it
idealises its object, is, we may be sure, making a
not wholly unsuccessful effort to see the Beloved
as she really is. Whitman does not understand
this. Whenever love is compounded in any
degree of reverence, whenever it ascends to
wards an ideal, whenever it is in the least akin
to adoration, it passes beyond his comprehen
sion and beyond his sympathy. Here, as else
where, the baneful influence of his politics makes
itself felt. The soul that adores has committed
the unpardonable offence of looking upward.


If men are to love one another, they must love
as equals, in other words as comrades. Whit
man s faith in comradeship is boundless. To
teach men this new form of love is his self-
imposed mission.

" I will sing the song of companionship
I write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love
For who but I should be the poet of comrades ? "
Comradeship is to regenerate the human race.

" Come, I will make this continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the world ever

shone upon.

I will make divine magnetic lands
With the love of comrades,
With the lifelong love of comrades."

What is this new force which is to work these
miracles? One has heard of the "enthusiasm
of Humanity," and one sometimes meets with
persons who seem to be consumed with love
for their fellow men. But the " enthusiasm
of Humanity" is really love of the ideal of
Humanity ; an ideal which is of the inmost
essence of human nature and therefore poten
tially existent even in the basest of men ; and it
will be found that they love their fellow men
best whose faith in the ideal is so strong that


D 2

they see some glow of its light in every human
face. This however cannot be the love of
comrades, for Whitman will have no commerce
with the inward ideal. If we cannot love the
actual average man for his own actual aver
age sake, we have not been initiated into the
mysteries of comradeship. But how are we to
compel ourselves to love him if, as a matter of
fact, he does not happen to attract us? If we
love him before we know him, we are idealising
him, loving him for the sake of the ideal nature
that is in him and yet not of him. Whitman
would, I presume, have us love the actual
average man at sight, but it is in the highest
degree unlikely that we shall find ourselves
able to do so. The truth of the matter is that
the sense of comradeship, when divorced from
love of the ideal, is unworthy of the sacred
name of love.* At best it is a feeling of being

* It is probable that in Whitman s " buried life "
the sense of comradeship is never wholly divorced
from love of the ideal. What he loves in each of his
innumerable " comrades " is undoubtedly that common
element which he miscalls the " average." I have else
where suggested that the " average " is really the
" promise and potency" of the ideal. This explanation
of Whitman s theory of universal equality would account
for his glorification of comradeship quite as readily as
for his deification of the " average man." But the
explanation is one which Whitman himself would, of
course, disown.


hail-fellow-well-met with the first man you meet,
of being ready to like him and lend him a help
ing hand. Such a feeling, however worthy it
may be, will not carry us very far, and may
well carry us in the wrong direction. Experience
has amply proved that comradeship which is not
based on pursuit of a common ideal, comrade
ship which is wholly divorced from reverence, is
apt to degenerate into companionship in evil.

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Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWalt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection → online text (page 2 of 7)