Edmond Gore Alexander Holmes.

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

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There is good-fellowship as well as "honour"
"among thieves;" and the members of swindling
gangs and plundering "trusts," of the Tammany
and other corrupt municipal " Rings," of the
Mania and other secret assassination societies,
are bound together by the closest ties of
comradeship. The end, the purpose is every
thing ; the mere fact of co-operation is nothing.
A band of comrades may be a band of heroes ;
but they need not be anything better than a
pack of ravenous wolves.

To misunderstand the nature of love is to
misconceive of the mission of Woman. N othing
is so characteristic of Whitman s philosophy as
the ignoble (not to say bestial) part that Woman
plays in it. When she is not ignored, which is
her usual fate, she is degraded and insulted.
The maternal aspect of womanhood has indeed
been glorified by Whitman, and the strong love
that he felt for his own mother was (strange to


say !) not unmingled with reverence. But though
he proclaims himself the poet of " amativeness "
and " animality," he does not even profess to be
the poet of sexual love. Comradeship, which is
his substitute for love, seems to be an essentially
masculine institution. Comradeship among
women, or between men and women, does not
seem to be contemplated. Again and again love
reveals itself to him as the solver of problems,
the remover of doubts, the healer of wounds ;
but whenever this happens, the object of his love
is a man, not a woman. Woman, as Whitman
conceives of her, is the object of an animal pas
sion on the part of man, and her sole function is
to bear and rear children. With this end in view
it is desirable that she should be a fine, healthy
animal, the human equivalent of a prize brood
mare. She is to be muscular, brawny, supple,
strong, and above all arrogant. Arrogance,
the negation of humility and modesty, the most
unfeminine of qualities, is her ideal characteristic.
The spiritual role of Woman, the softening, re
fining and elevating influence that she exercises
through the medium of love, is entirely ignored.
There is surely something amiss with a philo
sophy which does such scant justice to half the
human race. The brawny, arrogant, brood-mare
woman is the reductio ad absurdum of Whit
man s conception of love.


We can now see that the outward growth
of a tree which has lost its " leader" and can
no longer grow upward, is, even as outward
growth, incomplete, unsymmetrical and unlovely.
Sympathy, without aspiration, however vast and
elemental it may be, cannot reach, cannot even
begin to reach, the " soul of things," which is
ever escaping from us, as we strive to clasp it,
through the multitudinous meshes of the actual.
Love, when divorced from reverence and adora
tion, sinks either to the level of comradeship
(which may mean nothing more than com
panionship in evil) or of animal passion. In
either case it ceases to be love.

So much as to what Whitman has failed
to do. Let us now ask ourselves what he has
succeeded in doing. We have seen that what
is characteristic of his personality is its combin
ation of extreme emotionalness with extreme
self-consciousness, and that what is characteristic
of his philosophy is its combination of exuberant
optimism with an ardent belief in the democratic
ideal of universal equality. These combina
tions of incongruous forces produce explosives
of extraordinary strength. The former com
bination tends, as we have already seen, to
make a chaos of Whitman s own thoughts and
feelings. The latter tends, as we shall now see,


to make a chaos of the world which he loves so

Every poet is at heart an optimist, but no
poet s heart was ever so full of the vibrating
quasi-physical energy of joy as Whitman s.
" Who has been happiest?" he cries out in one
of his raptures, "O I think it is I I think no
one was ever happier than I. ... And
who has made hymns for the earth ? For
I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make
hymns for the whole earth." Splendid as
this joy is, there is something that it lacks.
" Devouring ecstasies " are apt to be short
lived. If the tissue of our joy is to last,
some threads of sadness must be woven into
it. The optimism that underlies all true
poetry is compounded of joy in the actual
and faith in the ideal ; but, as the ideal is ever
tending to disparage the actual, there is always
something of spiritual revolt, something of noble
discontent in the poet s heart. His function is to
find delight in the actual on account of the ideal
beauty that glows through it, and at the same
time to protest, in the name of the ideal beauty
which has not yet revealed itself, against what
ever claims to authority and finality the actual
order of things may seem to advance. But
Whitman s fervent belief in universal equality
forbids him to draw distinctions in Nature, and


the flood of his joy must flow impartially round
every existent thing.

There is however one fatal drawback to
this all-embracing optimism. The heart that
finds joy in everything is in imminent peril of
finding joy in nothing. If all things are equally
wonderful and glorious, is there any reason why
we should call anything wonderful or glorious ?
These words suggest excellence, pre-eminence,
supremacy ; if this is not their meaning they
are wholly meaningless. In a world in which
there is " not a single imperfection," the primary
distinction between good and evil inevitably
vanishes. Whitman sees this clearly enough,
and does not shrink from stating it. " Good or
evil," he exclaims, " I do not question you I
love all I do not condemn anything." " What
is called good is perfect, and what is called evil
is just as perfect." " I make the poem of evil
also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself
just as much evil as good, and my nation is
and I say there is in fact no evil." But if good
and evil are interchangeable terms, if evil
equally with good is " perfect," it is surely
immaterial which term we apply to things. One
whose temperament is joyous will call the
whole world good ; one whose temperament
is gloomy will call the whole world evil ;
and the optimism of the former is not a whit

more reasonable than the pessimism of the

The truth is that such words as good and
evil are correlative terms, each of which postu
lates the other, and has no meaning apart from
it. To say that everything is good is exactly
the same as to say that everything is evil. To
say that everything is beautiful is exactly the
same as to say that everything is ugly. If
Caesar Borgia is as good as St. Francis of
Assisi, it is an insult to St. Francis to revere
his goodness. If Thersites is as beautiful as
Adonis, it is an insult to Adonis to admire his
beauty. The doctrine of equality would speedily
reduce any community that tried to practise it
to a state of chaos. It would do the same to
the Universe. Organisation is of the essence
of life ; and organisation implies subordination
of means to ends, and of parts (through an in
finite gradation of means and ends) to the central
purpose of the whole. Evolution has been de
fined as a movement " from loose incoherent
homogeneity to close coherent heterogeneity,"
in ether words, from an infinity of similars and
equals to an organic whole. The idea of uni
versal equality makes at last for pure atomism.
(I am assuming that atoms are all similar and
equal ; but I am told that even they repudiate
the doctrine of universal equality.) Serious

criticism of such a doctrine is out of place. Our
author is playing fast and loose with language ;
in other words he is deliberately ignoring the
laws and properties of the material that he uses.
Behind the wild and bewildering word-jugglery
in which he indulges we see one thing and one
only, namely that his optimism is vainly strug
gling to bring itself into harmony with his faith
in equality.

The end of this struggle is, I repeat, chaos.
Good and evil, beauty and ugliness, pleasure
and pain, joy and sorrow, play the part in the
world of human life or (to use a word which will
cover both outward and inward Nature) in the
Cosmos, which light and darkness, with all the
gradations of colour, play in the material uni
verse. Imagine an outward world in which
light were the same as darkness, and you get
some idea of what the Cosmos would be like if
good and evil were interchangeable terms. The
antitheses of soul and body, of spirit and matter,
are of course as unreal in Whitman s eyes as
that of good and evil. The soul is the body.
" Behold the body includes and is the main
meaning^ the main concern, and includes and is
the soul." The spiritual is the material. " The
poems of materials " are " the most spiritual
poems." The universe is being uncreated, dis
integrated before our very eyes. Well may


Whitman sigh " for a world primal again." He
is doing his best to realise his desire. And
well may another poet remind us that

" It takes the ideal to blow a hair s breadth off
The dust of the actual."

Nature is either a chaos or an organic whole.
If it is an organic whole, there must needs be
something in it which is both central and su
preme, some paramount end to which all its
parts (in their infinite gradation and complexity)
are subordinated, and for the sake of which they
live and work. Withdraw the conception of
what is central and supreme, of what claims our
reverence, our devotion, and our desire, with
draw the master thread of the ideal, and the
fabric of Nature unweaves itself with startling
rapidity, and the Cosmos transforms itself into
a Chaos.

It is by cancelling the category of the beau
tiful that Whitman s political bias does most
harm both to his poetry and to his philosophy.
In a world in which every detail is divinely
beautiful there can be no such thing as beauty.
Whitman s optimistic belief that the world is
beautiful is one with which we can all sympa
thise. Faith in the intrinsic loveliness of Nature
is indeed one of the strongest and surest sources
of poetic inspiration. But this faith is the out-


come of prophetic hope as well as of actual
experience. One element in it (and that the
most essential) is the poet s undying conviction
that the real loveliness of Nature has not un
veiled itself to him, and never will. If he should
ever come to believe that what he saw and felt
was the whole of Nature s beauty, the light that
gladdens him would be eclipsed, and the joy
that inspires him would be changed to despair.
In his heart of hearts, in the depths of his buried
life, Whitman knows this better than most of us ;
but the despotism of the doctrine of equality
compels him to ascribe to each detail of Nature
the divine attributes of the totality of things,
and therefore to see the perfection of beauty in
each material thing. Had he been less of a
thinker and more of an artist, he would have
stopped short of this impossible conclusion.
But if we may say, as perhaps we may, that in
every poetic nature there are two principal ele
ments, the prophetic and the artistic, we must,
I think, admit that in Whitman the prophet (or
emotional thinker) completely overshadows the
artist. Not that his heart is dead, or even
.callous, to the influence of beauty. Far from it.
His sensitive and sympathetic nature is keenly
alive to the profound and subtle charms of out
ward Nature ; and whenever his emotions are
so strongly quickened by what he sees and hears


as to be able to swamp his self-consciousness,
he shows himself to be a word-painter (in the
larger sense of the word) of extraordinary power
and skill. But he has neither the patience nor
the self-forgetfulness of the true artist. His re
action on his experiences is, as a rule, immediate
and intentional. The true artist is inexhaustibly
receptive, but also inexhaustibly patient. He
is well content that the feelings which his expe
riences generate should go through a period,
perhaps a long period, of spiritual gestation.
He takes for granted that they know their own
ideal worth far better than he does, or rather
that there is some one master feeling among
them the feeling after ideal beauty which
knows the respective values of all the rest, and
which may therefore be trusted to sift and group
them until it has given artistic form to such
among them as really deserve artistic treat
ment. On one point he is clear. He will not
reproduce his experiences, be their period of
gestation short or long, until by some secret
process (a process which belongs to the organic
chemistry of the soul) they have begun to as
sume a beautiful form. Then the more con
scious side of his spirit will act as their midwife
and help to bring them to the birth. A vividly
self-conscious nature, like Whitman s, is, as a
rule, incapable of this masterly inactivity, this

far-seeing self-restraint. He must needs take
the control of his feelings, and the consequent
reproduction of his experiences, into his own
hands, the result being that the Muse, the spirit
of beauty, deserts him when he needs her most.
For example. There is nothing in Nature
more beautiful (when it happens to be beautiful)
than the human form, for in it the veil that
hides the " soul of things " is thinnest and most
luminous ; but just because it is supremely
beautiful, and because unity the unity that
spirit confers on all that it animates is of its
essence, the great masters have always been
extremely reticent in their description of human
beauty, and have always scrupulously abstained
from enumerating its details. A profoundly
artistic instinct has made them follow Lessing s
wise advice. " Poets, paint for us the pleasure,
the inclination, the love, the rapture, which
beauty causes, and you have painted beauty
itself! " They have felt that the best, the only
way, to paint human beauty is to make the
reader enter sympathetically into the feeling
that beauty kindles, love. But when Whitman
wishes to communicate to us his poetic delight
in the human form, he must needs give us a
long list of the component parts, outward and
inward, of the human frame. Here are some
of them.


* Strong shoulders, manly beard , scapulas, hind-shoulders,
and the ample side-round of the chest,

Upper arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-
sinews, arm-bones,

Wrist and wrist -joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb,
forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,

Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast
bone, breast-side," (&c. &c.)

This is not poetry, but elementary anatomy.
An anatomist who knew his business could give
us an equally artistic and much more exhaus
tive list. What would be thought of the painter
who, instead of depicting the human body in
the beauty of its spiritual unity, instead of
making us forget all about its parts and think
only of the living whole, inflicted upon us, in a
series of sketches, the contents of a medical (or
anatomical) museum ?

There is no spontaneous overflow of emotion
in these wearisome catalogues. They are deli
berately drawn up in obedience to a quasi-
philosophical theory. As Whitman sees the
whole of Humanity in each individual man, so
he sees the whole of Nature in each individual
thing ; and he seriously believes that in crowd
ing his pages with lists of material things he is
representing Reality in all its splendour and
beauty. The form of his poetry has to adapt
itself to this conception of Nature and of Art. I
have elsewhere pointed out that if he is to give


utterance to all the feelings that reveal them
selves in the fierce light of his extreme self-
consciousness, if he is to pour them all out as he
feels or seems to feel them, he must free himself
from the trammels of rhyme and metre. There
is another reason, as we can now see, why he
should discard all conventional restrictions. If
poetry is to be used for purposes which are
frankly, arid even grossly, prosaic, its outward
form must be able and ready to sink, at a
moment s notice, to the level of ordinary prose.
Whitman s " recitative " admirably fulfils this
requirement. At its best it is singularly
impressive. There are certain inexpressible
feelings large, stormy, dreamy feelings that
can never quite come to the birth which it
expresses (if I may be allowed the paradox)
with marvellous power and effect. For this
particular purpose it has no rival. Indeed, after
reading some of Whitman s inspired passages, I
feel for the moment as if all forms of metrical
verse were by comparison cold, tame, and formal.
But there is no other medium of expression in
which the transition from poetry to prose is so
rapidly or so easily made. Sometimes we find
ourselves in the middle of plain, inoffensive
prose without quite knowing how we got there.
Sometimes there is a sudden descent from lofty
heights to ignominious depths. Sometimes a


momentary plunge into the commonplace or the
grotesque mars the movement of an otherwise
beautiful passage. But through all its ups and
downs the form of Whitman s poetry suits
itself admirably to the matter or rather to the
spirit. The want of harmony and rhythm is
quite as much inward as outward. A chaotic
philosophy a philosophy which does its best to
give back to the "void and formless Infinite"
all that Time has won from it is fitly mirrored
in a formless outward form.*

What developments would Whitman s
philosophy undergo if its influence were to
make itself widely felt ? In other words, to
what practical conclusions is it likely to lead us ?
I do not know what place Whitman holds in
the estimation of his fellow-countrymen, t In

* Whitman is well aware that the form of his poetry
is formless. See " Spirit that form d this scene " p. 89.
of this volume.

I I am told that Whitman, like other prophets, has
little or no honour in his own country. As he has offered
his fellow-countrymen the sweet incense of sincere but
extravagant flattery, one wonders at first why they have
refused to accept him. But perhaps it is the very
extravagance of his flattery that has hardened their
hearts against him. He is never weary of telling them
that their social and political condition is potentially, if
not actually, perfect ; and it may well be that some

this country his audience, though small, is select;
but his admirers are for the most part men who
either take a semi-dilettantist interest in the
originality of his thought and the eccentricities
of his style or are genuinely captivated by his
passionate sympathy with his fellow men and
with outward Nature. Popular he certainly is
not, and is not likely to become. But the circle
of his influence might conceivably widen as time
went on ; and it is therefore well to consider
to what extent and in what directions his con
ceptions are calculated to affect the spiritual
development of Humanity.

Whitman glorified and deified the average
man. Did he ever ask himself what the aver
age man would make of his poetry ? He teaches
the average man that he is as good as God,
and therefore a fortiori as good as the best and
greatest of his fellow men. He forbids him to
look upward. He warns him against humility
and all the feelings that are in any degree akin
to it, obedience, reverence, adoration, awe.
Now every man instinctively loves himself, and

deep-seated instinct of spiritual self-preservation, some
secret resolve to keep open at all costs their communica
tions with their ideal, has forbidden them to lay this too
flattering unction to their souls, and has induced them to
reject the poet (in spite of the genuineness of his poetry)
who has ministered so prodigally to their self-esteem,

51 E 2

every man instinctively desires to be worthy of
his own self-love ; but not every man desires to
make himself worthy of his self-love. For the
real object of self-love is the true or ideal self;
and it is only by a life of self-development
and self-expansion that this higher self can be
found. To lead such a life (with all the
toil and self-sacrifice which it involves) makes
a demand upon us which few are ready to
meet ; and so the average man spends his
days in trying to cheat himself into the be
lief that his average self is worthy of his
self-love.* So long as this process of self-
deception is incomplete so long as some secret
uneasiness, some feeling of discontent with self,
some power of self-criticism, remains there is
hope for the man ; but when the love which
belongs to his ideal self has been wholly and
finally transferred to the average self, the
spiritual growth of the man has been arrested
and his soul has begun to die. That being so,
the worst service that can be rendered to any
man is to persuade him that he is actually divine.
What kind of a self is it that Whitman
invites us to deify? Is it the average self, or
is it something even lower than this? The

* Hence his undue regard for the judgment of his
fellow men, whose good opinion he is all too ready to
accept as a guarantee of his own intrinsic worth.

doctrine of universal equality abases Man exactly
as much as it exalts him ; for if it raises him to
the level of God, it also lowers him to the level
of the animals. As the most animal of men is,
presumably, on a level with the most spiritual,
it is clear that animality as such is in no way
inferior to humanity as such. Far from shrink
ing from this paradoxical conclusion, Whitman
accepts it and even goes beyond it. The
animals are to be preferred to jnen in that they
have no sense either of imperfection or of shame.

" They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to

God." *

* It will be said that such passages as this embody
a reaction from the extreme of self-abasement, and a
protest against hypocrisy and cant. No doubt they do ;
but the protest is overdone, and the reaction goes too far.
When a poet becomes polemical, he exposes himself to
serious criticism ; and when he flagrantly overstates his
case and then adopts his overstatement as his gospel,
it is but reasonable that his doctrines should be dealt
with on their own merits and without regard to their
antecedents. If it is a mistake to tell men that they are
all " miserable sinners," it is not less of a mistake to tell
them that they are all " incredible Gods." Would it not
be nearer the truth to say, with Browning, that each of
us is " a God, though in the germ " ?


They "never once skulk or find themselves
indecent." Herodotus tells of certain barbarous
tribes who "like the beasts" were entirely des
titute of shame. (//,/ tv TOVTCOV rcuv dv0p(t)Tra)V ewai
/A<f>avea [X^yerat] Kardirep Toicri TrpojBaToio-i,.) The
words "like the beasts" are, as he uses them,
expressive of extreme degradation. In Whit
man s mouth they would, I imagine, express
sympathetic approval. The Massagetae were
certainly free from the "meanness" of "skulk
ing and finding themselves indecent," and they
seem to have been as " heroically nude " in their
habits as Whitman himself was in his thought
and speech. But whatever Whitman might
have thought of the Massagetae, it is clear that
he admired the animals on account of their
Massage tsean propensities ; and the " average
man," who can scarcely be expected to see the
deeper meaning of his master s poetry, may well
be pardoned if, after listening to his laudation
of the animals and of all that is animal in human
nature, he interprets his message to Mankind
as a proclamation that the life of free, healthy
animality is the true life of man. Whitman s
substitution of impulse for duty of the fitful
gusts of Nature s breath for the steady pressure
of her higher life would naturally point to the
same conclusion. So would his degradation of
love the soul-transfiguring passion of love to


comradeship on the one hand and to animal
desire on the other.

But the life of free, healthy animality would
content the average man only so long as he
remained a free, healthy animal. When those
days were over he would begin to look about
him for other sources of happiness. And though
he had been taught that all men are equal and
that he was as good as the best of men, he could
not fail to see (the facts would be too strong for
any theory to prevail against them) that in one
respect at least men are hopelessly unequal,
namely in the distribution of this world s goods.
He could not fail to see that in democratic
societies, which have abandoned other standards
of worth, the power of wealth is greater than

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Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWalt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection → online text (page 3 of 7)