Edmond Gore Alexander Holmes.

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

. (page 4 of 7)
Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWalt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection → online text (page 4 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

elsewhere ; and the very fact that his own mind
had been freed from the taint of feudalism, with
its prejudices in favour of birth, position, tradi
tion, education, honour and other such " idols,"
would make him the more susceptible of the
attractive influence of " great possessions," and
the more ready to pay homage to financial and
commercial success. The pursuit of wealth
might engross his mind for a time ; but sooner
or later, as the shadows lengthened, he would
find himself meditating half-unconsciously on
" great matters " which he had hitherto been
content to ignore, on the meaning of existence,


on the problem of reality, on the destiny of the
soul. When that day came, what guidance
would he get from his teacher? He would
learn that " the body is the main concern, that
it includes and is the soul," that material things
are the real things of the spirit, that material
occupations (hog-slaughtering and the like)
are " realities " and "poems ;" and though these
doctrines might seem to justify both his early
life of animality and his subsequent pursuit of
wealth,* they would infallibly lead him the
average man to one dark conclusion, namely
that death is the end of life. Nor would he be
able to assimilate the consolation which Whit
man s poetry, as distinguished from his philo
sophy, offers him so freely. He would see
nothing in Whitman s exultant joy but the over
flow of animal spirits ; and animal spirits, as he
knows from experience, are largely dependent
on youth and health. As for Whitman s faith
in death as the larger life, and in the soul as the
subjective side of the Universe, these mystical
conceptions would not only be beyond his com-

* For which (let me hasten to add) Whitman would
have been the first to despise him. The material,
objective side of the pursuit of wealth might well have
been glorified by the author of "A Song for Occupa
tions ; " but the " mania of owning things " is one with
which he had no sympathy.


prehension, but, so far as he could comprehend
them, they would seem to him incompatible with
the general tenour of his master s teaching. I
doubt if Whitman will ever become a popular
or even a semi-popular author ; but if his
influence were to diffuse itself widely, if the
average man were to accept so much of his
philosophy as the average man is able to under
stand, I think that a great wave of materialism,
with all that materialism implies sensuality,
Mammon-worship, selfishness, hardness, vul
garity, cynicism, pessimism would sweep over
human life.

But Whitman s own life will never be sub
merged by that soul-destroying wave. No
deluge can reach the sunlit heights of his
soaring joy. For his joy (the joy of his inmost
soul, not the impossible optimism which his
political theories postulate) is joy in the fullest
sense of that sacred word : it is compounded of
hope and faith as well as of delight in the actual ;
and hope and faith will come to his rescue when
delight, pure and simple, fails him. Sooner or
later, delight, pure and simple, will fail him.
Whitman, the apostle of universal equality, may
flatter himself that all things are equally perfect
and all men equally divine ; but Whitman, the
poet the seer, the discerner of reality knows


well enough that his other self is imagining a
vain thing. For Whitman, like everyone else,
is what he is, not what he professes to be, not
even what he believes himself to be. Deep
below the surface movement of his thought
flows the real current of his poetic life,

" The central stream of what he feels indeed."

He sees he cannot fail to see that there is
wickedness and misery and injustice in human
life ; and, now and again, breaking through his
very raptures,

" There sobs I know not what ground-tone
Of human agony."

(It is because, in defiance of his theories, this
thread of sadness is woven into its tissue, that
the joy of his inmost soul is imperishable).
Here is one significant passage

"I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world,

and upon all oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish

with themselves, remorseful after deeds dope,
I see in low life the mother misused by her children,

dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the

treacherous seducer of young women,
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love

attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see

martyrs and prisoners,


I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting

lots who shall be kill d to preserve the lives of

the rest,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arro

gant persons upon labourers, the poor, and upon

negroes, and the like ;
All these all the meanness and agony without end I

sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent."

He is silent ; but he will speak at last. In
another poem he passes in review a succession
of human faces. Some of these are miserable
and repulsive ; but he tells them .that they can
not "trick" him, that he sees what is behind
their "haggard and mean disguises."

" I saw the face of the most smear d and slobbering

idiot they had at the asylum,

And I knew for my consolation what they knew not,
I knew of the agents that emptied and broke my

The same wait to clear the rubbish from the fallen


And I shall look again in a score or two of ages,
And I shall meet the real landlord, perfect and un-

harm d, every inch as good as myself."

Yet he knows full well that these unhappy faces
will never change for the better on this side of
the grave. What then is the solution of this
terrible problem ? If these evil faces are ever


to be redeemed, their redemption must be
effected by the divine grace of Death.

Here we come to the " sovereign dogma "
of Whitman s deeper philosophy, the cardinal
faith on which the joy of his heart is hinged.
Uncompromising realist that he is, he sees
clearly enough that death is one of Nature s
central facts, a fact too which seems to give
the lie to his optimism, to bar its further pro
gress, to turn its triumphant advance into a
disastrous retreat. If the joy of his heart is to
lead him to final victory, he must recognise that
death is the key to Nature s fortress, that as such
it can neither be masked nor outflanked, and
that if he is not to retire from it in confusion he
must storm its terrible stronghold. And storm
it he does with all the passionate energy of his
vehement nature. He is not content to ac
quiesce in death, to speculate about it, to hope
the best from it. He sees the futility of half-
measures. He must " rush " the heights of
death with the force and elan of unconquerable
joy. He must find a deeper joyjn death_t^an
in anything else in Nature. He. must " glorify
it.aboy_e_all ;" he must " chant for it a chant of
fullest welcome." These chants of welcome
abound in his poems. He offers praise for " the
fathomless universe, for life and joy, for love,"
but threefold praise


" For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death."
He joyously sings the dead,

" Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death."

Death is the " purport of all life," the " opener
and usherer to the heavenly mansion." " Life
cannot exhibit all " to him : he must wait for
the " exquisite transition," for the " superb
vistas" of death. Life does not provide for
all, but " Heavenly Death provides for all."
What," he asks, "is finally beautiful except
love and death ? "

So sure, so steadfast, so triumphant is his
faith in the " strong deliveress," that whatever
is symbolical of her has a peculiar fascination
for him. His sympathy with outward Nature
in all her moods and aspects is extraordinarily
subtle, deep, and strong. But there is one
thing in her life with which he seems to have a
two-fold measure of sympathy, a sympathy
which gives him insight into its very soul, just
as love gives us insight into the soul of a friend.
That one thing is the sea. The sea, vast, ubi
quitous, all-embracing, unfathomable, myste
rious the sea with its loneliness, its dumbness,
its might, its majesty, its profound repose is
for him the very symbol (the very embodiment,


one might almost say) of death ; and his love of
the sea is the very counterpart of his love of

What makes his attitude towards death the
more significant is the fact that he had bent
over more death beds than any man perhaps has
ever done. While ministering to the sick and
wounded soldiers of the Federal and Confede
rate armies, he saw many thousands of souls
pass behind the veil of death ; and I needs must
think that for his intensely sensitive and sym
pathetic nature the veil became strangely lumi
nous, so that his love of death was in some sort
the outcome of an actual experience, shadowy
indeed and intangible, but transcendently real.
It sometimes happens that the loss of a dear
friend generates in one s breast an entirely new
feeling which, while it lasts, cancels and even
laughs to scorn one s instinctive fear of death ;
and it is not unreasonable to suppose that in
Whitman s case the loss of thousands of dear
friends (for every wounded soldier was his be
loved comrade) gave both permanence and
intensity to this emancipative feeling, which for
most of us (if experienced at all) is transient
and all too easily effaced.

The philosophy that takes possession of
Whitman s mind when his political prejudices
are swamped by the spontaneous overflow of


his profounder emotions, is as true as it is deep.
Of the weaving of philosophical systems there
is no end, but in point of fact there are only
three philosophies, optimism, pessimism, and
indifference. The optimist the man who has
made up his mind that light, not darkness, is at
the heart of Nature ought always to have the
courage of his opinions, for if he is half-hearted
he breaks the rules of his own game. What
ever theories, whatever beliefs, whatever appa
rent experiences are at war with his paramount
conviction, he will, if he is wise, either repudiate
or ignore. Whitman, whose whole nature is
vehement and intense, is, as might be expected,
the most thoroughgoing of optimists. He sees,
as we all see, that misery and injustice dis
figure, or seem to disfigure, the fair face of
Nature. He feels, as we all feel, that death
casts, or seems to cast, a dark and ever-
deepening shadow on human life. These feel
ings are the stock-in-trade of every pessimist.
Whitman cancels both of them at one stroke by
his bold assumption that death, instead of being
the crowning evil of existence, that death itself
is the healer of all wounds, the redresser of all
injustices, the righter of all wrongs. Here is
one of many passages in which he expresses
this conviction :

" I do not doubt that the passionately- wept deaths of


young men are provided for, and that the deaths
of young women and the deaths of little children
are provided for, . . .

I do not doubt that wrecks at sea, no matter what the
horrors of them, no matter whose wife, child, hus
band, father, lover, has gone down, are provided
for, to the minutest points, . . .

I do not think Life provides for all and for Time and
Space, but I believe Heavenly Death provides
for all."

This assumption is fraught with momen
tous consequences. The soul that is " included
in the body " necessarily dies in the hour of
death ; and the soul that dies in the hour of
death is (obviously) a mere function of the
body, in other words, as soul it is non-existent.
But the soul that escapes into the larger world
of death assimilates itself to its new environ
ment and expands its being up to the illimitable
limits of existence. The language that Whitman
uses about the soul is certainly perplexing and
self-contradictory ; but whenever the deeper
philosophy of his heart asserts itself, his psycho
logy undergoes a singular change. Instead of
identifying the soul with the body, he sends it
abroad till it becomes conterminous with the
Universe. The fact that he is ever trying to
identify himself with all existent things, shows
that the soul, as he conceives of it, far from
being " included " in the body or anything else
is well able to

" Centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell."

In one poem indeed the beautiful and mystical
"Passage to India" he speaks of the soul as
creative, in the fullest sense of the word.

Thou transcendent,
Nameless, the fibre and the breath,

Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre
of them,

Thou pulse thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastnesses of space,
How should I think, how breathe a single breath, how
speak, if, out of myself,

1 could not launch, to those, superior universes ?

Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,

At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,

But that I, turning, call to thee, O soul, thou actual Me,

And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,

Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,

And fillest, swellest full the Vastnesses of Space.

As Whitman s conception of the soul
widens, his attitude towards the actual and the
ideal undergoes a corresponding change. The
infinite possibilities of death begin to disparage
the actualities of life. The latter are still
conceived of as wonderful and glorious ; but
Whitman feels that there are wonders beyond
their wonder and glories beyond their glory ;

6 5 F

and a quenchless thirst for the ideal begins to
take possession of his soul. Not that he will
ever look above himself, or sink into himself, in
his quest of this unattainable goal. Reverence
is and always will be entirely foreign to his
temperament ; and the idea of finding himself
by losing himself, of pruning his nature in order
that it may bear fruit more abundantly, is one
which he will never entertain. But with these
limitations (for limitations they certainly are) he
is one of the most audacious and adventurous
of idealists. To be in love with death is to be
in love with all the mystery and infinitude of
Nature ; and such a love both stimulates a
man s desires and hopes, and provides them
with a boundless field for the play of their
energies. Death, for Whitman, is the be
ginning of an endless voyage. While this life
lasts we are in harbour preparing for our
journey. When death comes we weigh anchor
and set sail.

" Joy, shipmate, joy !
(Pleas d to my soul at death I cry,)
Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps !
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy, shipmate, joy."

The sea is as mysterious as it is boundless, and


the course of the ship is uncertain ; but her
goings are in safe hands, and the harbour that
she makes for is ideal good.

" They go ! They go ! I know that they go, but I know

not where they go,

But I know that they go toward the best toward
something great."

The harbour will never be reached. The goal
is unattainable. Whitman, the politician, may
regard Democracy as the final solution of the
political problem, and the America of to-day as
the final end of existence ; but Whitman, the
poet, knows that failure is the very soul of

" This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look d at

the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of

those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in

them, shall we be fill d and satisfied then ?
And my spirit said, No, we but level that lift to pass and

continue beyond"

11 Have the past struggles succeeded ?

What has succeeded ? yourself ? your nation ? Nature ?

Now understand me well it is provided in the essence
of things that from any fruition of success, no matter
what, shall come forth something to make a greater
struggle necessary."

When we read such words as these, we begin
to think that the poet has emancipated himself

67 F 2

from the false control of the politician. But no :
the emancipation will never be complete. Whit
man s political theories are the outcome of
earnest conviction, and they will control and
direct the very efforts that his deeper nature
makes to free itself from their influence. Just
as he tries to find his soul by making it fill all
the spaces and all the ages, rather than by
making it forget its lower self and burn upward
towards its own ideal purity, so his movement
towards " the best " is always outward and
onward, never inward and upward. His false
assumption that all the strata of existence are
equally divine and glorious discountenances, as
a theory, the very idealism which, as an emotion,
as a sentiment of unconquerable joy, it is ever
tending to generate ; for if the actual is really
perfect, why should we ever weigh anchor and
quit its harbour ? Lover of death that Whitman
is, he ought to know that death is the chief
instrument of Nature s progressive regenera
tion ; that the "soul of things " is re-incarnated
again and again ; that life is ever preparing the
way for death, and death for birth into a purer
ether and a wider world. The truth is (but it is
a truth which Whitman will never consciously
learn) that reverence and humility, far from
being repugnant to Nature, are the very breath
of her higher life ; that it is because she is


always discontented with herself, and alway
looking upward, that she is able to work out he
salvation by rising continuously

" On stepping stones
Of her dead selves to higher things."

Whitman tries hard to persuade himself that
there are no distinctions in Nature, that all
things are equally perfect and absolutely divine ;
but his heart is wiser than his mind, and the
optimism which found its earlier expression in
the fatal conception of universal equality, saves
itself from premature extinction by changing, in
defiance of his theories, into the desire for and
pursuit of ideal good. And this desire and this
pursuit mean, if they have any meaning, that
there are distinctions in Nature; that contrast,
not to say conflict, is the law of her being; that,
far from being everywhere and at all times
perfect, she is everywhere and at all times pass
ing through phases of change and stages of
development which are incompatible with per
fection, lifting herself above herself, disowning
her own earlier efforts, forgetting the things
that are behind, transforming herself in fine
through every fibre of her existence from
chaos to order, from discord to harmony, from
the lower and narrower to the higher and wider


While we protest against Whitman s fatal
deification of the actual, let us be thankful that
the joy of his heart which caused that premature
outburst of exultation was strong enough to
break loose from the theories in which he strove
to imprison it and to lead him, unknown to
himself, to the conception of infinite progress
towards an unattainable goal. Ideal perfection,
ideal beauty, ideal good, it matters little by
which name we call that goal so long as we
realise that it is in its very essence unattainable;
that every achievement, so far as it is an
achievement, has missed its mark ; that the
path of progress is the path of continuous
failure ; but that failure, if only (in all humility]
we will accept it as such, is the prelude to
triumphant success. Let us be thankful that
Whitman has inflamed our hearts (as in his I
inspired moods he has surely done) with some
thing of his own deep-seated desire for the ideal,
that he has awakened in us a restless longing
" to escape from our anchorage and drive free."
For this service the greatest that man can
render to man we may well forget the short
comings of the creed that he professed ; and
when he calls to us to heave anchor and start
on our great voyage, we may well answer him
with his own cry of hope and triumph, "Joy,
shipmate, joy." The very shortcomings of his


formal creed the lawlessness and irreverence
that threaten at last to unweave the whole tissue
of human progress, by freeing us from the
despotism of custom and convention, may have
helped to beget in us that large discontent, that
restlessness after we know not what," which
predisposes the soul to daring adventures. In
any case the spirit, the inner meaning, of his
creed is sublimely grand and true. For the
essence of his esoteric teaching is, that the
unattainable, the inexpressible " that which
eludes this verse and every verse" is the
"real of the real."

" Haply God s riddle it, so vague and yet so certain,
The soul for it, and all the visible universe for it,
And heaven at last for it."

Were I to try to sum up in a few words
the impression that Whitman s poetry has made
upon me, I should say that, consciously and
theoretically, he is the poet of democratic
equality, and therefore of chaos ; that uncon
sciously, and in spite of himself, he is the poet
of the ideal, of the

"one far-off divine event
To which the whole Creation moves ; "

and that along the whole range of his nature
he is the poet of joy, and therefore of death.


His personality is intensely aggressive ; and his
influence on those whom he attracts is propor
tionately strong. Indeed, if once one were
drawn entirely within the circle of his attrac
tion, there would, I think, be no escape from
it. That being so, it is well that one should
sometimes feel the counter-attraction of some
diametrically opposite influence, and so be kept
from quitting the orbit of one s own personal
life. Such a counter-attraction I have found in
the influence of a book, which is as intense, as
single-hearted, and as one-sided as Whitman s
poetry, and yet has so little in common with it
that it seems to belong to an entirely different
world, the Imitation of Christ.

I have pointed out that a harmonious soul
is one which grows both upward and outward,
and I have contended that in Whitman s poetry
the growth is entirely outward, that he has as
it were lost his aspiring " leader," and that, so
far as he liberates us from our ordinary selves,
he does so by carrying us outside ourselves into
the life of outward Nature, and into the social
life of Mankind. In the Imitation of Christ
the growth of the soul is entirely upward. The
ascent of the tree is everything. Not a single
branch is put forth but the few that cluster round
the " leader " as it struggles upward towards the
sky. Of sympathy with outward Nature ; of


the expansion of the soul in the direction of art
and poetry, of knowledge and action ; of interest
in political, in social, in domestic life, or even of
recognition of their lawful claims, there is not a
trace. The individualism, the "austere inward
ness," of the book is complete. The soul has
but one thought, to struggle inward and up-
ward, in sublime solitude, towards spiritual per
fection. Far from developing the tendencies
that make for its outward growth, it sternly
represses them. Self-denial the cutting back
of every natural instinctTthe stifling of every
desire that might conceivably distract the soul
from its central purpose is the only way that
it will deign to follow to its goal. Humility, or
the consciousness of imperfection, is~tKe very
breath of its being ; humility, with all that it
implies, reverence, adoration, awe. Submission
to discipline, to constraint, to self-impose~H~suf-
fering ; Patience under affliction ; meek accep
tance ofinsult, injury, and degradation ; are
its appointed means of grace. WithJove_,(in
the human sense of the word), witlTsympafhy,
with comradeship, with natural affection, it has
no concern. Aspiration hunger and thirst
after righteousness is the beginning and end
of its desire. Love of the ideal, as embodied
in Christ, is its only flame.

Such a conception of life is as far removed


from Whitman s as it can possibly be. The
whole " diameter of being" separates the Imi
tation from the Song of Myself. It is true
that, just because they are antipodal to one
another, the two minds have some striking
points of resemblance. Thus both are passion
ately in earnest. Both have a strong sense of
reality. Both have a deep contempt for " the
world." Both are impatient of conventionality,
of fashion, of opinion. These, however, are
features on which we need not dwell. What it
does concern us to notice is, that the two
conceptions are vehemently and fundamentally
antagonistic to one another, and that both are

1 2 4 6 7

Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWalt Whitman's poetry, a study & a selection → online text (page 4 of 7)