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from the beginning, I well might hesitate to
write of him ; not only distrusting my own
judgment of thoughts and modes which, like
questions in philology or medicine, seem
to provoke contention in which men act
very much like children, but also dreading
to become a party to such contention, litde
to the advantage of all concerned. Doubt-
less I shall make errors, and write things
subject to alteration. For these errors, not
of the will but of the judgment, I might ask
pardon in advance, were I not aware of the
uselessness of such a prayer to either of two
classes to which it should be addressed, and
between which it is hardly possible that a
criticism could be written upon Mr. Whit-
man, and the writer not be accused of both
favoritism and injustice, or of trimming.
The disputants who arise when an innovator
comes along never were divided more
sharply, — not even in that classico-romantic
conflict which would have made the fortune
of a lesser poet than the author of " Her-
nani." Perhaps it would be found, upon
examination, tliat the class which declines to
regard Whitman as a hero and poet has
been content with saying very little about
him. If his disciples are in a minority, it is
they who chiefly have written the contents
of the package mentioned, who never lose
a point, who have filled the air with his
name. Our acceptance of their estimate
almost has seemed the condition, — not, I
trust, of their good-will, since among them
are several of my long-time friends, — ^but of
their intellectual respect. At times we are

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somewhat heroic figure, which they will do
wcU to observe; one whose words have
taken hold in various quarters, and whose
works should be studied as a whole before
tbey are condemned. Not only a poet, but
a personage, of a bearing conformed to his
ideaL Whether this bearing comes by nature
only, or through skillful intent, its possessor
cex^unly carries it bravely, and, as the
phrase is, fills the bill, — a task in which
iOEne who have tried to emulate him have
disastrously failed. Not only a poet and
personage, but one whose views and declar-
ations are also worth attention. True, our
main business is not so much to test the
soondness of his theories as to ask how
poetically he has announced them. We are
examining the poets, not the sages and
heroes, except in so far as wisdom and
heroism must belong to poetry, and as the
philosopher and poet fulfill Wordsworth's
prediction and have become one. But
Whitman is the most subjective poet on
record, and it would be folly to review him
wholly in the mood of those whose watch-
word is Art for Art's sake. The many who
look upon art solely as a means of expres-
sion justly will not be content unless the
man is included in the problem. I, who
believe that he who uses song as his means
of expression is on one side an artist, wish
to consider him both as an artist and a man.
What I desire to say, also, must be taken
as a whole. Questions involving the nature
of verse, of expression, of the poetic life,
coold not be adequately discussed in a single
chapter; but a paragraph, at least, may be
devoted to each point, and should be given
Its ftill weight of meaning. It is the fashion
kx many who reject Mr. Whitman's canti-
dcs to say : •* His poetry is good for nothing;
but we lie him as a man," etc. To me, it
seems that his song is more noteworthy than
his life, in spite of his services in the hos-
pkals during oiu- civil war. His life, so
noble at its best periods, was an emblem of
the nobleness of a multitude of his country-
men and country-women ; at other times,
donbdess, and as his poem of '^ Brooklyn
Ferry " fearlessly permits us to surmise, it
has been no more self-forgetting than the
lives of coundess obscure toilers who do
their best fiom day to day. If, then, I do
Dot think hb heroism so important as his
art, nor admire him chiefly as an annuncia-
tor, but as an imaginative poet, it is because
I know more than one village where each
workman is a philosopher in his way, and
something of a priest, and because poets
Vol. XXI.— 4.

are rarer among us than preachers and
heroes, — and I wish to take him at his
rarest. If this essay should pay just
honor to his prophetic gift of song, those
who minister to him should feel that I have
given him, without reserve, such poor laurels
as a mere reviewer can bestow. That there
may be no doubt, fi:om page to page (amid
the seeming inconsistencies that must char-
acterize a study of Whitman), as to my
conclusion on this point, I may as well say
now that both instinct and judgment, with
our Greek choruses in mind, and Pindar, and
the Hebrew bards, long since led me to
count him, as a lyric and idyUic poet, and
when at his best, among the first of his time.
If any fail to perceive what I mean by this,
let him take a single poem, composed in
his finer mood, — " Out of the Cradle End-
lessly Rocking," — and read it with some
care. Had he not sung like this, the exor-
bitant world would hear littie of his philosophy
and consecration, and care for them still less.


The first edition of " Leaves of Grass,"
now so valued by collectors, is a long, thin
volume, curious to behold, with wide pages
that give the author's peculiar lines their
fiill eftect. Here was a man with measure-
less bounce and ambition, but with a co-
equal range of demands for his country,
and professedly for all mankind. At that
time (1855) the sale of most books of poetry
or abstract thought was small enough;
critical authorities were few, and of little
weight. " Putnam's Magazine" certainly
had influence, and was the periodical to
which our favorite writers contributed some
of their choicest work. Its reviewer gave
the strange book the best reception possible,
by filling three columns with extracts firom
its pages. He could not have selected any
passages more original than those beginning
with the hues, "I play not a march for
victors only," and " A child said, What is
the grass?" — than the death-scene of the
mashed fireman, for whose sake is the per-
vading hush among the kneeling crowd, —
the ringing story of the old-fashioned frigate
and the little captain who won by the light
of the moon and stars, — the proud humility,
the righteous irony and wrath of " A Slave
at Auction " and " A Woman at Auction," —
the Hebraic picture of the Quakeress with
face clearer and more beautiful than the
sky, " the justified mother of men." These,

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and a few masterly bits of description and
apostrophe, were given in a manner just to
the poet, while rude and coarser parts, that
might displease even a progressive reader,
were kindly overlooked. The study of
Emerson and Carlyle had bred a tolerance
of whatever was true to nature and opposed
to sham, " Leaves of Grass" was a legiti-
mate ofispring of the new movement How-
soever differing from the latter, or going
beyond it, the book would not have found
life had not the Concord school already
made for it an atmosphere. Whitman — a
man of the people — applied the down-east
philosophy to tlie daily walks of life, and
sang the blare and brawn that he found in
the streets about him. In his opening lines :

**I celebrate myself,
And what I assame you shall assnme,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs
to you.

"I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease

spear of summer grass/*

* observing a

he simply took Alcott and Emerson at their
word. His radical demonstration, extended
in later years even to rebuke of their own
failure to go farther, has brought them, per-
chance, like Frankenstein, to regard with
little complacence the strides of their prod-
igy. The difference between Emerson and
Whitman illustrated that between certain
modes of advanced thought in Massachu-
setts and New York. If the pliilosophy of
the former professed to include the people,
in its genesis and application it often was
somewhat provincial and aristocratic; the
other also was theoretically broad, professing
to include the scholarly and refined, but in
spirit was no less provincial, — suspicious of
all save the masses. A true universal ism
yet may come from them both. It was in
no unfriendly humor, but with perfect jus-
tice, that the ** Putnam " critic declared the
new poems to be a "mixture of Yankee
transcendentalism and New York rowdy-
ism," which here were " seen to combine m
harmony." For their author prophesied in
New York with a selfhood that observed
but kept aloof from the West side ; insensibly
the East-sider was set above the man of
training or affairs whose teams he drove,
whose fires he subdued, whose boats he
piloted, and whose manhood perchance
was as sturdy and virile as his own. Hence,
there was a just reason in the pleasantry of
the reviewer, who, after acknowledging that
the poet was " one of the roughs," said :

" That he is a kosmos is a piece of news
we were hardly prepared for. Precisely
what a kosmos is, we trust Mr. Whitman
will take an early occasion to inform the
impatient world." Nothing worse than this
sally befell our poet in the leading maga-
zine, and it was added that there were to
be foimd " an original perception of nature,
a manly brawn, and an epic directness in
the new poet, which belong to no other
adept of the transcendental school" Here,
at all events, the book was not treated after
any Philistine mode.

Doubtless many young readers of those
quotations felt as if they came with a fresh
breeze from old Paumanok and the outer
bay. I remember my own impression that
here, whether his forms were old or new,
was a real poet, one who stirred my pulses ;
and of whom — ^in spite of his conceit,
familiarity, assumption that few could un-
derstand him and tliat all needed his minis-
trations — I wished to know more. I would
not surrender that first impression of his
genius for any later critical feeling. Nor
since that time, having closely read him,
have I found reason to disavow it And I
could fully sympatliize with him, now that
his old age really is nigh at hand, in the
serene approval of his own work, read twenty
years afterward, under some auspicious
conjunction of Saturn and Mars :

"After an interval, reading, here in the midnight.
With the ereat stars looking on — all the stars oS

Orion looking,
And the silent Pleiades — ^and the duo looking of

Saturn and ruddy Mars ;
Pondering, reading my own songs, after a long

interval (sorrow and death familiar now),
Ere closing the book, what pride ! what joy ! to find

Standing so well the test of death and night.
And the duo of Saturn and Mars ! *'

The picture of Whitman in trowsers and
open shirt, with slouched hat, hand in
pocket, and a defiant cast of manner, reso-
lute as it was, had an air not wholly of one
who protests against authority, but rather
of him who opposes the gonfalon of a
" rough " conventionalism to the conven-
tionalism of culture. Not that of the man
" too proud to care from whence " he came,
but of one very proud of whence he came
and what he wore. Seeing him now, with
his ^acious and silvery beard, it is hardly
possible that the sensual and unpromising
mouth of the early portrait was at any time
his own. But the picture has become his-
torical, and properly is included with others
in his recent collective edition.

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The " Leaves of Grass " contained the
gist of his opinions, and some of its episodes
equal in beauty anything he has ever written.
He was in his thirty-sixth year,— <:lose upon
the age at which more than one famous
poet has ended his mission. His book was
eminently one with a piu^ose, or purposes,
to which he has been consistent. First,
and chiefly, to assert the " Religion of Hu-
manity," — the mystery and development of
man, of woman; the sufficiency of the
gen^ plan; the inherent and equal no-
Wity of our organs, instincts, desires ; the
absolute equality of men, irrespective of
birth and training. Secondly, to predict
a superb illustration of this development in
"These Stotcs," the great republic of the
pr»ent, the pure democracy of the future.
Thirdly, to portray an archetypal microcosm,
a man emturacing in his passionate and
ideal sjrmpathy all the joys, sorrows, appe-
tites, virtues, sins, of all men, women and chil-
dren,— himself being, doing and suffering
with them, — and that man Walt Whitman.
Fmally, and to lay the groundwork for a
new era in literature (in his view the most
essential stimulant of progress), the " Leaves"
weie written in contempt of established
measttres, formal rhymes, stock imagery
and diction, — and in a most irregular kind
of dithyramb, which left the hack reviewer
sordy in doubt whether it was verse broken
off at hap-hazard, or prose run mad. What-
erer motives led to these results, we must
admire the courage of a poet who thus
hvned his ships behind him, and plunged
into a wilderness thenceforth all his own.
Various passages of the book were resolutely
coane in their " natiu^lism," and were
thought by some, who perhaps knew little
of the author, to reveal his tendencies. It
Mtmed as if certain passions appeared to
Wnj more natural, certain sins more venial,
^ others, and that these were those
^"[hich he felt to be most obstreperous in
his own system, — that his creed was ad-
justed to his personal aptitudes. But many
also found in him strength, color, love and
knowledge of nature, and a capacity for
lyrical outbursts, — the utterance of a genu-
ine poet Such was the " Leaves of Grass,"
although the book is hard to formulate in
few and scientific terms; such, at least, it
was, so £ir as I understand its higher mean-
ing. This analysis is made with due hu-
mility, as by one in doubt lest he also may
be subject to the scornful objurgation :

• Wfcit to inch as you, anyhow, such a poet as I ?
•Hherefore leave my works,

And go lull )ronrself with what you can understand

— and with piano-tunes;
For I lull nobody, — and you will never understand


If the successive editions of " Leaves of
Grass " had the quiet sale accorded to books
of verse, it did not lack admirers among
radicals on the lookout for something new.
Emerson, with one of his clieery impulses,
wrote a glowing welcome, which soon was
given to the public, and directed all eyes to
the rising bard. No poet, as a person, ever
came more speedily within range of view.
His age, origin and habits were made
known; he himself, in fastidiously whole-
some and picturesque costume, was to be
observed strolling up Broadway, crossing
the ferries, mountingthe omnibuses, wherever
he could see and be seen, make studies and
be studied. It was learned that he had been
by turns printer, school-master, builder, ed-
itor; had written articles and poems of a
harmless, customary nature, until, finding
that he could not express himself to any
purpose in that wise, he underwent convic-
tion, experienced a change of thought and
style, and professed a new departure in
verse, dress, and way of life. Hencefor-
ward he occupied himself with loafing,
thinking, writing, and making disciples and
camerados. Among the young wits and
writers who enjoved his fellowship, his slow,
large mold and rathe-grizzled hair pro-
cured for him the hearty title of "Old
Walt." In the second year of the war his
blood grew warm, and he went to Washing-
ton, whither all roads then led. His heart
yearned toward the soldiery, and in the hos-
pitals and camps he became the tenderest
of nurses and the almoner of funds supplied
to him by generous hands. After three
years of this service, and after a sickness
brought on by its exertions, he was given a
place in the Interior Department Then
came that senseless act of a benighted offi-
cial, who dismissed him for the immorality
of the *• Leaves of Grass." To Whitman it
was a piece of good luck. It brought to a
climax the discussion of his merits and de-
merits. It called out from the fervent and
learned pen of O'Connor a surging, charac-
teristic vindication, "The Good Gray Poet,"
in which the oflfending Secretary was con-
signed to ignominy, and by which the poet's
talents, services and appearance were so
fastened upon public attention that he took
his place as a hoar and reverend minstrel.
He then, with Lowell, Parsons, Holland,
Brownell, and Mrs. Howe, had reached the

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and verse, followed bj a prose essay of a
Carljlese type, possibly suggested by Car-
lyle^s strictures on America. Much of all
tius portion, prose and verse, is the least
satisfitctory of Whitman's writings, although
greatly in earnest and of most import to the
author. " The Centennial Songs " (i876)and
the poems of 1872 (including that fine burst,
" The Mystic Trumpeter") come next Re-
▼erting to his prose ^' Rivulet " and the
** Democratic Vistas," I do not find in these
contradictory views of the present, notices of
weak joints in our armor, and dreams of the
fotare, much that doubdess has not been
considered by many who have helped to
guide our republic thus far, much that has
not occurred to the poet's fellow-thinkers,
or b not, at least, within their power to
understand and amend. Neither are they
expressed in that terse and sufficient lan-
guage common to rare minds, — nor in a
way at all comparable to the writer's surer
way of expressing himself in his chosen
Tcise. Well-written articles like his recan-
tation of Emerson lead one to suspect that
fais every-day prose is distorted intentionally,
otherwise I should say that, if he is a poet
of hi^h mik, he is an e;cception to the con-
ceit mat the truest poets write also the most
genuine and noble prose ; for certainly his
usual style is no nearer that of healthy, self-
sostained English, than his verse is to ordi-
nary rhythm. A poet's genius may reconcile
us to that which Cosmo Monkhouse terms
poetry in solution, but prose in dissolution
IS undesirable. A continuous passage of
good prose, not broken up with dashes and
parentheses, and other elements of weakness,
nor marred by incoherent and spasmodic
ex|»esstons, is hard to find in his '' Rivulets"
and ** Vistas." Both his prose and verse have
one fiuilt in common, that he virtually
underrates the intelligence of readers. This
is visible in constant repetition of his
thoughts, often in forms that grow weaker,
and in his intimation that we are even
unwilling to comprehend ideas which are
familiar to all radical thinkers in modem

More impressive in dieir vivid realism, and
as evidence not to be gainsaid of Mr. Whit-
man's personal qualities, are the '' Memoranda
during the War," homely and firagmentary
records of his labors among the soldiers.
Three years and more were covered by these
acts of self-oflfering, and it is weU they
should be commemorated. Their records
constitute a picture of his life at its high-
est moment; they are heroic interludes

between his poems of life and those upon
death. The latter, under the title, " Passage
to India," express the maturest yearning of
his soul. Chastened by illness and wise
through experience, the singer whose
pulses have beaten with life's full tide now
muses upon Death, — the universal blessing.
With lofty faith and imagining he confi-onts
the unknown. To one so watchful of his
owii individuality, any creed that involves
a merger of it is monstrous and impossible.
He bids his soul voyage through death's
portals, sure to find

"The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted."

He is at the farthest remove fi"om oiu:
modish Buddhism, nor can any nirvdna
satisfy his demands. In this section his
song is on a high key, and less reduced
than elsewhere by untimely commonplace.
Here are the pieces inspired by the tragic
death of Lincoln. The burial hymn,
" When Lilacs last," etc., is entitled to the
repute in which it is affectionately held.
The theme is handled in an indirect, melo-
dious, pathetic manner, and I think this
poem and Lowell's "Commemoration Ode,"
each in its own way, the most notable ele-
gies resulting from the war and its episodes.
Whitman's is exquisitely idyllic, Lowell's
the more heroic and intellectual. Even the
" Genius of These States " might stoop for
an instant to hear the Cambridge scholar,
and I can peld the " Burial Hymn " no
truer homage than to associate it with his

A " Poem of Jovs " makes an artistic con-
trast with these death-carols, and a group
of ** Sea-shore Memories," with their types
and music of the infinite, add to the climac-
teric effect of this division. Unable here to
cite passages from Whitman, I can at least
direct the reader how to get at his real
capabilities. For his original mood, and
something of his color, imagination, hold
upon nature, lyric power, turn then to the
broad harmonies of the " Sea-shore Memo-
ries " ; to " Lincoln's Burial Hymn," and the
shorter poems beyond it ; to " The Mystic
Trumpeter," and "The Wound-Dresser";
and then, after reading the sixth section of
the poem, " Walt Whitman,"

" A child said, * What is the grass ? ' "

find the two hundred and sixth paragraph,

** I understand the large hearts of heroes,"

and read to the end of the frigate-fight
These passages are a fair introduction to the

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poet, and you will go with him farther, until
checked by some repulsive exhibition, or
wearied by pages cheap in wisdom and in-
vective or — intolerably dull. Often where
he utters truths, it is with an effort to give
offense, or with expressions of contempt for
their recipient that well might make even the
truth offensive. A man does not care to be
driven with blows and hard names, even to a
feast, nor to have the host brag too much of
the entertainment


Here we may as well consider a trait of
Mr. Whitman's early work that most of all
has brought it under censure. I refer to the
blunt and open manner in which the con-
summate processes of nature, the acts of
procreation and reproduction, with all that
appertain to them, are made the theme or
illustration of various poems, notably of those
with the title " Children of Adam." Landor
says of a poet that, " on the remark of a
learned man that irregularity is no indication
of genius, he began to lose ground rapidly,
when on a sudden he cried out in the Hay-
market, * There is no God.' It was then
rumored more generally and more gravely
that he had something in him. • • •
•Say what you will,' once whispered a
friend- of mine, * there are things in him
strong as poison, and original as sin.' " But
those who looked upon Whitman's sexuality
as a siirewd advertisement, justly might be
advised to let him reap the full benefit of it,
since, if he had no more sincere basis, it
would receive the earlier judgment — and ere
long be " outlawed of art." This has not
been its fate, and therefore it must have
had something of conviction to sustain it.
Nevertheless, it made X\it public distrustfiil
of this poet, and did much to confine his
volumes to the libraries of the select few.
Prurient modesty often is a sign that people
are conscious of personal defects ; but Whit-
man's physical excursions are of a kind
which even Thoreau, refreshed as he was by
the new poet, found it hard to keep pace
with. The fault was not that he discussed
matters which others timidly evade, but that
he did not do it in a clean way, — that he
was too anatomical and malodorous withal;
furtliermore, that in this department he
showed excessive interest, and applied its
imagery to other departments, as if with a
special purpose to lug it in. His pictures
sometimes were so realistic, his speecli so
firee, as to excite the hue and cry of indecent

exposure; the display of things natural,
indeed, but which we think it unnatural to
exhibit on the highway, or in the sitting-
room, or anywhere except their wonted
places of consignment.

On the poet's side it is urged that the
gromid of this exposure was, that thus only
could his reform be consistent; that it was
necessary to celebrate the body with special
unction, since, with respect to the physical
basis of life, our social weakness and hypoc-
risy are most extreme. Not only should the
generative functions be proclaimed, but, also,
— ^to show that •* there is in nature nothing
mean or base," — the side of our life which is

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