[PDF Notes] Get complete information on Walt Whitman (1812-1892)

Whitman is essentially a loafer and his writings are the frankly direct expression of his loafing. He is the Orson of literature. Unconventionality he carries out to its logical conclusion and strikes stark naked among our academies of learning. A strange, uncouth, surprising figure, it is impossible to ignore him, however, much he may shock our susceptibilities.

Perhaps the chief defect in American verse, up to Whitman, lines in its excess of culture. The majority of the poets are men of scholarly attainments, steeped in literature rather than in life; and although some of them like Whittier and Lowell, found inspiration in the social and political development of their time, they were lacking on the whole in a large, virile grasp of life, a firsthand elemental vigor that comes to those who have lived widely and deeply and whose song is the direct product of their intimate experiences.

Emerson counseled a return of Nature; but it was Nature in terms of philosophic abstraction. Thoreau, it is true, literally did return to Nature, for he had a touch of the wild and elemental about him: he knew what it was to come into direct relation with Nature and counseled every man to do so as a necessary part of his education. Yet his scholarship and culture determined the form arid scope of his Art.

Poe is an intellectual hedonist, Bryant and Whittier cultured moralists; Holmes and Lowell were scholarly men of the world, Longfellow a scholarly sentimentalist; one and all were more or less derivative poets inasmuch as they were steeped in the ancient traditions of English Literature and followed well-beaten paths. And then came Whitman, in aim a literary revolutionary.

His songs are no mere paeans of rustic solitudes, they are songs of the crowded streets, as well as of the country roads; of men and women of every type- no less than of the fields and the streams. In fact, he seeks the elemental everywhere. His business is to bring it to the surface, to make men and women rejoice in – not shrink from -the great primal forces of life. But he is not for moralizing:

“I give nothing as duties,

What others give as duties I give as loving impulses.

(Shall I give the heart’s action as a duty?)”

He has not quarrel with civilization as such. The teeming life of the town is as wonderful to him as the big solitude of the Earth. Carlyle’s pleasantry about the communistic experiments of the American Transcendentalists would have no application for him. “A return to Acorns and expecting the Golden Age to arrive”.

Here is no exclusive child of Nature:

“I tramp a perpetual journey…

My signs are a rainproof coat, good shoes and a staff

cut from the woods………

I have no chair, no church, no philosophy”.

People talk of Whitman as if he relied entirely on the “staff cut from the woods”; they forget his “rainproof coat and good shoes”. Assuredly he has no mind to cut himself adrift form the advantages of Civilization.

First of all, Whitman’s attitude towards Art.

It has been urged by some of Whitman’s admirers that his power as a writer does not depend upon his artistic methods or non-artistic methods and he himself protested against his Leaves being judged merely as literature. And so there has been a tendency to glorify his very inadequacies, to hold him up as a poet who has defied successfully the unwritten laws of Art.

This is to do him an ill service. If Whitman’s work be devoid of Art, then it possesses no durability.

In other words, Whitman must be judged ultimately as an artist. And on the whole he can certainly bear the test. His Art was not the conventional Art of his day, but Art is assuredly was.

This is not only Art, but great Art. So fresh in their power, so striking in their beauty, are Whitman’s utterances on Death, that they take their place in our memories beside the large utterances of Shakespeare, Milton and Shelley.

It is a mistake to think that where Whitman fails in expression it is through carelessness; that he was a great poet by flashes and that had he taken more pains he would have been greater still. We have been assured by those who knew him intimately that he took the greatest care over his work and would wait for days until he could get what he felt to be the right word.

To the student who comes fresh to the study of Whitman it is conceivable that the rude, strong, nonchalant utterances may seem like the work of an inspired but careless and impatient artist. It is not so. It is done deliberately.

“I furnish no specimens,” he says; “I shower them by exhaustless laws, fresh and modern continually, as Nature does.”

He is content to be suggestive, to stir your imagination, to awaken your sympathies. And when he fails, he fails as Wordsworth did, because he lacked the power of self-criticism, lacked the faculty of humor-that saving faculty which gives discrimination and intuitively protects the artist from confusing pathos with bathos, the grand and the grandiose. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of sex.

Frankness, outspokenness on the primal facts of life is to be welcomed in literature. All the great masters Shakespeare, Dante, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy- have dealt openly and fearlessly with the elemental passions. There is nothing to deplore in this and Swinburne was quite right when he contended that the domestic circle is not to be for all men and writers the outer limit of their world of work.

So far from regretting that Whitman claimed right to equal freedom when speaking of the primal facts of procreation as when speaking of sunrise, sun setting and the primal fact of death, every clean- minded man and woman should rejoice in the poet’s attitude.

For he believed and gloried in the separate personalities of man and woman, claiming manhood and womanhood as the poet’s province, exulting in the potentialities of a healthy sexual life.

He was angry, as well he might be, with the furtive snigger which greets such matters as motherhood and fatherhood with the prurient unwholesomeness of a mind that can sigh sentimentally over the “roses and raptures of Vice” and start away shamefaced from the stark passions- stripped of all their circumlocutions.

He certainly realized as few have done, the truth of that fine saying of Thoreau’s, that “for him to whom sex is impure there are no flowers in But at the same time, one cannot help feeling that Stevenson was right when he said that Whitman “loses our sympathy in the character of a poet by attracting too much attention-that of a Bull in a China shop”.

His aim is right enough; it is to his method one may take objection. Not on the score of morality. Whitman’s treatment of passion is not immoral; it is simply like Nature itself-unmoral. What shall we say then about his sex cycle, Children of Adam? Whitman, in his anxiety to speak out freely, simply, naturally, to vindicate the sanity of coarseness, the poetry of animalism, seems to me to have bungled rather badly.

There are many fine passages in his Song of the Body Electric and Spontaneous Me, but much of it impresses as bad art and is consequently ineffectual in its aim.

The subject demands a treatment at once strong and subtle-I do not mean finishing-and subtlety is a quality not vouchsafed to Whitman. Lacking it, he is often unconsciously comic where he should be gravely impressive. “A man’s body is sacred and a woman’s body is sacred. “True; but the sacredness is not displayed by making out a tedious inventory of the various parts of the body.

Says Whitman in effect; “The sexual life is to be gloried in, not to be treated as if it were something shameful.” Again true; but is there not a danger of missing the glory by discoursing noisily on the various physiological manifestations? Sex is not the more wonderful for being appraised by the big drum.

The inherent beauty and sanctity of Sex lies surely in its superb unconsciousness; it is a matter for two human beings drawn towards one another by an indefinable, world-old attraction; scream about it, caper over it and you begin to make it ridiculous, for you make it self-conscious.

Animalism merely as a scientific fact serves naught to the poet, unless he can show also what is as undeniable as the bare fact- its poetry, its coarseness and its mystery go together. Browning has put it in a line:

“…savage creatures seek

Their loves in wood and plain- and God renews

His ancient rapture”.

If only all had been of this quality. But interspersed with lines of great force and beauty are cumbrous irrelevances, wholly superfluous details.

It is not, then, because Whitman treats love as an animal passion that I take objection to much in his Children of Adam. There are poets enough and to spare, who sing of the sentimental aspects of love.

We need have no quarrel with Whitman’s aim as expressed by Mr. John Burroughs: “To put in his sex poems a rank and healthy animalist and to make them as frank as the shedding of pollen by the trees, strong even to the point of offence.” All we ask is for him to do so as a poet, not as a mere physiologist.

And when he speaks one moment as a physiologist, next as a poet; at one time as a lover, at another as a showman; the result is not inspiring. “He could not make it pleasing”, remarks Mr. Burroughs, “a sweet morsel to be rolled under the tongue; that would have been levity and sin, as in Byron and the other poets… He would sooner be bestial than Byronic, he would sooner shock by his frankness than inflame by his suggestion.”

This vague linking together of “Byron and the other poets” is not easy to understand. In the first place, not one of the moderns has treated love from the same standpoint. Shelley, for instance, is transcendental, Byron elemental, Tennyson sentimental; Rossetti looks at the soul through the body, Browning regards the body through the soul.

There is abundant variety in the treatment. Then, again, why Byron should be singled out especially for opprobrium I fail to see, for love is to him the fierce, elemental passion it is for Whitman. As for frankness, the episode of Halide and Don Juan does not err on the side of reticence. Nor is it prurient suggestive. It is a splendid piece of poetic animalism.

Let us be fair to Byron. His work may in places be disfigured by an unworthy cynicism; his treatment of sexual problems be marred by shallow flippancy; but no poet had a finer appreciation of the essential poetry of animalism than he and much of his cynicism, after all, is by way of protest against the same narrow morality at which Whitman girds.

It may be objected, of course, that Whitman does not aim in his sex poems at imaginative beauty that he aims at sanity and wholesomeness; that what he speaks – however rank -make for healthy living. Maybe; I am not concerned to deny it.

What I do deny is the implication that the wholesomeness of a fact is sufficient justification for its treatment in literature. There are a good many disagreeable things that are wholesome enough, there are many functions of the body that are entirely healthy. But one does not want them enshrined in Art.

On the other hand, to attack Whitman on the score of morality is unjustifiable; his sex poems are simply unmoral. But had he flouted his art less flagrantly in them they would have been infinitely more powerful and convincing and given the philistines less opportunity for blaspheming.

I have dwelt at this length upon Whitman’s treatment of Sex largely because it illustrates his strength and weakness as a literary artist. In some of his poems -those dealing with Democracy, for instance-we have Whitman at his best. In others, certainly a small proportion, we get sheer, unillumined doggerel. In his sex poems there are great and fine ideas, moments of inspiration, flashes of beauty, combined with much that is trivial and tiresome.

As a rule, the ordinary man is not a person whom the Poet delights to honor. He is concerned with the exceptional, the extraordinary type. Whitman’s attitude, then, is of special interest.

“None has done justice to you-you have not done justice to yourself.

None but has found you imperfect; I only find no imperfection in you.

None but would subordinate you; I only am he who will never consent to subordinate you”.

Whitman’s egotism is the egotism of a simple, natural, sincere nature; there is no self-satisfied smirk about it, no arrogance. He is conscious of his power and is quite frank in letting everyone know his. To understand his egotism we may consider evidence from his own writing:

“The art of Art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity, nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subjects their articulations, are powers neither common nor very uncommon. But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unit peaceable nests of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the Woodside, is the flawless triumph of Art.”

A fitting attitude for a Poet of Democracy, one likely to bring him into direct contact with that broad, variegated stream of human life.

The academic traditions of American Literature were rudely shaken by Whitman. If, with the majority. We suffer from a plethora of culture, Whitman certainly redresses the balance. Not that he was a Goth in this respect; he loved the great race-utterances of the world, the Bible, Homer, the Nibelungenlied, the elemental side of Shakespeare; and these sufficed him.

The wisdom that we find in his pages is not the wisdom of a well-stored mind, not the wisdom of a profoundly reflective nature, not the wisdom of an Art-sensitive nature. It is the wisdom of a hearty and primal nature immensely receptive to the primal forces about him in Life, whether in Nature or in human society.

All this, of course, he might have had and not been a force in letters save by some happy accident. Unresponsive as he was to the subtler beauties of life, he had an instinctive sense of beauty, which in a curious, unregulated and often coarse-grained way, vouchsafed to him from time to time the fine intuition of the great poet.

To regard him as a mere egotistic poser, whose “barbaric yawp” has no place in literature, is as far from the truth as is the attitude of his fervent disciples, who claim him as one of the greatest poets, as well as one of the greatest moral teachers the world has seen.

His work is far too unformed and chaotic, too full of absurd bathos and amazing doggerel, for us to acknowledge him as a great poet. But among the chaos are shooting stars; in the midst of the rank tangle of weeds are precious flowers- not garden blossoms, but beautiful wild ones. It is here that the supreme value of Whitman’s work lies. He is a fresh and original first-hand power that has brought into English letters a healthy and reviving influence.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Whitman’s attitude towards humanity is his thorough understanding of the working classes and his quick discernment of the healthy naturalism that animates them. He neither patronizes them nor idealizes them. He sees their faults, which are obvious enough; but he also sees, what is not so obvious, their fine independence of spirit, their eager thirst for improvement, for ampler knowledge, for larger opportunities and their latent idealism.

He was not a philosopher as Browning was; indeed, there is less of the philosopher about Whitman than about any poet of our age. His method is quite opposed to the philosophic. It is instinctive, suggestive and as full of contradictions as Nature herself. You can no more extract a philosophy from his sweeping utterances than you can from a tramp over the hills.

But, like a tramp over the hills, Whitman fits every reader who accompanies him for a stronger and more courageous outlook. It is not easy to say with Whitman as is the case with many writers: “This line quickened my imagination; that passage unraveled my perplexities”. It is the general effect of his writings that exercises such a remarkable tonic influence.

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