Somewhere in the beginning of our histories of Philosophy, a thinker had announced that the World was a 'Becoming'. That intuition was left to the philosophers until Walt Whitman arrived. And with Whitman the 'Becoming' seems not only to be realized, but to be participated in. All is urge in his poetry. His rhythms flow and break like waves. His stanza have not the measure that belongs to the poets of a world that is established—poets like Dante and Spenser, for instance—but the balances that are seen in nature—one living member balancing another living member, as in a branching tree.
His verse not merely departs from traditional forms. It creates a new and special norm.
Whitman is a master of language as well as a master of his special verse-form. His is one of the greatest vocabularies of any poet who has written in English. What an array of words is in his volume! squatter's words; hobo's words; drummer's words; foreign phrases; words out of scientific and philosophic texts, with all the words of literary and journalistic English. And he uses all these words with such precision and vigor that he stamps them anew. He glorified in the great language that he had mastered.
The whole of his work has an epic multiplicity and an epic majesty. Because he he created an epic in our time poets and critics have hailed him as the foremost modern poet.In the epics of the old world there is, first of all, a people (“great men, and heroic landscape, and one of the rarest phenomena in the world, the incomparable naivete of the strong heart; further still I find a people,” Nietzsche says, speaking of a sacred epic, the Old Testament). In Whitman's epic we do not find a people. He shows us America, but it is America in vista, and it is filled not with people, but with processions. The scope of this epic is not the fate of a people, but the life of a man—of a man whose soul, like the typical American whom he projects, has two hemispheres—“one of Love, the other of Dilation or Pride,” Man in his assertiveness and his amativeness; man in his day of action; man turning from life to death—these are the episodes in the epic that is called Leaves of Grass. The test of fine poetry is: Can we live with it? The test of great poetry is: Can we live by it? The poetry that is in this epic meets the last test.
Whitman is a rhapsodist with vision and inspiration, and, added to that, a poet with the clearest and most touching poetry.Then he goes on with his astonishing theme, and every line in his verse is so vividly felt and so powerfully realized that it stands as solid as a bar of iron. All that vigor would be nothing to us if there was not an assurance of spiritual vigor behind it. We are assured of that spiritual vigor by the wisdom that breaks through the lines like light; by the sense of the rhapsodist's own liberation; by the rhythm that establishes itself in the mind as one reads on. The power of visualizing that is revealed is amazing. Thousands of objects are shown, and each object is clear and in its own atmosphere. “Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself.”
Then there is in Whitman the clear and tender-toned poet. The themes of the poet are affection, reconciliation, death. When he sings of death he he a strangely beautiful accent. It is as if all the things that had kept him company—those tremendous shows and processions that his will and his vision bound him to—were folded away from him. He is as Ruth to the Universe's Naomi. “Whither thou goest I will go,” he says, and his trust makes beautiful his most haunting poems—“Passage to India,” the lovely “Death Carol” beginning “Come, Lovely and Soothing Death,” “Whispers of Heavenly Death;” “Darest Thou Now, O Soul;” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “The Last Invocation” with its hushed lyricism. In “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” the bird that sings of separation is named demon by him on purpose. Whitman surely was aware when he gave that strange name to the bird that the demon in tradition is the spiritual power beyond our own soul that prompts to extraordinary manifestations:
There are the noble poems of reconciliation in which the theme of death is blended—“Camps of Green,” “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “Reconciliation,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” John Addington Symonds has compared these poems with a Chorus in the Agamemmon of Aeschylus. “The pathos which unites these poets, otherwise so different in aim and sentiment, is deep as nature, real as life; but from this common root of feeling springs in one verse a spotless lily of pure Hellenic form, in the other a mystical thick growth of fancy, where thoughts brood and nestle amid tufted branches; for the powers of classic and modern singers upon the same substance of humanity are diverse.”
What Whitman has to say is another affair from how he says it; Not as a poet, but as a prophet. He occupies a curious and prominent position with power to greatly influence the future and present. As a sign of the times, it would be hard to find his parallel.
Whitman, it cannot be too soon explained, writes up to a system. He was a theorizer about society before he was a poet. He first perceived something wanting, and then sat down squarely to supply the wanted or lacking. The whole of Whitman's work is deliberate and preconceived. He conceived the idea of a Literature which was to inhere in the life of the present; which was to be, first, human, and next, American; which was to be brave and cheerful as per contract; to give culture in a popular and poetical presentment; and, in so doing, catch and stereotype some democratic ideal of humanity which should be equally natural to all grades of wealth and education, and suited, in one of his favorite phrases, to "the average man." To the formation of some such literature as this his poems are to be regarded as so many contributions, one sometimes explaining, sometimes superseding, the other: and the whole together not so much a finished work as a body of suggestive hints.
His notion of the poetic function is ambitious, and coincides roughly with what Schopenhauer has laid down as the province of the metaphysician. The poet is to gather together for men, and set in order, the materials of their existence. He is "The Answerer;" he is to find some way of speaking about life that shall satisfy, if only for the moment, man's enduring astonishment at his own position. And besides having an answer ready, it is he who shall provoke the question. He must shake people out of their indifference, and force them to make some election in this world, instead of sliding dully forward in a dream.
Whitman's attitude is to give a certain unity of ideal to the average population of America—to gather their activities about some conception of humanity that shall be central and normal, if only for the moment—the poet must portray that population as it is. Like human law, human poetry is simply declaratory. If any ideal is possible, it must be already in the thoughts of the people; and, by the same reason, in the thoughts of the poet, who is one of them. And hence Whitman's own formula: "The poet is individual—he is complete in himself: the others are as good as he; only he sees it, and they do not."
Whitman sees that, if the poet is to be of any help, he must testify to the livableness of life. His poems, he tells us, are to be "hymns of the praise of things." He has had no difficulty in introducing his optimism: it fitted readily enough with his system; for the average man is truly a courageous person and truly fond of living.
Whitman tries to reinforce his cheerfulness by keeping up a sort of outdoor atmosphere of sentiment. His book, he tells us, should be read "among the cooling influences of external nature;" and this recommendation is in itself a character of the work. It is the spirit that Whitman inculcates and parades. And this spirit is the greatest charm of his work. Thence, in spite of an uneven and emphatic key of expression, something trenchant and straight-forward, something simple and surprising, distinguishes his poems. He has sayings that come home to one like the Bible. We fall upon Whitman, after the works of so many men who write better, with a sense of relief from strain, with a sense of touching nature, as when one passes out of the flaring, noisy thoroughfares of a great city into what he himself has called, with unexcelled imaginative justice of language, "the huge and thoughtful night."
In his character of idealist all impressions, all thoughts, trees and people, love and faith, astronomy, history, and religion, enter upon equal terms into his notion of the universe. He is not against religion; not, indeed, against any religion. He wishes to drag with a larger net, to make a more comprehensive synthesis, than any or than all of them put together. In feeling after the central type of man, he must embrace all eccentricities; his cosmology must subsume all cosmologies, and the feelings that gave birth to them; his statement of facts must include all religion and all irreligion, Christ and Buddha, God and the devil. The world as it is, and the whole world as it is, physical, and spiritual, and historical, with its good and bad, with its manifold inconsistencies, is what he wishes to set forth, in strong, picturesque, and popular lineaments, for the understanding of the average man.
Each person is, for himself, the keystone and the occasion of this universal edifice. "Nothing, not God," he says, "is greater to one than oneself is;" a statement with an irreligious smack at the first sight; but, like most startling sayings, a manifest truism on a second. For he believes in God, and that with a sort of blasphemous security: "No array of terms," quotes he, "no array of terms can say how much at peace I am about God and about death." There certainly never was a prophet who carried things with a higher hand; he gives us less a body of dogmas than a series of proclamations by the grace of God; and language, you will observe, positively fails him to express how far he stands above the highest human doubts and trepidations.
Whitman hates doubt, deprecates discussion, and discourages to his utmost the craving, carping sensibilities of the conscience. We are to imitate, to use one of his absurd and happy phrases, "the satisfaction and aplomb of animals." If he preaches a sort of ranting Christianity in morals, a fit consequent to the ranting optimism of his cosmology, it is because he declares it to be the original deliverance of the human heart; or at least, for he would be honestly historical in method, of the human heart as at present Christianized. His is a morality without a prohibition; his policy is one of encouragement all round.
So far, you see, the doctrine is pretty coherent as a doctrine; as a picture of man's life it is incomplete and misleading, although eminently cheerful. This he is himself the first to acknowledge; for if he is prophetic in anything, it is in his noble disregard of consistency. "Do I contradict myself?" he asks somewhere; and then pat comes the answer, the best answer ever given in print, worthy of a sage, or rather of a woman: "Very well, then, I contradict myself!" with this addition, not so feminine and perhaps not altogether so satisfactory: "I am large—I contain multitudes." Yet however wild, however contradictory, it may be in parts, this at least may be said for his book, as it may be said of the Christian Gospels, that no one will read it, however respectable, but he gets a knock upon his conscience; no one, however fallen, but he finds a kindly and supporting welcome.
Something should be said of Whitman's style, for style is of the essence of thinking. He has chosen a rough, unrhymed, lyrical verse; sometimes instinct with a fine processional movement; often so rugged and careless that it can only be described by saying that he has not taken the trouble to write prose. I believe myself that it was selected principally because it was easy to write, although not without recollections of the marching measures of some of the prose in English Old Testament.
He calls his verses "recitatives," in easily followed allusion to a musical form. "Easily-written, loose-fingered chords," he cries, "I feel the thrum of your climax and close." Too often, he is the only one who can perceive the rhythm; a great part of his work considered as verse is poor bald stuff: Considered, not as verse, but as speech, a great part of it is full of strange and admirable merits. The right detail is seized; the right word, bold and trenchant, is thrust into its place. Whitman has small regard to literary decencies, and is totally free from literary timidities. He is neither afraid of being slangy nor of being dull; nor, let me add, of being ridiculous. The result at times is a most surprising compound of plain grandeur and sentimental affectation or even downright nonsense.
One thing is certain, that no one can appreciate Whitman's excellences until he has grown accustomed to his faults. Until you are content to pick poetry out of his pages almost as you must pick it out of a Greek play in Bohn's translation, your gravity will be continually upset, your ears perpetually disappointed, and the whole book will be no more to you than a particularly flagrant production.
What are we to say, where a man of Whitman's notable capacity for putting things in a bright, picturesque, and novel way, simply gives up the attempt, and indulges, with apparent exultation, in an inventory of trades or implements, with no more color of coherence than so many index-words out of a dictionary? He is a great critic. It seems hardly possible that any being should get evil from so healthy a book as the Leaves of Grass.
No poet was more consciously a national poet than was Walt Whitman. He insisted upon being the mandatory for America in the world of intuitions of forms. His poetry was to give a psychic unity to the States. It was to hold for the generations “the Stock Personalities,” exemplars in conduct and personality that would stand as archetypal figures. He celebrated a Democracy, but a Democracy that would never be the imposition of a majority-weight. Always there was to be the individual assertion, and the watchword, “Resist much, obey little,” was to be common. The flag—“the fanged and warlike mistress”—was to be the symbol, not so much if the country, as of the great Idea that was to realize itself. “For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals, for that idea the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders.” The Democracy of his songs can never become fixed into a system, for it is only for the rare souls that are susceptible of receiving a personal message. In politics it would always be futuristic. It is not a program, but a prophecy—a prophecy of the time when individualism and fellowship will be reconciled.
Whitman has left to America “the heroic landscape,” and “that rarest phenomena in the world, the incomparable naivete of the strong heart.” For America and for the world his poetry has been like a secret deposit of loadstone in some sea-neighboring mountain, deflecting the courses of voyagers and making them take thought of new ways of navigation.