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A Wordlet about Whitman

In this year many fames have come of age; among them, Lowell's and Walt Whitman's. As we read their centenary tributes, we are reminded that Lowell never accepted Whitman, who was piqued by the fact and referred to it a number of times in the conversations reported by the Boswellian Traubel. Whitmanites explain this want of appreciation as owing to Lowell's conventional literary standards.

Now convention is one of the things that distinguish man from the inferior animals. Language is a convention, law is a convention; and so are the church and the state, morals, manners, clothing—teste "Sartor Resartus." Shame is a convention: it is human. The animals are without shame, and so is Whitman. His "Children of Adam" are the children of our common father before he had tasted the forbidden fruit and discovered that he was naked.

Poetry, too, has its conventions, among them, metre, rhythm, and rhyme, the choice of certain words, phrases, images, and topics, and the rejection of certain others. Lowell was conservative by nature and thoroughly steeped in the tradition of letters. Perhaps he was too tightly bound by these fetters of convention to relish their sudden loosening. I wonder what he would have thought of his kinswoman Amy's free verses if he had lived to read them.

If a large, good-natured, clean, healthy animal could write poetry, it would write much such poetry as the "Leaves of Grass." It would tell how good it is to lie and bask in the warm sun; to stand in cool, flowing water, to be naked in the fresh air; to troop with friendly companions and embrace one's mate. "Leaves of Grass" is the poetry of pure sensation, and mainly, though not wholly, of physical sensation. In a famous passage the poet says that he wants to go away and live with the animals. Not one of them is respectable or sorry or conscientious or worried about its sins.

But his poetry, though animal to a degree, is not unhuman. We do not know enough about the psychology of the animals to be sure whether, or not, they have any sense of the world as a whole. Does an elephant or an eagle perhaps, viewing some immense landscape, catch any glimpse of the universe, as an object of contemplation, apart from the satisfaction of his own sensual needs? Probably not. But Whitman, as has been said a hundred times, was "cosmic." He had an unequalled sense of the bigness of creation and of "these States." He owned a panoramic eye and a large passive imagination, and did well to loaf and let the tides of sensation flow over his soul, drawing out what music was in him without much care for arrangement or selection.

I once heard an admirer of Walt challenged to name a single masterpiece of his production. Where was his perfect poem, his gem of flawless workmanship? He answered, in effect, that he didn't make masterpieces. His poetry was diffused, like the grass blades that symbolized for him our democratic masses.

Of course, the man in the street thinks that Walt Whitman's stuff is not poetry at all, but just bad prose. He acknowledges that there are splendid lines, phrases, and whole passages. There is that one beginning, "I open my scuttle at night," and that glorious apostrophe to the summer night, "Night of south winds, night of the large, few stars." But, as a whole, his work is tiresome and without art. It is alive, to be sure, but so is protoplasm. Life is the first thing and form is secondary; yet form, too, is important. The musician, too lazy or too impatient to master his instrument, breaks it, and seizes a megaphone. Shall we call that originality or failure?

It is also a commonplace that the democratic masses of America have never accepted Walt Whitman as their spokesman. They do not read him, do not understand or care for him. They like Longfellow, Whittier, and James Whitcomb Riley, poets of sentiment and domestic life, truly poets of the people. No man can be a spokesman for America who lacks a sense of humor, and Whitman was utterly devoid of it, took himself most seriously, posed as a prophet. I do not say that humor is a desirable quality. The thesis may even be maintained that it is a disease of the mind, a false way of looking at things. Many great poets have been without it—Milton for example. Shelley used to speak of "the withering and perverting power of comedy." But Shelley was slightly mad. At all events, our really democratic writers have been such as Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley. I do not know what Mark Twain thought of Walt, but I know what Riley thought of him. He thought him a grand humbug. Certainly if he had had any sense of humor he would not have peppered his poems so naïvely with foreign words, calling out "Camerado!" ever and anon, and speaking of a perfectly good American sidewalk as a "trottoir" quasi Lutetia Parisii. And if he had not had a streak of humbug in him, he would hardly have written anonymous puffs of his own poetry.

But I am far from thinking Walt Whitman a humbug. He was a man of genius whose work had a very solid core of genuine meaning. It is good to read him in spots—he is so big and friendly and wholesome; he feels so good, like a man who has just had a cold bath and tingles with the joy of existence.

Whitman was no humbug, but there is surely some humbug about the Whitman culte. The Whitmanites deify him. They speak of him constantly as a seer, a man of exalted intellect. I do not believe that he was a great thinker, but only a great feeler. Was he the great poet of America, or even a great poet at all? A great poet includes a great artist, and "Leaves of Grass," as has been pointed out times without number, is the raw material of poetry rather than the finished product.

A friend of mine once wrote an article about Whitman, favorable on the whole, but with qualifications. He got back a copy of it through the mail, with the word "Jackass!" pencilled on the margin by some outraged Whitmaniac. I know what has been said and written in praise of old Walt by critics of high authority, and I go along with them a part of the way, but only a part. And I do not stand in terror of any critics, however authoritative; remembering how even the great Goethe was taken in by Macpherson's "Ossian." A very interesting paper might be written on what illustrious authors have said of each other: what Carlyle said of Newman, for instance; or what Walter Scott said of Joanna Baillie and the like.

Henry Augustin Beers