The atmosphere of Whitman personally was that of a large, tolerant, tender, sympathetic, restful man, easy of approach, indifferent to any special social or other distinctions and accomplishments that might be yours, and regarding you from the start for yourself alone.
Children were very fond of him; and women, unless they had been prejudiced against him, were strongly drawn toward him. His personal magnetism was very great, and was warming and cheering. He was rich in temperament, probably beyond any other man of his generation,—rich in all the purely human and emotional endowments and basic qualities. Then there was a look about him hard to describe, and which I have seen in no other face,—a gray, brooding, elemental look, like the granite rock, something primitive and Adamic that might have belonged to the first man; or was it a suggestion of the gray, eternal sea that he so loved, near which he was born, and that had surely set its seal upon him? I know not, but I feel the man with that look is not of the day merely, but of the centuries. His eye was not piercing, but absorbing,—"draining" is the word happily used by William O'Connor; the soul back of it drew things to himself, and entered and possessed them through sympathy and personal force and magnetism, rather than through mere intellectual force.
Walt Whitman was of the people, the common people, and always gave out their quality and atmosphere. His commonness, his nearness, as of the things you have always known,—the day, the sky, the soil, your own parents,—were in no way veiled, or kept in abeyance, by his culture or poetic gifts. He was redolent of the human and the familiar. Though capable, on occasions, of great pride and hauteur, yet his habitual mood and presence was that of simple, average, healthful humanity,—the virtue and flavor of sailors, soldiers, laborers, travelers, or people who live with real things in the open air. His commonness rose into the uncommon, the extraordinary, but without any hint of the exclusive or specially favored. He was indeed "no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them."
The spirit that animates every page of his book, and that it always effuses, is the spirit of common, universal humanity,—humanity apart from creeds, schools, conventions, from all special privileges and refinements, as it is in and of itself in its relations to the whole system of things, in contradistinction to the literature of culture which effuses the spirit of the select and exclusive.
His life was the same. Walt Whitman never stood apart from or above any human being. The common people—workingmen, the poor, the illiterate, the outcast—saw themselves in him, and he saw himself in them: the attraction was mutual. He was always content with common, unadorned humanity. Specially intellectual people rather repelled him; the wit, the scholar, the poet, must have a rich endowment of the common, universal, human attributes and qualities to pass current with him. He sought the society of boatmen, railroad men, farmers, mechanics, printers, teamsters, mothers of families, etc., rather than the society of professional men or scholars. Men who had the quality of things in the open air—the virtue of rocks, trees, hills—drew him most; and it is these qualities and virtues that he has aimed above all others to put into his poetry, and to put them there in such a way that he who reads must feel and imbibe them.
The recognized poets put into their pages the virtue and quality of the fine gentleman, or of the sensitive, artistic nature: this poet of democracy effuses the atmosphere of fresh, strong Adamic man,—man acted upon at first hand by the shows and forces of universal nature.
If our poet ever sounds the note of the crude, the loud, the exaggerated, he is false to himself and to his high aims. I think he may be charged with having done so a few times, in his earlier work, but not in his later. In the 1860 edition of his poems stands this portraiture, which may stand for himself, with one or two features rather overdrawn:—
"His shape arises Arrogant, masculine, naive, rowdyish, Laugher, weeper, worker, idler, citizen, countryman, Saunterer of woods, stander upon hills, summer swimmer in rivers or by the sea, Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint from top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, clean-breathed, Ample-limbed, a good feeder, weight a hundred and eighty pounds, full-blooded, six feet high, forty inches round the breast and back, Countenance sunburnt, bearded, calm, unrefined, Reminder of animals, meeter of savage and gentleman on equal terms, Attitudes lithe and erect, costume free, neck gray and open, of slow movement on foot, Passer of his right arm round the shoulders of his friends, companion of the street, Persuader always of people to give him their sweetest touches, and never their meanest. A Manhattanese bred, fond of Brooklyn, fond of Broadway, fond of the life of the wharves and the great ferries, Enterer everywhere, welcomed everywhere, easily understood after all, Never offering others, always offering himself, corroborating his phrenology, Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative, conscientious, alimentive, intuitive, of copious friendship, sublimity, firmness, self-esteem, comparison, individuality, form, locality, eventuality, Avowing by life, manners, words to contribute illustrations of results of These States, Teacher of the unquenchable creed namely egotism, Inviter of others continually henceforth to try their strength against his."
Whitman was determined, at whatever risk to his own reputation, to make the character which he has exploited in his poems a faithful compend of American humanity, and to do this the rowdy element could not be entirely ignored. Hence he unflinchingly imputes it to himself, as, for that matter, he has nearly every sin and dereliction mankind are guilty of.
Whitman developed slowly and late upon the side that related him to social custom and usage,—to the many fictions, concealments, make-believes, and subterfuges of the world of parlors and drawing-rooms. He never was an adept in what is called "good form;" the natural man that he was shows crude in certain relations. His publication of Emerson's letter with its magnificent eulogium of "Leaves of Grass" has been much commented upon. There may be two opinions as to the propriety of his course in this respect: a letter from a stranger upon a matter of public interest is not usually looked upon as a private letter. Emerson never spoke with more felicity and penetration than he does in this letter; but it is for Whitman's own sake that we would have had him practice self-denial in the matter; he greatly plumed himself upon Emerson's endorsement, and was guilty of the very bad taste of printing a sentence from the letter upon the cover of the next edition of his book. Grant that it showed a certain crudeness, unripeness, in one side of the man; later in life, he could not have erred in this way. Ruskin is reported saying that he never in his life wrote a letter to any human being that he would not be willing should be posted up in the market-place, or cried by the public crier through the town. But Emerson was a much more timid and conforming man than Ruskin, and was much more likely to be shocked by such a circumstance.
It has been said that the publication of this letter much annoyed Emerson, and that he never forgave Whitman the offense. That he was disturbed by it and by the storm that arose there can be little doubt; but there is no evidence that he allowed the fact to interfere with his friendship for the poet. Charles W. Eldridge, who personally knew of the relations of the two men, says:—
"There was not a year from 1855 (the date of the Emerson letter and its publication) down to 1860 (the year Walt came to Boston to supervise the issue of the Thayer & Eldridge edition of 'Leaves of Grass'), that Emerson did not personally seek out Walt at his Brooklyn home, usually that they might have a long symposium together at the Astor House in New York. Besides that, during these years Emerson sent many of his closest friends, including Alcott and Thoreau, to see Walt, giving them letters of introduction to him. This is not the treatment usually accorded a man who has committed an unpardonable offense.
"I know that afterwards, during Walt's stay in Boston, Emerson frequently came down from Concord to see him, and that they had many walks and talks together, these conferences usually ending with a dinner at the American House, at that time Emerson's favorite Boston hotel. On several occasions they met by appointment in our counting-room. Their relations were as cordial and friendly as possible, and it was always Emerson who sought out Walt, and never the other way, although, of course, Walt appreciated and enjoyed Emerson's companionship very much. In truth, Walt never sought the company of notables at all, and was always very shy of purely literary society. I know that at this time Walt was invited by Emerson to Concord, but declined to go, probably through his fear that he would see too much of the literary coterie that then clustered there, chiefly around Emerson."
Whitman gave himself to men as men and not as scholars or poets, and gave himself purely as a man. While not specially averse to meeting people on literary or intellectual grounds, yet it was more to his taste to meet on the broadest, commonest, human grounds. What you had seen or felt or suffered or done was of much more interest to him than what you had read or thought; your speculation about the soul interested him less than the last person you had met, or the last chore you had done.
Any glimpse of the farm, the shop, the household—any bit of real life, anything that carried the flavor and quality of concrete reality—was very welcome to him; herein, no doubt, showing the healthy, objective, artist mind. He never tired of hearing me talk about the birds or wild animals, or my experiences in camp in the woods, the kind of characters I had met there, and the flavor of the life of remote settlements in Maine or Canada. His inward, subjective life was ample of itself; he was familiar with all your thoughts and speculations beforehand: what he craved was wider experience,—to see what you had seen, and feel what you had felt. He was fond of talking with returned travelers and explorers, and with sailors, soldiers, mechanics; much of his vast stores of information upon all manner of subjects was acquired at firsthand, in the old way, from the persons who had seen or done or been what they described or related.
He had almost a passion for simple, unlettered humanity,—an attraction which specially intellectual persons will hardly understand. Schooling and culture are so often purchased at such an expense to the innate, fundamental human qualities! Ignorance, with sound instincts and the quality which converse with real things imparts to men, was more acceptable to him than so much of our sophisticated knowledge, or our studied wit, or our artificial poetry.
At the time of Whitman's death, one of our leading literary journals charged him with having brought on premature decay by leading a riotous and debauched life. I hardly need say that there was no truth in the charge. The tremendous emotional strain of writing his "Leaves," followed by his years of service in the army hospitals, where he contracted blood-poison, resulted at the age of fifty-four in the rupture of a small blood-vessel in the brain, which brought on partial paralysis. A sunstroke during his earlier manhood also played its part in the final break-down.
That, tried by the standard of the lives of our New England poets, Whitman's life was a blameless one, I do not assert; but that it was a sane, temperate, manly one, free from excesses, free from the perversions and morbidities of a mammonish, pampered, over-stimulated age, I do believe. Indeed, I may say I know. The one impression he never failed to make—physically, morally, intellectually—on young and old, women and men, was that of health, sanity, sweetness. This is the impression he seems to have made upon Mr. Howells, when he met the poet at Pfaff's early in the sixties.
The critic I have alluded to inferred license in the man from liberty in the poet. He did not have the gumption to see that Whitman made the experience of all men his own, and that his scheme included the evil as well as the good; that especially did he exploit the unloosed, all-loving, all-accepting natural man,—the man who is done with conventions, illusions and all morbid pietisms, and who gives himself lavishly to all that begets and sustains life. Yet not the natural or carnal man for his own sake, but for the sake of the spiritual meanings and values to which he is the key. Indeed, Whitman is about the most uncompromising spiritualist in literature; with him, all things exist by and for the soul. He felt the tie of universal brotherhood, also, as few have felt it. It was not a theory with him, but a fact that shaped his life and colored his poems. "Whoever degrades another degrades me," and the thought fired his imagination.
The student of Whitman's life and works will be early struck by three things,—his sudden burst into song, the maturity of his work from the first, and his self-knowledge and self-estimate. The fit of inspiration came upon him suddenly; it was like the flowering of the orchards in spring; there was little or no hint of it till almost the very hour of the event. Up to the time of the appearance of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," he had produced nothing above mediocrity. A hack writer on newspapers and magazines, then a carpenter and house-builder in a small way, then that astounding revelation "Leaves of Grass," the very audacity of it a gospel in itself. How dare he do it? how could he do it, and not betray hesitation or self-consciousness? It is one of the exceptional events in literary history. The main body of his work was produced in five or six years, or between 1854 and 1859. Of course it was a sudden flowering, which, consciously or unconsciously, must have been long preparing in his mind. His work must have had a long foreground, as Emerson suggested. Dr. Bucke, his biographer, thinks it was a special inspiration,—something analogous to Paul's conversion, a sudden opening of what the doctor calls "cosmic consciousness."
Another student and lover of Whitman says: "It is certain that some time about his thirty-fifth year [probably a little earlier] there came over him a decided change: he seemed immensely to broaden and deepen; he became less interested in what are usually regarded as the more practical affairs of life. He lost what little ambition he ever had for money-making, and permitted good business opportunities to pass unheeded. He ceased to write the somewhat interesting but altogether commonplace and respectable stories and verses which he had been in the habit of contributing to periodicals. He would take long trips into the country, no one knew where, and would spend more time in his favorite haunts about the city, or on the ferries, or the tops of omnibuses, at the theatre and opera, in picture galleries, and wherever he could observe men and women and art and nature."
Then the maturity of his work from the first line of it! It seems as if he came into the full possession of himself and of his material at one bound,—never had to grope for his way and experiment, as most men do. What apprenticeship he served, or with whom he served it, we get no hint. He has come to his own, and is in easy, joyful possession of it, when he first comes into view. He outlines his scheme in his first poem, "Starting from Paumanok," and he has kept the letter and the spirit of every promise therein made. We never see him doubtful or hesitating; we never see him battling for his territory, and uncertain whether or not he is upon his own ground. He has an air of contentment, of mastery and triumph, from the start.
His extraordinary self-estimate and self-awareness are equally noticeable. We should probably have to go back to sacred history to find a parallel case. The manner of man he was, his composite character, his relation to his country and times, his unlikeness to other poets, his affinity to the common people, how he would puzzle and elude his critics, how his words would itch at our ears till we understood them, etc.,—how did he know all this from the first?
HIS RULING IDEAS AND AIMS
Let me here summarize some of the ideas and principles in which "Leaves of Grass" has its root, and from which it starts. A collection of poems in the usual sense, a variety of themes artistically treated and appealing to our aesthetic perceptibilities alone, it is not. It has, strictly speaking, but one theme,—personality, the personality of the poet himself. To exploit this is always the main purpose, and, in doing so, to make the book both directly and indirectly a large, impassioned utterance upon all the main problems of life and of nationality. It is primitive, like the early literature of a race or people, in that its spirit and purpose are essentially religious. It is like the primitive literatures also in its prophetic cry and in its bardic simplicity and homeliness, and unlike them in its faith and joy and its unconquerable optimism.
It has been not inaptly called the bible of democracy. Its biblical features are obvious enough with the darker negative traits left out. It is Israel with science and the modern added.
Whitman was swayed by a few great passions,—the passion for country, the passion for comrades, the cosmic passion, etc. His first concern seems always to have been for his country. He has touched no theme, named no man, not related in some way to America. The thought of it possessed him as thoroughly as the thought of Israel possessed the old Hebrew prophets. Indeed, it is the same passion, and flames up with the same vitality and power,—the same passion for race and nativity enlightened by science and suffused with the modern humanitarian spirit. Israel was exclusive and cruel. Democracy, as exemplified in Walt Whitman, is compassionate and all-inclusive:—
"My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole earth, I have looked for equals and lovers, and found them ready for me in all lands; I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.
"O vapors! I think I have risen with you, and moved away to distant continents, and fallen down there, for reasons, I think I have blown with you, O winds, O waters, I have fingered every shore with you."
The work springs from the modern democratic conception of society,—of absolute social equality.
It embodies the modern scientific conception of the universe, as distinguished from the old theological conception,—namely, that creation is good and sound in all its parts.
It embodies a conception of evil as a part of the good, of death as the friend and not the enemy of life.
It places comradeship, manly attachment, above sex love, and indicates it as the cement of future states and republics.
It makes the woman the equal of the man, his mate and not his toy.
It treats sexuality as a matter too vital and important to be ignored or trifled with, much less perverted or denied. A full and normal sexuality,—upon this the race stands. We pervert, we deny, we corrupt sex at our peril. Its perversions and abnormalities are to be remedied by a frank and fervent recognition of it, almost a new Priapic cult.
It springs from a conception of poetry quite different from the current conception. It aims at the poetry of things rather than of words, and works by suggestion and indirection rather than by elaboration.
It aims to project into literature a conception of the new democratic man,—a type larger, more copious, more candid, more religious, than we have been used to. It finds its ideals, not among scholars or in the parlor or counting-houses, but among workers, doers, farmers, mechanics, the heroes of land and sea.
Hence the atmosphere which it breathes and effuses is that of real things, real men and women. It has not the perfume of the distilled and concentrated, but the all but impalpable odor of the open air, the shore, the wood, the hilltop. It aims, not to be a book, but to be a man.
Its purpose is to stimulate and arouse, rather than to soothe and satisfy. It addresses the character, the intuitions, the ego, more than the intellect or the purely aesthetic faculties. Its end is not taste, but growth in the manly virtues and powers.
Its religion shows no trace of theology, or the conventional pietism.
It aspires to a candor and a directness like that of Nature herself.
It aims to let Nature speak without check, with original energy. The only checks are those which health and wholeness demand.
Its standards are those of the natural universal.
Its method is egocentric. The poet never goes out of himself, but draws everything into himself and makes it all serve to illustrate his personality.
Its form is not what is called artistic. Its suggestion is to be found in organic nature, in trees, clouds, and in the vital and flowing currents.
In its composition the author was doubtless greatly influenced by the opera and the great singers, and the music of the great composers. He would let himself go in the same manner and seek his effects through multitude and the quality of the living voice.
Finally, "Leaves of Grass" is an utterance out of the depths of primordial, aboriginal human nature. It embodies and exploits a character not rendered anaemic by civilization, but preserving a sweet and sane savagery, indebted to culture only as a means to escape culture, reaching back always, through books, art, civilization, to fresh, unsophisticated nature, and drawing his strength thence.
Another of the ideas that master Whitman and rule him is the idea of identity,—that you are you and I am I, and that we are henceforth secure whatever comes or goes. He revels in this idea; it is fruitful with him; it begets in him the ego-enthusiasm, and is at the bottom of his unshakable faith in immortality. It leavens all his work. It cannot be too often said that the book is not merely a collection of pretty poems, themes elaborated and followed out at long removes from the personality of the poet, but a series of sorties into the world of materials, the American world, piercing through the ostensible shows of things to the interior meanings, and illustrating in a free and large way the genesis and growth of a man, his free use of the world about him, appropriating it to himself, seeking his spiritual identity through its various objects and experiences, and giving in many direct and indirect ways the meaning and satisfaction of life. There is much in it that is not poetical in the popular sense, much that is neutral and negative, and yet is an integral part of the whole, as is the case in the world we inhabit. If it offends, it is in a wholesome way, like objects in the open air.
Whitman rarely celebrates exceptional characters. He loves the common humanity, and finds his ideals among the masses. It is not difficult to reconcile his attraction toward the average man, towards workingmen and "powerful, uneducated persons," with the ideal of a high excellence, because he finally rests only upon the most elevated and heroic personal qualities,—elevated but well grounded in the common and universal.
The types upon which he dwells the most fondly are of the common people.
"I knew a man, He was a common farmer—he was the father of five sons, And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons.
"This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person, The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also, He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome, They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him, They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love; He drank water only—the blood showed like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face, He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sailed his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces presented to him by men that loved him; When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang, You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other."
All the motifs of his work are the near, the vital, the universal; nothing curious, or subtle, or far-fetched. His working ideas are democracy, equality, personality, nativity, health, sexuality, comradeship, self-esteem, the purity of the body, the equality of the sexes, etc. Out of them his work radiates. They are the eyes with which it sees, the ears with which it hears, the feet upon which it goes. The poems are less like a statement, an argument, an elucidation, and more like a look, a gesture, a tone of voice.
"The word I myself put primarily for the description of them as they stand at last," says the author, "is the word Suggestiveness."
"Leaves of Grass" requires a large perspective; you must not get your face too near the book. You must bring to it a magnanimity of spirit,—a charity and faith equal to its own. Looked at too closely, it often seems incoherent and meaningless; draw off a little and let the figure come out. The book is from first to last a most determined attempt, on the part of a large, reflective, loving, magnetic, rather primitive, thoroughly imaginative personality, to descend upon the materialism of the nineteenth century, and especially upon a new democratic nation now in full career upon this continent, with such poetic fervor and enthusiasm as to lift and fill it with the deepest meanings of the spirit and disclose the order of universal nature. The poet has taken shelter behind no precedent, or criticism, or partiality whatever, but has squarely and lovingly faced the oceanic amplitude and movement of the life of his times and land, and fused them in his fervid humanity, and imbued them with deepest poetic meanings. One of the most striking features of the book is the adequacy and composure, even joyousness and elation, of the poet in the presence of the huge materialism and prosaic conditions of our democratic era. He spreads himself over it all, he accepts and absorbs it all, he rejects no part; and his quality, his individuality, shines through it all, as the sun through vapors. The least line, or fragment of a line, is redolent of Walt Whitman. It is never so much the theme treated as it is the man exploited and illustrated. Walt Whitman does not write poems, strictly speaking,—does not take a bit of nature or life or character and chisel and carve it into a beautiful image or object, or polish and elaborate a thought, embodying it in pleasing tropes and pictures. His purpose is rather to show a towering, loving, composite personality moving amid all sorts of materials, taking them up but for a moment, disclosing new meanings and suggestions in them, passing on, bestowing himself upon whoever or whatever will accept him, tossing hints and clues right and left, provoking and stimulating the thought and imagination of his reader, but finishing nothing for him, leaving much to be desired, much to be completed by him in his turn.
The reader who would get at the spirit and meaning of "Leaves of Grass" must remember that its animating principle, from first to last, is Democracy,—that it is a work conceived and carried forward in the spirit of the genius of humanity that is now in full career in the New World,—and that all things characteristically American (trades, tools, occupations, productions, characters, scenes) therefore have their places in it. It is intended to be a complete mirror of the times in which the life of the poet fell, and to show one master personality accepting, absorbing all and rising superior to it,—namely, the poet himself. Yet it is never Whitman that speaks so much as it is Democracy that speaks through him. He personifies the spirit of universal brotherhood, and in this character launches forth his "omnivorous words." What would seem colossal egotism, shameless confessions, or unworthy affiliations with low, rude persons, what would seem confounding good and bad, virtue and vice, etc., in Whitman the man, the citizen, but serves to illustrate the boundless compassion and saving power of Whitman as the spokesman of ideal Democracy. With this clue in mind, many difficult things are made plain and easy in the works of this much misunderstood poet.
Perhaps the single poem that throws most light upon his aims and methods, and the demand he makes upon his reader, is in "Calamus," and is as follows:—
"Whoever you are holding me now in hand, Without one thing all will be useless, I give you fair warning before you attempt me further, I am not what you suppos'd, but far different.
"Who is he that would become my follower? Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?
"The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive, You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard, Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting, The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon'd, Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let go your hand from my shoulders, Put me down and depart on your way.
"Or else by stealth in some wood for trial, Or back of a rock in the open air, (For in any roof'd room of a house I emerge not, nor in company, And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,) But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any person for miles around approach unawares, Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or some quiet island, Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you, With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss, For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
"Or, if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip, Carry me when you go forth over land or sea; For thus merely touching you is enough, is best, And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.
"But these leaves conning you con at peril, For these leaves and me you will not understand, They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will certainly elude you, Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold! Already you see I have escaped from you.
"For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book, Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it, Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me, Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few) prove victorious, Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps more, For all is useless without that for which you may guess at many times and not hit, that which I hinted at, Therefore release me and depart on your way."
When one has fully mastered this poem he has got a pretty good hold upon Whitman's spirit and method. His open-air standards, the baffling and elusive character of his work, the extraordinary demand it makes, its radical and far-reaching effects upon life, its direct cognizance of evil as a necessary part of the good (there was a human need of sin, said Margaret Fuller) its unbookish spirit and affiliations, its indirect and suggestive method, that it can be fully read only through our acquaintance with life and real things at first hand, etc.,—all this and more is in the poem.
It is over sixty years since Goethe said that to be a German author was to be a German martyr. I presume things have changed in Germany since those times, and that the Goethe of to-day does not encounter the jealousy and hatred the great poet and critic of Weimar seemed to have called forth. In Walt Whitman we in America have known an American author who was an American martyr in a more literal sense than any of the men named by the great German. More than Heine, or Rousseau, or Moliere, or Byron, was Whitman a victim of the literary Philistinism of his country and times; but, fortunately for himself, his was a nature so large, tolerant, and self-sufficing that his martyrdom sat very lightly upon him. His unpopularity was rather a tonic to him than otherwise. It was of a kind that tries a man's mettle, and brings out his heroic traits if he has any. One almost envies him his unpopularity. It was of the kind that only the greatest ones have experienced, and that attests something extraordinary in the recipient of it. He said he was more resolute because all had denied him than he ever could have been had all accepted, and he added:—
"I heed not and have never heeded either cautions, majorities, nor ridicule."
There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature. Whitman's is the most striking case in our literary annals,—probably the most striking one in our century outside of politics and religion. The inward voice alone was the oracle he obeyed: "My commission obeying, to question it never daring."
The bitter-sweet cup of unpopularity he drained to its dregs, and drained it cheerfully, as one knowing beforehand that it is preparing for him and cannot be avoided.
"Have you learn'd lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn'd great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?"
Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions. Whitman's life, underneath its easy tolerance and cheerful good-will, was heroic. He fought his battle against great odds and he conquered; he had his own way, he yielded not a hair to the enemy.
The pressure brought to bear upon him by the press, by many of his friends, and by such a man as Emerson, whom he deeply reverenced, to change or omit certain passages from his poems, seems only to have served as the opposing hammer that clinched the nail. The louder the outcry the more deeply he felt it his duty to stand by his first convictions. The fierce and scornful opposition to his sex poems, and to his methods and aims generally, was probably more confirmatory than any approval could have been. It went to the quick. During a dark period of his life, when no publisher would touch his book and when its exclusion from the mails was threatened, and poverty and paralysis were upon him, a wealthy Philadelphian offered to furnish means for its publication if he would omit certain poems; but the poet does not seem to have been tempted for one moment by the offer. He cheerfully chose the heroic part, as he always did.
Emerson reasoned and remonstrated with him for hours, walking up and down Boston Common, and after he had finished his argument, says Whitman, which was unanswerable, "I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way." He told Emerson so, whereupon they went and dined together. The independence of the poet probably impressed Emerson more than his yielding would have done, for had not he preached the adamantine doctrine of self-trust? "To believe your own thought," he says, "to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true of all men,—that is genius."
In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for,—the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate, or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of old.
The moment a man "acts for himself," says Emerson, "tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him."
Whitman took the philosopher at his word. "Greatness once and forever has done with opinion," even the opinion of the good Emerson. "Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind, and in contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good." "Every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good,"—popularity, for instance. "The characteristic of heroism is persistency." "When you have chosen your part abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world." "Adhere to your act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age." Heroism "is the avowal of the unschooled man that he finds a quality in him that is negligent of expense, of health, of life, of danger, of hatred, of reproach, and knows that his will is higher and more excellent than all actual and all possible antagonists." "A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he." "Great works of art," he again says, "teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-natured inflexibility, the more when the whole cry of voices is on the other side."
These brave sayings of Emerson were all illustrated and confirmed by Whitman's course. The spectacle of this man sitting there by the window of his little house in Camden, poor and partially paralyzed, and looking out upon the trite and commonplace scenes and people, or looking athwart the years and seeing only detraction and denial, yet always serene, cheerful, charitable, his wisdom and tolerance ripening and mellowing with time, is something to treasure and profit by. He was a man who needed no assurances. He had the patience and the leisure of nature. He welcomed your friendly and sympathetic word, or with equal composure he did without it.
I remember calling upon him shortly after Swinburne's fierce onslaught upon him had been published, some time in the latter part of the eighties. I was curious to see how Whitman took it, but I could not discover either in word or look that he was disturbed a particle by it. He spoke as kindly of Swinburne as ever. If he was pained at all, it was on Swinburne's account and not on his own. It was a sad spectacle to see a man retreat upon himself as Swinburne had done. In fact I think hostile criticism, fiercely hostile, gave Whitman nearly as much comfort as any other. Did it not attest reality? Men do not brace themselves against shadows. Swinburne's polysyllabic rage showed the force of the current he was trying to stem. As for Swinburne's hydrocephalic muse, I do not think Whitman took any interest in it from the first.
Self-reliance, or self-trust, is one of the principles Whitman announces in his "Laws for Creations." He saw that no first-class work is possible except it issue from a man's deepest, most radical self.
"What do you suppose creation is? What do you suppose will satisfy the soul but to walk free and own no superior? What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but that man or woman is as good as God? And that there is no God any more divine than yourself? And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean? And that you or any one must approach creations through such laws?"
I think it probable that Whitman anticipated a long period of comparative oblivion for himself and his works. He knew from the first that the public would not be with him; he knew that the censors of taste, the critics and literary professors, would not be with him; he knew that the vast army of Philistia, the respectable, fashionable mammon-worshiping crowd, would not be with him,—that the timid, the pampered, the prurient, the conforming, the bourgeoisie spirit, the class spirit, the academic spirit, the Pharisaic spirit in all its forms, would all work against him; and that, as in the case of nearly all original, first-class men, he would have to wait to be understood for the growth of the taste of himself. None knew more clearly than he did how completely our people were under the illusion of the genteel and the conventional, and that, even among the emancipated few, the possession of anything like robust aesthetic perception was rare enough. America, so bold and original and independent in the world of practical politics and material endeavor, is, in spiritual and imaginative regions, timid, conforming, imitative. There is, perhaps, no civilized country in the world wherein the native, original man, the real critter, as Whitman loved to say, that underlies all our culture and conventions, crops out so little in manners, in literature, and in social usages. The fear of being unconventional is greater with us than the fear of death. A certain evasiveness, polish, distrust of ourselves, amounting to insipidity and insincerity, is spoken of by observant foreigners. In other words, we are perhaps the least like children of any people in the world. All these things were against Whitman, and will continue to be against him for a long time. With the first stroke he broke through the conventional and took his stand upon the natural. With rude hands he tore away the veils and concealments from the body and from the soul. He ignored entirely all social and conventional usages and hypocrisies, not by revolt against them, but by choosing a point of view from which they disappeared. He embraced the unrefined and the savage as well as the tender and human. The illusions of the past, the models and standards, he freed himself of at once, and declared for the beauty and the divinity of the now and the here. The rude realism of his "Leaves" shocked like a plunge in the surf, but it invigorated also, if we were strong enough to stand it.
Out of Whitman's absolute self-trust arose his prophetic egotism,—the divine fervor and audacity of the simple ego. He shared the conviction of the old prophets that man is a part of God, and that there is nothing in the universe any more divine than the individual soul. "I, too," he says, and this line is the key to much there is in his work—
"I, too, have felt the resistless call of myself."
With the old Biblical writers the motions of their own spirits, their thoughts, their dreams, were the voice of God. There is something of the same sort in Whitman. The voice of that inner self was final and authoritative with him. It was the voice of God. He could drive through and over all the conventions of the world in obedience to that voice. This call to him was as a voice from Sinai. One of his mastering thoughts was the thought of identity,—that you are you, and I am I. This was the final meaning of things, and the meaning of immortality. "Yourself, yourself, YOURSELF," he says, with swelling vehemence, "forever and ever." To be compacted and riveted and fortified in yourself, so as to be a law unto yourself, is the final word of the past and of the present.
The shadow of Whitman's self-reliance and heroic self-esteem—the sort of eddy or back-water—was undoubtedly a childlike fondness for praise and for seeing his name in print. In his relaxed moments, when the stress of his task was not upon him, he was indeed in many respects a child. He had a child's delight in his own picture. He enjoyed hearing himself lauded as Colonel Ingersoll lauded him in his lecture in Philadelphia, and as his friends lauded him at his birthday dinner parties during the last two or three years of his life; he loved to see his name in print, and items about himself in the newspapers; he sometimes wrote them himself and gave them to the reporters. And yet nothing is surer than that he shaped his life and did his work absolutely indifferent to either praise or blame; in fact, that he deliberately did that which he knew would bring him dispraise. The candor and openness of the man's nature would not allow him to conceal or feign anything. If he loved praise, why should he not be frank about it? Did he not lay claim to the vices and vanities of men also? At its worst, Whitman's vanity was but the foible of a great nature, and should count for but little in the final estimate. The common human nature to which he lay claim will assert itself; it is not always to be kept up to the heroic pitch.
It was difficult to appreciate his liking for the newspaper. But he had been a newspaper man himself; the printer's ink had struck in; he had many associations with the press-room and the composing-room; he loved the common, democratic character of the newspaper; it was the average man's library. The homely uses to which it was put, and the humble firesides to which it found its way, endeared it to him, and made him love to see his name in it.
Whitman's vanity was of the innocent, good-natured kind. He was as tolerant of your criticism as of your praise. Selfishness, in any unworthy sense, he had none. Offensive arrogance and self-assertion, in his life there was none.
His egotism is of the large generous species that never irritates or pricks into you like that of the merely conceited man. His love, his candor, his sympathy are on an equal scale.
His egotism comes finally to affect one like the independence and indifference of natural law. It takes little heed of our opinion, whether it be for or against, and keeps to its own way whatever befall.
Whitman's absolute faith in himself was a part of his faith in creation. He felt himself so keenly a part of the whole that he shared its soundness and excellence; he must be good as it is good.
Whitman showed just enough intention, or premeditation in his life, dress, manners, attitudes in his pictures, self-portrayals in his poems, etc., to give rise to the charge that he was a poseur. He was a poseur in the sense, and to the extent, that any man is a poseur who tries to live up to a certain ideal and to realize it in his outward daily life. It is clear that he early formed the habit of self-contemplation and of standing apart and looking upon himself as another person. Hence his extraordinary self-knowledge, and, we may also say, his extraordinary self-appreciation, or to use his own words, "the quite changed attitude of the ego, the one chanting or talking, towards himself." Of course there is danger in this attitude, but Whitman was large enough and strong enough to escape it. He saw himself to be the typical inevitable democrat that others have seen him to be, and with perfect candor and without ever forcing the note, he portrays himself as such. As his work is confessedly the poem of himself, himself magnified and projected, as it were, upon the canvas of a great age and country, all his traits and qualities stand out in heroic proportions, his pride and egotism as well as his love and tolerance.
"How beautiful is candor," he says. "All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor." The last thing that could ever be charged of Whitman is that he lacked openness, or was guilty of any deceit or concealments in his life or works.
From the studies, notes, and scrap-books which Whitman left, it appears that he was long preparing and disciplining himself for the work he had in view. "The long foreground," to which Emerson referred in his letter, was of course a reality. But this self-consciousness and self-adjustment to a given end is an element of strength and not of weakness.
In the famous vestless and coatless portrait of himself prefixed to the first "Leaves of Grass" he assumes an attitude and is in a sense a poseur; but the reader comes finally to wonder at the marvelous self-knowledge the picture displays, and how strictly typical it is of the poet's mental and spiritual attitude towards the world,—independent, unconventional, audacious, yet inquiring and sympathetic in a wonderful degree. In the same way he posed in other portraits. A favorite with him is the one in which he sits contemplating a butterfly upon his forefinger—typical of a man "preoccupied of his own soul." In another he peers out curiously as from behind a mask. In an earlier one he stands, hat in hand, in marked neglige costume,—a little too intentional, one feels. The contempt of the polished ones is probably very strong within him at this time. I say contempt, though I doubt if Whitman ever felt contempt for any human being.
Then Whitman had a curious habit of standing apart, as it were, and looking upon himself and his career as of some other person. He was interested in his own cause, and took a hand in the discussion. From first to last he had the habit of regarding himself objectively. On his deathbed he seemed to be a spectator of his own last moments, and was seen to feel his pulse a few minutes before he breathed his last.
He has recorded this trait in his poems:—
"Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionate, idle, waiting, Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next, Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it."
As also in this from "Calamus:"—
"That shadow my likeness that goes to and fro seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering, How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits, How often I question and doubt whether that is really me; But among my lovers, and caroling these songs, Oh, I never doubt whether that is really me."
Whitman always speaks as one having authority and not as a scribe, not as a mere man of letters. This is the privilege of the divine egoism of the prophet.
Like the utterances of the biblical writers, without argument, without elaboration, his mere dictum seems the word of fate. It is not the voice of a man who has made his way through the world by rejecting and denying, but by accepting all and rising superior. What the "push of reading" or the push of argument could not start is often started and clinched by his mere authoritative "I say."
"I say where liberty draws not the blood out of slavery, there slavery draws the blood out of liberty,"... "I say the human shape or face is so great it must never be made ridiculous; I say for ornaments nothing outre can be allowed, And that anything is most beautiful without ornament, And that exaggerations will be sternly revenged in your own physiology and in other persons' physiologies also.
"Think of the past; I warn you that in a little while others will find their past in you and your times.... Think of spiritual results. Sure as the earth swims through the heavens, does every one of its objects pass into spiritual results. Think of manhood, and you to be a man; Do you count manhood, and the sweet of manhood, nothing? Think of womanhood and you to be a woman; The Creation is womanhood; Have I not said that womanhood involves all? Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?"
Egotism is usually intolerant, but Whitman was one of the most tolerant of men.
A craving for sympathy and personal affection he certainly had; to be valued as a human being was more to him than to be valued as a poet. His strongest attachments were probably for persons who had no opinion, good or bad, of his poetry at all.
Under close scrutiny his egotism turns out to be a kind of altru-egotism, which is vicarious and all-inclusive of his fellows. It is one phase of his democracy, and is vital and radical in his pages. It is a high, imperturbable pride in his manhood and in the humanity which he shares with all. It is the exultant and sometimes almost arrogant expression of the feeling which underlies and is shaping the whole modern world—the feeling and conviction that the individual man is above all forms, laws, institutions, conventions, bibles, religions—that the divinity of kings, and the sacredness of priests of the old order, pertains to the humblest person.
It was a passion that united him to his fellows rather than separated him from them. His pride was not that of a man who sets himself up above others, or who claims some special advantage or privilege, but that godlike quality that would make others share its great good-fortune. Hence we are not at all shocked when the poet, in the fervor of his love for mankind, determinedly imputes to himself all the sins and vices and follies of his fellow-men. We rather glory in it. This self-abasement is the seal of the authenticity of his egotism. Without those things there might be some ground for the complaint of a Boston critic of Whitman that his work was not noble, because it celebrated pride, and did not inculcate the virtues of humility and self-denial. The great lesson of the "Leaves," flowing curiously out of its pride and egotism, is the lesson of charity, of self-surrender, and the free bestowal of yourself upon all hands.
The law of life of great art is the law of life in ethics, and was long ago announced.
He that would lose his life shall find it; he who gives himself the most freely shall the most freely receive. Whitman made himself the brother and equal of all, not in word, but in very deed; he was in himself a compend of the people for which he spoke, and this breadth of sympathy and free giving of himself has resulted in an unexpected accession of power.
HIS RELATION TO ART AND LITERATURE
Whitman protests against his "Leaves" being judged merely as literature; but at the same time, if they are not good literature, that of course ends the matter. Still while the questions of art, of form, of taste, are paramount in most other poets,—certainly in all third and fourth rate poets, in Whitman they are swallowed up in other questions and values.
In numerous passages, by various figures and allegories, Whitman indicates that he would not have his book classed with the order of mere literary productions.
"Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries," he says in one of the "Inscriptions,"—
"For that which was lacking in all your well-fill'd shelves, yet needed most, I bring. Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made, The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything, A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect, But you, ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."
Not linked with the studied and scholarly productions, not open to the mere bookish mind, but more akin to the primitive utterances and oracles of historic humanity. A literary age like ours lays great stress upon the savor of books, art, culture, and has little taste for the savor of real things, the real man, which we get in Whitman.
"It is the true breath of humanity," says Renan, "and not literary merit, that constitutes the beautiful." An Homeric poem written to-day, he goes on to say, would not be beautiful, because it would not be true; it would not contain this breath of a living humanity. "It is not Homer who is beautiful, it is the Homeric life." The literary spirit begat Tennyson, begat Browning, begat the New England poets, but it did not in the same sense beget Whitman, any more than it begat Homer or Job or Isaiah. The artist may delight in him and find his own ideals there; the critic may study him and find the poet master of all his weapons; the disciple of culture will find, as Professor Triggs has well said, that "there is no body of writings in literature which demands a wider conversancy with the best that has been thought or said in the world,"—yet the poet escapes from all hands that would finally hold him and monopolize him. Whitman is an immense solvent,—forms, theories, rules, criticisms, disappear in his fluid, teeming pages. Much can be deduced from him, because much went to the making up of his point of view. He makes no criticism, yet a far-reaching criticism is implied in the very start of his poems. No modern poet presupposes so much, or requires so much preliminary study and reflection. He brings a multitude of questions and problems, and, what is singular, he brings them in himself; they are implied in his temper, and in his attitude toward life and reality.
Whitman says he has read his "Leaves" to himself in the open air, that he has tried himself by the elemental laws; and tells us in many ways, direct and indirect, that the standards he would be tried by are not those of art or books, but of absolute nature. He has been laughed at for calling himself a "Kosmos," but evidently he uses the term to indicate this elemental, dynamic character of his work,—its escape from indoor, artificial standards, its aspiration after the "amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and the equilibrium also."
Unless the poetic perception is fundamental in us, and can grasp the poetry of things, actions, characters, multitudes, heroisms, we shall read Whitman with very poor results. Unless America, the contemporary age, life, nature, are poetical to us, Whitman will not be. He has aimed at the larger poetry of forces, masses, persons, enthusiasms, rather than at the poetry of the specially rare and fine. He kindles in me the delight I have in space, freedom, power, the elements, the cosmic, democracy, and the great personal qualities of self-reliance, courage, candor, charity.
Always in the literary poets are we impressed with the art of the poet as something distinct from the poet himself, and more or less put on. The poet gets himself up for the occasion; he assumes the pose and the language of the poet, as the priest assumes the pose and the language of devotion. In Whitman the artist and the man are one. He never gets himself up for the occasion. Our pleasure in him is rarely or never our pleasure in the well-dressed, the well-drilled, the cultivated, the refined, the orderly, but it is more akin to our pleasure in real things, in human qualities and powers, in freedom, health, development. Yet I never open his book without being struck afresh with its pictural quality, its grasp of the concrete, its vivid realism, its intimate sense of things, persons, truths, qualities, such as only the greatest artists can give us, and such as we can never get in mere prose. It is as direct as a challenge, as personal as a handshake, and yet withal how mystical, how elusive, how incommensurable! To deny that Whitman belongs to the fraternity of great artists, the shapers and moulders of the ideal,—those who breathe the breath of life into the clay or stone of common facts and objects, who make all things plastic and the vehicles of great and human emotions,—is to read him very inadequately, to say the least. To get at Walt Whitman you must see through just as much as you do in dealing with nature; you are to bring the same interpretive imagination. You are not to be balked by what appears to be the coarse and the familiar, or his rank contemporaneity; after a time you will surely see the lambent spiritual flames that play about it all.
"Prophetic spirit of materials shifting and flickering about me,"
and his cosmic splendor, depth, and power. It is not the denial of art, it is a new affirmation of life. It is one phase of his democracy. It is the logical conclusion of the vestless and coatless portrait of himself that appeared in the first edition of his poems. He would give us more of the man, a fuller measure of personal, concrete, human qualities, than any poet before him. He strips away the artificial wrappings and illusions usual in poetry, and relies entirely upon the native and intrinsic. He will have no curtains, he says,—not the finest,—between himself and his reader.
"Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, You shall possess the good of the earth and sun (there are millions of suns left), You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."
This is a hint of his democracy as applied to literature,—more direct and immediate contact with the primary and universal, less of the vestments and trappings of art and more of the push and power of original character and of nature.
It seems to me it is always in order to protest against the narrow and dogmatic spirit that so often crops out in current criticism touching this matter of art. "The boundaries of art are jealously guarded," says a recent authority, as if art had boundaries like a state or province that had been accurately surveyed and fixed,—as if art was a fact and not a spirit.
Now I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an "enclosure,"—a province fenced off and set apart from the rest,—any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim,—to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism. Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing,—has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.
The trouble with most of us is that we found our taste for poetry upon particular authors, instead of upon literature as a whole, or, better yet, upon life and reality. Hence we form standards instead of principles. Standards are limited, rigid, uncompromising, while principles are flexible, expansive, creative. If we are wedded to the Miltonic standard of poetry, the classic standards, we shall have great difficulties with Whitman; but if we have founded our taste upon natural principles—if we have learned to approach literature through reality, instead of reality through literature—we shall not be the victims of any one style or model; we shall be made free of all. The real test of art, of any art, as Burke long ago said, and as quoted by Mr. Howells in his trenchant little volume called "Criticism and Fiction," is to be sought outside of art, namely, in nature. "I can judge but poorly of anything while I measure it by no other standard than itself. The true standard of the arts is in every man's power; and an easy observation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest, things in nature will give the truest lights." It is thought that the preeminence of the Greek standards is settled when we say they are natural. Yes, but Nature is not Greek. She is Asiatic, German, English, as well.
In poetry, in art, a man must sustain a certain vital relation to his work, and that work must sustain a certain vital relation to the laws of mind and of life. That is all, and that leaves the doors very wide. We are not to ask, Is it like this or like that? but, Is it vital, is it real, is it a consistent, well-organized whole?
The poet must always interpret himself and nature after his own fashion. Is his fashion adequate? Is the interpretation vivid and real? Do his lines cut to the quick, and beget heat and joy in the soul? If we cannot make the poet's ideal our own by sharing his enthusiasm for it, the trouble is as likely to be in ourselves as in him. In any case he must be a law unto himself.
The creative artist differs from the mere writer or thinker in this: he sustains a direct personal relation to his subject through emotion, intuition, will. The indirect, impersonal relation which works by reflection, comparison, and analysis is that of the critic and philosopher. The man is an artist when he gives us a concrete and immediate impression of reality: from his hands we get the thing itself; from the critic and thinker we get ideas about the thing. The poet does not merely say the world is beautiful; he shows it as beautiful: he does not describe the flower; he places it before us. What are the enemies of art? Reflection, didacticism, description, the turgid, the obscure. A poet with a thesis to sustain is more or less barred from the freedom of pure art. It is by direct and unconsidered expression, says Scherer, that art communicates with reality. The things that make for art, then, are feeling, intuition, sentiment, soul, a fresh and vigorous sense of real things,—in fact, all that makes for life, health, and wholeness. Goethe is more truly an artist in the first part of Faust than in the second; Arnold has a more truly artistic mind than Lowell.
The principles of art are always the same in the respect I have indicated, just as the principles of life are always the same, or of health and longevity are always the same. No writer is an artist who is related to his subject simply by mental or logical grip alone: he must have a certain emotional affiliation and identity with it; he does not so much convey to us ideas and principles as pictures, parables, impressions,—a lively sense of real things. When we put Whitman outside the pale of art, we must show his shortcomings here; we must show that he is not fluid and generative,—that he paints instead of interprets, that he gives us reasons instead of impulses, a stone when we ask for bread. "I do not give a little charity," he says; "when I give, I give myself." This the artist always does, not his mind merely, but his soul, his personality. "Leaves of Grass" is as direct an emanation from a central personal force as any book in literature, and always carries its own test and its own proof. It never hardens into a system, it never ceases to be penetrated with will and emotion, it never declines from the order of deeds to the order of mere thoughts. All is movement, progress, evolution, picture, parable, impulse.
It is on these grounds that Whitman, first of all, is an artist. He has the artist temperament. His whole life was that of a man who lives to ideal ends,—who lived to bestow himself upon others, to extract from life its meaning and its joy.
Whitman has let himself go, and trusted himself to the informal and spontaneous, to a degree unprecedented. His course required a self-reliance of the highest order; it required an innate cohesion and homogeneity, a firmness and consistency of individual outline, that few men have. It would seem to be much easier to face the poet's problem in the old, well-worn forms—forms that are so winsome and authoritative in themselves—than, to stand upon a basis so individual and intrinsic as Whitman chose to stand upon. His course goes to the quick at once. How much of a man are you? How vital and fundamental is your poetic gift? Can it go alone? Can it face us in undress?
Never did the artist more cunningly conceal himself; never did he so completely lose himself in the man, identifying himself with the natural and spontaneous; never emerging and challenging attention on his own account, denying us when we too literally seek him, mocking us when we demand his credentials, and revealing himself only when we have come to him upon his own terms.
The form the poet chose favored this self-revelation; there is nothing, no outside conscious art, to stand between himself and his reader. "This is no book," he says: "who touches this touches a man." In one sense Whitman is without art,—the impression which he always seeks to make is that of reality itself. He aims to give us reality without the usual literary veils and illusions,—the least possible amount of the artificial, the extrinsic, the put-on, between himself and his reader. He banishes from his work, as far as possible, what others are so intent upon,—all atmosphere of books and culture, all air of literary intention and decoration,—and puts his spirit frankly and immediately to his readers. The verse does not seem to have been shaped; it might have grown: it takes no apparent heed of externals, but flows on like a brook, irregular, rhythmical, and always fluid and real. A cry will always be raised against the producer in any field who discards the authority of the models and falls back upon simple Nature, or upon himself, as Millet did in painting, and Wagner in music, and Whitman in poetry.
Whitman's working ideas, the principles that inspired him, are all directly related to life and the problems of life; they are democracy, nature, freedom, love, personality, religion: while the ideas from which our poets in the main draw their inspiration are related to art,—they are literary ideas, such as lucidity, form, beauty.
Much light is thrown upon Whitman's literary methods and aims by a remark which he once made in conversation with Dr. Bucke:—
"I have aimed to make the book simple,—tasteless, or with little taste,—with very little or no perfume. The usual way is for the poet or writer to put in as much taste, perfume, piquancy, as he can; but this is not the way of nature, which I take for model. Nature presents us her productions—her air, earth, waters, even her flowers, grains, meats—with faint and delicate flavor and fragrance, but these in the long run make the deepest impression. Man, dealing with natural things, constantly aims to increase their piquancy. By crossing and selection he deepens and intensifies the scents and hues of flowers, the tastes of fruits, and so on. He pursues the same method in poetry,—that is, strives for strong light or shade, for high color, perfume, pungency, in all ways for the greatest immediate effect. In so doing he leaves the true way, the way of Nature, and, in the long run, comes far short of producing her effects."
More light of the same kind is thrown upon his methods by the following passage from the preface to the first edition of his poems in 1855.
"To speak in literature," he says, "with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art." And again: "The great poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome; I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell, I tell for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or soothe, I will have purpose, as health or heat or snow has, and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me."
But in view of the profound impression Whitman's work has made upon widely different types of mind on both sides of the Atlantic, and in view of the persistent vitality of his fame, the question whether he is inside or outside the pale of art amounts to very little. I quite agree with the late Mrs. Gilchrist, that, when "great meanings and great emotions are expressed with corresponding power, literature has done its best, call it what you please."
That Whitman has expressed great meanings and great emotions with adequate power, even his unfriendly critics admit. Thus Professor Wendell, in an admirable essay on American literature, says that "though Whitman is uncouth, inarticulate, and lacking in a grotesque degree artistic form, yet for all that he can make you feel for the moment how even the ferry-boats plying from New York to Brooklyn are fragments of God's eternities." In the same way Mr. William Clark, his British critic and expounder, says that he is wanting in discrimination and art, "flings his ideas at us in a heap," etc., and yet that the effect of his work is "to stir our emotions, widen our interests, and rally the forces of our moral nature."
It seems to me that a man who, through the printed page, can do these things, must have some kind of art worth considering. If, through his impassioned treatment of a prosy, commonplace object like a ferry-boat, he can so dignify and exalt it, and so fill it with the meanings of the spirit, that it seems like a part of God's eternities, his methods are at least worth inquiring into.
The truth is, Whitman's art, in its lack of extrinsic form and finish, is Oriental rather than Occidental, and is an offense to a taste founded upon the precision and finish of a mechanical age. His verse is like the irregular, slightly rude coin of the Greeks compared with the exact, machine-cut dies of our own day, or like the unfinished look of Japanese pottery beside the less beautiful but more perfect specimens of modern ceramic art.
For present purposes, we may say there are two phases of art,—formal art and creative art. By formal art I mean that which makes a direct appeal to our sense of form,—our sense of the finely carved, the highly wrought, the deftly planned; and by creative art I mean that quickening, fructifying power of the masters, that heat and passion that make the world plastic and submissive to their hands, teeming with new meanings and thrilling with new life.
Formal art is always in the ascendant. Formal anything—formal dress, formal manners, formal religion, formal this and that—always counts for more than the informal, the spontaneous, the original. It is easier, it can be put off and on.
Formal art is nearly always the gift of the minor poet, and often of the major poet also. In such a poet as Swinburne, formal art leads by a great way. The content of his verse,—what is it? In Tennyson as well I should say formal art is in the ascendant. Creative art is his also; Tennyson reaches and moves the spirit, yet his skill is more noteworthy than his power. In Wordsworth, on the other hand, I should say creative art led: the content of his verse is more than its form; his spiritual and religious values are greater than his literary and artistic. The same is true of our own Emerson. Poe, again, is much more as an artist than as a man or a personality.
I hardly need say that in Whitman formal art, the ostensibly artistic, counts for but very little. The intentional artist, the professional poet, is kept entirely in abeyance, or is completely merged and hidden in the man, more so undoubtedly than in any poet this side the old Oriental bards. We call him formless, chaotic, amorphous, etc., because he makes no appeal to our modern highly stimulated sense of art or artificial form. We must discriminate this from our sense of power, our sense of life, our sense of beauty, of the sublime, of the all, which clearly Whitman would reach and move. Whitman certainly has a form of his own: what would a poet, or any writer or worker in the ideal, do without some kind of form? some consistent and adequate vehicle of expression? But Whitman's form is not what is called artistic, because it is not brought within the rules of the prosodical system, and does not appeal to our sense of the consciously shaped and cultivated. It is essentially the prose form heightened and intensified by a deep, strong, lyric and prophetic note.
The bonds and shackles of regular verse-form Whitman threw off. This course seemed to be demanded by the spirit to which he had dedicated himself,—the spirit of absolute unconstraint. The restrictions and hamperings of the scholastic forms did not seem to be consistent with this spirit, which he identified with democracy and the New World. A poet who sets out to let down the bars everywhere, to remove veils and obstructions, to emulate the freedom of the elemental forces, to effuse always the atmosphere of open-air growths and objects, to be as "regardless of observation" as the processes of nature, etc., will not be apt to take kindly to any arbitrary and artificial form of expression. The essentially prose form which Whitman chose is far more in keeping with the spirit and aim of his work than any conventional metrical system could have been. Had he wrought solely as a conscious artist, aiming at the effect of finely chiseled forms, he would doubtless have chosen a different medium.
Whitman threw himself with love and enthusiasm upon this great, crude, seething, materialistic American world. The question is, Did he master it? Is he adequate to absorb and digest it? Does he make man-stuff of it? Is it plastic in his hands? Does he stamp it with his own image? I do not ask, Does he work it up into what are called artistic forms? Does he make it the quarry from which he carves statues or builds temples? because evidently he does not do this, or assume to do it. He is content if he present America and the modern to us as they are inwrought into his own personality, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, or as character, passion, will, motive, conviction. He would show them subjectively and as living impulses in himself. Of course a great constructive, dramatic poet like Shakespeare would have solved his problem in a different manner, or through the objective, artistic portrayal of types and characters. But the poet and prophet of democracy and of egotism shows us all things in and through himself.
His egotism, or egocentric method, is the fundamental fact about his work. It colors all and determines all. The poems are the direct outgrowth of the personality of the poet; they are born directly upon the ego, as it were, like the fruit of that tropical tree which grows immediately upon the trunk. His work is nearer his radical, primary self than that of most poets. He never leads us away from himself into pleasant paths with enticing flowers of fancy or forms of art. He carves or shapes nothing for its own sake; there is little in the work that can stand on independent grounds as pure art. His work is not material made precious by elaboration and finish, but by its relation to himself and to the sources of life.
Whitman was compelled to this negation of extrinsic art by the problem he had set before himself,—first, to arouse, to suggest, rather than to finish or elaborate, less to display any theme or thought than "to bring the reader into the atmosphere of the theme or thought;" secondly, to make his own personality the chief factor in the volume, or present it so that the dominant impression should always be that of the living, breathing man as we meet him and see him and feel him in life, and never as we see him and feel him in books or art,—the man in the form and garb of actual, concrete life, not as poet or artist, but simply as man. This is doubtless the meaning of the vestless and coatless portrait of himself prefixed to the first issue of the "Leaves," to which I have referred. This portrait is symbolical of the whole attitude of the poet toward his task. It was a hint that we must take this poet with very little literary tailoring; it was a hint that he belonged to the open air, and came of the people and spoke in their spirit.
It is never the theme treated, but always the character exploited; never the structure finished, but always the plan suggested; never the work accomplished, but always the impulse imparted,—freedom, power, growth.
"Allons! we must not stop here. However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling, we cannot remain here, However sheltered this port, or however calm these waters, we must not anchor here, However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
"Allons! With power, liberty, the earth, the elements! Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity; Allons! from all formulas! From your formulas, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests!"
This magnificent poem, "The Song of the Open Road," is one of the most significant in Whitman's work. He takes the open road as his type,—not an end in itself, not a fulfillment, but a start, a journey, a progression. It teaches him the profound lesson of reception, "no preference nor denial," and the profounder lesson of liberty and truth:—
"From this hour, freedom! From this hour I ordain myself loosed of limits and imaginary lines, Going where I list—my own master, total and absolute, Listening to others, and considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
"I inhale great draughts of air, The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine."
He will not rest with art, he will not rest with books, he will press his way steadily toward the largest freedom.
"Only the kernel of every object nourishes. Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me? Where is he who undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?"
Whitman was not a builder. If he had the architectural power which the great poets have shown, he gave little proof of it. It was not required by the task he set before himself. His book is not a temple: it is a wood, a field, a highway; vista, vista, everywhere,—vanishing lights and shades, truths half disclosed, successions of objects, hints, suggestions, brief pictures, groups, voices, contrasts, blendings, and, above all, the tonic quality of the open air. The shorter poems are like bunches of herbs or leaves, or a handful of sprays gathered in a walk; never a thought carefully carved, and appealing to our sense of artistic form.
The main poem of the book, "The Song of Myself," is a series of utterances, ejaculations, apostrophes, enumerations, associations, pictures, parables, incidents, suggestions, with little or no structural or logical connection, but all emanating from a personality whose presence dominates the page, and whose eye is ever upon us. Without this vivid and intimate sense of the man back of all, of a sane and powerful spirit sustaining ours, the piece would be wild and inchoate.
The reader will be sure to demand of Whitman ample compensation for the absence from his work of those things which current poets give us in such full measure. Whether or not the compensation is ample, whether the music of his verse as of winds and waves, the long, irregular, dithyrambic movement, its fluid and tonic character, the vastness of conception, the large, biblical speech, the surging cosmic emotion, the vivid personal presence as of the living man looking into your eye or walking by your side,—whether all these things, the refreshing quality as of "harsh salt spray" which the poet Lanier found in the "Leaves," the electric currents which Mrs. Gilchrist found there, the "unexcelled imaginative justice of language" which Mr. Stevenson at times found, the religious liberation and faith which Mr. Symonds found, the "incomparable things incomparably well said" of Emerson, the rifle-bullets of Ruskin, the "supreme words" of Colonel Ingersoll, etc.,—whether qualities and effects like these, I say, make up to us for the absence of the traditional poetic graces and adornments, is a question which will undoubtedly long divide the reading world.
In the works upon which our poetic taste is founded, artistic form is paramount; we have never been led to apply to such works open-air standards,—clouds, trees, rivers, spaces,—but the precision and definiteness of the cultured and the artificial. If Whitman had aimed at pure art and had failed, his work would be intolerable. As his French critic, Gabriel Sarrazin, has well said: "In the large work which Whitman attempted, there come no rules save those of nobility and strength of spirit; and these suffice amply to create a most unlooked-for and grandiose aspect of beauty." "Overcrowded and disorderly" as it may seem, "if heroic emotion and thought and enthusiasm vitalize it," the poet has reached his goal.
Sometimes I define Whitman to myself as the poet of the open air,—not because he sings the praises of these things after the manner of the so-called nature-poets, but because he has the quality of things in the open air, the quality of the unhoused, the untamed, the elemental and aboriginal. He pleases and he offends, the same way things at large do. He has the brawn, the indifference, the rudeness, the virility, the coarseness,—something gray, unpronounced, elemental, about him, the effect of mass, size, distance, flowing, vanishing lines, neutral spaces,—something informal, multitudinous, and processional,—something regardless of criticism, that makes no bid for our applause, not calculated instantly to please, unmindful of details, prosaic if we make it so, common, near at hand, and yet that provokes thought and stirs our emotions in an unusual degree. The long lists and catalogues of objects and scenes in Whitman, that have so excited the mirth of the critics, are one phase of his out-of-doors character,—a multitude of concrete objects, a grove, a thicket, a field, a stretch of beach,—every object sharply defined, but no attempt at logical or artistic sequence, the effect of the whole informal, multitudinous. It may be objected to these pages that they consist of a mass of details that do not make a picture. But every line is a picture of a scene or an object. Whitman always keeps up the movement, he never pauses to describe; it is all action.
Passing from such a poet as Tennyson to Whitman is like going from a warm, perfumed interior, with rich hangings, pictures, books, statuary, fine men and women, out into the street, or upon the beach, or upon the hill, or under the midnight stars. We lose something certainly, but do we not gain something also? Do we not gain just what Whitman had in view, namely, direct contact with the elements in which are the sources of our life and health? Do we not gain in scope and power what we lose in art and refinement?
The title, "Leaves of Grass," is full of meaning. What self-knowledge and self-scrutiny it implies! The grass, perennial sprouting, universal, formless, common, the always spread feast of the herds, dotted with flowers, the herbage of the earth, so suggestive of the multitudinous, loosely aggregated, unelaborated character of the book; the lines springing directly out of the personality of the poet, the soil of his life.
"What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest is me,"
says the poet, and this turns out to be the case. We only look to see if in the common and the cheap he discloses new values and new meanings,—if his leaves of grass have the old freshness and nutriment, and be not a mere painted greenness.
"The pure contralto sings in the organ loft, The carpenter dresses his plank—the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp, The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner, The pilot seizes the king-pin—he heaves down with a strong arm, The mate stands braced in the whale-boat—lance and harpoon are ready, The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches, The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar, The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel, The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First Day loafe, and looks at the oats and rye, The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirmed case, He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bedroom; The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case, He turns his quid of tobacco, while his eyes blurr with the manuscript; The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table, What is removed drops horribly in a pail; The quadroon girl is sold at the stand—the drunkard nods by the bar-room stove, The machinist rolls up his sleeves—the policeman travels his beat—the gate-keeper marks who pass, The young fellow drives the express-wagon—I love him, though I do not know him, The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race, The western turkey-shooting draws old and young—some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs, Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece; The groups of newly-come emigrants cover the wharf or levee, As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them from his saddle, The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other, The youth lies awake in the cedar-roofed garret, and harks to the musical rain, The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron, The reformer ascends the platform, he spouts with his mouth and nose,