Whitman - A Study
by John Burroughs
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Seasons pursuing each other, the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and the winter-grain falls in the ground, Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface, The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe, Flatboatmen make fast, towards dusk, near the cotton-wood or pekan-trees, Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red River, or through those drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas, Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw, Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them, In walls of adobe, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day's sport, The city sleeps and the country sleeps, The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time, The old husband sleeps by his wife, and the young husband sleeps by his wife; And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, And such as it is to be of these, more or less, I am."

What is this but tufts and tussocks of grass; not branching trees, nor yet something framed and deftly put together, but a succession of simple things, objects, actions, persons; handfuls of native growths, a stretch of prairie or savanna; no composition, no artistic wholes, no logical sequence, yet all vital and real; jets of warm life that shoot and play over the surface of contemporary America, and that the poet uses as the stuff out of which to weave the song of himself.

This simple aggregating or cataloguing style as it has been called, and which often occurs in the "Leaves," has been much criticised, but it seems to me in perfect keeping in a work that does not aim at total artistic effects, at finished structural perfection like architecture, but to picture the elements of a man's life and character in outward scenes and objects and to show how all nature tends inward to him and he outward to it. Whitman showers the elements of American life upon his reader until, so to speak, his mind is drenched with them, but never groups them into patterns to tickle his sense of form. It is charged that his method is inartistic, and it is so in a sense, but it is the Whitman art and has its own value in his work. Only the artist instinct could prompt to this succession of one line genre word painting.

But this is not the way of the great artists. No, but it is Whitman's way, and these things have a certain artistic value in his work, a work that professedly aims to typify his country and times,—the value of multitude, processions, mass-movements, and the gathering together of elements and forces from wide areas.


Whitman's relation to art, then, is primary and fundamental, just as his relations to religion, to culture, to politics, to democracy, are primary and fundamental,—through his emotion, his soul, and not merely through his tools, his intellect. His artistic conscience is quickly revealed to any searching inquiry. It is seen in his purpose to convey his message by suggestion and indirection, or as an informing, vitalizing breath and spirit. His thought and meaning are enveloped in his crowded, concrete, and often turbulent pages, as science is enveloped in nature. He has a profound ethic, a profound metaphysic, but they are not formulated; they are vital in his pages as hearing or eyesight.

Whitman studied effects, and shaped his means to his end, weighing values and subordinating parts, as only the great artist does. He knew the power of words as few know them; he knew the value of vista, perspective, vanishing lights and lines. He knew how to make his words itch at your ears till you understood them; how to fold up and put away in his sentences meanings, glimpses, that did not at first reveal themselves. It is only the work of the great creative artist that is pervaded by will, and that emanates directly and inevitably from the personality of the man himself. As a man and an American, Whitman is as closely related to his work as AEschylus to his, or Dante to his. This is always a supreme test,—the closeness and vitality of the relation of a man to his work. Could any one else have done it? Is it the general intelligence that speaks, the culture and refinement of the age? or have we a new revelation of life, a new mind and soul? The lesser poets sustain only a secondary relation to their works. It is other poets, other experiences, the past, the schools, the forms, that speak through them. In all Whitman's recitatives, as he calls them, the free-flowing ends of the sentences, the loose threads of meaning, the unraveled or unknitted threads and fringes, are all well considered, and are one phase of his art. He seeks his effects thus.

His method is indirect, allegorical, and elliptical to an unusual degree; often a curious suspension and withholding in a statement, a suggestive incompleteness, both ends of his thought, as it were, left in the air; sometimes the substantive, sometimes the nominative, is wanting, and all for a purpose. The poet somewhere speaks of his utterance as "prophetic screams." The prophetic element is rarely absent, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, only it is a more jocund and reassuring cry than we are used to in prophecy. The forthrightness of utterance, the projectile force of expression, the constant appeal to unseen laws and powers of the great prophetic souls, is here.

Whitman is poetic in the same way in which he is democratic, in the same way in which he is religious, or American, or modern,—not by word merely, but by deed; not by the extrinsic, but by the intrinsic; not by art, but by life.

I am never tired of saying that to put great personal qualities in a poem, or other literary work, not formulated or didactically stated, but in tone, manner, attitude, breadth of view, love, charity, good fellowship, etc., is the great triumph for our day. So put, they are a possession to the race forever; they grow and bear fruit perennially, like the grass and the trees. And shall it be said that the poet who does this has no worthy art?


Nearly all modern artificial products, when compared with the ancient, are characterized by greater mechanical finish and precision. Can we say, therefore, they are more artistic? Is a gold coin of the time of Pericles, so rude and simple, less artistic than the elaborate coins of our own day? Is Japanese pottery, the glazing often ragged and uneven, less artistic than the highly finished work of the moderns?

Are we quite sure, after all, that what we call "artistic form" is in any high or fundamental sense artistic? Are the precise, the regular, the measured, the finished, the symmetrical, indispensable to our conception of art? If regular extrinsic form and measure and proportion are necessary elements of the artistic, then geometrical flower-beds, and trees set in rows or trained to some fancy pattern, ought to please the artist. But do they? If we look for the artistic in these things, then Addison is a greater artist than Shakespeare. Dr. Johnson says, "Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare of men." Which is really the most artistic? The one is the coin from the die, the other the coin from the hand.

Tennyson's faultless form and finish are not what stamp him a great artist. He would no doubt be glad to get rid of them if he could, at least to keep them in abeyance and make them less obtrusive; he would give anything for the freedom, raciness, and wildness of Shakespeare. But he is not equal to these things. The culture, the refinement, the precision of a correct and mechanical age have sunk too deeply into his soul. He has not the courage or the spring to let himself go as Shakespeare did. Tennyson, too, speaks the language of poets, and not of men; he savors of the flower-garden, and not of the forest. Tennyson knows that he is an artist. Shakespeare, apparently, never had such a thought; he is intent solely upon holding the mirror up to nature. The former lived in an age of criticism, and when the poets loved poetry more than they did life and things; the latter, in a more virile time, and in "the full stream of the world."

"Leaves of Grass" is not self-advertised as a work of art. The author had no thought that you should lay down his book and say, "What a great artist!" "What a master workman!" He would rather you should say, "What a great man!" "What a loving comrade!" "What a real democrat!" "What a healing and helpful force!" He would not have you admire his poetry: he would have you filled with the breath of a new and larger and saner life; he would be a teacher and trainer of men.

The love of the precise, the exact, the methodical, is characteristic of an age of machinery, of a commercial and industrial age like ours. These things are indispensable in the mill and counting-house, but why should we insist upon them in poetry? Why should we cling to an arbitrary form like the sonnet? Why should we insist upon a perfect rhyme, as if it was a cog in a wheel? Why not allow and even welcome the freedom of half-rhymes, or suggestive rhymes? Why, anyway, fold back a sentence or idea to get it into a prescribed arbitrary form? Why should we call this verse-tinkering and verse-shaping art, when it is only artifice? Why should we call the man who makes one pretty conceit rhyme with another pretty conceit an artist, and deny the term to the man whose sentences pair with great laws and forces?

Of course it is much easier for a poet to use the regular verse-forms and verse language than it is to dispense with them; that is, a much less poetic capital is required in the former case than in the latter. The stock forms and the stock language count for a good deal. A very small amount of original talent may cut quite an imposing figure in the robes of the great masters. Require the poet to divest himself of them, and to speak in the language of men and in the spirit of real things, and see how he fares.


Whitman was afraid of what he called the beauty disease. He thought a poet of the first order should be sparing of the direct use of the beautiful, as Nature herself is. His aim should be larger, and beauty should follow and not lead. The poet should not say to himself, "Come, I will make something beautiful," but rather "I will make something true, and quickening, and powerful. I will not dress my verse up in fine words and pretty fancies, but I will breathe into it the grit and force and adhesiveness of real things." Beauty is the flowering of life and fecundity, and it must have deep root in the non-beautiful.

Beauty, as the master knows it, is a spirit and not an adornment. It is not merely akin to flowers and gems and rainbows: it is akin to the All. Looking through his eyes, you shall see it in the rude and the savage also, in rocks and deserts and mountains, in the common as well as in the rare, in wrinkled age as well as in rosy youth.

The non-beautiful holds the world together, holds life together and nourishes it, more than the beautiful. Nature is beautiful because she is so much else first,—yes, and last, and all the time.

"For the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the delicates of the earth and of man, And nothing endures but personal qualities."

Is there not in field, wood, or shore something more precious and tonic than any special beauties we may chance to find there,—flowers, perfumes, sunsets,—something that we cannot do without, though we can do without these? Is it health, life, power, or what is it?

Whatever it is, it is something analogous to this that we get in Whitman. There is little in his "Leaves" that one would care to quote for its mere beauty, though this element is there also. One may pluck a flower here and there in his rugged landscape, as in any other; but the flowers are always by the way, and never the main matter. We should not miss them if they were not there. What delights and invigorates us is in the air, and in the look of things. The flowers are like our wild blossoms growing under great trees or amid rocks, never the camellia or tuberose of the garden or hot-house,—something rude and bracing is always present, always a breath of the untamed and aboriginal.

Whitman's work gives results, and never processes. There is no return of the mind upon itself; it descends constantly upon things, persons, realities. It is a rushing stream which will not stop to be analyzed. It has been urged that Whitman does not give the purely intellectual satisfaction that would seem to be warranted by his mental grasp and penetration. No, nor the aesthetic satisfaction warranted by his essentially artistic habit of mind. Well, he did not promise satisfaction in anything, but only to put us on the road to satisfaction. His book, he says, is not a "good lesson," but it lets down the bars to a good lesson, and that to another, and every one to another still.

Let me repeat that the sharp, distinct intellectual note—the note of culture, books, clubs, etc., such as we get from so many modern writers, you will not get from Whitman. In my opinion, the note he sounds is deeper and better than that. It has been charged by an unfriendly critic that he strikes lower than the intellect. If it is meant by this that he misses the intellect, it is not true; he stimulates the intellect as few poets do. He strikes lower because he strikes farther. He sounds the note of character, personality, volition, the note of prophecy, of democracy, and of love. He seems unintellectual to an abnormally intellectual age; he seems unpoetic to a taste formed upon poetic tidbits; he seems irreligious to standards founded upon the old models of devotional piety; he seems disorderly, incoherent to all petty thumb and finger measurements. In his ideas and convictions, Whitman was a modern of the moderns; yet in his type, his tastes, his fundamental make-up, he was primitive, of an earlier race and age,—before, as Emerson suggests, the gods had cut Man up into men, with special talents of one kind or another.


Take any of Whitman's irregular-flowing lines, and clip and trim them, and compress them into artificial verse-forms, and what have we gained to make up for what we have lost? Take his lines called "Reconciliation," for instance:—

"Word over all beautiful as the sky, Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost, That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world; For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead, I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near, Bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."

Or take his poem called "Old Ireland:"—

"Far hence amid an isle of wondrous beauty, Crouching over a grave an ancient sorrowful mother, Once a queen, now lean and tatter'd, seated on the ground, Her old white hair drooping, dishevel'd, round her shoulders, At her feet fallen an unused royal harp, Long silent, she, too, long silent, mourning her shrouded hope and heir, Of all the earth her heart most full of sorrow because most full of love.

"Yet a word, ancient mother, You need crouch there no longer on the cold ground with forehead between your knees, Oh, you need not sit there veil'd in your old white hair so dishevel'd, For know you the one you mourn is not in that grave, It was an illusion; the son you loved was not really dead, The Lord is not dead, he is risen again young and strong in another country. Even while you wept there by your fallen harp by the grave, What you wept for was translated, pass'd from the grave, The winds favor'd and the sea sail'd it, And now with rosy and new blood, Moves to-day in a new country."

Or take these lines from "Children of Adam:"—

"I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday morn I pass'd the church, Winds of autumn, as I walk'd the woods at dusk I heard your long-stretch'd sighs up above so mournful, I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing; Heart of my love! you, too, I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists around my head, Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night under my ear."

Put such things as these, or in fact any of the poems, in rhymed and measured verse, and you heighten a certain effect, the effect of the highly wrought, the cunningly devised; but we lose just what the poet wanted to preserve at all hazards,—vista, unconstraint, the effect of the free-careering forces of nature.

I always think of a regulation verse-form as a kind of corset which does not much disguise a good figure, though it certainly hampers it, and which is a great help to a poor figure. It covers up deficiencies, and it restrains exuberances. A personality like Whitman can wear it with ease and grace, as may be seen in a few of his minor poems, but for my part I like him best without it.


How well we know the language of the conventional poetic! In this language, the language of nine tenths of current poetry, the wind comes up out of the south and kisses the rose's crimson mouth, or it comes out of the wood and rumples the poppy's hood. Morning comes in glistening sandals, and her footsteps are jeweled with flowers. Everything is bedecked and bejeweled. Nothing is truly seen or truly reported. It is an attempt to paint the world beautiful. It is not beautiful as it is, and we must deck it out in the colors of the fancy. Now, I do not want the world painted for me. I want the grass green or brown, as the case may be; the sky blue, the rocks gray, the soil red; and that the sun should rise and set without any poetic claptrap. What I want is to see these things spin around a thought, or float on the current of an emotion, as they always do in real poetry.

Beauty always follows, never leads the great poet. It arises out of the interior substance and structure of his work, like the bloom of health in the cheeks. The young poet thinks to win Beauty by direct and persistent wooing of her. He has not learned yet that she comes unsought to the truthful, the brave, the heroic. Let him think some great thought, experience some noble impulse, give himself with love to life and reality about him, and Beauty is already his. She is the reward of noble deeds.


The modern standard in art is becoming more and more what has been called the canon of the characteristic, as distinguished from the Greek or classic canon of formal beauty. It is this canon, as Professor Triggs suggests, that we are to apply to Whitman. Dr. Johnson had it in mind when he wrote thus of Shakespeare:—

"The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades and scented with flowers: the composition of Shakespeare is a forest in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity."

Classic art holds to certain fixed standards; it seeks formal beauty; it holds to order and proportion in external parts; its ideal of natural beauty is the well-ordered park or grove or flower-garden. It has a horror of the wild and savage. Mountains and forests, and tempests and seas, filled the classic mind with terror. Not so with the modern romantic mind, which finds its best stimulus and delight in free, unhampered nature. It loves the element of mystery and the suggestion of uncontrollable power. The modern mind has a sense of the vast, the infinite, that the Greek had not, and it is drawn by informal beauty more than by the formal.


It is urged against Whitman that he brings us the materials of poetry, but not poetry: he brings us the marble block, but not the statue; or he brings us the brick and mortar, but not the house. False or superficial analogies mislead us. Poetry is not something made; it is something grown, it is a vital union of the fact and the spirit. If the verse awakens in us the poetic thrill, the material, whatever it be, must have been touched with the transforming spirit of poesy. Why does Whitman's material suggest to any reader that it is poetic material? Because it has already been breathed upon by the poetic spirit. A poet may bring the raw material of poetry in the sense that he may bring the raw material of a gold coin; the stamp and form you give it does not add to its value. It is doubtful if any of Whitman's utterances could be worked up into what is called poetry without a distinct loss of poetic value. What they would gain in finish they would lose in suggestiveness. This word "suggestiveness" affords one of the keys to Whitman. The objection to him I have been considering arises from the failure of the critic to see and appreciate his avowed purpose to make his page fruitful in poetic suggestion, rather than in samples of poetic elaboration. "I finish no specimens," he says. "I shower them by exhaustless laws, fresh and modern continually, as Nature does." He is quite content if he awaken the poetic emotion without at all satisfying it. He would have you more eager and hungry for poetry when you had finished with him than when you began. He brings the poetic stimulus, and brings it in fuller measure than any contemporary poet; and this is enough for him.

An eminent musician and composer, the late Dr. Ritter, told me that reading "Leaves of Grass" excited him to composition as no other poetry did. Tennyson left him passive and cold, but Whitman set his fingers in motion at once; he was so fruitful in themes, so suggestive of new harmonies and melodies. He gave the hints, and left his reader to follow them up. This is exactly what Whitman wanted to do. It defines his attitude toward poetry, towards philosophy, towards religion,—to suggest and set going, to arouse unanswerable questions, and to brace you to meet them; to bring the materials of poetry, if you will have it so, and leave you to make the poem; to start trains of thought, and leave you to pursue the flight alone. Not a thinker, several critics have urged; no, but the cause of thought in others to an unwonted degree. "Whether you agree with him or not," says an Australian essayist, "he will sting you into such an anguish of thought as must in the end be beneficial." It matters little to him whether or not you agree with him; what is important is, that you should think the matter out for yourself. He purposely avoids hemming you in by his conclusions; he would lead you in no direction but your own. "Once more I charge you give play to your self. I charge you leave all free, as I have left all free."

No thought, no philosophy, no music, no poetry, in his pages; no, it is all character, impulse, emotion, suggestion. But the true reader of him experiences all these things: he finds in his pages, if he knows how to look for it, a profound metaphysic, a profound ethic, a profound aesthetic; a theory of art and poetry which is never stated, but only hinted or suggested, and which is much more robust and vital than what we are used to; a theory of good and evil; a view of character and conduct; a theory of the state and of politics, of the relation of the sexes, etc., to give ample food for thought and speculation. The Hegelian philosophy is in the "Leaves" as vital as the red corpuscles in the blood, so much is implied that is not stated, but only suggested, as in Nature herself. The really vast erudition of the work is adroitly concealed, hidden like its philosophy, as a tree hides its roots. Readers should not need to be told that, in the region of art as of religion, mentality is not first, but spirituality, personality, imagination; and that we do not expect a poet's thoughts to lie upon his pages like boulders in the field, but rather to show their presence like elements in the soil.

"Love-buds, put before you and within you, whoever you are, Buds to be unfolded on the old terms, If you bring the warmth of the sun to them, they will open, and bring form, color, perfume to you, If you become the aliment and the wet, they will become flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees."

The early records and sacred books of most peoples contain what is called the materials of poetry. The Bible is full of such materials. English literature shows many attempts to work this material up into poetry, but always with a distinct loss of poetic value. The gold is simply beaten out thin and made to cover more surface, or it is mixed with some base metal. A recent English poet has attempted to work up the New Testament records into poetry, and the result is for the most part a thin, windy dilution of the original. If the record or legend is full of poetic suggestion, that is enough; to elaborate it, and deck it out in poetic finery without loss of poetic value, is next to impossible.

To me the Arthurian legends as they are given in the old books, are more poetic, more stimulating to the imagination, than they are after they have gone through the verbal upholstering and polishing of such a poet as Swinburne or even Tennyson. These poets add little but words and flowers of fancy, and the heroic simplicity of the original is quite destroyed.


No critic of repute has been more puzzled and misled by this unwrought character of our poet's verse than Mr. Edmund Gosse, the London poet and essayist. Mr. Gosse finds Whitman only a potential or possible poet; his work is literature in the condition of protoplasm. He is a maker of poems in solution; the structural change which should have crystallized his fluid and teeming pages into forms of art never came. It does not occur to Mr. Gosse to inquire whether or not something like this may not have been the poet's intention. Perhaps this is the secret of the vitality of his work, which, as Mr. Gosse says, now, after forty years, shows no sign of declining. Perhaps it was a large, fresh supply of poetic yeast that the poet really sought to bring us. Undoubtedly Whitman aimed to give his work just this fluid, generative quality, to put into it the very basic elements of life itself. He feared the "structural change" to which Mr. Gosse refers; he knew it was more or less a change from life to death: the cell and not the crystal; the leaf of grass, and not the gem, is the type of his sentences. He sacrificed fixed form; above all, did he stop short of that conscious intellectual elaboration so characteristic of later poetry, the better to give the impression and the stimulus of creative elemental power. It is not to the point to urge that this is not the method or aim of other poets; that others have used the fixed forms, and found them plastic and vital in their hands. It was Whitman's aim; these were the effects he sought. I think beyond doubt that he gives us the impression of something dynamic, something akin to the vital forces of the organic world, much more distinctly and fully than any other poet who has lived.

Whitman always aimed to make his reader an active partner with him in his poetic enterprise. "I seek less," he says, "to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought, there to pursue your own flight." This trait is brought out by Mr. Gosse in a little allegory. "Every reader who comes to Whitman," he says, "starts upon an expedition to the virgin forest. He must take his conveniences with him. He will make of the excursion what his own spirit dictates. [We generally do, in such cases, Mr. Gosse.] There are solitudes, fresh air, rough landscape, and a well of water, but if he wishes to enjoy the latter he must bring his own cup with him." This phase of Whitman's work has never been more clearly defined. Mr. Gosse utters it as an adverse criticism. It is true exposition, however we take it, what we get out of Whitman depends so largely upon what we bring to him. Readers will not all get the same. We do not all get the same out of a walk or a mountain climb. We get out of him in proportion to the sympathetic and interpretative power of our own spirits. Have you the brooding, warming, vivifying mother-mind? That vague, elusive, incommensurable something in the "Leaves" that led Symonds to say that talking about Whitman was like talking about the universe,—that seems to challenge our pursuit and definition, that takes on so many different aspects to so many different minds,—it seems to be this that has led Mr. Gosse to persuade himself that there is no real Walt Whitman, no man whom we can take, as we take any other figure in literature, as an "entity of positive value and definite characteristics," but a mere mass of literary protoplasm that takes the instant impression of whatever mood approaches it. Stevenson finds a Stevenson in it, Mr. Symonds finds a Symonds, Emerson finds an Emerson, etc. Truly may our poet say, "I contain multitudes." In what other poet do these men, or others like them, find themselves?

Whitman was a powerful solvent undoubtedly. He never hardens into anything like a system, or into mere intellectual propositions. One of his own phrases, "the fluid and swallowing soul," is descriptive of this trait of him. One source of his charm is, that we each see some phase of ourselves in him, as Mr. Gosse suggests. Above all things is he potential and indicative, bard of "flowing mouth and indicative hand." In his "Inscriptions" he says:—

"I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, Leaving it to you to prove and define it, Expecting the main things from you."

This withholding and half-averted glancing, then, on the part of the poet, is deliberate and enters into the scheme of the work. Mr. Gosse would have shown himself a sounder critic had he penetrated the poet's purpose in this respect, and shown whether or not he had violated the canons he had set up for his own guidance. We do not condemn a creative work when it departs from some rule or precedent, but when it violates its own principle, when it is not consistent with itself, when it hath not eyes to see, or ears to hear, or hands to reach what lies within its own sphere. Art, in the plastic realms of written language, may set its mind upon elaboration, upon structural finish and proportion, upon exact forms and compensations, as in architecture, or it may set its mind upon suggestion, indirection, and the flowing, changing forms of organic nature. It is as much art in the one case as in the other. To get rid of all visible artifice is, of course, the great thing in both cases. There is so little apparent artifice in Whitman's case that he has been accused of being entirely without art, and of throwing his matter together in a haphazard way,—"without thought, without selection," without "composition, evolution, vertebration of style," says Mr. Gosse. Yet his work more than holds its own in a field where these things alone are supposed to insure success. Whitman covers up his processes well, and knows how to hit his mark without seeming to take aim. The verdicts upon him are mainly contradictory, because each critic only takes in a part of his scheme. Mr. Stedman finds him a formalist. Mr. Gosse finds in him a negation of all form. The London critic says he is without thought. A Boston critic speaks of what he happily calls the "waves of thought" in his work,—vast mind-impulses that lift and sway great masses of concrete facts and incidents. Whitman knew from the start that he would puzzle and baffle his critics, and would escape from them like air when they felt most sure they had him in their verbal nets. So it has been from the first, and so it continues to be. Without one thing, he says, it is useless to read him; and of what that one thing needful is, he gives only the vaguest hint, only a "significant look."


I may here notice two objections to Whitman urged by Mr. Stedman,—a critic for whose opinion I have great respect, and a man for whom I have a genuine affection. With all his boasted breadth and tolerance, Whitman, says my friend, is narrow; and, with all his vaunted escape from the shackles of verse-form, he is a formalist: his "irregular, manneristic chant" is as much at the extreme of artificiality as is the sonnet. These certainly are faults that one does not readily associate with the work of Whitman. But then I remember that the French critic, Scherer, charges Carlyle, the apostle of the gospel of sincerity, with being insincere and guilty of canting about cant. If Carlyle is insincere, I think it very likely that Whitman may be narrow and hide-bound. These things are so much a matter of temperament that one cannot judge for another. Yet one ought not to confound narrowness and breadth, or little and big. All earnest, uncompromising men are more or less open to the charge of narrowness. A man is narrow when he concentrates himself upon a point; even a cannon-shot is. Whitman was narrow in the sense that he was at times monotonous; that he sought but few effects, that he poured himself out mainly in one channel, that he struck chiefly the major chords of life. His "Leaves" do not show a great range of artistic motifs. A versatile, many-sided nature he certainly was not; a large, broad, tolerant nature he as certainly was. He does not assume many and diverse forms like a purely artistic talent, sporting with and masquerading in all the elements of life, like Shakespeare; but in his own proper form, and in his own proper person, he gives a sense of vastness and power that are unapproached in modern literature. He asserts himself uncompromisingly, but he would have you do the same. "He who spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own." "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher." His highest hope is to be the soil of superior poems.

Mr. Stedman thinks he detects in the poet a partiality for the coarser, commoner elements of our humanity over the finer and choicer,—for the "rough" over the gentleman. But when all things have been duly considered, it will be found, I think, that he finally rests only with great personal qualities and traits. He is drawn by powerful, natural persons, wherever found,—men and women self-poised, fully equipped on all sides:—

"I announce a great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully arm'd, I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,"—

and much more to the same effect.

"I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain: If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it."

Whitman is a formalist, just as every man who has a way of his own of saying and doing things, no matter how natural, is a formalist; but he is not a stickler for form of any sort. He has his own proper form, of course, which he rarely departs from. At one extreme of artificiality Mr. Stedman apparently places the sonnet. This is an arbitrary form; its rules are inflexible; it is something cut and shaped and fitted together after a predetermined pattern, and to this extent is artificial. If Whitman's irregularity was equally studied; if it gave us the same sense of something cunningly planned and wrought to a particular end, clipped here, curbed there, folded back in this line, drawn out in that, and attaining to a certain mechanical proportion and balance as a whole,—then there would be good ground for the critic's charge. But such is not the case. Whitman did not have, nor claim to have, the architectonic power of the great constructive poets. He did not build the lofty rhyme. He did not build anything, strictly speaking. He let himself go. He named his book after the grass, which makes a carpet over the earth, and which is a sign and a presence rather than a form.


Whitman's defects flow out of his great qualities. What we might expect from his size, his sense of mass and multitude, would be an occasional cumbrousness, turgidity, unwieldiness, ineffectualness: what we might expect from his vivid realism would be an occasional over-rankness or grossness; from his bluntness, a rudeness; from his passion for country, a little spread-eagleism; from his masterly use of indirection, occasional obscurity; from his mystic identification of himself with what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, a touch at times of the vulgar and unworthy; from his tremendous practical democracy, a bias at times toward too low an average; from his purpose "to effuse egotism and show it underlying all," may arise a little too much self-assertion, etc. The price paid for his strenuousness and earnestness will be a want of humor; his determination to glorify the human body, as God made it, will bring him in collision with our notions of the decent, the proper; the "courageous, clear voice" with which he seeks to prove the sexual organs and acts "illustrious," will result in his being excluded from good society; his "heroic nudity" will be apt to set the good dame, Belles-lettres, all a-shiver; his healthful coarseness and godlike candor will put all the respectable folk to flight.


To say that Whitman is a poet in undress is true within certain limits. If it conveys the impression that he is careless or inapt in the use of language, or that the word is not always the fit word, the best word, the saying does him injustice. No man ever searched more diligently for the right word—for just the right word—than did Whitman. He would wait for days and weeks for the one ultimate epithet. How long he pressed the language for some word or phrase that would express the sense of the evening call of the robin, and died without the sight! But his language never obtrudes itself. It has never stood before the mirror, it does not consciously challenge your admiration, it is not obviously studied, it is never on dress parade. His matchless phrases seem like chance hits, so much so that some critics have wondered how he happened to stumble upon them. His verse is not dressed up, because it has so few of the artificial adjuncts of poetry,—no finery or stuck-on ornament,—nothing obtrusively beautiful or poetic; and because it bears itself with the freedom and nonchalance of a man in his every-day attire.

But it is always in a measure misleading to compare language with dress, to say that a poet clothes his thought, etc. The language is the thought; it is an incarnation, not an outside tailoring. To improve the expression is to improve the thought. In the most vital writing, the thought is nude; the mind of the reader touches something alive and real. When we begin to hear the rustle of a pompous or highly wrought vocabulary, when the man begins to dress his commonplace ideas up in fine phrases, we have enough of him.

Indeed, it is only the mechanical writer who may be said to "clothe" his ideas with words; the real poet thinks through words.


I see that a plausible criticism might be made against Whitman, perhaps has been made, that in him we find the big merely,—strength without power, size without quality. A hasty reader might carry away this impression from his work, because undoubtedly one of the most obvious things about him is his great size. It is impossible not to feel that here is a large body of some sort. We have come upon a great river, a great lake, an immense plain, a rugged mountain. We feel that this mind requires a large space to turn in. The page nearly always gives a sense of mass and multitude. All attempts at the playful or humorous seem ungainly. The style is processional and agglomerative. Out of these vast, rolling, cloud-like masses does there leap forth the true lightning? It seems to me there can be no doubt about that. The spirit easily triumphs. There is not only mass, there is penetration; not only vastness, there is sublimity; not only breadth, there is quality and charm. He is both Dantesque and Darwinian, as has been said.

Mr. Symonds was impressed with this quality of vastness in Whitman, and, despairing of conveying an adequate notion of him by any process of literary analysis, resorts to the use of a succession of metaphors,—the symbolic use of objects that convey the idea of size and power. Thus, "he is Behemoth, wallowing in primeval jungles;" "he is a gigantic elk or buffalo, trampling the grass of the wilderness;" "he is an immense tree, a kind of Ygdrasil, striking its roots deep down into the bowels of the world;" "he is the circumambient air in which float shadowy shapes, rise mirage-towers and palm-groves;" "he is the globe itself,—all seas, lands, forests, climates, storms, snows, sunshines, rains of universal earth."

Colonel Ingersoll said there was something in him akin to mountains and plains, and to the globe itself.

But Whitman is something more than a literary colossus. Pigmies can only claim pigmy honors. Size, after all, rules in this universe, because size and power go together. The large bodies rule the small. There is no impression of greatness in art without something that is analogous to size,—breadth, depth, height. The sense of vastness is never the gift of a minor poet. You cannot paint Niagara on the thumb-nail. Great artists are distinguished from small by the majesty of their conceptions.

Whitman's air is continental. He implies a big country, vast masses of humanity, sweeping and stirring times, the triumphs of science and the industrial age. He is the poet of mass and multitude. In his pages things are grouped and on the run, as it were. Little detail, little or no elaboration, little or no development of a theme, no minute studied effects so dear to the poets, but glimpses, suggestions, rapid surveys, sweeping movements, processions of objects, vista, vastness,—everywhere the effect of a man overlooking great spaces and calling off the significant and interesting points. He never stops to paint; he is contented to suggest. His "Leaves" are a rapid, joyous survey of the forces and objects of the universe, first with reference to character and personality, and next with reference to America and democracy. His method of treatment is wholesale and accumulative. It is typified by this passage in his first poem:—

"Listen! I will be honest with you, I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.

"I tramp a perpetual journey, My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods, No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair, I have no chair, no church, no philosophy, I lead no man to a dinner table, library, or exchange, But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, My left hand hooking you round the waist, My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and a plain public road."

He deals with the major elements of life, and always aims at large effects. "Lover of populous pavements," he is occupied with large thoughts and images, with races, eras, multitudes, processions. His salute is to the world. He keeps the whole geography of his country and of the globe before him; his purpose in his poems spans the whole modern world. He views life as from some eminence from which many shades and differences disappear. He sees things in mass. Many of our cherished conventions disappear from his point of view. He sees the fundamental and necessary things. His vision is sweeping and final. He tries himself by the orbs. His standards of poetry and art are astronomic. He sees his own likeness in the earth. His rapture springs, not so much from the contemplation of bits and parts as from the contemplation of the whole. There is a breadth of sympathy and of interest that does not mind particulars. He says:—

"It is no small matter, this round and delicious globe, moving so exactly in its orbit forever and ever, without one jolt, or the untruth of a single second, I do not think it was made in six days, nor in ten thousand years, nor ten billions of years, Nor planned and built one thing after another as an architect plans and builds a house."

In old age he sees "the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours into the sea." He looks upon all things at a certain remove. These are typical lines:—

"A thousand perfect men and women appear, Around each gathers a cluster of friends, and gay children and youths, with offerings."

"Women sit, or move to and fro, some old, some young, The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young."

"The Runner," "A Farm Picture," and scores of others, are to the same effect. Always wholes, total impressions,—always a view as of a "strong bird on pinion free." Few details, but panoramic effects; not the flower, but the landscape; not a tree, but a forest; not a street corner, but a city. The title of one of his poems, "A Song of the Rolling Earth," might stand as the title of the book. When he gathers details and special features he masses them like a bouquet of herbs and flowers. No cameo carving, but large, bold, rough, heroic sculpturing. The poetry is always in the totals, the breadth, the sweep of conception. The part that is local, specific, genre, near at hand, is Whitman himself; his personality is the background across which it all flits.

We make a mistake when we demand of Whitman what the other poets give us,—studies, embroidery, delicate tracings, pleasing artistic effects, rounded and finished specimens. We shall understand him better if we inquire what his own standards are, what kind of a poet he would be. He tells us over and over again that he would emulate the great forces and processes of Nature. He seeks for hints in the sea, the mountain, in the orbs themselves. In the wild splendor and savageness of a Colorado canyon he sees a spirit kindred to his own.

He dwells fondly, significantly, upon the amplitude, the coarseness, and what he calls the sexuality, of the earth, and upon its great charity and equilibrium.

"The earth," he says, "does not withhold; it is generous enough:—

"The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so concealed either, They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print. They are imbued through all things, conveying themselves willingly, Conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth—I utter and utter!"

* * * * *

"The earth does not argue, Is not pathetic, has no arrangements, Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise, Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures, Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out. Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out."

He says the best of life

"Is not what you anticipated—it is cheaper, easier, nearer,"

and that the earth affords the final standard of all things:—

"I swear there can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth, No politics, art, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account unless it compares with the amplitude of the earth, Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude, of the earth."

No one can make a study of our poet without being deeply impressed with these and kindred passages:—

"The maker of poems settles justice, reality, immortality, His insight and power encircle things and the human race. The singers do not beget, only the Poet begets, The singers are welcom'd, understood, appear often enough, but rare has the day been, likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker of poems, the Answerer, (Not every century, nor every five centuries has contain'd such a day, for all its names.)

* * * * *

"All this time and at all times wait the words of true poems, The words of true poems do not merely please, The true poets are not followers of beauty, but the august masters of beauty; The greatness of sons is the exuding of the greatness of mothers and fathers, The words of true poems are the tuft and final applause of science.

"Divine instinct, breadth of vision, the law of reason, health, rudeness of body, withdrawnness, Gayety, sun-tan, air-sweetness, such are some of the words of poems, The sailor, the traveler, underlie the maker of poems, the Answerer, The builder, geometer, chemist, anatomist, phrenologist, artist, all these underlie the maker of poems, the Answerer. The words of the true poems give you more than poems; They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war, peace, behavior, histories, essays, daily life, and everything else. They balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes; They do not seek beauty, they are sought, Forever touching them or close upon them follows beauty, longing, fain, love-sick. They prepare for death, yet are they not the finish, but rather the outset, They bring none to his or her terminus or to be contented and full, Whom they take they take into space to behold the birth of stars, to learn one of the meanings, To launch off with absolute faith, to sweep through the ceaseless rings and never be quiet again.

* * * * *

"Of these States the poet is the equable man, Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns, Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad, He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less, He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key, He is the equalizer of his age and land, He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking, In peace out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty, building populous towns, encouraging agriculture, arts, commerce, lighting the study of man, the soul, health, immortality, government, In war he is the best backer of the war, he fetches artillery as good as the engineer's, he can make every word he speaks draw blood, The years straying toward infidelity he withholds by his steady faith, He is no arguer, he is judgment (nature accepts him absolutely), He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a helpless thing, As he sees the farthest he has the most faith, His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things, In the dispute on God and eternity he is silent, He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement, He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and omen as dreams or dots.

* * * * *

"Rhymes and rhymers pass away, poems distill'd from other poems pass away, The swarms of reflectors and the polite pass, and leave ashes, Admirers, impostors, obedient persons, make but the soil of literature."

Folded up in these sentences, often many times folded up, is Whitman's idea of the poet, the begetter, the reconciler; not the priest of the beautiful, but the master of the All, who does not appear once in centuries.

We hear nothing of the popular conception of the poet, well reflected in these lines of Tennyson:—

"The poet in a golden clime was born, with golden stars above."

"Golden stars" and "golden climes" do not figure at all in Whitman's pages; the spirit of romance is sternly excluded.

Whitman's ideal poet is the most composite man, rich in temperament, rank in the human attributes, embracing races and eras in himself. All men see themselves in him:—

"The mechanic takes him for a mechanic, And the soldier supposes him to be a soldier, and the sailor that he has followed the sea, And the authors take him for an author, and the artists for an artist, And the laborers perceive he could labor with them and love them, No matter what the work is, that he is the one to follow it, or has followed it, No matter what the nation, that he might find his brothers and sisters there.

* * * * *

"The gentleman of perfect blood acknowledges his perfect blood, The insulter, the prostitute, the angry person, the beggar, see themselves in the ways of him, he strangely transmutes them, They are not vile any more, they hardly know themselves they are so grown."

Let us hold the poet to his own ideals, and not condemn him because he has not aimed at something foreign to himself.

The questions which Whitman puts to him who would be an American poet may fairly be put to himself.

"Are you faithful to things? Do you teach what the land and sea, the bodies of men, womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers, teach? Have you sped through fleeting customs, popularities? Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls, fierce contentions? are you very strong? are you really of the whole people? Are you not of some coterie? some school, or mere religion? Are you done with reviews and criticisms of life? animating now to life itself? Have you vivified yourself from the maternity of these States? Have you, too, the old, ever-fresh forbearance and impartiality?

* * * * *

What is this you bring my America? Is it uniform with my country? Is it not something that has been better done or told before? Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some ship? Is it not a mere tale? a rhyme? a pettiness?—is the good old cause in it? Has it not dangled long at the heels of the poets, politicians, literats of enemies' lands? Does it not assume that what is notoriously gone is still here? Does it answer universal needs? will it improve manners? Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside? Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my strength, gait, face? Have real employments contributed to it? Original makers, not mere amanuenses?

So far as Whitman's poetry falls within any of the old divisions it is lyrical,—a personal and individual utterance. Open the book anywhere and you are face to face with a man. His eye is fixed upon you. It is a man's voice you hear, and it is directed to you. He is not elaborating a theme: he is suggesting a relation or hinting a meaning. He is not chiseling, or carving a work of art: he is roughly outlining a man; he is planting a seed, or tilling a field.


I believe it was the lamented Professor Clifford who first used the term "cosmic emotion" in connection with "Leaves of Grass." Whitman's atmosphere is so distinctly outside of and above that which ministers to our social and domestic wants,—the confined and perfumed air of an indoor life; his mood and temper are so habitually begotten by the contemplation of the orbs and the laws and processes of universal nature, that the phrase often comes to mind in considering him. He is not in any sense, except perhaps in a few minor pieces, a domestic and fireside poet,—a solace to our social instincts and cultivated ideals. He is too large, too aboriginal, too elemental, too strong for that. I seem to understand and appreciate him best when I keep in mind the earth as a whole, and its relation to the system. Any large view or thought, or survey of life or mankind, is a preparation for him. He demands the outdoor temper and habit, he demands a sense of space and power, he demands above all things a feeling for reality. "Vastness" is a word that applies to him; abysmal man, cosmic consciousness, the standards of the natural universal,—all hint some phase of his genius. His survey of life and duty is from a point not included in any four walls, or in any school or convention. It is a survey from out the depths of being; the breath of worlds and systems is in these utterances. His treatment of sex, of comradeship, of death, of democracy, of religion, of art, of immortality, is in the spirit of the great out-of-doors of the universe; the point of view is cosmic rather than personal or philanthropic. What charity is this!—the charity of sunlight that spares nothing and turns away from nothing. What "heroic nudity"! like the nakedness of rocks and winter trees. What sexuality! like the lust of spring or the push of tides. What welcome to death, as only the night which proves the day!


This orbic nature which so thrills and fills Whitman is not at all akin to that which we get in the so-called nature-poets of Wordsworth and his school,—the charm of privacy, of the sequestered, the cosy,—qualities that belong to the art of a domestic, home-loving race, and to lovers of solitude. Tennyson's poetry abounds in these qualities; so does Wordsworth's. There is less of them in Browning, and more of them in the younger poets. That communing with nature, those dear friendships with birds and flowers, that gentle wooing of the wild and sylvan, that flavor of the rural, the bucolic,—all these are important features in the current popular poetry, but they are not to any marked extent characteristic of Whitman. The sentiment of domesticity, love as a sentiment; the attraction of children, home and fireside; the attraction of books, art, travel; our pleasure in the choice, the refined, the artificial,—these are not the things you are to demand of Whitman. You do not demand them of Homer or Dante or the Biblical writers. We are to demand of him the major things, primary things; the lift of great emotions; the cosmic, the universal; the joy of health, of selfhood; the stimulus of the real, the modern, the American; always the large, the virile; always perfect acceptance and triumph.

Whitman's free use of the speech of the common people is doubtless offensive to a fastidious literary taste. Such phrases as "I will be even with you," "what would it amount to," "give in," "not one jot less;" "young fellows," "old fellows," "stuck up," "every bit as much," "week in and week out," and a thousand others, would jar on the page of any other poet more than on his.


William Rossetti says his language has a certain ultimate quality. Another critic speaks of his absolute use of language. Colonel Ingersoll credits him with more supreme words than have been uttered by any other man of our time.

The power to use words was in Whitman's eyes a divine power, and was bought with a price:—

"For only at last after many years, after chastity, friendship, procreation, prudence, and nakedness, After treading ground, and breasting river and lake, After a loosen'd throat, after absorbing eras, temperaments, races, after knowledge, freedom, crimes, After complete faith, after clarifying elevations and removing obstructions, After these and more, it is just possible there comes to a man, a woman, the divine power to speak words."

Whitman's sense of composition and his rare artistic faculty of using language are seen, as John Addington Symonds says, in the "countless clear and perfect phrases" "which are hung, like golden medals of consummate workmanship and incised form, in rich clusters over every poem he produced. And, what he aimed at above all, these phrases are redolent of the very spirit of the emotions they suggest, communicate the breadth and largeness of the natural things they indicate, embody the essence of realities in living words which palpitate and burn forever."

The great poet is always more or less the original, the abysmal man. He is face to face with universal laws and conditions. He speaks out of a greater exaltation of sentiment than the prose-writer. He takes liberties; he speaks for all men; he is a bird on "pinions free."


In saying or implying that Whitman's aim was not primarily literary or artistic, I am liable to be misunderstood; and when Whitman himself says, "No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward art or aestheticism," he exposes himself to the same misconception. It is the literary and poetic value of his verses alone that can save them. Their philosophy, their democracy, their vehement patriotism, their religious ardor, their spirit of comradeship, or what not, will not alone suffice. All depends upon the manner in which these things are presented to us. Do we get the reality, or words about the reality? No matter what the content of the verse, unless into the whole is breathed the breath of the true creative artist they will surely perish. Oblivion awaits every utterance not touched with the life of the spirit. Whitman was as essentially an artist as was Shakespeare or Dante; his work shows the same fusion of imagination, will, emotion, personality; it carries the same quality of real things,—not the same shaping, constructive power, but the same quickening, stimulating power, the same magic use of words. The artist in him is less conscious of itself, is less differentiated from the man, than in the other poets. He objected to having his work estimated for its literary value alone, but in so doing he used the word in a narrow sense.

After all these ages of the assiduous cultivation of literature, there has grown up in men a kind of lust of the mere art of writing, just as, after so many generations of religious training, there has grown up a passion for religious forms and observances. "Mere literature" has come to be a current phrase in criticism, meaning, I suppose, that the production to which it is applied is notable only for good craftsmanship. In the same spirit one speaks of mere scholarship, or of a certain type of man as a mere gentleman. It was mere literature that Whitman was afraid of, the aesthetic disease, the passion for letters, for poetry, divorced from love of life and of things. None knew better than he that the ultimate value of any imaginative and emotional work, even of the Bible, is its literary value. Its spiritual and religious value is inseparably connected with its literary value.

"Leaves of Grass" is not bookish; it is always the voice of a man, and not of a scholar or conventional poet, that addresses us. We all imbue words more or less with meanings of our own; but, from the point of view I am now essaying, literature is the largest fact, and embraces all inspired utterances. The hymn-book seeks to embody or awaken religious emotion alone; would its religious value be less if its poetic value were more? I think not. The best of the Psalms of David, from the religious point of view, are the best from the literary point of view. What reaches and thrills the soul,—that is great art. What arouses the passions—mirth, anger, indignation, pity—may or may not be true art. No one, for instance, can read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" without tears, laughter, anger; but no one, I fancy, could ever get from it that deep, tranquil pleasure and edification that the great imaginative works impart. Keble's poetry is more obviously religious than Wordsworth's or Arnold's, but how short-lived, because it is not embalmed in the true artistic spirit! In all the great poems, there is something as deep and calm as the light and the sky, and as common and universal. I find this something in Whitman. In saying, therefore, that his aim was ulterior to that of art, that he was not begotten by the literary spirit, I only mean that his aim was that of the largest art, and of the most vital and comprehensive literature. We should have heard the last of his "Leaves" long ago had they not possessed unmistakably the vitality of true literature, "incomparable things, incomparably well said," as Emerson remarked.

A scientific or philosophical work lives independently of its literary merit, but an emotional and imaginative work lives only by virtue of its literary merit. Different meanings may be attached to these words "literary merit" by different persons. I use them as meaning that vital and imaginative use of language which is the characteristic of all true literature. The most effective way of saying a thing in the region of the sentiments and emotions,—that is the true literary way.



I have divided my subject into many chapters, and given to each a separate heading, yet I am aware that they are all but slight variations of a single theme,—viz., Whitman's reliance upon absolute nature. That there might be no mistake about it, and that his reader might at once be put in possession of his point of view, the poet declared at the outset of his career that at every hazard he should let nature speak.

"Creeds and schools in abeyance Retiring back awhile, sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten, I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard, Nature without check, with original energy."

The hazard of letting nature speak will, of course, be great,—the hazard of gross misapprehension on the part of the public, and of hesitancy and inadequacy on the part of the poet. The latter danger, I think, was safely passed; Whitman never flinched or wavered for a moment, and that his criticism is adequate seems to me equally obvious. But the former contingency—the gross misapprehension of the public, even the wiser public—has been astounding. He has been read in a narrow, literal, bourgeois spirit. The personal pronoun, which he uses so freely, has been taken to stand for the private individual Walt Whitman, so that he has been looked upon as a compound of egotism and licentiousness. His character has been traduced, and his purpose in the "Leaves" entirely misunderstood.

We see at a glance that his attitude towards nature, towards God, towards the body and the soul, reverses many of the old ascetic theological conceptions.

All is good, all is as it should be; to abase the body is to abase the soul. Man is divine inside and out, and is no more divine about the head than about the loins. It is from this point of view that he has launched his work. He believed the time had come for an utterance out of radical, uncompromising human nature; let conventions and refinements stand back, let nature, let the soul, let the elemental forces speak; let the body, the passions, sex, be exalted; the stone rejected by the builders shall be the chief stone in the corner. Evil shall be shown to be a part of the good, and death shall be welcomed as joyously as life.

Whitman says his poems will do just as much evil as good, and perhaps more. To many readers this confession of itself would be his condemnation. To others it would be an evidence of his candor and breadth of view. I suppose all great vital forces, whether embodied in a man or in a book, work evil as well as good. If they do not, they only tickle the surface of things. Has not the Bible worked evil also? Some think more evil than good. The dews and the rains and the sunshine work evil.

From Whitman's point of view, there is no good without evil; evil is an unripe kind of good. There is no light without darkness, no life without death, no growth without pain and struggle. Beware the emasculated good, the good by exclusion rather than by victory. "Leaves of Grass" will work evil on evil minds,—on narrow, unbalanced minds. It is not a guide, but an inspiration; not a remedy, but health and strength. Art does not preach directly, but indirectly; it is moral by its spirit, and the mood and temper it begets.

Whitman, in celebrating manly pride, self-reliance, the deliciousness of sex; in glorifying the body, the natural passions and appetites, nativity; in identifying himself with criminals and low or lewd persons; in frankly imputing to himself all sins men are guilty of, runs the risk, of course, of being read in a spirit less generous and redemptive than his own.

The charity of the poet may stimulate the license of the libertine; the optimism of the seer may confirm the evil-doer; the equality of the democrat may foster the insolence of the rowdy. This is our lookout and not the poet's. We take the same chances with him that we do with nature; we are to trim our sails to the breeze he brings; we are to sow wheat and not tares for his rains to water.

Whitman's glorification of the body has led some critics to say that he is the poet of the body only. But it is just as true to say he is the poet of the soul only. He always seeks the spiritual through the material. He treats the body and the soul as one, and he treats all things as having reference to the soul.

"I will not make a poem, nor the least part, of a poem, but has reference to the soul, Because, having look'd at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one, nor any particle of one, but has reference to the soul."

The curious physiological strain which runs through the poems is to be considered in the light of this idea. He exalts the body because in doing so he exalts the soul.

"Sure as the earth swims through the heavens, does every one of its objects pass into spiritual results."


The reader of Whitman must do his or her own moralizing; the poet is here not to deprecate or criticise, but to love and celebrate; he has no partialities; our notions of morality do not concern him; he exploits the average man just as he finds him; he is the average man for the time being and confesses to all his sins and shortcomings, and we will make of the result good or evil, according to our mental horizon. That his work is unmixed good is the last thing the poet would claim for it. He has not, after the easy fashion of the moralist, set the good here and the bad there; he has blended them as they are in nature and in life; our profit and discipline begin when we have found out whither he finally tends, or when we have mastered him and extracted the good he holds. If we expect he is going to preach an austere system of morality to us, or any system of morality, we are doomed to disappointment. Does Nature preach such a system? does Nature preach at all? neither will he. He presents you the elements of good and evil in himself in vital fusion and play; your part is to see how the totals are at last good.

It is objected that Whitman is too persistent in declaring himself an animal, when the thing a man is least likely to forget is that he is an animal and the thing he is least likely to remember is that he is a spirit and a child of God. But Whitman insists with the same determination that he is a spirit and an heir of immortality,—not as one who has cheated the devil of his due, but as one who shares the privileges and felicities of all, and who finds the divine in the human. Indeed it is here that he sounds his most joyous and triumphant note. No such faith in spiritual results, no such conviction of the truth of immortality, no such determined recognition of the unseen world as the final reality is to be found in modern poetry.

As I have said, Whitman aimed to put his whole nature in a poem—the physical or physiological, the spiritual, the aesthetic and intellectual,—without giving any undue prominence to either. If he has not done so, if he has made the animal and sexual too pronounced, more so than nature will justify in the best proportioned man, then and then only is his artistic scheme vitiated and his work truly immoral.

It may be true that the thing a man is least likely to forget is that he is an animal; what he is most likely to forget, is that the animal is just as sacred and important as any other part; indeed that it is the basis of all, and that a sane and healthful and powerful spirituality and intellectuality can only flow out of a sane and healthful animality.

"I believe in you, my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other."


Furthermore, Whitman's main problem is to project into literature the new democratic man as he conceives him,—the man of the future, intensely American, but in the broadest sense human and cosmopolitan; he is to project him on a scale large enough for all uses and conditions, ignoring the feudal and aristocratic types which have for the most part dominated literature, and matching them with a type more copious in friendship, charity, sympathy, religion, candor, and of equal egoism and power.

It is to exploit and enforce and illustrate this type or character that "Leaves of Grass" is written. The poems are the drama of this new democratic man. This type Whitman finds in himself. He does not have to create it as Shakespeare did Hamlet or Lear; he has only to discover it in himself. He is it and he gives it free utterance. His work is, therefore, as he says, the poem of himself,—himself written large,—written as upon the face of the continent, written in the types and events he finds on all sides. He sees himself in all men, the bad as well as the good, and he sees all men in himself. All the stupendous claims he makes for himself he makes for others. His egotism is vicarious and embraces the world. It is not the private individual Walt Whitman that makes these stupendous claims for himself; it is Walt Whitman as the spokesman of the genius of American democracy. He is not to discuss a question. He is to outline a character, he is to incarnate a principle. The essayist or philosopher may discuss the value of any given idea,—may talk about it; the creative artist alone can give us the thing itself, the concrete flesh-and-blood reality. Whitman is not only to make this survey, to launch this criticism; he is to embody it in a living human personality, and enable us to see the world of man and morals through its eyes. What with the scientist, the philosopher, is thought, must be emotion and passion with him.

Whitman promises that we shall share with him "two greatnesses, and a third one rising inclusive and more resplendent,"—

"The greatness of Love and Democracy and the greatness of Religion"—

not merely as ideas, but as living impulses. He is to show the spirit of absolute, impartial nature, incarnated in a human being, imbued with love, democracy, and religion, moving amid the scenes and events of the New World, sounding all the joys and abandonments of life, and re-reading the oracles from the American point of view. And the utterance launched forth is to be imbued with poetic passion.

Whitman always aims at a complete human synthesis, and leaves his reader to make of it what he can. It is not for the poet to qualify and explain. He seeks to reproduce his whole nature in a book,—reproduce it with all its contradictions and carnalities, the good and the bad, the coarse and the fine, the body and the soul,—to give free swing to himself, trusting to natural checks and compensations to ensure a good result at last, but not at all disturbed if you find parts of it bad as in creation itself.

His method being that of the poet, and not that of the moralist or preacher, how shall he sort and sift, culling this virtue and that, giving parts and fragments instead of the entire man? He must give all, not abstractly, but concretely, synthetically.

To a common prostitute Whitman says:—

"Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you; Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you."

We are housed in social usages and laws, we are sheltered and warmed and comforted by conventions and institutions and numberless traditions; their value no one disputes. But for purposes of his own Whitman ignores them all; he lets in upon us the free and maybe raw air of the great out-of-doors of absolute nature; his standards are not found inside of any four walls; he contemplates life, and would quicken it in its fundamentals; his survey is from a plane whence our arts and refinements and petty distinctions disappear. He sees the evil of the world no less necessary than the good; he sees death as a part of life itself; he sees the body and the soul as one; he sees the spiritual always issuing from the material; he sees not one result at last lamentable in the universe.


Unless, as I have already said, we allow Whitman to be a law unto himself, we can make little of him; unless we place ourselves at his absolute point of view, his work is an offense and without meaning. The only question is, Has he a law, has he a steady and rational point of view, is his work a consistent and well-organized whole? Ask yourself, What is the point of view of absolute, uncompromising science? It is that creation is all good and sound; things are as they should be or must be; there are no conceivable failures; there is no evil in the final analysis, or, if there is, it is necessary, and plays its part also; there is no more beginning nor ending than there is now, no more heaven or hell than we find or make here:—

"Did you guess the celestial laws are yet to be work'd over and rectified?"

It has been urged that Whitman violates his own canon of the excellence of nature. But what he violates is more a secondary or acquired nature. He violates our social conventions and instincts, he exposes what we cover up; but the spirit of his undertaking demanded this of him. Remember that at all hazards he is to let nature—absolute nature—speak; that he is to be the poet of the body as well as of the soul, and that no part of the body of a man or woman, "hearty and clean," is vile, and that "none shall be less familiar than the rest."

His glory is, that he never flinched or hesitated in following his principle to its logical conclusions,—"my commission obeying, to question it never daring."

It was an heroic sacrifice, and atones for the sins of us all,—the sins of perverting, denying, abusing the most sacred and important organs and functions of our bodies.


In Whitman we find the most complete identification of the man with the subject. He always is, or becomes, the thing he portrays. Not merely does he portray America,—he speaks out of the American spirit, the spirit that has broken irrevocably with the past and turns joyously to the future; he does not praise equality, he illustrates it; he puts himself down beside the lowest and most despised person, and calls him brother.

"You felons on trial in courts, You convicts in prison-cells, you sentenced assassins chain'd and handcuff'd with iron, Who am I too that I am not on trial or in prison? Me ruthless and devilish as any, that my wrists are not chain'd with iron, or my ankles with iron?"

He does not give a little charity, he gives himself as freely as the clouds give rain, or the sun gives light; he does not write a treatise on democracy, he applies the democratic spirit to everything in heaven and on earth, and redistributes the prizes from its points of view; he does not, except very briefly, sing the praises of science, but he launches his poems always from the scientific view of the world, in contradistinction to the old theological and mythical point of view. It is always the example, it is always the thing itself, he gives us. Few precepts, no sermon, no reproof. Does he praise candor? No, he is candor; he confesses to everything; he shows us the inmost working of his mind. We know him better than we know our nearest friends. Does he exalt the pride of man in himself, or egoism? Again he illustrates it: he is egoism; he makes the whole universe revolve around himself; he never for a moment goes out of himself; he does not seek a theme; he is the theme. His egocentric method of treatment is what characterizes him as an artist. He elaborates no theme, he builds nothing, he carves nothing, but makes himself a source and centre of pulsing, vital energy. Wave after wave radiates from him. What we see and get always is Walt Whitman. Our attention is never fixed upon the writer, but always upon the man.

Of course this method of Whitman of becoming one with his subject, and speaking out of it, is always the method of the creative artist. It is this that distinguishes the artist from the mere thinker or prose-writer. The latter tells us about a thing; the former gives us the thing, or the spirit of the thing itself.

If Whitman had put his criticism of our time and civilization in an argument or essay, the world would have received it very differently. As an intellectual statement or proposition, we could have played with it and tossed it about as a ball in a game of shuttlecock, and dropped it when we tired of it, as we do other criticism. But he gave it to us as a man, as a personality, and we find it too strong for us. It is easier to deal with a theory than with the concrete reality. A man is a summons and a challenge, and will not be easily put aside.

The great philosophical poets, like Lucretius, try to solve the riddles. Whitman's aim is only to thrust the riddles before you, to give you a new sense of them, and start the game afresh. He knows what a complex, contradictory thing the universe is, and that the most any poet can do is to break the old firmament up into new forms. To put his arms around it? No. Put your arms around your fellow-man, and then you have encompassed it as nearly as mortal can do.


Whitman's attraction toward the common people was real. There is one thing that makes every-day humanity, the great, toiling, unlettered masses, forever welcome to men who unite great imagination with broad sympathies,—they give a sense of reality; they refresh, as nature always refreshes. There is a tang and a sting to the native, the spontaneous, that the cultivated rarely has. The farmer, the mechanic, the sailor, the soldier, savor of the primal and the hardy. In painting his own portrait, Whitman makes prominent the coarser, unrefined traits, because here the colors are fast,—here is the basis of all. The careful student of Whitman will surely come to see how all the elements of his picture—his pride, his candor, his democracy, his sensuality, his coarseness,—finally fit together, and correct and offset each other and make a perfect unity.

No poet is so easily caricatured and turned into ridicule as Whitman. He is deficient in humor, and hence, like the Biblical writers, is sometimes on the verge of the grotesque without knowing it. The sense of the ridiculous has been enormously stimulated and developed in the modern mind, and—what is to be regretted—it has been mostly at the expense of the sense of awe and reverence. We "poke fun" at everything in this country; to whatever approaches the verge of the ridiculous we give a push and topple it over. The fear which all Americans have before their eyes, and which is much stronger than the fear of purgatory, is the fear of appearing ridiculous. We curb and check any eccentricity or marked individuality of manners or dress, lest we expose ourselves to the shafts of ridicule. Emerson said he had heard with admiring submission the remark of a lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well dressed gave a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion was powerless to bestow; and what ranks before religion with us as a people is being in the mode, and writing our verse and cutting our coats in the approved style. Pride of the eye, a keen sense of the proprieties and the conventionalities, and a morbid feeling for the ridiculous, would have been death to Whitman's undertaking. He would have faltered, or betrayed self-consciousness. He certainly never could have spoken with that elemental aplomb and indifference which is so marked a feature of his work. Any hesitation, any knuckling, would have been his ruin. We should have seen he was not entirely serious, and should have laughed at him. We laugh now only for a moment; the spell of his earnestness and power is soon upon us.


Thoreau considered Whitman's "Leaves" worth all the sermons in the country for preaching; and yet few poets have assumed so little the function of the preacher. His great cure-all is love; he gives himself instead of a sermon. His faith in the remedial power of affection, comradeship, is truly Christ-like. Lover of sinners is also his designation. The reproof is always indirect or implied. He brings to bear character rather than precept. He helps you as health, as nature, as fresh air, pure water help. He says to you:—

"The mockeries are not you; Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk; I pursue you where none else has pursued you: Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the accustomed routine,—if these conceal you from others, or from yourself, they do not conceal you from me. The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion,—if these balk others, they do not balk me. The pert apparel, the deformed attitude, drunkenness, greed, premature death,—all these I part aside. I track through your windings and turnings,—I come upon you where you thought eye should never come upon you."

Whitman said, in the now famous preface of 1855, that "the greatest poet does not moralize, or make applications of morals,—he knows the soul." There is no preaching or reproof in the "Leaves."

"I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame; I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done; I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate; I see the wife misused by her husband; I see the treacherous seducer of the young woman; I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid,—I see these sights on the earth, I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny; I see martyrs and prisoners, I observe a famine at sea,—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be killed, to preserve the lives of the rest, I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like; All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, See, hear, and am silent."

Only once does he shame and rebuke the offender; then he holds up to him "a hand-mirror."

"Hold it up sternly! See this it sends back! (who is it? is it you?) Outside fair costume,—within, ashes and filth. No more a flashing eye,—no more a sonorous voice or springy step, Now some slave's eye, voice, hands, step, A drunkard's breath, unwholesome eater's face, venerealee's flesh, Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous, Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination, Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams, Words babble, hearing and touch callous, No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex; Such, from one look in this looking-glass ere you go hence, Such a result so soon—and from such a beginning!"

The poet's way is so different from the moralist's way! The poet confesses all, loves all,—has no preferences. He is moral only in his results. We ask ourselves, Does he breathe the air of health? Can he stand the test of nature? Is he tonic and inspiring? That he shocks us is nothing. The first touch of the sea is a shock. Does he toughen us, does he help make arterial blood?

All that men do and are guilty of attracts him. Their vices and excesses,—he would make these his own also. He is jealous lest he be thought better than other men,—lest he seem to stand apart from even criminals and offenders. When the passion for human brotherhood is upon him, he is balked by nothing; he goes down into the social mire to find his lovers and equals. In the pride of our morality and civic well-being, this phase of his work shocks us; but there are moods when the soul says it is good, and we rejoice in the strong man that can do it.

The restrictions, denials, and safeguards put upon us by the social order, and the dictates of worldly prudence, fall only before a still more fervid humanism, or a still more vehement love.

The vital question is, Where does he leave us? On firmer ground, or in the mire? Depleted and enervated, or full and joyous? In the gloom of pessimism, or in the sunlight of its opposite?—-

"So long! I announce a man or woman coming—perhaps you are the one; I announce a great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully armed.

"So long! I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold, And I announce an old age that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation.

"I announce myriads of youths, beautiful, gigantic, sweet-blooded; I announce a race of splendid and savage old men."

There is no contradiction here. The poet sounds all the experiences of life, and he gives out the true note at last.

"No specification is necessary,—all that a male or female does, that is vigorous, benevolent, clean, is so much profit to him or her, in the unshakable order of the universe, and through the whole scope of it forever."


Nothing but the most uncompromising religious purpose can justify certain things in the "Leaves;" nothing but the most buoyant and pervasive spirituality can justify its overwhelming materiality; nothing but the most creative imagination can offset its tremendous realism; nothing but the note of universal brotherhood can atone for its vehement Americanism; nothing but the primal spirit of poesy itself can make amends for this open flouting of the routine poetic, and this endless procession before us of the common and the familiar.


Whitman loved the word "unrefined." It was one of the words he would have us apply to himself. He was unrefined, as the air, the soil, the water, and all sweet natural things are unrefined (fine but not refined). He applies the word to himself two or three times in the course of his poems. He loved the words sun-tan, air-sweetness, brawn, etc. He speaks of his "savage song," not to call forth the bards of the past, he says, but to invoke the bards of the future.

"Have I sung so capricious and loud my savage songs?"

The thought that his poems might help contribute to the production of a "race of splendid and savage old men" was dear to him. He feared the depleting and emasculating effects of our culture and conventions. The decay of maternity and paternity in this country, the falling off of the native populations, were facts full of evil omen. His ideal of manly or womanly character is rich in all the purely human qualities and attributes; rich in sex, in sympathy, in temperament; physiologically sound and clean, as well as mentally and morally so.

"Fear grace, fear delicatesse; Fear the mellow-sweet, the sucking of honey-juice: Beware the advancing mortal ripening of nature! Beware what precedes the decay of the ruggedness of states and men."

He was himself the savage old man he invoked. It was no part of his plan to preach, in refined and euphonious terms, hygiene and the value of the natural man, but to project into literature the thing itself, to exploit a character coarse as well as fine, and to imbue his poems with a physiological quality as well as a psychological and intellectual.

"I will scatter the new roughness and gladness among them."

He says to the pale, impotent victim of over-refinement, with intentional rudeness,

"Open your scarf'd chops till I blow grit within you."


One of the key-words to Whitman both as a man and a poet is the word "composite." He was probably the most composite man this century has produced, and in this respect at least is representative of the American of the future, who must be the result of the blending of more diverse racial elements than any man of history. He seems to have had an intuition of his composite character when he said in his first poem:—

"I am large,—I contain multitudes."

The London correspondent of the "New York Tribune," in reluctantly conceding at the time of the poet's death something to the British admiration of him, said he was "rich in temperament." The phrase is well chosen. An English expert on the subject of temperament, who visited Whitman some years ago, said he had all four temperaments, the sanguine, the nervous, the melancholic, and the lymphatic, while most persons have but two temperaments, and rarely three.

It was probably the composite character of Whitman that caused him to attract such diverse and opposite types of men,—scholars and workingmen, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and men of the world,—and that made him personally such a puzzle to most people,—so impossible to classify. On the street the promenaders would turn and look after him, and I have often heard them ask each other, "What man was that?" He has often been taken for a doctor, and during his services in the army hospitals various myths were floating about concerning him. Now he was a benevolent Catholic priest,—then some unknown army general, or retired sea captain; at one time he was reputed to be one of the owners of the Cunard line of steamers. To be taken for a Californian was common. One recalls the composite character of the poet whom he outlines in his poems (see quotation, page 159).

The book is as composite as the man. It is all things to all men; it lends itself to a multitude of interpretations. Every earnest reader of it will find some clew or suggestion by the aid of which he fancies he can unlock the whole book, but in the end he will be pretty sure to discover that one key is not enough. To one critic, his book is the "hoarse song of a man," its manly and masculine element attracts him; to another he is the poet of joy, to another the poet of health, to still another he is the bard of personality; others read him as the poet of nature, or the poet of democracy. His French critic, Gabriel Sarrazin, calls him an apostle,—the apostle of the idea that man is an indivisible fragment of the universal Divinity.


What has a poet of Whitman's aims to do with decency or indecency, with modesty or immodesty? These are social or conventional virtues; he represents mainly primary qualities and forces. Does life, does death, does nature, respect our proprieties, our conventional veils and illusions? Neither will he. He will strip them all away. He will act and speak as if all things in the universe were equally sacred and divine; as if all men were really his brothers, all women his sisters; as if all parts of the human body were equally beautiful and wonderful; as if fatherhood and motherhood, birth and begetting, were sacred acts. Of course it is easy to see that this course will speedily bring him in collision with the guardians of taste and social morality. But what of that? He professes to take his cue from the elemental laws. "I reckon I behave no more proudly than the level I plant my house by." The question is, Is he adequate, is he man enough, to do it? Will he not falter, or betray self-consciousness? Will he be true to his ideal through thick and thin? The social gods will all be outraged, but that is less to him than the candor and directness of nature in whose spirit he assumes to speak.

Nothing is easier than to convict Walt Whitman of what is called indecency; he laughs indifferent when you have done so. It is not your gods that he serves. He says he would be as indifferent of observation as the trees or rocks. And it is here that we must look for his justification, upon ethical rather than upon the grounds of conventional art. He has taken our sins upon himself. He has applied to the morbid sex-consciousness, that has eaten so deeply into our social system, the heroic treatment; he has fairly turned it naked into the street. He has not merely in words denied the inherent vileness of sex; he has denied it in very deed. We should not have taken offense had he confined himself to words,—had he said sex is pure, the body is as clean about the loins as about the head; but being an artist, a creator, and not a mere thinker or preacher, he was compelled to act,—to do the thing instead of saying it.

The same in other matters. Being an artist, he could not merely say all men were his brothers; he must show them as such. If their weakness and sins are his also, he must not flinch when it comes to the test; he must make his words good. We may be shocked at the fullness and minuteness of the specification, but that is no concern of his; he deals with the concrete and not with the abstract,—fraternity and equality as a reality, not as a sentiment.


In the phase in which we are now considering him, Whitman appears as the Adamic man re-born here in the nineteenth century, or with science and the modern added, and fully and fearlessly embodying himself in a poem. It is stronger than we can stand, but it is good for us, and one of these days, or one of these centuries, we shall be able to stand it and enjoy it.

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