"To the garden the world anew ascending, Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding, The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being, Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber, The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, having brought me again, Amorous, mature—all beautiful to me—all wondrous, My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons most wondrous; Existing, I peer and penetrate still, Content with the present—content with the past, By my side, or back of me, Eve following, Or in front, and I following her just the same."
The critics perpetually misread Whitman because they fail to see this essentially composite and dramatic character of his work,—that it is not the song of Walt Whitman the private individual, but of Walt Whitman as representative of, and speaking for, all types and conditions of men; in fact, that it is the drama of a new democratic personality, a character outlined on a larger, more copious, more vehement scale than has yet appeared in the world. The germs of this character he would sow broadcast over the land.
In this drama of personality the poet always identifies himself with the scene, incident, experience, or person he delineates, or for whom he speaks. He says to the New Englander, or to the man of the South and the West, "I depict you as myself." In the same way he depicts offenders, roughs, criminals, and low and despised persons as himself; he lays claim to every sin of omission and commission men are guilty of, because, he says, "the germs are in all men." Men dare not tell their faults. He will make them all his own, and then tell them; there shall be full confession for once.
"If you become degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake; If you remember your foolish and outlaw'd deeds, do you think I cannot remember my own foolish and outlaw'd deeds?"
It will not do to read this poet, or any great poet, in a narrow and exacting spirit. As Whitman himself says: "The messages of great poems to each man and woman are: Come to us on equal terms, only then can you understand us."
In the much misunderstood group of poems called "Children of Adam" the poet speaks for the male generative principle, and all the excesses and abuses that grow out of it he unblushingly imputes to himself. What men have done and still do, while under the intoxication of the sexual passion, he does, he makes it all his own experience.
That we have here a revelation of his own personal taste and experiences may or may not be the case, but we have no more right to assume it than we have to assume that all other poets speak from experience when they use the first person singular. When John Brown mounted the scaffold in Virginia, in 1860, the poet says:—
"I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch'd, I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal'd wounds, you mounted the scaffold,"—
very near him he stood in spirit; very near him he stood in the person of others, but not in his own proper person.
If we take this poet literally, we shall believe he has been in California and Oregon; that he has set foot in every city on the continent; that he grew up in Virginia; that every Southern State has been by turns his home; that he has been a soldier, a sailor, a miner; that he has lived in Dakota's woods, his "diet meat, his drink from the spring;" that he has lived on the plains with hunters and ranchmen, etc. He lays claim to all these characters, all these experiences, because what others do, what others assume, or suffer, or enjoy, that he appropriates to himself.
"I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs, Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen, I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinned with the ooze of my skin, I fall on the weeds and stones, The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close, Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whipstocks.
"Agonies are one of my changes of garments, I do not ask the wounded person how he feels—I myself become the wounded person, My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.
"I become any presence or truth of humanity here, See myself in prison shaped like another man, And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
"For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch, It is I let out in the morning and barred at night. Not a mutineer walks hand-cuffed to the jail, but I am hand-cuffed to him and walk by his side."
It is charged against Whitman that he does not celebrate love at all, and very justly. He had no purpose to celebrate the sentiment of love. Literature is vastly overloaded with this element already. He celebrates fatherhood and motherhood, and the need of well-begotten, physiologically well-begotten, offspring. Of that veiled prurient suggestion which readers so delight in—of "bosoms mutinously fair," and "the soul-lingering loops of perfumed hair," as one of our latest poets puts it—there is no hint in his volume. He would have fallen from grace the moment he had attempted such a thing. Any trifling or dalliance on his part would have been his ruin. Love as a sentiment has fairly run riot in literature. From Whitman's point of view, it would have been positively immoral for him either to have vied with the lascivious poets in painting it as the forbidden, or with the sentimental poets in depicting it as a charm. Woman with him is always the mate and equal of the man, never his plaything.
Whitman is seldom or never the poet of a sentiment, at least of the domestic and social sentiments. His is more the voice of the eternal, abysmal man.
The home, the fireside, the domestic allurements, are not in him; love, as we find it in other poets, is not in him; the idyllic, except in touches here and there, is not in him; the choice, the finished, the perfumed, the romantic, the charm of art and the delight of form, are not to be looked for in his pages. The cosmic takes the place of the idyllic; the begetter, the Adamic man, takes the place of the lover; patriotism takes the place of family affection; charity takes the place of piety; love of kind is more than love of neighbor; the poet and the artist are swallowed up in the seer and the prophet.
The poet evidently aimed to put in his sex poems a rank and healthful animality, and to make them as frank as the shedding of pollen by the trees, strong even to the point of offense. He could not make it pleasing, a sweet morsel to be rolled under the tongue; that would have been levity and sin, as in Byron and the other poets. It must be direct and rank, healthfully so. The courage that did it, and showed no wavering or self-consciousness, was more than human. Man is a begetter. How shall a poet in our day and land treat this fact? With levity and by throwing over it the lure of the forbidden, the attraction of the erotic? That is one way, the way of nearly all the poets of the past. But that is not Whitman's way. He would sooner be bestial than Byronic, he would sooner shock by his frankness than inflame by his suggestion. And this in the interest of health and longevity, not in the interest of a prurient and effeminate "art." In these poems Whitman for a moment emphasizes sex, the need of sex, and the power of sex. "All were lacking if sex were lacking." He says to men and women, Here is where you live after all, here is the seat of empire. You are at the top of your condition when you are fullest and sanest there. Fearful consequences follow any corrupting or abusing or perverting of sex. The poet stands in the garden of the world naked and not ashamed. It is a great comfort that he could do it in this age of hectic lust and Swinburnian impotence,—that he could do it and not be ridiculous. To have done it without offense would have been proof that he had failed utterly. Let us be shocked; it is a wholesome shock, like the douse of the sea, or the buffet of the wind. We shall be all the better for it by and by.
The lover of Whitman comes inevitably to associate him with character and personal qualities. I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman type—the kind of woman he invoked and predicted. They bear children, and are not ashamed; motherhood is their pride and their joy: they are cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural, good-natured; the mates and companions of their husbands, keeping pace with them in all matters; home-makers, but larger than home, considerate, forgiving, unceremonious,—in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.
A British critic wisely says the gift of Whitman to us is the gift of life rather than of literature, but it is the gift of life through literature. Indeed, Whitman means a life as much as Christianity means a life. He says:—
"Writing and talk do not prove me."
Nothing but the test of reality finally proves him:—
"The proof of the poet shall be sternly deferr'd till his country has absorbed him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
The proof of Whitman shall be deferred till he has borne fruit in actual, concrete life.
He knew that merely intellectual and artistic tests did not settle matters in his case, or that we would not reach his final value by making a dead-set at him through the purely aesthetic faculties. Is he animating to life itself? Can we absorb and assimilate him? Does he nourish the manly and heroic virtues? Does he make us more religious, more tolerant, more charitable, more candid, more self-reliant? If not, he fails of his chief end. It is doubtful if the purely scholarly and literary poets, like Milton, say, or like our own Poe, are ever absorbed in the sense above implied; while there is little doubt that poets like Homer, like Shakespeare, are absorbed and modify a people's manners and ideals. Only that which we love affects our lives. Our admiration for art and literature as such is something entirely outside the sources of character and power of action.
Whitman identifies himself with our lives. We associate him with reality, with days, scenes, persons, events. The youth who reads Poe or Lowell wants to be a scholar, a wit, a poet, a writer; the youth who reads Whitman wants to be a man, and to get at the meaning and value of life. Our author's bent towards real things, real men and women, and his power to feed and foster personality, are unmistakable.
Life, reality, alone proves him; a saner and more robust fatherhood and motherhood, more practical democracy, more charity, more love, more comradeship, more social equality, more robust ideals of womanly and manly character, prove him. When we are more tolerant and patient and long-suffering, when the strain of our worldly, commercial spirit relaxes, then is he justified. Whitman means a letting-up of the strain all along the line,—less hurry, less greed, less rivalry, more leisure, more charity, more fraternalism and altruism, more religion, less formality and convention.
"When America does what was promised, When each part is peopled with free people, When there is no city on earth to lead my city, the city of young men, the Mannahatta city—but when the Mannahatta leads all the cities of the earth, When there are plentiful athletic bards, inland and seaboard, When through these States walk a hundred millions of superb persons, When the rest part away for superb persons, and contribute to them, When fathers, firm, unconstrained, open-eyed—when breeds of the most perfect mothers denote America, Then to me ripeness and conclusion."
After all I think it matters little whether we call him poet or not. Grant that he is not a poet in the usual or technical sense, but poet-prophet, or poet-seer, or all combined. He is a poet plus something else. It is when he is judged less than poet, or no poet at all, that we feel injustice is done him. Grant that his work is not art, that it does not give off the perfume, the atmosphere of the highly wrought artistic works like those of Tennyson, but of something quite different.
We have all been slow to see that his cherished ends were religious rather than literary; that, over and above all else, he was a great religious teacher and prophet. Had he been strictly a literary poet, like Lowell, or Longfellow, or Tennyson,—that is, a writer working for purely artistic effects,—we should be compelled to judge him quite differently.
"Leaves of Grass" is a gospel—glad tidings of great joy to those who are prepared to receive it. Its final value lies in its direct, intense, personal appeal; in what it did for Symonds, who said it made a man of him; in what it did for Stevenson, who said it dispelled a thousand illusions; in what it did for Mrs. Gilchrist, who said it enabled her to find her own soul; in what it does for all earnest readers of it in blending with the inmost current of their lives. Whitman is the life-giver of our time. How shall a poet give us life but by making us share his larger measure of life, his larger hope, his larger love, his larger charity, his saner and wider outlook? What are the three great life-giving principles? Can we name them better than St. Paul named them eighteen hundred years ago,—faith, hope, charity? And these are the cornerstones of Whitman's work,—a faith so broad and fervent that it accepts death as joyously as life, and sees all things at last issue in spiritual results; a hope that sees the golden age ahead of us, not behind us; and a charity that balks at nothing, that makes him identify himself with offenders and outlaws; a charity as great as his who said to the thief on the cross, "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise."
To cry up faith, hope, and charity is not to make men partakers of them; but to exemplify them in a survey of the whole problem of life, to make them vital as hearing, or eyesight in a work of the imagination, to show them as motives and impulses controlling all the rest, is to beget and foster them in the mind of the beholder.
He is more and he is less than the best of the other poets. The popular, the conventional poets are mainly occupied with the artistic side of things,—with that which refines, solaces, beautifies. Whitman is mainly occupied with the cosmic and universal side of things, and the human and spiritual values that may be extracted from them. His poetry is not the result of the same kind of selection and partiality as that we are more familiar with.
Hence, while the message of Tennyson and his kind is the message of beauty, the message of Whitman is, in a much fuller sense, the message of life. He speaks the word of faith and power. This is his distinction; he is the life-giver. Such a man comes that we may have life, and have it more abundantly.
The message of beauty,—who would undervalue it? The least poet and poetling lisps some word or syllable of it. The masters build its temples and holy places. All own it, all receive it gladly. But the gospel of life, there is danger that we shall not know it when we hear it. It is a harsher and more heroic strain than the other. It calls no man to his ease, or to be lulled and soothed. It is a summons and a challenge. It lays rude, strong hands upon you. It filters and fibres your blood. It is more of the frost, the rains, the winds, than of cushions or parlors.
The call of life is a call to battle always. We are stronger by the strength of every obstacle or enemy overcome.
"Listen! I will be honest with you, I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes, These are the days that must happen to you:
"You shall not heap up what is called riches, You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve; You but arrive at the city to which you were destined—you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction, before you are called by an irresistible call to depart. You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you; What beckonings of love you receive, you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting, You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reached hands toward you.
"Allons! After the GREAT COMPANIONS! and to belong to them!"
Whitman always avails himself of the poet's privilege and magnifies himself. He magnifies others in the same ratio, he magnifies all things. "Magnifying and applying come I," he says, "outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters." Indeed, the character which speaks throughout "Leaves of Grass" is raised to the highest degree of personal exaltation. To it nothing is trivial, nothing is mean; all is good, all is divine. The usual distinctions disappear, burned up, the poet says, for religion's sake. All the human attributes are heightened and enlarged; sympathy as wide as the world; love that balks at nothing; charity as embracing as the sky; egotism like the force of gravity; religious fervor that consumes the coarsest facts like stubble; spirituality that finds God everywhere every hour of the day; faith that welcomes death as cheerfully as life; comradeship that would weld the nation into a family of brothers; sexuality that makes prudes shudder; poetic enthusiasm that scornfully dispenses with all the usual adventitious aids; and in general a largeness, coarseness, and vehemence that are quite appalling to the general reader. Lovers of poetry will of necessity be very slow in adjusting their notions to the standards of "Leaves of Grass." It is a survey of life and of the world from the cosmic rather than from the conventional standpoint. It carries the standards of the natural-universal into all fields.
Some men have accepted poverty and privation with such contentment and composure as to make us almost envious of their lot; and Whitman accepts the coarser, commoner human elements which he finds in himself, and which most of us try to conceal or belittle, with such frankness and perception of their real worth that they acquire new meaning and value in our eyes. If he paraded these things unduly, and showed an overweening preference for them, as some of his critics charge, this is of course an element of weakness.
His precept and his illustration, carried out in life, would fill the land with strong, native, original types of men and women animated by the most vehement comradeship, selfism and otherism going hand in hand.
HIS RELATION TO CULTURE
"Leaves of Grass" is not the poetry of culture, but it is to be said in the same breath that it is not such a work as an uncultured man produces, or is capable of producing.
The uncultured man does not think Whitman's thoughts, or propose Whitman's problems to himself, or understand or appreciate them at all. The "Leaves" are perhaps of supreme interest only to men of deepest culture, because they contain in such ample measure that without which all culture is mere varnish or veneer. They are indirectly a tremendous criticism of American life and civilization, and they imply that breadth of view and that liberation of spirit—that complete disillusioning—which is the best result of culture, and which all great souls have reached, no matter who or what their schoolmasters may have been.
Our reading public probably does not and cannot see itself in Whitman at all. He must be a great shock to its sense of the genteel and the respectable. Nor can the working people and the unlettered, though they were drawn to Whitman the man, be expected to respond to any considerable extent to Whitman the poet. His standpoint can be reached only after passing through many things and freeing one's self from many illusions. He is more representative of the time-spirit out of which America grew, and which is now shaping the destiny of the race upon this continent. He strikes under and through our whole civilization.
He despised our social gods, he distrusted our book-culture, he was alarmed at the tendency to the depletion and attenuation of the national type, and he aimed to sow broadcast the germs of more manly ideals. His purpose was to launch his criticism from the basic facts of human life, psychic and physiologic; to inject into the veins of our anaemic literature the reddest, healthiest kind of blood; and in doing so he has given free swing to the primary human traits and affections and to sexuality, and has charged his pages with the spirit of real things, real life.
We have been so long used to verse which is the outcome of the literary impulse alone, which is written at so many removes from the primary human qualities, produced from the extreme verge of culture and artificial refinement, which is so innocent of the raciness and healthful coarseness of nature, that poetry which has these qualities, which implies the body as well as the mind, which is the direct outgrowth of a radical human personality, and which make demands like those made by real things, is either an offense to us or is misunderstood.
Whitman says his book is not a good lesson, but it takes down the bars to a good lesson, and that to another, and that to another still. To take down bars rather than to put them up is always Whitman's aim; to make his reader free of the universe, to turn him forth into the fresh and inexhaustible pastures of time, space, eternity, and with a smart slap upon his back with the halter as a spur and send-off, is about what he would do. His message, first and last, is "give play to yourself;" "let yourself go;"—happiness is in the quest of happiness; power comes to him who power uses.
"Long enough have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore; Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair."
To hold Whitman up to ridicule, and to convict him of grossness and tediousness, is easy enough; first, because he is so out of relation to the modes and taste of his times, and, secondly, because he has somewhat of the uncouthness and coarseness of large bodies. Then his seriousness and simplicity, like that of Biblical and Oriental writers,—a kind of childish inaptness and homeliness,—often exposes him to our keen, almost abnormal sense of the ridiculous. He was deficient in humor, and he wrote his book in entire obliviousness of social usages and conventions, so that the perspective of it is not the social or indoor perspective, but that of life and nature at large, careering and unhampered. It is probably the one modern poem whose standards are not social and what are called artistic.
Its atmosphere is always that of the large, free spaces of vast, unhoused nature. It has been said that the modern world could be reconstructed from "Leaves of Grass," so compendious and all-inclusive is it in its details; but of the modern world as a social organization, of man as the creature of social usages and prohibitions, of fashions, of dress, of ceremony,—the indoor, parlor and drawing-room man,—there is no hint in its pages. In its matter and in its spirit, in its standards and in its execution, in its ideals and in its processes, it belongs to and affiliates with open-air nature, often reaching, I think, the cosmic and unconditioned. In a new sense is Whitman the brother of the orbs and cosmic processes, "conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth." All his enthusiasms, all his sympathies have to do with the major and fundamental elements of life. He is a world-poet. We do not readily adjust our indoor notions to him. Our culture-standards do not fit him.
The problem of the poet is doubtless more difficult in our day than in any past day; it is harder for him to touch reality.
The accumulations of our civilization are enormous: an artificial world of great depth and potency overlies the world of reality; especially does it overlie the world of man's moral and intellectual nature. Most of us live and thrive in this artificial world, and never know but it is the world of God's own creating. Only now and then a man strikes his roots down through this made land into fresh, virgin soil. When the religious genius strikes his roots through it, and insists upon a present revelation, we are apt to cry "heretic;" when the poet strikes his roots through it, as Whitman did, and insists upon giving us reality,—giving us himself before custom or law,—we cry "barbarian," or "art-heretic," or "outlaw of art."
In the countless adjustments and accumulations, and in the oceanic currents of our day and land, the individual is more and more lost sight of,—merged, swamped, effaced. See him in Whitman rising above it all. See it all shot through and through with his quality and obedient to his will. See the all-leveling tendency of democracy, the effacing and sterilizing power of a mechanical and industrial age, set at naught or reversed by a single towering personality. See America, its people, their doings, their types, their good and evil traits, all bodied forth in one composite character, and this character justifying itself and fronting the universe with the old joy and contentment.
"The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for civilization, or is he past it and master of it?"
Do we not, consciously or unconsciously, ask this or a similar question of every poet or artist whom we pass in review before us? Is he master of his culture, or does it master him? Does he strike back through it to simple, original nature, or is he a potted plant? Does he retain the native savage virtues, or is he entirely built up from the outside? We constantly mistake culture for mere refinement, which it is not: it is a liberating process; it is a clearing away of obstructions, and the giving to inherent virtues a chance to express themselves. It makes savage nature friendly and considerate. The aim of culture is not to get rid of nature, but to utilize nature. The great poet is always a "friendly and flowing savage," the master and never the slave of the complex elements of our artificial lives.
Though our progress and civilization are a triumph over nature, yet in an important sense we never get away from nature or improve upon her. Her standards are still our standards, her sweetness and excellence are still our aim. Her health, her fertility, her wholeness, her freshness, her innocence, her evolution, we would fain copy or reproduce. We would, if we could, keep the pungency and aroma of her wild fruit in our cultivated specimens, the virtue and hardiness of the savage in our fine gentlemen, the joy and spontaneity of her bird-songs in our poetry, the grace and beauty of her forms in our sculpture and carvings.
A poetic utterance from an original individual standpoint, something definite and characteristic,—this is always the crying need. What a fine talent has this or that young British or American poet whom we might name! But we see that the singer has not yet made this talent his own; it is a kind of borrowed capital; it is the general taste and intelligence that speak. When will he redeem all these promises, and become a fixed centre of thought and emotion in himself? To write poems is no distinction; to be a poem, to be a fixed point amid the seething chaos, a rock amid the currents, giving your own form and character to them,—that is something.
It matters little, as Whitman himself says, who contributes the mass of poetic verbiage upon which any given age feeds.
But for a national first-class poem, or a great work of the imagination of any sort, the man is everything, because such works finally rest upon primary human qualities and special individual traits. A richly endowed personality is always the main dependence in such cases, or, as Goethe says, "in the great work the great person is always present as the great factor."
"Leaves of Grass" is as distinctly an emanation from Walt Whitman, from his quality and equipment as a man apart from anything he owed to books or to secondary influences, as a tree is an emanation from the soil. It is, moreover, an emanation from him as an American in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and as a typical democratic composite man, a man of the common people, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, but with an extraordinary endowment of spiritual and intellectual power, to which he has given full swing without abating one jot or tittle the influence of his heritage of the common stock.
There is one important quality that enters into all first-class literary production and into all art, which is taken little account of in current criticism: I mean the quality of the manly,—the pulse and pressure of manly virility and strength. Goethe spoke of it to Eckermann as a certain urgent power in which the art of his time was lacking. The producers had taste and skill, but were not masterful as men. Goethe always looked straight through the work to the man behind it; in art and poetry the personality was everything. The special talent of one kind or another was quite secondary. The greatest works are the least literary. To speak in literature as a man, and not merely as a scholar or professional litterateur, is always the crying need. The new poet has this or that gift, but what is the human fund back of all? What is his endowment of the common universal human traits? How much of a man is he? His measure in this respect will be the measure of the final value of his contribution.
The decadence of literature sets in when there is more talent than character in current production; when rare literary and artistic gifts no longer come wedded to large human and manly gifts; when taste is fastidious rather than robust and hearty. When was there a man born to English or American literature with a large endowment of the universal human qualities, or with those elements that give breadth and power, and which lead art rather than follow it? We are living in an age of great purity and refinement of taste in art and letters, but destitute of power. Goethe spoke of Walter Scott not merely as a great talent, but as a "comprehensive nature." Without this comprehensive nature as a setting, his great talent would have amounted to but little. This gives the weight, the final authority. How little there was on the surface of Scott of the literary keenness, subtlety, knowingness of later producers, and yet how far his contribution surpasses theirs in real human pathos and suggestiveness!
The same might be said of Count Tolstoi, who is also, back of all, a great loving nature.
One has great joy in Whitman because he is beyond and over all a large and loving personality; his work is but a thin veil through which a great nature clearly shows. The urgent power of which Goethe speaks is almost too strong,—too strong for current taste: we want more art and less man, more literature and less life. It is not merely a great mind that we feel, but a great character. It penetrates every line, and indeed makes it true of the book that whoever "touches this touches a man."
The lesson of the poet is all in the direction of the practical manly and womanly qualities and virtues,—health, temperance, sanity, power, endurance, aplomb,—and not at all in the direction of the literary and artistic qualities or culture.
"To stand the cold or heat, to take good aim with a gun, to sail a boat, to manage horses, to beget superb children, To speak readily and clearly, to feel at home among common people, To hold our own in terrible positions on land and sea."
All his aims, ideas, impulses, aspirations, relate to life, to personality, and to power to deal with real things; and if we expect from him only literary ideas—form, beauty, lucidity, proportion—we shall be disappointed. He seeks to make the impression of concrete forces and objects, and not of art.
"Not for an embroiderer, (There will always be plenty of embroiderers—I welcome them also), But for the fibre of things, and for inherent men and women.
"Not to chisel ornaments, But to chisel with free stroke the heads and limbs of plenteous Supreme Gods, that The States may realize them, walking and talking."
His whole work is a radiation from an exemplification of the idea that there is something better than to be an artist or a poet,—namely, to be a man. The poet's rapture springs not merely from the contemplation of the beautiful and the artistic, but from the contemplation of the whole; from the contemplation of democracy, the common people, workingmen, soldiers, sailors, his own body, death, sex, manly love, occupations, and the force and vitality of things. We are to look for the clews to him in the open air and in natural products, rather than in the traditional art forms and methods. He declares he will never again mention love or death inside of a house, and that he will translate himself only to those who privately stay with him in the open air.
"If you would understand me, go to the heights or water-shore; The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key: The maul, the oar, the handsaw, second my words.
"No shuttered room or school can commune with me, But roughs and little children better than they.
"The young mechanic is closest to me—he knows me pretty well. The woodman, that takes his axe and jug with him, shall take me with him all day; The farm-boy, ploughing in the field, feels good at the sound of my voice: In vessels that sail, my words sail—I go with fishermen and seamen, and love them.
"My face rubs to the hunter's face when he lies down alone in his blanket; The driver, thinking of me, does not mind the jolt of his wagon; The young mother and old mother comprehend me; The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment, and forget where they are: They and all would resume what I have told them."
So far as literature is a luxury, and for the cultured, privileged few, its interests are not in Whitman; so far as poetry represents the weakness of man rather than his strength; so far as it expresses a shrinking from reality and a refuge in sentimentalism; so far as it is aristocratic as in Tennyson, or mocking and rebellious as in Byron, or erotic and mephitic as in Swinburne, or regretful and reminiscent as in Arnold, or a melodious baying of the moon as in Shelley, or the outcome of mere scholarly and technical acquirements as in so many of our younger poets,—so far as literature or poetry, I say, stand for these things, there is little of either in Whitman. Whitman stands for the primary and essential; he stands for that which makes the body as well as the mind, which makes life sane and joyous and masterful. Everything that tends to depletion, satiety, the abnormal, the erotic and exotic, that induces the stress and fever of life, is foreign to his spirit. He is less beautiful than the popular poets, yet more beautiful. He will have to do only with the inevitable beauty, the beauty that comes unsought, that resides in the interior meanings and affiliations,—the beauty that dare turn its back upon the beautiful.
Whitman has escaped entirely the literary disease, the characteristic symptoms of which, according to Renan, is that people love less things themselves than the literary effects which they produce. He has escaped the art disease which makes art all in all; the religious disease, which runs to maudlin piety and seeks to win heaven by denying earth; the beauty disease, which would make of poesy a conventional flower-garden. He brings heroic remedies for our morbid sex-consciousness, and for all the pathological conditions brought about by our excess of refinement, and the dyspeptic depletions of our indoor artificial lives. Whitman withstood the aesthetic temptation, as Amiel calls it, to which most of our poets fall a victim,—the lust for the merely beautiful, the epicureanism of the literary faculties. We can make little of him if we are in quest of aesthetic pleasures alone. "In order to establish those literary authorities which are called classic centuries," says Renan, "something healthy and solid is necessary. Common household bread is of more value here than pastry." But the vast majority of literary producers aim at pastry, or, worse yet, confectionery,—something especially delightful and titivating to the taste. No doubt Renan himself was something of a literary epicure, but then he imposed upon himself large and serious tasks, and his work as a whole is solid and nourishing; his charm of style does not blind and seduce us. It makes all the difference in the world whether we seek the beautiful through the true, or the true through the beautiful. Seek ye the kingdom of truth first and all things shall be added. The novice aims to write beautifully, but the master aims to see truly and to feel vitally. Beauty follows him, and is never followed by him.
Nature is beautiful because she is something else first, yes, and last, too, and all the while. Whitman's work is baptized in the spirit of the whole, and its health and sweetness in this respect, when compared with the over-refined artistic works, is like that of a laborer in the fields compared with the pale dyspeptic ennuye.
Whitman's ideal is undoubtedly much larger, coarser, stronger—much more racy and democratic—than the ideal we are familiar with in current literature, and upon which our culture is largely based. He applies the democratic spirit not only to the material of poetry,—excluding all the old stock themes of love and war, lords and ladies, myths and fairies and legends, etc.,—but he applies it to the form as well, excluding rhyme and measure and all the conventional verse architecture. His work stands or it falls upon its inherent, its intrinsic qualities, the measure of life or power which it holds. This ideal was neither the scholar nor the priest, nor any type of the genteel or exceptionally favored or cultivated. His influence does not make for any form of depleted, indoor, over-refined or extra-cultured humanity. The spirit of his work transferred to practice begets a life full and strong on all sides, affectionate, magnetic, tolerant, spiritual, bold with the flavor and quality of simple, healthful, open-air humanity. He opposes culture and refinement only as he opposes that which weakens, drains, emasculates, and tends to beget a scoffing, carping, hypercritical class. The culture of life, of nature, and that which flows from the exercise of the manly instincts and affections, is the culture implied by "Leaves of Grass." The democratic spirit is undoubtedly more or less jealous of the refinements of our artificial culture and of the daintiness and aloofness of our literature. The people look askance at men who are above them without being of them, who have dropped the traits and attractions which they share with unlettered humanity. Franklin and Lincoln are closer akin to this spirit, and hence more in favor with it, than a Jefferson or a Sumner.
Whitman might be called the poet of the absolute, the unconditioned. His work is launched at a farther remove from our arts, conventions, usages, civilization, and all the artificial elements that modify and enter into our lives, than that of any other man. Absolute candor, absolute pride, absolute charity, absolute social and sexual equality, absolute nature. It is not conditioned by what we deem modest or immodest, high or low, male or female. It is not conditioned by our notions of good and evil, by our notions of the refined and the select, by what we call good taste and bad taste. It is the voice of absolute man, sweeping away the artificial, throwing himself boldly, joyously, upon unconditioned nature. We are all engaged in upholding the correct and the conventional, and drawing the line sharply between good and evil, the high and the low, and it is well that we should; but here is a man who aims to take absolute ground, and to look at the world as God himself might look at it, without partiality or discriminating,—it is all good, and there is no failure or imperfection in the universe and can be none:—
"Open mouth of my Soul uttering gladness, Eyes of my Soul seeing perfection, Natural life of me, faithfully praising things, Corroborating forever the triumph of things."
He does not take sides against evil, in the usual way, he does not take sides with the good except as nature herself does. He celebrates the All.
Can we accept the world as science reveals it to us, as all significant, as all in ceaseless transmutation, as every atom aspiring to be man, an endless unfolding of primal germs, without beginning, without end, without failure or imperfection, the golden age ahead of us, not behind us?
Because of Whitman's glorification of pride, egoism, brawn, self-reliance, it is charged that the noble, the cultured, the self-denying, have no place in his system. What place have they in the antique bards?—in Homer, in Job, in Isaiah, in Dante? They have the same place in Whitman, yet it is to be kept in mind that Whitman does not stand for the specially social virtues, nor for culture, nor for the refinements which it induces, nor for art, nor for any conventionality. There are flowers of human life which we are not to look for in Walt Whitman. The note of fine manners, chivalrous conduct, which we get in Emerson; the sweetness and light gospel of Arnold; the gospel of hero-worship of Carlyle; the gracious scholarship of our New England poets, etc.,—we do not get in Walt Whitman. There is nothing in him at war with these things, but he is concerned with more primal and elemental questions. He strikes under and beyond all these things.
What are the questions or purposes, then, in which his work has root? Simply put, to lead the way to larger, saner, more normal, more robust types of men and women on this continent; to prefigure and help develop the new democratic man,—to project him into literature on a scale and with a distinctness that cannot be mistaken. To this end he keeps a deep hold of the savage, the unrefined, and marshals the elements and influences that make for the virile, the heroic, the sane, the large, and for the perpetuity of the race. We cannot refine the elements,—the air, the water, the soil, the sunshine,—and the more we pervert or shut out these from our lives the worse for us. In the same manner, the more we pervert or balk the great natural impulses, sexuality, comradeship, the religious emotion, nativity, or the more we deny and belittle our bodies, the further we are from the spirit of Walt Whitman, and from the spirit of the All.
With all Whitman's glorification of pride, self-esteem, self-reliance, etc., the final lesson of his life and work is service, self-denial,—the free, lavish giving of yourself to others. Of the innate and essential nobility that we associate with unworldliness, the sharing of what you possess with the unfortunate around you, sympathy with all forms of life and conditions of men, charity as broad as the sunlight, standing up for those whom others are down upon, claiming nothing for self which others may not have upon the same terms,—of such nobility and fine manners, I say, you shall find an abundance in the life and works of Walt Whitman.
The spirit of a man's work is everything; the letter, little or nothing. Though Whitman boasts of his affiliation with the common and near at hand, yet he is always saved from the vulgar, the mean, the humdrum, by the breadth of his charity and sympathy and his tremendous ideality.
Of worldliness, materialism, commercialism, he has not a trace; his only values are spiritual and ideal; his only standards are the essential and the enduring. What Matthew Arnold called the Anglo-Saxon contagion, the bourgeois spirit, the worldly and sordid ideal, is entirely corrected in Whitman by the ascendant of the ethic and the universal. His democracy ends in universal brotherhood, his patriotism in the solidarity of nations, his glorification of the material in the final triumph of the spiritual, his egoism issues at last in complete otherism.
A race that can produce a man of his fibre, his continental type, is yet at its best estate. Did one begin to see evil omen in this perpetual whittling away and sharpening and lightening of the American type,—grace without power, clearness without mass, intellect without character,—then take comfort from the volume and the rankness of Walt Whitman. Did one begin to fear that the decay of maternity and paternity in our older communities and the falling off in the native population presaged the drying up of the race in its very sources? Then welcome to the rank sexuality and to the athletic fatherhood and motherhood celebrated by Whitman. Did our skepticism, our headiness, our worldliness, threaten to eat us up like a cancer? did our hardness, our irreligiousness, and our passion for the genteel point to a fugitive, superficial race? was our literature threatened with the artistic degeneration,—running all to art and not at all to power? were our communities invaded by a dry rot of culture? were we fast becoming a delicate, indoor, genteel race? were our women sinking deeper and deeper into the "incredible sloughs of fashion and all kinds of dyspeptic depletion,"—the antidote for all these ills is in Walt Whitman. In him nature shows great fullness and fertility, and an immense friendliness. He supplements and corrects most of the special deficiencies and weaknesses toward which the American type seems to tend. He brings us back to nature again. The perpetuity of the race is with the common people. The race is constantly crying out at the top, in our times at least; culture and refinement beget fewer and fewer and poorer and poorer children. Where struggle ceases, that family or race is doomed.
"Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary."
In more primitive communities, the sap and vitality of the race were kept in the best men, because upon them the strain and struggle were greatest. War, adventure, discovery, favor virility. Whitman is always and everywhere occupied with that which makes for life, power, longevity, manliness. The scholar poets are occupied with that which makes for culture, taste, refinement, ease, art.
"Leaves of Grass," taken as a whole, aims to exhibit a modern, democratic, archetypal man, here in America, confronting and subduing our enormous materialism to his own purposes, putting it off and on as a garment; identifying himself with all forms of life and conditions of men; trying himself by cosmic laws and processes, exulting in the life of his body and the delights of his senses; and seeking to clinch, to develop, and to realize himself through the shows and events of the visible world. The poet seeks to interpret life from the central point of absolute abysmal man.
The wild and the savage in nature with which Whitman perpetually identifies himself, and the hirsute, sun-tanned, and aboriginal in humanity, have misled many readers into looking upon him as expressive of these things only. Mr. Stedman thinks him guilty of a certain narrowness in preferring, or seeming to prefer, the laboring man to the gentleman. But the poet uses these elements only for checks and balances, and to keep our attention, in the midst of a highly refined and civilized age, fixed upon the fact that here are the final sources of our health, our power, our longevity. The need of the pre-scientific age was knowledge and refinement; the need of our age is health and sanity, cool heads and good digestion. And to this end the bitter and drastic remedies from the shore and the mountains are for us.
The gospel of the average man, Matthew Arnold thought, was inimical to the ideal of a rare and high excellence. But, in holding up the average man, Whitman was only holding up the broad, universal human qualities, and showing that excellence may go with them also. As a matter of fact, are we not astonished almost daily by the superb qualities shown by the average man, the heroism shown by firemen, engineers, workingmen, soldiers, sailors? Do we not know that true greatness, true nobility and strength of soul, may go and do go with commonplace, every-day humanity? Whitman would lift the average man to a higher average, and still to a higher, without at all weakening the qualities which he shares with universal humanity as it exists over and under all special advantages and social refinements. He says that one of the convictions that underlie his "Leaves" is the conviction that the "crowning growth of the United States is to be spiritual and heroic,"—a prophecy which in our times, I confess, does not seem very near fulfillment.
He does not look longingly and anxiously toward the genteel social gods, but quite the contrary. In the library and parlor, he confesses he is as a gawk or one dumb. The great middle-class ideal, which is mainly the ideal of our own people, Whitman flouts and affronts. There are things to him of higher import than to have wealth and be respectable and in the mode.
We might charge him with narrowness and partiality and with seeing only half truths, as Mr. Stedman has done, did he simply rest with the native as opposed to the cultivated, with brawn as opposed to brains. What he does do, what the upshot of his teaching shows, is that he identifies himself with the masses, with those universal human currents out of which alone a national spirit arises, as opposed to isolated schools and coteries and a privileged few. Whitman decries culture only so far as it cuts a man off from his fellows, clips away or effaces the sweet, native, healthy parts of him, and begets a bloodless, superstitious, infidelistic class. "The best culture," he says, "will always be that of the manly and courageous instincts and loving perceptions, and of self-respect." For the most part, our schooling is like our milling, which takes the bone and nerve building elements out of our bread. The bread of life demands the coarse as well as the fine, and this is what Whitman stands for.
In his spirit and affiliation with the great mass of the people, with the commoner, sturdier, human traits, Whitman is more of the type of Angelo, or Rembrandt, or the antique bards, than he is like modern singers. He was not a product of the schools, but of the race.
HIS RELATION TO HIS COUNTRY AND HIS TIMES
It has been said, and justly I think, that in Whitman we see the first appearance in literature of the genuinely democratic spirit on anything like an ample scale. Plenty of men of democratic tendencies and affiliations have appeared, but none that have carried the temper and quality of the people, the masses, into the same regions, or blended the same humanity and commonness with the same commanding personality and spirituality. In recent English poetry the names of Burns and Wordsworth occur to mind, but neither of these men had anything like Whitman's breadth of relation to the mass of mankind, or expressed anything like his sweeping cosmic emotion. Wordsworth's muse was clad in homespun, but in no strict sense was his genius democratic—using the word to express, not a political creed, but the genius of modern civilization. He made much of the common man, common life, common things, but always does the poet stand apart, the recluse, the hermit, the philosopher, loving and contemplating these things for purposes of his art. Only through intellectual sympathy is he a part of what he surveys. In Whitman the common or average man has grown haughty, almost aristocratic. He coolly confronts the old types, the man of caste, culture, privileges, royalties, and relegates him to the past. He readjusts the standards, and estimates everything from the human and democratic point of view. In his scheme, the old traditions—the aristocratic, the scholastic, the ecclesiastical, the military, the social traditions—play no part. He dared to look at life, past and present, from the American and scientific standpoint. He turns to the old types a pride and complacency equal to their own.
Indeed, we see in the character which Whitman has exploited and in the interest of which his poems are written, the democratic type fully realized,—pride and self-reliance equal to the greatest, and these matched with a love, a compassion, a spirit of fraternity and equality, that are entirely foreign to the old order of things.
At first sight Whitman does not seem vitally related to his own country and people; he seems an anomaly, an exception, or like one of those mammoth sports that sometimes appear in the vegetable world. The Whitman ideal is not, and has never been, the conscious ideal of the mass of our people. We have aspired more to the ideal of the traditional fine gentleman as he has figured in British letters. There seems to have been no hint or prophecy of such a man as Whitman in our New England literature, unless it be in Emerson, and here it is in the region of the abstract and not of the concrete. Emerson's prayer was for the absolutely self-reliant man, but when Whitman refused to follow his advice with regard to certain passages in the "Leaves," the sage withheld further approval of the work.
We must look for the origins of Whitman, I think, in the deep world-currents that have been shaping the destinies of the race for the past hundred years or more; in the universal loosening, freeing, and removing obstructions; in the emancipation of the people, and their coming forward and taking possession of the world in their own right; in the triumph of democracy and of science; the downfall of kingcraft and priestcraft; the growth of individualism and non-conformity; the increasing disgust of the soul of man with forms and ceremonies; the sentiment of realism and positivism, the religious hunger that flees the churches; the growing conviction that life, that nature, are not failures, that the universe is good, that man is clean and divine inside and out, that God is immanent in nature,—all these things and more lie back of Whitman, and hold a causal relation to him.
Of course the essential elements of all first-class artistic and literary productions are always the same, just as nature, just as man, are essentially the same everywhere. Yet the literature of every people has a stamp of its own, starts from and implies antecedents and environments peculiar to itself.
Just as ripe, mellow, storied, ivy-towered, velvet-turfed England lies back of Tennyson, and is vocal through him; just as canny, covenanting, conscience-burdened, craggy, sharp-tongued Scotland lies back of Carlyle; just as thrifty, well-schooled, well-housed, prudent, and moral New England lies back of her group of poets, and is voiced by them,—so America as a whole, our turbulent democracy, our self-glorification, our faith in the future, our huge mass movements, our continental spirit, our sprawling, sublime, and unkempt nature, lie back of Whitman and are implied by his work.
He had not the shaping, manipulating gift to carve his American material into forms of ideal beauty, and did not claim to have. He did not value beauty as an abstraction.
What Whitman did that is unprecedented was, to take up the whole country into himself, fuse it, imbue it with soul and poetic emotion, and recast it as a sort of colossal Walt Whitman. He has not so much treated American themes as he has identified himself with everything American, and made the whole land redolent of his own quality. He has descended upon the gross materialism of our day and land and upon the turbulent democratic masses with such loving impact, such fervid enthusiasm, as to lift and fill them with something like the breath of universal nature. His special gift is his magnetic and unconquerable personality, his towering egoism united with such a fund of human sympathy. His power is centripetal, so to speak,—he draws everything into himself like a maelstrom; the centrifugal power of the great dramatic artists, the power to get out of and away from himself, he has not. It was not for Whitman to write the dramas and tragedies of democracy, as Shakespeare wrote those of feudalism, or as Tennyson sang in delectable verse the swan-song of an overripe civilization. It was for him to voice the democratic spirit, to show it full-grown, athletic, haughtily taking possession of the world and redistributing the prizes according to its own standards. It was for him to sow broadcast over the land the germs of larger, more sane, more robust types of men and women, indicating them in himself.
In him the new spirit of democracy first completely knows itself, is proud of itself, has faith and joy in itself, is fearless, tolerant, religious, aggressive, triumphant, and bestows itself lavishly upon all sides. It is tentative, doubtful, hesitating no longer. It is at ease in the world, it takes possession, it fears no rival, it advances with confident step.
No man was ever more truly fathered by what is formative and expansive in his country and times than was Whitman. Not by the literature of his country was he begotten, but by the spirit that lies back of all, and that begat America itself,—the America that Europe loves and fears, that she comes to this country to see, and looks expectantly, but for the most part vainly, in our books to find.
It seems to me he is distinctly a continental type. His sense of space, of magnitude, his processional pages, his unloosedness, his wide horizons, his vanishing boundaries,—always something unconfined and unconfinable, always the deferring and undemonstrable. The bad as well as the good traits of his country and his people are doubtless implied by his work.
If he does not finally escape from our unripe Americanism, if he does not rise through it all and clarify it and turn it to ideal uses, draw out the spiritual meanings, then avaunt! we want nothing of him.
"The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell. The former I graft and increase upon myself, The latter I translate into a new tongue."
The vital and the formative the true poet always engrafts and increases upon himself, and thence upon his reader; the crude, the local, the accidental, he translates into a new tongue. It has been urged against Whitman that he expresses our unripe Americanism only, but serious readers of him know better than that. He is easy master of it all, and knows when his foot is upon solid ground. It seems to me that in him we see for the first time spiritual and ideal meanings and values in democracy and the modern; we see them translated into character; we see them tried by universal standards; we see them vivified by a powerful imagination. We see America as an idea, and see its relation to other ideas. We get a new conception of the value of the near, the common, the familiar. New light is thrown upon the worth and significance of the common people, and it is not the light of an abstract idea, but the light of a concrete example. We see the democratic type on a scale it has never before assumed; it is on a par with any of the types that have ruled the world in the past, the military, the aristocratic, the regal. It is at home, it has taken possession, it can hold its own. Henceforth the world is going its way. If it is over-confident, over-self-assertive, too American, that is the surplusage of the poet, of whom we do not want a penny prudence and caution; make your prophecy bold enough and it fulfills itself. Whitman has betrayed no doubt or hesitation in his poetry. His assumptions and vaticinations are tremendous, but they are uttered with an authority and an assurance that convince like natural law.
I think he gives new meaning to democracy and America. In him we see a new type, rising out of new conditions, and fully able to justify itself and hold its own. It is the new man in the new world, no longer dependent upon or facing toward the old. I confess that to me America and the modern would not mean very much without Whitman. The final proof was wanting till they gave birth to a personality equal to the old types.
Discussions and speculations about democracy do not carry very far, after all; to preach equality is not much. But when we see these things made into a man, and see the world through his eyes, and see new joy and new meaning in it, our doubts and perplexities are cleared up. Our universal balloting, and schooling, and material prosperity prove nothing: can your democracy produce a man who shall carry its spirit into loftiest regions, and prove as helpful and masterful under the new conditions as the by-gone types were under the old?
I predict a great future for Whitman, because the world is so unmistakably going his way. The three or four great currents of the century—the democratic current, the scientific current, the humanitarian current, the new religious current, and what flows out of them—are underneath all Whitman has written. They shape all and make all. They do not appear in him as mere dicta, or intellectual propositions, but as impulses, will, character, flesh-and-blood reality. We get these things, not as sentiments or yet theories, but as a man. We see life and the world as they appear to the inevitable democrat, the inevitable lover, the inevitable believer in God and immortality, the inevitable acceptor of absolute science.
We are all going his way. We are more and more impatient of formalities, ceremonies, and make-believe; we more and more crave the essential, the real. More and more we want to see the thing as in itself it is; more and more is science opening our eyes to see the divine, the illustrious, the universal in the common, the near at hand; more and more do we tire of words and crave things; deeper and deeper sinks the conviction that personal qualities alone tell,—that the man is all in all, that the brotherhood of the race is not a dream, that love covers all and atones for all.
Everything in our modern life and culture that tends to broaden, liberalize, free; that tends to make hardy, self-reliant, virile; that tends to widen charity, deepen affection between man and man, to foster sanity and self-reliance; that tends to kindle our appreciation of the divinity of all things; that heightens our rational enjoyment of life; that inspires hope in the future and faith in the unseen,—are on Whitman's side. All these things prepare the way for him.
On the other hand, the strain and strife and hoggishness of our civilization, our trading politics, our worship of conventions, our millionaire ideals, our high-pressure lives, our pruriency, our sordidness, our perversions of nature, our scoffing caricaturing tendencies, are against him. He antagonizes all these things.
The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality prevails,—the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.
Some of our own critics have been a good deal annoyed by the fact that many European scholars and experts have recognized Whitman as the only distinctive American poet thus far. It would seem as if our reputation for culture and good manners is at stake. We want Europe to see America in our literary poets like Lowell, or Longfellow, or Whittier. And Europe may well see much that is truly representative of America in these and in other New England poets. She may see our aspiration toward her own ideals of culture and refinement; she may see native and patriotic themes firing Lowell and Whittier; she may see a certain spirit and temper begotten by our natural environment reflected in Bryant, our delicate and gentle humanities and scholarly aptitudes shining in Longfellow. But in every case she sees a type she has long been familiar with. All the poets' thoughts, moods, points of view, effects, aims, methods, are what she has long known. These are not the poets of a new world, but of a new England. The new-world book implies more than a new talent, more than a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh and original mind like the poets named; such men are required to keep up the old line of succession in English authorship. What is implied is a new national and continental spirit, which must arise and voice the old eternal truths through a large, new, democratic personality,—a new man, and, beyond and above him, a new heaven and a new earth.
Our band of New England poets have carried the New England spirit into poetry,—its sense of fitness, order, propriety, its shrewdness, inventiveness, aptness, and its aspiration for the pure and noble in life. They have finely exemplified the best Yankee traits; but in no instance were these traits merged in a personality large enough, bold enough, and copious and democratic enough to give them national and continental significance. It would be absurd to claim that the pulse-beat of a great people or a great era is to be felt in the work of any of these poets.
Whitman is responded to in Europe, because he expresses a new type with adequate power,—not, as has been so often urged, simply because he is strange, and gives the jaded literary palate over there a new fillip. He meets the demand for something in American literature that should not face toward Europe, that should joyfully stand upon its own ground and yet fulfill the conditions of greatness. He fully satisfies the thirst for individualism amid these awakening peoples, and the thirst for nationalism also. He realizes the democratic ideal, no longer tentative or apologetic, but taking possession of the world as its own and reappraising the wares it finds there.
The American spirit is a continental spirit; there is nothing insular or narrow about it. It is informal, nonchalant, tolerant, sanguine, adaptive, patient, candid, puts up with things, unfastidious, unmindful of particulars; disposed to take short cuts, friendly, hospitable, unostentatious, inclined to exaggerate, generous, unrefined,—never meddlesome, never hypercritical, never hoggish, never exclusive. Whitman shared the hopeful optimistic temperament of his countrymen, the faith and confidence begotten by a great, fertile, sunny land. He expresses the independence of the people,—their pride, their jealousy of superiors, their contempt of authority (not always beautiful). Our want of reverence and veneration are supplemented in him with world-wide sympathies and good-fellowship.
Emerson is our divine man, the precious quintessence of the New England type, invaluable for his stimulating and ennobling strain; but his genius is too astral, too select, too remote, to incarnate and give voice to the national spirit. Clothe him with flesh and blood, make his daring affirmations real and vital in a human personality and imbued with the American spirit, and we are on the way to Whitman.
Moreover, the strong, undisguised man-flavor of "Leaves of Grass," the throb and pressure in it of those things that make life rank and make it masterful, and that make for the virility and perpetuity of the race, are, if it must be confessed, more keenly relished abroad than in this country, so thoroughly are we yet under the spell of the merely refined and conventional. We fail to see that in letters, as in life, the great prizes are not to the polished, but to the virile and the strong.
Democracy is not so much spoken of in the "Leaves" as it is it that speaks. The common, the familiar, are not denied and left behind, they are made vital and masterful; it is the "divine average" that awakens enthusiasm. Humanity is avenged upon the scholar and the "gentleman" for the slights they have put upon it; creeds and schools in abeyance; personal qualities, force of character, to the front. Whitman triumphs over the mean, the vulgar, the commonplace, by accepting them and imbuing them with the spirit of an heroic ideal. Wherever he reveals himself in his work, it is as one of the common people, never as one of a coterie or of the privileged and cultivated. He is determined there shall be no mistake about it. He glories in the common heritage. He emphasizes in himself the traits which he shares with workingmen, sailors, soldiers, and those who live in the open air, even laying claim to the "rowdyish." He is proud of freckles, sun-tan, brawn, and holds up the powerful and unrefined.
"I am enamor'd of growing out-doors, Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods, Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes and mauls, and the drivers of horses; I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out."
"Nothing endures," he says, "but personal qualities." "Produce great persons and the rest follows." Does he glory in the present? he reverently bows before the past also. Does he sound the call of battle for the Union? but he nourishes the sick and wounded of the enemy as well. Does he flout at the old religions? but he offers a larger religion in their stead. He is never merely negative, he is never fanatical, he is never narrow. He sees all and embraces and encloses all.
Then we see united and harmonized in Whitman the two great paramount tendencies of our time and of the modern world,—the altruistic or humanitarian tendency and the individualistic tendency; or, democracy and individualism, pride and equality, or, rather, pride in equality. These two forces, as they appear in separate individuals, are often antagonistic. In Carlyle, individualism frowned upon democracy. In Whitman they are blended and work together. Never was such audacious and uncompromising individualism, and never was such bold and sweeping fraternalism or otherism. The great pride of man in himself, which is one motif of the poems, flows naturally into the great pride of man in his fellows; his egoism does not separate him from, but rather unites him with, all men. What he assumes they shall assume, and what he claims for himself he demands in the same terms for all. He has set such an example of self-trust and self-assertion as has no parallel in our literature, at the same time that he has set an equal example in practical democracy and universal brotherhood.
Whitman's democracy is the breath of his nostrils, the light of his eyes, the blood in his veins. The reader does not feel that here is some fine scholar, some fine poet singing the praises of democracy; he feels that here is a democrat, probably, as Thoreau surmised, the greatest the world has yet seen, turning the light of a great love, a great intellect, a great soul, upon America, upon contemporary life and events, and upon the universe, and reading new lessons, new meanings, therein. He is a great poet and prophet, speaking through the average man, speaking as one of the people, and interpreting life from the point of view of absolute democracy.
True, the people in their average taste and perceptions are crude and flippant and superficial, and often the victims of mountebanks and fools; yet, as forming the body of our social and political organism, and the chief factor in the world-problem of to-day, they are the exponents of great forces and laws, and often, in emergencies, show the wisdom and unimpeachableness of Nature herself. Deep-hidden currents and forces in them are liable to come to the surface, and when the politicians get in their way, or miscalculate them, as so often happens, they are crushed. Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world in our century. Much comes to a head in him. Much comes to joyous speech and song, that heretofore had only come to thought and speculation. A towering, audacious personality has appeared which is strictly the fruit of the democratic spirit, and which has voiced itself in an impassioned utterance touching the whole problem of national and individual life.
The Whitman literature is democratic, not in the sense that it caters to the taste of the masses or to the taste of the average man; for, as a matter of fact, the masses and the average man are likely to be the last to recognize its value. The common people, the average newspaper-reading citizens, are much more likely to be drawn by the artificial and the conventional. But it is democratic because it is filled with the spirit of absolute human equality and brotherhood, and gives out the atmosphere of the universal, primary, human traits. The social, artificial, accidental distinctions of wealth, culture, position, etc., have not influenced the poet in the slightest degree. Whitman finds his joy and his triumph, not in being better than other people or above them, but in being one with them, and sharing their sins as well as their virtues.
"As if it harm'd me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself—as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same."
This is one step further than others have taken, and makes democracy complete in itself. Again, his work identifies itself with the democratic ideal in getting rid of the professional and arbitrary elements of poetry, and appealing to the reader entirely through its spirit and content. It is as democratic in this respect as the workman in the field, or the mechanic at his bench.
The poems are bathed and flooded with the quality of the common people; with the commonness and nearness which they share with real things and with all open-air nature,—with hunters, travelers, soldiers, workers in all fields, and with rocks, trees, and woods. It is only in the spirit of these things that a man himself can have health, sweetness, and proportion; and only in their spirit that he can give an essentially sound judgment of a work of art, no matter what the subject of it may be.
This spirit of the "commonest, cheapest, nearest" is the only spirit in which man's concrete life can be carried forward. We do not live and breathe and grow and multiply, we do not have health and sanity and wholeness and proportion, we do not subdue and improve and possess the earth, in the spirit of something exclusive, exceptional, faraway, aristocratic, but in the spirit of the common and universal. The only demand is that, in a work of art, the common or universal shall be vitalized with poetic thought and enthusiasm, or imbued with the ideal of a rare and high excellence.
Our critics have been fond of taunting Whitman with the fact that the common people, the workers, of whom he makes so much, and to whom he perpetually appeals, do not read him, or show any liking for his poems at all.
Whitman's appeal to the common people, to the democratic masses, is an appeal to the future; it is an appeal to the universal human conscience and intelligence, as they exist above and beneath all special advantages of birth and culture and stand related to the total system of things. It also calls attention to the fact that the spirit in which he writes, and in which he is to be read, is the spirit of open-air life and nature.
"No school or shutter'd room commune with me, But roughs and little children, better than they,"
because the simple, unforced, unrefined elements of human nature are those out of which the poems sprang and with which they are charged. Their spirit is closer akin to unlettered humanity than to the over-intellectual and sophisticated products of the schools.
Of course "roughs and little children" can make nothing of "Leaves of Grass," but unless the trained reader has that fund of fresh, simple, wholesome nature, and the love for real things, which unlettered humanity possesses, he will make nothing of it either.
It has been truly said that "the noblest seer is ever over-possessed." This has been the case with nearly all original, first-class men. Carlyle furnished a good illustration of its truth in our own time. He was over-possessed with his idea of the hero and hero-worship. And it may be that Whitman was over-possessed with the idea of democracy, America, nationality, and the need of a radically new departure in poetic literature. Yet none knew better than he that in the long run the conditions of life and of human happiness and progress remain about the same; that the same price must still be paid for the same things; that character alone counts; that the same problem "how to live" ever confronts us; and that democracy, America, nationality, are only way stations, and by no means the end of the route. The all-leveling tendency of democracy is certainly not in the interest of literature. The world is not saved by the average man, but by the man much above the average, the rare and extraordinary man,—by the "remnant," as Arnold called them.
No one knew this better than Whitman, and he said that "one main genesis-motive" of his "Leaves" was the conviction that the crowning growth of the United States was to be spiritual and heroic. Only "superb persons" can finally justify him.
HIS RELATION TO SCIENCE
The stupendous disclosures of modern science, and what they mean when translated into the language of man's ethical and aesthetic nature, have not yet furnished to any considerable extent the inspiration of poems. That all things are alike divine, that this earth is a star in the heavens, that the celestial laws and processes are here underfoot, that size is only relative, that good and bad are only relative, that forces are convertible and interchangeable, that matter is indestructible, that death is the law of life, that man is of animal origin, that the sum of forces is constant, that the universe is a complexus of powers inconceivably subtle and vital, that motion is the law of all things,—in fact, that we have got rid of the notions of the absolute, the fixed, the arbitrary, and the notion of origins and of the dualism of the world,—to what extent will these and kindred ideas modify art and all aesthetic production? The idea of the divine right of kings and the divine authority of priests is gone; that, in some other time or some other place God was nearer man than now and here,—this idea is gone. Indeed, the whole of man's spiritual and religious belief which forms the background of literature has changed,—a change as great as if the sky were to change from blue to red or to orange. The light of day is different. But literature deals with life, and the essential conditions of life, you say, always remain the same. Yes, but the expression of their artistic values is forever changing. If we ask where is the modern imaginative work that is based upon these revelations of science, the work in which they are the blood and vital juices, I answer, "Leaves of Grass," and no other. The work is the outgrowth of science and modern ideas, just as truly as Dante is the outgrowth of mediaeval ideas and superstitions; and the imagination, the creative spirit, is just as unhampered in Whitman as in Dante or in Shakespeare. The poet finds the universe just as plastic and ductile, just as obedient to his will, and just as ready to take the impress of his spirit, as did these supreme artists. Science has not hardened it at all. The poet opposes himself to it, and masters it and rises superior. He is not balked or oppressed for a moment. He knows from the start what science can bring him, what it can give, and what it can take away; he knows the universe is not orphaned; he finds more grounds than ever for a paean of thanksgiving and praise. His conviction of the identity of soul and body, matter and spirit, does not shake his faith in immortality in the least. His faith arises, not from half views, but from whole views. In him the idea of the soul, of humanity, of identity, easily balanced the idea of the material universe. Man was more than a match for nature. It was all for him, and not for itself. His enormous egotism, or hold upon the central thought or instinct of human worth and import, was an anchor that never gave way. Science sees man as the ephemeron of an hour, an iridescent bubble on a seething, whirling torrent, an accident in a world of incalculable and clashing forces. Whitman sees him as inevitable and as immortal as God himself. Indeed, he is quite as egotistical and anthropomorphic, though in an entirely different way, as were the old bards and prophets before the advent of science. The whole import of the universe is directed to one man,—to you. His anthropomorphism is not a projection of himself into nature, but an absorption of nature in himself. The tables are turned. It is not alien or superhuman beings that he sees and hears in nature, but his own that he finds everywhere. All gods are merged in himself.
Not the least fear, not the least doubt or dismay, in this book. Not one moment's hesitation or losing of the way. And it is not merely an intellectual triumph, but the triumph of soul and personality. The iron knots are not untied, they are melted. Indeed, the poet's contentment and triumph in view of the fullest recognition of all the sin and sorrow of the world, and of all that baffles and dwarfs, is not the least of the remarkable features of the book.
Whitman's relation to science is fundamental and vital. It is the soil under his feet. He comes into a world from which all childish fear and illusion has been expelled. He exhibits the religious and poetic faculties perfectly adjusted to a scientific, industrial, democratic age, and exhibits them more fervent and buoyant than ever before. We have gained more than we have lost. The world is anew created by science and democracy, and he pronounces it good with the joy and fervor of the old faith.
He shared with Tennyson the glory of being one of the two poets of note in our time who have drawn inspiration from this source, or viewed the universe through the vistas which science opens. Renan thought the modern poetic or imaginative contemplation of the universe puerile and factitious compared with the scientific contemplation of it. The one, he said, was stupendous; the other childish and empty. But Whitman and Tennyson were fully abreast with science, and often afford one a sweep of vision that matches the best science can do. Tennyson drew upon science more for his images and illustrations than Whitman did; he did not absorb and appropriate its results in the wholesale way of the latter. Science fed Whitman's imagination and made him bold; its effects were moral and spiritual. On Tennyson its effects were mainly intellectual; it enlarged his vocabulary without strengthening his faith. Indeed, one would say, from certain passages in "In Memoriam," that it had distinctly weakened his faith. Let us note for a moment the different ways these two poets use science. In his poem to Fitzgerald, Tennyson draws upon the nebular hypothesis for an image:—
"A planet equal to the sun Which cast it, that large infidel Your Omar."
In "Despair" there crops out another bold inference of science, the vision "of an earth that is dead."
"The homeless planet at length will be wheel'd thro' the silence of space, Motherless evermore of an ever-vanishing race."
In the "Epilogue" he glances into the sidereal heavens:—
"The fires that arch this dusky dot— Yon myriad-worlded way— The vast sun-clusters' gather'd blaze, World-isles in lonely skies, Whole heavens within themselves, amaze Our brief humanities."
As our American poet never elaborates in the Tennysonian fashion, he does not use science as material, but as inspiration. His egoism and anthropomorphic tendency are as great as those of the early bards, and he makes everything tell for the individual. Let me give a page or two from the "Song of Myself," illustrative of his attitude in this respect:—
"I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, And am stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over, And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, And call anything close again, when I desire it.
"In vain the speeding or shyness, In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against any approach, In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powdered bones, In vain objects stand leagues off, and assume manifold shapes, In vain the ocean settling in hollows, and the great monsters lying low, In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky, In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs, In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods, In vain the razor-billed auk sails far north to Labrador, I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.
* * * * *
"I am an acme of things accomplished, and I an endorser of things to be. My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs, On every step bunches of ages, and large bunches between the steps, All below duly traveled, and still I mount and mount.
"Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me, Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was even there, I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist, And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.
"Long I was hugged close—long and long. Immense have been the preparations for me, Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me, Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen, For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings, They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
"Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me, My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it. For it the nebula cohered to an orb, The long, slow strata piled to rest it in, Vast vegetables gave it sustenance, Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths, and deposited it with care. All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me, Now I stand on this spot with my Soul.
"I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems, And all I see, multiplied as high as I can cipher, edge but the rim of the farther systems: Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, Outward, outward, and forever outward: My sun has his sun, and around him obediently wheels; He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit, And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them.
"There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage. If I, you, the worlds, all beneath or upon their surfaces, and all the palpable life, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run. We should surely bring up again where we now stand, And as surely go as much farther—and then farther and farther. A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span or make it impatient. They are but parts—anything is but a part, See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that, Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that."
In all cases, Whitman's vision is as large as that of science, but it is always the vision of a man and not that of a philosopher. His report of the facts has an imaginative lift and a spiritual significance which the man of science cannot give them. In him, for the first time, a personality has appeared that cannot be dwarfed and set aside by those things. He does not have to stretch himself at all to match in the human and emotional realm the stupendous discoveries and deductions of science. In him man refuses to stand aside and acknowledge himself of no account in the presence of the cosmic laws and areas. It is all for him, it is all directed to him; without him the universe is an empty void. This is the "full-spread pride of man," the pride that refuses to own any master outside of itself.
"I know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less, And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself."
HIS RELATION TO RELIGION
Whitman, as I have elsewhere said, was swayed by two or three great passions, and the chief of these was doubtless his religious passion. He thrilled to the thought of the mystery and destiny of the soul.
"The soul, Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer than water ebbs and flows."
He urged that there could be no permanent national grandeur, and no worthy manly or womanly development, without religion.
"I specifically announce that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their Religion, Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur."
All materials point to and end at last in spiritual results.
"Each is not for its own sake, I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for Religion's sake."
All our ostensible realities, our art, our literature, our business pursuits, etc., are but fuel to religion.
"For not all matter is fuel to heat, impalpable flame, the essential life of the earth, Any more than such are to Religion."
Again he says:—
"My Comrade! For you to share with me two greatnesses—And a third one, rising inclusive and more resplendent, The greatness of Love and Democracy—and the greatness of Religion."
It is hardly necessary to say that the religion which Whitman celebrates is not any form of ecclesiasticism. It was larger than any creed that has yet been formulated. It was the conviction of the man of science touched and vivified by the emotion of the prophet and poet. As exemplified in his life its chief elements were faith, hope, charity. Its object was to prepare you to live, not to die, and to "earn for the body and the mind what adheres and goes forward, and is not dropped by death."
The old religion, the religion of our fathers, was founded upon a curse. Sin, repentance, fear, Satan, hell, play important parts. Creation had resulted in a tragedy in which the very elemental forces were implicated. The grand scheme of an infinite Being failed through the machinations of the Devil. Salvation was an escape from a wrath to come. The way was through agony and tears. Heaven was only gained by denying earth. The great mass of the human race was doomed to endless perdition. Now there is no trace of this religion in Whitman, and it does not seem to have left any shadow upon him. Ecclesiasticism is dead; he clears the ground for a new growth. To the priests he says: "Your day is done."
He sings a new song; he tastes a new joy in life. The earth is as divine as heaven, and there is no god more sacred than yourself. It is as if the world had been anew created, and Adam had once more been placed in the garden,—the world, with all consequences of the fall, purged from him.
Hence we have in Whitman the whole human attitude towards the universe, towards God, towards life and death, towards good and evil, completely changed. We have absolute faith and acceptance in place of the fear and repentance of the old creeds; we have death welcomed as joyously as life, we have political and social equality as motifs and impulses, and not merely as sentiments. He would show us the muse of poetry, as impartial, as sweeping in its vision, as modern, as real, as free from the morbid and make-believe, as the muse of science. He sees good in all, beauty in all. It is not the old piety, it is the new faith; it is not the old worship, it is the new acceptance; not the old, corroding religious pessimism, but the new scientific optimism.