Walt Whitman (1818-1892) is probably America's greatest poet and perhaps its greatest prophet.
virtually single-handedly ushered in American modernism when he chose to write free verse
rather than formal poetry (i.e., the metrical verse of traditional English
poetry). He was also the first major American writer to openly discuss
homosexuality and present it in a positive light. It may not be a stretch to say
that the American gay rights movement begins with Whitman.
T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Carl
Sandburg, H. D., Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda and many other
poets at home and abroad were greatly
influenced by Whitman and his decision to abandon the "metronome" in
search of a
freer musical cadence. But Whitman was more than just a poet; as Pound said, "He
is America." When we consider how Americans as a people have become increasingly
tolerant of racial and other diversities, we see them responding
to Whitman's poetic and prophetic call for universal brotherhood and tolerance. Pound called Whitman "the
first great man to write in the language of his people" and Whitman's language
was unequivocally equality, acceptance and tolerance. Whitman was willing to embrace the outcasts: the slaves, the criminals, the prostitutes, the lower castes.
(Although Whitman himself strongly opposed the idea of caste, calling for perfect
Today when we contemplate the future course of the United States of
may well ask, along with
Ginsberg: "Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?" When we hear artists like Bob Dylan, Michael
Jackson, Madonna and Lady Gaga telling us that it's not only okay, but
good to be different, and that we should all accept and
embrace each other, we are hearing the central message of the father of American
poetry. After all, the Good Gray Poet said it first
and best in the opening lines of Leaves of Grass: "I celebrate myself,
and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom
belonging to me as good belongs to you."
The fact that Whitman predicted that we
would assume what he assumed during the rampant racism, chauvinism and
homophobia of the Civil War era does make him seem like a modern prophet. And
because he helped bring it about, he also seems like an American Merlin, wielding a
wand-like pen. Be careful when you read his poems, or you may fall under his
Essays about Walt Whitman
"Walt Whitman, Prophet of Gay
Liberation" by Rictor Norton
"Walt Whitman, Bohemian Dandy: The Story of America’s First Gay Bar and Its
Creative Coterie" by Maria Popova
"The Downtown Den Where Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians Met" by
"The Darlings, Gossips, and Good Friends of Walt Whitman" by Justin Martin
Other essays about Walt Whitman, reviews of his work by Ralph Waldo Emerson and
other critics, and poems written in his honor by Ezra Pound, Allen
Ginsburg and George Santayana appear on this page after Whitman's poems.
Poems by Walt Whitman
NATIVE moments! when you come upon me―Ah you are here now! Give me now
libidinous joys only! Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life
coarse and rank! To-day, I go consort with nature's darlings―to-night too;
I am for those who believe in loose delights―I share the midnight orgies
of young men; I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers; The
echoes ring with our indecent calls; I take for my love some prostitute―I
pick out some low person for my dearest friend, He shall be lawless, rude,
illiterate―he shall be one condemn'd by others for deeds done; I will play
a part no longer―Why should I exile myself from my companions? O you
shunn'd persons! I at least do not shun you, I come forthwith in your
midst―I will be your poet, I will be more to you than to any of the rest.
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A NOISELESS patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer
WHEN I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Beginning My Studies
BEGINNING my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
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;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
As I Watche'D The Ploughman Ploughing
AS I watch'd the ploughman ploughing,
Or the sower sowing in the fields―or the harvester harvesting,
I saw there too, O life and death, your analogies:
(Life, life is the tillage, and Death is the harvest according.)
A Clear Midnight
THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Hours Continuing Long
HOURS continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted,
Hours of the dusk, when I withdraw to a lonesome and unfrequented spot, seating
myself, leaning my face in my hands;
Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the
country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling
Hours discouraged, distracted―for the one I cannot content myself without, soon
I saw him content himself without me;
Hours when I am forgotten, (O weeks and months are passing, but I believe I am
never to forget!)
Sullen and suffering hours! (I am ashamed―but it is useless―I am what I am;)
Hours of my torment―I wonder if other men ever have the like, out of the like
Is there even one other like me―distracted―his friend, his lover, lost to him?
Is he too as I am now? Does he still rise in the morning, dejected, thinking who
is lost to him? and at night, awaking, think who is lost?
Does he too harbor his friendship silent and endless? harbor his anguish and
Does some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a name, bring the fit back
upon him, taciturn and deprest?
Does he see himself reflected in me? In these hours, does he see the face of his
When I Heard at the Close of the Day
When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits
in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d;
And else, when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d,
singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing, bathed, laughing with the
cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was on his way coming, O then I
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day my food nourish’d me more—and
the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy—and with the next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually
up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me,
whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.
To A Certain Civilian
DID you ask dulcet rhymes from me?
Did you seek the civilian's peaceful and languishing rhymes?
Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow?
Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand―nor am I now;
(I have been born of the same as the war was born;
The drum-corps' harsh rattle is to me sweet music―I love well the martial dirge,
With slow wail, and convulsive throb, leading the officer's funeral:)
―What to such as you, anyhow, such a poet as I?―therefore leave my works,
And go lull yourself with what you can understand―and with piano-tunes;
For I lull nobody―and you will never understand me.
Recorders Ages Hence
RECORDERS ages hence!
Come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior―I will tell you
what to say of me;
Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover,
The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest,
Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within
him―and freely pour'd it forth,
Who often walk'd lonesome walks, thinking of his dear friends, his lovers,
Who pensive, away from one he lov'd, often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he lov'd might secretly be
indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in woods, on hills, he and
another, wandering hand in hand, they twain, apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter'd the streets, curv'd with his arm the shoulder of his
friend―while the arm of his friend rested upon him also.
This Moment, Yearning And Thoughtful
THIS moment yearning and thoughtful, sitting alone,
It seems to me there are other men in other lands, yearning and thoughtful;
It seems to me I can look over and behold them, in Germany, Italy, France,
Spain―or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or India―talking other dialects;
And it seems to me if I could know those men, I should become attached to them,
as I do to men in my own lands;
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.
A Child's Amaze
SILENT and amazed, even when a little boy,
I remember I heard the preacher every Sunday put God in his statements,
As contending against some being or influence.
Among The Multitude
AMONG the men and women, the multitude,
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,
Acknowledging none else―not parent, wife, husband, brother, child,
any nearer than I am;
Some are baffled―But that one is not―that one knows me.
Ah, lover and perfect equal!
I meant that you should discover me so, by my faint indirections;
And I, when I meet you, mean to discover you by the like in you.
WHAT ship, puzzled at sea, cons for the true reckoning?
Or, coming in, to avoid the bars, and follow the channel, a perfect pilot needs?
Here, sailor! Here, ship! take aboard the most perfect pilot,
Whom, in a little boat, putting off, and rowing, I, hailing you, offer.
Song Of Myself, XI
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass'd over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
It descended trembling from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,
they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with the pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
Of Him I Love Day And Night
OF him I love day and night, I dream'd I heard he was dead;
And I dream'd I went where they had buried him I love―but he was not in that
And I dream'd I wander'd, searching among burial-places, to find him;
And I found that every place was a burial-place;
The houses full of life were equally full of death, (this house is now;)
The streets, the shipping, the places of amusement, the Chicago,
Boston, Philadelphia, the Mannahatta, were as full of the dead as of the living,
And fuller, O vastly fuller, of the dead than of the living;
―And what I dream'd I will henceforth tell to every person and age,
And I stand henceforth bound to what I dream'd;
And now I am willing to disregard burial-places, and dispense with them;
And if the memorials of the dead were put up indifferently everywhere, even in
the room where I eat or sleep, I should be satisfied;
And if the corpse of any one I love, or if my own corpse, be duly render'd to
powder, and pour'd in the sea, I shall be satisfied;
Or if it be distributed to the winds, I shall be satisfied.
As At Thy Portals Also Death
AS at thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds,
To memories of my mother, to the divine blending, maternity,
To her, buried and gone, yet buried not, gone not from me,
(I see again the calm benignant face fresh and beautiful still, I sit by the
form in the coffin,
I kiss and kiss convulsively again the sweet old lips, the cheeks, the closed
eyes in the coffin;)
To her, the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to
me the best,
I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.
Full Of Life, Now
FULL of life, now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the Eighty-third Year of The States,
To one a century hence, or any number of centuries hence,
To you, yet unborn, these, seeking you.
When you read these, I, that was visible, am become invisible;
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me;
Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)
I Thought I Was Not Alone
I THOUGHT I was not alone, walking here by the shore,
But the one I thought was with me, as now I walk by the shore,
As I lean and look through the glimmering light―that one has utterly
And those appear that perplex me.
Had I The Choice
HAD I the choice to tally greatest bards,
To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will,
Homer with all his wars and warriors―Hector, Achilles, Ajax,
Or Shakespeare's woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello―Tennyson's fair ladies,
Meter or wit the best, or choice conceit to weild in perfect rhyme, delight of
These, these, O sea, all these I'd gladly barter,
Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,
And leave its odor there.
That Shadow, My Likeness
THAT shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood,
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits;
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
―But in these, and among my lovers, and caroling my songs,
O I never doubt whether that is really me.
The Imprisoned Soul
AT the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful, fortress'd house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks―from the keep of the well-closed
Let me be wafted.
Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks―with a whisper
Set ope the doors, O soul!
Tenderly! be not impatient!
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!
Strong is your hold, O love!)
Ages And Ages, Returning At Intervals
AGES and ages, returning at intervals,
Undestroy'd, wandering immortal,
Lusty, phallic, with the potent original loins, perfectly sweet,
I, chanter of Adamic songs,
Through the new garden, the West, the great cities calling,
Deliriate, thus prelude what is generated, offering these, offering myself,
Bathing myself, bathing my songs in Sex,
Offspring of my loins.
Sometimes With One I Love
SOMETIMES with one I love, I fill myself with rage, for fear I effuse unreturn'd
But now I think there is no unreturn'd love―the pay is certain, one way or
(I loved a certain person ardently, and my love was not return'd;
Yet out of that, I have written these songs.)
DESPAIRING cries float ceaselessly toward me, day and night,
The sad voice of Death―the call of my nearest lover, putting forth, alarmed,
This sea I am quickly to sail, come tell me,
Come tell me where I am speeding―tell me my destination.
I understand your anguish, but I cannot help you,
I approach, hear, behold―the sad mouth, the look out of the eyes, your mute
Whither I go from the bed I now recline on, come tell me;
Old age, alarmed, uncertain―A young woman's voice appealing to me, for comfort,
A young man's voice, Shall I not escape?
Out Of The Rolling Ocean, The Crowd
OUT of the rolling ocean, the crowd, came a drop gently to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travel'd a long way, merely to look on you, to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look'd on you,
For I fear'd I might afterward lose you.
(Now we have met, we have look'd, we are safe;
Return in peace to the ocean, my love;
I too am part of that ocean, my love―we are not so much separated;
Behold the great rondure―the cohesion of all, how perfect!
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us,
As for an hour, carrying us diverse―yet cannot carry us diverse forever;
Be not impatient―a little space―Know you, I salute the air, the ocean and the
Every day, at sundown, for your dear sake, my love.)
Ah Poverties, Wincings Sulky Retreats
AH poverties, wincings, and sulky retreats!
Ah you foes that in conflict have overcome me!
(For what is my life, or any man's life, but a conflict with foes―the old, the
You degradations―you tussle with passions and appetites;
You smarts from dissatisfied friendships, (ah wounds, the sharpest of all;)
You toil of painful and choked articulations―you meannesses;
You shallow tongue-talks at tables, (my tongue the shallowest of any;)
You broken resolutions, you racking angers, you smother'd ennuis;
Ah, think not you finally triumph―My real self has yet to come forth;
It shall yet march forth o'ermastering, till all lies beneath me;
It shall yet stand up the soldier of unquestion'd victory.
Poets To Come
POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! Arouse―for you must justify me―you must answer.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
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.
ONLY themselves understand themselves, and the like of themselves,
As Souls only understand Souls.
Pensive And Faltering
PENSIVE and faltering,
The words, the dead, I write;
For living are the Dead;
(Haply the only living, only real,
And I the apparition―I the spectre.)
O Bitter Sprig! Confession Sprig
O BITTER sprig! Confession sprig!
In the bouquet I give you place also―I bind you in,
Proceeding no further till, humbled publicly,
I give fair warning, once for all.
I own that I have been sly, thievish, mean, a prevaricator, greedy, derelict,
And I own that I remain so yet.
What foul thought but I think it―or have in me the stuff out of which it is
What in darkness in bed at night, alone or with a companion?
SPONTANEOUS me, Nature,
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hill-side whiten'd with blossoms of the mountain ash,
The same, late in autumn―the hues of red, yellow, drab, purple, and light and
The rich coverlid of the grass―animals and birds―the private
untrimm'd bank―the primitive apples―the pebble-stones,
Beautiful dripping fragments―the negligent list of one after another, as I
happen to call them to me, or think of them,
The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry,
(Know, once for all, avow'd on purpose, wherever are men like me, are our lusty,
lurking, masculine poems;)
Love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the
Arms and hands of love―lips of love―phallic thumb of love―breasts of
love―bellies press'd and glued together with love,
Earth of chaste love―life that is only life after love,
The body of my love―the body of the woman I love―the body of the man―the body
of the earth,
Soft forenoon airs that blow from the south-west,
The hairy wild-bee that murmurs and hankers up and down―that gripes the
full-grown lady-flower, curves upon her with amorous firm legs, takes his will
of her, and holds himself tremulous and tight till he is satisfied,
The wet of woods through the early hours,
Two sleepers at night lying close together as they sleep, one with an arm
slanting down across and below the waist of the other,
The smell of apples, aromas from crush'd sage-plant, mint, birch-bark,
The boy's longings, the glow and pressure as he confides to me what he was
The dead leaf whirling its spiral whirl, and falling still and content to the
The no-form'd stings that sights, people, objects, sting me with,
The hubb'd sting of myself, stinging me as much as it ever can anyone,
The sensitive, orbic, underlapp'd brothers, that only privileged feelers may be
intimate where they are,
The curious roamer, the hand, roaming all over the body―the bashful withdrawing
of flesh where the fingers soothingly pause and edge themselves,
The limpid liquid within the young man,
The vexed corrosion, so pensive and so painful,
The torment―the irritable tide that will not be at rest,
The like of the same I feel―the like of the same in others,
The young man that flushes and flushes, and the young woman that flushes and
The young man that wakes, deep at night, the hot hand seeking to repress what
would master him;
The mystic amorous night―the strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats,
The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers―
the young man all color'd, red, ashamed, angry;
The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked,
The merriment of the twin-babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother
never turning her vigilant eyes from them,
The walnut-trunk, the walnut-husks, and the ripening or ripen'd long-round
The continence of vegetables, birds, animals,
The consequent meanness of me should I skulk or find myself indecent,
while birds and animals never once skulk or find themselves indecent;
The great chastity of paternity, to match the great chastity of maternity,
The oath of procreation I have sworn―my Adamic and fresh daughters,
The greed that eats me day and night with hungry gnaw, till I saturate what
shall produce boys to fill my place when I am through,
The wholesome relief, repose, content;
And this bunch, pluck'd at random from myself;
It has done its work―I tossed it carelessly to fall where it may.
With All Thy Gifts
WITH all thy gifts, America,
(Standing secure, rapidly tending, overlooking the world,)
Power, wealth, extent, vouchsafed to thee―With these, and like of these,
vouchsafed to thee,
What if one gift thou lackest? (the ultimate human problem never solving;)
The gift of Perfect Women fit for thee―What of that gift of gifts thou lackest?
The towering Feminine of thee? the beauty, health, completion, fit for thee?
The Mothers fit for thee?
Laws For Creations
LAWS for Creations,
For strong artists and leaders―for fresh broods of teachers, and perfect
literats for America,
For noble savans, and coming musicians.
All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the compact truth of
There shall be no subject too pronounced―All works shall illustrate
the divine law of indirections.
What do you suppose Creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the Soul, except to walk free, and own no
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but that man or
woman is as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach Creations through such laws?
HOW dare one say it?
After the cycles, poems, singers, plays,
Vaunted Ionia's, India's―Homer, Shakespeare―the long, long times, thick dotted
The shining clusters and the Milky Ways of stars―Nature's pulses reaped,
All retrospective passions, heroes, war, love, adoration,
All ages' plummets dropped to their utmost depths,
All human lives, throats, wishes, brains―all experiences' utterance;
After the countless songs, or long or short, all tongues, all lands,
Still something not yet told in poesy's voice or print―something lacking,
(Who knows? the best yet unexpressed and lacking.)
ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all―aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they―passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than
Me private, or public, or menial, or solitary―all these subordinate,
(I am eternally equal with the best―I am not subordinate;)
Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta, or the Tennessee, or far north,
A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life in These
States, or of the coast, or the lakes, or Kanada,
Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies!
O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees
and animals do.
When I Read The Book
WHEN I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one, when I am dead and gone, write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life;
Why, even I myself, I often think, know little or nothing of my real life;
Only a few hints―a few diffused, faint clues and indirections,
I seek, for my own use, to trace out here.)
Fast Anchor'd, Eternal, O Love
FAST-ANCHOR'D, eternal, O love! O woman I love!
O bride! O wife! more resistless than I can tell, the thought of you!
―Then separate, as disembodied, or another born,
Ethereal, the last athletic reality, my consolation;
I ascend―I float in the regions of your love, O man,
O sharer of my roving life.
Hast Never Come To Thee An Hour
HAST never come to thee an hour,
A sudden gleam divine, precipitating, bursting all these bubbles, fashions,
These eager business aims―books, politics, art, amours,
To utter nothingness?
Of The Visage Of Things
OF the visages of things―And of piercing through to the accepted hells beneath;
Of ugliness―To me there is just as much in it as there is in beauty―And now the
ugliness of human beings is acceptable to me;
Of detected persons―To me, detected persons are not, in any respect, worse than
undetected persons―and are not in any respect worse than I am myself;
Of criminals―To me, any judge, or any juror, is equally criminal―and any
reputable person is also―and the President is also.
Roaming In Thought
ROAMING in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good steadily
hastening towards immortality,
And the vast all that is call'd Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become
lost and dead.
To A Historian
YOU who celebrate bygones!
Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races―the life that has
Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and
I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself, in his own
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride
of man in himself;)
Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.
Song Of Myself, XXVII
TO be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)
If nothing lay more develop'd the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.
I Hear It Was Charged Against Me
I HEAR it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions;
But really I am neither for nor against institutions;
(What indeed have I in common with them?―Or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta, and in every city of These
States, inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel, little or large, that dents the water,
Without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.
Behold This Swarthy Face
BEHOLD this swarthy face―these gray eyes,
This beard―the white wool, unclipt upon my neck,
My brown hands, and the silent manner of me, without charm;
Yet comes one, a Manhattanese, and ever at parting, kisses me lightly on the lips with robust love,
And I, on the crossing of the street, or on the ship's deck, give a kiss in return;
We observe that salute of American comrades, land and sea,
We are those two natural and nonchalant persons.
Not Heat Flames up and Consumes
NOT heat flames up and consumes,
Not sea-waves hurry in and out,
Not the air, delicious and dry, the air of the ripe summer, bears lightly along
white down-balls of myriads of seeds,
Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may;
Not these―O none of these, more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for
his love whom I love!
O none, more than I, hurrying in and out:
―Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give up? O I the same;
O nor down-balls, nor perfumes, nor the high, rain-emitting clouds, are borne
through the open air,
Any more than my Soul is borne through the open air,
Wafted in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you.
To Him That Was Crucified
MY spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you;
I do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are others
I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you, and to salute
those who are with you, before and since―and those to come
That we all labor together, transmitting the same charge and
We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of times;
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes―allowers of all
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the
disputers, nor any thing that is asserted;
We hear the bawling and din―we are reach'd at by divisions,
jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and
down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages
to come, may prove brethren and lovers, as we are.
The World Below The Brine
THE world below the brine;
Forests at the bottom of the sea―the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds―the thick
tangle, the openings, and the pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold―the
play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks―coral, gluten, grass, rushes―
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there, suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface, blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard,
and the sting-ray;
Passions there―wars, pursuits, tribes―sight in those ocean-depths―
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do;
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed
by beings like us, who walk this sphere; 10
The change onward from ours, to that of beings who walk other
On The Beach At Night, Alone
ON the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining―I think a thought of the clef of
the universes, and of the future.
A VAST SIMILITUDE interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All the substances of the same, and all that is spiritual upon the
All distances of place, however wide,
All distances of time―all inanimate forms,
All Souls―all living bodies, though they be ever so different, or in
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes―the fishes, the brutes,
All men and women―me also;
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;
All identities that have existed, or may exist, on this globe, or any
All lives and deaths―all of the past, present, future;
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd, and shall
forever span them, and compactly hold them, and enclose them.
Song Of Myself, XXV
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation,
Do you not know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?
Waiting in gloom, protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things,
Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.
A GLIMPSE, through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room, around the stove,
late of a winter night—And I unremark'd seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;
A long while, amid the noises of coming and going—of drinking and
oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,
perhaps not a word.
A Leaf For Hand in Hand
A LEAF for hand in hand!
You natural persons old and young!
You on the Mississippi, and on all the branches and bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen and mechanics! You roughs!
You twain! And all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in
A Sight In Camp
A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woollen blanket,
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious, I halt, and silent stand;
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest, the first,
just lift the blanket:
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey'd hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you, my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—And who are you, my child and darling?
Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours is the face
of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.
Poems, Essays, Letters and Reviews about Walt Whitman
A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman,
for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious
looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I
went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the
tomatoes! — and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old
grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of
cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never
passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old
courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out
on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of
by Ezra Pound
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman―
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root―
Let there be commerce between us.
Editor's Note: While Ezra Pound is widely considered to be the father or
godfather of modernism in English poetry, he did tip his hat to Walt Whitman for
"breaking the new wood." Some of Whitman's innovations that greatly influenced
modernist poets to come included: ditching the metronome for a freer musical
cadence; making end rhyme optional or abandoning it altogether; speaking
clearly, without artifice; making all subjects fit themes for poems, including
things deemed gross, coarse, vulgar and/or obscene by polite society; and
treating subjects directly in the manner of haiku and other oriental poetry.
When I read Pound's poem, I wonder if perhaps the son may have been more
pig-headed than the father, but the commerce between the two has been fruitful,
so perhaps all's well that ends well.―Michael R. Burch,
editor, The HyperTexts
What I Feel About Walt Whitman
by Ezra Pound
From this side of the Atlantic I am for the first time able to read Whitman, and
from the vantage of my education and—if it be permitted a man of my scant
years—my world citizenship: I see him America's poet. The only Poet before the
artists of the Carmen-Hovey period, or better, the only one of the
conventionally recognised 'American Poets' who is worth reading.
He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He
is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does 'chant the
crucial stage' and he is the 'voice triumphant.' He is disgusting. He is an
exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission.
Entirely free from the renaissance humanist ideal of the complete man or from
the Greek idealism, he is content to be what he is, and he is his time and his
people. He is a genius because he has vision of what he is and of his function.
He knows that he is a beginning and not a classically finished work.
I honour him for he prophesied me while I can only recognise him as a forebear
of whom I ought to be proud.
In America there is much for the healing of the nations, but woe unto him of the
cultured palate who attempts the dose.
As for Whitman, I read him (in many parts) with acute pains, but when I write of
certain things I find myself using his rhythms. The expression of certain things
related to cosmic consciousness seems tainted with this maramis.
I am (in common with every educated man) an heir of the ages and I demand my
birth-right. Yet if Whitman represented his time in language acceptable to one
accustomed to my standard of intellectual-artistic living he would belie his
time and nation. And yet I am but one of his "ages and ages' encrustations" or to
be exact an encrustation of the next age. The vital part of my message, taken
from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his.
Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt
(although at times inimical to both). Personally I might be very glad to conceal
my relationship to my spiritual father and brag about my more congenial
ancestry—Dante, Shakespeare, Theocritus, Villon, but the descent is a bit
difficult to establish. And, to be frank, Whitman is to my fatherland (Patriam
quam odi et amo for no uncertain reasons) what Dante is to Italy and I at my
best can only be a strife for a renaissance in America of all the lost or
temporarily mislaid beauty, truth, valour, glory of Greece, Italy, England and
all the rest of it.
And yet if a man has written lines like Whitman's to the Sunset Breeze one has
to love him. I think we have not yet paid enough attention to the deliberate
artistry of the man, not in details but in the large.
I am immortal even as he is, yet with a lesser vitality as I am the more in love
with beauty (If I really do love it more than he did). Like Dante he wrote in
the 'vulgar tongue,' in a new metric. The first great man to write in the
language of his people.
Et ego Petrarca in lingua vetera scribo, and in a tongue my people understood
It seems to me I should like to drive Whitman into the old world. I sledge, he
drill—and to scourge America with all the old beauty. (For Beauty is an
accusation) and with a thousand thongs from Homer to Yeats, from Theocritus to
Marcel Schwob. This desire is because I am young and impatient, were I old and
wise I should content myself in seeing and saying that these things will come.
But now, since I am by no means sure it would be true prophecy, I am fain set my
own hand to the labour.
It is a great thing, reading a man to know, not 'His Tricks are not as yet my
Tricks, but I can easily make them mine' but 'His message is my message. We will
see that men hear it.'
WALT WHITMAN AND RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Two letters, one by Emerson and one by Whitman, later became a part of the
second edition of Leaves of Grass. This exchange began as a private note of
encouragement from Emerson, a well-known poet and lecturer, to an obscure
journalist at the beginning of his poetic career.
The following letter to Whitman from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 21 July 1855 is among
the most famous letters ever written to an aspiring writer. Here Emerson
suggests the complex foreground that preceded the publication of Leaves of
Grass. Without asking Emerson's permission, Whitman gave this private
letter to Charles Dana for publication in the New York Tribune on
DEAR SIR―I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of "LEAVES OF
GRASS." I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America
has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us
happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and
stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament,
were making our western wits fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find
incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage
of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long
foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if
this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober
certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I
could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my
benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to
pay you my respects.
Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855
Emerson's letter as well as an open letter to Emerson written by Whitman was
then printed in an appendix to the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. In
addition, Whitman printed "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R.W.
Emerson" on the spine of the book. It has been suggested that this was the first
A Letter Written on Behalf of Walt Whitman, by Ralph Waldo
Emerson, to William H. Seward
Concord | Masstts
Jan. 10 | 1863
Mr Walt Whitman, of New York, writes me, that he wishes to obtain employment in
the public service in Washington, & has made, or is about making some
application to yourself. Permit me to say that he is known to me as a man of
strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers &
valuable traits of character: a self-relying, large-hearted man, much beloved by
his friends; entirely patriotic & benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice.
If his writings are in certain points open to criticism, they yet show
extraordinary power, & are more deeply American, democratic, & in the interest
of political liberty, than those of any other poet. He is indeed a child of the
people, & their champion. A man of his talents & dispositions will quickly make
himself useful, and, if the Government has work that he can do, I think it may
easily find, that it has called to its side more valuable aid than it bargained
With great respect,
Your obedient servant,
R. W. Emerson.
Hon. William H. Seward, | Secretary of State.
HAD I THE CHOICE (AFTER WALT WHITMAN)
by George Santayana
Had I the choice to emulate the verse
Of poets stately, beautiful, sublime;
Could I be Homer's equal, to rehearse
The wars and warriors of heroic time,
Hector, Achilles, Ajax; had I art
The woe-entangled Hamlet to declare,
Or unfold Lear's, Othello's, inmost heart,
Or sing as Tennyson of ladies fair; ―
Metre and wit the best, and minstrel fingers,
And choice conceit to wield in perfect rhyme,
Delight of singers: ―
These, these, O sea, all these I gladly gave,
Would you the undulation of one wave,
Its trick to me transfer, its sigh, its prayer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse
And leave its odor there.
YOU TIDES WITH CEASELESS SWELL (AFTER WALT WHITMAN)
by George Santayana
You tides with ceaseless swell, what moves you thus?
What unseen force, through space's spread, afar
Joins sun and earth and moon and every star?
What message send the farthest orbs to us?
What Sirius? what Capella? What great heart
Throbs in the midst, and thrills to every part?
What portion have you in the boundless whole?
What hint of all is on your murmurous lip?
In what vast chamber dwells the fluid soul
That holds us all, as sailing in a ship?
Walt Whitman: A Dialogue
by George Santayana
Van Tender. What, is it time?
McStout. Fifteen minutes before the game begins. We might take a stroll. It is
such splendid weather!
Van Tender. Yes, and this is the best place to enjoy it. The warm wind blows in
over you, and you can almost fancy how the trees feel when they thaw, and the
sap begins to run, and the buds throb till they burst, and every leaf breathes
and trembles. The plants don't have to move from their places to feel that it's
spring. Why should we? You know my motto:
"Better than to stand to sit, better than to sit to lie,
Better than to dream to
sleep, better than to sleep to die."
But you can't expect to attain the highest
good at one bound from the depths of Philistia. You can't do better for the
present than to come in and stretch your energetic self on the other half of the
window seat. Isn't it delicious? What better apology for idler? Here you can
breath the air and look at the fresh grass, while you read a poet and cut a
lecture. He tells you how in another country, perhaps, he felt what you are
feeling now, as he watched the spring of another year. that is the best part of
the pleasure, to know that it's human, and that all men have had it in common,
from Adam down.
McStout. And who is your poet now? Swinburne?
Van Tender. Oh, no.
Van Tender. No; it's Walt Whitman. There is a time for everything, you know.
McStout. If, like you, one does nothing. No wonder you like Walt Whitman now and
then for a change. You must be so tired of poetry.
Van Tender. Isn't this poetry? What is poetry?
McStout. A matter of words-more of words than matter. But if Walt Whitman is
poetry, it isn't on account of the words. You don't pretend he can write
Van Tender. Not according to the English department. But that is a local
standard. Could Homer pass an examination in Goodwin's moods and tenses? And
doesn't he say ΣμιυΘεὓ, which is a ἄπαξ λϵγόμνον.
McStout. I dare say Homer talked as it was the fashion to talk in his day. And
when English becomes a dead language and nothing survives but Leaves of Grass,
Whitman's style will be above criticism. But now english has the misfortune of
being in use. A man can't make it to suit his fancy, and if he won't trouble
himself to write the language of his fellows he can't expect them to learn his.
How can you endure a man who has neither the accent of Christians, nor the style
of a Christian, pagan, nor man?
Van Tender. Precisely for that reason: he produces a new effect, he gives you a
new sensation. If you will show me a well-written book that contains the same
emotion, I agree to bind the leaves of grass into bundles and cast them into the
furnace. If only a man could become an artist in his words, and yet retain the
innocence of his feelings! But to learn a method of expression is to become
insensible to all it can't express. The schools don't teach us to paint what we
see, but to see what others have painted.
McStout. I've heard of an old master who used to say to his pupils, "Copy if you
want to be copied." When people are fascinated by the extravagant they show they
haven't experience and training enough to appreciate what is sane and solid.
Would you make no distinction between the normal and human and the eccentric and
perverse? You toss sense and grammar to the Philistines, who ought to be correct
since they can't be original. But your geniuses, you think, mustn't submit to
standards: they create standards. If they didn't seem ridiculous to the vulgar,
would they be truly sublime? You may say that if you like, but if originality is
genius there are more great men at Somerville than at Cambridge. You can't get
over the difference between sense and nonsense between beauty and caprice. Any
one can produce a new effect when fools are impressed by his blunders. You may
like to hear Whitman's "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," but you must
confess it is a whim of yours, and that a yawp is one thing and a poem another.
Van Tender. Certainly, I admit that a barbarism is an annoyance. When I come
upon one it gives me a little shock, and I wish for the moment that it wasn't
there. But there are models of English enough. I don't read Whitman for his
verbal graces, although he has them, after his own fashion. If you wrote me a
letter it might not be a model of style either, yet I should read it with
interest if it told me what I wanted to hear. And Whitman does that. He hasn't
the merits of Keats or of Shakspere, but he has merits of his own. His verses
bring a message theirs couldn't bring, so I read theirs for their style and his
for his inspiration. It is the voice of nature crying in the wilderness of
McStout. I wish you could tell me what you mean by that. The only novelty I can
see in him is that he mentions all sorts of things and says nothing about them.
If you like pantheism and indecency, why aren't you satisfied with French novels
and German philosophy? These are the same things in their genuine form.
Van Tender. It's not a theory or a description of things I get from Whitman.
It's an attitude, a faculty of appreciation. You may laugh at his catalogues of
objects, at his enumeration of places. But the hurrying of these images through
the mind gives me a sense of space, of a multiplicity of things spread endlessly
around me. I become aware of the life of millions of men, of great stretches of
marsh, desert, and ocean. Have you never thought of the poetry of the planet?
Fancy this little ball spinning along so fast, and yet so little in a hurry.
Imagine the film of blue-gray water and the flat patches of land, now green, now
brown, and the dim clouds creeping over all. And near the ocean, here and there,
conceive the troops of men and animals darkening the earth like so many ants.
And think how little the murmur of one thousand jargons ruffles the air, and how
the praises of each god are drowned in the vaults of his temple!
McStout. But all that is very different from Walt Whitman. Astronomy may have
its impressive side, and even geography, when you connect it with the fortunes
of mankind. Science is interesting, and if you can manage to make poetry out of
it we shall have the first poetry in the world not resting on illusion. It seems
to me that the illusion is what is poetic, and the fact is so only when in fancy
we assimilate it to the fiction. The migrations of men from one land to another,
for instance, are important events, and you may cast the glamour of poetry over
them for a moment by dramatizing them. You may call the Strait of Magellan a
Hellespont and himself a Jason. You may say the whole world is a Troad and the
history of civilization a war of heroes. But if you mention the heroes, and
their real qualities, where is the poetry? And if you reverse the process and try
to explain the fables as history symbolized, or what not, you degrade the ideal
and distort the facts. The reason why Walt Whitman is ridiculous is that he
talks of real objects as if they could enter into poetry at all. It isn't art to
objects, nor poetry to turn out "chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin,
Iowa, and Minnesota." Poetry deals with sensuous attractions, found nowhere on
the map. to see then you must have a passport into fairy land.
Van Tender. Ah, you are caught at last! You have defined poetry. Now I wouldn't
for a moment defend metaphysical confusions. The trouble with the German sort of
criticism is that it isn't satisfied with the fact, but goes in search of a
theory, as if a theory could be anything real and ultimate, or more than the
flight of the soul from perception to perception, from emotion to emotion, on
which alone she can alight to find rest and truth.
"Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum."
what makes you think the essence poetry distils can't be extracted from every
object? Why should one thing leave its type in the world of ideas, and not
another! Trust me, beauty is everywhere, if we only had the genius to see it. If
a man has the ability to make us feel the fitness, the necessity, the beauty of
common things, he is a poet of the highest type. If some objects seem to you
poetic rather than others, if Venice can be apostrophised and Oshkosh is
unmentionable, it's because habit makes it easier to idealize them. This beauty
has been pointed out so often that we know it by heart. But what merit is to
repeat the old tricks, and hum the old tunes? You add nothing to the beauty of
the world. You see no new vision. You are the author of nothing, but merely an
apprentice in the poetic guild, a little poet sucking the honey with which great
poets have sweetened words. You are inspired by tradition and judged by
convention. Yet this very convention must have been inspired at first. The real
objects about a man must have impressed him and he must have found words fit to
communicate his impression. These words in that way became poetic, and
afterwards any man who used them was an artist.
McStout. And you think literary tradition wholly arbitrary? You think it a mere
accident that all hearts were touched by one man's words, and that all
generations adopted his words and imitated his methods? Why was one poet's
inspiration turned into a convention rather than another's? Evidently because he
discovered and selected the truly interesting aspects of life, and dwelt upon
those things which of themselves are beautiful. Don't you know how every age
fancies it has a poet of original genius, that afterwards turns out to have been
nothing but a fashionable mountebank? He had some trick that appealed to a
particular mood or passion of the time, and his success in drawing attention for
the moment is mistaken for a sign of greatness. That happens to Walt Whitman.
the times are favorable to his vague pantheism, his formlessness, his confusion
of values, his substitution of emotion for thought, his trust in impulse rather
than experience. Because we are too ignorant or too wilful to see the
distinctions of things and of persons, we decree that there are no distinctions,
and proceed to remodel literature and society upon that principle.
Van Tender. If the distinctions are real, there is no danger of their being
destroyed. Things have different values, as one star differs from another star
in brightness. All I insist on is that in all you can see light, if your eyes
are open. Whitman would teach you, if you would only read him, to see in things
their intrinsic nature and life, rather than the utility they may have for one
another. That is his great merit, his sublime justice. It is a kind of profound
piety that recognizes the life of every thing in nature, and spares it, and
worships its intrinsic worth. There is something brutal and fatuous in the habit
we commonly have of passing the parts of nature in review and pronouncing them
good or bad according to the effect they have on our lives. Aren't they as real
as ourselves? In practical life we have to override them, for if we waited for
justice and the ultimate good to direct what we should do, we should die before
we had done anything. but it's the privilege of contemplation to be just. Listen
to what Whitman says here:
"I do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me
look of the bay mare shames stillness out of me."
McStout. This justice of yours may be sublime, but isn't it a trifle dangerous?
By admiring the beasts so much we may come to resemble them, or perhaps the
resemblance is the cause of the admiration. You may say it is brutal to make
ourselves a standard for other creatures; yet a human standard is better than
none at all, and can we have any other? But Walt Whitman, I understand, would
think it a great improvement if men imitated the animals more than they do.
Van Tender. Undoubtedly, in some respects. Here he explains it perfectly:
think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one
is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to
his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy
over the whole earth."
McStout. And not one writes bad prose or worse poetry, not one is untrue to his
instincts as all this talk is untrue to the better instincts of man.
Van Tender. I knew it would came at last: Walt Whitman is immoral!
McStout. It isn't immoral to call a spade a spade, but it is immoral to treat
life as a masquerade, as a magic pantomime in which acts have no consequences
and happiness and misery don't exist.
Van Tender. Ah, but Whitman is nothing if not a spectator, a cosmic poet to whom
the whole world is a play. And good and evil, although not equally pleasant to
experience, are equally interesting to look at. Is it wrong to enjoy our misery
when its distance from us makes contemplation of it possible? How else can the
gods have been happy? to refuse us this pleasure is to deprive us of a
consolation without preventing our suffering. Or do you think the knowledge of
what life is would make us unfit to live? Should we be really more wicked if the
sun were not a Puritan and dared to look on the world through the twenty-four
McStout. Perhaps not, but the trouble with your contemplation and impartiality
is that it unnerves a man and makes him incapable of indignation or enthusiasm.
He goes into raptures over everything, and accomplishes nothing. The world is so
heavenly to him that he finds nothing to do in it.
Van Tender. Except play his harp and wear his crown. Is it nothing to perceive
the beauty of the world, and help other men to perceive it? I don't mean simply
the pleasure of art itself. I mean the widening of your sympathies, your
reconciliation with nature. What better thing is there for a man than to
remember now and then that the stars are laughing at him, to renounce his
allegiance to his own preferences and passions and by understanding to enter
into those of other men? We can't play at life without getting some knocks and
bruises, and without running some chance of defeat. But our best moments are the
breathing spells when we survey the field and see what a glorious game it all
McStout. I'm glad we may do that, especially as the other game is over.
"Walt Whitman: A Dialogue," by George Santayana, first appeared in the Harvard
Monthly 10.3 (May 1890): 85-91.
Review of Leaves of Grass
by Edward Everett Hale
EVERYTHING about the external arrangement of this book was odd and out of the
way. The author printed it himself, and it seems to have been left to the winds
of heaven to publish it. So it happened that we had not discovered it before our
last number, although we believe the sheets had then passed the press. It bears
no publisher's name, and, if the reader goes to a bookstore for it, he may
expect to be told at first, as we were, that there is no such book, and has not
been. Nevertheless, there is such a book, and it is well worth going twice to
the bookstore to buy it. Walter Whitman, an American,—one of the roughs,—no
sentimentalist,—no stander above men and women, or apart from them,—no more
modest than immodest,—has tried to write down here, in a sort of prose poetry, a
good deal of what he has seen, felt, and guessed at in a pilgrimage of some
thirty-five years. He has a horror of conventional language of any kind. His
theory of expression is, that, "to speak in literature with the perfect
rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals, is the flawless triumph
of art." Now a great many men have said this before. But generally it is the
introduction to something more artistic than ever,—more conventional and
strained. Antony began by saying he was no orator, but none the less did an
oration follow. In this book, however, the prophecy is fairly fulfilled in the
accomplishment. "What I experience or portray shall go from my composition
without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the
mirror with me."
So truly accomplished is this promise,—which anywhere else would be a flourish
of trumpets,—that this thin quarto deserves its name. That is to say, one reads
and enjoys the freshness, simplicity, and reality of what he reads, just as the
tired man, lying on the hill-side in summer, enjoys the leaves of grass around
him,—enjoys the shadow,—enjoys the flecks of sunshine,—not for what they
"suggest to him," but for what they are.
So completely does the author's remarkable power rest in his simplicity, that
the preface to the book—which does not even have large letters at the beginning
of the lines, as the rest has—is perhaps the very best thing in it. We find more
to the point in the following analysis of the "genius of the United States,"
than we have found in many more pretentious studies of it.
"Other states indicate themselves in their deputies, but the genius of the
United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its
ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its
newspapers or inventors;—but always most in the common people. Their manners,
speech, dress, friendships;—the freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the
picturesque looseness of their carriage, their deathless attachment to freedom,
their aversion to everything indecorous or soft or mean, the practical
acknowledgment of the citizens of one State by the citizens of all other States,
the fierceness of their roused resentment, their curiosity and welcome of
novelty, their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy, their susceptibility to a
slight, the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the
presence of superiors, the fluency of their speech, their delight in music (the
sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul), their good temper
and open-handedness, the terrible significance of their elections, the
President's taking off his hat to them, not they to him,—these too are unrhymed
poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it."
The book is divided into a dozen or more sections, and in each one of these some
thread of connection may be traced, now with ease, now with difficulty,—each
being a string of verses, which claim to be written without effort and with
entire abandon. So the book is a collection of observations, speculations,
memories, and prophecies, clad in the simplest, truest, and often the most
nervous English,—in the midst of which the reader comes upon something as much
out of place as a piece of rotten wood would be among leaves of grass in the
meadow, if the meadow had no object but to furnish a child's couch. So slender
is the connection, that we hardly injure the following scraps by extracting
"I am the teacher of Athletes;
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher;
The boy I love, the same becomes a man, not through derived power, but
in his own right,
Wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear,
Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak,
Unrequited love, or a slight, cutting him worse than a wound cuts,
First-rate to ride, to fight, to hit the bull's-eye, to sail a skiff, to sing a
song, or to play on the banjo,
Preferring scars, and faces pitted with small-pox, over all latherers and
those that keep out of the sun."
Here is the story of the gallant seaman who rescued the passengers
on the San Francisco:—
"I understand the large heart of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steamship,
and death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch, and was faithful of
days and faithful of nights,
And chalked in large letters on a board, 'Be of good cheer, we will not
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank, loose-gowned women looked when boated from the side of
their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipped,
All this I swallowed, and it tastes good; I like it well, and it becomes
I am the man, I suffered, I was there."
Claiming in this way a personal interest in every thing that has ever happened
in the world, and, by the wonderful sharpness and distinctness of his
imagination, making the claim effective and reasonable, Mr. "Walt Whitman"
leaves it a matter of doubt where he has been in this world, and where not. It
is very clear, that with him, as with most other effective writers, a keen,
absolute memory, which takes in and holds every detail of the past,—as they say
the exaggerated power of the memory does when a man is drowning,—is a gift of
his organization as remarkable as his vivid imagination. What he has seen once,
he has seen for ever. And thus there are in this curious book little thumb-nail
sketches of life in the prairie, life in California, life at school, life in the
nursery,—life, indeed, we know not where not,—which, as they are unfolded one
after another, strike us as real,—so real that we wonder how they came on paper.
For the purpose of showing that he is above every conventionalism, Mr. Whitman
puts into the book one or two lines which he would not address to a woman nor to
a company of men. There is not anything, perhaps, which modern usage would stamp
as more indelicate than are some passages in Homer. There is not a word in it
meant to attract readers by its grossness, as there is in half the literature of
the last century, which holds its place unchallenged on the tables of our
drawing-rooms. For all that, it is a pity that a book where everything else is
natural should go out of the way to avoid the suspicion of being prudish.
Hale, Edward Everett. "[Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]." The North American
Review 82 (January 1856): 275-7.
Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)
by Charles Eliot Norton
WHITMAN'S LEAVES OF GRASS.—Our account of the last month's literature would be
incomplete without some notice of a curious and lawless collection of poems,
called Leaves of Grass, and issued in a thin quarto without the name of
publisher or author. The poems, twelve in number, are neither in rhyme nor blank
verse, but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at
measure or regularity, and, as many readers will perhaps think, without any idea
of sense or reason. The writer's scorn for the wonted usages of good writing;
extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society
are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect
on the reader's mind; and not only is the book one not to be read aloud to a
mixed audience, but the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and
of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether
laughable. But, as the writer is a new light in poetry, it is only fair to let
him state his theory for himself. We extract from the preface:—
"The art of art, the glory of expression, is simplicity. Nothing is better than
simplicity, and the sunlight of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than
simplicity—nothing can make up for excess, or for the lack of
definiteness * * * To speak in literature, with the perfect rectitude and the
insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the
sentiment of trees in the woods, is the flawless triumph of art * * * The
greatest poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thought and
things, without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He
swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any
elegance, or effect, or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest,
like curtains. What I feel, I feel for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt,
or startle, or fascinate, or soothe, I will have purposes, as health, or heat,
or snow has, and be as regardless of observation. What I experience or portray
shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand
by my side to look in the mirror with me."
The application of these principles, and of many others equally peculiar, which
are expounded in a style equally oracular throughout the long preface,—is made
passim, and often with comical success, in the poems themselves, which may
briefly be described as a compound of the New England transcendentalist and New
York rowdy. A fireman or omnibus driver, who had intelligence enough to absorb
the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston some
fifteen or eighteen years ago, and resources of expression to put them forth
again in a form of his own, with sufficient self-conceit and contempt for public
taste to affront all usual propriety of diction, might have written this gross
yet elevated, this superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow
fascinating book. As we say, it is a mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New
York rowdyism, and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here
seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony. The vast and vague
conceptions of the one, lose nothing of their quality in passing through the
coarse and odd intellectual medium of the other; while there is an original
perception of nature, a manly brawn, and an epic directness in our new poet,
which belong to no other adept of the transcendental school. But we have no
intention of regularly criticising this very irregular production; our aim is
rather to cull, from the rough and ragged thicket of its pages, a few passages
equally remarkable in point of thought and expression. Of course we do not
select those which are the most transcendental or the most bold:—
"I play not a march for victors only…I
play great marches for conquered and
Have you heard that it was good to gain
I also say it is good to fall…battles are
lost in the same spirit in which they are
I sound triumphal drums for the dead…
I fling through my embouchures the
loudest and gayest music to them—
Vivas to those who have failed, and to those
whose war-vessels sank in the sea, and to
those themselves who sank in the sea.
And to all generals that lost engagements,
and to all overcome heroes, and the number-
less unknown heroes equal to the
greatest heroes known."
"I am the mashed fireman, with breast-bone
broken…tumbling walls buried me in
Heat and smoke, I respired…I heard
the yelling shouts of my comrades—
I heard the distant click of their picks and
They have cleared the beams away.…
they tenderly lift me forth.
I lie in the night air in my red shirt…
the pervading hush is for my sake.
Painless after all I lie, exhausted, but not so
White and beautiful are the faces around
me…the heads are bared of their fire-
The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches."
"I tell not the fall of Alamo…not one
escaped to tell the fall of the Alamo:
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at
They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with a horse, a rifle, a song, a
supper, or a courtship:
Large, turbulent, brave, handsome, gener-
ous, proud and affectionate—
Bearded, sun-burnt, dressed in the free cos-
tume of hunters."
"Did you read in the books of the old-
fashioned frigate fight?
Did you learn who won by the light of the
moon and stars?
Our foe was no skulk in his ship, I tell you,
His was the English pluck, and there is
no tougher or truer, and never was, and
never will be:
Along the lowered eve he came, terribly
We close with him: the yards entangled…
the masts touched:
My captain lashed fast with his own hands.
We had received some eighteen-pound
shots under the water—
On our lower gun-deck two large pieces
had burst at the first fire, killing all
around and blowing up, overhead.
Ten o'clock at night and the full moon shin-
ing, and the leaks on the gain, and five
feet of water reported;
The master-at-arms loosing the prisoners in
the after-hold, to give them a chance for
The transit to and from the magazine was
now stopped by the sentinels—
They saw so many strange faces, they did
not know whom to trust.
Our frigate was a-fire—the other asked if
we demanded quarters? if our colors were
struck and the fighting done?
I laughed content when I heard the voice
of my little captain—
`We have not struck,' he composedly cried.
`We have just begun our part of the
Only three guns were in use.
One was directed by the captain himself,
against the enemy's mainmast:
Two, well served with grape and canister,
silenced his musketry and cleared his
Not a moment's cease —
The leaks gained fast on the pumps…the fire eat toward the
One of the pumps was shot away; it was generally thought we
Serene stood the little captain:
He was not hurried…his voice was neither high or low—
His eyes gave more light to us than our battle-lanterns.
Toward twelve at night, there in the beams of the moon, they
surrendered to us."
"As to you, life, I reckon you are the leav-
ings of many deaths:
No doubt I have died myself ten thousand
I hear you whispering there, O stars of
O suns! O grave of graves! O perpetual
transfers and promotions, if you do not
say anything, how can I say anything,
Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk —toss on the
black stems that decay in the muck—
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry
"A slave at auction!
I help the auctioneer…the sloven does
not half know his business.
`Gentlemen, look on this curious creature:
Whatever the bids of the bidders, they
cannot be high enough for him—
For him, the globe lay preparing quintil-
lions of years, without one animal or
For him the revolving cycles truly and
In that head, the all-baffling brain—
In it, and below it, the making of heroes.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white…
they are very cunning in tendon and
They shall be stript, that you may see them.
Within there runs his blood…the same
old blood…the same red running
There, swells and jets his heart…there
all passions and desires…all reachings
Do you think they are not there, because they
are not expressed in parlors and lec-
This is not only one man…he is the father
of those who shall be fathers in their
In him the start of populous states and rich
Of him, countless immortal lives, with
countless embodiments and enjoyments.
How do you know who shall come from the
offspring of his offspring, through the
A woman at auction!
She, too, is not only herself…she is the
teeming mother of mothers:
She is the bearer of them who shall grow
and be mates to the mothers.
Her daughters, or their daugh-
ters' daughters…who knows who shall mate
Who knows, through the centuries, what
heroes may come from them?
In them, and of them, natal love…in
them the divine mystery…the same
old, beautiful mystery."
"Behold a woman!
She looks out from her Quaker cap…her
face is clearer and more beautiful than
She sits in an arm-chair, under the shaded
porch of the farm house—
The sun just shines on her old white head.
Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen:
Her grandsons raised the flax, and her grand-
daughters spun itwith the distaff and the
The melodious character of the earth!
The finish, beyond which philosophy cannot
go, and does not wish to go!
The justified mother of men!"
"Old age superbly rising! Ineffable grace of dying days."
"Day, full-blown and splendid…day of
the immense sun, and action, and ambi-
tion, and laughter:
The night follows close, with millions of
suns, and sleep,and restoring darkness."
As seems very proper in a book of transcendental poetry, the author withholds
his name from the title page, and presents his portrait, neatly engraved on
steel, instead. This, no doubt, is upon the principle that the name is merely
accidental; while the portrait affords an idea of the essential being from whom
these utterances proceed. We must add, however, that this significant reticence
does not prevail throughout the volume, for we learn on p. 29, that our poet is
"Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." That he was an
American, we knew before, for, aside from America, there is no quarter of the
universe where such a production could have had a genesis. That he was one of
the roughs was also tolerably plain; but that he was a kosmos, is a piece of
news we were hardly prepared for. Precisely what a kosmos is, we trust Mr.
Whitman will take an early occasion to inform the impatient public.
Norton, Charles Eliot. "[Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]." Putnam's Monthly: A
Magazine of Literature, Science, and Arts 6 (September 1855): 321-3.
WHITMAN'S COMPLETE WORKS
by Sylvester Baxter
A Fine "Personally Handled" Edition of the Poet,
With Autograph—A Volume That Book Lovers Will Prize—Some of Its Notable
Features—New Poems and Prose—Whitman's Estimate of His Own Career—Opinion of
The complete edition of Walt Whitman's works, just issued by the poet himself in
one volume, is a book to be prized by the bibliophile as well as treasured by
Whitman's friends. The plates of the three uniform volumes comprising Whitman's
writings are used, but with the broad margins and finer paper of the uncut
sheets, the guise seems an entirely new one. The text has received a final
revision, there is the charm of certain additions, there are several portraits
of Whitman ranging from his early prime to one taken in his 70th year, and there
is the great value of the direct association of the poet's personality, as
guaranteed in the words of the handsome title page, with its fine profile
reproduced from a photograph: Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman.
1855-1888. Authenticated and Personal Book (Handled by W. W.) Portraits from
Life. Autograph. On the first fly leaf of the copy before the writer are the
words, written in the poet's familiar hand: "S——B ——, from his friend, the
author, Walt Whitman, with affection and memories.—Dec. 21, 1888." The
handwriting is strikingly firm and bold, showing that the paralysis that
afflicts the author has not affected his firm hand.
The cover is a plain one, with marbled sides and back of dark olive, with the
title pasted on in plain white paper: Walt Whitman, Complete Poems and
Prose—Leaves of Grass, Specimen Days and Collect, November Boughs with Sands at
Seventy, Annex to L. of G.—Portraits from Life, and Autograph Ed'n 1888-9.
Altogether, the volume combines the homely democratic simplicity associated with
Whitman's name with the essential features of a handsome book—a worthy garment
for the great thoughts presented. The note at the end, written for this edition
on Nov. 13, 1888, states the author's motives for publishing it, and may be
called His Literary Valedictory.
"As I conclude—and (to get typographical correctness,) after running my eyes
diligently through the three big divisions of the preceding volume—the
interrogative wonder-fancy rises in me whether (if it be not too arrogant to
even state it), the 33 years of my current time, 1855-1888, with their aggregate
of our new world doings and people, have not, indeed, created and formulated the
foregoing leaves—forcing their utterance as the pages stand—coming actually from
the direct urge and developments of those years, and not from any individual
epic or lyrical attempts whatever, or from my pen or voice, or any body's
special voice. Out of that supposition the book might be considered an
autochthonic record, and expression, fully rendered, of and out of these 30 to
35 years—of the soul and evolution of America—and, of course, by reflection, not
ours only, but more or less of the common people of the world. Seems to me I may
dare to claim a deep native tap root for the book, too, in some sort. I came on
the stage too late for personally knowing much of even the lingering
revolutionary worthies—the men of '76. Yet, as a little boy, I have been pressed
tightly and lovingly to the breast of Lafayette (Brooklyn, 1825), and have
talked with old Aaron Burr, and also with those who knew Washington and his
surroundings, and with original Jeffersonians, and more than one very old
soldier and sailor. And in my own day and maturity, my eyes have seen and ears
heard, Lincoln, Grant and Emerson, and my hands have been grasped by their
hands. Though in a different field and range from most of theirs, I give the
foregoing pages as perfectly legitimate, resultant, evolutionary and consistent
with them. If these lines should ever reach some reader of a far-off future age,
let him take them as a missive sent from Abraham Lincoln's fateful age.
Repeating, parrot-like, what in the preceding divisions has been already said,
and must serve as a great reason why of this whole book—first, that the main
part about pronounced events and shows (poems and persons, also) is the point of
view from which they are viewed and estimated: and second, that I cannot let my
momentous, stormy, peculiar era of peace and war, these states, these years,
slip away without arresting some of its specimen events—even its vital
breaths—to be portrayed and inscribed from out of the midst of it, from its own
days and nights—not so much in themselves (statistically and descriptively our
times are copiously noted and memorandized with an industrial zeal), but to give
from them here their flame-like results in imaginative and spiritual
suggestiveness, as they present themselves to me, at any rate, from the point of
view alluded to.
"Then a few additional words yet to this hurried farewell note. In another sense
(the warp crossing the woof and knitted in) the book is probably a sort of
autobiography, an element I have not attempted especially to restrain or erase.
As alluded to at the beginning, I had about got the volume well started by the
printers, when a sixth recurrent attack of my war paralysis fell upon me. It has
proved the most serious and continued of the whole. I am now uttering 'November Boughs' and printing this book in my 70th year. To get out the collection—mainly the
born results of health, flush life, buoyancy and happy outdoor volition—and to
prepare the Boughs have beguiled my invalid months the past summer and fall.
('Are we to be beaten down in our old age?' says one white-haired old fellow
remonstratingly to another in a budget of letters I read last night.) Then I
wanted to leave something markedly personal. I have put my name with pen and ink
with my own hand in the present volume. And from engraved or photographed
portraits, taken from life, I have selected some, of different stages, which
please me best, (or at any rate displease me least), and bequeath them at a
venture to you, reader, with my love. W. W., Nov. 13, 1888."
"Leaves of Grass" has the following prefatory verses in this volume:
"Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my body let us write (for we
That should I after death invisibly return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants re-
(Tallying earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultu-
Ever with pleased smile I may keep on.
Ever and ever yet the verses owning—as,
first, I here and now,
Signing for soul and body, set to them my
The second book, "Specimen Days and Collect," contains two things which alone
would make it invaluable, the preface to the first issue of "Leaves of Grass,"
that of 1855, and the great essay, "Democratic Vistas." Since Whitman included
verse only in the final form of "Leaves of Grass" the original preface is given
in the prose book. It is known as a masterpiece of composition in the grand
style. Its thoughts borne free on the wings of a spontaneous rhythm. Many of its
passages will be recognized as having been worked over into later poems.
"Democratic Vistas" is one of the greatest essays ever written concerning
America. Whitman speaks here as a seer. Probably no one has ever taken a more
comprehensive, far-seeing national view. It is a paper for statesmen in the
highest sense. With his healthy, strong, optimistic mind, he looks far ahead
through the centuries and perceives the grand destiny of our country, but this
does not make him ignore the shadows of the picture, and the very clearness of
his prophetic vision shows to him, also, the plainer the perils that beset the
road to the goal, as in these words of warning: "Shift and turn the combinations
of the statement as we may, the problem of the future of America is, in certain
respects, as dark as it is vast. Pride, competition, segregation, vicious
willfulness, and license beyond example, brood already upon us. Unwieldy and
immense, who shall hold in behemoth, who bridle leviathan? Flaunt it as we
choose, athwart and over the roads of our progress loom huge uncertainty, and
dreadful, threatening gloom. It is useless to deny it: Democracy grows rankly up
the thickest, noxious, deadliest plants and fruits of all—brings worse and worse
invaders—needs newer, larger, stronger, keener compensations and compellers."
A Review from the Close.
"November Boughs" begins with a review of the poet's career, and works from the
standpoint of the journey's close: "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads."
There is humility and modesty in its tone, as well as hopefulness, assertion and
a brave, serene confidence. Characterizing his poems, he thus prescribes his
purpose and his method:
The word I myself put primarily for the description of them as they stand at
last is the word suggestiveness. I round and finish little, if anything, and
could not consistently with my scheme. The reader will always have his or her
part to do, just as much as I have had mine. I seek less 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. Another impetus word is
comradeship as for all lands, and in a more commanding and acknowledged sense
than hitherto. Other word signs would be good cheer, content and hope. The chief
trait of any given poet is always the spirit he brings to the observation of
humanity and nature, the mood out of which he contemplates his subjects.
[illegible] Universal as are certain facts and symptoms of communities or
individuals at all times, there is nothing so rare in modern conventions and
poetry as their normal recognizance. Literature is always calling in the doctor
for consultation and confession, and always giving evasions and swathing
suppressions in place of that 'heroic nudity' on which only a genuine diagnosis
of serious cases can be built. And in respect to editors of Leaves of Grass in
time to come (if there should be such) I take occasion now to confirm these
lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of 30 years, and to
hereby prohibit, as far as word of mine can do so, any elision of them.
He continued with the following reverent words:
Then still a purpose inclosing all, and over and beneath all. Ever since what
might be called thought, or the budding of thought, fairly began in my youthful
mind, I had had a desire to attempt some worthy record of that entire faith and
acceptance ('to justify the ways of God to man' is Milton's well known and
ambitious phrase) which is the foundation of moral America. I felt it all as
positively then in my young days as I do now in my old ones: to formulate a poem
whose every thought or fact should directly or indirectly be or connive at an
implicit belief in the wisdom, health, mystery, beauty of every process, every
concrete object, every human or other existence, not only considered from the
point of view of all, but of each. While I cannot understand it or argue it out,
I fully believe in a clew and purpose in nature, entire and several; and that
invisible spiritual results, just as real and definite as the visible, eventuate
all concrete life and all materialism, through time. My book ought to emanate
buoyance and gladness legitimately enough, for it was grown out of those
elements, and has been the comfort of my life since it was originally commenced.
He ends with the words:
In the free evening of my day, I give to you, reader, the foregoing garrulous
talk, thoughts, reminiscences,
As idly drifting down the ebb,
Such ripples, half-caught voices echo from the shore.
Concluding with two items for the imaginative genius of the West when it
worthily rises—First, what Herder taught to the young Goethe, that really great
poetry is always (like the Homeric or Biblical canticles) the result of a
national spirit, and not the privilege of a polished and select few. Second,
that the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung.
The Latest Poems
The latest poems, given under the title of "Sands at Seventy" are like the voice
of an old friend whose tones we have learned to love for the sake of the words
they have conveyed, the thoughts they have clothed. So ever after, whatever the
words be, the tones have a welcome sound. It is so with all old poets; their
message has been spoken, their great harvest has been gathered, but the
aftermath is to be valued, and scant though it may be, it still contains the
quality, the savor of the rich soil that has rejoiced us with its abundant
yield. These latest poems of Whitman's are fragmentary utterances; they have the
old character of form and expression, but are intermittent flashes; detached
images, brief glimpses. As with Dr. Holmes, these songs are pervaded by the
reminiscent atmosphere of sunset hours. In one of the traits that have strongly
characterized Whitman there is no perceptible decline—that of graphic, terse and
vivid delineation with a word or phrase that both depicts and suggests, like the
sure brush stroke of a master painter. An example of this is to be found in the
stately beginning on the poem of the death of Gen. Grant: "As one by one
withdraw the mighty actors," striking at once the keynote of a majestic theme
that is sustained with the same power to the close:
Thou from the prairies!—tangled and many-
veined and hard has been thy part,
To admiration has it been enacted?
It is a glorious calm that pervades these four lines:
After the dazzle of day is gone,
Only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars;
After the clangor of organ majestic, or chorus,
or perfect band,
Silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony
And, in these lines called "Halcyon Days" the re [sic] is manifest what was once
said of Appollonius of Tyana, that old age, as well as youth, has its bloom:
Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honored middle age, nor vic-
tories of politics or war,
But as life wanes and all the turbulent pas-
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the
As softness, fullness, rest, suffuse the frame,
like fresher, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the
apple at last hangs really finish'd and in-
dolent ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!
A strong group of poems are the "Fancies at Navesink;" reflections on the
meanings of the ocean rides as the pulse of the power that vivifies all—the
"fluid, vast identity, holding the universe with all its parts as one." Then the
ebb, with its images of death, failure and despair swept on to oblivion—but that
not the end, for
Duly by you, from you, the tide and the
light again—duly the hinges turning.
Duly the needed discord parts offsetting,
Weaving from you, from Sleep, Night, Death
The rhythms of birth eternal.
The six-line poem on Whittier's 80th birthday is a beautiful tribute. Those fond
of drawing analogies might find much satisfaction in the resemblance in the
names of the two poets, one a Hicksite Quaker, the other the son of Hicksite
Quakers. Whitman passing his last years across the river from the great Quaker
City, always using the quaint Quaker terminology of "Fifth Month," etc., and
devoting the last pages of his "November Boughs" to a collection of notes on
of whom he says in his prefatory note:
As myself a little boy hearing so much of E. H., at that time long ago in
Suffolk and Queens and Kings counties—and more than once personally seeing the
old man—and my dear, dear father and mother faithful listeners to him at the
meetings—I remember how I dreamed to write, perhaps, a piece about E. H. and his
look and discourses however long afterward—for my parents' sake—and the dear
Friends, too! And the following is what has at last but all come out of it—the
feeling and intention never forgotten yet!
Whitman's opinion of Tennyson
is of particular interest, since the British laureate is one of our great
American's most intimate, though never beheld, friends across the Atlantic. In
the brief paper, "A Word About Tennyson," Whitman says:
Let me assume to pass verdict, or, perhaps, momentary judgment, for the United
States on this poet—a removed and distant position giving some advantages over a
nigh one. What is Tennyson's service to his race, times, and especially to
America? First, I should say—or, at least, not forget—his personal character. He
is not to be mentioned as a rugged, evolutionary, aboriginal force—but (and a
great lesson is in it) he has been consistent throughout with the native,
healthy patriotic spinal element and promptings of himself. His moral line is
local and conventional, but it is vital and genuine. He reflects the upper crust
of his time, its pale cast of thought—even its ennui. Then the simile of my
friend, John Burroughs, is entirely true. 'His glove is a glove of silk, but the
hand is a hand of iron.' He shows how one can be a royal laureate, quite
eloquent and 'aristocratic,' and a little queer and affected, and at the same
time perfectly manly and natural. As to his non-democracy, it fits him well, and
I like him the better for it. I guess we all like to have (I am sure I do) some
one who presents those sides of a thought or a possibility, different from our
own—different, and yet with a sort of home-likeness—a tartness and contradiction
offsetting the theory as we view it, and construed from taste and proclivities
not at all his own…Yes, Alfred Tennyson is a superb character, and will help
give illustriousness, through the long roll of time, to our 19th century. In its
bunch of orbic names, shining like a constellation of stars, his will be one of
the brightest. His very faults, doubts, swervings, doublings upon himself, have
been typical of our age. We are like the voyagers of a ship casting off for new
seas, distant shores. We would still dwell in the old suffocating and dead
haunts, remembering and magnifying their pleasant experiences only, and more
than once impelled to jump ashore before it is too late, and stay where our
fathers stayed and live as they lived. May-be I am non-literary and non-decorous
(let me at least be human and pay part of my debt) in this word about Tennyson.
I want him to realize that here is a great and ardent nation that absorbs his
songs, and has a respect and affection for him personally as almost for no other
foreigner. I want this word to go to the old man at Farringford as conveying no
more than the simple truth: and that truth (a little Christmas gift) no slight
There are many other words worth reading in this new section of the volume;
papers on Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Fr. Taylor, remarks on "The Spanish Element
in Our Nationality," and various random notes and reminiscences, including some
additional ones about the war. It is all pervaded by the healthy personal
feeling, lofty patriotism and deep spirituality inherent in Whitman. Altogether,
this complete edition may be called monumental in our literature.
Baxter, Sylvester. "Whitman's Complete Works." The Boston Herald (3 January