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Outlines of English and American Literature
Walt Whitman
by Long, William J.


Since Whitman insisted upon being called "Walt" instead of Walter, so let it be. The name accords with the free-and-easy style of his verse. If you can find some abridged selections from that verse, read them by all means; but if you must search the whole of it for the passages that are worth reading, then pass it cheerfully by; for such another vain display of egotism, vulgarity and rant never appeared under the name of poetry. Whitman was so absurdly fond of his "chants" and so ignorant of poetry that he preserved the whole of his work in a final edition, and his publishers still insist upon printing it, rubbish and all. The result is that the few rare verses which stamp him as a poet are apt to be overlooked in the multitudinous gabblings which, of themselves, might mark him as a mere freak or "sensation" in our modest literature.

Biographical Sketch

Ordinarily when we read poetry we desire to know something of the man who wrote it, of his youth, his training, the circumstance of his work and the personal ideals which made him view life steadily in one light rather than in another. In dealing with Whitman it is advisable to leave such natural curiosity unsatisfied, and for two reasons: first, the man was far from admirable or upright, and to meet him at certain stages is to lose all desire to read his poetry; and second, he was so extremely secretive about himself, while professing boundless good-fellowship with all men, that we can seldom trust his own record, much less that of his admirers. There are great blanks in the story of his life; his real biography has not yet been written; and in the jungle of controversial writings which has grown up around him one loses sight of Whitman in a maze of extravagant or contradictory opinions. [Footnote: Of the many biographies of Whitman perhaps the best for beginners is Perry's Walt Whitman (1906), in American Men of Letters Series.]

Traits and Incidents

Let it suffice then to record, in catalogue fashion, that Whitman was born (1819) on Long Island, of stubborn farmer stock; that he spent his earliest years by the sea, which inspired his best verse; that he grew up in the streets of Brooklyn and was always fascinated by the restless tide of city life, as reflected in such poems as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"; that his education was scanty and of the "picked up" variety; that to the end of his life, though ignorant of what literary men regard as the a-b-c of knowledge, he was supremely well satisfied with himself; that till he was past forty he worked irregularly at odd jobs, but was by choice a loafer; that he was a man of superb physical health and gloried in his body, without much regard for moral standards; that his strength was broken by nursing wounded soldiers during the war, a beautiful and unselfish service; that he was then a government clerk in Washington until partly disabled by a paralytic stroke, and that the remainder of his life was spent at Camden, New Jersey. His Leaves of Grass (published first in 1855, and republished with additions many times) brought him very little return in money, and his last years were spent in a state of semipoverty, relieved by the gifts of a small circle of admirers.

Whitman's Verse

In a single book, Leaves of Grass, Whitman has collected all his verse. This book would be a chaos even had he left his works in the order in which they were written; but that is precisely what he did not do. Instead, he enlarged and rearranged the work ten different times, mixing up his worst and his best verses, so that it is now very difficult to trace his development as a poet. We may, however, tentatively arrange his work in three divisions: his early shouting to attract attention (as summarized in the line "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world"), his war poems, and his later verse written after he had learned something of the discipline of life and poetry.

The quality of his early work may be judged from a few disjointed lines of his characteristic "Song of Myself":

  Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
  I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know
                it.

  I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and am
                not contain'd between my hat and boots,
  And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
  The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

  The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready,
  The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
  The clear light plays on the brown, gray and green intertinged,
  The armfuls are pack'd to the sagging mow.
  I am there, I help, I came stretch'd atop of the load,
  I felt its soft jolts, one leg reclined on the other,
  I jump from the cross-beams and seize the clover and timothy,
  And roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.

  The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
  I tuck'd my trowser ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
  You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.


Thus he rambles on, gabbing of every place or occupation or newspaper report that comes into his head. When he ends this grotesque "Song of Myself" after a thousand lines or more, he makes another just like it. We read a few words here and there, amazed that any publisher should print such rubbish; and then, when we are weary of Whitman's conceit or bad taste, comes a flash of insight, of imagination, of poetry:

  Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
  Healthy, free, the world before me,
  The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
  These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are
                they?
  Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight
                expands my blood?
  Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
  Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts
                descend upon me?


There are, in short, hundreds of pages of such "chanting" with its grain of wheat hid in a bushel of chaff. We refer to it here not because it is worth reading but to record the curious fact that many European critics hail it as typical American poetry, even while we wonder why anybody should regard it as either American or poetic.

Foreign Opinion

The explanation is simple. Europeans have not yet rid themselves of the idea that America is the strange, wild land Cooper's Pioneers, and that any poetry produced here must naturally be uncouth, misshapen, defiant of all poetic laws or traditions. To such critics Whitman's crudity seems typical of a country where one is in nightly danger of losing his scalp, where arguments are settled by revolvers, and where a hungry man needs only to shoot a buffalo or a bear from his back door. Meanwhile America, the country that planted colleges and churches in a wilderness, that loves liberty because she honors law, that never saw a knight in armor but that has, even in her plainsmen and lumberjacks, a chivalry for woman that would adorn a Bayard,--that real America ignores the bulk of Whitman's work simply because she knows that, of all her poets, he is the least representative of her culture, her ideals, her heroic and aspiring life.

Drum Taps

The second division of Whitman's work is made up chiefly of verses written in war time, to some of which he gave the significant title, Drum Taps. In such poems as as "Beat, Beat, Drums," "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" and "By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame" he reflected the emotional excitement of '61 and the stern days that followed. Note, for example, the startling vigor of "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," which depicts an old negro woman by the roadside, looking with wonder on the free flag which she sees for the first time aloft over marching men:

  Who are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly human,
  With your woolly-white and turban'd head and bare bony feet?
  Why, rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?


Another side of the war is reflected in such poems as "Come up from the Fields, Father," an exquisite picture of an old mother and father receiving the news of their son's death on the battlefield. In the same class belong two fine tributes, "O Captain, My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," written in moments of noble emotion when the news came that Lincoln was dead. The former tribute, with its rhythmic swing and lyric refrain, indicates what Whitman might have done in poetry had he been a more patient workman. So also does "Pioneers," a lyric that is wholly American and Western and exultant:

       Have the elder races halted?
  Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
  We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
       Pioneers! O Pioneers!


Later Poems

In the third class of Whitman's works are the poems written late in life, when he had learned to suppress his blatant egotism and to pay some little attention to poetic form and melody. Though his lines are still crude and irregular, many of them move to a powerful rhythm, such as the impressive "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea," which suggests the surge and beat of breakers on the shore. In others he gives finely imaginative expression to an ideal or a yearning, and his verse rises to high poetic levels. Note this allegory of the spider, an insect that, when adrift or in a strange place, sends out delicate filaments on the air currents until one thread takes hold of some solid substance and is used as a bridge over the unknown:

  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


Among the best of Whitman's works are his poems to death. "Joy, Shipmate, Joy," "Death's Valley," "Darest Thou Now, O Soul," "Last Invocation," "Good-Bye, My Fancy,"--in such haunting lyrics he reflects the natural view of death, not as a terrible or tragic or final event but as a confident going forth to meet new experiences. Other notable poems that well repay the reading are "The Mystic Trumpeter," "The Man-of-War Bird," "The Ox Tamer," "Thanks in Old Age" and "Aboard at a Ship's Helm."

In naming the above works our purpose is simply to lure the reader away from the insufferable Whitmanesque "chant" and to attract attention to a few poems that sound a new note in literature, a note of freedom, of joy, of superb confidence, which warms the heart when we hear it. When these poems are known others will suggest themselves: "Rise, O Days, from Your Fathomless Deeps," "I Hear America Singing," "There was a Boy Went Forth," "The Road Unknown," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." There is magic in such names; but unfortunately in most cases the reader will find only an alluring title and a few scattered lines of poetry; the rest is Whitman.

Democracy

The author of the "Song of Myself" proclaimed himself the poet of democracy and wrote many verses on his alleged subject; but those who read them will soon tire of one whose idea of democracy was that any man is as good, as wise, as godlike as any other. Perhaps his best work in this field is "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood," a patriotic poem read at "Commencement" time in Dartmouth College (1872). There is too much of vainglorious boasting in the poem (for America should be modest, and can afford to be modest), but it has enough of prophetic vision and exalted imagination to make us overlook its unworthy spread-eagleism.

Prayer of Columbus

As a farewell to Whitman one should read what is perhaps his noblest single work, "The Prayer of Columbus." The poem is supposed to reflect the thought of Columbus when, as a worn-out voyager, an old man on his last expedition, he looked out over his wrecked ships to the lonely sea beyond; but the reader may see in it another picture, that of a broken old man in his solitary house at Camden, writing with a trembling hand the lines which reflect his unshaken confidence:

  My terminus near,
  The clouds already closing in upon me,
  The voyage balk'd, the course disputed, lost,
  I yield my ships to Thee
  My hands, my limbs grow nerveless,
  My brain feels rack'd, bewilder'd;
  Let the old timbers part, I will not part,
  I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me,
  Thee, Thee at least I know.

  Is it the prophet's thought I speak, or am I raving?
  What do I know of life? what of myself?
  I know not even my own work past or present;
  Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
  Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
  Mocking, perplexing me.

  And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
  As if some miracle, some hand divine, unseal'd my eyes,
  Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky,
  And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
  And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.


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