At last, with mirth and melody and singing, We him may greet with banners, beat of drums,.
Manners like other men, an unstrange gear; His speech not musical, but harsh and broken. Shall sound at first, each line a driven spear; For he shall sing as in the centuries olden,. Before mankind its earliest fire forgot; Yet whoso listens long hears music golden. Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there. We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the.
In point of pure humanity, then, this new song of America is most significant for us. But if stress is laid on Leaves of Grass as a new poetry of love and comradeship at this time of social mis- giving, when rich and poor alike make us keenly feel the need of the spirit of human love, the poetic force and quality Walt Whitman brings to aid him in his task must not be overlooked.
It is not senti- mental valley of the rose and nightingale,—no moonlit dreamland of romance,—whence he draws his inspiration. His poems, whatever critics may say of their art-form and harmonies, are touched with a wider spirit, and in their sweeping music take in the whole scope of Time and Space open to the modern mind.
So, if the command was laid upon Walt Whitman to sing "the life-long love of comrades," which is the song of the new Demo- cracy, it was his, too, to first essay the vaster. Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. Cheerful, for freest action, form'd under the laws divine,. The best way to approach a poet is through his personality; it is only true poets who can bear to be so approached. In attempting to get at the. Judged by the conventional good-society standard of appearance, it is to be feared that Walt Whit- man would have then seemed an alarmingly natural sort of being, just as his poetry judged by approved rhymster's rules seems particularly audacious.
There is a description by W. O'Connor, written ten years later it is true, but which will help us to realise his presence better perhaps than anything else. The dark sombrero he usually wear was, when I saw him just now, the day being warm, held for the moment in his hand; rich light an artist would have chosen lay upon his uncovered head, majestic, large, Homeric, and set upon his strong shoulders with the grandeur of ancient sculpture. I marked the countenence, serene, proud, cheer- ful, florid, grave; the brow seamed with noble wrinkles; the features, massive and handsome, with firm blue eyes; the eyebrows and eyelids especially showing that fulness of arch seldom seen save in the antique busts; the flowing hair and fleecy beard, both very grey, and tempering with a look of age the youthful aspect of one who is but forty-five; the simplicity and purity of his dress, cheap and plain, but spotless, from snowy falling collar to burnished boot, and exhaling faint fragrance; the whole form surrounded with manliness as with a nimbus, and breathing in its perfect health and vigour, the august charm of the strong.
This might seem exaggerated, but this special amount is attested beyond the suspicion even of exaggeration, and it is typical, it will be found, of Walt Whitman's native influence and stimulus throughout. We have the direct testimony of many men of genius to prove this. From the involuntary tribute of Abraham Lincoln,—"Well, he looks like a Man!
In his Specimen Days and Collect , an autobiographical volume of incomparable prose- notes, as well as in many of the poems, Walt Whitman refers constantly to the great influence of his early childish days in their free open-air environment upon his mental and spiritual growth. He was, indeed, wonderfully happy in his early surroundings,—in his vigorous healthy parentage.
The next twelve years, spent variously in street and field, in New York, Brooklyn, New Orleans, and other cities, with long intervals always of country life in the wide sweep of valley and plain and seashore, during which he sounded the teeming life of the fast-growing United States, may be deemed, say Dr. Bucke, the special preparation-time for the writing of the Leaves of Grass. Although, accordingly, one would like to comment at length upon these years of young manhood, it is unnecessary. The reader will find its true history and illustrations in the poems themselves.
In some respects, however, the more detailed accounts possible in prose, given in Specimen Days , casts valuable added light upon this probation-time, and his great zest for certain sides of life.
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His "passion for ferries," for instance, that finds final outcome in the well-known poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," has a character- istic note. Referring to the Fulton Ferry, curiously identified with his life in Brooklyn and New York, he writes:—"Almost daily I crossed in the boats, often up in the pilot-houses, where I could get a full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surround- ings.
What oceanic currents, eddies, underneath; the great tides of humanity also, with ever shifting movements. Indeed, I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems. The river and bay scenery, all about New York island, any time of a fine day—the hurrying, splashing seat-tides—the changing panorama of steamers. To this tumultuous wealth of experience succeeds naturally the preparation, and then at last the publication, of the Leaves of Grass volume, which marks memorably the year A great deal of the matter found in the present volume has been added since the issue of this first edition—a thin royal octavo, generally described as a quarto, of ninety-four pages; but the significance of Whit- man's departure from the old routine of poetry was marked in it in a way that no further addition could make more striking.
It is not strange, therefore, that the book gained scant recogni- tion. It was not until Emerson sent to Walt Whitman what was really his first recognition from the literary world, the now famous letter of greeting, that the book became at all known. A characteristic passage or two from this letter may be given:—"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 give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things,. But at the war's end it was not the same robust, virile man who came out of that hospital tent. Bucke, "from a young to an old man. Under the constant and intense moral strain to which he was subjected. The doctors called his complaint "hospital malaria,' and perhaps it was; but that splendid physique was sapped by labour, watching, and still more by the emotions, dreads, deaths, uncertainties of three.
There is no need perhaps to dwell here upon the story of his stupid dismissal from one office by a certain benighted official because of the alleged immorality of Leaves of Grass , though it was this that provoked W. O'Connor to his remarkable, if rather combative, manifesto on the poet's behalf, entitled "The Good Grey Poet. It must be kept in mind, however, that this was only an extreme instance of the social and literary persecution which was levelled at him from the first.
But there were critics who, instead of meeting with courtesy this poetic attempt to raise noble functions, long ignobly tainted with obscenity, to their true dignity and natural relation in the great scheme of earth and heaven, attacked him with incredible viciousness and rancour. As, however, considerations of Mrs. Grundy have caused the omission of the poems objected to in the present volume, there is no need to dwell further upon the matter here.
There are many delightful glimpses to be got in John Burroughs's Notes , and in his capital little. In spite of light heart and cheery temper his ill-health increased upon him, and culminated at last in a parylitic seizure, in February , from which he had almost recovered when in May the same year his mother died somewhat suddenly in Camden, New Jersey, in his presence. He left Washington for good, and took up.
A briefest backward glance through the history of letters teaches another conclusion; constantly, it will be found, the order of poetic expression is changing and developing. But we do not need to make any far historical excursion for light on the subject: the experience of almost every poet will show us the simple rationale of the matter. The first literary instinct of the young writer is always to transcend the traditional means of utter- ance; the conventional forms have lost their vital response to the subject, he feels; they want re-adjusting, renewing. As he goes on he reconciles in time the new need with the old equipment, bringing in as much fresh force and quality as his genius and energy can satisfactorily compass.
This achievement of renovated modes of utterance is of course largely dependent upon the new condi- tions of life, and therefore of literary subject-matter, amid which he is placed. But what must be specially remarked, it is not usually from too ardent a renascence of words and their art forms that a writer fails in the translation of life, but usually from his being overawed by tradition.
Convention is the curse of poetry, as it is the curse of every- thing else, in which at a second remove the outward show can be made to pass muster for the inward reality. Now, the hastiest glimpse at the conditions under which a poet who has attempted to deal with the whole scope of the new civilisation, and with all that it implies of new science, new philosophy,.
Poetry of the last few decades in England has occupied itself mainly with archaic or purely ideal subjects, with specialist experiments in psychology and morbid anatomy, or the familiar stock material of fantasy and sentiment. For these a certain art- glamour, so to speak,—a certain metrical remove, —is required as a rule, which can be best attained, perhaps, by the fine form and dainty colour of rhyming verse.
And there will always, let us hope, be those who will continue to supply this artistic poetry, bringing as it does so much inestimable enchantment to the everyday life. Up to the pre- sent it may be that this poetry has fairly satisfied the need of the time,—a time occupied too much with its processes of material civilisation and wealth-acquirement to attend very truly to the ideal. But standing now on the verge of a new era—an era of democratic ascendancy—it may be well to ask ourselves, even in conserva- tive England, whether, seeing the immense poetic need of a time dangerously possessed of new and tremendous forces, this poetry of archaic form and.
It may seem that a dangerous comparison has been invited in these instances, but it is one that must be faced straightforwardly.
The name of Burns suggests a solution of the whole matter. He at any rate sang out of an abounding sympathy with, and knowledge of, the popular need of his day,—. Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,. But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the. I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in. Thinking on this suggestion, first of all from its purely literary side, we are brought face to face at once with problems of extreme difficulty, which have been suggestively treated by William Sloane Kennedy and other American writers recently, but which it will be rather attempted to roughly state than to solve here.
The whole of Whitman's depart- ure in poetry is concerned with the vexed question of prose and verse, and the proper functions of the two modes of expression. Absolutely stated, prose is the equivalent of speech in all its range; verse, of song. But it is evident at once that the matter does not rest here. In a hundred ways needs arise which cannot be met by a strict adherence to this line of demarcation, as when, for instance, an elevation of utterance is required that yet does not, properly speaking, arise into pure song.
In the right adjustment then of the relations betwixt prose and verse lies the difficult secret of the art of words. Whitman noting in his literary work the restricting effect of exact rhyme measures, sought to attain a new poetic mode by a return to the rhythmic move- ment of prose, with what signal result may be seen by a sympathetic dive almost anywhere into.
Thinking on Walt Whitman's initiative in the larger sense, and turning over the Leaves of Grass. The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of. The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I. I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the. I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each. Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust.
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that. It is not possible here to go much into detail in speaking of the great wealth of poetry to be found in Leaves of Grass. Perhaps it is best for the uninitiated reader to begin with the "Inscriptions," then turn to the section called "Calamus," Calamus being a sort of American grass which is used here to typify comradeship and love! Proceeding then, turn to the more simply tuneful summons of "Pioneers! O Pioneers! Many of Whitman's most characteristic poems have necessarily been omitted from a volume like the present, intended for an average popular English audience—an audience which, be it confessed, from the actual experiment of the present editor, is apt to find much of Leaves of Grass as unintelli- gible as Sordello , not without a certain excuse haply in some instances.
The method of selection adopted in preparing the volume has certainly not been scientific or very profoundly critical. The limitations of the average run of readers have been, as far as they could be surmised, the limitations of the book, and upon the head of that unaccountable class, who have in the past been guilty of not a few poets' and prophets' maltreatment, rest any odium the thorough-paced disciple of Walt Whitman may attach to the present venture.
For those who wish to thoroughly apprehend the Leaves of Grass it will be necessary, let it be said at once, to study them in their complete forms, which is to be obtained in the edition of Messrs.