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Walt Whitman: Ego and Art

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it”: thus Walt Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass concludes, and the twelve decades since this brave assertion was launched upon the air by an obscure Brooklyn journalist have given the proof. Whitman is not only the first name that comes to mind when we think of an American poet, but he has done what not even Shakespeare in his nation’s literature achieved: he has appropriated to his own image the very idea of poetry.

Poetry is truth, he claims; it is facts and candor; poetry is free and unbuttoned and inclusive and fearless; its matter is “the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves”; it is “performance disdaining the trivial.” Whitman wrenched from American poetry the possibility of its being a mere craft, and thrust upon it the duty to be celebration and prophecy, to be, no less, a verbal appropriation of the universe. Further, he thrust upon America the idea that it was, this crass green nation, poetic. “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States are essentially the greatest poem.”

Such notions were not new with Whitman. Six years before the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Longfellow had a character in Kavanagh say, “We want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies.” And eighteen years before, in addressing the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge, Emerson had employed a ringing recourse to the first person singular that might be Whitman’s:

The world—the shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I run eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next to me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech. I pierce its order; I dissipate its fear; I dispose of it within the circuit of my expanding life. So much only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion.

As the peroration ends, Emerson throws out the challenge to the young scholars of his audience:

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe…. If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him…. A nation of men will for the first time exist….

If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide. The world in which Emerson, and the American artist, finds himself is not one subdued to human uses by previous generations but a dumb abyss, a wilderness radically strange, in which has been planted the other radical strangeness of one’s self. Emerson frames the problem in enduring terms: the hunt is for power, the means to power is authenticity, and authenticity begins with the brute self. When this prescription was filled, Emerson to his credit recognized the fact: he gave to an unsolicited copy of Whitman’s self-published, self-peddled, self-reviewed, and otherwise unnoticed volume the most generous and prescient puff in American literary history:

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 & 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 & stingy Nature…. I give you joy of your free & 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, & 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.

Yet the foreground of the career remains a mystery; until the publication of Leaves of Grass when he was thirty-six, Whitman showed little promise. Perhaps a long sojourn within banality had to precede his explosive celebration of the mundane. A believer, it would seem, in reincarnation, he invented an incarnation for himself, a persona that gave him, in Emerson’s repeated word, power. From this incarnation date a number of ideas with us still, to wit:

The Poet as Bard
The Writer as Egoist
The Writer as Celebrity
The Poem as Confession
Poetry as Power, as Simple Reality

In his preface Whitman wrote, among many words, these:

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity…to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art…. Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances. The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor….

Such boasts are hopes. Whitman is a publicist in advance of his product, a theoretician whose influence, traceable in the styles and aspirations of such disparate moderns as Hemingway and Wolfe, Dos Passos and Mailer, appears wider than that of his poetry, though its bardic clarion echoes not only in such singers of the long line as Sandburg and Ginsberg but more involuted bardic types like Robert Lowell and Hart Crane. Whitman added candor to the list of poetic virtues, and because of his own endured calumny, loss of a civil service job, and—that definitive evidence of high-minded authorship—a change of publishers. He furthermore, with long-range results even more mixed, placed ambitiousness in the canon of artistic virtues, enrolled his own art in the American expansionism that Thoreau had pointedly turned his back on, and has bewitched subsequent generations with an ideal of all-inclusiveness, with an intriguing, self-defeating image of “vast oceanic tides” of feeling and notation that will make the poet nothing less than “the age trans-figured.” The totem-image of the poet that Whitman prophesied and seemed to embody still lies at the center of American poetry, for any who attempt to unriddle it, a kind of Excalibur that none but the pure of heart can seize and wield.

The nameless long poem that is placed first in the first edition of Leaves of Grass announced Whitman’s star with thunder, and has been called by Malcolm Cowley “Whitman’s greatest work, perhaps his one completely realized work, and one of the great poems of modern times.” Cowley persuasively prefers the first, unrevised text—quoted here—but I cannot share his dislike for the eventual title, “Song of Myself.” Whitman did not call the poem this until the edition of 1881, after titling it in earlier editions “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” and then, quite baldly, “Walt Whitman.” The final title has ample justification in the text, beginning with the famous first line, “I celebrate myself,” and echoing such as

The feeling of health…the full- noon trill…the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun


And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is


What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me.

The title proclaims, that is, the superb subject of the poem, the exultant egoism which only an American could have voiced. By mid-nineteenth century the creed of American individualism was ascendant: the communal conscience of the Puritan villages was far behind, and the crushing personal burdens of industrialism were yet to be sharply felt. Our political institutions and our still vast unexploited territories permitted the enterprising individual an illusion of unlimited importance and sublime potential untasted since the Garden of Eden. Whitman developed a religious philosophy out of this economic and political aura. He was no doubt inspired by a personal experience, sexual or mystical, belonging to the early 1850s; but experiences and impressions of his Long Island childhood and Brooklyn manhood are the vocabulary, intelligible to most of his countrymen, in which he couches his message, the majestic and multitudinous yet unified miracle of being oneself.

By egoism is meant not the egotist’s overvaluation of his own attributes—though Whitman was absurdly vain about his own body—but a recognition of each man’s immersion in a unique and unexchangeable ego which is, in a sense, all he’s got, but something he indeed does, short of madness and the grave, have. This has been true for all men in all times, but only an American, perhaps, could have proclaimed it as a discovery, as an astounding thing. Henry James, in his youthful yet of course not unintelligent review of Drum-Taps, accused Whitman of a “plan to adapt the scheme of the universe to your own limitations.” He also called the volume “an offence against art,” as if—the deficiencies of Drum-Taps aside—such a plan of adaption was not in fact artful. The Whitmanesque pose is a thorough artifact, and, the duty of the artist being to make a virtue of necessity, Whitman is existentially artful at a depth far beyond the easy rhymers with whom James felt at home.

In 1855 Tennyson was writing, in his “Song of the Brook,”

For men may come and men may go, But I go on forever.

Whitman inverted the terms of the old, tired memento mori by announcing that brooks and all such insensate, recurrent phenomena are dependent for their existences upon the individual human consciousness:

And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow….
Through me the afflatus surging and surging…through me the current and index.

The embrace of apprehension sanctifies all that the “soul” takes into itself:

I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul…and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am….
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe
   …and am not contained 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.
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
They do not know how immortal, but I know.

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