“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 …