“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:
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.
His egoism—the egoism of this persona not contained between his hat and his boots—is companionable; he urges it upon others; the “you” of his poem is as important, as vivacious, as the “I”:
Who goes there! Hankering, gross, mystical, nude?
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
What is a man anyhow: What am I? and what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.
His egoism is suffused and tempered with a strenuous empathy. Egoism is scarcely an adequate word; the unabridged Webster’s dictionary supplies, with the warning Rare, the word egotheism.” The hero of “Song of Myself” is a god, whose palms covet continents, but also a god who enters into the egos of the suffering: “I am the hounded slave…I wince at the bite of the dogs…I am the mashed fireman with breastbone broken…I am the man…I suffered…I was there.” He is open to stranger, more ecstatic sufferings: a soprano singing with an orchestra forces him to cry:
I am exposed…cut by bitter and poisoned hail,
Steeped amid honeyed morphine
…my windpipe squeezed in the fakes of death,
Let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.
The I-centered universe has a geometrical property which Whitman does not blink at; each phenomenon, as it moves into the ego’s sensational field, is absolute; there is no relativity, almost no form:
To be, in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and 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.
In another poem, “There Was a Child Went Forth,” he reaches the rim of solipsism, the unprovability of the real existence of anything but the perceiving ego:
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks what are they?
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he triumphantly, acceptingly writes,
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are,
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul.
In this enveloping, this merge, to cite one of his favorite concepts, with what Emerson called the “other me,” the animal health of the perceiver suffuses the witnessed universe in benevolence and confidence; the obligatory optimism of American enterprise has found its theology, a panoramic egotheism. And an ideal equality is extended not only to the persons but to things; in the ecstasy of consciousness,
The insignificant is as big to me as any,
What is less or more than a touch?
The perfect democracy of stimuli—“Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile”—gives Whitman’s tireless catalogues at their best a beautiful surprisingness of sequence, and an unexpected tenderness of precision as the love freely focuses now here, now there:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of a wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with de- pressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
Now, do I, the “you” among millions of “yous” to whom Whitman addresses his giant hymn, find it, a long century later, as uplifting, liberating, and aesthetically pleasing as he intended it? My answer would be 85 percent affirmative; the attempt is broad and even inflationary, but the tools are sharp, the details are many and vivid, the transitions between sections are brilliantly swift and vital. An instinctive American realism, an almost mischievous alertness that is the opposite of complacency, balances his monistic, Hindu side. His poetry is a luminous wind that bears upon it small distinct seeds that stick like burrs. We are surprised by many of the things that find their way into “Song of Myself.” The words “baseball” and “photograph” are in it, for instance, as of 1855, and four years before Darwin’s Origin of Species a rather exact geological passage:
My embryo has never been torpid
…nothing could overlay it;
For it the nebula cohered to an orb
…the long slow strata piled to rest on it…Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
But what foremost relieves the egoism of this long song is Whitman’s unfeigned curiosity about other people, and his heartfelt as well as doctrinaire sympathy for them. The vague wandering speaker of “Song of Myself” is a much less overbearing personality than Walt Whitman later became; he is permeated with others. His poem is haunted by human vignettes long and short, cameo portraits as mysteriously specific as:
The snag-toothed hostler with red hair redeeming sins past and to come,
Selling all he possesses and travel- ling on foot to fee lawyers for his brother and sit by him while he is tried for forgery…
His preface stated, of the poet, that “He sees health for himself in being one of the mass…. The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” More pungently still, he should “stand up for the stupid and crazy.” His own irregular and unfortunate family, which included an idiot brother he shared a bed with for years, no doubt figured in his empathetic compassion for the lowly and even the criminal. A short poem of 1860, entitled “To a Common Prostitute,” contains the magnificent assurance, “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.” The previous line, we might note, reads, “Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,” and though his exact sexual activity was well hidden by secrecy and fantasy both, we might speculate that the androgynous nature and homosexual passions boasted of in the poems did expose him to lower strata of society where an uxorious family man would not have felt compelled to mingle. Even his celebrated nursing of wounded soldiers in Washington had a privately gratifying aspect; to his mother he wrote. “It is the most affecting thing you ever see, the lots of poor, sick, and wounded young men that depend so much, in one word or another, upon my petting or soothing or feeding….” The dependency, one feels, flowed two ways.
In a letter to two ex-patients he felt it of interest to confide:
My health, strength, personal beauty, etc. are, I am happy to inform you, without diminution, but on the contrary quite the reverse. I weigh full 220 pounds avoirdupois, yet still retain my usual perfect shape—a regular model. My beard, neck, etc., are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever.
Among the autograph documents in the Morgan Library in New York exists an ostensibly disinterested introduction Whitman himself penned to the English edition of Leaves of Grass, so shameless it was never used. The second paragraph reads,
The Poet is now in his 49th [xed out], 53rd [xed out], 62nd years, & is pourtrayed by one who knows him intimately, as tall in stature, with shapely limbs, slow of movement, florid & clear face, bearded & gray, blue eyes, an expression of great equanimity, of decided presence & singular personal magnetism.
And then there is, to acknowledge, the relative unconvincingness and melodrama of many human tableaux and visitations in Leaves of Grass; for all his professed ardor for humanity, the hermit’s verses of Emily Dickinson show more appetite for the grits and quiddities of human psychology than Whitman’s paeans. Too often, as he suffers with the slave, sweats with the midwife, marries with the trapper, lusts with the spinster, and so on, we are reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s jibe,
As soon as Walt knew a thing, he assumed a One identity with it. If he knew that an Eskimo sat in a kyak, immediately there was Walt being little and yellow and greasy, sitting in a kyak.
A paradox of democratic mobility seems to be that our imaginative access to other persons, force it though we will, is less than under a clearly demarcated class system. We slip away from the enlightening juxtapositions a more settled and role-conscious society generates. Whitman is at heart rather shy, less a poet of souls than of landscapes. Having proposed that “a kelson of the creation is love,” he instinctively turned his eye, in the next rather desolate and very American lines, to inhuman nature:
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.
But Whitman never ceased willing a Oneness with his fellow-man, and it redeems his solipsism from selfishness and smallness. “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is”—but incessant creative recourse to one’s self ends, as youthful illusions of infinite capacity fade, in an arid emptiness and a desperate lunge over the frontier of sanity. Such a doom, so frequent among poets after Whitman, was avoided by him, who in the next line warned, “And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in a shroud.”
Along with his magnanimity there went an elusive quality I can only call good humor—a kind of cloudlessness of atmosphere wherein what shadows exist serve to model palpable truths. This translucence, free of personal miasma, is possessed, I believe, by the noblest literature always, and is what leads us to turn to it out of the petty depressions and defeats of our lives. We feel it in the tone of words more than in their content—in the simplicity of the assertion:
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
in the comedy of the famous passage on animals:
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals….
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discuss- ing their duty to God….
in the surreal beauty of his farewell:
I depart as air…I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
The reflective and judicious “Backward Glance” Whitman composed for the 1888 edition—the so-called Death-bed edition—of Leaves of Grass admits, “That I have not gain’d the acceptance of my own time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future…is all probably no more than I ought to have expected.” This surprises us, for our impression is, ninety years later, of a triumphant acceptance, of a vocation unfalteringly pursued from total obscurity to popular adoration. He was the first American artist to flaunt, in his role as artist, conscious courage. It appeared, at the midpoint of his life, a blithe courage, “as insouciant as the movements of animals,” but surely was deliberate and longer meditated than most apparitions in the sparse skies of genius. By courage I mean not merely that of a novel and easy-to-ridicule style, or the courage of his candor and his scorn for the tame, but the courage it took to imagine an audience for himself, to assert that in this hurrying, culturally thin land there was a place for the poet, a vast place, and that he, Walt Whitman, would occupy it. Like many of his radiant generation, that stretches like a long summer day from Hawthorne to Emily Dickinson, he borrowed courage from Emerson; but Whitman’s is courage with no accent of the lectern, and small flavor of the stoic. His career stands in some contrast to that of his exact, and perhaps even more gifted, contemporary Melville, who, after his youthful best-selling accounts of his South Seas adventures, recoiled from the public neglect of his masterpiece into an invisibility that lasted to 1920. At the center of the Whitman storm of posture and exhortation lies a curious tranquillity, a reserve of reasonableness. The self he celebrated included a capacity for self-appraisal. His “Backward Glance” contains some very pragmatic sentences: “Behind all else that can be said, I consider ‘Leaves of Grass’ and its theory experimental—as, in the deepest sense, I consider our American republic itself to be, with its theory.”
I find that calm sentence thrilling, as I do the following: “Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only.” The mystery of Me proclaimed, the “other me” can be sung in its clean reality, and real things assigned the sacred status that in former times was granted mysteries. If there is a distinctive “American realism,” its metaphysics are Whitman’s.
February 9, 1978