Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville seem to me the best poets of the nineteenth century here in America. Melville's poetry has been grotesquely underestimated, but of course it is only in the last four or five years that it has been much read; in the long run, in spite of the awkwardness and amateurishness of so much of it, it will surely be thought well of. (In the short run it will probably be thought entirely too well of. Melville is a great poet only in the prose of Moby Dick.) Dickinson's poetry has been thoroughly read, and well though undifferentiatingly loved -- after a few decades or centuries almost everybody will be able to see through Dickinson to her poems. But something odd has happened to the living changing part of Whitman's reputation: nowadays it is people who are not particularly interested in poetry, people who say that they read a poem for what it says, not for how it says it, who admire Whitman most. Whitman is often written about, either approvingly or disapprovingly, as if he were the Thomas Wolfe of nineteenth century democracy, the hero of a de Mille movie about Walt Whitman. (People even talk about a war in which Walt Whitman and Henry James chose up sides, to begin with, and in which you and I will go on fighting till the day we die.) All this sort of thing, and all the bad poetry that there of course is in Whitman -- for any poet has written enough bad poetry to scare away anybody -- has helped to scare away from Whitman most 'serious readers of modern poetry.' They do not talk of his poems, as a rule, with any real liking or knowledge. Serious readers, people who are ashamed of not knowing all Hopkins by heart, are not at all ashamed to say, 'I don't really know Whitman very well.' This may harm Whitman in your eyes, they know, but that is a chance that poets have to take. Yet 'their' Hopkins, that good critic and great poet, wrote about Whitman, after seeing five or six of his poems in a newspaper review: 'I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a very pleasant confession.' And Henry James, the leader of 'their' side in that awful imaginary war of which I spoke, once read Whitman to Edith Wharton (much as Mozart used to imitate, on the piano, the organ) with such power and solemnity that both sat shaken and silent; it was after this reading that James expressed his regret at Whitman's 'too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.' Almost all the most 'original and advanced' poets and critics and readers of the last part of the nineteenth century thought Whitman as original and advanced as themselves, in manner as well as in matter. Can Whitman really be a sort of Thomas Wolfe or Carl Sandburg or Robinson Jeffers or Henry Miller -- or a sort of Balzac of poetry, whose every part is crude but whose whole is somehow great? He is not, nor could he be; a poem, like Pope's spider, 'lives along the line,' and all the dead lines in the world will not make one live poem. As Blake says, 'all sublimity is founded on minute discrimination,' and it is in these 'minute particulars' of Blake's that any poem has its primary existence.
But it is not in individual lines and phrases, but in passages of some length, that Whitman is at his best, In the following quotation Whitman has something difficult to express, something that there are many formulas, all bad, for expressing; he expresses it with complete success, in language of the most dazzling originality:
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles, And that we call Being.
One hardly knows what to point at -- everything works. But wrenches and did not know I possess'd them; the incredible it sails me, I dab with bare feet; lick'd by the indolent, steep'd amid honey'd morphine; my windpipe throttled in fakes honey'dof death honey'dof- - no wonder Crane admired Whitman! This originality as absolute in its way as that of Berlioz' orchestration, is often at Whitman's command:
If you did not believe Hopkins' remark about Whitman, that gay gang of blackguards ought to shake you. Whitman share Hopkins' passion for 'dappled' effects, but he slides in and our of them with ambiguous swiftness. And he has at his command a language of the calmest and most prosaic reality one that seems to do no more than present:
our knowing how it was done; but if we look at the lines again we see the gauze, silently, youngster, red-faced, busby, peer- dabbled - not that this is all we see. 'Present! present!' James; these are presented, put down side by side to form a little 'view of life' from the cradle to the last bloody floor of the bedroom. Very often the things presented form nothing but a list:
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm'd case, (He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his
The malform'd limbs are tied to the surgeon's table, What is removed drops horribly in a pail...
It is only a list -- but what a list! And how delicately, in what different ways -- likeness and opposition and continuation an climax and anticlimax -- the transitions are managed, when ever Whitman wants to manage them. Notice them in the next quotation, another 'mere list.'The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly, The opium-eater reclines with rigid bead and just-open'd lips, The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck ...
The first line is joined to the third by unrumples and draggle white dress and shawl; the second to the third by rigid head bobs, tipsy, neck; the first to the second by slowly, just-open'd and the slowing- down of time in both states. And occasionally one of these lists is metamorphosed into something we have no name for; the man who would call the next quotation a mere list -- anybody will feel this -would boil his babies up for soap
There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter. the serious truth, the complete realization of these last lines make us remember that few poets have shown more of the tears of things, and the joys of things, and of the reality beneath either tears or joy. Even Whitman's most general or political statements sometimes are good: everybody knows his 'When liberty goes out of place it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go, / It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last'; these sentences about the United States just before the Civil War may be less familiar:
How well, with what firmness and dignity and command, Whitman does such passages! And Whitman's doubts that he has done them or anything else well -- ah, there is nothing he does better:
Whitman says once that the 'look of the bay mare shame silliness out of me.' This is true -- sometimes it is true; but more- often the silliness and affection and cant and exaggeration at there shamelessly, the Old Adam that was in Whitman from the beginning and the awful new one that he created to keep company. But as he says, 'I know perfectly well my own egotism, / Know my omnivorous lines and must not write an less.' He says over and over that there are in him good an bad, wise and foolish, anything at all and its antonym, and he is telling the truth; there is in him almost everything in the world, so that one responds to him, willingly or unwillingly almost as one does to the world, that world which makes the hairs of one's flesh stand up, which seems both evil beyond at] rejection and wonderful beyond any acceptance. We cannot help seeing that there is something absurd about any judgement we make of its whole -- for there is no 'point of view' at which we can stand to make the judgment, and the moral categories that mean most to us seem no more to apply to its whole than our spatial or temporal or causal categories seem to apply I its beginning or its end. (But we need no arguments to make our judgments seem absurd -- we feel their absurdity without argument.) In some like sense Whitman is a world, a was with, here and there, systems blazing at random out of the darkness. Only an innocent and rigidly methodical mind we reject it for this disorganization, particularly since there are it, here and there, little systems as beautifully and astonish- ingly organized as the rings and satellites of Saturn:I understand the large hearts of heroes,
forms have been, of how much Tennyson has had to leave out, even in those discursive poems where he is trying to put everything in. Whitman's poems represent his world and himself much more satisfactorily than Tennyson's do his. In the past a few poets have both formed and represented, each in the highest degree; but in modern times what controlling, organizing, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman's, a world that so plainly is the world? Of all the modern poets he has, quantitatively speaking, 'the most comprehensive soul' -- and, qualitatively, a most comprehensive and comprehending one, with charities and concessions and qualifications that are rare in any time.
'Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself,' wrote Whitman, as everybody remembers, and this is not naive, or something he got from Emerson, or a complacent pose. When you organize one of the contradictory elements out of your work of art, you are getting rid not just of it, but of the contradiction of which it was a part; and then it is the contradictions in works of art which make them able to represent to us -- as logical and methodical generalizations cannot -our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions. In Whitman we do not get the controlled, compressed, seemingly concordant contradictions of the great lyric poets, of a poem like, say, Hardy's 'During Wind and Ram'; Whitman's contradictions are sometimes announced openly, but are more often scattered at random throughout the poems. For instance: Whitman specializes in ways of saying that there is in some sense (a very Hegelian one, generally) no evil -- he says a hundred times that evil is not Real; but he also specializes in making lists of the evil of the world, lists of an unarguable reality. After his minister has recounted 'the rounded catalogue divine complete,' Whitman comes home and puts down what has been left out: 'the countless (nineteen twentieths) low and evil, crude and savage ... the barren soil, the evil men, the slag and hideous rot.' He ends another such catalogue with the plain unexcusing 'All these -- all meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent.' Whitman offered himself to everybody, and said brilliantly and at length what a good thing he was offering:
just for oddness, characteristicalness, differentness, what more could you ask in a letter of recommendation? (Whitman sounds as if he were recommending a house -- haunted, but what foundations!) But after a few pages he is oddly different:
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary, Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest Looking with side curved bead curious what will come next, Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
Tamburlaine is already beginning to sound like Hamlet: the employer feels uneasily, 'Why, I might as well hire myself . . .' And, a few pages later, Whitman puts down in ordinary-sized type, in the middle of the page, this warning to any new person drawn toward me:
Having wonderful dreams, telling wonderful lies, was a temptation Whitman could never resist; but telling the truth was a temptation he could never resist, either. When you buy him you know what you are buying. And only an innocent and solemn and systematic mind will condemn him for his contradictions: Whitman's catalogues of evils represent realities, and his denials of their reality represent other realities, of feeling and intuition and desire. If he is faithless to logic, to Reality As It Is -- whatever that is -- he is faithful to the feel of things, to reality as it seems; this is all that a poet has to be faithful to, and philosophers have been known to leave logic and Reality for it.Whitman is more coordinate and parallel than anybody, is the poet of parallel present participles, of twenty verbs joined by a single subject: all this helps to give his work its feeling of raw hypnotic reality, of being that world which also streams over us joined only by ands, until we supply the subordinating conjunctions; and since as children we see the ands and not the becauses, this method helps to give Whitman some of the freshness of childhood. How inexhaustibly interesting the world is in Whitman! Arnold all his life kept wishing that he could see the world 'with a plainness as near, as flashing' as that with which Moses and Rebekah and the Argonauts saw it. He asked with elegiac nostalgia, 'Who can see the green earth any more / As she was by the sources of Time?' -- and all the time there was somebody alive who saw it so, as plain and near and flashing, and with a kind of calm, pastoral, Biblical dignity and elegance as well, sometimes. The thereness and suchness of the world are incarnate in Whitman as they are in few other writers. They might have put on his tombstone WALT WHITMAN: HE HAD HIS NERVE. He is the rashest, the most inexplicable and unlikely -- the most impossible, one wants to say -- of poets. He somehow is in a class by himself, So that one compares him with other poets about as readily as one compares Alice with other books. (Even his free verse has a completely different effect from anybody else's.) Who would think of comparing him with Tennyson or Browning or Arnold or Baudelaire? -it is Homer, or the sagas, or something far away and long ago, that comes to one's mind only to be dismissed; for sometimes Whitman is epic, just as Moby Dick is, and it surprises us to be able to use truthfully this word that we have misused so many times. Whitman is grand, and elevated, and comprehensive, and real with an astonishing reality, and many other things -- the critic points at his qualities in despair and wonder, all method failing, and simply calls them by their names. And the range of these qualities is the most extraordinary thing of all. We can surely say about him, 'He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again' -- and wish that people had seen this and not tried to be his like: one Whitman is miracle enough, and when he comes again it will be the end of the world. I have said so little about Whitman's faults because they are so plain: baby critics who have barely learned to complain of the lack of ambiguity in Peter Rabbit can tell you all that is wrong with Leaves of Grass. But a good many of my readers must have felt that it is ridiculous to write an essay about the obvious fact that Whitman is a great poet. It is ridiculous -- just as, in 1851, it would have been ridiculous for anyone to write an essay about the obvious fact that Pope was no 'classic of our prose' but a great poet. Critics have to spend half their time reiterating whatever ridiculously obvious things their age or the critics of their age have found it necessary to forget: they say despairingly, at parties, that Wordsworth is a great poet, and won't bore you, and tell Mr. Leavis that Milton is a great poet whose deposition hasn't been accomplished with astonishing ease by a few words from Eliot... There is something essentially ridiculous about critics, anyway: what is good is good without our saying so, and beneath all our majesty we know this.
Let me finish by mentioning another quality of Whitman's -
a quality, delightful to me, that I have said nothing of. If
someday a tourist notices, among the ruins of New York City, a copy of Leaves of Grass, and stops and
picks it up and reads some lines in it, she will be able to say to
herself: 'How very American! If he and his country had not
exisited, it would have been impossible to imagine them.'