Walt Whitman And His Poems, New York Dispatch (Article, 1855)

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From the United States Review

WALT WHITMAN AND HIS POEMS.

An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his postures strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. We shall cease shamming and be what we really are. We shall start an athletic and defiant literature. We realize now how it is, and what was most lacking. The interior American republic shall also be declared free and independent.

For all our intellectual people, followed by their books, poems, novels, essays, editorials, lectures, tuitions, and criticisms, dress by London and Paris modes, receive what is received there, obey the authorities, settle disputes by the old tests, keep out of rain and sun, retreat to the shelter of houses and schools, trim their hair, shave, touch not the earth barefoot, and enter not the sea except in a complete bathing dress. One sees unmistakably genteel persons, traveled, college-learned, used to be served by servants, conversing without heat or vulgarity, supported on chairs, or walking through handsomely carpeted parlors, or along shelves bearing well-bound volumes, and walls adorned with curtained and collared portraits, and china things, and nick-nacks. But where in American literature is the first show of America? Where are the gristle and beards, and broad breasts, and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that souls of the people love? Where is the tremendous outdoors of these States? Where is the majesty of the federal mother, seated with more than antique grace, calm, just, indulgent to her brood of children, calling them around her, regarding the little and the large and the younger and the older with perfect impartiality? Where is the vehement growth of our cities? Where is the spirit of the strong rich life of the American mechanic, farmer, sailor, hunter, and miner? Where is the huge composite of all other nations, cast in a fresher and brawnier matrix, passing adolescence, and needed this day live and arrogant to lead the marches of this world?

Self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature, talking like a man unaware that there was ever hitherto such a production as a book, or such a being as a writer. Every move of his has the free play of the muscle of one who never knew what it was to feel that he stood in the presence of a superior. Every word that falls from his mouth shows silent disdain. Every phrase announces new laws; not once do his lips unclose except in comformity with them. With light and rapid touch he first indicates in the prese the principles of the foundation of a race of poets so deeply to spring from the American people, and become ingrained through them, that their Presidents shall not be the common referees so much as that great race of poets shall. He proceeds himself to exemplify this new school and set models for their expression and range of subjects. He makes audacious and native use of his own body and soul. He must recreate poetry with the elements always at hand. He must imbue it with himself as he is, disorderly, fleshy, and sensual, a lover of things, yet a lover of men and women above the whole of other objects of the universe. His work is to be achieved by unusual methods. Neither classic or romantic is he, nor a materialist any more than a spiritualist. Not a whisper comes out of him of the old stock talk and rhyme of poetry--not the first recognition of gods or goddesses, or Greece or Rome. No breath of Europe, or her monarchies or priestly conventions, or her notions of gentlemen and ladies, founded on the idea of saste, seems ever to have fanned his face, or been inhaled into his lungs. But in their stead pour vast and fluid the fresh mentality of this mighty age, and the realities of this mighty continent, and the sciences and inventions and discoveries of the present world. Not geology, nor mathematics, nor chemistry, nor navigation, nor astronomy, nor anatomy, nor phrenology, nor engineering, is more true to itself than Walt Whitman is true to them. They and the other sciences underlie his whole superstructure. In the beauty of the work of the poet, he affirms, are the tuft and final applause of science.

Affairs, then, are this man's poems. He will still inject Nature through civilization. The movement of his verses is the sweeping movement of great currents of living people, with a general government and state and municipal governments, courts, commerce, manufactures, arsenals, and aqueducts and police and gas--myriads of travelers arriving and departing--newspapers, music, elections, and all the features and processes of the nineteenth century in the wholesomest race and the only siable forms of politics at present upon the earth. Along his words spread teh broad impartialities of the United States. No innovations must be permitted on the stern severities of our liberty and equality. Undecked, also, is this poet with sentimentalism, or jingle, or nice conceits, or flowery similes. He appears in his poems surrounded by women and children, and by young men, and by common objects and qualities. He gives to each just what belongs to it, neither more nor less. That person nearest him, that person he ushers hand in hand with himself. Duly take places in his flowing procession, and step to the sounds of the newer and larger music, the essences of American things, and past and present events--the enormous diversity of temperature and agriculture and mines--the tribes of red aborigines--the weatherbeaten vessels entering new ports, or making landings on rocky coasts--the first settlements north and south--the rapid stature and impatience of outside control--the sturdy defiance of '76, and the war and peace, and the leadership of Washington, and the formation of the constitution--the union always surrounded by blatherers, and always calm and impregnable--the perpetual coming of immigrants--the wharf-hemmed cities and superior marrine--the unsurveyed interior--the loghouses and clearings, and wild animals, and hunters and trappers--the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging--the endless gestation of new states--the convening of Congress every December, the members coming from all climates, and from the uttermost parts--the noble character of the free American workman and workwoman--the fierceness of the people when well-roused--the ardor of their friendships--the large amativeness--the equality of the female with the male--the Yankee swap--the New York fireman and the target excursion--the southern plantation life--the character of the north east and of the north-west and south west--and the character of American and the American people everywhere. For these the old usages of poets afford Walt Whitman no means sufficiently fit and free, and he rejects the old usages. The style of the bard that is waited for is to be [transcendent] and new. It is to be indirect, and not direct, or descriptive or epic. Its quality is to go through these to much more. Let the age and wars (he says) of other nations be chanted, and their eras and characters be illustrated, and that finish the verse. Not so (he continues) the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista. Here comes one among the well-beloved stonecutters, and announces himself, and plans with decision and science, and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where they are now no solid forms.

The style of these poems, therefore, is simply their own style, new-born and red. Nature may have given the hint to the author of "Leaves of Grass," but there exists no book or fragment of a book which can have given the hint to them. All beauty, he says, comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. His rhythm and uniformity he will conceal in the roots of his verses, not to be seen of themselves, but to break forth loosely as lilacs on a bush, and take shaps compact as the shapes of melons, or chestnuts, or pears.

The poems of "Leaves of Grass" are twelve in number. Walt Whitman at first proceeds to put his own body and soul into the new versification:--

"I celebrate myself

And for what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belong to me, as good belongs to you."