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Title: Whitman - A Study
Author: Burroughs, John, 1837-1921
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  Books by John Burroughs.

  WORKS. 14 vols., uniform, 16mo, gilt top, $17.10;
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    BIRDS AND POETS, with Other Papers.

    PEPACTON, and Other Sketches.




  THE LIGHT OF DAY: Religious Discussions and
  Criticisms from the Standpoint of a Naturalist.

  Each of the above, $1.25.

  LITERARY VALUES. A Series of Literary Essays.



  Each of the above, $1.10, _net_. Postage extra.

  WAYS OF NATURE. _Riverside Edition._ 12mo, $1.50,
  _net_. Postage extra.

  FAR AND NEAR. _Riverside Edition._ 12mo, $1.50,
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  A YEAR IN THE FIELDS. Selections appropriate to
  each season of the year, from the writings of John
  Burroughs. Illustrated from Photographs by CLIFTON
  JOHNSON. 12mo, $1.50.

  WHITMAN: A Study. _Riverside Edition._ 12mo,
  $1.50, _net_.

  THE LIGHT OF DAY: Religious Discussions and
  Criticisms from the Standpoint of a Naturalist.
  _Riverside Edition._ 12mo, $1.50, _net_.

  LITERARY VALUES. _Riverside Edition._ 12mo,
  $1.50, _net_. Postage, 11 cents.

  WINTER SUNSHINE. _Cambridge Classics Series._
  Crown 8vo, $1.00.

  WAKE-ROBIN. _Riverside Aldine Series._ 16mo, $1.00.

  Square 12mo, $1.00. _School Edition_, 60
  cents, _net_.


[Illustration: WALT WHITMAN]



  The Riverside Press, Cambridge

  Copyright, 1896,

  _All rights reserved._



  PRELIMINARY                                    1

  BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL                     23

  HIS RULING IDEAS AND AIMS                     73

  HIS SELF-RELIANCE                             85



  HIS RELATION TO CULTURE                      205


  HIS RELATION TO SCIENCE                      249

  HIS RELATION TO RELIGION                     257

  A FINAL WORD                                 263

"_All original art is self-regulated, and no original art can be regulated
from without; it carries its own counterpoise, and does not receive it
from elsewhere._"--TAINE.

"_If you want to tell good Gothic, see if it has the sort of roughness and
largeness and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness
which seems always to be the sign manual of the broad vision and massy
power of men who can see_ past _the work they are doing, and betray here
and there something like disdain for it._"--RUSKIN.

"_Formerly, during the period termed classic, when literature was governed
by recognized rules, he was considered the best poet who had composed the
most perfect work, the most beautiful poem, the most intelligible, the
most agreeable to read, the most complete in every respect,--the Æneid,
the Gerusalemme, a fine tragedy. To-day something else is wanted. For us
the greatest poet is he who in his works most stimulates the reader's
imagination and reflection, who excites him the most himself to poetize.
The greatest poet is not he who has done the best, it is he who suggests
the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, and who leaves
you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your




The writing of this preliminary chapter, and the final survey and revision
of my Whitman essay, I am making at a rustic house I have built at a wild
place a mile or more from my home upon the river. I call this place
Whitman Land, because in many ways it is typical of my poet,--an
amphitheatre of precipitous rock, slightly veiled with a delicate growth
of verdure, enclosing a few acres of prairie-like land, once the site of
an ancient lake, now a garden of unknown depth and fertility. Elemental
ruggedness, savageness, and grandeur, combined with wonderful tenderness,
modernness, and geniality. There rise the gray scarred cliffs, crowned
here and there with a dead hemlock or pine, where, morning after morning,
I have seen the bald-eagle perch, and here at their feet this level area
of tender humus, with three perennial springs of delicious cold water
flowing in its margin; a huge granite bowl filled with the elements and
potencies of life. The scene has a strange fascination for me, and holds
me here day after day. From the highest point of rocks I can overlook a
long stretch of the river and of the farming country beyond; I can hear
owls hoot, hawks scream, and roosters crow. Birds of the garden and
orchard meet birds of the forest upon the shaggy cedar posts that uphold
my porch. At dusk the call of the whippoorwill mingles with the chorus of
the pickerel frogs, and in the morning I hear through the robins' cheerful
burst the sombre plaint of the mourning-dove. When I tire of my
manuscript, I walk in the woods, or climb the rocks, or help the men clear
up the ground, piling and burning the stumps and rubbish. This scene and
situation, so primitive and secluded, yet so touched with and adapted to
civilization, responding to the moods of both sides of the life and
imagination of a modern man, seems, I repeat, typical in many ways of my
poet, and is a veritable Whitman land. Whitman does not to me suggest the
wild and unkempt as he seems to do to many; he suggests the cosmic and the
elemental, and this is one of the dominant thoughts that run through my
dissertation. Scenes of power and savagery in nature were more welcome to
him, probably more stimulating to him, than the scenes of the pretty and
placid, and he cherished the hope that he had put into his "Leaves" some
of the tonic and fortifying quality of Nature in her more grand and
primitive aspects.

His wildness is only the wildness of the great primary forces from which
we draw our health and strength. Underneath all his unloosedness, or free
launching forth of himself, is the sanity and repose of nature.


I first became acquainted with Whitman's poetry through the columns of the
old "Saturday Press" when I was twenty or twenty-one years old (1858 or
1859). The first things I remember to have read were "There was a child
went forth," "This Compost," "As I ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," "Old
Ireland," and maybe a few others. I was attracted by the new poet's work
from the first. It seemed to let me into a larger, freer air than I found
in the current poetry. Meeting Bayard Taylor about this time, I spoke to
him about Whitman. "Yes," he said, "there is something in him, but he is a
man of colossal egotism."

A few years later a friend sent me a copy of the Thayer & Eldridge edition
of "Leaves of Grass" of 1860. It proved a fascinating but puzzling book to
me. I grazed upon it like a colt upon a mountain, taking what tasted good
to me, and avoiding what displeased me, but having little or no conception
of the purport of the work as a whole. I found passages and whole poems
here and there that I never tired of reading, and that gave a strange
fillip to my moral and intellectual nature, but nearly as many passages
and poems puzzled or repelled me. My absorption of Emerson had prepared me
in a measure for Whitman's philosophy of life, but not for the ideals of
character and conduct which he held up to me, nor for the standards in art
to which the poet perpetually appealed. Whitman was Emerson translated
from the abstract into the concrete. There was no privacy with Whitman; he
never sat me down in a corner with a cozy, comfortable shut-in feeling,
but he set me upon a hill or started me upon an endless journey.
Wordsworth had been my poet of nature, of the sequestered and the idyllic;
but I saw that here was a poet of a larger, more fundamental nature,
indeed of the Cosmos itself. Not a poet of dells and fells, but of the
earth and the orbs. This much soon appeared to me, but I was troubled by
the poet's apparent "colossal egotism," by his attitude towards evil,
declaring himself "to be the poet of wickedness also;" by his seeming
attraction toward the turbulent and the disorderly; and, at times, by what
the critics had called his cataloguing style of treatment.

When I came to meet the poet himself, which was in the fall of 1863, I
felt less concern about these features of his work; he was so sound and
sweet and gentle and attractive as a man, and withal so wise and tolerant,
that I soon came to feel the same confidence in the book that I at once
placed in its author, even in the parts which I did not understand. I saw
that the work and the man were one, and that the former must be good as
the latter was good. There was something in the manner in which both the
book and its author carried themselves under the sun, and in the way they
confronted America and the present time, that convinced beyond the power
of logic or criticism.

The more I saw of Whitman, and the more I studied his "Leaves," the more
significance I found in both, and the clearer it became to me that a new
type of a man and a new departure in poetic literature were here
foreshadowed. There was something forbidding, but there was something
vital and grand back of it. I found to be true what the poet said of

  "Bearded, sunburnt, gray-neck'd, forbidding, I have arrived,
  To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
  For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them,"--

I have persevered in my study of the poet, though balked many times, and
the effect upon my own mental and spiritual nature has been great; no such
"solid prizes" in the way of a broader outlook upon life and nature, and,
I may say, upon art, has any poet of my time afforded me. There are
passages or whole poems in the "Leaves" which I do not yet understand
("Sleep-Chasings" is one of them), though the language is as clear as
daylight; they are simply too subtle or elusive for me; but my confidence
in the logical soundness of the book is so complete that I do not trouble
myself at all about these things.


I would fain make these introductory remarks to my essay a sort of window
through which the reader may get a fairly good view of what lies beyond.
If he does not here get any glimpse or suggestion of what pleases him, or
of what he is looking for, it will hardly be worth while for him to
trouble himself further.

A great many readers, perhaps three fourths of the readers of current
poetry, and not a few of the writers thereof, cannot stand Whitman at all,
or see any reason for his being. To such my essay, if it ever comes to
their notice, will be a curiosity, may be an offense. But I trust it will
meet with a different reception at the hands of the smaller but rapidly
growing circle of those who are beginning to turn to Whitman as the most
imposing and significant figure in our literary annals.

The rapidly growing Whitman literature attests the increasing interest to
which I refer. Indeed, it seems likely that by the end of the century the
literature which will have grown up around the name of this man will
surpass in bulk and value that which has grown up around the name of any
other man of letters born within the century.

When Mr. Stedman wrote his essay upon the poet early in the eighties, he
referred to the mass of this literature. It has probably more than doubled
in volume in the intervening years: since Whitman's death in the spring of
'92, it has been added to by William Clark's book upon the poet, Professor
Trigg's study of Browning and Whitman, and the work of that accomplished
critic and scholar, so lately gone to his rest, John Addington Symonds.
This last is undoubtedly the most notable contribution that has yet been
made, or is likely very soon to be made, to the Whitman literature. Mr.
Symonds declares that "Leaves of Grass," which he first read at the age of
twenty-five, influenced him more than any other book has done, except the
Bible,--more than Plato, more than Goethe.

When we remember that the man who made this statement was eminently a man
of books, deeply read in all literatures, his testimony may well offset
that of a score of our home critics who find nothing worthy or helpful in
Whitman's work. One positive witness in such a matter outweighs any number
of negative ones.


For making another addition to the growing Whitman literature, I have no
apology to offer. I know well enough that "writing and talk" cannot
"prove" a poet; that he must be his own proof or be forgotten; and my main
purpose in writing about Whitman, as in writing about nature, is to tell
readers what I have found there, with the hope of inducing them to look
for themselves. At the same time, I may say that I think no modern poet so
much needs to be surrounded by an atmosphere of comment and
interpretation, through which readers may approach him, as does Whitman.
His work sprang from a habit or attitude of mind quite foreign to that
with which current literature makes us familiar,--so germinal is it, and
so little is it beholden to the formal art we so assiduously cultivate.
The poet says his work "connects lovingly with precedents," but it does
not connect lovingly with any body of poetry of this century. "Leaves of
Grass" is bound to be a shock to the timid and pampered taste of the
majority of current readers. I would fain lessen this shock by interposing
my own pages of comment between the book and the public. The critic can
say so many things the poet cannot. He can explain and qualify and
analyze, whereas the creative artist can only hint or project. The poet
must hasten on, he must infold and bind together, he must be direct and
synthetic in every act. Reflection and qualification are not for him, but
action, emotion, volition, the procreant blending and surrender. He works
as Nature does, and gives us reality in every line.

Whitman says:--

  "I charge you forever reject those who would expound me, for I cannot
        expound myself."

The type of mind of Whitman's, which seldom or never emerges as a mere
mentality, an independent thinking and knowing faculty, but always as a
personality, always as a complete human entity, never can expound itself,
because its operations are synthetic and not analytic, its mainspring is
love and not mere knowledge. In his prose essay called "A Backward Glance
o'er Travel'd Roads," appended to the final edition of his poems, Whitman
has not so much sought to expound himself as to put his reader in
possession of his point of view, and of the considerations that lie back
of his work. This chapter might render much that I have written
superfluous, were there not always a distinct gain in seeing an author
through another medium, or in getting the equivalents of him in the
thoughts and ideals of a kindred and sympathetic mind. But I have not
consciously sought to expound Whitman, any more than in my other books I
have sought to expound the birds or wild nature. I have written out some
things that he means to me, and the pleasure and profit I have found in
his pages.

There is no end to what can be drawn out of him. It has been said and
repeated that he was not a thinker, and yet I find more food for thought
in him than in all other poets. It has been often said and repeated that
he is not a poet, and yet the readers that respond to him the most fully
appear to be those in whom the poetic temperament is paramount. I believe
he supplies in fuller measure that pristine element, something akin to the
unbreathed air of mountain and shore, which makes the arterial blood of
poetry and literature, than any other modern writer.


We can make little of Whitman unless we allow him to be a law unto
himself, and seek him through the clews which he himself brings. When we
try him by current modes, current taste, and demand of him formal beauty,
formal art, we are disappointed. But when we try him by what we may call
the scientific standard, the standard of organic nature, and demand of him
the vital and the characteristic,--demand of him that he have a law of his
own, and fulfill that law in the poetic sphere,--the result is quite

More than any other poet, Whitman is what we make him; more than any other
poet, his greatest value is in what he suggests and implies, rather than
in what he portrays; and more than any other poet must he wait to be
understood by the growth of the taste of himself. "I make the only growth
by which I can be appreciated," he truly says.

His words are like the manna that descended upon the Israelites, "in which
were all manner of tastes; and every one found in it what his palate was
chiefly pleased with. If he desired fat in it, he had it. In it the young
men tasted bread; the old men honey; and the children oil." Many young
men,--poets, artists, teachers, preachers,--have testified that they have
found bread in Whitman, the veritable bread of life; others have found
honey, sweet poetic morsels; and not a few report having found only gall.


In considering an original work like "Leaves of Grass," the search is
always for the grounds upon which it is to be justified and explained.
These grounds in this work are not easy to find; they lie deeper than the
grounds upon which the popular poets rest. Because they are not at once
seen, many readers have denied that there are any such grounds. But to
deny a basis of reality to a work with the history of "Leaves of Grass,"
and a basis well grounded on æsthetic and artistic principles, is not to
be thought of.

The more the poet eludes us, the more we know he has his hiding-place
somewhere. The more he denies our standards, the more we know he has
standards of his own which we must discover; the more he flouts at our
literary conventions, the more we must press him for his own principles
and methods. How does he justify himself to himself? Could any sane man
have written the Children of Adam poems who was not sustained by deepest
moral and æsthetic convictions? It is the business of the critic to search
for these principles and convictions, and not shirk the task by ridicule
and denial.


If there was never any change in taste, if it always ran in the same
channels,--indeed, if it did not at times run in precisely opposite
channels,--there would be little hope that Walt Whitman's poetry would
ever find any considerable number of readers. But one of the laws that
dominate the progress of literature, as Edmond Shérer says, is incessant
change, not only in thought and ideas, but in taste and the
starting-points of art. A radical and almost violent change in these
respects is indicated by Whitman,--a change which is in unison with many
things in modern life and morals, but which fairly crosses the prevailing
taste in poetry and in art. No such dose of realism and individualism
under the guise of poetry has been administered to the reading public in
this century. No such break with literary traditions--no such audacious
attempt to tally, in a printed page, the living concrete man, an actual
human presence, instead of the conscious, made-up poet--is to be found in
modern literary records.


The much that I have said in the following pages about Whitman's radical
differences from other poets--his changed attitude towards the universe,
his unwonted methods and aims, etc.,--might seem to place him upon a
ground so unique and individual as to contradict my claims for his breadth
and universality. The great poets stand upon common ground; they excel
along familiar lines, they touch us, and touch us deeply, at many points.
What always saves Whitman is his enormous endowment of what is "commonest,
nearest, easiest,"--his atmosphere of the common day, the common life, and
his fund of human sympathy and love. He is strange because he gives us the
familiar in such a direct, unexpected manner. His "Leaves" are like some
new fruit that we have never before tasted. It is the product of another
clime, another hemisphere. The same old rains and dews, the same old sun
and soil, nursed it, yet in so many ways how novel and strange! We
certainly have to serve a certain apprenticeship to this poet, familiarize
ourselves with his point of view and with his democratic spirit, before we
can make much of him. The spirit in which we come to him from the other
poets--the poets of art and culture--is for the most part unfriendly to
him. There is something rude, strange, and unpoetic about him at first
sight that is sure to give most readers of poetry a shock. I think one
might come to him from the Greek poets, or the old Hebrew or Oriental
bards, with less shock than from our modern delicate and refined singers;
because the old poets were more simple and elemental, and aimed less at
the distilled dainties of poetry, than the modern. They were full of
action, too, and volition,--of that which begets and sustains life.
Whitman's poetry is almost entirely the expression of will and
personality, and runs very little to intellectual subtleties and
refinements. It fulfills itself in our wills and character, rather than in
our taste.


Whitman will always be a strange and unwonted figure among his country's
poets, and among English poets generally,--a cropping out again, after so
many centuries, of the old bardic prophetic strain. Had he dropped upon us
from some other sphere, he could hardly have been a greater surprise and
puzzle to the average reader or critic. Into a literature that was timid,
imitative, conventional, he fell like leviathan into a duck-pond, and the
commotion and consternation he created there have not yet subsided. All
the reigning poets in this country except Emerson denied him, and many of
our minor poets still keep up a hostile sissing and cackling. He will
probably always be more or less a stumbling-block to the minor poet,
because of his indifference to the things which to the minor poet are all
in all. He was a poet without what is called artistic form, and without
technique, as that word is commonly understood. His method was analogous
to the dynamic method of organic nature, rather than to the mechanical or
constructive method of the popular poets.


Of course the first thing that strikes the reader in "Leaves of Grass" is
its seeming oddity and strangeness. If a man were to come into a dress
reception in shirt sleeves and with his hat on, the feature would strike
us at once, and would be magnified in our eyes; we should quite forget
that he was a man, and in essentials differed but little from the rest of
us, after all. The exterior habiliments on such occasions count for nearly
everything; and in the popular poetry rhyme, measure, and the language and
manners of the poets are much more than anything else. If Whitman did not
do anything so outré as to come into a dress reception with his coat off
and his hat on, he did come into the circle of the poets without the usual
poetic habiliments. He was not dressed up at all, and he was not at all
abashed or apologetic. His air was confident and self-satisfied, if it did
not at times suggest the insolent and aggressive. It was the dress circle
that was on trial, and not Walt Whitman.

We could forgive a man in real life for such an audacious proceeding only
on the ground of his being something extraordinary as a person, with an
extraordinary message to convey; and we can pardon the poet only on
precisely like grounds. He must make us forget his unwonted garb by his
unique and lovable personality, and the power and wisdom of his utterance.
If he cannot do this we shall soon tire of him.

That Whitman was a personality the like of which the world has not often
seen, and that his message to his country and to his race was of prime
importance, are conclusions at which more and more thinking persons are
surely arriving.

His want of art, of which we have heard so much, is, it seems to me, just
this want of the usual trappings and dress uniform of the poets. In the
essentials of art, the creative imagination, the plastic and quickening
spirit, the power of identification with the thing contemplated, and the
absolute use of words, he has few rivals.


I make no claim that my essay is a dispassionate, disinterested view of
Whitman. It will doubtless appear to many as a one-sided view, or as
colored by my love for the man himself. And I shall not be disturbed if
such turns out to be the case. A dispassionate view of a man like Whitman
is probably out of the question in our time, or in any near time. His
appeal is so personal and direct that readers are apt to be either
violently for him or violently against, and it will require the
perspective of more than one generation to bring out his true
significance. Still, for any partiality for its subject which my book may
show, let me take shelter behind a dictum of Goethe.

"I am more and more convinced," says the great critic, "that whenever one
has to vent an opinion on the actions or on the writings of others, unless
this be done from a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving
interest in the person and the work, the result is hardly worth gathering
up. Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality,
and, from such reality, reality as a natural product follows. All else is

To a loving interest in Whitman and his work, which may indeed amount to
one-sided enthusiasm, I plead guilty. This at least is real with me, and
not affected; and, if the reality which Goethe predicts in such cases only
follows, I shall be more than content.


In the world of literature, as in the world of physical forces, things
adjust themselves after a while, and no impetus can be given to any man's
name or fame that will finally carry it beyond the limit of his real
worth. However "one-sided" my enthusiasm for Whitman may be, or that of
any of his friends may be, there is no danger but that in time he will
find exactly his proper place and level. My opinion, or any man's opinion,
of the works of another, is like a wind that blows for a moment across
the water, heaping it up a little on the shore or else beating it down,
but not in any way permanently affecting its proper level.

The adverse winds that have blown over Whitman's work have been many and
persistent, and yet the tide has surely risen, his fame has slowly

It will soon be forty years since he issued the first thin quarto edition
of "Leaves of Grass," and, though the opposition to him has been the most
fierce and determined ever recorded in our literary history, often
degenerating into persecution and willful misrepresentation, yet his fame
has steadily grown both at home and abroad. The impression he early made
upon such men as Emerson, Thoreau, William O'Connor, Mr. Stedman, Colonel
Ingersoll, and others in this country, and upon Professors Dowden and
Clifford, upon Symonds, Ruskin, Tennyson, Rossetti, Lord Lytton, Mrs.
Gilchrist, George Eliot, in England, has been followed by an equally deep
or deeper impression upon many of the younger and bolder spirits of both
hemispheres. In fact Whitman saw his battle essentially won in his own
lifetime, though his complete triumph is of course a matter of the distant


But let me give without further delay a fuller hint of the attitude these
pages assume and hold towards the subject they discuss.

There are always, or nearly always, a few men born to each generation who
embody the best thought and culture of that generation, and express it in
approved literary forms. From Petrarch down to Lowell, the lives and works
of these men fill the literary annals; they uphold the literary and
scholarly traditions; they are the true men of letters; they are justly
honored and beloved in their day and land. We in this country have
recently, in the death of Dr. Holmes, mourned the loss of the last of the
New England band of such men. We are all indebted to them for solace, and
for moral and intellectual stimulus.

Then, much more rarely, there is born to a race or people men who are like
an irruption of life from another world, who belong to another order, who
bring other standards, and sow the seed of new and larger types; who are
not the organs of the culture or modes of their time, and whom their times
for the most part decry and disown,--the primal, original, elemental men.
It is here, in my opinion, that we must place Whitman; not among the
minstrels and edifiers of his age, but among its prophets and saviors. He
is nearer the sources of things than the popular poets,--nearer the
founders and discoverers, closer akin to the large, fervent, prophetic,
patriarchal men who figure in the early heroic ages. His work ranks with
the great primitive books. He is of the type of the skald, the bard, the
seer, the prophet. The specialization and differentiation of our latter
ages of science and culture is less marked in him than in other poets.
Poetry, philosophy, religion, are all inseparably blended in his pages. He
is in many ways a reversion to an earlier type. Dr. Brinton has remarked
that his attitude toward the principle of sex and his use of sexual
imagery in his poems, are the same as in the more primitive religions.
Whitman was not a poet by elaboration, but by suggestion; not an artist by
formal presentation, but by spirit and conception; not a philosopher by
system and afterthought, but by vision and temper.

In his "Leaves," we again hear the note of destiny,--again see the
universal laws and forces exemplified in the human personality, and turned
upon life with love and triumph.


The world always has trouble with its primary men, or with the men who
have any primary gifts, like Emerson, Wordsworth, Browning, Tolstoi,
Ibsen. The idols of an age are nearly always secondary men: they break no
new ground; they make no extraordinary demands; our tastes and wants are
already adjusted to their type; we understand and approve of them at once.
The primary men disturb us; they are a summons and a challenge; they break
up the old order; they open up new territory which we are to subdue and
occupy; the next age and the next make more of them. In my opinion, the
next age and the next will make more of Whitman, and the next still more,
because he is in the great world-current, in the line of the evolutionary
movement of our time. Is it at all probable that Tennyson can ever be to
any other age what he has been to this? Tennyson marks an expiring age,
the sunset of the feudal world. He did not share the spirit to which the
future belongs. There was not one drop of democratic blood in his veins.
To him, the people were an hundred-headed beast.


If my essay seems like one continual strain to attain the unattainable, to
compass and define Whitman, who will not be compassed and defined, I can
only say that I regret it, but could not well help it. Talking about
Whitman, Symonds said, was like talking about the universe, and it is so.
There is somewhat incommensurable in his works. One may not hope to speak
the final word about him, to sum him up in a sentence. He is so palpable,
so real, so near at hand, that the critic or expounder of him promises
himself an easy victory; but before one can close with him he is gone. He
is, after all, as subtle and baffling as air or light.

                    ... "I will certainly elude you,
  Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
  Already you see I have escaped from you."

It is probably this characteristic which makes Whitman an irrepressible
figure in literature; he will not down for friend or foe. He escapes from
all classification, and is larger than any definition of him that has yet
been given. How many times has he been exploded by British and American
critics; how many times has he been labeled and put upon the shelf, only
to reappear again as vigorous and untranslatable as ever!


So far as Whitman stands merely for the spirit of revolt, or of reaction
against current modes in life and literature, I have little interest in
him. As the "apostle of the rough, the uncouth," to use Mr. Howells's
words, the world would long ago have tired of him. The irruption into
letters of the wild and lawless, or of the strained and eccentric, can
amuse and interest us only for a moment. It is because these are only
momentary phases of him, as it were, and because underneath all he
embraces the whole of life and ministers to it, that his fame and
influence are still growing in the world. One hesitates even to call
Whitman the poet of "democracy," or of "personality," or of "the modern,"
because such terms only half define him. He quickly escapes into that
large and universal air which all great art breathes. We cannot sum him up
in a phrase. He flows out on all sides, and his sympathies embrace all
types and conditions of men. He is a great democrat, but, first and last
and over all, he is a great man, a great nature, and deep world-currents
course through him. He is distinctively an American poet, but his
Americanism is only the door through which he enters upon the universal.


Call his work poetry or prose, or what you will: that it is an inspired
utterance of some sort, any competent person ought to be able to see. And
what else do we finally demand of any work than that it be inspired? How
all questions of form and art, and all other questions, sink into
insignificance beside that! The exaltation of mind and spirit shown in the
main body of Whitman's work, the genuine, prophetic fervor, the
intensification and amplification of the simple ego, and the resultant
raising of all human values, seem to me as plain as daylight.

Whitman is to be classed among the great names by the breadth and
all-inclusiveness of his theme and by his irrepressible personality. I
think it highly probable that future scholars and critics will find his
work fully as significant and era-marking as that of any of the few
supreme names of the past. It is the culmination of an age of
individualism, and, as opposites meet, it is also the best lesson in
nationalism and universal charity that this century has seen.



Walt Whitman was born at West Hills, Long Island, May 30, 1819, and died
at Camden, N. J., March 26, 1892. Though born in the country, most of his
life was passed in cities; first in Brooklyn and New York, then in New
Orleans, then in Washington, and lastly in Camden, where his body is
buried. It was a poet's life from first to last,--free, unhampered,
unworldly, unconventional, picturesque, simple, untouched by the craze of
money-getting, unselfish, devoted to others, and was, on the whole,
joyfully and contentedly lived. It was a pleased and interested saunter
through the world,--no hurry, no fever, no strife; hence no bitterness, no
depletion, no wasted energies. A farm boy, then a school-teacher, then a
printer, editor, writer, traveler, mechanic, nurse in the army hospitals,
and lastly government clerk; large and picturesque of figure, slow of
movement; tolerant, passive, receptive, and democratic,--of the people; in
all his tastes and attractions, always aiming to walk abreast with the
great laws and forces, and to live thoroughly in the free, nonchalant
spirit of his own day and land. His strain was mingled Dutch and English,
with a decided Quaker tinge, which came from his mother's side, and which
had a marked influence upon his work.

The spirit that led him to devote his time and substance to the sick and
wounded soldiers during the war may be seen in that earlier incident in
his life when he drove a Broadway stage all one winter, that a disabled
driver might lie by without starving his family. It is from this episode
that the tradition of his having been a New York stage-driver comes. He
seems always to have had a special liking for this class of workmen. One
of the house surgeons of the old New York Hospital relates that in the
latter part of the fifties Whitman was a frequent visitor to that
institution, looking after and ministering to disabled stage-drivers.
"These drivers," says the doctor, "like those of the omnibuses in London,
were a set of men by themselves. A good deal of strength, intelligence,
and skillful management of horses was required of a Broadway stage-driver.
He seems to have been decidedly a higher order of man than the driver of
the present horse-cars. He usually had his primary education in the
country, and graduated as a thorough expert in managing a very difficult
machine, in an exceptionally busy thoroughfare.

"It was this kind of a man that so attracted Walt Whitman that he was
constantly to be seen perched on the box alongside one of them going up
and down Broadway. I often watched the poet and driver, as probably did
many another New Yorker in those days.

"I do not wonder as much now as I did in 1860 that a man like Walt Whitman
became interested in these drivers. He was not interested in the news of
every-day life--the murders and accidents and political convulsions--but
he was interested in strong types of human character. We young men had not
had experience enough to understand this kind of a man. It seems to me now
that we looked at Whitman simply as a kind of crank, if the word had then
been invented. His talk to us was chiefly of books, and the men who wrote
them: especially of poetry, and what he considered poetry. He never said
much of the class whom he visited in our wards, after he had satisfied
himself of the nature of the injury and of the prospect of recovery.

"Whitman appeared to be about forty years of age at that time. He was
always dressed in a blue flannel coat and vest, with gray and baggy
trousers. He wore a woolen shirt, with a Byronic collar, low in the neck,
without a cravat, as I remember, and a large felt hat. His hair was iron
gray, and he had a full beard and mustache of the same color. His face and
neck were bronzed by exposure to the sun and air. He was large, and gave
the impression of being a vigorous man. He was scrupulously careful of his
simple attire, and his hands were soft and hairy."

During the early inception of "Leaves of Grass" he was a carpenter in
Brooklyn, building and selling small frame-houses to working people. He
frequently knocked off work to write his poems. In his life Whitman was
never one of the restless, striving sort. In this respect he was not
typical of his countrymen. All his urgency and strenuousness he reserved
for his book. He seems always to have been a sort of visitor in life,
noting, observing, absorbing, keeping aloof from all ties that would hold
him, and making the most of the hour and the place in which he happened to
be. He was in no sense a typical literary man. During his life in New York
and Brooklyn, we see him moving entirely outside the fashionable circles,
the learned circles, the literary circles, the money-getting circles. He
belongs to no set or club. He is seen more with the laboring
classes,--drivers, boatmen, mechanics, printers,--and I suspect may often
be found with publicans and sinners. He is fond of the ferries and of the
omnibuses. He is a frequenter of the theatre and of the Italian opera.
Alboni makes a deep and lasting impression upon him. It is probably to her
that he writes these lines:--

  "Here take this gift,
  I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, general,
  One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress
        and freedom of the race,
  Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
  But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to

Elsewhere he refers to Alboni by name and speaks of her as

  "The lustrous orb, Venus contralto, the blooming mother,
  Sister of loftiest gods."

Some of his poems were written at the opera. The great singers evidently
gave him clews and suggestions that were applicable to his own art.

His study was out of doors. He wrote on the street, on the ferry, at the
seaside, in the fields, at the opera,--always from living impulses arising
at the moment, and always with his eye upon the fact. He says he has read
his "Leaves" to himself in the open air, and tried them by the realities
of life and nature about him. Were they as real and alive as they?--this
was the only question with him.

At home in his father's family in Brooklyn we see him gentle, patient,
conciliatory, much looked up to by all. Neighbors seek his advice. He is
cool, deliberate, impartial. A marked trait is his indifference to money
matters; his people are often troubled because he lets opportunities to
make money pass by. When his "Leaves" appear, his family are puzzled, do
not know what to make of it. His mother thinks that, if "Hiawatha" is
poetry, may be Walt's book is, too. He never counsels with any one, and is
utterly indifferent as to what people may say or think. He is not a
stirring and punctual man, is always a little late; not an early riser,
not prompt at dinner; always has ample time, and will not be hurried; the
business gods do not receive his homage. He is gray at thirty, and is said
to have had a look of age in youth, as he had a look of youth in age. He
has few books, cares little for sport, never uses a gun; has no bad
habits; has no entanglements with women, and apparently never contemplates
marriage. It is said that during his earliest years of manhood he kept
quite aloof from the "girls."

At the age of nineteen he edited "The Long Islander," published at
Huntington. A recent visitor to these early haunts of Whitman gathered
some reminiscences of him at this date:--

"Amid the deep revery of nature, on that mild October afternoon, we
returned to the village of Huntington, there to meet the few, the very
few, survivors who recall Walt's first appearance in the literary world as
the editor of 'The Long Islander,' nigh sixty years ago (1838). Two of
these forefathers of the hamlet clearly remembered his powerful
personality, brimful of life, reveling in strength, careless of time and
the world, of money and of toil; a lover of books and of jokes; delighting
to gather round him the youth of the village in his printing-room of
evenings, and tell them stories and read them poetry, his own and others'.
That of his own he called his 'Yawps,' a word which he afterwards made
famous. Both remembered him as a delightful companion, generous to a
fault, glorying in youth, negligent of his affairs, issuing 'The Long
Islander' at random intervals,--once a week, once in two weeks, once in
three,--until its financial backers lost faith and hope and turned him
out, and with him the whole office corps; for Walt himself was editor,
publisher, compositor, pressman, and printer's devil, all in one."


Few men were so deeply impressed by our Civil War as was Whitman. It
aroused all his patriotism, all his sympathies, and, as a poet, tested his
power to deal with great contemporary events and scenes. He was first
drawn to the seat of war on behalf of his brother, Lieutenant-Colonel
George W. Whitman, 51st New York Volunteers, who was wounded by the
fragment of a shell at Fredericksburg. This was in the fall of 1862. This
brought him in contact with the sick and wounded soldiers, and henceforth,
as long as the war lasts and longer, he devoted his time and substance to
ministering to them. The first two or three years of his life in
Washington he supported himself by correspondence with Northern
newspapers, mainly with the "New York Times." These letters, as well as
the weekly letters to his mother during the same period, form an intensely
pathetic and interesting record.

They contain such revelations of himself, and such pictures of the scenes
he moved among, that I shall here quote freely from them. The following
extract is from a letter written from Fredericksburg the third or fourth
day after the battle of December, 1862:--

"Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the
Rappahannock, immediately opposite Fredericksburg. It is used as a
hospital since the battle, and seems to have received only the worst
cases. Out of doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front
of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.,
about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each
covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, toward the river,
are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of
barrel-staves, or broken board, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies
were subsequently taken up and transported North to their friends.)

"The house is quite crowded, everything impromptu, no system, all bad
enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds
pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and
bloody. Some of the wounded are rebel officers, prisoners. One, a
Mississippian,--a captain,--hit badly in leg, I talked with some time; he
asked me for papers, which I gave him. (I saw him three months afterward
in Washington, with leg amputated, doing well.)

"I went through the rooms, down stairs and up. Some of the men were dying.
I had nothing to give at that visit, but wrote a few letters to folks
home, mothers, etc. Also talked to three or four who seemed most
susceptible to it, and needing it."

"December 22 to 31.--Am among the regimental, brigade, and division
hospitals somewhat. Few at home realize that these are merely tents, and
sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if their
blanket is spread on a layer of pine or hemlock twigs, or some leaves. No
cots; seldom even a mattress on the ground. It is pretty cold. I go around
from one case to another. I do not see that I can do any good, but I
cannot leave them. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me
convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and
sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.

"Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the
camps, talking with the men, etc.; sometimes at night among the groups
around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes. I soon get
acquainted anywhere in camp, with officers or men, and am always well
used. Sometimes I go down on picket with the regiments I know best."

After continuing in front through the winter, he returns to Washington,
where the wounded and sick have mainly been concentrated. The Capital
city, truly, is now one huge hospital; and there Whitman establishes
himself, and thenceforward, for several years, has but one daily and
nightly avocation.

He alludes to writing letters by the bedside, and says:--

"I do a good deal of this, of course, writing all kinds, including
love-letters. Many sick and wounded soldiers have not written home to
parents, brothers, sisters, and even wives, for one reason or another, for
a long, long time. Some are poor writers, some cannot get paper and
envelopes; many have an aversion to writing, because they dread to worry
the folks at home,--the facts about them are so sad to tell. I always
encourage the men to write, and promptly write for them."

A glimpse of the scenes after Chancellorsville:--

"As I write this, in May, 1863, the wounded have begun to arrive from
Hooker's command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first
arrivals. The men in charge of them told me the bad cases were yet to
come. If that is so, I pity them, for these are bad enough. You ought to
see the scene of the wounded arriving at the landing here foot of Sixth
Street at night. Two boat-loads came about half past seven last night. A
little after eight, it rained a long and violent shower. The poor, pale,
helpless soldiers had been debarked, and lay around on the wharf and
neighborhood anywhere. The rain was, probably, grateful to them; at any
rate they were exposed to it.

"The few torches light up the spectacle. All around on the wharf, on the
ground, out on side places, etc., the men are lying on blankets and old
quilts, with the bloody rags bound round heads, arms, legs, etc. The
attendants are few, and at night few outsiders also,--only a few
hard-worked transportation men and drivers. (The wounded are getting to be
common, and people grow callous.) The men, whatever their condition, lie
there, and patiently wait till their turn comes to be taken up. Near by
the ambulances are now arriving in clusters, and one after another is
called to back up and take its load. Extreme cases are sent off on
stretchers. The men generally make little or no ado, whatever their
sufferings,--a few groans that cannot be repressed, and occasionally a
scream of pain, as they lift a man into the ambulance.

"To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the
next day more, and so on for many days.

"The soldiers are nearly all young men, and far more American than is
generally supposed,--I should say nine tenths are native-born. Among the
arrivals from Chancellorsville I find a large proportion of Ohio, Indiana,
and Illinois men. As usual, there are all sorts of wounds. Some of the men
are fearfully burnt from the explosion of artillery caissons. One ward has
a long row of officers, some with ugly hurts. Yesterday was, perhaps,
worse than usual. Amputations are going on,--the attendants are dressing
wounds. As you pass by, you must be on your guard where you look. I saw,
the other day, a gentleman--a visitor, apparently, from curiosity--in one
of the wards stop and turn a moment to look at an awful wound they were
probing, etc. He turned pale, and in a moment more he had fainted away and
fallen on the floor."

An episode,--the death of a New York soldier:--

"This afternoon, July 22, 1863, I spent a long time with a young man I
have been with a good deal from time to time, named Oscar F. Wilber,
company G, 154th New York, low with chronic diarrhoea, and a bad wound
also. He asked me to read him a chapter in the New Testament. I complied,
and asked him what I should read. He said: 'Make your own choice.' I
opened at the close of one of the first books of the Evangelists, and read
the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the
crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man asked me to read the following
chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, as Oscar was
feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He asked
me if I enjoyed religion. I said: 'Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you
mean, and yet, maybe, it is the same thing.' He said: 'It is my chief
reliance.' He talked of death, and said he did not fear it. I said: 'Why,
Oscar, don't you think you will get well?' He said: 'I may, but it is not
probable.' He spoke calmly of his condition. The wound was very bad; it
discharged much. Then the diarrhoea had prostrated him, and I felt that
he was even then the same as dying. He behaved very manly and
affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he returned
fourfold. He gave me his mother's address, Mrs. Sally D. Wilber, Alleghany
post-office, Cattaraugus County, New York. I had several such interviews
with him. He died a few days after the one just described."

And here, also, a characteristic scene in another of those long

"It is Sunday afternoon (middle of summer, 1864), hot and oppressive, and
very silent through the ward. I am taking care of a critical case, now
lying in a half lethargy. Near where I sit is a suffering rebel, from the
8th Louisiana; his name is Irving. He has been here a long time, badly
wounded, and has lately had his leg amputated. It is not doing very well.
Right opposite me is a sick soldier boy, laid down with his clothes on,
sleeping, looking much wasted, his pallid face on his arm. I see by the
yellow trimming on his jacket that he is a cavalry boy. He looks so
handsome as he sleeps, one must needs go nearer to him. I step softly over
to him, and find by his card that he is named William Cone, of the 1st
Maine Cavalry, and his folks live in Skowhegan."

In a letter to his mother in 1863 he says, in reference to his hospital
services: "I have got in the way, after going lightly, as it were, all
through the wards of a hospital, and trying to give a word of cheer, if
nothing else, to every one, then confining my special attention to the few
where the investment seems to tell best, and who want it most.... Mother,
I have real pride in telling you that I have the consciousness of saving
quite a number of lives by keeping the men from giving up, and being a
good deal with them. The men say it is so, and the doctors say it is so;
and I will candidly confess I can see it is true, though I say it myself.
I know you will like to hear it, mother, so I tell you."

Again he says: "I go among the worst fevers and wounds with impunity; I go
among the smallpox, etc., just the same. I feel to go without
apprehension, and so I go: nobody else goes; but, as the darkey said there
at Charleston when the boat ran on a flat and the rebel sharpshooters were
peppering them, '_somebody_ must jump in de water and shove de boat off.'"

In another letter to his mother he thus accounts for his effect upon the
wounded soldiers: "I fancy the reason I am able to do some good in the
hospitals among the poor, languishing, and wounded boys, is that I am so
large and well,--indeed, like a great wild buffalo with much hair. Many of
the soldiers are from the West and far North, and they like a man that has
not the bleached, shiny, and shaved cut of the cities and the East."

As to Whitman's appearance about this time, we get an inkling from another
letter to his mother, giving an account of an interview he had with
Senator Preston King, to whom Whitman applied for assistance in procuring
a clerkship in one of the departments. King said to him, "Why, how can I
do this thing, or anything for you? How do I know but you are a
secessionist? You look for all the world like an old Southern planter,--a
regular Carolina or Virginia planter."

The great suffering of the soldiers and their heroic fortitude move him
deeply. He says to his mother: "Nothing of ordinary misfortune seems as it
used to, and death itself has lost all its terrors; I have seen so many
cases in which it was so welcome and such a relief." Again: "I go to the
hospitals every day or night. I believe no men ever loved each other as I
and some of these poor wounded, sick, and dying men love each other."

Whitman's services in the hospitals began to tell seriously upon his
health in June, 1864, when he had "spells of deathly faintness, and had
trouble in the head." The doctors told him he must keep away for a while,
but he could not. Under date of June 7, 1864, he writes to his mother:--

"There is a very horrible collection in Armory Building (in Armory Square
Hospital),--about two hundred of the worst cases you ever saw, and I have
probably been too much with them. It is enough to melt the heart of a
stone. Over one third of them are amputation cases. Well, mother, poor
Oscar Cunningham is gone at last: (he is the 82d Ohio boy, wounded May 3,
'63). I have written so much of him I suppose you feel as if you almost
knew him. I was with him Saturday forenoon, and also evening. He was more
composed than usual; could not articulate very well. He died about two
o'clock Sunday morning, very easy, they told me. I was not there. It was a
blessed relief. His life has been misery for months. I believe I told you,
last letter, I was quite blue from the deaths of several of the poor young
men I knew well, especially two of whom I had strong hopes of their
getting up. Things are going pretty badly with the wounded. They are
crowded here in Washington in immense numbers, and all those that came up
from the Wilderness and that region arrived here so neglected and in such
plight it was awful (those that were at Fredericksburg, and also from
Belle Plain). The papers are full of puffs, etc., but the truth is the
largest proportion of worst cases get little or no attention.

"We receive them here with their wounds full of worms,--some all swelled
and inflamed. Many of the amputations have to be done over again. One new
feature is, that many of the poor, afflicted young men are crazy; every
ward has some in it that are wandering. They have suffered too much, and
it is perhaps a privilege that they are out of their senses. Mother, it is
most too much for a fellow, and I sometimes wish I was out of it; but I
suppose it is because I have not felt firstrate myself."

Of the Ohio soldier above referred to, Whitman had written a few days
before: "You remember I told you of him a year ago, when he was first
brought in. I thought him the noblest specimen of a young Western man I
had seen. A real giant in size, and always with a smile on his face. Oh,
what a change! He has long been very irritable to every one but me, and
his frame is all wasted away."

To his brother Jeff he wrote: "Of the many I have seen die, or known of
the past year, I have not seen or known of one who met death with any
terror. Yesterday I spent a good part of the afternoon with a young man of
seventeen named Charles Cutter, of Lawrence City, 1st Massachusetts Heavy
Artillery, Battery M. He was brought into one of the hospitals mortally
wounded in abdomen. Well, I thought to myself as I sat looking at him, it
ought to be a relief to his folks, after all, if they could see how little
he suffered. He lay very placid, in a half lethargy, with his eyes closed;
it was very warm, and I sat a long while fanning him and wiping the sweat.
At length he opened his eyes quite wide and clear, and looked inquiringly
around. I said, "What is it, my dear? do you want anything?" He said
quietly, with a good-natured smile, "Oh, nothing; I was only looking
around to see who was with me." His mind was somewhat wandering, yet he
lay so peaceful in his dying condition. He seemed to be a real New England
country boy, so good-natured, with a pleasant, homely way, and quite
fine-looking. Without any doubt, he died in course of the night."

Another extract from a letter to his mother in April, 1864:--

"Mother, you don't know what a feeling a man gets after being in the
active sights and influences of the camp, the army, the wounded, etc. He
gets to have a deep feeling he never experienced before,--the flag, the
tune of Yankee Doodle, and similar things, produce an effect on a fellow
never felt before. I have seen tears on the men's cheeks, and others turn
pale under such circumstances. I have a little flag,--it belonged to one
of our cavalry regiments,--presented to me by one of the wounded. It was
taken by the rebs in a cavalry fight, and rescued by our men in a bloody
little skirmish. It cost three men's lives just to get one little flag
four by three. Our men rescued it, and tore it from the breast of a dead
rebel. All that just for the name of getting their little banner back
again. The man that got it was very badly wounded, and they let him keep
it. I was with him a good deal. He wanted to give me something, he said;
he did not expect to live; so he gave me the little banner as a keepsake.
I mention this, mother, to show you a specimen of the feeling. There isn't
a regiment of cavalry or infantry that wouldn't do the same on occasion."

[An army surgeon, who at the time watched with curiosity Mr. Whitman's
movements among the soldiers in the hospitals, has since told me that his
principles of operation, effective as they were, seemed strangely few,
simple, and on a low key,--to act upon the appetite, to cheer by a healthy
and fitly bracing appearance and demeanor; and to fill and satisfy in
certain cases the affectional longings of the patients, was about all. He
carried among them no sentimentalism nor moralizing; spoke not to any man
of his "sins," but gave something good to eat, a buoying word, or a
trifling gift and a look. He appeared with ruddy face, clean dress, with a
flower or a green sprig in the lapel of his coat. Crossing the fields in
summer, he would gather a great bunch of dandelion blossoms, and red and
white clover, to bring and scatter on the cots, as reminders of out-door
air and sunshine.

When practicable, he came to the long and crowded wards of the maimed, the
feeble, and the dying, only after preparations as for a
festival,--strengthened by a good meal, rest, the bath, and fresh
underclothes. He entered with a huge haversack slung over his shoulder,
full of appropriate articles, with parcels under his arms, and protuberant
pockets. He would sometimes come in summer with a good-sized basket filled
with oranges, and would go round for hours paring and dividing them among
the feverish and thirsty.]

Of his devotion to the wounded soldiers there are many witnesses. A
well-known correspondent of the "New York Herald" writes thus about him in
April, 1876:--

"I first heard of him among the sufferers on the Peninsula after a battle
there. Subsequently I saw him, time and again, in the Washington
hospitals, or wending his way there, with basket or haversack on his arm,
and the strength of beneficence suffusing his face. His devotion surpassed
the devotion of woman. It would take a volume to tell of his kindness,
tenderness, and thoughtfulness.

"Never shall I forget one night when I accompanied him on his rounds
through a hospital filled with those wounded young Americans whose heroism
he has sung in deathless numbers. There were three rows of cots, and each
cot bore its man. When he appeared, in passing along, there was a smile of
affection and welcome on every face, however wan, and his presence seemed
to light up the place as it might be lighted by the presence of the God of
Love. From cot to cot they called him, often in tremulous tones or in
whispers; they embraced him; they touched his hand; they gazed at him. To
one he gave a few words of cheer; for another he wrote a letter home; to
others he gave an orange, a few comfits, a cigar, a pipe and tobacco, a
sheet of paper or a postage-stamp, all of which and many other things were
in his capacious haversack. From another he would receive a dying message
for mother, wife, or sweetheart; for another he would promise to go an
errand; to another, some special friend very low, he would give a manly
farewell kiss. He did the things for them no nurse or doctor could do, and
he seemed to leave a benediction at every cot as he passed along. The
lights had gleamed for hours in the hospital that night before he left it,
and, as he took his way towards the door, you could hear the voices of
many a stricken hero calling, 'Walt, Walt, Walt! come again! come again!'"


Out of that experience in camp and hospital the pieces called "Drum-Taps,"
first published in 1865,--since merged in his "Leaves,"--were produced.
Their descriptions and pictures, therefore, come from life. The vivid
incidents of "The Dresser" are but daguerreotypes of the poet's own actual
movements among the bad cases of the wounded after a battle. The same
personal knowledge runs through "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and
Dim," "Come up from the Fields, Father," etc., etc.

The reader of this section of Whitman's work soon discovers that it is not
the purpose of the poet to portray battles and campaigns, or to celebrate
special leaders or military prowess, but rather to chant the human aspects
of anguish that follow in the train of war. He perhaps feels that the
permanent condition of modern society is that of peace; that war as a
business, as a means of growth, has served its time; and that,
notwithstanding the vast difference between ancient and modern warfare,
both in the spirit and in the means, Homer's pictures are essentially true
yet, and no additions to them can be made. War can never be to us what it
has been to the nations of all ages down to the present; never the main
fact, the paramount condition, tyrannizing over all the affairs of
national and individual life, but only an episode, a passing interruption;
and the poet, who in our day would be as true to his nation and times as
Homer was to his, must treat of it from the standpoint of peace and
progress, and even benevolence. Vast armies rise up in a night and
disappear in a day; a million of men, inured to battle and to blood, go
back to the avocations of peace without a moment's confusion or
delay,--indicating clearly the tendency that prevails.

Apostrophizing the genius of America in the supreme hour of victory, he

  "No poem proud, I, chanting, bring to thee--nor mastery's rapturous
  But a little book containing night's darkness and blood-dripping wounds,
  And psalms of the dead."

The collection is also remarkable for the absence of all sectional or
partisan feeling. Under the head of "Reconciliation" are these lines:--

  "Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
  Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be
        utterly lost!
  That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly wash
        again, and ever again, this soil'd world;
  ... For my enemy is dead--a man divine as myself is dead;
  I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin--I draw near;
  I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the

Perhaps the most noteworthy of Whitman's war poems is the one called "When
Lilacs last in the Door-yard bloomed," written in commemoration of
President Lincoln.

The main effect of this poem is of strong, solemn, and varied music; and
it involves in its construction a principle after which perhaps the great
composers most work,--namely, spiritual auricular analogy. At first it
would seem to defy analysis, so rapt is it, and so indirect. No reference
whatever is made to the mere fact of Lincoln's death; the poet does not
even dwell upon its unprovoked atrocity, and only occasionally is the tone
that of lamentation; but, with the intuitions of the grand art, which is
the most complex when it seems most simple, he seizes upon three beautiful
facts of nature, which he weaves into a wreath for the dead President's
tomb. The central thought is of death, but around this he curiously
twines, first, the early-blooming lilacs which the poet may have plucked
the day the dark shadow came; next the song of the hermit thrush, the most
sweet and solemn of all our songsters, heard at twilight in the dusky
cedars; and with these the evening star, which, as many may remember,
night after night in the early part of that eventful spring, hung low in
the west with unusual and tender brightness. These are the premises whence
he starts his solemn chant.

The attitude, therefore, is not that of being bowed down and weeping
hopeless tears, but of singing a commemorative hymn, in which the voices
of nature join, and fits that exalted condition of the soul which serious
events and the presence of death induce. There are no words of mere
eulogy, no statistics, and no story or narrative; but there are pictures,
processions, and a strange mingling of darkness and light, of grief and
triumph: now the voice of the bird, or the drooping lustrous star, or the
sombre thought of death; then a recurrence to the open scenery of the land
as it lay in the April light, "the summer approaching with richness and
the fields all busy with labor," presently dashed in upon by a spectral
vision of armies with torn and bloody battle-flags, and, again, of the
white skeletons of young men long afterward strewing the ground. Hence the
piece has little or nothing of the character of the usual productions on
such occasions. It is dramatic; yet there is no development of plot, but
a constant interplay, a turning and returning of images and sentiments.

The poet breaks a sprig of lilac from the bush in the door-yard,--the dark
cloud falls on the land,--the long funeral sets out,--and then the

  "Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
  Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
  With the pomp of the inloop'd flags, with the cities draped in black,
  With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veiled women,
  With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
  With the countless torches lit--with the silent sea of faces, and the
        unbared heads,
  With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
  With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong
        and solemn;
  With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour'd around the coffin,
  To dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs--Where amid these you
  With the tolling, tolling bells' perpetual clang;
  Here! coffin that slowly passes,
  I give you my sprig of lilac.

  "(Nor for you, for one alone;
  Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring;
  For fresh as the morning--thus would I chant a song for you, O sane
        and sacred death.

  "All over bouquets of roses,
  O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
  But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
  Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
  With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
  For you and the coffins all of you, O death.)"

Then the strain goes on:--

  "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
  And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
  And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?

  "Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
  Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till
        there on the prairies meeting:
  These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
  I perfume the grave of him I love."

The poem reaches, perhaps, its height in the matchless invocation to

  "Come, lovely and soothing Death,
  Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
  In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
  Sooner or later, delicate Death.

  "Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
  For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
  And for love, sweet love--but praise! O praise and praise,
  For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.

  "Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
  Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
  Then I chant it for thee--I glorify thee above all;
  I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

  "Approach, encompassing Death--strong Deliveress!
  When it is so--when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
  Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
  Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

  "From me to thee glad serenades,
  Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee--adornments and feastings for
  And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky are
  And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
  The night, in silence, under many a star;
  The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
  And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,
  And the body gratefully nestling close to thee."


Whitman despised riches, and all mere worldly success, as heartily as ever
did any of the old Christians. All outward show and finery were intensely
distasteful to him. He probably would not have accepted the finest house
in New York on condition that he live in it. During his hospital
experiences he cherished the purpose, as soon as the war was over, of
returning to Brooklyn, buying an acre or two of land in some by-place on
Long Island, and building for himself and his family a cheap house. When
his brother Jeff contemplated building, he advised him to build merely an
Irish shanty. After what he had seen the soldiers put up with, he thought
anything was good enough for him or his people. In one of his letters to
his mother, he comments upon the un-American and inappropriate
ornamentation of the rooms in the Capitol building, "without grandeur and
without simplicity," he says. In the state the country was in, and with
the hospital scenes before him, the "poppy-show goddesses" and the Italian
style of decoration, etc., sickened him, and he got away from it all as
quickly as he could.


During the war and after, I used to see a good deal of Whitman in
Washington. Summer and winter he was a conspicuous figure on Pennsylvania
Avenue, where he was wont to walk for exercise and to feed his hunger for
faces. One would see him afar off, in the crowd but not of it,--a large,
slow-moving figure, clad in gray, with broad-brimmed hat and gray
beard,--or, quite as frequently, on the front platform of the street
horse-cars with the driver. My eye used to single him out many blocks

There were times during this period when his aspect was rather
forbidding,--the physical man was too pronounced on first glance; the
other man was hidden beneath the broad-brimmed hat. One needed to see the
superbly domed head and classic brow crowning the rank physical man.

In his middle manhood, judging from the photos, he had a hirsute, kindly
look, but very far removed from the finely cut traditional poet's face.


I have often heard Whitman say that he inherited most excellent blood from
his mother,--the old Dutch Van Velser strain,--Long Island blood filtered
and vitalized through generations by the breath of the sea. He was his
mother's child unmistakably. With all his rank masculinity, there was a
curious feminine undertone in him which revealed itself in the quality of
his voice, the delicate texture of his skin, the gentleness of his touch
and ways, the attraction he had for children and the common people. A lady
in the West, writing to me about him, spoke of his "great mother-nature."
He was receptive, sympathetic, tender, and met you, not in a positive,
aggressive manner, but more or less in a passive or neutral mood. He did
not give his friends merely his mind, he gave them himself. It is not
merely his mind or intellect that he has put into his poems, it is
himself. Indeed, this feminine mood or attitude might be dwelt upon at
much length in considering his poems,--their solvent, absorbing power, and
the way they yield themselves to diverse interpretations.

The sea, too, had laid its hand upon him, as I have already suggested. He
never appeared so striking and impressive as when seen upon the beach. His
large and tall gray figure looked at home, and was at home, upon the
shore. The simple, strong, flowing lines of his face, his always clean
fresh air, his blue absorbing eye, his commanding presence, and something
pristine and elemental in his whole expression, seemed at once to put him
_en rapport_ with the sea. No phase of nature seems to have impressed him
so deeply as the sea, or recurs so often in his poems.


Whitman was preëminently manly,--richly endowed with the universal,
healthy human qualities and attributes. Mr. Conway relates that when
Emerson handed him the first thin quarto edition of "Leaves of Grass,"
while he was calling at his house in Concord, soon after the book
appeared, he said, "Americans abroad may now come home: unto us a man is

President Lincoln, standing one day during the war before a window in the
White House, saw Whitman slowly saunter by. He followed him with his
eyes, and, turning, said to those about him, "Well, _he_ looks like a

  "Meeter of savage and gentleman on equal terms."

During Whitman's Western tour in 1879 or '80, at some point in Kansas, in
company with several well-known politicians and government officials, he
visited a lot of Indians who were being held as prisoners. The sheriff
told the Indians who the distinguished men were who were about to see
them, but the Indians paid little attention to them as, one after the
other, the officials and editors passed by them. Behind all came Whitman.
The old chief looked at him steadily, then extended his hand and said,
"How!" All the other Indians followed, surrounding Whitman, shaking his
hand and making the air melodious with their "Hows." The incident
evidently pleased the old poet a good deal.


Whitman was of large mould in every way, and of bold, far-reaching
schemes, and is very sure to fare better at the hands of large men than of
small. The first and last impression which his personal presence always
made upon one was of a nature wonderfully gentle, tender, and benignant.
His culture, his intellect, was completely suffused and dominated by his
humanity, so that the impression you got from him was not that of a
learned or a literary person, but of fresh, strong, sympathetic human
nature,--such an impression, I fancy, only fuller, as one might have got
from Walter Scott. This was perhaps the secret of the attraction he had,
for the common, unlettered people and for children. I think that even his
literary friends often sought his presence less for conversation than to
bask in his physical or psychical sunshine, and to rest upon his boundless
charity. The great service he rendered to the wounded and homesick
soldiers in the hospitals during the war came from his copious endowment
of this broad, sweet, tender democratic nature. He brought father and
mother to them, and the tonic and cheering atmosphere of simple,
affectionate home life.

In person Whitman was large and tall, above six feet, with a breezy,
open-air look. His temperament was sanguine; his voice was a tender
baritone. The dominant impression he made was that of something fresh and
clean. I remember the first time I met him, which was in Washington, in
the fall of 1863. I was impressed by the fine grain and clean, fresh
quality of the man. Some passages in his poems had led me to expect
something different. He always had the look of a man who had just taken a
bath. The skin was light and clear, and the blood well to the surface. His
body, as I once noticed when we were bathing in the surf, had a peculiar
fresh bloom and fineness and delicacy of texture. His physiology was
undoubtedly remarkable, unique. The full beauty of his face and head did
not appear till he was past sixty. After that, I have little doubt, it was
the finest head this age or country has seen. Every artist who saw him
was instantly filled with a keen desire to sketch him. The lines were so
simple, so free, and so strong. High, arching brows; straight, clear-cut
nose; heavy-lidded blue-gray eyes; forehead not thrust out and emphasized,
but a vital part of a symmetrical, dome-shaped head; ear large, and the
most delicately carved I have ever seen; the mouth and chin hidden by a
soft, long, white beard. It seems to me his face steadily refined and
strengthened with age. Time depleted him in just the right way,--softened
his beard and took away the too florid look; subdued the carnal man, and
brought out more fully the spiritual man. When I last saw him (December
26, 1891), though he had been very near death for many days, I am sure I
had never seen his face so beautiful. There was no breaking-down of the
features, or the least sign of decrepitude, such as we usually note in old
men. The expression was full of pathos, but it was as grand as that of a
god. I could not think of him as near death, he looked so unconquered.

In Washington I knew Whitman intimately from the fall of 1863 to the time
he left in 1873. In Camden I visited him yearly after that date, usually
in the late summer or fall. I will give one glimpse of him from my diary,
under date of August 18, 1887. I reached his house in the morning, before
he was up. Presently he came slowly down stairs and greeted me. "Find him
pretty well,--looking better than last year. With his light-gray suit,
and white hair, and fresh pink face, he made a fine picture. Among other
things, we talked of the Swinburne attack (then recently published). W.
did not show the least feeling on the subject, and, I clearly saw, was
absolutely undisturbed by the article. I told him I had always been more
disturbed by S.'s admiration for him than I was now by his condemnation.
By and by W. had his horse hitched up, and we started for Glendale, ten
miles distant, to see young Gilchrist, the artist. A fine drive through a
level farming and truck-gardening country; warm, but breezy. W. drives
briskly, and salutes every person we meet, little and big, black and
white, male and female. Nearly all return his salute cordially. He said he
knew but few of those he spoke to, but that, as he grew older, the old
Long Island custom of his people, to speak to every one on the road, was
strong upon him. One tipsy man in a buggy responded, 'Why, pap, how d' ye
do, pap?' etc. We talked of many things. I recall this remark of W., as
something I had not before thought of, that it was difficult to see what
the old feudal world would have come to without Christianity: it would
have been like a body acted upon by the centrifugal force without the
centripetal. Those haughty lords and chieftains needed the force of
Christianity to check and curb them, etc. W. knew the history of many
prominent houses on the road: here a crazy man lived, with two colored men
to look after him; there, in that fine house among the trees, an old
maid, who had spent a large fortune on her house and lands, and was now
destitute, yet she was a woman of remarkable good sense, etc. We returned
to Camden before dark, W. apparently not fatigued by the drive of twenty

In death what struck me most about the face was its perfect symmetry. It
was such a face, said Mr. Conway, as Rembrandt would have selected from a
million. "It is the face of an aged loving child. As I looked, it was with
the reflection that, during an acquaintance of thirty-six years, I never
heard from those lips a word of irritation, or depreciation of any being.
I do not believe that Buddha, of whom he appeared an avatar, was more
gentle to all men, women, children, and living things."


For one of the best pen-sketches of Whitman in his old age we are indebted
to Dr. J. Johnston, a young Scotch physician of Bolton, England, who
visited Whitman in the summer of 1890. I quote from a little pamphlet
which the doctor printed on his return home:--

"The first thing about himself that struck me was the physical immensity
and magnificent proportions of the man, and, next, the picturesque majesty
of his presence as a whole.

"He sat quite erect in a great cane-runged chair, cross-legged, and clad
in rough gray clothes, with slippers on his feet, and a shirt of pure
white linen, with a great wide collar edged with white lace, the shirt
buttoned about midway down his breast, the big lapels of the collar thrown
open, the points touching his shoulders, and exposing the upper portion of
his hirsute chest. He wore a vest of gray homespun, but it was unbuttoned
almost to the bottom. He had no coat on, and his shirt sleeves were turned
up above the elbows, exposing most beautifully shaped arms, and flesh of
the most delicate whiteness. Although it was so hot, he did not perspire
visibly, while I had to keep mopping my face. His hands are large and
massive, but in perfect proportion to the arms; the fingers long, strong,
white, and tapering to a blunt end. His nails are square, showing about an
eighth of an inch separate from the flesh, and I noticed that there was
not a particle of impurity beneath any of them. But his majesty is
concentrated in his head, which is set with leonine grace and dignity upon
his broad, square shoulders; and it is almost entirely covered with long,
fine, straggling hair, silvery and glistening, pure and white as sunlit
snow, rather thin on the top of his high, rounded crown, streaming over
and around his large but delicately-shaped ears, down the back of his big
neck; and, from his pinky-white cheeks and top lip, over the lower part of
his face, right down to the middle of his chest, like a cataract of
materialized, white, glistening vapor, giving him a most venerable and
patriarchal appearance. His high, massive forehead is seamed with
wrinkles. His nose is large, strong, broad, and prominent, but
beautifully chiseled and proportioned, almost straight, very slightly
depressed at the tip, and with deep furrows on each side, running down to
the angles of the mouth. The eyebrows are thick and shaggy, with strong,
white hair, very highly arched and standing a long way above the eyes,
which are of a light blue with a tinge of gray, small, rather deeply set,
calm, clear, penetrating, and revealing unfathomable depths of tenderness,
kindness, and sympathy. The upper eyelids droop considerably over the
eyeballs. The lips, which are partly hidden by the thick, white mustache,
are full. The whole face impresses one with a sense of resoluteness,
strength, and intellectual power, and yet withal a winning sweetness,
unconquerable radiance, and hopeful joyousness. His voice is highly
pitched and musical, with a timbre which is astonishing in an old man.
There is none of the tremor, quaver, or shrillness usually observed in
them, but his utterance is clear, ringing, and most sweetly musical. But
it was not in any one of these features that his charm lay so much as in
his _tout ensemble_, and the irresistible magnetism of his sweet, aromatic
presence, which seemed to exhale sanity, purity, and naturalness, and
exercised over me an attraction which positively astonished me, producing
an exaltation of mind and soul which no man's presence ever did before. I
felt that I was here face to face with the living embodiment of all that
was good, noble, and lovable in humanity."


British critics have spoken of Whitman's athleticism, his athletic
temperament, etc., but he was in no sense a muscular man, an athlete. His
body, though superb, was curiously the body of a child; one saw this in
its form, in its pink color, and in the delicate texture of the skin. He
took little interest in feats of strength, or in athletic sports. He
walked with a slow, rolling gait, indeed, moved slowly in all ways; he
always had an air of infinite leisure. For several years, while a clerk in
the Attorney-General's Office in Washington, his exercise for an hour each
day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round,
smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later
in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked
to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that
way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and
sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength. This is what he says
"To a Pupil:"--

  1. Is reform needed? Is it through you?
     The greater the reform needed, the greater the PERSONALITY you
          need to accomplish it.

  2. You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
          complexion, clean and sweet?
     Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and Soul,
          that when you enter the crowd, an atmosphere of desire and
          command enters with you, and every one is impressed with your

  3. O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
     Go, mon cher! if need be, give up all else, and commence to-day to
          inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
     Rest not, till you rivet and publish yourself of your own personality.

It is worthy of note that Whitman's Washington physician said he had one
of the most thoroughly natural physical systems he had ever known,--the
freest, probably, from extremes or any disproportion; which answers to the
perfect sanity which all his friends must have felt with regard to his

A few years ago a young English artist stopping in this country made
several studies of him. In one of them which he showed me, he had left the
face blank, but had drawn the figure from the head down with much care. It
was so expressive, so unmistakably Whitman, conveyed so surely a certain
majesty and impressiveness that pertained to the poet physically, that I
looked upon it with no ordinary interest. Every wrinkle in the garments
seemed to proclaim the man. Probably a similar painting of any of one's
friends would be more or less a recognizable portrait, but I doubt if it
would speak so emphatically as did this incomplete sketch. I thought it
all the more significant in this case because Whitman laid such stress
upon the human body in his poems, built so extensively upon it, curiously
identifying it with the soul, and declaring his belief that if he made the
poems of his body and of mortality he would thus supply himself with the
poems of the soul and of immortality. "Behold," he says, "the body
includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the
soul; whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part
of it!" He runs this physiological thread all through his book, and
strings upon it many valuable lessons and many noble sentiments. Those who
knew him well, I think, will agree with me that his bodily presence was
singularly magnetic, restful, and positive, and that it furnished a
curious and suggestive commentary upon much there is in his poetry.

The Greeks, who made so much more of the human body than we do, seem not
to have carried so much meaning, so much history, in their faces as does
the modern man; the soul was not concentrated here, but was more evenly
distributed over the whole body. Their faces expressed repose, harmony,
power of command. I think Whitman was like the Greeks in this respect. His
face had none of the eagerness, sharpness, nervousness, of the modern
face. It had but few lines, and these were Greek. From the mouth up, the
face was expressive of Greek purity, simplicity, strength, and repose. The
mouth was large and loose, and expressive of another side of his nature.
It was a mouth that required the check and curb of that classic brow.

And the influence of his poems is always on the side of physiological
cleanliness and strength, and severance from all that corrupts and makes
morbid and mean. He says the "expression of a well-made man appears not
only in his face: it is in his limbs and joints also; it is curiously in
the joints of his hips and wrists; it is in his walk, the carriage of his
neck, the flex of his waist and knees; dress does not hide him; the
strong, sweet, supple quality he has strikes through the cotton and
flannel; to see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more.
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side."
He says he has perceived that to be with those he likes is enough: "To be
surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,--I
do not ask any more delight; I swim in it, as in a sea. There is something
in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact
and odor of them, that pleases the soul well. All things please the soul,
but these please the soul well." Emerson once asked Whitman what it was he
found in the society of the common people that satisfied him so; for his
part, he could not find anything. The subordination by Whitman of the
purely intellectual to the human and physical, which runs all through his
poems and is one source of their power, Emerson, who was deficient in the
sensuous, probably could not appreciate.


The atmosphere of Whitman personally was that of a large, tolerant,
tender, sympathetic, restful man, easy of approach, indifferent to any
special social or other distinctions and accomplishments that might be
yours, and regarding you from the start for yourself alone.

Children were very fond of him; and women, unless they had been prejudiced
against him, were strongly drawn toward him. His personal magnetism was
very great, and was warming and cheering. He was rich in temperament,
probably beyond any other man of his generation,--rich in all the purely
human and emotional endowments and basic qualities. Then there was a look
about him hard to describe, and which I have seen in no other face,--a
gray, brooding, elemental look, like the granite rock, something primitive
and Adamic that might have belonged to the first man; or was it a
suggestion of the gray, eternal sea that he so loved, near which he was
born, and that had surely set its seal upon him? I know not, but I feel
the man with that look is not of the day merely, but of the centuries. His
eye was not piercing, but absorbing,--"draining" is the word happily used
by William O'Connor; the soul back of it drew things to himself, and
entered and possessed them through sympathy and personal force and
magnetism, rather than through mere intellectual force.


Walt Whitman was of the people, the common people, and always gave out
their quality and atmosphere. His commonness, his nearness, as of the
things you have always known,--the day, the sky, the soil, your own
parents,--were in no way veiled, or kept in abeyance, by his culture or
poetic gifts. He was redolent of the human and the familiar. Though
capable, on occasions, of great pride and hauteur, yet his habitual mood
and presence was that of simple, average, healthful humanity,--the virtue
and flavor of sailors, soldiers, laborers, travelers, or people who live
with real things in the open air. His commonness rose into the uncommon,
the extraordinary, but without any hint of the exclusive or specially
favored. He was indeed "no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women
or apart from them."

The spirit that animates every page of his book, and that it always
effuses, is the spirit of common, universal humanity,--humanity apart from
creeds, schools, conventions, from all special privileges and refinements,
as it is in and of itself in its relations to the whole system of things,
in contradistinction to the literature of culture which effuses the spirit
of the select and exclusive.

His life was the same. Walt Whitman never stood apart from or above any
human being. The common people--workingmen, the poor, the illiterate, the
outcast--saw themselves in him, and he saw himself in them: the attraction
was mutual. He was always content with common, unadorned humanity.
Specially intellectual people rather repelled him; the wit, the scholar,
the poet, must have a rich endowment of the common, universal, human
attributes and qualities to pass current with him. He sought the society
of boatmen, railroad men, farmers, mechanics, printers, teamsters, mothers
of families, etc., rather than the society of professional men or
scholars. Men who had the quality of things in the open air--the virtue of
rocks, trees, hills--drew him most; and it is these qualities and virtues
that he has aimed above all others to put into his poetry, and to put them
there in such a way that he who reads must feel and imbibe them.

The recognized poets put into their pages the virtue and quality of the
fine gentleman, or of the sensitive, artistic nature: this poet of
democracy effuses the atmosphere of fresh, strong Adamic man,--man acted
upon at first hand by the shows and forces of universal nature.

If our poet ever sounds the note of the crude, the loud, the exaggerated,
he is false to himself and to his high aims. I think he may be charged
with having done so a few times, in his earlier work, but not in his
later. In the 1860 edition of his poems stands this portraiture, which may
stand for himself, with one or two features rather overdrawn:--

  "His shape arises
  Arrogant, masculine, naïve, rowdyish,
  Laugher, weeper, worker, idler, citizen, countryman,
  Saunterer of woods, stander upon hills, summer swimmer in rivers or by
        the sea,
  Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from
        taint from top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia,
  Ample-limbed, a good feeder, weight a hundred and eighty pounds,
        full-blooded, six feet high, forty inches round the breast and
  Countenance sunburnt, bearded, calm, unrefined,
  Reminder of animals, meeter of savage and gentleman on equal terms,
  Attitudes lithe and erect, costume free, neck gray and open, of slow
        movement on foot,
  Passer of his right arm round the shoulders of his friends, companion
        of the street,
  Persuader always of people to give him their sweetest touches, and never
        their meanest.
  A Manhattanese bred, fond of Brooklyn, fond of Broadway, fond of the
        life of the wharves and the great ferries,
  Enterer everywhere, welcomed everywhere, easily understood after all,
  Never offering others, always offering himself, corroborating his
  Voluptuous, inhabitive, combative, conscientious, alimentive, intuitive,
        of copious friendship, sublimity, firmness, self-esteem,
        comparison, individuality, form, locality, eventuality,
  Avowing by life, manners, words to contribute illustrations of results
        of These States,
  Teacher of the unquenchable creed namely egotism,
  Inviter of others continually henceforth to try their strength against


Whitman was determined, at whatever risk to his own reputation, to make
the character which he has exploited in his poems a faithful compend of
American humanity, and to do this the rowdy element could not be entirely
ignored. Hence he unflinchingly imputes it to himself, as, for that
matter, he has nearly every sin and dereliction mankind are guilty of.

Whitman developed slowly and late upon the side that related him to social
custom and usage,--to the many fictions, concealments, make-believes, and
subterfuges of the world of parlors and drawing-rooms. He never was an
adept in what is called "good form;" the natural man that he was shows
crude in certain relations. His publication of Emerson's letter with its
magnificent eulogium of "Leaves of Grass" has been much commented upon.
There may be two opinions as to the propriety of his course in this
respect: a letter from a stranger upon a matter of public interest is not
usually looked upon as a private letter. Emerson never spoke with more
felicity and penetration than he does in this letter; but it is for
Whitman's own sake that we would have had him practice self-denial in the
matter; he greatly plumed himself upon Emerson's endorsement, and was
guilty of the very bad taste of printing a sentence from the letter upon
the cover of the next edition of his book. Grant that it showed a certain
crudeness, unripeness, in one side of the man; later in life, he could not
have erred in this way. Ruskin is reported saying that he never in his
life wrote a letter to any human being that he would not be willing should
be posted up in the market-place, or cried by the public crier through the
town. But Emerson was a much more timid and conforming man than Ruskin,
and was much more likely to be shocked by such a circumstance.

It has been said that the publication of this letter much annoyed Emerson,
and that he never forgave Whitman the offense. That he was disturbed by it
and by the storm that arose there can be little doubt; but there is no
evidence that he allowed the fact to interfere with his friendship for the
poet. Charles W. Eldridge, who personally knew of the relations of the two
men, says:--

"There was not a year from 1855 (the date of the Emerson letter and its
publication) down to 1860 (the year Walt came to Boston to supervise the
issue of the Thayer & Eldridge edition of 'Leaves of Grass'), that Emerson
did not personally seek out Walt at his Brooklyn home, usually that they
might have a long symposium together at the Astor House in New York.
Besides that, during these years Emerson sent many of his closest friends,
including Alcott and Thoreau, to see Walt, giving them letters of
introduction to him. This is not the treatment usually accorded a man who
has committed an unpardonable offense.

"I know that afterwards, during Walt's stay in Boston, Emerson frequently
came down from Concord to see him, and that they had many walks and talks
together, these conferences usually ending with a dinner at the American
House, at that time Emerson's favorite Boston hotel. On several occasions
they met by appointment in our counting-room. Their relations were as
cordial and friendly as possible, and it was always Emerson who sought out
Walt, and never the other way, although, of course, Walt appreciated and
enjoyed Emerson's companionship very much. In truth, Walt never sought the
company of notables at all, and was always very shy of purely literary
society. I know that at this time Walt was invited by Emerson to Concord,
but declined to go, probably through his fear that he would see too much
of the literary coterie that then clustered there, chiefly around


Whitman gave himself to men as men and not as scholars or poets, and gave
himself purely as a man. While not specially averse to meeting people on
literary or intellectual grounds, yet it was more to his taste to meet on
the broadest, commonest, human grounds. What you had seen or felt or
suffered or done was of much more interest to him than what you had read
or thought; your speculation about the soul interested him less than the
last person you had met, or the last chore you had done.

Any glimpse of the farm, the shop, the household--any bit of real life,
anything that carried the flavor and quality of concrete reality--was very
welcome to him; herein, no doubt, showing the healthy, objective, artist
mind. He never tired of hearing me talk about the birds or wild animals,
or my experiences in camp in the woods, the kind of characters I had met
there, and the flavor of the life of remote settlements in Maine or
Canada. His inward, subjective life was ample of itself; he was familiar
with all your thoughts and speculations beforehand: what he craved was
wider experience,--to see what you had seen, and feel what you had felt.
He was fond of talking with returned travelers and explorers, and with
sailors, soldiers, mechanics; much of his vast stores of information upon
all manner of subjects was acquired at firsthand, in the old way, from the
persons who had seen or done or been what they described or related.

He had almost a passion for simple, unlettered humanity,--an attraction
which specially intellectual persons will hardly understand. Schooling and
culture are so often purchased at such an expense to the innate,
fundamental human qualities! Ignorance, with sound instincts and the
quality which converse with real things imparts to men, was more
acceptable to him than so much of our sophisticated knowledge, or our
studied wit, or our artificial poetry.


At the time of Whitman's death, one of our leading literary journals
charged him with having brought on premature decay by leading a riotous
and debauched life. I hardly need say that there was no truth in the
charge. The tremendous emotional strain of writing his "Leaves," followed
by his years of service in the army hospitals, where he contracted
blood-poison, resulted at the age of fifty-four in the rupture of a small
blood-vessel in the brain, which brought on partial paralysis. A sunstroke
during his earlier manhood also played its part in the final break-down.

That, tried by the standard of the lives of our New England poets,
Whitman's life was a blameless one, I do not assert; but that it was a
sane, temperate, manly one, free from excesses, free from the perversions
and morbidities of a mammonish, pampered, over-stimulated age, I do
believe. Indeed, I may say I know. The one impression he never failed to
make--physically, morally, intellectually--on young and old, women and
men, was that of health, sanity, sweetness. This is the impression he
seems to have made upon Mr. Howells, when he met the poet at Pfaff's early
in the sixties.

The critic I have alluded to inferred license in the man from liberty in
the poet. He did not have the gumption to see that Whitman made the
experience of all men his own, and that his scheme included the evil as
well as the good; that especially did he exploit the unloosed, all-loving,
all-accepting natural man,--the man who is done with conventions,
illusions and all morbid pietisms, and who gives himself lavishly to all
that begets and sustains life. Yet not the natural or carnal man for his
own sake, but for the sake of the spiritual meanings and values to which
he is the key. Indeed, Whitman is about the most uncompromising
spiritualist in literature; with him, all things exist by and for the
soul. He felt the tie of universal brotherhood, also, as few have felt it.
It was not a theory with him, but a fact that shaped his life and colored
his poems. "Whoever degrades another degrades me," and the thought fired
his imagination.


The student of Whitman's life and works will be early struck by three
things,--his sudden burst into song, the maturity of his work from the
first, and his self-knowledge and self-estimate. The fit of inspiration
came upon him suddenly; it was like the flowering of the orchards in
spring; there was little or no hint of it till almost the very hour of
the event. Up to the time of the appearance of the first edition of
"Leaves of Grass," he had produced nothing above mediocrity. A hack writer
on newspapers and magazines, then a carpenter and house-builder in a small
way, then that astounding revelation "Leaves of Grass," the very audacity
of it a gospel in itself. How dare he do it? how could he do it, and not
betray hesitation or self-consciousness? It is one of the exceptional
events in literary history. The main body of his work was produced in five
or six years, or between 1854 and 1859. Of course it was a sudden
flowering, which, consciously or unconsciously, must have been long
preparing in his mind. His work must have had a long foreground, as
Emerson suggested. Dr. Bucke, his biographer, thinks it was a special
inspiration,--something analogous to Paul's conversion, a sudden opening
of what the doctor calls "cosmic consciousness."

Another student and lover of Whitman says: "It is certain that some time
about his thirty-fifth year [probably a little earlier] there came over
him a decided change: he seemed immensely to broaden and deepen; he became
less interested in what are usually regarded as the more practical affairs
of life. He lost what little ambition he ever had for money-making, and
permitted good business opportunities to pass unheeded. He ceased to write
the somewhat interesting but altogether commonplace and respectable
stories and verses which he had been in the habit of contributing to
periodicals. He would take long trips into the country, no one knew where,
and would spend more time in his favorite haunts about the city, or on the
ferries, or the tops of omnibuses, at the theatre and opera, in picture
galleries, and wherever he could observe men and women and art and

Then the maturity of his work from the first line of it! It seems as if he
came into the full possession of himself and of his material at one
bound,--never had to grope for his way and experiment, as most men do.
What apprenticeship he served, or with whom he served it, we get no hint.
He has come to his own, and is in easy, joyful possession of it, when he
first comes into view. He outlines his scheme in his first poem, "Starting
from Paumanok," and he has kept the letter and the spirit of every promise
therein made. We never see him doubtful or hesitating; we never see him
battling for his territory, and uncertain whether or not he is upon his
own ground. He has an air of contentment, of mastery and triumph, from the

His extraordinary self-estimate and self-awareness are equally noticeable.
We should probably have to go back to sacred history to find a parallel
case. The manner of man he was, his composite character, his relation to
his country and times, his unlikeness to other poets, his affinity to the
common people, how he would puzzle and elude his critics, how his words
would itch at our ears till we understood them, etc.,--how did he know all
this from the first?



Let me here summarize some of the ideas and principles in which "Leaves of
Grass" has its root, and from which it starts. A collection of poems in
the usual sense, a variety of themes artistically treated and appealing to
our æsthetic perceptibilities alone, it is not. It has, strictly speaking,
but one theme,--personality, the personality of the poet himself. To
exploit this is always the main purpose, and, in doing so, to make the
book both directly and indirectly a large, impassioned utterance upon all
the main problems of life and of nationality. It is primitive, like the
early literature of a race or people, in that its spirit and purpose are
essentially religious. It is like the primitive literatures also in its
prophetic cry and in its bardic simplicity and homeliness, and unlike them
in its faith and joy and its unconquerable optimism.

It has been not inaptly called the bible of democracy. Its biblical
features are obvious enough with the darker negative traits left out. It
is Israel with science and the modern added.

Whitman was swayed by a few great passions,--the passion for country, the
passion for comrades, the cosmic passion, etc. His first concern seems
always to have been for his country. He has touched no theme, named no
man, not related in some way to America. The thought of it possessed him
as thoroughly as the thought of Israel possessed the old Hebrew prophets.
Indeed, it is the same passion, and flames up with the same vitality and
power,--the same passion for race and nativity enlightened by science and
suffused with the modern humanitarian spirit. Israel was exclusive and
cruel. Democracy, as exemplified in Walt Whitman, is compassionate and

  "My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole
  I have looked for equals and lovers, and found them ready for me in all
  I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.

  "O vapors! I think I have risen with you, and moved away to distant
        continents, and fallen down there, for reasons,
  I think I have blown with you, O winds,
  O waters, I have fingered every shore with you."


The work springs from the modern democratic conception of society,--of
absolute social equality.

It embodies the modern scientific conception of the universe, as
distinguished from the old theological conception,--namely, that creation
is good and sound in all its parts.

It embodies a conception of evil as a part of the good, of death as the
friend and not the enemy of life.

It places comradeship, manly attachment, above sex love, and indicates it
as the cement of future states and republics.

It makes the woman the equal of the man, his mate and not his toy.

It treats sexuality as a matter too vital and important to be ignored or
trifled with, much less perverted or denied. A full and normal
sexuality,--upon this the race stands. We pervert, we deny, we corrupt sex
at our peril. Its perversions and abnormalities are to be remedied by a
frank and fervent recognition of it, almost a new Priapic cult.

It springs from a conception of poetry quite different from the current
conception. It aims at the poetry of things rather than of words, and
works by suggestion and indirection rather than by elaboration.

It aims to project into literature a conception of the new democratic
man,--a type larger, more copious, more candid, more religious, than we
have been used to. It finds its ideals, not among scholars or in the
parlor or counting-houses, but among workers, doers, farmers, mechanics,
the heroes of land and sea.

Hence the atmosphere which it breathes and effuses is that of real things,
real men and women. It has not the perfume of the distilled and
concentrated, but the all but impalpable odor of the open air, the shore,
the wood, the hilltop. It aims, not to be a book, but to be a man.

Its purpose is to stimulate and arouse, rather than to soothe and satisfy.
It addresses the character, the intuitions, the ego, more than the
intellect or the purely æsthetic faculties. Its end is not taste, but
growth in the manly virtues and powers.

Its religion shows no trace of theology, or the conventional pietism.

It aspires to a candor and a directness like that of Nature herself.

It aims to let Nature speak without check, with original energy. The only
checks are those which health and wholeness demand.

Its standards are those of the natural universal.

Its method is egocentric. The poet never goes out of himself, but draws
everything into himself and makes it all serve to illustrate his

Its form is not what is called artistic. Its suggestion is to be found in
organic nature, in trees, clouds, and in the vital and flowing currents.

In its composition the author was doubtless greatly influenced by the
opera and the great singers, and the music of the great composers. He
would let himself go in the same manner and seek his effects through
multitude and the quality of the living voice.

Finally, "Leaves of Grass" is an utterance out of the depths of
primordial, aboriginal human nature. It embodies and exploits a character
not rendered anæmic by civilization, but preserving a sweet and sane
savagery, indebted to culture only as a means to escape culture, reaching
back always, through books, art, civilization, to fresh, unsophisticated
nature, and drawing his strength thence.

Another of the ideas that master Whitman and rule him is the idea of
identity,--that you are you and I am I, and that we are henceforth secure
whatever comes or goes. He revels in this idea; it is fruitful with him;
it begets in him the ego-enthusiasm, and is at the bottom of his
unshakable faith in immortality. It leavens all his work. It cannot be too
often said that the book is not merely a collection of pretty poems,
themes elaborated and followed out at long removes from the personality of
the poet, but a series of _sorties_ into the world of materials, the
American world, piercing through the ostensible shows of things to the
interior meanings, and illustrating in a free and large way the genesis
and growth of a man, his free use of the world about him, appropriating it
to himself, seeking his spiritual identity through its various objects and
experiences, and giving in many direct and indirect ways the meaning and
satisfaction of life. There is much in it that is not poetical in the
popular sense, much that is neutral and negative, and yet is an integral
part of the whole, as is the case in the world we inhabit. If it offends,
it is in a wholesome way, like objects in the open air.


Whitman rarely celebrates exceptional characters. He loves the common
humanity, and finds his ideals among the masses. It is not difficult to
reconcile his attraction toward the average man, towards workingmen and
"powerful, uneducated persons," with the ideal of a high excellence,
because he finally rests only upon the most elevated and heroic personal
qualities,--elevated but well grounded in the common and universal.

The types upon which he dwells the most fondly are of the common people.

  "I knew a man,
  He was a common farmer--he was the father of five sons,
  And in them were the fathers of sons--and in them were the fathers of

  "This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person,
  The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale
        yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable
        meaning of his black eyes,
  These I used to go and visit him to see--he was wise also,
  He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old--his sons were
        massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome,
  They and his daughters loved him--all who saw him loved him,
  They did not love him by allowance--they loved him with personal love;
  He drank water only--the blood showed like scarlet through the
        clear-brown skin of his face,
  He was a frequent gunner and fisher--he sailed his boat himself--he had
        a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner--he had fowling-pieces
        presented to him by men that loved him;
  When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish, you
        would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
  You would wish long and long to be with him--you would wish to sit by him
        in the boat, that you and he might touch each other."

All the _motifs_ of his work are the near, the vital, the universal;
nothing curious, or subtle, or far-fetched. His working ideas are
democracy, equality, personality, nativity, health, sexuality,
comradeship, self-esteem, the purity of the body, the equality of the
sexes, etc. Out of them his work radiates. They are the eyes with which it
sees, the ears with which it hears, the feet upon which it goes. The poems
are less like a statement, an argument, an elucidation, and more like a
look, a gesture, a tone of voice.

"The word I myself put primarily for the description of them as they stand
at last," says the author, "is the word Suggestiveness."

"Leaves of Grass" requires a large perspective; you must not get your face
too near the book. You must bring to it a magnanimity of spirit,--a
charity and faith equal to its own. Looked at too closely, it often seems
incoherent and meaningless; draw off a little and let the figure come out.
The book is from first to last a most determined attempt, on the part of a
large, reflective, loving, magnetic, rather primitive, thoroughly
imaginative personality, to descend upon the materialism of the nineteenth
century, and especially upon a new democratic nation now in full career
upon this continent, with such poetic fervor and enthusiasm as to lift and
fill it with the deepest meanings of the spirit and disclose the order of
universal nature. The poet has taken shelter behind no precedent, or
criticism, or partiality whatever, but has squarely and lovingly faced the
oceanic amplitude and movement of the life of his times and land, and
fused them in his fervid humanity, and imbued them with deepest poetic
meanings. One of the most striking features of the book is the adequacy
and composure, even joyousness and elation, of the poet in the presence
of the huge materialism and prosaic conditions of our democratic era. He
spreads himself over it all, he accepts and absorbs it all, he rejects no
part; and his quality, his individuality, shines through it all, as the
sun through vapors. The least line, or fragment of a line, is redolent of
Walt Whitman. It is never so much the theme treated as it is the man
exploited and illustrated. Walt Whitman does not write poems, strictly
speaking,--does not take a bit of nature or life or character and chisel
and carve it into a beautiful image or object, or polish and elaborate a
thought, embodying it in pleasing tropes and pictures. His purpose is
rather to show a towering, loving, composite personality moving amid all
sorts of materials, taking them up but for a moment, disclosing new
meanings and suggestions in them, passing on, bestowing himself upon
whoever or whatever will accept him, tossing hints and clues right and
left, provoking and stimulating the thought and imagination of his reader,
but finishing nothing for him, leaving much to be desired, much to be
completed by him in his turn.


The reader who would get at the spirit and meaning of "Leaves of Grass"
must remember that its animating principle, from first to last, is
Democracy,--that it is a work conceived and carried forward in the spirit
of the genius of humanity that is now in full career in the New
World,--and that all things characteristically American (trades, tools,
occupations, productions, characters, scenes) therefore have their places
in it. It is intended to be a complete mirror of the times in which the
life of the poet fell, and to show one master personality accepting,
absorbing all and rising superior to it,--namely, the poet himself. Yet it
is never Whitman that speaks so much as it is Democracy that speaks
through him. He personifies the spirit of universal brotherhood, and in
this character launches forth his "omnivorous words." What would seem
colossal egotism, shameless confessions, or unworthy affiliations with
low, rude persons, what would seem confounding good and bad, virtue and
vice, etc., in Whitman the man, the citizen, but serves to illustrate the
boundless compassion and saving power of Whitman as the spokesman of ideal
Democracy. With this clue in mind, many difficult things are made plain
and easy in the works of this much misunderstood poet.

Perhaps the single poem that throws most light upon his aims and methods,
and the demand he makes upon his reader, is in "Calamus," and is as

  "Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
  Without one thing all will be useless,
  I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
  I am not what you suppos'd, but far different.

  "Who is he that would become my follower?
  Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?

  "The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive,
  You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your
        sole and exclusive standard,
  Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting,
  The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives
        around you would have to be abandon'd,
  Therefore release me now before troubling yourself any further, let
        go your hand from my shoulders,
  Put me down and depart on your way.

  "Or else by stealth in some wood for trial,
  Or back of a rock in the open air,
  (For in any roof'd room of a house I emerge not, nor in company,
  And in libraries I lie as one dumb, a gawk, or unborn, or dead,)
  But just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any
        person for miles around approach unawares,
  Or possibly with you sailing at sea, or on the beach of the sea or
        some quiet island,
  Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
  With the comrade's long-dwelling kiss or the new husband's kiss,
  For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.

  "Or, if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
  Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip,
  Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;
  For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,
  And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.

  "But these leaves conning you con at peril,
  For these leaves and me you will not understand,
  They will elude you at first and still more afterward, I will
        certainly elude you,
  Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!
  Already you see I have escaped from you.

  "For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,
  Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it,
  Nor do those know me best who admire me and vauntingly praise me,
  Nor will the candidates for my love (unless at most a very few) prove
  Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much evil, perhaps
  For all is useless without that for which you may guess at many times
        and not hit, that which I hinted at,
  Therefore release me and depart on your way."

When one has fully mastered this poem he has got a pretty good hold upon
Whitman's spirit and method. His open-air standards, the baffling and
elusive character of his work, the extraordinary demand it makes, its
radical and far-reaching effects upon life, its direct cognizance of evil
as a necessary part of the good (there was a human need of sin, said
Margaret Fuller) its unbookish spirit and affiliations, its indirect and
suggestive method, that it can be fully read only through our acquaintance
with life and real things at first hand, etc.,--all this and more is in
the poem.



It is over sixty years since Goethe said that to be a German author was to
be a German martyr. I presume things have changed in Germany since those
times, and that the Goethe of to-day does not encounter the jealousy and
hatred the great poet and critic of Weimar seemed to have called forth. In
Walt Whitman we in America have known an American author who was an
American martyr in a more literal sense than any of the men named by the
great German. More than Heine, or Rousseau, or Molière, or Byron, was
Whitman a victim of the literary Philistinism of his country and times;
but, fortunately for himself, his was a nature so large, tolerant, and
self-sufficing that his martyrdom sat very lightly upon him. His
unpopularity was rather a tonic to him than otherwise. It was of a kind
that tries a man's mettle, and brings out his heroic traits if he has any.
One almost envies him his unpopularity. It was of the kind that only the
greatest ones have experienced, and that attests something extraordinary
in the recipient of it. He said he was more resolute because all had
denied him than he ever could have been had all accepted, and he added:--

  "I heed not and have never heeded either cautions, majorities, nor

There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of
men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in
obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature.
Whitman's is the most striking case in our literary annals,--probably the
most striking one in our century outside of politics and religion. The
inward voice alone was the oracle he obeyed: "My commission obeying, to
question it never daring."

The bitter-sweet cup of unpopularity he drained to its dregs, and drained
it cheerfully, as one knowing beforehand that it is preparing for him and
cannot be avoided.

  "Have you learn'd lessons only of those who admired you and were tender
        with you? and stood aside for you?
  Have you not learn'd great lessons from those who reject you, and brace
        themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute
        the passage with you?"

Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to
himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions.
Whitman's life, underneath its easy tolerance and cheerful good-will, was
heroic. He fought his battle against great odds and he conquered; he had
his own way, he yielded not a hair to the enemy.

The pressure brought to bear upon him by the press, by many of his
friends, and by such a man as Emerson, whom he deeply reverenced, to
change or omit certain passages from his poems, seems only to have served
as the opposing hammer that clinched the nail. The louder the outcry the
more deeply he felt it his duty to stand by his first convictions. The
fierce and scornful opposition to his sex poems, and to his methods and
aims generally, was probably more confirmatory than any approval could
have been. It went to the quick. During a dark period of his life, when no
publisher would touch his book and when its exclusion from the mails was
threatened, and poverty and paralysis were upon him, a wealthy
Philadelphian offered to furnish means for its publication if he would
omit certain poems; but the poet does not seem to have been tempted for
one moment by the offer. He cheerfully chose the heroic part, as he always

Emerson reasoned and remonstrated with him for hours, walking up and down
Boston Common, and after he had finished his argument, says Whitman, which
was unanswerable, "I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable
conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way." He told Emerson so,
whereupon they went and dined together. The independence of the poet
probably impressed Emerson more than his yielding would have done, for had
not he preached the adamantine doctrine of self-trust? "To believe your
own thought," he says, "to believe that what is true for you in your
private heart is true of all men,--that is genius."

In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson
invoked and prayed for,--the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who
should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be
Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should
not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate,
or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of
our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of

The moment a man "acts for himself," says Emerson, "tossing the laws, the
books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but
thank and revere him."

Whitman took the philosopher at his word. "Greatness once and forever has
done with opinion," even the opinion of the good Emerson. "Heroism works
in contradiction to the voice of mankind, and in contradiction, for a
time, to the voice of the great and good." "Every heroic act measures
itself by its contempt of some external good,"--popularity, for instance.
"The characteristic of heroism is persistency." "When you have chosen your
part abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the
world." "Adhere to your act, and congratulate yourself if you have done
something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous
age." Heroism "is the avowal of the unschooled man that he finds a quality
in him that is negligent of expense, of health, of life, of danger, of
hatred, of reproach, and knows that his will is higher and more excellent
than all actual and all possible antagonists." "A man is to carry himself
in the presence of all opposition as if everything were titular and
ephemeral but he." "Great works of art," he again says, "teach us to
abide by our spontaneous impression with good-natured inflexibility, the
more when the whole cry of voices is on the other side."

These brave sayings of Emerson were all illustrated and confirmed by
Whitman's course. The spectacle of this man sitting there by the window of
his little house in Camden, poor and partially paralyzed, and looking out
upon the trite and commonplace scenes and people, or looking athwart the
years and seeing only detraction and denial, yet always serene, cheerful,
charitable, his wisdom and tolerance ripening and mellowing with time, is
something to treasure and profit by. He was a man who needed no
assurances. He had the patience and the leisure of nature. He welcomed
your friendly and sympathetic word, or with equal composure he did without

I remember calling upon him shortly after Swinburne's fierce onslaught
upon him had been published, some time in the latter part of the eighties.
I was curious to see how Whitman took it, but I could not discover either
in word or look that he was disturbed a particle by it. He spoke as kindly
of Swinburne as ever. If he was pained at all, it was on Swinburne's
account and not on his own. It was a sad spectacle to see a man retreat
upon himself as Swinburne had done. In fact I think hostile criticism,
fiercely hostile, gave Whitman nearly as much comfort as any other. Did it
not attest reality? Men do not brace themselves against shadows.
Swinburne's polysyllabic rage showed the force of the current he was
trying to stem. As for Swinburne's hydrocephalic muse, I do not think
Whitman took any interest in it from the first.

Self-reliance, or self-trust, is one of the principles Whitman announces
in his "Laws for Creations." He saw that no first-class work is possible
except it issue from a man's deepest, most radical self.

  "What do you suppose creation is?
  What do you suppose will satisfy the soul but to walk free and own no
  What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways, but that
        man or woman is as good as God?
  And that there is no God any more divine than yourself?
  And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
  And that you or any one must approach creations through such laws?"

I think it probable that Whitman anticipated a long period of comparative
oblivion for himself and his works. He knew from the first that the public
would not be with him; he knew that the censors of taste, the critics and
literary professors, would not be with him; he knew that the vast army of
Philistia, the respectable, fashionable mammon-worshiping crowd, would not
be with him,--that the timid, the pampered, the prurient, the conforming,
the bourgeoisie spirit, the class spirit, the academic spirit, the
Pharisaic spirit in all its forms, would all work against him; and that,
as in the case of nearly all original, first-class men, he would have to
wait to be understood for the growth of the taste of himself. None knew
more clearly than he did how completely our people were under the
illusion of the genteel and the conventional, and that, even among the
emancipated few, the possession of anything like robust æsthetic
perception was rare enough. America, so bold and original and independent
in the world of practical politics and material endeavor, is, in spiritual
and imaginative regions, timid, conforming, imitative. There is, perhaps,
no civilized country in the world wherein the native, original man, the
real critter, as Whitman loved to say, that underlies all our culture and
conventions, crops out so little in manners, in literature, and in social
usages. The fear of being unconventional is greater with us than the fear
of death. A certain evasiveness, polish, distrust of ourselves, amounting
to insipidity and insincerity, is spoken of by observant foreigners. In
other words, we are perhaps the least like children of any people in the
world. All these things were against Whitman, and will continue to be
against him for a long time. With the first stroke he broke through the
conventional and took his stand upon the natural. With rude hands he tore
away the veils and concealments from the body and from the soul. He
ignored entirely all social and conventional usages and hypocrisies, not
by revolt against them, but by choosing a point of view from which they
disappeared. He embraced the unrefined and the savage as well as the
tender and human. The illusions of the past, the models and standards, he
freed himself of at once, and declared for the beauty and the divinity of
the now and the here. The rude realism of his "Leaves" shocked like a
plunge in the surf, but it invigorated also, if we were strong enough to
stand it.

Out of Whitman's absolute self-trust arose his prophetic egotism,--the
divine fervor and audacity of the simple ego. He shared the conviction of
the old prophets that man is a part of God, and that there is nothing in
the universe any more divine than the individual soul. "I, too," he says,
and this line is the key to much there is in his work--

  "I, too, have felt the resistless call of myself."

With the old Biblical writers the motions of their own spirits, their
thoughts, their dreams, were the voice of God. There is something of the
same sort in Whitman. The voice of that inner self was final and
authoritative with him. It was the voice of God. He could drive through
and over all the conventions of the world in obedience to that voice. This
call to him was as a voice from Sinai. One of his mastering thoughts was
the thought of identity,--that you are you, and I am I. This was the final
meaning of things, and the meaning of immortality. "Yourself, _yourself_,
YOURSELF," he says, with swelling vehemence, "forever and ever." To be
compacted and riveted and fortified in yourself, so as to be a law unto
yourself, is the final word of the past and of the present.


The shadow of Whitman's self-reliance and heroic self-esteem--the sort of
eddy or back-water--was undoubtedly a childlike fondness for praise and
for seeing his name in print. In his relaxed moments, when the stress of
his task was not upon him, he was indeed in many respects a child. He had
a child's delight in his own picture. He enjoyed hearing himself lauded as
Colonel Ingersoll lauded him in his lecture in Philadelphia, and as his
friends lauded him at his birthday dinner parties during the last two or
three years of his life; he loved to see his name in print, and items
about himself in the newspapers; he sometimes wrote them himself and gave
them to the reporters. And yet nothing is surer than that he shaped his
life and did his work absolutely indifferent to either praise or blame; in
fact, that he deliberately did that which he knew would bring him
dispraise. The candor and openness of the man's nature would not allow him
to conceal or feign anything. If he loved praise, why should he not be
frank about it? Did he not lay claim to the vices and vanities of men
also? At its worst, Whitman's vanity was but the foible of a great nature,
and should count for but little in the final estimate. The common human
nature to which he lay claim will assert itself; it is not always to be
kept up to the heroic pitch.


It was difficult to appreciate his liking for the newspaper. But he had
been a newspaper man himself; the printer's ink had struck in; he had many
associations with the press-room and the composing-room; he loved the
common, democratic character of the newspaper; it was the average man's
library. The homely uses to which it was put, and the humble firesides to
which it found its way, endeared it to him, and made him love to see his
name in it.

Whitman's vanity was of the innocent, good-natured kind. He was as
tolerant of your criticism as of your praise. Selfishness, in any unworthy
sense, he had none. Offensive arrogance and self-assertion, in his life
there was none.

His egotism is of the large generous species that never irritates or
pricks into you like that of the merely conceited man. His love, his
candor, his sympathy are on an equal scale.

His egotism comes finally to affect one like the independence and
indifference of natural law. It takes little heed of our opinion, whether
it be for or against, and keeps to its own way whatever befall.

Whitman's absolute faith in himself was a part of his faith in creation.
He felt himself so keenly a part of the whole that he shared its soundness
and excellence; he must be good as it is good.


Whitman showed just enough intention, or premeditation in his life, dress,
manners, attitudes in his pictures, self-portrayals in his poems, etc., to
give rise to the charge that he was a _poseur_. He was a _poseur_ in the
sense, and to the extent, that any man is a _poseur_ who tries to live up
to a certain ideal and to realize it in his outward daily life. It is
clear that he early formed the habit of self-contemplation and of standing
apart and looking upon himself as another person. Hence his extraordinary
self-knowledge, and, we may also say, his extraordinary self-appreciation,
or to use his own words, "the quite changed attitude of the ego, the one
chanting or talking, towards himself." Of course there is danger in this
attitude, but Whitman was large enough and strong enough to escape it. He
saw himself to be the typical inevitable democrat that others have seen
him to be, and with perfect candor and without ever forcing the note, he
portrays himself as such. As his work is confessedly the poem of himself,
himself magnified and projected, as it were, upon the canvas of a great
age and country, all his traits and qualities stand out in heroic
proportions, his pride and egotism as well as his love and tolerance.

"How beautiful is candor," he says. "All faults may be forgiven of him who
has perfect candor." The last thing that could ever be charged of Whitman
is that he lacked openness, or was guilty of any deceit or concealments in
his life or works.

From the studies, notes, and scrap-books which Whitman left, it appears
that he was long preparing and disciplining himself for the work he had in
view. "The long foreground," to which Emerson referred in his letter, was
of course a reality. But this self-consciousness and self-adjustment to a
given end is an element of strength and not of weakness.

In the famous vestless and coatless portrait of himself prefixed to the
first "Leaves of Grass" he assumes an attitude and is in a sense a
_poseur_; but the reader comes finally to wonder at the marvelous
self-knowledge the picture displays, and how strictly typical it is of the
poet's mental and spiritual attitude towards the world,--independent,
unconventional, audacious, yet inquiring and sympathetic in a wonderful
degree. In the same way he posed in other portraits. A favorite with him
is the one in which he sits contemplating a butterfly upon his
forefinger--typical of a man "preoccupied of his own soul." In another he
peers out curiously as from behind a mask. In an earlier one he stands,
hat in hand, in marked _negligé_ costume,--a little too intentional, one
feels. The contempt of the polished ones is probably very strong within
him at this time. I say contempt, though I doubt if Whitman ever felt
contempt for any human being.


Then Whitman had a curious habit of standing apart, as it were, and
looking upon himself and his career as of some other person. He was
interested in his own cause, and took a hand in the discussion. From first
to last he had the habit of regarding himself objectively. On his deathbed
he seemed to be a spectator of his own last moments, and was seen to feel
his pulse a few minutes before he breathed his last.

He has recorded this trait in his poems:--

  "Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
  Stands amused, complacent, compassionate, idle, waiting,
  Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
  Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it."

As also in this from "Calamus:"--

  "That shadow my likeness that goes to and fro seeking a livelihood,
        chattering, chaffering,
  How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits,
  How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;
  But among my lovers, and caroling these songs,
  Oh, I never doubt whether that is really me."

Whitman always speaks as one having authority and not as a scribe, not as
a mere man of letters. This is the privilege of the divine egoism of the

Like the utterances of the biblical writers, without argument, without
elaboration, his mere dictum seems the word of fate. It is not the voice
of a man who has made his way through the world by rejecting and denying,
but by accepting all and rising superior. What the "push of reading" or
the push of argument could not start is often started and clinched by his
mere authoritative "I say."

  "I say where liberty draws not the blood out of slavery, there slavery
        draws the blood out of liberty,"...
  "I say the human shape or face is so great it must never be made
  I say for ornaments nothing outré can be allowed,
  And that anything is most beautiful without ornament,
  And that exaggerations will be sternly revenged in your own physiology
        and in other persons' physiologies also.

  "Think of the past;
  I warn you that in a little while others will find their past in you and
        your times....
  Think of spiritual results.
  Sure as the earth swims through the heavens, does every one of its
        objects pass into spiritual results.
  Think of manhood, and you to be a man;
  Do you count manhood, and the sweet of manhood, nothing?
  Think of womanhood and you to be a woman;
  The Creation is womanhood;
  Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
  Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best

Egotism is usually intolerant, but Whitman was one of the most tolerant of

A craving for sympathy and personal affection he certainly had; to be
valued as a human being was more to him than to be valued as a poet. His
strongest attachments were probably for persons who had no opinion, good
or bad, of his poetry at all.


Under close scrutiny his egotism turns out to be a kind of altru-egotism,
which is vicarious and all-inclusive of his fellows. It is one phase of
his democracy, and is vital and radical in his pages. It is a high,
imperturbable pride in his manhood and in the humanity which he shares
with all. It is the exultant and sometimes almost arrogant expression of
the feeling which underlies and is shaping the whole modern world--the
feeling and conviction that the individual man is above all forms, laws,
institutions, conventions, bibles, religions--that the divinity of kings,
and the sacredness of priests of the old order, pertains to the humblest

It was a passion that united him to his fellows rather than separated him
from them. His pride was not that of a man who sets himself up above
others, or who claims some special advantage or privilege, but that
godlike quality that would make others share its great good-fortune. Hence
we are not at all shocked when the poet, in the fervor of his love for
mankind, determinedly imputes to himself all the sins and vices and
follies of his fellow-men. We rather glory in it. This self-abasement is
the seal of the authenticity of his egotism. Without those things there
might be some ground for the complaint of a Boston critic of Whitman that
his work was not noble, because it celebrated pride, and did not inculcate
the virtues of humility and self-denial. The great lesson of the "Leaves,"
flowing curiously out of its pride and egotism, is the lesson of charity,
of self-surrender, and the free bestowal of yourself upon all hands.

The law of life of great art is the law of life in ethics, and was long
ago announced.

He that would lose his life shall find it; he who gives himself the most
freely shall the most freely receive. Whitman made himself the brother and
equal of all, not in word, but in very deed; he was in himself a compend
of the people for which he spoke, and this breadth of sympathy and free
giving of himself has resulted in an unexpected accession of power.



Whitman protests against his "Leaves" being judged merely as literature;
but at the same time, if they are not good literature, that of course ends
the matter. Still while the questions of art, of form, of taste, are
paramount in most other poets,--certainly in all third and fourth rate
poets, in Whitman they are swallowed up in other questions and values.

In numerous passages, by various figures and allegories, Whitman indicates
that he would not have his book classed with the order of mere literary

"Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries," he says in one of the

  "For that which was lacking in all your well-fill'd shelves, yet needed
        most, I bring.
  Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
  The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything,
  A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
  But you, ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."

Not linked with the studied and scholarly productions, not open to the
mere bookish mind, but more akin to the primitive utterances and oracles
of historic humanity. A literary age like ours lays great stress upon the
savor of books, art, culture, and has little taste for the savor of real
things, the real man, which we get in Whitman.

"It is the true breath of humanity," says Renan, "and not literary merit,
that constitutes the beautiful." An Homeric poem written to-day, he goes
on to say, would not be beautiful, because it would not be true; it would
not contain this breath of a living humanity. "It is not Homer who is
beautiful, it is the Homeric life." The literary spirit begat Tennyson,
begat Browning, begat the New England poets, but it did not in the same
sense beget Whitman, any more than it begat Homer or Job or Isaiah. The
artist may delight in him and find his own ideals there; the critic may
study him and find the poet master of all his weapons; the disciple of
culture will find, as Professor Triggs has well said, that "there is no
body of writings in literature which demands a wider conversancy with the
best that has been thought or said in the world,"--yet the poet escapes
from all hands that would finally hold him and monopolize him. Whitman is
an immense solvent,--forms, theories, rules, criticisms, disappear in his
fluid, teeming pages. Much can be deduced from him, because much went to
the making up of his point of view. He makes no criticism, yet a
far-reaching criticism is implied in the very start of his poems. No
modern poet presupposes so much, or requires so much preliminary study and
reflection. He brings a multitude of questions and problems, and, what is
singular, he brings them in himself; they are implied in his temper, and
in his attitude toward life and reality.

Whitman says he has read his "Leaves" to himself in the open air, that he
has tried himself by the elemental laws; and tells us in many ways, direct
and indirect, that the standards he would be tried by are not those of art
or books, but of absolute nature. He has been laughed at for calling
himself a "Kosmos," but evidently he uses the term to indicate this
elemental, dynamic character of his work,--its escape from indoor,
artificial standards, its aspiration after the "amplitude of the earth,
and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of
the earth, and the equilibrium also."


Unless the poetic perception is fundamental in us, and can grasp the
poetry of things, actions, characters, multitudes, heroisms, we shall read
Whitman with very poor results. Unless America, the contemporary age,
life, nature, are poetical to us, Whitman will not be. He has aimed at the
larger poetry of forces, masses, persons, enthusiasms, rather than at the
poetry of the specially rare and fine. He kindles in me the delight I have
in space, freedom, power, the elements, the cosmic, democracy, and the
great personal qualities of self-reliance, courage, candor, charity.

Always in the literary poets are we impressed with the art of the poet as
something distinct from the poet himself, and more or less put on. The
poet gets himself up for the occasion; he assumes the pose and the
language of the poet, as the priest assumes the pose and the language of
devotion. In Whitman the artist and the man are one. He never gets himself
up for the occasion. Our pleasure in him is rarely or never our pleasure
in the well-dressed, the well-drilled, the cultivated, the refined, the
orderly, but it is more akin to our pleasure in real things, in human
qualities and powers, in freedom, health, development. Yet I never open
his book without being struck afresh with its pictural quality, its grasp
of the concrete, its vivid realism, its intimate sense of things, persons,
truths, qualities, such as only the greatest artists can give us, and such
as we can never get in mere prose. It is as direct as a challenge, as
personal as a handshake, and yet withal how mystical, how elusive, how
incommensurable! To deny that Whitman belongs to the fraternity of great
artists, the shapers and moulders of the ideal,--those who breathe the
breath of life into the clay or stone of common facts and objects, who
make all things plastic and the vehicles of great and human emotions,--is
to read him very inadequately, to say the least. To get at Walt Whitman
you must see through just as much as you do in dealing with nature; you
are to bring the same interpretive imagination. You are not to be balked
by what appears to be the coarse and the familiar, or his rank
contemporaneity; after a time you will surely see the lambent spiritual
flames that play about it all.

  "Prophetic spirit of materials shifting and flickering about me,"

and his cosmic splendor, depth, and power. It is not the denial of art, it
is a new affirmation of life. It is one phase of his democracy. It is the
logical conclusion of the vestless and coatless portrait of himself that
appeared in the first edition of his poems. He would give us more of the
man, a fuller measure of personal, concrete, human qualities, than any
poet before him. He strips away the artificial wrappings and illusions
usual in poetry, and relies entirely upon the native and intrinsic. He
will have no curtains, he says,--not the finest,--between himself and his

  "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of
        all poems,
  You shall possess the good of the earth and sun (there are millions of
        suns left),
  You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
        through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
  You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
  You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."

This is a hint of his democracy as applied to literature,--more direct and
immediate contact with the primary and universal, less of the vestments
and trappings of art and more of the push and power of original character
and of nature.


It seems to me it is always in order to protest against the narrow and
dogmatic spirit that so often crops out in current criticism touching this
matter of art. "The boundaries of art are jealously guarded," says a
recent authority, as if art had boundaries like a state or province that
had been accurately surveyed and fixed,--as if art was a fact and not a

Now I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that
art is in any sense an "enclosure,"--a province fenced off and set apart
from the rest,--any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many
people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human
spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the
sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has
but one principle, one aim,--to produce an impression, a powerful
impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the
canons of taste and criticism. Name any principle, so called, and some day
a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or
by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as Turner seemed, at first sight,
to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in
music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he
appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power
does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical
standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final
in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are
deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man,
of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing,--has he authentic
inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded.
If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of
nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is
there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and
if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is
appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.


The trouble with most of us is that we found our taste for poetry upon
particular authors, instead of upon literature as a whole, or, better yet,
upon life and reality. Hence we form standards instead of principles.
Standards are limited, rigid, uncompromising, while principles are
flexible, expansive, creative. If we are wedded to the Miltonic standard
of poetry, the classic standards, we shall have great difficulties with
Whitman; but if we have founded our taste upon natural principles--if we
have learned to approach literature through reality, instead of reality
through literature--we shall not be the victims of any one style or model;
we shall be made free of all. The real test of art, of any art, as Burke
long ago said, and as quoted by Mr. Howells in his trenchant little volume
called "Criticism and Fiction," is to be sought outside of art, namely, in
nature. "I can judge but poorly of anything while I measure it by no other
standard than itself. The true standard of the arts is in every man's
power; and an easy observation of the most common, sometimes of the
meanest, things in nature will give the truest lights." It is thought that
the preëminence of the Greek standards is settled when we say they are
natural. Yes, but Nature is not Greek. She is Asiatic, German, English, as


In poetry, in art, a man must sustain a certain vital relation to his
work, and that work must sustain a certain vital relation to the laws of
mind and of life. That is all, and that leaves the doors very wide. We are
not to ask, Is it like this or like that? but, Is it vital, is it real, is
it a consistent, well-organized whole?

The poet must always interpret himself and nature after his own fashion.
Is his fashion adequate? Is the interpretation vivid and real? Do his
lines cut to the quick, and beget heat and joy in the soul? If we cannot
make the poet's ideal our own by sharing his enthusiasm for it, the
trouble is as likely to be in ourselves as in him. In any case he must be
a law unto himself.

The creative artist differs from the mere writer or thinker in this: he
sustains a direct personal relation to his subject through emotion,
intuition, will. The indirect, impersonal relation which works by
reflection, comparison, and analysis is that of the critic and
philosopher. The man is an artist when he gives us a concrete and
immediate impression of reality: from his hands we get the thing itself;
from the critic and thinker we get ideas _about_ the thing. The poet does
not merely say the world is beautiful; he shows it as beautiful: he does
not describe the flower; he places it before us. What are the enemies of
art? Reflection, didacticism, description, the turgid, the obscure. A poet
with a thesis to sustain is more or less barred from the freedom of pure
art. It is by direct and unconsidered expression, says Scherer, that art
communicates with reality. The things that make for art, then, are
feeling, intuition, sentiment, soul, a fresh and vigorous sense of real
things,--in fact, all that makes for life, health, and wholeness. Goethe
is more truly an artist in the first part of Faust than in the second;
Arnold has a more truly artistic mind than Lowell.

The principles of art are always the same in the respect I have indicated,
just as the principles of life are always the same, or of health and
longevity are always the same. No writer is an artist who is related to
his subject simply by mental or logical grip alone: he must have a certain
emotional affiliation and identity with it; he does not so much convey to
us ideas and principles as pictures, parables, impressions,--a lively
sense of real things. When we put Whitman outside the pale of art, we must
show his shortcomings here; we must show that he is not fluid and
generative,--that he paints instead of interprets, that he gives us
reasons instead of impulses, a stone when we ask for bread. "I do not
give a little charity," he says; "when I give, I give myself." This the
artist always does, not his mind merely, but his soul, his personality.
"Leaves of Grass" is as direct an emanation from a central personal force
as any book in literature, and always carries its own test and its own
proof. It never hardens into a system, it never ceases to be penetrated
with will and emotion, it never declines from the order of deeds to the
order of mere thoughts. All is movement, progress, evolution, picture,
parable, impulse.

It is on these grounds that Whitman, first of all, is an artist. He has
the artist temperament. His whole life was that of a man who lives to
ideal ends,--who lived to bestow himself upon others, to extract from life
its meaning and its joy.


Whitman has let himself go, and trusted himself to the informal and
spontaneous, to a degree unprecedented. His course required a
self-reliance of the highest order; it required an innate cohesion and
homogeneity, a firmness and consistency of individual outline, that few
men have. It would seem to be much easier to face the poet's problem in
the old, well-worn forms--forms that are so winsome and authoritative in
themselves--than, to stand upon a basis so individual and intrinsic as
Whitman chose to stand upon. His course goes to the quick at once. How
much of a man are you? How vital and fundamental is your poetic gift? Can
it go alone? Can it face us in undress?

Never did the artist more cunningly conceal himself; never did he so
completely lose himself in the man, identifying himself with the natural
and spontaneous; never emerging and challenging attention on his own
account, denying us when we too literally seek him, mocking us when we
demand his credentials, and revealing himself only when we have come to
him upon his own terms.

The form the poet chose favored this self-revelation; there is nothing, no
outside conscious art, to stand between himself and his reader. "This is
no book," he says: "who touches this touches a man." In one sense Whitman
is without art,--the impression which he always seeks to make is that of
reality itself. He aims to give us reality without the usual literary
veils and illusions,--the least possible amount of the artificial, the
extrinsic, the put-on, between himself and his reader. He banishes from
his work, as far as possible, what others are so intent upon,--all
atmosphere of books and culture, all air of literary intention and
decoration,--and puts his spirit frankly and immediately to his readers.
The verse does not seem to have been shaped; it might have grown: it takes
no apparent heed of externals, but flows on like a brook, irregular,
rhythmical, and always fluid and real. A cry will always be raised against
the producer in any field who discards the authority of the models and
falls back upon simple Nature, or upon himself, as Millet did in painting,
and Wagner in music, and Whitman in poetry.

Whitman's working ideas, the principles that inspired him, are all
directly related to life and the problems of life; they are democracy,
nature, freedom, love, personality, religion: while the ideas from which
our poets in the main draw their inspiration are related to art,--they are
literary ideas, such as lucidity, form, beauty.


Much light is thrown upon Whitman's literary methods and aims by a remark
which he once made in conversation with Dr. Bucke:--

"I have aimed to make the book simple,--tasteless, or with little
taste,--with very little or no perfume. The usual way is for the poet or
writer to put in as much taste, perfume, piquancy, as he can; but this is
not the way of nature, which I take for model. Nature presents us her
productions--her air, earth, waters, even her flowers, grains, meats--with
faint and delicate flavor and fragrance, but these in the long run make
the deepest impression. Man, dealing with natural things, constantly aims
to increase their piquancy. By crossing and selection he deepens and
intensifies the scents and hues of flowers, the tastes of fruits, and so
on. He pursues the same method in poetry,--that is, strives for strong
light or shade, for high color, perfume, pungency, in all ways for the
greatest immediate effect. In so doing he leaves the true way, the way of
Nature, and, in the long run, comes far short of producing her effects."

More light of the same kind is thrown upon his methods by the following
passage from the preface to the first edition of his poems in 1855.

"To speak in literature," he says, "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." And again: "The great poet has less a marked style, and
is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution,
and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be
meddlesome; I will not have in my writing any elegance, or effect, or
originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I
will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell,
I tell for precisely what it is. Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate
or soothe, I will have purpose, as health or heat or snow has, and be as
regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my
composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side
and look in the mirror with me."


But in view of the profound impression Whitman's work has made upon widely
different types of mind on both sides of the Atlantic, and in view of the
persistent vitality of his fame, the question whether he is inside or
outside the pale of art amounts to very little. I quite agree with the
late Mrs. Gilchrist, that, when "great meanings and great emotions are
expressed with corresponding power, literature has done its best, call it
what you please."

That Whitman has expressed great meanings and great emotions with adequate
power, even his unfriendly critics admit. Thus Professor Wendell, in an
admirable essay on American literature, says that "though Whitman is
uncouth, inarticulate, and lacking in a grotesque degree artistic form,
yet for all that he can make you feel for the moment how even the
ferry-boats plying from New York to Brooklyn are fragments of God's
eternities." In the same way Mr. William Clark, his British critic and
expounder, says that he is wanting in discrimination and art, "flings his
ideas at us in a heap," etc., and yet that the effect of his work is "to
stir our emotions, widen our interests, and rally the forces of our moral

It seems to me that a man who, through the printed page, can do these
things, must have some kind of art worth considering. If, through his
impassioned treatment of a prosy, commonplace object like a ferry-boat, he
can so dignify and exalt it, and so fill it with the meanings of the
spirit, that it seems like a part of God's eternities, his methods are at
least worth inquiring into.

The truth is, Whitman's art, in its lack of extrinsic form and finish, is
Oriental rather than Occidental, and is an offense to a taste founded upon
the precision and finish of a mechanical age. His verse is like the
irregular, slightly rude coin of the Greeks compared with the exact,
machine-cut dies of our own day, or like the unfinished look of Japanese
pottery beside the less beautiful but more perfect specimens of modern
ceramic art.

For present purposes, we may say there are two phases of art,--formal art
and creative art. By formal art I mean that which makes a direct appeal to
our sense of form,--our sense of the finely carved, the highly wrought,
the deftly planned; and by creative art I mean that quickening,
fructifying power of the masters, that heat and passion that make the
world plastic and submissive to their hands, teeming with new meanings and
thrilling with new life.

Formal art is always in the ascendant. Formal anything--formal dress,
formal manners, formal religion, formal this and that--always counts for
more than the informal, the spontaneous, the original. It is easier, it
can be put off and on.

Formal art is nearly always the gift of the minor poet, and often of the
major poet also. In such a poet as Swinburne, formal art leads by a great
way. The content of his verse,--what is it? In Tennyson as well I should
say formal art is in the ascendant. Creative art is his also; Tennyson
reaches and moves the spirit, yet his skill is more noteworthy than his
power. In Wordsworth, on the other hand, I should say creative art led:
the content of his verse is more than its form; his spiritual and
religious values are greater than his literary and artistic. The same is
true of our own Emerson. Poe, again, is much more as an artist than as a
man or a personality.

I hardly need say that in Whitman formal art, the ostensibly artistic,
counts for but very little. The intentional artist, the professional poet,
is kept entirely in abeyance, or is completely merged and hidden in the
man, more so undoubtedly than in any poet this side the old Oriental
bards. We call him formless, chaotic, amorphous, etc., because he makes no
appeal to our modern highly stimulated sense of art or artificial form. We
must discriminate this from our sense of power, our sense of life, our
sense of beauty, of the sublime, of the all, which clearly Whitman would
reach and move. Whitman certainly has a form of his own: what would a
poet, or any writer or worker in the ideal, do without some kind of form?
some consistent and adequate vehicle of expression? But Whitman's form is
not what is called artistic, because it is not brought within the rules of
the prosodical system, and does not appeal to our sense of the consciously
shaped and cultivated. It is essentially the prose form heightened and
intensified by a deep, strong, lyric and prophetic note.

The bonds and shackles of regular verse-form Whitman threw off. This
course seemed to be demanded by the spirit to which he had dedicated
himself,--the spirit of absolute unconstraint. The restrictions and
hamperings of the scholastic forms did not seem to be consistent with this
spirit, which he identified with democracy and the New World. A poet who
sets out to let down the bars everywhere, to remove veils and
obstructions, to emulate the freedom of the elemental forces, to effuse
always the atmosphere of open-air growths and objects, to be as
"regardless of observation" as the processes of nature, etc., will not be
apt to take kindly to any arbitrary and artificial form of expression. The
essentially prose form which Whitman chose is far more in keeping with the
spirit and aim of his work than any conventional metrical system could
have been. Had he wrought solely as a conscious artist, aiming at the
effect of finely chiseled forms, he would doubtless have chosen a
different medium.


Whitman threw himself with love and enthusiasm upon this great, crude,
seething, materialistic American world. The question is, Did he master it?
Is he adequate to absorb and digest it? Does he make man-stuff of it? Is
it plastic in his hands? Does he stamp it with his own image? I do not
ask, Does he work it up into what are called artistic forms? Does he make
it the quarry from which he carves statues or builds temples? because
evidently he does not do this, or assume to do it. He is content if he
present America and the modern to us as they are inwrought into his own
personality, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, or as character,
passion, will, motive, conviction. He would show them subjectively and as
living impulses in himself. Of course a great constructive, dramatic poet
like Shakespeare would have solved his problem in a different manner, or
through the objective, artistic portrayal of types and characters. But the
poet and prophet of democracy and of egotism shows us all things in and
through himself.

His egotism, or egocentric method, is the fundamental fact about his work.
It colors all and determines all. The poems are the direct outgrowth of
the personality of the poet; they are born directly upon the ego, as it
were, like the fruit of that tropical tree which grows immediately upon
the trunk. His work is nearer his radical, primary self than that of most
poets. He never leads us away from himself into pleasant paths with
enticing flowers of fancy or forms of art. He carves or shapes nothing for
its own sake; there is little in the work that can stand on independent
grounds as pure art. His work is not material made precious by elaboration
and finish, but by its relation to himself and to the sources of life.


Whitman was compelled to this negation of extrinsic art by the problem he
had set before himself,--first, to arouse, to suggest, rather than to
finish or elaborate, less to display any theme or thought than "to bring
the reader into the atmosphere of the theme or thought;" secondly, to make
his own personality the chief factor in the volume, or present it so that
the dominant impression should always be that of the living, breathing
man as we meet him and see him and feel him in life, and never as we see
him and feel him in books or art,--the man in the form and garb of actual,
concrete life, not as poet or artist, but simply as man. This is doubtless
the meaning of the vestless and coatless portrait of himself prefixed to
the first issue of the "Leaves," to which I have referred. This portrait
is symbolical of the whole attitude of the poet toward his task. It was a
hint that we must take this poet with very little literary tailoring; it
was a hint that he belonged to the open air, and came of the people and
spoke in their spirit.

It is never the theme treated, but always the character exploited; never
the structure finished, but always the plan suggested; never the work
accomplished, but always the impulse imparted,--freedom, power, growth.

  "Allons! we must not stop here.
  However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling,
        we cannot remain here,
  However sheltered this port, or however calm these waters, we must not
        anchor here,
  However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to
        receive it but a little while.

  "Allons! With power, liberty, the earth, the elements!
  Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
  Allons! from all formulas!
  From your formulas, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests!"

This magnificent poem, "The Song of the Open Road," is one of the most
significant in Whitman's work. He takes the open road as his type,--not an
end in itself, not a fulfillment, but a start, a journey, a progression.
It teaches him the profound lesson of reception, "no preference nor
denial," and the profounder lesson of liberty and truth:--

  "From this hour, freedom!
  From this hour I ordain myself loosed of limits and imaginary lines,
  Going where I list--my own master, total and absolute,
  Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
  Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
  Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that
        would hold me.

  "I inhale great draughts of air,
  The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine."

He will not rest with art, he will not rest with books, he will press his
way steadily toward the largest freedom.

  "Only the kernel of every object nourishes.
  Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
  Where is he who undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?"

Whitman was not a builder. If he had the architectural power which the
great poets have shown, he gave little proof of it. It was not required by
the task he set before himself. His book is not a temple: it is a wood, a
field, a highway; vista, vista, everywhere,--vanishing lights and shades,
truths half disclosed, successions of objects, hints, suggestions, brief
pictures, groups, voices, contrasts, blendings, and, above all, the tonic
quality of the open air. The shorter poems are like bunches of herbs or
leaves, or a handful of sprays gathered in a walk; never a thought
carefully carved, and appealing to our sense of artistic form.

The main poem of the book, "The Song of Myself," is a series of
utterances, ejaculations, apostrophes, enumerations, associations,
pictures, parables, incidents, suggestions, with little or no structural
or logical connection, but all emanating from a personality whose presence
dominates the page, and whose eye is ever upon us. Without this vivid and
intimate sense of the man back of all, of a sane and powerful spirit
sustaining ours, the piece would be wild and inchoate.


The reader will be sure to demand of Whitman ample compensation for the
absence from his work of those things which current poets give us in such
full measure. Whether or not the compensation is ample, whether the music
of his verse as of winds and waves, the long, irregular, dithyrambic
movement, its fluid and tonic character, the vastness of conception, the
large, biblical speech, the surging cosmic emotion, the vivid personal
presence as of the living man looking into your eye or walking by your
side,--whether all these things, the refreshing quality as of "harsh salt
spray" which the poet Lanier found in the "Leaves," the electric currents
which Mrs. Gilchrist found there, the "unexcelled imaginative justice of
language" which Mr. Stevenson at times found, the religious liberation and
faith which Mr. Symonds found, the "incomparable things incomparably well
said" of Emerson, the rifle-bullets of Ruskin, the "supreme words" of
Colonel Ingersoll, etc.,--whether qualities and effects like these, I say,
make up to us for the absence of the traditional poetic graces and
adornments, is a question which will undoubtedly long divide the reading

In the works upon which our poetic taste is founded, artistic form is
paramount; we have never been led to apply to such works open-air
standards,--clouds, trees, rivers, spaces,--but the precision and
definiteness of the cultured and the artificial. If Whitman had aimed at
pure art and had failed, his work would be intolerable. As his French
critic, Gabriel Sarrazin, has well said: "In the large work which Whitman
attempted, there come no rules save those of nobility and strength of
spirit; and these suffice amply to create a most unlooked-for and
grandiose aspect of beauty." "Overcrowded and disorderly" as it may seem,
"if heroic emotion and thought and enthusiasm vitalize it," the poet has
reached his goal.


Sometimes I define Whitman to myself as the poet of the open air,--not
because he sings the praises of these things after the manner of the
so-called nature-poets, but because he has the quality of things in the
open air, the quality of the unhoused, the untamed, the elemental and
aboriginal. He pleases and he offends, the same way things at large do. He
has the brawn, the indifference, the rudeness, the virility, the
coarseness,--something gray, unpronounced, elemental, about him, the
effect of mass, size, distance, flowing, vanishing lines, neutral
spaces,--something informal, multitudinous, and processional,--something
regardless of criticism, that makes no bid for our applause, not
calculated instantly to please, unmindful of details, prosaic if we make
it so, common, near at hand, and yet that provokes thought and stirs our
emotions in an unusual degree. The long lists and catalogues of objects
and scenes in Whitman, that have so excited the mirth of the critics, are
one phase of his out-of-doors character,--a multitude of concrete objects,
a grove, a thicket, a field, a stretch of beach,--every object sharply
defined, but no attempt at logical or artistic sequence, the effect of the
whole informal, multitudinous. It may be objected to these pages that they
consist of a mass of details that do not make a picture. But every line is
a picture of a scene or an object. Whitman always keeps up the movement,
he never pauses to describe; it is all action.

Passing from such a poet as Tennyson to Whitman is like going from a warm,
perfumed interior, with rich hangings, pictures, books, statuary, fine men
and women, out into the street, or upon the beach, or upon the hill, or
under the midnight stars. We lose something certainly, but do we not gain
something also? Do we not gain just what Whitman had in view, namely,
direct contact with the elements in which are the sources of our life and
health? Do we not gain in scope and power what we lose in art and

The title, "Leaves of Grass," is full of meaning. What self-knowledge and
self-scrutiny it implies! The grass, perennial sprouting, universal,
formless, common, the always spread feast of the herds, dotted with
flowers, the herbage of the earth, so suggestive of the multitudinous,
loosely aggregated, unelaborated character of the book; the lines
springing directly out of the personality of the poet, the soil of his

  "What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest is me,"

says the poet, and this turns out to be the case. We only look to see if
in the common and the cheap he discloses new values and new meanings,--if
his leaves of grass have the old freshness and nutriment, and be not a
mere painted greenness.

  "The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
  The carpenter dresses his plank--the tongue of his foreplane whistles
        its wild ascending lisp,
  The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving
  The pilot seizes the king-pin--he heaves down with a strong arm,
  The mate stands braced in the whale-boat--lance and harpoon are ready,
  The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
  The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
  The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
  The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First Day loafe, and looks
        at the oats and rye,
  The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum, a confirmed case,
  He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's
  The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
  He turns his quid of tobacco, while his eyes blurr with the manuscript;
  The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,
  What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
  The quadroon girl is sold at the stand--the drunkard nods by the
        bar-room stove,
  The machinist rolls up his sleeves--the policeman travels his beat--the
        gate-keeper marks who pass,
  The young fellow drives the express-wagon--I love him, though I do not
        know him,
  The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
  The western turkey-shooting draws old and young--some lean on their
        rifles, some sit on logs,
  Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his
  The groups of newly-come emigrants cover the wharf or levee,
  As the woolly-pates hoe in the sugar-field, the overseer views them
        from his saddle,
  The bugle calls in the ball-room, the gentlemen run for their partners,
        the dancers bow to each other,
  The youth lies awake in the cedar-roofed garret, and harks to the
        musical rain,
  The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron,
  The reformer ascends the platform, he spouts with his mouth and nose,

       *       *       *       *       *

  Seasons pursuing each other, the plougher ploughs, the mower mows, and
        the winter-grain falls in the ground,
  Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in the
        frozen surface,
  The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep
        with his axe,
  Flatboatmen make fast, towards dusk, near the cotton-wood or pekan-trees,
  Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red River, or through those
        drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
  Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw,
  Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons
        around them,
  In walls of adobe, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their
        day's sport,
  The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
  The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
  The old husband sleeps by his wife, and the young husband sleeps by his
  And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
  And such as it is to be of these, more or less, I am."

What is this but tufts and tussocks of grass; not branching trees, nor yet
something framed and deftly put together, but a succession of simple
things, objects, actions, persons; handfuls of native growths, a stretch
of prairie or savanna; no composition, no artistic wholes, no logical
sequence, yet all vital and real; jets of warm life that shoot and play
over the surface of contemporary America, and that the poet uses as the
stuff out of which to weave the song of himself.

This simple aggregating or cataloguing style as it has been called, and
which often occurs in the "Leaves," has been much criticised, but it seems
to me in perfect keeping in a work that does not aim at total artistic
effects, at finished structural perfection like architecture, but to
picture the elements of a man's life and character in outward scenes and
objects and to show how all nature tends inward to him and he outward to
it. Whitman showers the elements of American life upon his reader until,
so to speak, his mind is drenched with them, but never groups them into
patterns to tickle his sense of form. It is charged that his method is
inartistic, and it is so in a sense, but it is the Whitman art and has its
own value in his work. Only the artist instinct could prompt to this
succession of one line genre word painting.

But this is not the way of the great artists. No, but it is Whitman's way,
and these things have a certain artistic value in his work, a work that
professedly aims to typify his country and times,--the value of multitude,
processions, mass-movements, and the gathering together of elements and
forces from wide areas.


Whitman's relation to art, then, is primary and fundamental, just as his
relations to religion, to culture, to politics, to democracy, are primary
and fundamental,--through his emotion, his soul, and not merely through
his tools, his intellect. His artistic conscience is quickly revealed to
any searching inquiry. It is seen in his purpose to convey his message by
suggestion and indirection, or as an informing, vitalizing breath and
spirit. His thought and meaning are enveloped in his crowded, concrete,
and often turbulent pages, as science is enveloped in nature. He has a
profound ethic, a profound metaphysic, but they are not formulated; they
are vital in his pages as hearing or eyesight.

Whitman studied effects, and shaped his means to his end, weighing values
and subordinating parts, as only the great artist does. He knew the power
of words as few know them; he knew the value of vista, perspective,
vanishing lights and lines. He knew how to make his words itch at your
ears till you understood them; how to fold up and put away in his
sentences meanings, glimpses, that did not at first reveal themselves. It
is only the work of the great creative artist that is pervaded by will,
and that emanates directly and inevitably from the personality of the man
himself. As a man and an American, Whitman is as closely related to his
work as Æschylus to his, or Dante to his. This is always a supreme
test,--the closeness and vitality of the relation of a man to his work.
Could any one else have done it? Is it the general intelligence that
speaks, the culture and refinement of the age? or have we a new revelation
of life, a new mind and soul? The lesser poets sustain only a secondary
relation to their works. It is other poets, other experiences, the past,
the schools, the forms, that speak through them. In all Whitman's
recitatives, as he calls them, the free-flowing ends of the sentences, the
loose threads of meaning, the unraveled or unknitted threads and fringes,
are all well considered, and are one phase of _his_ art. He seeks his
effects thus.

His method is indirect, allegorical, and elliptical to an unusual degree;
often a curious suspension and withholding in a statement, a suggestive
incompleteness, both ends of his thought, as it were, left in the air;
sometimes the substantive, sometimes the nominative, is wanting, and all
for a purpose. The poet somewhere speaks of his utterance as "prophetic
screams." The prophetic element is rarely absent, the voice of one crying
in the wilderness, only it is a more jocund and reassuring cry than we are
used to in prophecy. The forthrightness of utterance, the projectile
force of expression, the constant appeal to unseen laws and powers of the
great prophetic souls, is here.

Whitman is poetic in the same way in which he is democratic, in the same
way in which he is religious, or American, or modern,--not by word merely,
but by deed; not by the extrinsic, but by the intrinsic; not by art, but
by life.

I am never tired of saying that to put great personal qualities in a poem,
or other literary work, not formulated or didactically stated, but in
tone, manner, attitude, breadth of view, love, charity, good fellowship,
etc., is the great triumph for our day. So put, they are a possession to
the race forever; they grow and bear fruit perennially, like the grass and
the trees. And shall it be said that the poet who does this has no worthy


Nearly all modern artificial products, when compared with the ancient, are
characterized by greater mechanical finish and precision. Can we say,
therefore, they are more artistic? Is a gold coin of the time of Pericles,
so rude and simple, less artistic than the elaborate coins of our own day?
Is Japanese pottery, the glazing often ragged and uneven, less artistic
than the highly finished work of the moderns?

Are we quite sure, after all, that what we call "artistic form" is in any
high or fundamental sense artistic? Are the precise, the regular, the
measured, the finished, the symmetrical, indispensable to our conception
of art? If regular extrinsic form and measure and proportion are necessary
elements of the artistic, then geometrical flower-beds, and trees set in
rows or trained to some fancy pattern, ought to please the artist. But do
they? If we look for the artistic in these things, then Addison is a
greater artist than Shakespeare. Dr. Johnson says, "Addison speaks the
language of poets, and Shakespeare of men." Which is really the most
artistic? The one is the coin from the die, the other the coin from the

Tennyson's faultless form and finish are not what stamp him a great
artist. He would no doubt be glad to get rid of them if he could, at least
to keep them in abeyance and make them less obtrusive; he would give
anything for the freedom, raciness, and wildness of Shakespeare. But he is
not equal to these things. The culture, the refinement, the precision of a
correct and mechanical age have sunk too deeply into his soul. He has not
the courage or the spring to let himself go as Shakespeare did. Tennyson,
too, speaks the language of poets, and not of men; he savors of the
flower-garden, and not of the forest. Tennyson knows that he is an artist.
Shakespeare, apparently, never had such a thought; he is intent solely
upon holding the mirror up to nature. The former lived in an age of
criticism, and when the poets loved poetry more than they did life and
things; the latter, in a more virile time, and in "the full stream of the

"Leaves of Grass" is not self-advertised as a work of art. The author had
no thought that you should lay down his book and say, "What a great
artist!" "What a master workman!" He would rather you should say, "What a
great man!" "What a loving comrade!" "What a real democrat!" "What a
healing and helpful force!" He would not have you admire his poetry: he
would have you filled with the breath of a new and larger and saner life;
he would be a teacher and trainer of men.

The love of the precise, the exact, the methodical, is characteristic of
an age of machinery, of a commercial and industrial age like ours. These
things are indispensable in the mill and counting-house, but why should we
insist upon them in poetry? Why should we cling to an arbitrary form like
the sonnet? Why should we insist upon a perfect rhyme, as if it was a cog
in a wheel? Why not allow and even welcome the freedom of half-rhymes, or
suggestive rhymes? Why, anyway, fold back a sentence or idea to get it
into a prescribed arbitrary form? Why should we call this verse-tinkering
and verse-shaping art, when it is only artifice? Why should we call the
man who makes one pretty conceit rhyme with another pretty conceit an
artist, and deny the term to the man whose sentences pair with great laws
and forces?

Of course it is much easier for a poet to use the regular verse-forms and
verse language than it is to dispense with them; that is, a much less
poetic capital is required in the former case than in the latter. The
stock forms and the stock language count for a good deal. A very small
amount of original talent may cut quite an imposing figure in the robes of
the great masters. Require the poet to divest himself of them, and to
speak in the language of men and in the spirit of real things, and see how
he fares.


Whitman was afraid of what he called the beauty disease. He thought a poet
of the first order should be sparing of the direct use of the beautiful,
as Nature herself is. His aim should be larger, and beauty should follow
and not lead. The poet should not say to himself, "Come, I will make
something beautiful," but rather "I will make something true, and
quickening, and powerful. I will not dress my verse up in fine words and
pretty fancies, but I will breathe into it the grit and force and
adhesiveness of real things." Beauty is the flowering of life and
fecundity, and it must have deep root in the non-beautiful.

Beauty, as the master knows it, is a spirit and not an adornment. It is
not merely akin to flowers and gems and rainbows: it is akin to the All.
Looking through his eyes, you shall see it in the rude and the savage
also, in rocks and deserts and mountains, in the common as well as in the
rare, in wrinkled age as well as in rosy youth.

The non-beautiful holds the world together, holds life together and
nourishes it, more than the beautiful. Nature is beautiful because she is
so much else first,--yes, and last, and all the time.

  "For the roughness of the earth and of man encloses as much as the
        delicates of the earth and of man,
  And nothing endures but personal qualities."

Is there not in field, wood, or shore something more precious and tonic
than any special beauties we may chance to find there,--flowers, perfumes,
sunsets,--something that we cannot do without, though we can do without
these? Is it health, life, power, or what is it?

Whatever it is, it is something analogous to this that we get in Whitman.
There is little in his "Leaves" that one would care to quote for its mere
beauty, though this element is there also. One may pluck a flower here and
there in his rugged landscape, as in any other; but the flowers are always
by the way, and never the main matter. We should not miss them if they
were not there. What delights and invigorates us is in the air, and in the
look of things. The flowers are like our wild blossoms growing under great
trees or amid rocks, never the camellia or tuberose of the garden or
hot-house,--something rude and bracing is always present, always a breath
of the untamed and aboriginal.

Whitman's work gives results, and never processes. There is no return of
the mind upon itself; it descends constantly upon things, persons,
realities. It is a rushing stream which will not stop to be analyzed. It
has been urged that Whitman does not give the purely intellectual
satisfaction that would seem to be warranted by his mental grasp and
penetration. No, nor the æsthetic satisfaction warranted by his
essentially artistic habit of mind. Well, he did not promise satisfaction
in anything, but only to put us on the road to satisfaction. His book, he
says, is not a "good lesson," but it lets down the bars to a good lesson,
and that to another, and every one to another still.

Let me repeat that the sharp, distinct intellectual note--the note of
culture, books, clubs, etc., such as we get from so many modern writers,
you will not get from Whitman. In my opinion, the note he sounds is deeper
and better than that. It has been charged by an unfriendly critic that he
strikes lower than the intellect. If it is meant by this that he misses
the intellect, it is not true; he stimulates the intellect as few poets
do. He strikes lower because he strikes farther. He sounds the note of
character, personality, volition, the note of prophecy, of democracy, and
of love. He seems unintellectual to an abnormally intellectual age; he
seems unpoetic to a taste formed upon poetic tidbits; he seems irreligious
to standards founded upon the old models of devotional piety; he seems
disorderly, incoherent to all petty thumb and finger measurements. In his
ideas and convictions, Whitman was a modern of the moderns; yet in his
type, his tastes, his fundamental make-up, he was primitive, of an earlier
race and age,--before, as Emerson suggests, the gods had cut Man up into
men, with special talents of one kind or another.


Take any of Whitman's irregular-flowing lines, and clip and trim them, and
compress them into artificial verse-forms, and what have we gained to make
up for what we have lost? Take his lines called "Reconciliation," for

  "Word over all beautiful as the sky,
  Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly
  That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash
        again, and ever again, this soil'd world;
  For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
  I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin--I draw near,
  Bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin."

Or take his poem called "Old Ireland:"--

  "Far hence amid an isle of wondrous beauty,
  Crouching over a grave an ancient sorrowful mother,
  Once a queen, now lean and tatter'd, seated on the ground,
  Her old white hair drooping, dishevel'd, round her shoulders,
  At her feet fallen an unused royal harp,
  Long silent, she, too, long silent, mourning her shrouded hope and heir,
  Of all the earth her heart most full of sorrow because most full of love.

  "Yet a word, ancient mother,
  You need crouch there no longer on the cold ground with forehead between
        your knees,
  Oh, you need not sit there veil'd in your old white hair so dishevel'd,
  For know you the one you mourn is not in that grave,
  It was an illusion; the son you loved was not really dead,
  The Lord is not dead, he is risen again young and strong in another
  Even while you wept there by your fallen harp by the grave,
  What you wept for was translated, pass'd from the grave,
      The winds favor'd and the sea sail'd it,
      And now with rosy and new blood,
      Moves to-day in a new country."

Or take these lines from "Children of Adam:"--

  "I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday morn I
        pass'd the church,
  Winds of autumn, as I walk'd the woods at dusk I heard your
        long-stretch'd sighs up above so mournful,
  I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the
        soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
  Heart of my love! you, too, I heard murmuring low through one of the
        wrists around my head,
  Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last
        night under my ear."

Put such things as these, or in fact any of the poems, in rhymed and
measured verse, and you heighten a certain effect, the effect of the
highly wrought, the cunningly devised; but we lose just what the poet
wanted to preserve at all hazards,--vista, unconstraint, the effect of the
free-careering forces of nature.

I always think of a regulation verse-form as a kind of corset which does
not much disguise a good figure, though it certainly hampers it, and which
is a great help to a poor figure. It covers up deficiencies, and it
restrains exuberances. A personality like Whitman can wear it with ease
and grace, as may be seen in a few of his minor poems, but for my part I
like him best without it.


How well we know the language of the conventional poetic! In this
language, the language of nine tenths of current poetry, the wind comes
up out of the south and kisses the rose's crimson mouth, or it comes out
of the wood and rumples the poppy's hood. Morning comes in glistening
sandals, and her footsteps are jeweled with flowers. Everything is
bedecked and bejeweled. Nothing is truly seen or truly reported. It is an
attempt to paint the world beautiful. It is not beautiful as it is, and we
must deck it out in the colors of the fancy. Now, I do not want the world
painted for me. I want the grass green or brown, as the case may be; the
sky blue, the rocks gray, the soil red; and that the sun should rise and
set without any poetic claptrap. What I want is to see these things spin
around a thought, or float on the current of an emotion, as they always do
in real poetry.

Beauty always follows, never leads the great poet. It arises out of the
interior substance and structure of his work, like the bloom of health in
the cheeks. The young poet thinks to win Beauty by direct and persistent
wooing of her. He has not learned yet that she comes unsought to the
truthful, the brave, the heroic. Let him think some great thought,
experience some noble impulse, give himself with love to life and reality
about him, and Beauty is already his. She is the reward of noble deeds.


The modern standard in art is becoming more and more what has been called
the canon of the characteristic, as distinguished from the Greek or
classic canon of formal beauty. It is this canon, as Professor Triggs
suggests, that we are to apply to Whitman. Dr. Johnson had it in mind when
he wrote thus of Shakespeare:--

"The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed
and diligently planted, varied with shades and scented with flowers: the
composition of Shakespeare is a forest in which oaks extend their
branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds
and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses;
filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless

Classic art holds to certain fixed standards; it seeks formal beauty; it
holds to order and proportion in external parts; its ideal of natural
beauty is the well-ordered park or grove or flower-garden. It has a horror
of the wild and savage. Mountains and forests, and tempests and seas,
filled the classic mind with terror. Not so with the modern romantic mind,
which finds its best stimulus and delight in free, unhampered nature. It
loves the element of mystery and the suggestion of uncontrollable power.
The modern mind has a sense of the vast, the infinite, that the Greek had
not, and it is drawn by informal beauty more than by the formal.


It is urged against Whitman that he brings us the materials of poetry, but
not poetry: he brings us the marble block, but not the statue; or he
brings us the brick and mortar, but not the house. False or superficial
analogies mislead us. Poetry is not something made; it is something grown,
it is a vital union of the fact and the spirit. If the verse awakens in us
the poetic thrill, the material, whatever it be, must have been touched
with the transforming spirit of poesy. Why does Whitman's material suggest
to any reader that it is poetic material? Because it has already been
breathed upon by the poetic spirit. A poet may bring the raw material of
poetry in the sense that he may bring the raw material of a gold coin; the
stamp and form you give it does not add to its value. It is doubtful if
any of Whitman's utterances could be worked up into what is called poetry
without a distinct loss of poetic value. What they would gain in finish
they would lose in suggestiveness. This word "suggestiveness" affords one
of the keys to Whitman. The objection to him I have been considering
arises from the failure of the critic to see and appreciate his avowed
purpose to make his page fruitful in poetic suggestion, rather than in
samples of poetic elaboration. "I finish no specimens," he says. "I shower
them by exhaustless laws, fresh and modern continually, as Nature does."
He is quite content if he awaken the poetic emotion without at all
satisfying it. He would have you more eager and hungry for poetry when you
had finished with him than when you began. He brings the poetic stimulus,
and brings it in fuller measure than any contemporary poet; and this is
enough for him.

An eminent musician and composer, the late Dr. Ritter, told me that
reading "Leaves of Grass" excited him to composition as no other poetry
did. Tennyson left him passive and cold, but Whitman set his fingers in
motion at once; he was so fruitful in themes, so suggestive of new
harmonies and melodies. He gave the hints, and left his reader to follow
them up. This is exactly what Whitman wanted to do. It defines his
attitude toward poetry, towards philosophy, towards religion,--to suggest
and set going, to arouse unanswerable questions, and to brace you to meet
them; to bring the materials of poetry, if you will have it so, and leave
you to make the poem; to start trains of thought, and leave you to pursue
the flight alone. Not a thinker, several critics have urged; no, but the
cause of thought in others to an unwonted degree. "Whether you agree with
him or not," says an Australian essayist, "he will sting you into such an
anguish of thought as must in the end be beneficial." It matters little to
him whether or not you agree with him; what is important is, that you
should think the matter out for yourself. He purposely avoids hemming you
in by his conclusions; he would lead you in no direction but your own.
"Once more I charge you give play to your self. I charge you leave all
free, as I have left all free."

No thought, no philosophy, no music, no poetry, in his pages; no, it is
all character, impulse, emotion, suggestion. But the true reader of him
experiences all these things: he finds in his pages, if he knows how to
look for it, a profound metaphysic, a profound ethic, a profound æsthetic;
a theory of art and poetry which is never stated, but only hinted or
suggested, and which is much more robust and vital than what we are used
to; a theory of good and evil; a view of character and conduct; a theory
of the state and of politics, of the relation of the sexes, etc., to give
ample food for thought and speculation. The Hegelian philosophy is in the
"Leaves" as vital as the red corpuscles in the blood, so much is implied
that is not stated, but only suggested, as in Nature herself. The really
vast erudition of the work is adroitly concealed, hidden like its
philosophy, as a tree hides its roots. Readers should not need to be told
that, in the region of art as of religion, mentality is not first, but
spirituality, personality, imagination; and that we do not expect a poet's
thoughts to lie upon his pages like boulders in the field, but rather to
show their presence like elements in the soil.

  "Love-buds, put before you and within you, whoever you are,
  Buds to be unfolded on the old terms,
  If you bring the warmth of the sun to them, they will open, and bring
        form, color, perfume to you,
  If you become the aliment and the wet, they will become flowers, fruits,
        tall branches and trees."

The early records and sacred books of most peoples contain what is called
the materials of poetry. The Bible is full of such materials. English
literature shows many attempts to work this material up into poetry, but
always with a distinct loss of poetic value. The gold is simply beaten
out thin and made to cover more surface, or it is mixed with some base
metal. A recent English poet has attempted to work up the New Testament
records into poetry, and the result is for the most part a thin, windy
dilution of the original. If the record or legend is full of poetic
suggestion, that is enough; to elaborate it, and deck it out in poetic
finery without loss of poetic value, is next to impossible.

To me the Arthurian legends as they are given in the old books, are more
poetic, more stimulating to the imagination, than they are after they have
gone through the verbal upholstering and polishing of such a poet as
Swinburne or even Tennyson. These poets add little but words and flowers
of fancy, and the heroic simplicity of the original is quite destroyed.


No critic of repute has been more puzzled and misled by this unwrought
character of our poet's verse than Mr. Edmund Gosse, the London poet and
essayist. Mr. Gosse finds Whitman only a potential or possible poet; his
work is literature in the condition of protoplasm. He is a maker of poems
in solution; the structural change which should have crystallized his
fluid and teeming pages into forms of art never came. It does not occur to
Mr. Gosse to inquire whether or not something like this may not have been
the poet's intention. Perhaps this is the secret of the vitality of his
work, which, as Mr. Gosse says, now, after forty years, shows no sign of
declining. Perhaps it was a large, fresh supply of poetic yeast that the
poet really sought to bring us. Undoubtedly Whitman aimed to give his work
just this fluid, generative quality, to put into it the very basic
elements of life itself. He feared the "structural change" to which Mr.
Gosse refers; he knew it was more or less a change from life to death: the
cell and not the crystal; the leaf of grass, and not the gem, is the type
of his sentences. He sacrificed fixed form; above all, did he stop short
of that conscious intellectual elaboration so characteristic of later
poetry, the better to give the impression and the stimulus of creative
elemental power. It is not to the point to urge that this is not the
method or aim of other poets; that others have used the fixed forms, and
found them plastic and vital in their hands. It was Whitman's aim; these
were the effects he sought. I think beyond doubt that he gives us the
impression of something dynamic, something akin to the vital forces of the
organic world, much more distinctly and fully than any other poet who has

Whitman always aimed to make his reader an active partner with him in his
poetic enterprise. "I seek less," he says, "to state or display any theme
or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the
theme or thought, there to pursue your own flight." This trait is brought
out by Mr. Gosse in a little allegory. "Every reader who comes to
Whitman," he says, "starts upon an expedition to the virgin forest. He
must take his conveniences with him. He will make of the excursion what
his own spirit dictates. [We generally do, in such cases, Mr. Gosse.]
There are solitudes, fresh air, rough landscape, and a well of water, but
if he wishes to enjoy the latter he must bring his own cup with him." This
phase of Whitman's work has never been more clearly defined. Mr. Gosse
utters it as an adverse criticism. It is true exposition, however we take
it, what we get out of Whitman depends so largely upon what we bring to
him. Readers will not all get the same. We do not all get the same out of
a walk or a mountain climb. We get out of him in proportion to the
sympathetic and interpretative power of our own spirits. Have you the
brooding, warming, vivifying mother-mind? That vague, elusive,
incommensurable something in the "Leaves" that led Symonds to say that
talking about Whitman was like talking about the universe,--that seems to
challenge our pursuit and definition, that takes on so many different
aspects to so many different minds,--it seems to be this that has led Mr.
Gosse to persuade himself that there is no real Walt Whitman, no man whom
we can take, as we take any other figure in literature, as an "entity of
positive value and definite characteristics," but a mere mass of literary
protoplasm that takes the instant impression of whatever mood approaches
it. Stevenson finds a Stevenson in it, Mr. Symonds finds a Symonds,
Emerson finds an Emerson, etc. Truly may our poet say, "I contain
multitudes." In what other poet do these men, or others like them, find

Whitman was a powerful solvent undoubtedly. He never hardens into anything
like a system, or into mere intellectual propositions. One of his own
phrases, "the fluid and swallowing soul," is descriptive of this trait of
him. One source of his charm is, that we each see some phase of ourselves
in him, as Mr. Gosse suggests. Above all things is he potential and
indicative, bard of "flowing mouth and indicative hand." In his
"Inscriptions" he says:--

  "I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual
        look upon you and then averts his face,
  Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
  Expecting the main things from you."

This withholding and half-averted glancing, then, on the part of the poet,
is deliberate and enters into the scheme of the work. Mr. Gosse would have
shown himself a sounder critic had he penetrated the poet's purpose in
this respect, and shown whether or not he had violated the canons he had
set up for his own guidance. We do not condemn a creative work when it
departs from some rule or precedent, but when it violates its own
principle, when it is not consistent with itself, when it hath not eyes to
see, or ears to hear, or hands to reach what lies within its own sphere.
Art, in the plastic realms of written language, may set its mind upon
elaboration, upon structural finish and proportion, upon exact forms and
compensations, as in architecture, or it may set its mind upon
suggestion, indirection, and the flowing, changing forms of organic
nature. It is as much art in the one case as in the other. To get rid of
all visible artifice is, of course, the great thing in both cases. There
is so little apparent artifice in Whitman's case that he has been accused
of being entirely without art, and of throwing his matter together in a
haphazard way,--"without thought, without selection," without
"composition, evolution, vertebration of style," says Mr. Gosse. Yet his
work more than holds its own in a field where these things alone are
supposed to insure success. Whitman covers up his processes well, and
knows how to hit his mark without seeming to take aim. The verdicts upon
him are mainly contradictory, because each critic only takes in a part of
his scheme. Mr. Stedman finds him a formalist. Mr. Gosse finds in him a
negation of all form. The London critic says he is without thought. A
Boston critic speaks of what he happily calls the "waves of thought" in
his work,--vast mind-impulses that lift and sway great masses of concrete
facts and incidents. Whitman knew from the start that he would puzzle and
baffle his critics, and would escape from them like air when they felt
most sure they had him in their verbal nets. So it has been from the
first, and so it continues to be. Without one thing, he says, it is
useless to read him; and of what that one thing needful is, he gives only
the vaguest hint, only a "significant look."


I may here notice two objections to Whitman urged by Mr. Stedman,--a
critic for whose opinion I have great respect, and a man for whom I have a
genuine affection. With all his boasted breadth and tolerance, Whitman,
says my friend, is narrow; and, with all his vaunted escape from the
shackles of verse-form, he is a formalist: his "irregular, manneristic
chant" is as much at the extreme of artificiality as is the sonnet. These
certainly are faults that one does not readily associate with the work of
Whitman. But then I remember that the French critic, Scherer, charges
Carlyle, the apostle of the gospel of sincerity, with being insincere and
guilty of canting about cant. If Carlyle is insincere, I think it very
likely that Whitman may be narrow and hide-bound. These things are so much
a matter of temperament that one cannot judge for another. Yet one ought
not to confound narrowness and breadth, or little and big. All earnest,
uncompromising men are more or less open to the charge of narrowness. A
man is narrow when he concentrates himself upon a point; even a
cannon-shot is. Whitman was narrow in the sense that he was at times
monotonous; that he sought but few effects, that he poured himself out
mainly in one channel, that he struck chiefly the major chords of life.
His "Leaves" do not show a great range of artistic motifs. A versatile,
many-sided nature he certainly was not; a large, broad, tolerant nature
he as certainly was. He does not assume many and diverse forms like a
purely artistic talent, sporting with and masquerading in all the elements
of life, like Shakespeare; but in his own proper form, and in his own
proper person, he gives a sense of vastness and power that are
unapproached in modern literature. He asserts himself uncompromisingly,
but he would have you do the same. "He who spreads a wider breast than my
own proves the width of my own." "He most honors my style who learns under
it to destroy the teacher." His highest hope is to be the soil of superior

Mr. Stedman thinks he detects in the poet a partiality for the coarser,
commoner elements of our humanity over the finer and choicer,--for the
"rough" over the gentleman. But when all things have been duly considered,
it will be found, I think, that he finally rests only with great personal
qualities and traits. He is drawn by powerful, natural persons, wherever
found,--men and women self-poised, fully equipped on all sides:--

  "I announce a great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate,
        compassionate, fully arm'd,
  I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,"--

and much more to the same effect.

  "I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain:
  If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it."

Whitman is a formalist, just as every man who has a way of his own of
saying and doing things, no matter how natural, is a formalist; but he is
not a stickler for form of any sort. He has his own proper form, of
course, which he rarely departs from. At one extreme of artificiality Mr.
Stedman apparently places the sonnet. This is an arbitrary form; its rules
are inflexible; it is something cut and shaped and fitted together after a
predetermined pattern, and to this extent is artificial. If Whitman's
irregularity was equally studied; if it gave us the same sense of
something cunningly planned and wrought to a particular end, clipped here,
curbed there, folded back in this line, drawn out in that, and attaining
to a certain mechanical proportion and balance as a whole,--then there
would be good ground for the critic's charge. But such is not the case.
Whitman did not have, nor claim to have, the architectonic power of the
great constructive poets. He did not build the lofty rhyme. He did not
build anything, strictly speaking. He let himself go. He named his book
after the grass, which makes a carpet over the earth, and which is a sign
and a presence rather than a form.


Whitman's defects flow out of his great qualities. What we might expect
from his size, his sense of mass and multitude, would be an occasional
cumbrousness, turgidity, unwieldiness, ineffectualness: what we might
expect from his vivid realism would be an occasional over-rankness or
grossness; from his bluntness, a rudeness; from his passion for country, a
little spread-eagleism; from his masterly use of indirection, occasional
obscurity; from his mystic identification of himself with what is
commonest, cheapest, nearest, a touch at times of the vulgar and unworthy;
from his tremendous practical democracy, a bias at times toward too low an
average; from his purpose "to effuse egotism and show it underlying all,"
may arise a little too much self-assertion, etc. The price paid for his
strenuousness and earnestness will be a want of humor; his determination
to glorify the human body, as God made it, will bring him in collision
with our notions of the decent, the proper; the "courageous, clear voice"
with which he seeks to prove the sexual organs and acts "illustrious,"
will result in his being excluded from good society; his "heroic nudity"
will be apt to set the good dame, Belles-lettres, all a-shiver; his
healthful coarseness and godlike candor will put all the respectable folk
to flight.


To say that Whitman is a poet in undress is true within certain limits. If
it conveys the impression that he is careless or inapt in the use of
language, or that the word is not always the fit word, the best word, the
saying does him injustice. No man ever searched more diligently for the
right word--for just the right word--than did Whitman. He would wait for
days and weeks for the one ultimate epithet. How long he pressed the
language for some word or phrase that would express the sense of the
evening call of the robin, and died without the sight! But his language
never obtrudes itself. It has never stood before the mirror, it does not
consciously challenge your admiration, it is not obviously studied, it is
never on dress parade. His matchless phrases seem like chance hits, so
much so that some critics have wondered how he happened to _stumble_ upon
them. His verse is not dressed up, because it has so few of the artificial
adjuncts of poetry,--no finery or stuck-on ornament,--nothing obtrusively
beautiful or poetic; and because it bears itself with the freedom and
nonchalance of a man in his every-day attire.

But it is always in a measure misleading to compare language with dress,
to say that a poet clothes his thought, etc. The language is the thought;
it is an incarnation, not an outside tailoring. To improve the expression
is to improve the thought. In the most vital writing, the thought is nude;
the mind of the reader touches something alive and real. When we begin to
hear the rustle of a pompous or highly wrought vocabulary, when the man
begins to dress his commonplace ideas up in fine phrases, we have enough
of him.

Indeed, it is only the mechanical writer who may be said to "clothe" his
ideas with words; the real poet thinks through words.


I see that a plausible criticism might be made against Whitman, perhaps
has been made, that in him we find the big merely,--strength without
power, size without quality. A hasty reader might carry away this
impression from his work, because undoubtedly one of the most obvious
things about him is his great size. It is impossible not to feel that here
is a large body of some sort. We have come upon a great river, a great
lake, an immense plain, a rugged mountain. We feel that this mind requires
a large space to turn in. The page nearly always gives a sense of mass and
multitude. All attempts at the playful or humorous seem ungainly. The
style is processional and agglomerative. Out of these vast, rolling,
cloud-like masses does there leap forth the true lightning? It seems to me
there can be no doubt about that. The spirit easily triumphs. There is not
only mass, there is penetration; not only vastness, there is sublimity;
not only breadth, there is quality and charm. He is both Dantesque and
Darwinian, as has been said.

Mr. Symonds was impressed with this quality of vastness in Whitman, and,
despairing of conveying an adequate notion of him by any process of
literary analysis, resorts to the use of a succession of metaphors,--the
symbolic use of objects that convey the idea of size and power. Thus, "he
is Behemoth, wallowing in primeval jungles;" "he is a gigantic elk or
buffalo, trampling the grass of the wilderness;" "he is an immense tree, a
kind of Ygdrasil, striking its roots deep down into the bowels of the
world;" "he is the circumambient air in which float shadowy shapes, rise
mirage-towers and palm-groves;" "he is the globe itself,--all seas,
lands, forests, climates, storms, snows, sunshines, rains of universal

Colonel Ingersoll said there was something in him akin to mountains and
plains, and to the globe itself.

But Whitman is something more than a literary colossus. Pigmies can only
claim pigmy honors. Size, after all, rules in this universe, because size
and power go together. The large bodies rule the small. There is no
impression of greatness in art without something that is analogous to
size,--breadth, depth, height. The sense of vastness is never the gift of
a minor poet. You cannot paint Niagara on the thumb-nail. Great artists
are distinguished from small by the majesty of their conceptions.

Whitman's air is continental. He implies a big country, vast masses of
humanity, sweeping and stirring times, the triumphs of science and the
industrial age. He is the poet of mass and multitude. In his pages things
are grouped and on the run, as it were. Little detail, little or no
elaboration, little or no development of a theme, no minute studied
effects so dear to the poets, but glimpses, suggestions, rapid surveys,
sweeping movements, processions of objects, vista, vastness,--everywhere
the effect of a man overlooking great spaces and calling off the
significant and interesting points. He never stops to paint; he is
contented to suggest. His "Leaves" are a rapid, joyous survey of the
forces and objects of the universe, first with reference to character and
personality, and next with reference to America and democracy. His method
of treatment is wholesale and accumulative. It is typified by this passage
in his first poem:--

  "Listen! I will be honest with you,
  I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.

  "I tramp a perpetual journey,
  My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the
  No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
  I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
  I lead no man to a dinner table, library, or exchange,
  But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
  My left hand hooking you round the waist,
  My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and a plain public

He deals with the major elements of life, and always aims at large
effects. "Lover of populous pavements," he is occupied with large thoughts
and images, with races, eras, multitudes, processions. His salute is to
the world. He keeps the whole geography of his country and of the globe
before him; his purpose in his poems spans the whole modern world. He
views life as from some eminence from which many shades and differences
disappear. He sees things in mass. Many of our cherished conventions
disappear from his point of view. He sees the fundamental and necessary
things. His vision is sweeping and final. He tries himself by the orbs.
His standards of poetry and art are astronomic. He sees his own likeness
in the earth. His rapture springs, not so much from the contemplation of
bits and parts as from the contemplation of the whole. There is a breadth
of sympathy and of interest that does not mind particulars. He says:--

  "It is no small matter, this round and delicious globe, moving so
        exactly in its orbit forever and ever, without one jolt, or the
        untruth of a single second,
  I do not think it was made in six days, nor in ten thousand years, nor
        ten billions of years,
  Nor planned and built one thing after another as an architect plans and
        builds a house."

In old age he sees "the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly
as it pours into the sea." He looks upon all things at a certain remove.
These are typical lines:--

  "A thousand perfect men and women appear,
  Around each gathers a cluster of friends, and gay children and youths,
        with offerings."

  "Women sit, or move to and fro, some old, some young,
  The young are beautiful--but the old are more beautiful than the young."

"The Runner," "A Farm Picture," and scores of others, are to the same
effect. Always wholes, total impressions,--always a view as of a "strong
bird on pinion free." Few details, but panoramic effects; not the flower,
but the landscape; not a tree, but a forest; not a street corner, but a
city. The title of one of his poems, "A Song of the Rolling Earth," might
stand as the title of the book. When he gathers details and special
features he masses them like a bouquet of herbs and flowers. No cameo
carving, but large, bold, rough, heroic sculpturing. The poetry is always
in the totals, the breadth, the sweep of conception. The part that is
local, specific, genre, near at hand, is Whitman himself; his personality
is the background across which it all flits.

We make a mistake when we demand of Whitman what the other poets give
us,--studies, embroidery, delicate tracings, pleasing artistic effects,
rounded and finished specimens. We shall understand him better if we
inquire what his own standards are, what kind of a poet he would be. He
tells us over and over again that he would emulate the great forces and
processes of Nature. He seeks for hints in the sea, the mountain, in the
orbs themselves. In the wild splendor and savageness of a Colorado canyon
he sees a spirit kindred to his own.

He dwells fondly, significantly, upon the amplitude, the coarseness, and
what he calls the sexuality, of the earth, and upon its great charity and

"The earth," he says, "does not withhold; it is generous enough:--

  "The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so concealed
  They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print.
  They are imbued through all things, conveying themselves willingly,
  Conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth--I utter and utter!"

       *       *       *       *       *

  "The earth does not argue,
  Is not pathetic, has no arrangements,
  Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise,
  Makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures,
  Closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out.
  Of all the powers, objects, states, it notifies, shuts none out."

He says the best of life

  "Is not what you anticipated--it is cheaper, easier, nearer,"

and that the earth affords the final standard of all things:--

  "I swear there can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate
        the theory of the earth,
  No politics, art, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account unless
        it compares with the amplitude of the earth,
  Unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude, of the

No one can make a study of our poet without being deeply impressed with
these and kindred passages:--

  "The maker of poems settles justice, reality, immortality,
  His insight and power encircle things and the human race.
  The singers do not beget, only the Poet begets,
  The singers are welcom'd, understood, appear often enough, but rare has
        the day been, likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker of
        poems, the Answerer,
  (Not every century, nor every five centuries has contain'd such a day,
        for all its names.)

       *       *       *       *       *

  "All this time and at all times wait the words of true poems,
  The words of true poems do not merely please,
  The true poets are not followers of beauty, but the august masters of
  The greatness of sons is the exuding of the greatness of mothers and
  The words of true poems are the tuft and final applause of science.

  "Divine instinct, breadth of vision, the law of reason, health, rudeness
        of body, withdrawnness,
  Gayety, sun-tan, air-sweetness, such are some of the words of poems,
  The sailor, the traveler, underlie the maker of poems, the Answerer,
  The builder, geometer, chemist, anatomist, phrenologist, artist, all
        these underlie the maker of poems, the Answerer.
  The words of the true poems give you more than poems;
  They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war,
        peace, behavior, histories, essays, daily life, and everything
  They balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes;
  They do not seek beauty, they are sought,
  Forever touching them or close upon them follows beauty, longing, fain,
  They prepare for death, yet are they not the finish, but rather the
  They bring none to his or her terminus or to be contented and full,
  Whom they take they take into space to behold the birth of stars, to
        learn one of the meanings,
  To launch off with absolute faith, to sweep through the ceaseless rings
        and never be quiet again.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Of these States the poet is the equable man,
  Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of
        their full returns,
  Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
  He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more
        nor less,
  He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
  He is the equalizer of his age and land,
  He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,
  In peace out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty,
        building populous towns, encouraging agriculture, arts, commerce,
        lighting the study of man, the soul, health, immortality,
  In war he is the best backer of the war, he fetches artillery as good as
        the engineer's, he can make every word he speaks draw blood,
  The years straying toward infidelity he withholds by his steady faith,
  He is no arguer, he is judgment (nature accepts him absolutely),
  He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a
        helpless thing,
  As he sees the farthest he has the most faith,
  His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things,
  In the dispute on God and eternity he is silent,
  He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement,
  He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and omen as
        dreams or dots.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "Rhymes and rhymers pass away, poems distill'd from other poems pass
  The swarms of reflectors and the polite pass, and leave ashes,
  Admirers, impostors, obedient persons, make but the soil of literature."

Folded up in these sentences, often many times folded up, is Whitman's
idea of the poet, the begetter, the reconciler; not the priest of the
beautiful, but the master of the All, who does not appear once in

We hear nothing of the popular conception of the poet, well reflected in
these lines of Tennyson:--

  "The poet in a golden clime was born, with golden stars above."

"Golden stars" and "golden climes" do not figure at all in Whitman's
pages; the spirit of romance is sternly excluded.

Whitman's ideal poet is the most composite man, rich in temperament, rank
in the human attributes, embracing races and eras in himself. All men see
themselves in him:--

  "The mechanic takes him for a mechanic,
  And the soldier supposes him to be a soldier, and the sailor that he
        has followed the sea,
  And the authors take him for an author, and the artists for an artist,
  And the laborers perceive he could labor with them and love them,
  No matter what the work is, that he is the one to follow it, or has
        followed it,
  No matter what the nation, that he might find his brothers and sisters

       *       *       *       *       *

  "The gentleman of perfect blood acknowledges his perfect blood,
  The insulter, the prostitute, the angry person, the beggar, see
        themselves in the ways of him, he strangely transmutes them,
  They are not vile any more, they hardly know themselves they are so

Let us hold the poet to his own ideals, and not condemn him because he has
not aimed at something foreign to himself.

The questions which Whitman puts to him who would be an American poet may
fairly be put to himself.

  "Are you faithful to things? Do you teach what the land and sea, the
        bodies of men, womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers, teach?
  Have you sped through fleeting customs, popularities?
  Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls, fierce
        contentions? are you very strong? are you really of the whole
  Are you not of some coterie? some school, or mere religion?
  Are you done with reviews and criticisms of life? animating now to
        life itself?
  Have you vivified yourself from the maternity of these States?
  Have you, too, the old, ever-fresh forbearance and impartiality?

       *       *       *       *       *

  What is this you bring my America?
  Is it uniform with my country?
  Is it not something that has been better done or told before?
  Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some ship?
  Is it not a mere tale? a rhyme? a pettiness?--is the good old cause
        in it?
  Has it not dangled long at the heels of the poets, politicians,
        literats of enemies' lands?
  Does it not assume that what is notoriously gone is still here?
  Does it answer universal needs? will it improve manners?
  Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside?
  Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my
        strength, gait, face?
  Have real employments contributed to it? Original makers, not mere

So far as Whitman's poetry falls within any of the old divisions it is
lyrical,--a personal and individual utterance. Open the book anywhere and
you are face to face with a man. His eye is fixed upon you. It is a man's
voice you hear, and it is directed to _you_. He is not elaborating a
theme: he is suggesting a relation or hinting a meaning. He is not
chiseling, or carving a work of art: he is roughly outlining a man; he is
planting a seed, or tilling a field.


I believe it was the lamented Professor Clifford who first used the term
"cosmic emotion" in connection with "Leaves of Grass." Whitman's
atmosphere is so distinctly outside of and above that which ministers to
our social and domestic wants,--the confined and perfumed air of an indoor
life; his mood and temper are so habitually begotten by the contemplation
of the orbs and the laws and processes of universal nature, that the
phrase often comes to mind in considering him. He is not in any sense,
except perhaps in a few minor pieces, a domestic and fireside poet,--a
solace to our social instincts and cultivated ideals. He is too large, too
aboriginal, too elemental, too strong for that. I seem to understand and
appreciate him best when I keep in mind the earth as a whole, and its
relation to the system. Any large view or thought, or survey of life or
mankind, is a preparation for him. He demands the outdoor temper and
habit, he demands a sense of space and power, he demands above all things
a feeling for reality. "Vastness" is a word that applies to him; abysmal
man, cosmic consciousness, the standards of the natural universal,--all
hint some phase of his genius. His survey of life and duty is from a point
not included in any four walls, or in any school or convention. It is a
survey from out the depths of being; the breath of worlds and systems is
in these utterances. His treatment of sex, of comradeship, of death, of
democracy, of religion, of art, of immortality, is in the spirit of the
great out-of-doors of the universe; the point of view is cosmic rather
than personal or philanthropic. What charity is this!--the charity of
sunlight that spares nothing and turns away from nothing. What "heroic
nudity"! like the nakedness of rocks and winter trees. What sexuality!
like the lust of spring or the push of tides. What welcome to death, as
only the night which proves the day!


This orbic nature which so thrills and fills Whitman is not at all akin to
that which we get in the so-called nature-poets of Wordsworth and his
school,--the charm of privacy, of the sequestered, the cosy,--qualities
that belong to the art of a domestic, home-loving race, and to lovers of
solitude. Tennyson's poetry abounds in these qualities; so does
Wordsworth's. There is less of them in Browning, and more of them in the
younger poets. That communing with nature, those dear friendships with
birds and flowers, that gentle wooing of the wild and sylvan, that flavor
of the rural, the bucolic,--all these are important features in the
current popular poetry, but they are not to any marked extent
characteristic of Whitman. The sentiment of domesticity, love as a
sentiment; the attraction of children, home and fireside; the attraction
of books, art, travel; our pleasure in the choice, the refined, the
artificial,--these are not the things you are to demand of Whitman. You do
not demand them of Homer or Dante or the Biblical writers. We are to
demand of him the major things, primary things; the lift of great
emotions; the cosmic, the universal; the joy of health, of selfhood; the
stimulus of the real, the modern, the American; always the large, the
virile; always perfect acceptance and triumph.

Whitman's free use of the speech of the common people is doubtless
offensive to a fastidious literary taste. Such phrases as "I will be even
with you," "what would it amount to," "give in," "not one jot less;"
"young fellows," "old fellows," "stuck up," "every bit as much," "week in
and week out," and a thousand others, would jar on the page of any other
poet more than on his.


William Rossetti says his language has a certain ultimate quality. Another
critic speaks of his absolute use of language. Colonel Ingersoll credits
him with more supreme words than have been uttered by any other man of our

The power to use words was in Whitman's eyes a divine power, and was
bought with a price:--

  "For only at last after many years, after chastity, friendship,
        procreation, prudence, and nakedness,
  After treading ground, and breasting river and lake,
  After a loosen'd throat, after absorbing eras, temperaments, races,
        after knowledge, freedom, crimes,
  After complete faith, after clarifying elevations and removing
  After these and more, it is just possible there comes to a man, a woman,
        the divine power to speak words."

Whitman's sense of composition and his rare artistic faculty of using
language are seen, as John Addington Symonds says, in the "countless clear
and perfect phrases" "which are hung, like golden medals of consummate
workmanship and incised form, in rich clusters over every poem he
produced. And, what he aimed at above all, these phrases are redolent of
the very spirit of the emotions they suggest, communicate the breadth and
largeness of the natural things they indicate, embody the essence of
realities in living words which palpitate and burn forever."

The great poet is always more or less the original, the abysmal man. He is
face to face with universal laws and conditions. He speaks out of a
greater exaltation of sentiment than the prose-writer. He takes liberties;
he speaks for all men; he is a bird on "pinions free."


In saying or implying that Whitman's aim was not primarily literary or
artistic, I am liable to be misunderstood; and when Whitman himself says,
"No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary
performance, or attempt at such performance, or as aiming mainly toward
art or æstheticism," he exposes himself to the same misconception. It is
the literary and poetic value of his verses alone that can save them.
Their philosophy, their democracy, their vehement patriotism, their
religious ardor, their spirit of comradeship, or what not, will not alone
suffice. All depends upon the manner in which these things are presented
to us. Do we get the reality, or words about the reality? No matter what
the content of the verse, unless into the whole is breathed the breath of
the true creative artist they will surely perish. Oblivion awaits every
utterance not touched with the life of the spirit. Whitman was as
essentially an artist as was Shakespeare or Dante; his work shows the same
fusion of imagination, will, emotion, personality; it carries the same
quality of real things,--not the same shaping, constructive power, but the
same quickening, stimulating power, the same magic use of words. The
artist in him is less conscious of itself, is less differentiated from the
man, than in the other poets. He objected to having his work estimated for
its literary value alone, but in so doing he used the word in a narrow

After all these ages of the assiduous cultivation of literature, there has
grown up in men a kind of lust of the mere art of writing, just as, after
so many generations of religious training, there has grown up a passion
for religious forms and observances. "Mere literature" has come to be a
current phrase in criticism, meaning, I suppose, that the production to
which it is applied is notable only for good craftsmanship. In the same
spirit one speaks of mere scholarship, or of a certain type of man as a
mere gentleman. It was mere literature that Whitman was afraid of, the
æsthetic disease, the passion for letters, for poetry, divorced from love
of life and of things. None knew better than he that the ultimate value of
any imaginative and emotional work, even of the Bible, is its literary
value. Its spiritual and religious value is inseparably connected with its
literary value.

"Leaves of Grass" is not bookish; it is always the voice of a man, and not
of a scholar or conventional poet, that addresses us. We all imbue words
more or less with meanings of our own; but, from the point of view I am
now essaying, literature is the largest fact, and embraces all inspired
utterances. The hymn-book seeks to embody or awaken religious emotion
alone; would its religious value be less if its poetic value were more? I
think not. The best of the Psalms of David, from the religious point of
view, are the best from the literary point of view. What reaches and
thrills the soul,--that is great art. What arouses the passions--mirth,
anger, indignation, pity--may or may not be true art. No one, for
instance, can read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" without tears, laughter, anger; but
no one, I fancy, could ever get from it that deep, tranquil pleasure and
edification that the great imaginative works impart. Keble's poetry is
more obviously religious than Wordsworth's or Arnold's, but how
short-lived, because it is not embalmed in the true artistic spirit! In
all the great poems, there is something as deep and calm as the light and
the sky, and as common and universal. I find this something in Whitman. In
saying, therefore, that his aim was ulterior to that of art, that he was
not begotten by the literary spirit, I only mean that his aim was that of
the largest art, and of the most vital and comprehensive literature. We
should have heard the last of his "Leaves" long ago had they not possessed
unmistakably the vitality of true literature, "incomparable things,
incomparably well said," as Emerson remarked.

A scientific or philosophical work lives independently of its literary
merit, but an emotional and imaginative work lives only by virtue of its
literary merit. Different meanings may be attached to these words
"literary merit" by different persons. I use them as meaning that vital
and imaginative use of language which is the characteristic of all true
literature. The most effective way of saying a thing in the region of the
sentiments and emotions,--that is the true literary way.



I have divided my subject into many chapters, and given to each a separate
heading, yet I am aware that they are all but slight variations of a
single theme,--viz., Whitman's reliance upon absolute nature. That there
might be no mistake about it, and that his reader might at once be put in
possession of his point of view, the poet declared at the outset of his
career that at every hazard he should let nature speak.

  "Creeds and schools in abeyance
  Retiring back awhile, sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
  I harbor for good or bad,
  I permit to speak at every hazard,
  Nature without check, with original energy."

The hazard of letting nature speak will, of course, be great,--the hazard
of gross misapprehension on the part of the public, and of hesitancy and
inadequacy on the part of the poet. The latter danger, I think, was safely
passed; Whitman never flinched or wavered for a moment, and that his
criticism is adequate seems to me equally obvious. But the former
contingency--the gross misapprehension of the public, even the wiser
public--has been astounding. He has been read in a narrow, literal,
bourgeois spirit. The personal pronoun, which he uses so freely, has been
taken to stand for the private individual Walt Whitman, so that he has
been looked upon as a compound of egotism and licentiousness. His
character has been traduced, and his purpose in the "Leaves" entirely

We see at a glance that his attitude towards nature, towards God, towards
the body and the soul, reverses many of the old ascetic theological

All is good, all is as it should be; to abase the body is to abase the
soul. Man is divine inside and out, and is no more divine about the head
than about the loins. It is from this point of view that he has launched
his work. He believed the time had come for an utterance out of radical,
uncompromising human nature; let conventions and refinements stand back,
let nature, let the soul, let the elemental forces speak; let the body,
the passions, sex, be exalted; the stone rejected by the builders shall be
the chief stone in the corner. Evil shall be shown to be a part of the
good, and death shall be welcomed as joyously as life.

Whitman says his poems will do just as much evil as good, and perhaps
more. To many readers this confession of itself would be his condemnation.
To others it would be an evidence of his candor and breadth of view. I
suppose all great vital forces, whether embodied in a man or in a book,
work evil as well as good. If they do not, they only tickle the surface
of things. Has not the Bible worked evil also? Some think more evil than
good. The dews and the rains and the sunshine work evil.

From Whitman's point of view, there is no good without evil; evil is an
unripe kind of good. There is no light without darkness, no life without
death, no growth without pain and struggle. Beware the emasculated good,
the good by exclusion rather than by victory. "Leaves of Grass" will work
evil on evil minds,--on narrow, unbalanced minds. It is not a guide, but
an inspiration; not a remedy, but health and strength. Art does not preach
directly, but indirectly; it is moral by its spirit, and the mood and
temper it begets.

Whitman, in celebrating manly pride, self-reliance, the deliciousness of
sex; in glorifying the body, the natural passions and appetites, nativity;
in identifying himself with criminals and low or lewd persons; in frankly
imputing to himself all sins men are guilty of, runs the risk, of course,
of being read in a spirit less generous and redemptive than his own.

The charity of the poet may stimulate the license of the libertine; the
optimism of the seer may confirm the evil-doer; the equality of the
democrat may foster the insolence of the rowdy. This is our lookout and
not the poet's. We take the same chances with him that we do with nature;
we are to trim our sails to the breeze he brings; we are to sow wheat and
not tares for his rains to water.

Whitman's glorification of the body has led some critics to say that he is
the poet of the body only. But it is just as true to say he is the poet of
the soul only. He always seeks the spiritual through the material. He
treats the body and the soul as one, and he treats all things as having
reference to the soul.

  "I will not make a poem, nor the least part, of a poem, but has
        reference to the soul,
  Because, having look'd at the objects of the universe, I find there
        is no one, nor any particle of one, but has reference to the soul."

The curious physiological strain which runs through the poems is to be
considered in the light of this idea. He exalts the body because in doing
so he exalts the soul.

  "Sure as the earth swims through the heavens, does every one of its
        objects pass into spiritual results."


The reader of Whitman must do his or her own moralizing; the poet is here
not to deprecate or criticise, but to love and celebrate; he has no
partialities; our notions of morality do not concern him; he exploits the
average man just as he finds him; he _is_ the average man for the time
being and confesses to all his sins and shortcomings, and we will make of
the result good or evil, according to our mental horizon. That his work is
unmixed good is the last thing the poet would claim for it. He has not,
after the easy fashion of the moralist, set the good here and the bad
there; he has blended them as they are in nature and in life; our profit
and discipline begin when we have found out whither he finally tends, or
when we have mastered him and extracted the good he holds. If we expect he
is going to preach an austere system of morality to us, or any system of
morality, we are doomed to disappointment. Does Nature preach such a
system? does Nature preach at all? neither will he. He presents you the
elements of good and evil in himself in vital fusion and play; your part
is to see how the totals are at last good.

It is objected that Whitman is too persistent in declaring himself an
animal, when the thing a man is least likely to forget is that he is an
animal and the thing he is least likely to remember is that he is a spirit
and a child of God. But Whitman insists with the same determination that
he is a spirit and an heir of immortality,--not as one who has cheated the
devil of his due, but as one who shares the privileges and felicities of
all, and who finds the divine in the human. Indeed it is here that he
sounds his most joyous and triumphant note. No such faith in spiritual
results, no such conviction of the truth of immortality, no such
determined recognition of the unseen world as the final reality is to be
found in modern poetry.

As I have said, Whitman aimed to put his whole nature in a poem--the
physical or physiological, the spiritual, the æsthetic and
intellectual,--without giving any undue prominence to either. If he has
not done so, if he has made the animal and sexual too pronounced, more so
than nature will justify in the best proportioned man, then and then only
is his artistic scheme vitiated and his work truly immoral.

It may be true that the thing a man is least likely to forget is that he
is an animal; what he is most likely to forget, is that the animal is just
as sacred and important as any other part; indeed that it is the basis of
all, and that a sane and healthful and powerful spirituality and
intellectuality can only flow out of a sane and healthful animality.

  "I believe in you, my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
  And you must not be abased to the other."


Furthermore, Whitman's main problem is to project into literature the new
democratic man as he conceives him,--the man of the future, intensely
American, but in the broadest sense human and cosmopolitan; he is to
project him on a scale large enough for all uses and conditions, ignoring
the feudal and aristocratic types which have for the most part dominated
literature, and matching them with a type more copious in friendship,
charity, sympathy, religion, candor, and of equal egoism and power.

It is to exploit and enforce and illustrate this type or character that
"Leaves of Grass" is written. The poems are the drama of this new
democratic man. This type Whitman finds in himself. He does not have to
create it as Shakespeare did Hamlet or Lear; he has only to discover it
in himself. He is it and he gives it free utterance. His work is,
therefore, as he says, the poem of himself,--himself written
large,--written as upon the face of the continent, written in the types
and events he finds on all sides. He sees himself in all men, the bad as
well as the good, and he sees all men in himself. All the stupendous
claims he makes for himself he makes for others. His egotism is vicarious
and embraces the world. It is not the private individual Walt Whitman that
makes these stupendous claims for himself; it is Walt Whitman as the
spokesman of the genius of American democracy. He is not to discuss a
question. He is to outline a character, he is to incarnate a principle.
The essayist or philosopher may discuss the value of any given idea,--may
talk about it; the creative artist alone can give us the thing itself, the
concrete flesh-and-blood reality. Whitman is not only to make this survey,
to launch this criticism; he is to embody it in a living human
personality, and enable us to see the world of man and morals through its
eyes. What with the scientist, the philosopher, is thought, must be
emotion and passion with him.

Whitman promises that we shall share with him "two greatnesses, and a
third one rising inclusive and more resplendent,"--

  "The greatness of Love and Democracy and the greatness of Religion"--

not merely as ideas, but as living impulses. He is to show the spirit of
absolute, impartial nature, incarnated in a human being, imbued with
love, democracy, and religion, moving amid the scenes and events of the
New World, sounding all the joys and abandonments of life, and re-reading
the oracles from the American point of view. And the utterance launched
forth is to be imbued with poetic passion.

Whitman always aims at a complete human synthesis, and leaves his reader
to make of it what he can. It is not for the poet to qualify and explain.
He seeks to reproduce his whole nature in a book,--reproduce it with all
its contradictions and carnalities, the good and the bad, the coarse and
the fine, the body and the soul,--to give free swing to himself, trusting
to natural checks and compensations to ensure a good result at last, but
not at all disturbed if you find parts of it bad as in creation itself.

His method being that of the poet, and not that of the moralist or
preacher, how shall he sort and sift, culling this virtue and that, giving
parts and fragments instead of the entire man? He must give all, not
abstractly, but concretely, synthetically.

To a common prostitute Whitman says:--

  "Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you;
  Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle
        for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you."

We are housed in social usages and laws, we are sheltered and warmed and
comforted by conventions and institutions and numberless traditions;
their value no one disputes. But for purposes of his own Whitman ignores
them all; he lets in upon us the free and maybe raw air of the great
out-of-doors of absolute nature; his standards are not found inside of any
four walls; he contemplates life, and would quicken it in its
fundamentals; his survey is from a plane whence our arts and refinements
and petty distinctions disappear. He sees the evil of the world no less
necessary than the good; he sees death as a part of life itself; he sees
the body and the soul as one; he sees the spiritual always issuing from
the material; he sees not one result at last lamentable in the universe.


Unless, as I have already said, we allow Whitman to be a law unto himself,
we can make little of him; unless we place ourselves at his absolute point
of view, his work is an offense and without meaning. The only question is,
Has he a law, has he a steady and rational point of view, is his work a
consistent and well-organized whole? Ask yourself, What is the point of
view of absolute, uncompromising science? It is that creation is all good
and sound; things are as they should be or must be; there are no
conceivable failures; there is no evil in the final analysis, or, if there
is, it is necessary, and plays its part also; there is no more beginning
nor ending than there is now, no more heaven or hell than we find or make

  "Did you guess the celestial laws are yet to be work'd over and

It has been urged that Whitman violates his own canon of the excellence of
nature. But what he violates is more a secondary or acquired nature. He
violates our social conventions and instincts, he exposes what we cover
up; but the spirit of his undertaking demanded this of him. Remember that
at all hazards he is to let nature--absolute nature--speak; that he is to
be the poet of the body as well as of the soul, and that no part of the
body of a man or woman, "hearty and clean," is vile, and that "none shall
be less familiar than the rest."

His glory is, that he never flinched or hesitated in following his
principle to its logical conclusions,--"my commission obeying, to question
it never daring."

It was an heroic sacrifice, and atones for the sins of us all,--the sins
of perverting, denying, abusing the most sacred and important organs and
functions of our bodies.


In Whitman we find the most complete identification of the man with the
subject. He always is, or becomes, the thing he portrays. Not merely does
he portray America,--he speaks out of the American spirit, the spirit that
has broken irrevocably with the past and turns joyously to the future; he
does not praise equality, he illustrates it; he puts himself down beside
the lowest and most despised person, and calls him brother.

  "You felons on trial in courts,
  You convicts in prison-cells, you sentenced assassins chain'd and
        handcuff'd with iron,
  Who am I too that I am not on trial or in prison?
  Me ruthless and devilish as any, that my wrists are not chain'd with
        iron, or my ankles with iron?"

He does not give a little charity, he gives himself as freely as the
clouds give rain, or the sun gives light; he does not write a treatise on
democracy, he applies the democratic spirit to everything in heaven and on
earth, and redistributes the prizes from its points of view; he does not,
except very briefly, sing the praises of science, but he launches his
poems always from the scientific view of the world, in contradistinction
to the old theological and mythical point of view. It is always the
example, it is always the thing itself, he gives us. Few precepts, no
sermon, no reproof. Does he praise candor? No, he is candor; he confesses
to everything; he shows us the inmost working of his mind. We know him
better than we know our nearest friends. Does he exalt the pride of man in
himself, or egoism? Again he illustrates it: he is egoism; he makes the
whole universe revolve around himself; he never for a moment goes out of
himself; he does not seek a theme; he is the theme. His egocentric method
of treatment is what characterizes him as an artist. He elaborates no
theme, he builds nothing, he carves nothing, but makes himself a source
and centre of pulsing, vital energy. Wave after wave radiates from him.
What we see and get always is Walt Whitman. Our attention is never fixed
upon the writer, but always upon the man.

Of course this method of Whitman of becoming one with his subject, and
speaking out of it, is always the method of the creative artist. It is
this that distinguishes the artist from the mere thinker or prose-writer.
The latter tells us about a thing; the former gives us the thing, or the
spirit of the thing itself.

If Whitman had put his criticism of our time and civilization in an
argument or essay, the world would have received it very differently. As
an intellectual statement or proposition, we could have played with it and
tossed it about as a ball in a game of shuttlecock, and dropped it when we
tired of it, as we do other criticism. But he gave it to us as a man, as a
personality, and we find it too strong for us. It is easier to deal with a
theory than with the concrete reality. A man is a summons and a challenge,
and will not be easily put aside.

The great philosophical poets, like Lucretius, try to solve the riddles.
Whitman's aim is only to thrust the riddles before you, to give you a new
sense of them, and start the game afresh. He knows what a complex,
contradictory thing the universe is, and that the most any poet can do is
to break the old firmament up into new forms. To put his arms around it?
No. Put your arms around your fellow-man, and then you have encompassed it
as nearly as mortal can do.


Whitman's attraction toward the common people was real. There is one thing
that makes every-day humanity, the great, toiling, unlettered masses,
forever welcome to men who unite great imagination with broad
sympathies,--they give a sense of reality; they refresh, as nature always
refreshes. There is a tang and a sting to the native, the spontaneous,
that the cultivated rarely has. The farmer, the mechanic, the sailor, the
soldier, savor of the primal and the hardy. In painting his own portrait,
Whitman makes prominent the coarser, unrefined traits, because here the
colors are fast,--here is the basis of all. The careful student of Whitman
will surely come to see how all the elements of his picture--his pride,
his candor, his democracy, his sensuality, his coarseness,--finally fit
together, and correct and offset each other and make a perfect unity.

No poet is so easily caricatured and turned into ridicule as Whitman. He
is deficient in humor, and hence, like the Biblical writers, is sometimes
on the verge of the grotesque without knowing it. The sense of the
ridiculous has been enormously stimulated and developed in the modern
mind, and--what is to be regretted--it has been mostly at the expense of
the sense of awe and reverence. We "poke fun" at everything in this
country; to whatever approaches the verge of the ridiculous we give a push
and topple it over. The fear which all Americans have before their eyes,
and which is much stronger than the fear of purgatory, is the fear of
appearing ridiculous. We curb and check any eccentricity or marked
individuality of manners or dress, lest we expose ourselves to the shafts
of ridicule. Emerson said he had heard with admiring submission the remark
of a lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well dressed gave
a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion was powerless to bestow;
and what ranks before religion with us as a people is being in the mode,
and writing our verse and cutting our coats in the approved style. Pride
of the eye, a keen sense of the proprieties and the conventionalities, and
a morbid feeling for the ridiculous, would have been death to Whitman's
undertaking. He would have faltered, or betrayed self-consciousness. He
certainly never could have spoken with that elemental aplomb and
indifference which is so marked a feature of his work. Any hesitation, any
knuckling, would have been his ruin. We should have seen he was not
entirely serious, and should have laughed at him. We laugh now only for a
moment; the spell of his earnestness and power is soon upon us.


Thoreau considered Whitman's "Leaves" worth all the sermons in the country
for preaching; and yet few poets have assumed so little the function of
the preacher. His great cure-all is love; he gives himself instead of a
sermon. His faith in the remedial power of affection, comradeship, is
truly Christ-like. Lover of sinners is also his designation. The reproof
is always indirect or implied. He brings to bear character rather than
precept. He helps you as health, as nature, as fresh air, pure water help.
He says to you:--

  "The mockeries are not you;
  Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk;
  I pursue you where none else has pursued you:
  Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the accustomed
        routine,--if these conceal you from others, or from yourself, they
        do not conceal you from me.
  The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion,--if these balk
        others, they do not balk me.
  The pert apparel, the deformed attitude, drunkenness, greed, premature
        death,--all these I part aside.
  I track through your windings and turnings,--I come upon you where you
        thought eye should never come upon you."

Whitman said, in the now famous preface of 1855, that "the greatest poet
does not moralize, or make applications of morals,--he knows the soul."
There is no preaching or reproof in the "Leaves."

  "I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all
        oppression and shame;
  I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves,
        remorseful after deeds done;
  I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected,
        gaunt, desperate;
  I see the wife misused by her husband; I see the treacherous seducer of
        the young woman;
  I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be
        hid,--I see these sights on the earth,
  I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny; I see martyrs and
  I observe a famine at sea,--I observe the sailors casting lots who shall
        be killed, to preserve the lives of the rest,
  I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon
        laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
  All these--all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out
  See, hear, and am silent."

Only once does he shame and rebuke the offender; then he holds up to him
"a hand-mirror."

  "Hold it up sternly! See this it sends back! (who is it? is it you?)
  Outside fair costume,--within, ashes and filth.
  No more a flashing eye,--no more a sonorous voice or springy step,
  Now some slave's eye, voice, hands, step,
  A drunkard's breath, unwholesome eater's face, venerealee's flesh,
  Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous,
  Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination,
  Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams,
  Words babble, hearing and touch callous,
  No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex;
  Such, from one look in this looking-glass ere you go hence,
  Such a result so soon--and from such a beginning!"

The poet's way is so different from the moralist's way! The poet confesses
all, loves all,--has no preferences. He is moral only in his results. We
ask ourselves, Does he breathe the air of health? Can he stand the test of
nature? Is he tonic and inspiring? That he shocks us is nothing. The first
touch of the sea is a shock. Does he toughen us, does he help make
arterial blood?

All that men do and are guilty of attracts him. Their vices and
excesses,--he would make these his own also. He is jealous lest he be
thought better than other men,--lest he seem to stand apart from even
criminals and offenders. When the passion for human brotherhood is upon
him, he is balked by nothing; he goes down into the social mire to find
his lovers and equals. In the pride of our morality and civic well-being,
this phase of his work shocks us; but there are moods when the soul says
it is good, and we rejoice in the strong man that can do it.

The restrictions, denials, and safeguards put upon us by the social order,
and the dictates of worldly prudence, fall only before a still more fervid
humanism, or a still more vehement love.

The vital question is, Where does he leave us? On firmer ground, or in the
mire? Depleted and enervated, or full and joyous? In the gloom of
pessimism, or in the sunlight of its opposite?---

  "_So long!_
  I announce a man or woman coming--perhaps you are the one;
  I announce a great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate,
        compassionate, fully armed.

  "_So long!_
  I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,
  And I announce an old age that shall lightly and joyfully meet its

  "I announce myriads of youths, beautiful, gigantic, sweet-blooded;
  I announce a race of splendid and savage old men."

There is no contradiction here. The poet sounds all the experiences of
life, and he gives out the true note at last.

  "No specification is necessary,--all that a male or female does, that is
        vigorous, benevolent, clean, is so much profit to him or her, in
        the unshakable order of the universe, and through the whole scope
        of it forever."


Nothing but the most uncompromising religious purpose can justify certain
things in the "Leaves;" nothing but the most buoyant and pervasive
spirituality can justify its overwhelming materiality; nothing but the
most creative imagination can offset its tremendous realism; nothing but
the note of universal brotherhood can atone for its vehement Americanism;
nothing but the primal spirit of poesy itself can make amends for this
open flouting of the routine poetic, and this endless procession before us
of the common and the familiar.


Whitman loved the word "unrefined." It was one of the words he would have
us apply to himself. He was unrefined, as the air, the soil, the water,
and all sweet natural things are unrefined (fine but not _re_fined). He
applies the word to himself two or three times in the course of his poems.
He loved the words sun-tan, air-sweetness, brawn, etc. He speaks of his
"savage song," not to call forth the bards of the past, he says, but to
invoke the bards of the future.

  "Have I sung so capricious and loud my savage songs?"

The thought that his poems might help contribute to the production of a
"race of splendid and savage old men" was dear to him. He feared the
depleting and emasculating effects of our culture and conventions. The
decay of maternity and paternity in this country, the falling off of the
native populations, were facts full of evil omen. His ideal of manly or
womanly character is rich in all the purely human qualities and
attributes; rich in sex, in sympathy, in temperament; physiologically
sound and clean, as well as mentally and morally so.

  "Fear grace, fear delicatesse;
  Fear the mellow-sweet, the sucking of honey-juice:
  Beware the advancing mortal ripening of nature!
  Beware what precedes the decay of the ruggedness of states and men."

He was himself the savage old man he invoked. It was no part of his plan
to preach, in refined and euphonious terms, hygiene and the value of the
natural man, but to project into literature the thing itself, to exploit a
character coarse as well as fine, and to imbue his poems with a
physiological quality as well as a psychological and intellectual.

  "I will scatter the new roughness and gladness among them."

He says to the pale, impotent victim of over-refinement, with intentional

  "Open your scarf'd chops till I blow grit within you."


One of the key-words to Whitman both as a man and a poet is the word
"composite." He was probably the most composite man this century has
produced, and in this respect at least is representative of the American
of the future, who must be the result of the blending of more diverse
racial elements than any man of history. He seems to have had an
intuition of his composite character when he said in his first poem:--

  "I am large,--I contain multitudes."

The London correspondent of the "New York Tribune," in reluctantly
conceding at the time of the poet's death something to the British
admiration of him, said he was "rich in temperament." The phrase is well
chosen. An English expert on the subject of temperament, who visited
Whitman some years ago, said he had all four temperaments, the sanguine,
the nervous, the melancholic, and the lymphatic, while most persons have
but two temperaments, and rarely three.

It was probably the composite character of Whitman that caused him to
attract such diverse and opposite types of men,--scholars and workingmen,
lawyers, doctors, scientists, and men of the world,--and that made him
personally such a puzzle to most people,--so impossible to classify. On
the street the promenaders would turn and look after him, and I have often
heard them ask each other, "What man was that?" He has often been taken
for a doctor, and during his services in the army hospitals various myths
were floating about concerning him. Now he was a benevolent Catholic
priest,--then some unknown army general, or retired sea captain; at one
time he was reputed to be one of the owners of the Cunard line of
steamers. To be taken for a Californian was common. One recalls the
composite character of the poet whom he outlines in his poems (see
quotation, page 159).

The book is as composite as the man. It is all things to all men; it lends
itself to a multitude of interpretations. Every earnest reader of it will
find some clew or suggestion by the aid of which he fancies he can unlock
the whole book, but in the end he will be pretty sure to discover that one
key is not enough. To one critic, his book is the "hoarse song of a man,"
its manly and masculine element attracts him; to another he is the poet of
joy, to another the poet of health, to still another he is the bard of
personality; others read him as the poet of nature, or the poet of
democracy. His French critic, Gabriel Sarrazin, calls him an apostle,--the
apostle of the idea that man is an indivisible fragment of the universal


What has a poet of Whitman's aims to do with decency or indecency, with
modesty or immodesty? These are social or conventional virtues; he
represents mainly primary qualities and forces. Does life, does death,
does nature, respect our proprieties, our conventional veils and
illusions? Neither will he. He will strip them all away. He will act and
speak as if all things in the universe were equally sacred and divine; as
if all men were really his brothers, all women his sisters; as if all
parts of the human body were equally beautiful and wonderful; as if
fatherhood and motherhood, birth and begetting, were sacred acts. Of
course it is easy to see that this course will speedily bring him in
collision with the guardians of taste and social morality. But what of
that? He professes to take his cue from the elemental laws. "I reckon I
behave no more proudly than the level I plant my house by." The question
is, Is he adequate, is he man enough, to do it? Will he not falter, or
betray self-consciousness? Will he be true to his ideal through thick and
thin? The social gods will all be outraged, but that is less to him than
the candor and directness of nature in whose spirit he assumes to speak.

Nothing is easier than to convict Walt Whitman of what is called
indecency; he laughs indifferent when you have done so. It is not your
gods that he serves. He says he would be as indifferent of observation as
the trees or rocks. And it is here that we must look for his
justification, upon ethical rather than upon the grounds of conventional
art. He has taken our sins upon himself. He has applied to the morbid
sex-consciousness, that has eaten so deeply into our social system, the
heroic treatment; he has fairly turned it naked into the street. He has
not merely in words denied the inherent vileness of sex; he has denied it
in very deed. We should not have taken offense had he confined himself to
words,--had he said sex is pure, the body is as clean about the loins as
about the head; but being an artist, a creator, and not a mere thinker or
preacher, he was compelled to act,--to do the thing instead of saying it.

The same in other matters. Being an artist, he could not merely say all
men were his brothers; he must show them as such. If their weakness and
sins are his also, he must not flinch when it comes to the test; he must
make his words good. We may be shocked at the fullness and minuteness of
the specification, but that is no concern of his; he deals with the
concrete and not with the abstract,--fraternity and equality as a reality,
not as a sentiment.


In the phase in which we are now considering him, Whitman appears as the
Adamic man re-born here in the nineteenth century, or with science and the
modern added, and fully and fearlessly embodying himself in a poem. It is
stronger than we can stand, but it is good for us, and one of these days,
or one of these centuries, we shall be able to stand it and enjoy it.

  "To the garden the world anew ascending,
  Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
  The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
  Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber,
  The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, having brought me again,
  Amorous, mature--all beautiful to me--all wondrous,
  My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for
        reasons most wondrous;
  Existing, I peer and penetrate still,
  Content with the present--content with the past,
  By my side, or back of me, Eve following,
  Or in front, and I following her just the same."

The critics perpetually misread Whitman because they fail to see this
essentially composite and dramatic character of his work,--that it is not
the song of Walt Whitman the private individual, but of Walt Whitman as
representative of, and speaking for, all types and conditions of men; in
fact, that it is the drama of a new democratic personality, a character
outlined on a larger, more copious, more vehement scale than has yet
appeared in the world. The germs of this character he would sow broadcast
over the land.

In this drama of personality the poet always identifies himself with the
scene, incident, experience, or person he delineates, or for whom he
speaks. He says to the New Englander, or to the man of the South and the
West, "I depict you as myself." In the same way he depicts offenders,
roughs, criminals, and low and despised persons as himself; he lays claim
to every sin of omission and commission men are guilty of, because, he
says, "the germs are in all men." Men dare not tell their faults. He will
make them all his own, and then tell them; there shall be full confession
for once.

  "If you become degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake;
  If you remember your foolish and outlaw'd deeds, do you think I cannot
        remember my own foolish and outlaw'd deeds?"

It will not do to read this poet, or any great poet, in a narrow and
exacting spirit. As Whitman himself says: "The messages of great poems to
each man and woman are: Come to us on equal terms, only then can you
understand us."

In the much misunderstood group of poems called "Children of Adam" the
poet speaks for the male generative principle, and all the excesses and
abuses that grow out of it he unblushingly imputes to himself. What men
have done and still do, while under the intoxication of the sexual
passion, he does, he makes it all his own experience.

That we have here a revelation of his own personal taste and experiences
may or may not be the case, but we have no more right to assume it than we
have to assume that all other poets speak from experience when they use
the first person singular. When John Brown mounted the scaffold in
Virginia, in 1860, the poet says:--

  "I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch'd,
  I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling
        with age and your unheal'd wounds, you mounted the scaffold,"--

very near him he stood in spirit; very near him he stood in the person of
others, but not in his own proper person.

If we take this poet literally, we shall believe he has been in California
and Oregon; that he has set foot in every city on the continent; that he
grew up in Virginia; that every Southern State has been by turns his home;
that he has been a soldier, a sailor, a miner; that he has lived in
Dakota's woods, his "diet meat, his drink from the spring;" that he has
lived on the plains with hunters and ranchmen, etc. He lays claim to all
these characters, all these experiences, because what others do, what
others assume, or suffer, or enjoy, that he appropriates to himself.

  "I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
  Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
  I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinned with the ooze of
        my skin,
  I fall on the weeds and stones,
  The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
  Taunt my dizzy ears, and beat me violently over the head with whipstocks.

  "Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
  I do not ask the wounded person how he feels--I myself become the wounded
  My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

  "I become any presence or truth of humanity here,
  See myself in prison shaped like another man,
  And feel the dull unintermitted pain.

  "For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
  It is I let out in the morning and barred at night.
  Not a mutineer walks hand-cuffed to the jail, but I am hand-cuffed to him
        and walk by his side."


It is charged against Whitman that he does not celebrate love at all, and
very justly. He had no purpose to celebrate the sentiment of love.
Literature is vastly overloaded with this element already. He celebrates
fatherhood and motherhood, and the need of well-begotten, physiologically
well-begotten, offspring. Of that veiled prurient suggestion which readers
so delight in--of "bosoms mutinously fair," and "the soul-lingering loops
of perfumed hair," as one of our latest poets puts it--there is no hint
in his volume. He would have fallen from grace the moment he had attempted
such a thing. Any trifling or dalliance on his part would have been his
ruin. Love as a sentiment has fairly run riot in literature. From
Whitman's point of view, it would have been positively immoral for him
either to have vied with the lascivious poets in painting it as the
forbidden, or with the sentimental poets in depicting it as a charm. Woman
with him is always the mate and equal of the man, never his plaything.

Whitman is seldom or never the poet of a sentiment, at least of the
domestic and social sentiments. His is more the voice of the eternal,
abysmal man.

The home, the fireside, the domestic allurements, are not in him; love, as
we find it in other poets, is not in him; the idyllic, except in touches
here and there, is not in him; the choice, the finished, the perfumed, the
romantic, the charm of art and the delight of form, are not to be looked
for in his pages. The cosmic takes the place of the idyllic; the begetter,
the Adamic man, takes the place of the lover; patriotism takes the place
of family affection; charity takes the place of piety; love of kind is
more than love of neighbor; the poet and the artist are swallowed up in
the seer and the prophet.

The poet evidently aimed to put in his sex poems a rank and healthful
animality, and to make them as frank as the shedding of pollen by the
trees, strong even to the point of offense. He could not make it pleasing,
a sweet morsel to be rolled under the tongue; that would have been levity
and sin, as in Byron and the other poets. It must be direct and rank,
healthfully so. The courage that did it, and showed no wavering or
self-consciousness, was more than human. Man is a begetter. How shall a
poet in our day and land treat this fact? With levity and by throwing over
it the lure of the forbidden, the attraction of the erotic? That is one
way, the way of nearly all the poets of the past. But that is not
Whitman's way. He would sooner be bestial than Byronic, he would sooner
shock by his frankness than inflame by his suggestion. And this in the
interest of health and longevity, not in the interest of a prurient and
effeminate "art." In these poems Whitman for a moment emphasizes sex, the
need of sex, and the power of sex. "All were lacking if sex were lacking."
He says to men and women, Here is where you live after all, here is the
seat of empire. You are at the top of your condition when you are fullest
and sanest there. Fearful consequences follow any corrupting or abusing or
perverting of sex. The poet stands in the garden of the world naked and
not ashamed. It is a great comfort that he could do it in this age of
hectic lust and Swinburnian impotence,--that he could do it and not be
ridiculous. To have done it without offense would have been proof that he
had failed utterly. Let us be shocked; it is a wholesome shock, like the
douse of the sea, or the buffet of the wind. We shall be all the better
for it by and by.


The lover of Whitman comes inevitably to associate him with character and
personal qualities. I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman
type--the kind of woman he invoked and predicted. They bear children, and
are not ashamed; motherhood is their pride and their joy: they are
cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal
terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual
world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural,
good-natured; the mates and companions of their husbands, keeping pace
with them in all matters; home-makers, but larger than home, considerate,
forgiving, unceremonious,--in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air
natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.

A British critic wisely says the gift of Whitman to us is the gift of life
rather than of literature, but it is the gift of life through literature.
Indeed, Whitman means a life as much as Christianity means a life. He

  "Writing and talk do not prove me."

Nothing but the test of reality finally proves him:--

  "The proof of the poet shall be sternly deferr'd till his country has
        absorbed him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."

The proof of Whitman shall be deferred till he has borne fruit in actual,
concrete life.

He knew that merely intellectual and artistic tests did not settle matters
in his case, or that we would not reach his final value by making a
dead-set at him through the purely æsthetic faculties. Is he animating to
life itself? Can we absorb and assimilate him? Does he nourish the manly
and heroic virtues? Does he make us more religious, more tolerant, more
charitable, more candid, more self-reliant? If not, he fails of his chief
end. It is doubtful if the purely scholarly and literary poets, like
Milton, say, or like our own Poe, are ever absorbed in the sense above
implied; while there is little doubt that poets like Homer, like
Shakespeare, are absorbed and modify a people's manners and ideals. Only
that which we love affects our lives. Our admiration for art and
literature as such is something entirely outside the sources of character
and power of action.

Whitman identifies himself with our lives. We associate him with reality,
with days, scenes, persons, events. The youth who reads Poe or Lowell
wants to be a scholar, a wit, a poet, a writer; the youth who reads
Whitman wants to be a man, and to get at the meaning and value of life.
Our author's bent towards real things, real men and women, and his power
to feed and foster personality, are unmistakable.

Life, reality, alone proves him; a saner and more robust fatherhood and
motherhood, more practical democracy, more charity, more love, more
comradeship, more social equality, more robust ideals of womanly and manly
character, prove him. When we are more tolerant and patient and
long-suffering, when the strain of our worldly, commercial spirit relaxes,
then is he justified. Whitman means a letting-up of the strain all along
the line,--less hurry, less greed, less rivalry, more leisure, more
charity, more fraternalism and altruism, more religion, less formality and

  "When America does what was promised,
  When each part is peopled with free people,
  When there is no city on earth to lead my city, the city of young men,
        the Mannahatta city--but when the Mannahatta leads all the cities
        of the earth,
  When there are plentiful athletic bards, inland and seaboard,
  When through these States walk a hundred millions of superb persons,
  When the rest part away for superb persons, and contribute to them,
  When fathers, firm, unconstrained, open-eyed--when breeds of the most
        perfect mothers denote America,
  Then to me ripeness and conclusion."


After all I think it matters little whether we call him poet or not. Grant
that he is not a poet in the usual or technical sense, but poet-prophet,
or poet-seer, or all combined. He is a poet plus something else. It is
when he is judged less than poet, or no poet at all, that we feel
injustice is done him. Grant that his work is not art, that it does not
give off the perfume, the atmosphere of the highly wrought artistic works
like those of Tennyson, but of something quite different.

We have all been slow to see that his cherished ends were religious rather
than literary; that, over and above all else, he was a great religious
teacher and prophet. Had he been strictly a literary poet, like Lowell, or
Longfellow, or Tennyson,--that is, a writer working for purely artistic
effects,--we should be compelled to judge him quite differently.

"Leaves of Grass" is a gospel--glad tidings of great joy to those who are
prepared to receive it. Its final value lies in its direct, intense,
personal appeal; in what it did for Symonds, who said it made a man of
him; in what it did for Stevenson, who said it dispelled a thousand
illusions; in what it did for Mrs. Gilchrist, who said it enabled her to
find her own soul; in what it does for all earnest readers of it in
blending with the inmost current of their lives. Whitman is the life-giver
of our time. How shall a poet give us life but by making us share his
larger measure of life, his larger hope, his larger love, his larger
charity, his saner and wider outlook? What are the three great life-giving
principles? Can we name them better than St. Paul named them eighteen
hundred years ago,--faith, hope, charity? And these are the cornerstones
of Whitman's work,--a faith so broad and fervent that it accepts death as
joyously as life, and sees all things at last issue in spiritual results;
a hope that sees the golden age ahead of us, not behind us; and a charity
that balks at nothing, that makes him identify himself with offenders and
outlaws; a charity as great as his who said to the thief on the cross,
"This day thou shalt be with me in paradise."

To cry up faith, hope, and charity is not to make men partakers of them;
but to exemplify them in a survey of the whole problem of life, to make
them vital as hearing, or eyesight in a work of the imagination, to show
them as motives and impulses controlling all the rest, is to beget and
foster them in the mind of the beholder.

He is more and he is less than the best of the other poets. The popular,
the conventional poets are mainly occupied with the artistic side of
things,--with that which refines, solaces, beautifies. Whitman is mainly
occupied with the cosmic and universal side of things, and the human and
spiritual values that may be extracted from them. His poetry is not the
result of the same kind of selection and partiality as that we are more
familiar with.

Hence, while the message of Tennyson and his kind is the message of
beauty, the message of Whitman is, in a much fuller sense, the message of
life. He speaks the word of faith and power. This is his distinction; he
is the life-giver. Such a man comes that we may have life, and have it
more abundantly.

The message of beauty,--who would undervalue it? The least poet and
poetling lisps some word or syllable of it. The masters build its temples
and holy places. All own it, all receive it gladly. But the gospel of
life, there is danger that we shall not know it when we hear it. It is a
harsher and more heroic strain than the other. It calls no man to his
ease, or to be lulled and soothed. It is a summons and a challenge. It
lays rude, strong hands upon you. It filters and fibres your blood. It is
more of the frost, the rains, the winds, than of cushions or parlors.

The call of life is a call to battle always. We are stronger by the
strength of every obstacle or enemy overcome.

  "Listen! I will be honest with you,
  I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
  These are the days that must happen to you:

  "You shall not heap up what is called riches,
  You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve;
  You but arrive at the city to which you were destined--you hardly settle
        yourself to satisfaction, before you are called by an irresistible
        call to depart.
  You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who
        remain behind you;
  What beckonings of love you receive, you shall only answer with
        passionate kisses of parting,
  You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reached hands
        toward you.

  "Allons! After the GREAT COMPANIONS! and to belong to them!"


Whitman always avails himself of the poet's privilege and magnifies
himself. He magnifies others in the same ratio, he magnifies all things.
"Magnifying and applying come I," he says, "outbidding at the start the
old cautious hucksters." Indeed, the character which speaks throughout
"Leaves of Grass" is raised to the highest degree of personal exaltation.
To it nothing is trivial, nothing is mean; all is good, all is divine. The
usual distinctions disappear, burned up, the poet says, for religion's
sake. All the human attributes are heightened and enlarged; sympathy as
wide as the world; love that balks at nothing; charity as embracing as the
sky; egotism like the force of gravity; religious fervor that consumes the
coarsest facts like stubble; spirituality that finds God everywhere every
hour of the day; faith that welcomes death as cheerfully as life;
comradeship that would weld the nation into a family of brothers;
sexuality that makes prudes shudder; poetic enthusiasm that scornfully
dispenses with all the usual adventitious aids; and in general a
largeness, coarseness, and vehemence that are quite appalling to the
general reader. Lovers of poetry will of necessity be very slow in
adjusting their notions to the standards of "Leaves of Grass." It is a
survey of life and of the world from the cosmic rather than from the
conventional standpoint. It carries the standards of the natural-universal
into all fields.

Some men have accepted poverty and privation with such contentment and
composure as to make us almost envious of their lot; and Whitman accepts
the coarser, commoner human elements which he finds in himself, and which
most of us try to conceal or belittle, with such frankness and perception
of their real worth that they acquire new meaning and value in our eyes.
If he paraded these things unduly, and showed an overweening preference
for them, as some of his critics charge, this is of course an element of

His precept and his illustration, carried out in life, would fill the land
with strong, native, original types of men and women animated by the most
vehement comradeship, selfism and otherism going hand in hand.



"Leaves of Grass" is not the poetry of culture, but it is to be said in
the same breath that it is not such a work as an uncultured man produces,
or is capable of producing.

The uncultured man does not think Whitman's thoughts, or propose Whitman's
problems to himself, or understand or appreciate them at all. The "Leaves"
are perhaps of supreme interest only to men of deepest culture, because
they contain in such ample measure that without which all culture is mere
varnish or veneer. They are indirectly a tremendous criticism of American
life and civilization, and they imply that breadth of view and that
liberation of spirit--that complete disillusioning--which is the best
result of culture, and which all great souls have reached, no matter who
or what their schoolmasters may have been.

Our reading public probably does not and cannot see itself in Whitman at
all. He must be a great shock to its sense of the genteel and the
respectable. Nor can the working people and the unlettered, though they
were drawn to Whitman the man, be expected to respond to any considerable
extent to Whitman the poet. His standpoint can be reached only after
passing through many things and freeing one's self from many illusions. He
is more representative of the time-spirit out of which America grew, and
which is now shaping the destiny of the race upon this continent. He
strikes under and through our whole civilization.

He despised our social gods, he distrusted our book-culture, he was
alarmed at the tendency to the depletion and attenuation of the national
type, and he aimed to sow broadcast the germs of more manly ideals. His
purpose was to launch his criticism from the basic facts of human life,
psychic and physiologic; to inject into the veins of our anæmic literature
the reddest, healthiest kind of blood; and in doing so he has given free
swing to the primary human traits and affections and to sexuality, and has
charged his pages with the spirit of real things, real life.

We have been so long used to verse which is the outcome of the literary
impulse alone, which is written at so many removes from the primary human
qualities, produced from the extreme verge of culture and artificial
refinement, which is so innocent of the raciness and healthful coarseness
of nature, that poetry which has these qualities, which implies the body
as well as the mind, which is the direct outgrowth of a radical human
personality, and which make demands like those made by real things, is
either an offense to us or is misunderstood.


Whitman says his book is not a good lesson, but it takes down the bars to
a good lesson, and that to another, and that to another still. To take
down bars rather than to put them up is always Whitman's aim; to make his
reader free of the universe, to turn him forth into the fresh and
inexhaustible pastures of time, space, eternity, and with a smart slap
upon his back with the halter as a spur and send-off, is about what he
would do. His message, first and last, is "give play to yourself;" "let
yourself go;"--happiness is in the quest of happiness; power comes to him
who power uses.

  "Long enough have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore;
  Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
  To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout,
        and laughingly dash with your hair."

To hold Whitman up to ridicule, and to convict him of grossness and
tediousness, is easy enough; first, because he is so out of relation to
the modes and taste of his times, and, secondly, because he has somewhat
of the uncouthness and coarseness of large bodies. Then his seriousness
and simplicity, like that of Biblical and Oriental writers,--a kind of
childish inaptness and homeliness,--often exposes him to our keen, almost
abnormal sense of the ridiculous. He was deficient in humor, and he wrote
his book in entire obliviousness of social usages and conventions, so that
the perspective of it is not the social or indoor perspective, but that
of life and nature at large, careering and unhampered. It is probably the
one modern poem whose standards are not social and what are called

Its atmosphere is always that of the large, free spaces of vast, unhoused
nature. It has been said that the modern world could be reconstructed from
"Leaves of Grass," so compendious and all-inclusive is it in its details;
but of the modern world as a social organization, of man as the creature
of social usages and prohibitions, of fashions, of dress, of
ceremony,--the indoor, parlor and drawing-room man,--there is no hint in
its pages. In its matter and in its spirit, in its standards and in its
execution, in its ideals and in its processes, it belongs to and
affiliates with open-air nature, often reaching, I think, the cosmic and
unconditioned. In a new sense is Whitman the brother of the orbs and
cosmic processes, "conveying a sentiment and invitation of the earth." All
his enthusiasms, all his sympathies have to do with the major and
fundamental elements of life. He is a world-poet. We do not readily adjust
our indoor notions to him. Our culture-standards do not fit him.


The problem of the poet is doubtless more difficult in our day than in any
past day; it is harder for him to touch reality.

The accumulations of our civilization are enormous: an artificial world of
great depth and potency overlies the world of reality; especially does it
overlie the world of man's moral and intellectual nature. Most of us live
and thrive in this artificial world, and never know but it is the world of
God's own creating. Only now and then a man strikes his roots down through
this made land into fresh, virgin soil. When the religious genius strikes
his roots through it, and insists upon a present revelation, we are apt to
cry "heretic;" when the poet strikes his roots through it, as Whitman did,
and insists upon giving us reality,--giving us himself before custom or
law,--we cry "barbarian," or "art-heretic," or "outlaw of art."

In the countless adjustments and accumulations, and in the oceanic
currents of our day and land, the individual is more and more lost sight
of,--merged, swamped, effaced. See him in Whitman rising above it all. See
it all shot through and through with his quality and obedient to his will.
See the all-leveling tendency of democracy, the effacing and sterilizing
power of a mechanical and industrial age, set at naught or reversed by a
single towering personality. See America, its people, their doings, their
types, their good and evil traits, all bodied forth in one composite
character, and this character justifying itself and fronting the universe
with the old joy and contentment.


  "The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
  Is he waiting for civilization, or is he past it and master of it?"

Do we not, consciously or unconsciously, ask this or a similar question of
every poet or artist whom we pass in review before us? Is he master of his
culture, or does it master him? Does he strike back through it to simple,
original nature, or is he a potted plant? Does he retain the native savage
virtues, or is he entirely built up from the outside? We constantly
mistake culture for mere refinement, which it is not: it is a liberating
process; it is a clearing away of obstructions, and the giving to inherent
virtues a chance to express themselves. It makes savage nature friendly
and considerate. The aim of culture is not to get rid of nature, but to
utilize nature. The great poet is always a "friendly and flowing savage,"
the master and never the slave of the complex elements of our artificial

Though our progress and civilization are a triumph over nature, yet in an
important sense we never get away from nature or improve upon her. Her
standards are still our standards, her sweetness and excellence are still
our aim. Her health, her fertility, her wholeness, her freshness, her
innocence, her evolution, we would fain copy or reproduce. We would, if we
could, keep the pungency and aroma of her wild fruit in our cultivated
specimens, the virtue and hardiness of the savage in our fine gentlemen,
the joy and spontaneity of her bird-songs in our poetry, the grace and
beauty of her forms in our sculpture and carvings.

A poetic utterance from an original individual standpoint, something
definite and characteristic,--this is always the crying need. What a fine
talent has this or that young British or American poet whom we might name!
But we see that the singer has not yet made this talent his own; it is a
kind of borrowed capital; it is the general taste and intelligence that
speak. When will he redeem all these promises, and become a fixed centre
of thought and emotion in himself? To write poems is no distinction; to be
a poem, to be a fixed point amid the seething chaos, a rock amid the
currents, giving your own form and character to them,--that is something.

It matters little, as Whitman himself says, who contributes the mass of
poetic verbiage upon which any given age feeds.

But for a national first-class poem, or a great work of the imagination of
any sort, the man is everything, because such works finally rest upon
primary human qualities and special individual traits. A richly endowed
personality is always the main dependence in such cases, or, as Goethe
says, "in the great work the great person is always present as the great

"Leaves of Grass" is as distinctly an emanation from Walt Whitman, from
his quality and equipment as a man apart from anything he owed to books or
to secondary influences, as a tree is an emanation from the soil. It is,
moreover, an emanation from him as an American in the latter half of the
nineteenth century, and as a typical democratic composite man, a man of
the common people, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, but with
an extraordinary endowment of spiritual and intellectual power, to which
he has given full swing without abating one jot or tittle the influence of
his heritage of the common stock.


There is one important quality that enters into all first-class literary
production and into all art, which is taken little account of in current
criticism: I mean the quality of the manly,--the pulse and pressure of
manly virility and strength. Goethe spoke of it to Eckermann as a certain
urgent power in which the art of his time was lacking. The producers had
taste and skill, but were not masterful as men. Goethe always looked
straight through the work to the man behind it; in art and poetry the
personality was everything. The special talent of one kind or another was
quite secondary. The greatest works are the least literary. To speak in
literature as a man, and not merely as a scholar or professional
litterateur, is always the crying need. The new poet has this or that
gift, but what is the human fund back of all? What is his endowment of the
common universal human traits? How much of a man is he? His measure in
this respect will be the measure of the final value of his contribution.

The decadence of literature sets in when there is more talent than
character in current production; when rare literary and artistic gifts no
longer come wedded to large human and manly gifts; when taste is
fastidious rather than robust and hearty. When was there a man born to
English or American literature with a large endowment of the universal
human qualities, or with those elements that give breadth and power, and
which lead art rather than follow it? We are living in an age of great
purity and refinement of taste in art and letters, but destitute of power.
Goethe spoke of Walter Scott not merely as a great talent, but as a
"comprehensive nature." Without this comprehensive nature as a setting,
his great talent would have amounted to but little. This gives the weight,
the final authority. How little there was on the surface of Scott of the
literary keenness, subtlety, knowingness of later producers, and yet how
far his contribution surpasses theirs in real human pathos and

The same might be said of Count Tolstoï, who is also, back of all, a great
loving nature.

One has great joy in Whitman because he is beyond and over all a large and
loving personality; his work is but a thin veil through which a great
nature clearly shows. The urgent power of which Goethe speaks is almost
too strong,--too strong for current taste: we want more art and less man,
more literature and less life. It is not merely a great mind that we feel,
but a great character. It penetrates every line, and indeed makes it true
of the book that whoever "touches this touches a man."

The lesson of the poet is all in the direction of the practical manly and
womanly qualities and virtues,--health, temperance, sanity, power,
endurance, aplomb,--and not at all in the direction of the literary and
artistic qualities or culture.

  "To stand the cold or heat, to take good aim with a gun, to sail a boat,
        to manage horses, to beget superb children,
  To speak readily and clearly, to feel at home among common people,
  To hold our own in terrible positions on land and sea."

All his aims, ideas, impulses, aspirations, relate to life, to
personality, and to power to deal with real things; and if we expect from
him only literary ideas--form, beauty, lucidity, proportion--we shall be
disappointed. He seeks to make the impression of concrete forces and
objects, and not of art.

  "Not for an embroiderer,
  (There will always be plenty of embroiderers--I welcome them also),
  But for the fibre of things, and for inherent men and women.

  "Not to chisel ornaments,
  But to chisel with free stroke the heads and limbs of plenteous Supreme
        Gods, that The States may realize them, walking and talking."

His whole work is a radiation from an exemplification of the idea that
there is something better than to be an artist or a poet,--namely, to be a
man. The poet's rapture springs not merely from the contemplation of the
beautiful and the artistic, but from the contemplation of the whole; from
the contemplation of democracy, the common people, workingmen, soldiers,
sailors, his own body, death, sex, manly love, occupations, and the force
and vitality of things. We are to look for the clews to him in the open
air and in natural products, rather than in the traditional art forms and
methods. He declares he will never again mention love or death inside of a
house, and that he will translate himself only to those who privately stay
with him in the open air.

  "If you would understand me, go to the heights or water-shore;
  The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key:
  The maul, the oar, the handsaw, second my words.

  "No shuttered room or school can commune with me,
  But roughs and little children better than they.

  "The young mechanic is closest to me--he knows me pretty well.
  The woodman, that takes his axe and jug with him, shall take me with
        him all day;
  The farm-boy, ploughing in the field, feels good at the sound of my
  In vessels that sail, my words sail--I go with fishermen and seamen,
        and love them.

  "My face rubs to the hunter's face when he lies down alone in his
  The driver, thinking of me, does not mind the jolt of his wagon;
  The young mother and old mother comprehend me;
  The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment, and forget where
        they are:
  They and all would resume what I have told them."


So far as literature is a luxury, and for the cultured, privileged few,
its interests are not in Whitman; so far as poetry represents the weakness
of man rather than his strength; so far as it expresses a shrinking from
reality and a refuge in sentimentalism; so far as it is aristocratic as in
Tennyson, or mocking and rebellious as in Byron, or erotic and mephitic as
in Swinburne, or regretful and reminiscent as in Arnold, or a melodious
baying of the moon as in Shelley, or the outcome of mere scholarly and
technical acquirements as in so many of our younger poets,--so far as
literature or poetry, I say, stand for these things, there is little of
either in Whitman. Whitman stands for the primary and essential; he stands
for that which makes the body as well as the mind, which makes life sane
and joyous and masterful. Everything that tends to depletion, satiety, the
abnormal, the erotic and exotic, that induces the stress and fever of
life, is foreign to his spirit. He is less beautiful than the popular
poets, yet more beautiful. He will have to do only with the inevitable
beauty, the beauty that comes unsought, that resides in the interior
meanings and affiliations,--the beauty that dare turn its back upon the

Whitman has escaped entirely the literary disease, the characteristic
symptoms of which, according to Renan, is that people love less things
themselves than the literary effects which they produce. He has escaped
the art disease which makes art all in all; the religious disease, which
runs to maudlin piety and seeks to win heaven by denying earth; the beauty
disease, which would make of poesy a conventional flower-garden. He brings
heroic remedies for our morbid sex-consciousness, and for all the
pathological conditions brought about by our excess of refinement, and the
dyspeptic depletions of our indoor artificial lives. Whitman withstood the
æsthetic temptation, as Amiel calls it, to which most of our poets fall a
victim,--the lust for the merely beautiful, the epicureanism of the
literary faculties. We can make little of him if we are in quest of
æsthetic pleasures alone. "In order to establish those literary
authorities which are called classic centuries," says Renan, "something
healthy and solid is necessary. Common household bread is of more value
here than pastry." But the vast majority of literary producers aim at
pastry, or, worse yet, confectionery,--something especially delightful and
titivating to the taste. No doubt Renan himself was something of a
literary epicure, but then he imposed upon himself large and serious
tasks, and his work as a whole is solid and nourishing; his charm of style
does not blind and seduce us. It makes all the difference in the world
whether we seek the beautiful through the true, or the true through the
beautiful. Seek ye the kingdom of truth first and all things shall be
added. The novice aims to write beautifully, but the master aims to see
truly and to feel vitally. Beauty follows him, and is never followed by

Nature is beautiful because she is something else first, yes, and last,
too, and all the while. Whitman's work is baptized in the spirit of the
whole, and its health and sweetness in this respect, when compared with
the over-refined artistic works, is like that of a laborer in the fields
compared with the pale dyspeptic ennuyé.


Whitman's ideal is undoubtedly much larger, coarser, stronger--much more
racy and democratic--than the ideal we are familiar with in current
literature, and upon which our culture is largely based. He applies the
democratic spirit not only to the material of poetry,--excluding all the
old stock themes of love and war, lords and ladies, myths and fairies and
legends, etc.,--but he applies it to the form as well, excluding rhyme and
measure and all the conventional verse architecture. His work stands or it
falls upon its inherent, its intrinsic qualities, the measure of life or
power which it holds. This ideal was neither the scholar nor the priest,
nor any type of the genteel or exceptionally favored or cultivated. His
influence does not make for any form of depleted, indoor, over-refined or
extra-cultured humanity. The spirit of his work transferred to practice
begets a life full and strong on all sides, affectionate, magnetic,
tolerant, spiritual, bold with the flavor and quality of simple,
healthful, open-air humanity. He opposes culture and refinement only as he
opposes that which weakens, drains, emasculates, and tends to beget a
scoffing, carping, hypercritical class. The culture of life, of nature,
and that which flows from the exercise of the manly instincts and
affections, is the culture implied by "Leaves of Grass." The democratic
spirit is undoubtedly more or less jealous of the refinements of our
artificial culture and of the daintiness and aloofness of our literature.
The people look askance at men who are above them without being of them,
who have dropped the traits and attractions which they share with
unlettered humanity. Franklin and Lincoln are closer akin to this spirit,
and hence more in favor with it, than a Jefferson or a Sumner.

Whitman might be called the poet of the absolute, the unconditioned. His
work is launched at a farther remove from our arts, conventions, usages,
civilization, and all the artificial elements that modify and enter into
our lives, than that of any other man. Absolute candor, absolute pride,
absolute charity, absolute social and sexual equality, absolute nature. It
is not conditioned by what we deem modest or immodest, high or low, male
or female. It is not conditioned by our notions of good and evil, by our
notions of the refined and the select, by what we call good taste and bad
taste. It is the voice of absolute man, sweeping away the artificial,
throwing himself boldly, joyously, upon unconditioned nature. We are all
engaged in upholding the correct and the conventional, and drawing the
line sharply between good and evil, the high and the low, and it is well
that we should; but here is a man who aims to take absolute ground, and to
look at the world as God himself might look at it, without partiality or
discriminating,--it is all good, and there is no failure or imperfection
in the universe and can be none:--

  "Open mouth of my Soul uttering gladness,
  Eyes of my Soul seeing perfection,
  Natural life of me, faithfully praising things,
  Corroborating forever the triumph of things."

He does not take sides against evil, in the usual way, he does not take
sides with the good except as nature herself does. He celebrates the All.

Can we accept the world as science reveals it to us, as all significant,
as all in ceaseless transmutation, as every atom aspiring to be man, an
endless unfolding of primal germs, without beginning, without end, without
failure or imperfection, the golden age ahead of us, not behind us?


Because of Whitman's glorification of pride, egoism, brawn, self-reliance,
it is charged that the noble, the cultured, the self-denying, have no
place in his system. What place have they in the antique bards?--in Homer,
in Job, in Isaiah, in Dante? They have the same place in Whitman, yet it
is to be kept in mind that Whitman does not stand for the specially social
virtues, nor for culture, nor for the refinements which it induces, nor
for art, nor for any conventionality. There are flowers of human life
which we are not to look for in Walt Whitman. The note of fine manners,
chivalrous conduct, which we get in Emerson; the sweetness and light
gospel of Arnold; the gospel of hero-worship of Carlyle; the gracious
scholarship of our New England poets, etc.,--we do not get in Walt
Whitman. There is nothing in him at war with these things, but he is
concerned with more primal and elemental questions. He strikes under and
beyond all these things.

What are the questions or purposes, then, in which his work has root?
Simply put, to lead the way to larger, saner, more normal, more robust
types of men and women on this continent; to prefigure and help develop
the new democratic man,--to project him into literature on a scale and
with a distinctness that cannot be mistaken. To this end he keeps a deep
hold of the savage, the unrefined, and marshals the elements and
influences that make for the virile, the heroic, the sane, the large, and
for the perpetuity of the race. We cannot refine the elements,--the air,
the water, the soil, the sunshine,--and the more we pervert or shut out
these from our lives the worse for us. In the same manner, the more we
pervert or balk the great natural impulses, sexuality, comradeship, the
religious emotion, nativity, or the more we deny and belittle our bodies,
the further we are from the spirit of Walt Whitman, and from the spirit of
the All.

With all Whitman's glorification of pride, self-esteem, self-reliance,
etc., the final lesson of his life and work is service, self-denial,--the
free, lavish giving of yourself to others. Of the innate and essential
nobility that we associate with unworldliness, the sharing of what you
possess with the unfortunate around you, sympathy with all forms of life
and conditions of men, charity as broad as the sunlight, standing up for
those whom others are down upon, claiming nothing for self which others
may not have upon the same terms,--of such nobility and fine manners, I
say, you shall find an abundance in the life and works of Walt Whitman.

The spirit of a man's work is everything; the letter, little or nothing.
Though Whitman boasts of his affiliation with the common and near at hand,
yet he is always saved from the vulgar, the mean, the humdrum, by the
breadth of his charity and sympathy and his tremendous ideality.

Of worldliness, materialism, commercialism, he has not a trace; his only
values are spiritual and ideal; his only standards are the essential and
the enduring. What Matthew Arnold called the Anglo-Saxon contagion, the
bourgeois spirit, the worldly and sordid ideal, is entirely corrected in
Whitman by the ascendant of the ethic and the universal. His democracy
ends in universal brotherhood, his patriotism in the solidarity of
nations, his glorification of the material in the final triumph of the
spiritual, his egoism issues at last in complete otherism.

A race that can produce a man of his fibre, his continental type, is yet
at its best estate. Did one begin to see evil omen in this perpetual
whittling away and sharpening and lightening of the American type,--grace
without power, clearness without mass, intellect without character,--then
take comfort from the volume and the rankness of Walt Whitman. Did one
begin to fear that the decay of maternity and paternity in our older
communities and the falling off in the native population presaged the
drying up of the race in its very sources? Then welcome to the rank
sexuality and to the athletic fatherhood and motherhood celebrated by
Whitman. Did our skepticism, our headiness, our worldliness, threaten to
eat us up like a cancer? did our hardness, our irreligiousness, and our
passion for the genteel point to a fugitive, superficial race? was our
literature threatened with the artistic degeneration,--running all to art
and not at all to power? were our communities invaded by a dry rot of
culture? were we fast becoming a delicate, indoor, genteel race? were our
women sinking deeper and deeper into the "incredible sloughs of fashion
and all kinds of dyspeptic depletion,"--the antidote for all these ills is
in Walt Whitman. In him nature shows great fullness and fertility, and an
immense friendliness. He supplements and corrects most of the special
deficiencies and weaknesses toward which the American type seems to tend.
He brings us back to nature again. The perpetuity of the race is with the
common people. The race is constantly crying out at the top, in our times
at least; culture and refinement beget fewer and fewer and poorer and
poorer children. Where struggle ceases, that family or race is doomed.

  "Now understand me well--it is provided in the essence of things that
        from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth
        something to make a greater struggle necessary."

In more primitive communities, the sap and vitality of the race were kept
in the best men, because upon them the strain and struggle were greatest.
War, adventure, discovery, favor virility. Whitman is always and
everywhere occupied with that which makes for life, power, longevity,
manliness. The scholar poets are occupied with that which makes for
culture, taste, refinement, ease, art.

"Leaves of Grass," taken as a whole, aims to exhibit a modern, democratic,
archetypal man, here in America, confronting and subduing our enormous
materialism to his own purposes, putting it off and on as a garment;
identifying himself with all forms of life and conditions of men; trying
himself by cosmic laws and processes, exulting in the life of his body and
the delights of his senses; and seeking to clinch, to develop, and to
realize himself through the shows and events of the visible world. The
poet seeks to interpret life from the central point of absolute abysmal

The wild and the savage in nature with which Whitman perpetually
identifies himself, and the hirsute, sun-tanned, and aboriginal in
humanity, have misled many readers into looking upon him as expressive of
these things only. Mr. Stedman thinks him guilty of a certain narrowness
in preferring, or seeming to prefer, the laboring man to the gentleman.
But the poet uses these elements only for checks and balances, and to keep
our attention, in the midst of a highly refined and civilized age, fixed
upon the fact that here are the final sources of our health, our power,
our longevity. The need of the pre-scientific age was knowledge and
refinement; the need of our age is health and sanity, cool heads and good
digestion. And to this end the bitter and drastic remedies from the shore
and the mountains are for us.


The gospel of the average man, Matthew Arnold thought, was inimical to the
ideal of a rare and high excellence. But, in holding up the average man,
Whitman was only holding up the broad, universal human qualities, and
showing that excellence may go with them also. As a matter of fact, are we
not astonished almost daily by the superb qualities shown by the average
man, the heroism shown by firemen, engineers, workingmen, soldiers,
sailors? Do we not know that true greatness, true nobility and strength of
soul, may go and do go with commonplace, every-day humanity? Whitman would
lift the average man to a higher average, and still to a higher, without
at all weakening the qualities which he shares with universal humanity as
it exists over and under all special advantages and social refinements.
He says that one of the convictions that underlie his "Leaves" is the
conviction that the "crowning growth of the United States is to be
spiritual and heroic,"--a prophecy which in our times, I confess, does not
seem very near fulfillment.

He does not look longingly and anxiously toward the genteel social gods,
but quite the contrary. In the library and parlor, he confesses he is as a
gawk or one dumb. The great middle-class ideal, which is mainly the ideal
of our own people, Whitman flouts and affronts. There are things to him of
higher import than to have wealth and be respectable and in the mode.

We might charge him with narrowness and partiality and with seeing only
half truths, as Mr. Stedman has done, did he simply rest with the native
as opposed to the cultivated, with brawn as opposed to brains. What he
does do, what the upshot of his teaching shows, is that he identifies
himself with the masses, with those universal human currents out of which
alone a national spirit arises, as opposed to isolated schools and
coteries and a privileged few. Whitman decries culture only so far as it
cuts a man off from his fellows, clips away or effaces the sweet, native,
healthy parts of him, and begets a bloodless, superstitious, infidelistic
class. "The best culture," he says, "will always be that of the manly and
courageous instincts and loving perceptions, and of self-respect." For
the most part, our schooling is like our milling, which takes the bone
and nerve building elements out of our bread. The bread of life demands
the coarse as well as the fine, and this is what Whitman stands for.

In his spirit and affiliation with the great mass of the people, with the
commoner, sturdier, human traits, Whitman is more of the type of Angelo,
or Rembrandt, or the antique bards, than he is like modern singers. He was
not a product of the schools, but of the race.



It has been said, and justly I think, that in Whitman we see the first
appearance in literature of the genuinely democratic spirit on anything
like an ample scale. Plenty of men of democratic tendencies and
affiliations have appeared, but none that have carried the temper and
quality of the people, the masses, into the same regions, or blended the
same humanity and commonness with the same commanding personality and
spirituality. In recent English poetry the names of Burns and Wordsworth
occur to mind, but neither of these men had anything like Whitman's
breadth of relation to the mass of mankind, or expressed anything like his
sweeping cosmic emotion. Wordsworth's muse was clad in homespun, but in no
strict sense was his genius democratic--using the word to express, not a
political creed, but the genius of modern civilization. He made much of
the common man, common life, common things, but always does the poet stand
apart, the recluse, the hermit, the philosopher, loving and contemplating
these things for purposes of his art. Only through intellectual sympathy
is he a part of what he surveys. In Whitman the common or average man has
grown haughty, almost aristocratic. He coolly confronts the old types, the
man of caste, culture, privileges, royalties, and relegates him to the
past. He readjusts the standards, and estimates everything from the human
and democratic point of view. In his scheme, the old traditions--the
aristocratic, the scholastic, the ecclesiastical, the military, the social
traditions--play no part. He dared to look at life, past and present, from
the American and scientific standpoint. He turns to the old types a pride
and complacency equal to their own.

Indeed, we see in the character which Whitman has exploited and in the
interest of which his poems are written, the democratic type fully
realized,--pride and self-reliance equal to the greatest, and these
matched with a love, a compassion, a spirit of fraternity and equality,
that are entirely foreign to the old order of things.


At first sight Whitman does not seem vitally related to his own country
and people; he seems an anomaly, an exception, or like one of those
mammoth sports that sometimes appear in the vegetable world. The Whitman
ideal is not, and has never been, the conscious ideal of the mass of our
people. We have aspired more to the ideal of the traditional fine
gentleman as he has figured in British letters. There seems to have been
no hint or prophecy of such a man as Whitman in our New England
literature, unless it be in Emerson, and here it is in the region of the
abstract and not of the concrete. Emerson's prayer was for the absolutely
self-reliant man, but when Whitman refused to follow his advice with
regard to certain passages in the "Leaves," the sage withheld further
approval of the work.

We must look for the origins of Whitman, I think, in the deep
world-currents that have been shaping the destinies of the race for the
past hundred years or more; in the universal loosening, freeing, and
removing obstructions; in the emancipation of the people, and their coming
forward and taking possession of the world in their own right; in the
triumph of democracy and of science; the downfall of kingcraft and
priestcraft; the growth of individualism and non-conformity; the
increasing disgust of the soul of man with forms and ceremonies; the
sentiment of realism and positivism, the religious hunger that flees the
churches; the growing conviction that life, that nature, are not failures,
that the universe is good, that man is clean and divine inside and out,
that God is immanent in nature,--all these things and more lie back of
Whitman, and hold a causal relation to him.


Of course the essential elements of all first-class artistic and literary
productions are always the same, just as nature, just as man, are
essentially the same everywhere. Yet the literature of every people has a
stamp of its own, starts from and implies antecedents and environments
peculiar to itself.

Just as ripe, mellow, storied, ivy-towered, velvet-turfed England lies
back of Tennyson, and is vocal through him; just as canny, covenanting,
conscience-burdened, craggy, sharp-tongued Scotland lies back of Carlyle;
just as thrifty, well-schooled, well-housed, prudent, and moral New
England lies back of her group of poets, and is voiced by them,--so
America as a whole, our turbulent democracy, our self-glorification, our
faith in the future, our huge mass movements, our continental spirit, our
sprawling, sublime, and unkempt nature, lie back of Whitman and are
implied by his work.

He had not the shaping, manipulating gift to carve his American material
into forms of ideal beauty, and did not claim to have. He did not value
beauty as an abstraction.

What Whitman did that is unprecedented was, to take up the whole country
into himself, fuse it, imbue it with soul and poetic emotion, and recast
it as a sort of colossal Walt Whitman. He has not so much treated American
themes as he has identified himself with everything American, and made the
whole land redolent of his own quality. He has descended upon the gross
materialism of our day and land and upon the turbulent democratic masses
with such loving impact, such fervid enthusiasm, as to lift and fill them
with something like the breath of universal nature. His special gift is
his magnetic and unconquerable personality, his towering egoism united
with such a fund of human sympathy. His power is centripetal, so to
speak,--he draws everything into himself like a maelstrom; the centrifugal
power of the great dramatic artists, the power to get out of and away from
himself, he has not. It was not for Whitman to write the dramas and
tragedies of democracy, as Shakespeare wrote those of feudalism, or as
Tennyson sang in delectable verse the swan-song of an overripe
civilization. It was for him to voice the democratic spirit, to show it
full-grown, athletic, haughtily taking possession of the world and
redistributing the prizes according to its own standards. It was for him
to sow broadcast over the land the germs of larger, more sane, more robust
types of men and women, indicating them in himself.

In him the new spirit of democracy first completely knows itself, is proud
of itself, has faith and joy in itself, is fearless, tolerant, religious,
aggressive, triumphant, and bestows itself lavishly upon all sides. It is
tentative, doubtful, hesitating no longer. It is at ease in the world, it
takes possession, it fears no rival, it advances with confident step.

No man was ever more truly fathered by what is formative and expansive in
his country and times than was Whitman. Not by the literature of his
country was he begotten, but by the spirit that lies back of all, and
that begat America itself,--the America that Europe loves and fears, that
she comes to this country to see, and looks expectantly, but for the most
part vainly, in our books to find.

It seems to me he is distinctly a continental type. His sense of space, of
magnitude, his processional pages, his unloosedness, his wide horizons,
his vanishing boundaries,--always something unconfined and unconfinable,
always the deferring and undemonstrable. The bad as well as the good
traits of his country and his people are doubtless implied by his work.

If he does not finally escape from our unripe Americanism, if he does not
rise through it all and clarify it and turn it to ideal uses, draw out the
spiritual meanings, then avaunt! we want nothing of him.

  "The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell.
  The former I graft and increase upon myself,
  The latter I translate into a new tongue."

The vital and the formative the true poet always engrafts and increases
upon himself, and thence upon his reader; the crude, the local, the
accidental, he translates into a new tongue. It has been urged against
Whitman that he expresses our unripe Americanism only, but serious readers
of him know better than that. He is easy master of it all, and knows when
his foot is upon solid ground. It seems to me that in him we see for the
first time spiritual and ideal meanings and values in democracy and the
modern; we see them translated into character; we see them tried by
universal standards; we see them vivified by a powerful imagination. We
see America as an idea, and see its relation to other ideas. We get a new
conception of the value of the near, the common, the familiar. New light
is thrown upon the worth and significance of the common people, and it is
not the light of an abstract idea, but the light of a concrete example. We
see the democratic type on a scale it has never before assumed; it is on a
par with any of the types that have ruled the world in the past, the
military, the aristocratic, the regal. It is at home, it has taken
possession, it can hold its own. Henceforth the world is going its way. If
it is over-confident, over-self-assertive, too American, that is the
surplusage of the poet, of whom we do not want a penny prudence and
caution; make your prophecy bold enough and it fulfills itself. Whitman
has betrayed no doubt or hesitation in his poetry. His assumptions and
vaticinations are tremendous, but they are uttered with an authority and
an assurance that convince like natural law.


I think he gives new meaning to democracy and America. In him we see a new
type, rising out of new conditions, and fully able to justify itself and
hold its own. It is the new man in the new world, no longer dependent upon
or facing toward the old. I confess that to me America and the modern
would not mean very much without Whitman. The final proof was wanting
till they gave birth to a personality equal to the old types.

Discussions and speculations about democracy do not carry very far, after
all; to preach equality is not much. But when we see these things made
into a man, and see the world through his eyes, and see new joy and new
meaning in it, our doubts and perplexities are cleared up. Our universal
balloting, and schooling, and material prosperity prove nothing: can your
democracy produce a man who shall carry its spirit into loftiest regions,
and prove as helpful and masterful under the new conditions as the by-gone
types were under the old?


I predict a great future for Whitman, because the world is so unmistakably
going his way. The three or four great currents of the century--the
democratic current, the scientific current, the humanitarian current, the
new religious current, and what flows out of them--are underneath all
Whitman has written. They shape all and make all. They do not appear in
him as mere dicta, or intellectual propositions, but as impulses, will,
character, flesh-and-blood reality. We get these things, not as sentiments
or yet theories, but as a man. We see life and the world as they appear to
the inevitable democrat, the inevitable lover, the inevitable believer in
God and immortality, the inevitable acceptor of absolute science.

We are all going his way. We are more and more impatient of formalities,
ceremonies, and make-believe; we more and more crave the essential, the
real. More and more we want to see the thing as in itself it is; more and
more is science opening our eyes to see the divine, the illustrious, the
universal in the common, the near at hand; more and more do we tire of
words and crave things; deeper and deeper sinks the conviction that
personal qualities alone tell,--that the man is all in all, that the
brotherhood of the race is not a dream, that love covers all and atones
for all.

Everything in our modern life and culture that tends to broaden,
liberalize, free; that tends to make hardy, self-reliant, virile; that
tends to widen charity, deepen affection between man and man, to foster
sanity and self-reliance; that tends to kindle our appreciation of the
divinity of all things; that heightens our rational enjoyment of life;
that inspires hope in the future and faith in the unseen,--are on
Whitman's side. All these things prepare the way for him.

On the other hand, the strain and strife and hoggishness of our
civilization, our trading politics, our worship of conventions, our
millionaire ideals, our high-pressure lives, our pruriency, our
sordidness, our perversions of nature, our scoffing caricaturing
tendencies, are against him. He antagonizes all these things.

The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the
more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready
for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real
things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the
woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality
prevails,--the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.


Some of our own critics have been a good deal annoyed by the fact that
many European scholars and experts have recognized Whitman as the only
distinctive American poet thus far. It would seem as if our reputation for
culture and good manners is at stake. We want Europe to see America in our
literary poets like Lowell, or Longfellow, or Whittier. And Europe may
well see much that is truly representative of America in these and in
other New England poets. She may see our aspiration toward her own ideals
of culture and refinement; she may see native and patriotic themes firing
Lowell and Whittier; she may see a certain spirit and temper begotten by
our natural environment reflected in Bryant, our delicate and gentle
humanities and scholarly aptitudes shining in Longfellow. But in every
case she sees a type she has long been familiar with. All the poets'
thoughts, moods, points of view, effects, aims, methods, are what she has
long known. These are not the poets of a new _world_, but of a new
_England_. The new-world book implies more than a new talent, more than a
fresh pair of eyes, a fresh and original mind like the poets named; such
men are required to keep up the old line of succession in English
authorship. What is implied is a new national and continental spirit,
which must arise and voice the old eternal truths through a large, new,
democratic personality,--a new man, and, beyond and above him, a new
heaven and a new earth.

Our band of New England poets have carried the New England spirit into
poetry,--its sense of fitness, order, propriety, its shrewdness,
inventiveness, aptness, and its aspiration for the pure and noble in life.
They have finely exemplified the best Yankee traits; but in no instance
were these traits merged in a personality large enough, bold enough, and
copious and democratic enough to give them national and continental
significance. It would be absurd to claim that the pulse-beat of a great
people or a great era is to be felt in the work of any of these poets.

Whitman is responded to in Europe, because he expresses a new type with
adequate power,--not, as has been so often urged, simply because he is
strange, and gives the jaded literary palate over there a new fillip. He
meets the demand for something in American literature that should not face
toward Europe, that should joyfully stand upon its own ground and yet
fulfill the conditions of greatness. He fully satisfies the thirst for
individualism amid these awakening peoples, and the thirst for nationalism
also. He realizes the democratic ideal, no longer tentative or apologetic,
but taking possession of the world as its own and reappraising the wares
it finds there.


The American spirit is a continental spirit; there is nothing insular or
narrow about it. It is informal, nonchalant, tolerant, sanguine, adaptive,
patient, candid, puts up with things, unfastidious, unmindful of
particulars; disposed to take short cuts, friendly, hospitable,
unostentatious, inclined to exaggerate, generous, unrefined,--never
meddlesome, never hypercritical, never hoggish, never exclusive. Whitman
shared the hopeful optimistic temperament of his countrymen, the faith and
confidence begotten by a great, fertile, sunny land. He expresses the
independence of the people,--their pride, their jealousy of superiors,
their contempt of authority (not always beautiful). Our want of reverence
and veneration are supplemented in him with world-wide sympathies and

Emerson is our divine man, the precious quintessence of the New England
type, invaluable for his stimulating and ennobling strain; but his genius
is too astral, too select, too remote, to incarnate and give voice to the
national spirit. Clothe him with flesh and blood, make his daring
affirmations real and vital in a human personality and imbued with the
American spirit, and we are on the way to Whitman.

Moreover, the strong, undisguised man-flavor of "Leaves of Grass," the
throb and pressure in it of those things that make life rank and make it
masterful, and that make for the virility and perpetuity of the race, are,
if it must be confessed, more keenly relished abroad than in this country,
so thoroughly are we yet under the spell of the merely refined and
conventional. We fail to see that in letters, as in life, the great prizes
are not to the polished, but to the virile and the strong.


Democracy is not so much spoken of in the "Leaves" as it is it that
speaks. The common, the familiar, are not denied and left behind, they are
made vital and masterful; it is the "divine average" that awakens
enthusiasm. Humanity is avenged upon the scholar and the "gentleman" for
the slights they have put upon it; creeds and schools in abeyance;
personal qualities, force of character, to the front. Whitman triumphs
over the mean, the vulgar, the commonplace, by accepting them and imbuing
them with the spirit of an heroic ideal. Wherever he reveals himself in
his work, it is as one of the common people, never as one of a coterie or
of the privileged and cultivated. He is determined there shall be no
mistake about it. He glories in the common heritage. He emphasizes in
himself the traits which he shares with workingmen, sailors, soldiers, and
those who live in the open air, even laying claim to the "rowdyish." He is
proud of freckles, sun-tan, brawn, and holds up the powerful and

  "I am enamor'd of growing out-doors,
  Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
  Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes
        and mauls, and the drivers of horses;
  I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out."

"Nothing endures," he says, "but personal qualities." "Produce great
persons and the rest follows." Does he glory in the present? he reverently
bows before the past also. Does he sound the call of battle for the Union?
but he nourishes the sick and wounded of the enemy as well. Does he flout
at the old religions? but he offers a larger religion in their stead. He
is never merely negative, he is never fanatical, he is never narrow. He
sees all and embraces and encloses all.

Then we see united and harmonized in Whitman the two great paramount
tendencies of our time and of the modern world,--the altruistic or
humanitarian tendency and the individualistic tendency; or, democracy and
individualism, pride and equality, or, rather, pride in equality. These
two forces, as they appear in separate individuals, are often
antagonistic. In Carlyle, individualism frowned upon democracy. In Whitman
they are blended and work together. Never was such audacious and
uncompromising individualism, and never was such bold and sweeping
fraternalism or otherism. The great pride of man in himself, which is one
motif of the poems, flows naturally into the great pride of man in his
fellows; his egoism does not separate him from, but rather unites him
with, all men. What he assumes they shall assume, and what he claims for
himself he demands in the same terms for all. He has set such an example
of self-trust and self-assertion as has no parallel in our literature, at
the same time that he has set an equal example in practical democracy and
universal brotherhood.


Whitman's democracy is the breath of his nostrils, the light of his eyes,
the blood in his veins. The reader does not feel that here is some fine
scholar, some fine poet singing the praises of democracy; he feels that
here is a democrat, probably, as Thoreau surmised, the greatest the world
has yet seen, turning the light of a great love, a great intellect, a
great soul, upon America, upon contemporary life and events, and upon the
universe, and reading new lessons, new meanings, therein. He is a great
poet and prophet, speaking through the average man, speaking as one of the
people, and interpreting life from the point of view of absolute

True, the people in their average taste and perceptions are crude and
flippant and superficial, and often the victims of mountebanks and fools;
yet, as forming the body of our social and political organism, and the
chief factor in the world-problem of to-day, they are the exponents of
great forces and laws, and often, in emergencies, show the wisdom and
unimpeachableness of Nature herself. Deep-hidden currents and forces in
them are liable to come to the surface, and when the politicians get in
their way, or miscalculate them, as so often happens, they are crushed.
Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience
of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the
world in our century. Much comes to a head in him. Much comes to joyous
speech and song, that heretofore had only come to thought and speculation.
A towering, audacious personality has appeared which is strictly the fruit
of the democratic spirit, and which has voiced itself in an impassioned
utterance touching the whole problem of national and individual life.


The Whitman literature is democratic, not in the sense that it caters to
the taste of the masses or to the taste of the average man; for, as a
matter of fact, the masses and the average man are likely to be the last
to recognize its value. The common people, the average newspaper-reading
citizens, are much more likely to be drawn by the artificial and the
conventional. But it is democratic because it is filled with the spirit of
absolute human equality and brotherhood, and gives out the atmosphere of
the universal, primary, human traits. The social, artificial, accidental
distinctions of wealth, culture, position, etc., have not influenced the
poet in the slightest degree. Whitman finds his joy and his triumph, not
in being better than other people or above them, but in being one with
them, and sharing their sins as well as their virtues.

  "As if it harm'd me, giving others the same chances and rights as
        myself--as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that
        others possess the same."

This is one step further than others have taken, and makes democracy
complete in itself. Again, his work identifies itself with the democratic
ideal in getting rid of the professional and arbitrary elements of poetry,
and appealing to the reader entirely through its spirit and content. It is
as democratic in this respect as the workman in the field, or the mechanic
at his bench.

The poems are bathed and flooded with the quality of the common people;
with the commonness and nearness which they share with real things and
with all open-air nature,--with hunters, travelers, soldiers, workers in
all fields, and with rocks, trees, and woods. It is only in the spirit of
these things that a man himself can have health, sweetness, and
proportion; and only in their spirit that he can give an essentially sound
judgment of a work of art, no matter what the subject of it may be.

This spirit of the "commonest, cheapest, nearest" is the only spirit in
which man's concrete life can be carried forward. We do not live and
breathe and grow and multiply, we do not have health and sanity and
wholeness and proportion, we do not subdue and improve and possess the
earth, in the spirit of something exclusive, exceptional, faraway,
aristocratic, but in the spirit of the common and universal. The only
demand is that, in a work of art, the common or universal shall be
vitalized with poetic thought and enthusiasm, or imbued with the ideal of
a rare and high excellence.


Our critics have been fond of taunting Whitman with the fact that the
common people, the workers, of whom he makes so much, and to whom he
perpetually appeals, do not read him, or show any liking for his poems at

Whitman's appeal to the common people, to the democratic masses, is an
appeal to the future; it is an appeal to the universal human conscience
and intelligence, as they exist above and beneath all special advantages
of birth and culture and stand related to the total system of things. It
also calls attention to the fact that the spirit in which he writes, and
in which he is to be read, is the spirit of open-air life and nature.

  "No school or shutter'd room commune with me,
  But roughs and little children, better than they,"

because the simple, unforced, unrefined elements of human nature are those
out of which the poems sprang and with which they are charged. Their
spirit is closer akin to unlettered humanity than to the over-intellectual
and sophisticated products of the schools.

Of course "roughs and little children" can make nothing of "Leaves of
Grass," but unless the trained reader has that fund of fresh, simple,
wholesome nature, and the love for real things, which unlettered humanity
possesses, he will make nothing of it either.


It has been truly said that "the noblest seer is ever over-possessed."
This has been the case with nearly all original, first-class men. Carlyle
furnished a good illustration of its truth in our own time. He was
over-possessed with his idea of the hero and hero-worship. And it may be
that Whitman was over-possessed with the idea of democracy, America,
nationality, and the need of a radically new departure in poetic
literature. Yet none knew better than he that in the long run the
conditions of life and of human happiness and progress remain about the
same; that the same price must still be paid for the same things; that
character alone counts; that the same problem "how to live" ever confronts
us; and that democracy, America, nationality, are only way stations, and
by no means the end of the route. The all-leveling tendency of democracy
is certainly not in the interest of literature. The world is not saved by
the average man, but by the man much above the average, the rare and
extraordinary man,--by the "remnant," as Arnold called them.

No one knew this better than Whitman, and he said that "one main
genesis-motive" of his "Leaves" was the conviction that the crowning
growth of the United States was to be spiritual and heroic. Only "superb
persons" can finally justify him.



The stupendous disclosures of modern science, and what they mean when
translated into the language of man's ethical and æsthetic nature, have
not yet furnished to any considerable extent the inspiration of poems.
That all things are alike divine, that this earth is a star in the
heavens, that the celestial laws and processes are here underfoot, that
size is only relative, that good and bad are only relative, that forces
are convertible and interchangeable, that matter is indestructible, that
death is the law of life, that man is of animal origin, that the sum of
forces is constant, that the universe is a complexus of powers
inconceivably subtle and vital, that motion is the law of all things,--in
fact, that we have got rid of the notions of the absolute, the fixed, the
arbitrary, and the notion of origins and of the dualism of the world,--to
what extent will these and kindred ideas modify art and all æsthetic
production? The idea of the divine right of kings and the divine authority
of priests is gone; that, in some other time or some other place God was
nearer man than now and here,--this idea is gone. Indeed, the whole of
man's spiritual and religious belief which forms the background of
literature has changed,--a change as great as if the sky were to change
from blue to red or to orange. The light of day is different. But
literature deals with life, and the essential conditions of life, you say,
always remain the same. Yes, but the expression of their artistic values
is forever changing. If we ask where is the modern imaginative work that
is based upon these revelations of science, the work in which they are the
blood and vital juices, I answer, "Leaves of Grass," and no other. The
work is the outgrowth of science and modern ideas, just as truly as Dante
is the outgrowth of mediæval ideas and superstitions; and the imagination,
the creative spirit, is just as unhampered in Whitman as in Dante or in
Shakespeare. The poet finds the universe just as plastic and ductile, just
as obedient to his will, and just as ready to take the impress of his
spirit, as did these supreme artists. Science has not hardened it at all.
The poet opposes himself to it, and masters it and rises superior. He is
not balked or oppressed for a moment. He knows from the start what science
can bring him, what it can give, and what it can take away; he knows the
universe is not orphaned; he finds more grounds than ever for a pæan of
thanksgiving and praise. His conviction of the identity of soul and body,
matter and spirit, does not shake his faith in immortality in the least.
His faith arises, not from half views, but from whole views. In him the
idea of the soul, of humanity, of identity, easily balanced the idea of
the material universe. Man was more than a match for nature. It was all
for him, and not for itself. His enormous egotism, or hold upon the
central thought or instinct of human worth and import, was an anchor that
never gave way. Science sees man as the ephemeron of an hour, an
iridescent bubble on a seething, whirling torrent, an accident in a world
of incalculable and clashing forces. Whitman sees him as inevitable and as
immortal as God himself. Indeed, he is quite as egotistical and
anthropomorphic, though in an entirely different way, as were the old
bards and prophets before the advent of science. The whole import of the
universe is directed to one man,--to you. His anthropomorphism is not a
projection of himself into nature, but an absorption of nature in himself.
The tables are turned. It is not alien or superhuman beings that he sees
and hears in nature, but his own that he finds everywhere. All gods are
merged in himself.

Not the least fear, not the least doubt or dismay, in this book. Not one
moment's hesitation or losing of the way. And it is not merely an
intellectual triumph, but the triumph of soul and personality. The iron
knots are not untied, they are melted. Indeed, the poet's contentment and
triumph in view of the fullest recognition of all the sin and sorrow of
the world, and of all that baffles and dwarfs, is not the least of the
remarkable features of the book.


Whitman's relation to science is fundamental and vital. It is the soil
under his feet. He comes into a world from which all childish fear and
illusion has been expelled. He exhibits the religious and poetic faculties
perfectly adjusted to a scientific, industrial, democratic age, and
exhibits them more fervent and buoyant than ever before. We have gained
more than we have lost. The world is anew created by science and
democracy, and he pronounces it good with the joy and fervor of the old

He shared with Tennyson the glory of being one of the two poets of note in
our time who have drawn inspiration from this source, or viewed the
universe through the vistas which science opens. Renan thought the modern
poetic or imaginative contemplation of the universe puerile and factitious
compared with the scientific contemplation of it. The one, he said, was
stupendous; the other childish and empty. But Whitman and Tennyson were
fully abreast with science, and often afford one a sweep of vision that
matches the best science can do. Tennyson drew upon science more for his
images and illustrations than Whitman did; he did not absorb and
appropriate its results in the wholesale way of the latter. Science fed
Whitman's imagination and made him bold; its effects were moral and
spiritual. On Tennyson its effects were mainly intellectual; it enlarged
his vocabulary without strengthening his faith. Indeed, one would say,
from certain passages in "In Memoriam," that it had distinctly weakened
his faith. Let us note for a moment the different ways these two poets use
science. In his poem to Fitzgerald, Tennyson draws upon the nebular
hypothesis for an image:--

  "A planet equal to the sun
  Which cast it, that large infidel
  Your Omar."

In "Despair" there crops out another bold inference of science, the vision
"of an earth that is dead."

  "The homeless planet at length will be wheel'd thro' the silence of
  Motherless evermore of an ever-vanishing race."

In the "Epilogue" he glances into the sidereal heavens:--

  "The fires that arch this dusky dot--
    Yon myriad-worlded way--
  The vast sun-clusters' gather'd blaze,
    World-isles in lonely skies,
  Whole heavens within themselves, amaze
    Our brief humanities."

As our American poet never elaborates in the Tennysonian fashion, he does
not use science as material, but as inspiration. His egoism and
anthropomorphic tendency are as great as those of the early bards, and he
makes everything tell for the individual. Let me give a page or two from
the "Song of Myself," illustrative of his attitude in this respect:--

  "I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains,
        esculent roots,
  And am stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over,
  And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
  And call anything close again, when I desire it.

  "In vain the speeding or shyness,
  In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against any approach,
  In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powdered bones,
  In vain objects stand leagues off, and assume manifold shapes,
  In vain the ocean settling in hollows, and the great monsters lying low,
  In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
  In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs,
  In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
  In vain the razor-billed auk sails far north to Labrador,
  I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.

       *       *       *       *       *

  "I am an acme of things accomplished, and I an endorser of things to be.
  My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
  On every step bunches of ages, and large bunches between the steps,
  All below duly traveled, and still I mount and mount.

  "Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
  Afar down I see the huge first Nothing--I know I was even there,
  I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
  And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

  "Long I was hugged close--long and long.
  Immense have been the preparations for me,
  Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me,
  Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
  For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
  They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

  "Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,
  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 it in,
  Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
  Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths, and deposited it with
  All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
  Now I stand on this spot with my Soul.

  "I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
  And all I see, multiplied as high as I can cipher, edge but the rim of
        the farther systems:
  Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding,
  Outward, outward, and forever outward:
  My sun has his sun, and around him obediently wheels;
  He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit,
  And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them.

  "There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage.
  If I, you, the worlds, all beneath or upon their surfaces, and all the
        palpable life, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float,
        it would not avail in the long run.
  We should surely bring up again where we now stand,
  And as surely go as much farther--and then farther and farther.
  A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not
        hazard the span or make it impatient.
  They are but parts--anything is but a part,
  See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that,
  Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that."

In all cases, Whitman's vision is as large as that of science, but it is
always the vision of a man and not that of a philosopher. His report of
the facts has an imaginative lift and a spiritual significance which the
man of science cannot give them. In him, for the first time, a personality
has appeared that cannot be dwarfed and set aside by those things. He does
not have to stretch himself at all to match in the human and emotional
realm the stupendous discoveries and deductions of science. In him man
refuses to stand aside and acknowledge himself of no account in the
presence of the cosmic laws and areas. It is all for him, it is all
directed to him; without him the universe is an empty void. This is the
"full-spread pride of man," the pride that refuses to own any master
outside of itself.

  "I know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less,
  And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself."


Whitman, as I have elsewhere said, was swayed by two or three great
passions, and the chief of these was doubtless his religious passion. He
thrilled to the thought of the mystery and destiny of the soul.

  "The soul,
  Forever and forever--longer than soil is brown and solid--longer than
        water ebbs and flows."

He urged that there could be no permanent national grandeur, and no worthy
manly or womanly development, without religion.

  "I specifically announce that the real and permanent grandeur of these
        States must be their Religion,
  Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur."

All materials point to and end at last in spiritual results.

  "Each is not for its own sake,
  I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for Religion's

All our ostensible realities, our art, our literature, our business
pursuits, etc., are but fuel to religion.

  "For not all matter is fuel to heat, impalpable flame, the essential
        life of the earth,
  Any more than such are to Religion."

Again he says:--

  "My Comrade!
  For you to share with me two greatnesses--And a third one, rising
        inclusive and more resplendent,
  The greatness of Love and Democracy--and the greatness of Religion."

It is hardly necessary to say that the religion which Whitman celebrates
is not any form of ecclesiasticism. It was larger than any creed that has
yet been formulated. It was the conviction of the man of science touched
and vivified by the emotion of the prophet and poet. As exemplified in his
life its chief elements were faith, hope, charity. Its object was to
prepare you to live, not to die, and to "earn for the body and the mind
what adheres and goes forward, and is not dropped by death."

The old religion, the religion of our fathers, was founded upon a curse.
Sin, repentance, fear, Satan, hell, play important parts. Creation had
resulted in a tragedy in which the very elemental forces were implicated.
The grand scheme of an infinite Being failed through the machinations of
the Devil. Salvation was an escape from a wrath to come. The way was
through agony and tears. Heaven was only gained by denying earth. The
great mass of the human race was doomed to endless perdition. Now there is
no trace of this religion in Whitman, and it does not seem to have left
any shadow upon him. Ecclesiasticism is dead; he clears the ground for a
new growth. To the priests he says: "Your day is done."

He sings a new song; he tastes a new joy in life. The earth is as divine
as heaven, and there is no god more sacred than yourself. It is as if the
world had been anew created, and Adam had once more been placed in the
garden,--the world, with all consequences of the fall, purged from him.

Hence we have in Whitman the whole human attitude towards the universe,
towards God, towards life and death, towards good and evil, completely
changed. We have absolute faith and acceptance in place of the fear and
repentance of the old creeds; we have death welcomed as joyously as life,
we have political and social equality as motifs and impulses, and not
merely as sentiments. He would show us the muse of poetry, as impartial,
as sweeping in its vision, as modern, as real, as free from the morbid and
make-believe, as the muse of science. He sees good in all, beauty in all.
It is not the old piety, it is the new faith; it is not the old worship,
it is the new acceptance; not the old, corroding religious pessimism, but
the new scientific optimism.

He does not deny, he affirms; he does not criticise, he celebrates; his is
not a call to repentance, it is a call to triumph:--

  "I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
  None has ever yet adored or worship'd half enough,
  None has begun to think how divine he himself is, or how certain the
        future is."

He accepted science absolutely, yet science was not an end in itself: it
was not his dwelling; he but entered by it to an area of his dwelling.

The flower of science was religion. Without this religion, or something
akin to it,--without some spiritual, emotional life that centred about an
ideal,--Whitman urged that there could be no permanent national or
individual development. In the past this ideal was found in the
supernatural; for us and the future democratic ages, it must be found in
the natural, in the now and the here.

The aristocratic tradition not only largely shaped the literature of the
past, it shaped the religion: man was a culprit, his life a rebellion; his
proper attitude toward the unseen powers was that of a subject to his
offended sovereign,--one of prostration and supplication. Heaven was a
select circle reserved for the few,--the aristocracy of the pure and just.
The religion of a democratic and scientific era, as voiced by Whitman and
as exemplified in his life, is of quite another character,--not
veneration, but joy and triumph; not fear, but love; not self-abasement,
but self-exaltation; not sacrifice, but service: in fact, not religion at
all in the old sense of the spiritual at war with the natural, the divine
with the human, this world a vale of tears, and mundane things but filth
and ashes, heaven for the good and hell for the bad; but in the new sense
of the divinity of all things, of the equality of gods and men, of the
brotherhood of the race, of the identity of the material and the
spiritual, of the beneficence of death and the perfection of the universe.
The poet turns his face to earth and not to heaven; he finds the
miraculous, the spiritual, in the things about him, and gods and goddesses
in the men and women he meets. He effaces the old distinctions; he
establishes a sort of universal suffrage in spiritual matters; there are
no select circles, no privileged persons. Is this the democracy of
religion? liberty, fraternity, and equality carried out in the spiritual
sphere? Death is the right hand of God, and evil plays a necessary part
also. Nothing is discriminated against; there are no reprisals or
postponements, no dualism or devilism. Everything is in its place; man's
life and all the things of his life are well-considered.

Carried out in practice, this democratic religion will not beget priests,
or churches, or creeds, or rituals, but a life cheerful and full on all
sides, helpful, loving, unworldly, tolerant, open-souled, temperate,
fearless, free, and contemplating with pleasure, rather than alarm, "the
exquisite transition of death."


After all I have written about Whitman, I feel at times that the main
thing I wanted to say about him I have not said, cannot say; the best
about him cannot be told anyway. "My final merit I refuse you." His full
significance in connection with the great modern movement; how he embodies
it all and speaks out of it, and yet maintains his hold upon the
primitive, the aboriginal; how he presupposes science and culture, yet
draws his strength from that which antedates these things; how he glories
in the present, and yet is sustained and justified by the past; how he is
the poet of America and the modern, and yet translates these things into
universal truths; how he is the poet of wickedness, while yet every fibre
of him is sound and good; how his page is burdened with the material, the
real, the contemporary, while yet his hold upon the ideal, the spiritual,
never relaxes; how he is the poet of the body, while yet he is in even
fuller measure the poet of the soul; in fact, how all contradictions are
finally reconciled in him,--all these things and more, I say, I feel that
I have not set forth with the clearness and emphasis the subject demanded.
Other students of him will approach him on other lines, and will disclose
meanings that I have missed.

Writing about him, as Symonds said, is enormously difficult. At times I
feel as if I was almost as much at sea with regard to him as when I first
began to study him; not at sea with regard to his commanding genius and
power, but with regard to any adequate statement and summary of him in
current critical terms. One cannot define and classify him as he can a
more highly specialized poetic genius. What is he like? He is like
everything. He is like the soil which holds the germs of a thousand forms
of life; he is like the grass, common, universal, perennial, formless; he
is like your own heart, mystical yearning, rebellious, contradictory, but
ever throbbing with life. He is fluid, generative, electric; he is full of
the germs, potencies, and latencies of things; he provokes thought without
satisfying it; he is formless without being void; he is both Darwinian and
Dantesque. He is the great reconciler, he united and harmonized so many
opposites in himself. As a man he united the masculine and feminine
elements in a remarkable degree; he united the innocent vanity of the
child with the self-reliance of a god. In his moral aspects, he united
egoism and altruism, pride and charity, individualism and democracy,
fierce patriotism and the cosmopolitan spirit; in his literary aspects he
united mysticism and realism, the poet and prophet, the local and the
universal; in his religious aspects he united faith and agnosticism, the
glorification of the body and all objective things, with an unshakable
trust in the reality of the invisible world.

Rich in the elements of poetry, a London critic says, almost beyond any
other poet of his time, and yet the conscious, elaborate, crystallic,
poetic work which the critic demanded of him, carefully stopping short of,
quite content to hold it all in solution, and give his reader an impulse
rather than a specimen.

I have accepted Whitman entire and without reservation. I could not do
otherwise. It was clear enough to me that he was to be taken as a whole or
not at all. We cannot cut and carve a man. The latest poet brings us
poetic wares, curiously and beautifully carved and wrought specimens, some
of which we accept and some of which we pass by. Whitman brings us no
cunning handicraft of the muses: he brings us a gospel, he brings us a
man, he brings us a new revelation of life; and either his work appeals to
us as a whole, or it does not so appeal. He will not live in separate
passages, or in a few brief poems, any more than Shakespeare or Homer or
Dante, or the Bible, so lives.

The chief thing about the average literary poet is his poetic gift, apart
from any other consideration; we select from what he brings us as we
select from a basket of fruit. The chief thing about Whitman is the
personality which the poetic gift is engaged in exploiting; the excitement
of our literary or artistic sense is always less than the excitement of
our sense of life and of real things. We get in him a fixed point of view,
a new vantage-ground of personality from which to survey life. It is less
what he brings, and more what he is, than with other poets. To take him by
fragments, picking out poetic tidbits here and there, rejecting all the
rest, were like valuing a walk through the fields and woods only for the
flowers culled here and there, or the bits of color in the grass or
foliage. Is the air, the sunshine, the free spaces, the rocks, the soil,
the trees, and the exhilaration of it all, nothing? There are flowers in
Whitman, too, but they are amid the rocks or under the trees, and seem
quite unpremeditated and by the way, and never the main concern. If our
quest is for these alone, we shall surely be disappointed. "In order to
appreciate Whitman's poetry and his purpose," says Joel Chandler Harris,
"it is necessary to possess the intuition that enables the mind to grasp
in instant and express admiration the vast group of facts that make
man,--that make liberty,--that make America. There is no poetry in the
details; it is all in the broad, sweeping, comprehensive assimilation of
the mighty forces behind them,--the inevitable, unaccountable,
irresistible forward movement of man in the making of this republic."

And again: "Those who approach Walt Whitman's poetry from the literary
side are sure to be disappointed. Whatever else it is, it is not literary.
Its art is its own, and the melody of it must be sought in other
suggestions than those of metre.... Those who are merely literary will
find little substance in the great drama of Democracy which is outlined
by Walt Whitman in his writings,--it is no distinction to call them poems.
But those who know nature at first hand--who know man, who see in this
Republic something more than a political government--will find therein the
thrill and glow of poetry and the essence of melody. Not the poetry that
culture stands in expectation of, nor the melody that capers in verse and
metre, but those rarer intimations and suggestions that are born in
primeval solitudes, or come whirling from the vast funnel of the storm."
How admirable! how true! No man has ever spoken more to the point upon
Walt Whitman.

The appearance of such a man as Whitman involves deep world-forces of race
and time. He is rooted in the very basic structure of his age. After what
I have already said, my reader will not be surprised when I tell him that
I look upon Whitman as the one mountain thus far in our literary
landscape. To me he changes the whole aspect, almost the very climate, of
our literature. He adds the much-needed ruggedness, breadth, audacity,
independence, and the elements of primal strength and health. We owe much
to Emerson. But Emerson was much more a _made_ man than was Whitman,--much
more the result of secondary forces, the college, the church, and of New
England social and literary culture. With all his fervid humanity and
deeply ingrained modernness, Whitman has the virtues of the primal and the
savage. "Leaves of Grass" has not the charm, or the kind of charm, of the
more highly wrought artistic works, but it has the incentive of nature and
the charm of real things. We shall not go to it to be soothed and lulled.
It will always remain among the difficult and heroic undertakings,
demanding our best moments, our best strength, our morning push and power.
Like voyaging or mountain-climbing, or facing any danger or hardship by
land or sea, it fosters manly endeavor and the great virtues of sanity and

Transcriber's Notes:

Passages in italics are indicated by _underscore_.

Additional spacing after some of the quotes is intentional to indicate
both the end of a quotation and the beginning of a new paragraph as
presented in the original text.

The following misprint has been corrected:
  "differentation" corrected to "differentiation" (page 18)

Other than the corrections listed above, printer's inconsistencies in
spelling, punctuation, hyphenation, and ligature usage have been retained.

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