The appearance of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in a new edition has revived a discussion always imminent when the name of this writer is brought forward, and always more or less acrimonious. Some persons even imagine it obligatory upon them to deny him all merit of poetic endowment, so violent is their revolt against the offensiveness which Mr. Whitman has chosen to make a central and integral point of his literary method. Such critics stultify themselves by the coarseness of view (and sometimes of expression) with which they meet the grossness they condemn. If they can see nothing in this book except indecency and bombastic truisms, the inference must be that their sensibilities are not delicate enough to recognize the fresh, strong, healthy presentation of common things in a way that revivifies them, the generous aspiration, the fine sympathy with man and nature, the buoyant belief in immortality, which are no less characteristic of the author than his mistaken boldness in displaying the carnal side of existence, and his particularity in describing disease or loathsome decay. It would be a waste of time to discuss the question whether or not Mr. Whitman is a poet: abundant authority, both creative and critical, has recorded itself on the affirmative side. Nor is it worth while to debate upon the form he has adopted, which is not the startling novelty which many, including the poet himself, have assumed it to be.
The only profitable point of view from which Leaves of Grass can be regarded is one that, while giving distinctness to the serious error of unclean exposure and to the frequent feebleness of form and style which reduce large portions of the work to tedious and helpless prose, leaves our vision clear for the occasional glimpses of beauty that the book discloses. We must also take into account the imagination often informing some one of these rhapsodies as a whole, even when its parts are found to be weak, repetitious, and blemished by inanity or affectation. The absurdities, the crudities, in which Whitman indulges are almost unlimited and all but omnipresent. For illustration, he gives utterance to phrases like this: "I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags." Following a vague impulse, without depth of reflection, to find new modes of expression, he cries: "Eclaircise the myths of Asia!" "I expose!" is another of these exceedingly pointless inventions; and we cannot see that the ends of freedom in art, or grandeur of any kind, are served by adopting as the symbol for a writer the term "literat." To call him an "inkrat" would be much more forcible and original. On the other hand, these pages bring to light a mass of vivid and well-chosen though sometimes uncouth epithets. The swimmer is graphically described as swimming "through the transparent green-shine." The "blab of the pave" conveys its meaning accurately and with novelty. What delicate and refreshing aptness there is, too, in this sentence: "The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp!" Nothing could be better. In the long pieces where much is trite and tame—malformed prose essays they are, rather than poems—there still exists a relation, an order which often brings some very simple and common thought into a light of unexpected significance. But it is sheer fatuousness in the poet, and would be in us, to assume that these two lines, headed To You, constitute a poem, or anything but worthless print:
"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to
me, why should you not speak to
And why should I not speak to you?"
Then, to learn the better side, read Pioneers, O Pioneers, with its steady, splendid, masculine swing, as of a people marching, and its inspiriting sense of comradeship and New World progress; the terse and imaginative lines to the Man-of-War-Bird; or the wonderful sea-shore elegy that begins, "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." These are full of strength, pure emotion. The same may be said of that night-poem on the death of Lincoln, which contains an impressive chant to Death, the "dark mother always gliding near with soft feet." What could be fresher, fuller of our native coloring, than the picture of spring in this poem?
"With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the
gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous,
indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding
With the fresh, sweet herbage under foot, and the
pale green leaves of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the
river, with a wind-dapple here and there."