Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

A review

The lines "To a Locomotive in Winter," wherein the author hails it as the

"Type of the modern—emblem of motion and
power—pulse of the continent,"

offer the finest embodiment of the grandeur of applied mechanics which American poetry has yet produced. And, throughout, the sentiment of democracy, of manliness, of hope for humanity, is something to be valued in Whitman's work. He sings, "Muscle and pluck forever!" "We have had," he declares, "ducking and deprecating about enough." He aims to increase virility in manners, thought, and writing; and from this effort, whatever the mistakes or limitations of its method, American life and literature are not likely to suffer harm.

But when we consider Whitman's laudation of the flesh, the case is different. It is fitting to recall here the cardinal points of his creed in this regard. He himself says, "Nor will my poems do good only, they will do just as much harm, perhaps more." He claims to be the poet of the body and the soul, and says that the soul is not more than the body,—in this showing an identity of thought with Rossetti; yet he looks forward (in The Mystic Trumpeter) to "a reborn race . . . women and men in wisdom, innocence and health—all joy." In his final manifesto occur these words: "I announce the great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully armed . . . a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold." All this shows clearly enough that his ultimate aim is good, and that he does not set out to revel in indecency. But the plan he pursues results just as badly as if this had been his purpose; for he makes public and permanent all that which nature has guarded, in both the savage and the civilized, with mystery, holiness, and the delicate, inexorable laws of modesty. Oddly enough this elaborately natural poet breaks one of the deepest and finest of natural laws; and instead of making the body sacred, he despoils it of the sacredness which mankind now generally accords to it. He degrades body and soul by a brutish wallowing in animal matter as animal matter, deprived of its spiritual attributes.

Mr. Whitman prides himself on his healthiness. What is health? Nothing else than the buoyant, normal exercise of physical faculties, in easy unconsciousness of their mode of acting. The moment there is friction, the moment we become conscious of these functions—in heart, stomach, or brain, for example—which ought to be carried on without sensation, health is broken, and sickness supervenes. In like manner, when Mr. Whitman begins to finger over and brood upon the secret processes of certain functions which should work unobserved, he becomes unhealthy. Corrupt he may not be, but he is undeniably morbid. It is his ambition to be "inclusive," to express extremes of good and evil; to fly from one pole to another, in everything. In the sphere of the body he accomplishes this manoeuvre perfectly; for his presentation of man's physical being is as often diseased as the reverse. He does not seem to be aware of his "inclusiveness" in this direction. If made so, he might reply with these peremptory words from his Song of Myself:—

"Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)."

But multitudinousness cannot make the spectacle of his morbidness any more acceptable. It cannot palliate the gross impropriety of which he is guilty, in publishing what is unfit for repetition; an impropriety doubled by the retention of this disgusting stuff in a new edition issued after many years, during which the author has had ample opportunity to free himself from his youthful crudities. Every one imbued with the "primal sanities" must be revolted by this offense, and protest against it. Fortunately, however, the chief damage done will be to the author himself, who thus dishonors his own physical nature; for imperfect though the race is, it still remains so much purer than the stained and distorted reflection of its animalism in Leaves of Grass, that the book cannot attain to any very wide influence.

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