The Contributor's Club: Whitman
"Some magician's touch is needed to evoke the melody and beauty now surely latent alike in the water-driven saw-mill and the big Corliss engine. Will he be the man?"
Just at present there seems to be a lull in the Walt Whitman controversy, which lately raged so fiercely in both hemispheres; so perhaps it is as good a time as any to take a dispassionate view of his work, from the stand-point of one who is neither willing to bow down before him as the John the Baptist of a new dispensation, nor yet to discard him as a worthless and meretricious pretender.
I wonder how many of your readers have read his Drum Taps, or indeed how many ever think of him as the author of anything except Leaves of Grass, which have acquired a very unsavory odor. But this is not at all fair. The world is altogether too prone to assume that men must remain as it first finds them; and thus it often makes amendment pretty nearly impossible. In his case, it has not prevented the amendment, but it has effectually shut out all hopes of that present popular approbation which would be its most natural reward.
The indictment preferred against Whitman has three counts: first, he is nasty; second, he is tedious and prosaic; third, his singing is a "barbaric yawp." The first is true only of those unfortunate Leaves, which yet contain some fine lines; for in his subsequent writings it would not be easy to find a single gross passage. The second is true only when the demon of cataloguing gets hold of him, or he feels the imperative necessity of pressing everything into the service of the Muse. But this is only sometimes. When he crams prose into his lines, he obviously does so in obedience to a cast-iron theory, and in flagrant outrage of his naturally delicate taste.
Now as to the barbaric yawp: I maintain that there are passages of his poetry which show him to be one of our very first masters of verbal melody and harmony, and do not find it at all surprising that he should have attracted toward him two such diverse but veritable singers as Swinburne and Tennyson. Widely as they differ in all else, they agree in an almost preternatural sensibility to that finer inner music of words which no language can fully define, and no training can alone make perceptible.
It is only fair to give an instance or two not yet hackneyed. Whitman is alluding to the dead (I should premise) as he sees them in visions—
"Sweet are the blooming cheeks of the living,
Sweet are the musical voices sounding,
But sweet— ah, sweet!—
Are the eyes of the silent dead."
Note the succession of vowel sounds varying with every line, yet each group so perfect in itself and so completely in unison with its burden of sentiment. And that delightful break in the third line; and the weird utter close! A bit like that may be carried in one's head for a life-time and lose nothing of its pleasure-giving power.
Sometimes you strike a line that reminds you a little of "the multitudinous seas incarnadine." For example:—
"With the Continental blood interveined."
The stately march of the big Latin words at their best is not often made so obvious. They are apt in other handling to become pompous; and then they are not poetry.
Whitman also employs a sudden break in the sense with such power as to send a thrill through you:—
"Saw from the deep what arose and mounted,—
Oh, wild as my heart and resistless!"
And sometimes he strikes upon a refrain that is as grand and spirit-stirring as the noblest martial music:—
"Have the elder races halted,
Over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal,
And the labor and the lesson,
Pioneers, O Pioneers!"
The dragging dullness of the first three lines is admirably contrived to give full effect to the startling vigor of the closing invocation. Though by nature and association something of a conservative, I am half tempted to become a radical (at some more convenient season) on the strength of that same.
In other passages there is a quiet impressiveness, both of matter and manner, that cannot soon be forgotten:—
"Silent, upon her dead gazing,
I viewed the mother of all."
But I think I have given citations enough to make good my assertion that the barbaric yawp keeps very good time to music. Whether the lines will bear the test of school-boy scanning is not the question at issue. But the most careless observer must see that the poet does not always ignore even mere conventionalities.
On the other hand, one cannot find warrant in his books for supposing that he has anything of vital importance to say to the world which it has not often heard already. He seems to have dipped into the fringes of the sunrise cloudland of science and the new philosophy, and his reports of the poetry of that realm partake more of the mist than of the light. I should rather call him a dazzled smatterer than a sage or prophet. Yet here and there one finds a suggestive passage:—
"I believe there is nothing in the universe
That has not an immortal soul."
"A doubt crawled before me,
Undulating like a snake."
And who has ever more succinctly presented the gap between mere information and soul-satisfying knowledge than he who left the learned man to weigh and name the hosts of heaven, while his late auditor
"Walked forth in the mystical moist night air
And looked up in perfect silence at the stars"?
But perhaps he is at his very best in dealing with merely human topics, and modern ones at that. Of all the literature brought into being by the battle of the Little Big Horn, I know nothing comparable to those simple lines, straightforward as a sword thrust, which tell the story of
"The cavalry companies fighting with sternest
The fall of Custer and of all his officers and men."
And when he rises to the peroration beginning with
"The grand tradition of our race,
The loftiest of life upheld by death,"
he is very nearly on a par with the best parts of the Commemoration Ode. But a few lines cited from so condensed a poem can give no adequate idea of it.
Finally, he is the author of the most successful poetization of modern machinery. A Locomotive in Winter contains lines of first-rate descriptive power, and shows an eye for nature that is not limited in its range to nature untouched by man. What can be more apt than
"The tremulous twinkle of thy wheels"?
What is prettier than
"Thy long-trailing vapor pennants,
Ending in delicate purple"?
Where can you find such a union of mechanical accuracy with poetic power as
"Thee in thy panoply,
Thy measured dual throbbing
And thy beat convulsive"?
It is treading on delicate ground; but how well he treads! And his final address to his subject as the
"Type of the modern
Pulse of the continent"
certainly does not lack strength.
All things considered, it may well be claimed that this translation of machinery into poetry is the department of art for which Whitman is best fitted by nature, and which now offers to him the widest opportunities. Some magician's touch is needed to evoke the melody and beauty now surely latent alike in the water-driven saw-mill and the big Corliss engine. Will he be the man?