It is the complaint of fate that the dead actor lives but in the dying memories of the few thousands whom he moved to tears and laughter; anecdotes, recorded testimonies, diaries, fail to give posterity any echo of the voice or shadow of the gesture. Kean, Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, all fade into darkness, yet Hamlet, Lear, Lady Macbeth, come forward into increasing brightness of day. The personality of a poet during his lifetime may impress those who are brought into close connection with him, but the impression which he makes upon them is dissipated unless it finds essential expression in his work. It is like rhythm. If to a delicate ear a measure refuses to sing itself, it is in vain that we are told how melodiously it fell from the poet's lips. The chant must be in the verse, not in the singer.
It is a test of this sort which must finally be applied to the author of Leaves of Grass. The facts of his life undoubtedly help in accounting for him, and the evidence of eye-witnesses will have value, but his biography and the discourse of his contemporaries must give place to the collection of his verse and prose. By that he will be measured, and in attempting anything like an estimate in the spring when he died it is better to rely upon his books than to listen too attentively to friends or enemies. Yet one agreement between Leaves of Grass and the reports of acquaintance is too manifest to be disregarded, for it points to a fundamental fact, - the fact of Whitman's magnificent physical presence. A member of the Contributors' Club in this number of The Atlantic deftly intimates this, and one who had never seen the man, but has read Song of Myself, feels the force of a tremendous physical energy in the throbbing lines.
It is impossible to get away from this expression of a conscious superabundance of physical energy. From the moment he bursts forth with the words,
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,"
to the final whisper in which his mystical presence is promised to all who have the resolution and faith to receive the gift of the personality which he offers, there is a continuous stream of influence from a body which has somehow managed to find an articulate voice. The tune to which all this is sung is insolently characterized by the singer as a barbaric yawp; and inasmuch as the whole piece may be vulgarly summed up in the phrase "letting off steam," the mocking reader may easily persuade himself that he is listening to that vibrant attachment known on river steamboats as a calliope, an instrument whose sounds always seem to aim lower than the ear. Yet even the most unsympathetic listener is arrested now and then by lines which do perfect duty, as in that balancing, swaying fifteenth number, where a procession of persons of all sorts and conditions move in a sort of rude Shaker dance. What could be better in its way than this?
"The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue
of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp."
The verse is not subtle, nor very penetrating, nor always even picturesque, yet if one gets into the swing the accumulation of figures produces a certain largeness of effect which serves the purpose of the poet.
It is not, however, the outside human show which is the most intimate expression of this chant. The reader is constantly called back to the prime intention of the singer, which is to celebrate himself, and to turn the subject into an object. Now, if any one thing can be asserted of this child of nature, it is that he was literary. We know this is regarded as an heretical opinion, and that Whitman is held to stand outside of the literary class; but we do not see how his work can be explained on any other ground than as the production of a man conscious of his vocation as a writer, and instinctively seeking to record, to shape, to handle words as material for artistic construction. The very form which he adopted and used almost exclusively was a deliberate attempt at an adequate mode of expressing large, elemental ideas. It was not so much a revolt against conventionalism as it was an effort at construction upon new and fitting lines. Whitman thought he had a new song to sing, and he wished to employ a new mode. He got his hint, apparently, from Ossian, but once he had fairly possessed himself of the trick he used it persistently, because it best answered his purpose; and when one considers the large amount of verse which he wrote, and how it is almost uniformly cast in the mould of unrhymed, irregular stanzas, it is clear that in this style must be sought the man.
We are helped to some understanding of him by a consideration of the fullest use which he made of his favorite measure, and of the almost solitary instance in which he departed from it. We think a candid reader will admit that, as a wielder of this swinging line, Whitman is at his best precisely in those passages which celebrate man in his most sensuous organism.
"If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred,"
he says in one passage, and his poetic enthusiasm, his verbal passion, his glow of feeling, are expended upon this subject to a degree not to be found elsewhere. In a word, this theme inspires him because he is intoxicated with physical life, with the sense of bodily power, with the elemental force which lies hidden, profound, prophetic, in the human body. The rush of words, the swing of the lines, the exultant shout of the stanzas, all testify to this overwhelming flood of physical self-consciousness bearing him along. He had theories, and these theories were not wholly formulated later to account for his work; but we doubt in these passages he was very much affected intellectually by prior considerations and meditations. "I permit to speak," he says in his jargon, "at every hazard, nature without check, with original energy."
Now, this revel of life instinctively demands freedom of expression, and the form which Whitman adopted perfectly met his need, and is seen in whatever perfection it may attain in just such passages. Consciousness of power, entirely self-centred, exults in manifestation. Why then do we protest against it? Why does this portion of Whitman's work turn our stomachs, unless we approach it armed with the philosophic mind? Simply because there is a pro-founder law which rises silently, majestically, to view, the law of restraint, the law of sacrifice, the law of obedience, - the law, in a word, of self-forgetfulness. And here comes to view an attestation in Whitman's own work. It is little to say, for the whole world has said it, that no single production from his pen has been so moving, so universally accepted for his one great contribution to the world's literature, as his lines on Lincoln's death, O Captain! My Captain! This lyric is by no means rigidly constructed. It reads, to those who do not know another line of Whitman's, like the song of a singer too overwhelmed with grief to be curious about the structure of his verse, yet instinctively faithful to the larger laws of poetic composition. To those, on the other hand, who do know Whitman's work, and recognize the fact that perhaps in only one other, Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, does he make use of rhymed form, this lyric flung out at Lincoln's death gives rise to another thought. In this little poem is concentrated that other passion which divides the empire with himself, his passion for America; and here, in a supreme moment, Whitman rises - and it is a great height for such a nature - absolutely above himself. The law of selfhood gives place for one moment of light to the law of self-forgetfulness; all thought, all emotion, is fixed upon that great figure which carries the passion of the nation, and the poet who has heretofore deliberately and consciously used a form which stands for unchecked nature, now, we almost dare to say unconsciously, yields to the law of restraint, and casts his dirge, with all its mingling of triumph and grief, into a form which is both musical and humbly obedient to the laws of lyrical composition. The flaws merely intimate the force of old habit.
The style of the most characteristic portions of Leaves of Grass, once formed, became by choice, and still in accordance with the author's nature, the style which he preserved for all of his poetic work. It was, only in a less degree, consonant with the attitude of Whitman toward nature and the great facts of human life, and more particularly toward the social order in which he found himself. A dominating consciousness of self, when that self is built upon large, powerful lines, finds sympathy with the elemental forces of nature, and takes delight in movements which are comprehensive and sweeping. Hence the sea and the life of the sea recur repeatedly in his verse, either directly or allusively, and the group headed Sea-Drift contains, to our thinking, the best examples of what maybe done with rhythm divorced from rhyme. Here the effort to mate nature unchecked with language which disregards the most commonly accepted laws is most successful, because the sea and its life constantly suggest obedience only to remote and concealed intelligence. One is tempted, when one considers this section alone, to search for some deep-lying principle of particular assonance controlling the choice of the verse, but the uniformity of its use forbids this reference. The style remains the same when the poet deals with human life, and again it seems significant when employed in the musings over death. Of all these poems, and there are many, we should choose The City Dead-House, in spite of its inevitable lapse into stupid matter of fact, - vide "nor running water from faucet, - as the most full of tenderness and profound pity and reverence. It is indeed observable that here the sight which moves the poet is closely connected with that predominant self-consciousness to which we have referred.
"That house once full of passion and beauty,
all else I notice not,
* * * * * * * * * * *
But the house alone - that wondrous house
- that delicate fair house - that ruin!
That immortal house more than all the rows
of dwellings ever built!
Or white-domed capitol with majestic figure
surmounted, or all the old high-spired cathedrals!
That little house alone more than them all
- poor, desperate house!"
Browning's Apparent Failure, with its insolence of life viewing the poor bodies in the morgue, and its vigorous, firmly knit verse, strikes no such note as these ambulatory lines, with the manly sob ending them: -
"House of life, erewhile talking and laughing
- but ah! poor house, dead even then,
Months, years, an echoing, garnish'd house -
but dead, dead, dead."
With Whitman death is a fact of nature, and it is not often that he makes even so slight a reference as this to its ethical significance.
When we consider his attitude toward human life in its social order, we perceive that for all his avowed interest in persons, in comrades, as he repeatedly calls the men and women of his generation, the world, and America in particular, inevitably takes the form of a vast procession. "All is a procession," he remarks parenthetically in one of his chants; "the universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion;" and again and again, both in such pieces as A Broadway Pageant, and whenever he aims at a comprehensive, sweeping generalization, he strives with heroic persistence to marshal particulars so as to present a cumulative effect. One feels as if one needed to stand off at a distance and look at these columns as they tramp by, occasionally with a measured beat, but quite as frequently like a random mob. Nevertheless, in all this part of his work Whitman is true to his instincts. He uses particulars, but he is after masses. He says somewhere,
"The words of my hook nothing, the drift of it everything,"
and that is precisely the effect produced upon most minds when coming in contact with his verses; they see what he is driving at, as the phrase is, but they also fail to find any pleasure, except now and then, in dwelling upon the expression. In truth, when Whitman leaves those themes which consort with largeness and vagueness, - sleep, the stars, night, the sea, death, and the like, - the style of his verse fails him. A scythe which can mow with a symmetrical sweep a whole field of grain is a blundering instrument with which to cut the flower of the field. But the style, again, is the man, and for all his minute detail Whitman resolves particulars into masses, and it is only now and then that one of his particulars gets set forth with a beauty, or delicacy, or even strength of its own.
The superabundant life which was his first conscious spring of song is that which attracts him in the concourse of men, and his praises of New York, or Mannahatta, as he calls it, in the attempt to discover some word sonorous enough to meet the demands of musical use, are called out chiefly by the pageant of multitudes, the appeal of swarms of men as typifying great natural forces. It is when his theme is America that the processional and panoramic features have blended with them certain more or less defined notes touching the spiritual forces inhering in the nation. As we have hinted, the passion for his country as a vast democracy divides the empire of Whitman's nature with the passion for himself as a splendid manifestation of natural energy. It is the fashion to speak of him as taking a prophetic view, and there is no doubt that both in his verse and in his prose he was building in an expansive way upon the actual, and construing all the signs of power into the consummation of a stupendous democratic empire. In the preface to Leaves of Grass there is a passage, too long to be quoted here, beginning: "The American poets are to inclose old and new; for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be, commensurate with a people.... His spirit responds to his country's spirit; he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes." Then follows a geographical summary, a survey of nature, a panoramic view of humanity. There is in the statement, catalogue as it is, a breadth of sweep, as the poet ascends from the lowest forms of life to the higher, and a comprehensive sympathy, which command admiration, and help one to escape from a petty, hesitating, and critical habit of mind. Nevertheless, the same fundamental weakness is discoverable here as in the verse which celebrates the bodily energy of a strong man. It is the insolence of conscious power, the fatal satisfaction in the lower law of selfhood, the arrogance of manifest destiny. In truth, it is the most magnificent paean yet sung in America to the tune of Fourth of July. As such, it is hopeful, swelling, victorious, but it is not noble; for it is unrestrained; it celebrates pride. Now, it was said of old that the meek shall inherit the earth, and a democracy which is an Augustus may have its carmen seculare, but the poetry which is truly prophetic is not all in the major key. The nature which Whitman glorifies has its tigers and jungles; the human life which is to him wonderful in its range of vitality has its development, not through the exercise of its unchecked energy, but through that unceasing struggle for mastery which a certain large-hearted, large-minded man once vividly characterized as a war in the members.
"What blurt is this about virtue and about vice!"
says Whitman, with his large scorn of small distinctions; but when blurting ceases, there still comes a voice which cannot be drowned. There is unquestionably, for many natures, a tonic in Whitman's verse, and his work tells for largeness, for freedom, for the recollection of elemental forces in man and nature; but that it has in it the quality of universality which is the final test of a poet who sets up such claims as he we deny emphatically. A few verses will be everybody's; a few persons will want everything; but for the most part the work is a quarry from which one here and one there will bring away stones precious to him and for his use. There is a law of life for great poetry, and Whitman was not obedient to it; though one may call him a Titan, he will meet the fate of Titans.
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