English Appreciation of Walt Whitman


IN one of his admirable essays, Mr. George Santayana writes of Whitman: “ He is regarded as representative chiefly by foreigners, who look for some grotesque expression of the genius of so young and prodigious a people.” The English admirer of Whitman is soon disillusioned when he comes to the poet’s country and finds that outside a highly cultivated class Leaves of Grass is merely known to post-office officials on the ground of its being a contraband book. Whitman would indeed have been well advised to have had the Children of Adam poems published separately, but even then he would not have been very much more popular. The real interest of the problem lies in the fact of Whitman having appealed both at home and abroad to academic and cultured minds rather than to the common man, and also in his being so much more honored in a stiffly conservative country like England than in his own.

It must of course be borne in mind that foreigners often tolerate literary innovations which are detested in the country of the innovator. An interesting example of this is the Frenchlove for Heine whose poems were hated in Germany, and to whom even the cosmopolitan Goethe did bare justice. A more relevant instance for my purpose is the appreciation of Carlyle, Browning, and Mr. Herbert Spencer in the United States, — an appreciation which must always leave Englishmen deeply grateful to their transatlantic kindred.

But there are, perhaps, more complex causes here. Whitman has appealed everywhere to two classes of readers, — first to men of an extremely sensitive temperament like Dante Rossetti and John Addington Symonds in England, or Professor William James in America, and secondly to the foreigner per se. It is interesting to conjecture the reasons of this twofold appeal.

The attraction for the first class of men Mr. Santayana has dealt with in characteristic fashion : “ He speaks to those minds and to those moods in which sensuality is touched with mysticism. When the intellect is in abeyance, when ‘ we would turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained,’ when we are weary of conscience and ambition, and would yield ourselves for a while to the dream of sense, Walt Whitman is a welcome companion.”

This has, perhaps, a certain amount of truth, but it is not a full presentation of the facts. Professor William James has explained the real attraction of Whitman in his masterly essay on a certain blindness in human beings. Artists, philosophers, and all who do highly intellectual work suffer incessantly from overwrought sensibilities and inevitable ebbs of energy. The regular toil of the professions and of all business is at once an opiate and a stimulus, since it both hardens men against the shocks of the world, which grow ten times worse with introspection, and hourly satisfies the sense of achievement, which is very rarely attained by the other class of workers. In such inevitable seasons of depression Whitman’sviewof life comes as a strong tonic. There is the open-air feeling about him which often makes many things seem less common and unclean than before, just as a sanitary inspector may sometimes like to contemplate the cleanliness of Nature. There is the sensation of being carried out into the world and feeling akin for a moment with the elemental passions and aspirations of humanity. There is, too, a certain sublime pantheism which gives some of his utterances a strange likeness to those of the sweet St. Francis. Have not the lines

“ Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome ? ”

a certain affinity with the saint’s greeting of

“ Nostra Sorella Morte ” ?

In another way Whitman has brought relief to such men on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the most eloquent and impressive passages in Ruskin’s Modern Painters is the one where he points out the disappointing character of natural beauty when divorced from historical associations. Whitman has shown all the majesty of natural beauty in a new country, and thus to foreigners he brings a fresh source of delight, and to his own countrymen a substitute for the pleasures of lingering over landmarks of the past. Such lines as

“ The flashing and golden pageant of California ”

indicate what I mean.

All this rather trenches on what seems to me the attraction Whitman has for the average Englishman, and the way in which he slightly offends his own countrymen. The Englishman — and especially the English tourist in the United States — is exhilarated and intoxicated by the newness of everything, much in the way Whitman was when he wrote his great poem Pioneers. He finds an atmosphere of hope and enterprise round him which is almost as stimulating as the tingling air and limpid skies of the new country ; he feels rejuvenated by the companionship of youth.

The inhabitants of a new country are, on the other hand, inclined to be half ashamed of its newness, just as a young man cares to be thought older than he is. Nothing is so galling to the young as to be reminded in so many words of the fact. Whitman, however, is never tired of insisting on the obvious fact that his country is a new country, and I am strongly of opinion that he would have been more popular at home if he had emphasized this less.

As another example of his showing the poetry of modern things I cite this description of a locomotive : —

“ Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding.
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.”

I venture to think, however, that most of Whitman’s English readers feel that he has made a permanent contribution to the literature of the English-speaking world, and that at some time or other his name will stand in the great pantheon of that literature.

Here perhaps I may cite three passages, each of which seems to me perfect in its way. There is a certain cosmic grandeur in the following lines : —

“ Whispers of heavenly death murmured I hear,
Labial gossip of night, sibilant chorals,
Footsteps gently ascending, mystical breezes wafted soft and low,
Ripples of unseen rivers, tides of a current flowing, for ever flowing,
(Or is it the flashing of tears ? the measureless waters of human tears ?) ”
What again could be more vivid than this ?
“ I see a sad procession, And I hear the sound of coming full-key’d bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they ’re flooding
As with voices and with tears.
“ I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drum steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums Strikes me through and through.”

And here are some lines as stirring as Browning’s Cavalier Tunes : —

“ On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever wanting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers ! O pioneers !
“ O to die advancing on !
Are there some of us to droop and die ? has the hour come ?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d,
Pioneers ! O pioneers ! ”