"Man might live at first
The animal life: but is there nothing more?
In due time, let him critically learn
How he lives; and, the more he gets to know
Of his own life's adaptabilities,
The more joy-giving will his life become.
Thus man, who hath this quality, is best."
Note. The figures appended to extracts from Whitman's poems refer to pages in the most complete and critical edition of the "Leaves of Grass" hitherto published—that of David McKay, Philadelphia, to whom the author gives thanks for the privilege of transcription.
Sydney Sm1th once observed that, when he had a cold, he was uncertain whether there we're thirty-nine Muses and nine Articles, or nine Muses and thirtynine Articles. The present writer has no cold, but he is in an analogous state of uncertainty. In a previous work, "The Great Poets and Their Theology," he found nine great poets to correspond with the nine Muses, and they were Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Browning, and Tennyson. In writing on " American Poets and Their Theology," he would like also to find nine American poets to admire and to criticize. But thus far there are only eight: namely, Bryant, Emerson, Whittier, Poe, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, and Lanier. Who shall be the ninth? A large majority of his readers will probably answer by naming Whitman. Is the vox populi, in this case, a vox Dei? The future of American poetry will largely depend upon our conclusion; for "like people, like poet" is just as true as "like people, like priest." For this reason I wish to weigh Whitman's life and work in absolutely just balances, even though adverse criticism may be attributed to overplus of "malignant virtue" in the reviewer.
The choice of the nickname " Walt" was characteristic of the man. He rebelled against his patronymic
422 WHITMAN S REVOLT AGAINST LAW
"Walter," as too formal and too stiff. He wished to be unlike his father, who was a steady and somber man. But he also wished to be unconventional in all his ways. The "hail-fellow-well-met," of low life, seemed to him more comradelike and more humane than the elegant gentlemen who bore the names of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Walter Scott. Revolt against tradition, or restriction, or law of any sort, unless it were the law of his own impulses, was a part of his nature. He desired to be an original force in literature and in life. His poetical works begin with a declaration of independence which gives us a valuable clue to their total significance:
One's-Self I sing,—a simple, separate Person;
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse.
Of Physiology from top to toe I sing;
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy
for the muse
—I say the Form complete is worthier far;
The Female equally with the male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power.
Cheerful—for freest action form'd, under the laws
The Modern Man I sing, (n)
Walt Whitman may properly be considered from three points of view—his art, his morality, and his religion. In his art, he aims to get back to Nature. And here there is a grain of truth. Wordsworth said well that
"To the solid ground of Nature trusts the mind
That builds for aye."
ART WITHOUT MORALITY IMPOSSIBLE 423
But Nature is an ambiguous term. Shall we confine it to the physical world, and make poetry merely descriptive of sunsets and storms? There is no poetry that does not find meanings in the outward world— suggestions of truth and beauty. Shall we include man in Nature, but only man's body? Then we forget that body has no value or claim upon our attention except as it serves the higher uses of the soul. Poetry must recognize the relation of man's body to his spirit, of his spirit to its fellows, and of all men to God, or it will be destitute of beauty and of truth. An allembracing atheism and materialism cuts poetry loose from its real sources of inspiration. Nature finds its meanings only in man, and man finds his meanings only in God. Art without morality, and morality without religion, are equally impossible. Poetry aims to depict, not the conceptions of savage men, but those of thoughtful and cultivated men. The gentleman and the Christian show what man's nature really is. Not the body, but the soul that dominates the body, is most worthy of admiration. If poetry does not see the higher in the lower, it degrades and pollutes. Art must idealize, or perish.
Bernard Shaw tells us that the great ethical movement of our day is the turkey-trot. In a similar vein we may say that the great esthetic movement of our day is free-verse. Free-verse is destitute of rhyme, and it has only an irregular and rudimental rhythm. Walt Whitman is its leading representative. That poetry may take the form of free-verse may be granted, while yet it is denied that Walt Whitman's free-verse is poetry, or, if poetry at all, is more than 424 FAITH IN GOD NECESSARY TO GREAT POETRY
an infantile and undeveloped kind of poetry. The free-verse of the Ninetieth Psalm, like some of the Ossianic ballads, has other merits besides that of freedom. It reproduces Nature, not only in its variety, but also in its ideal aspects. Those ideal aspects are suggested and symbolized in the measured cadence of Milton's " Paradise Lost," and in every worthy specimen of blank verse> Poetry is an expression of ideal truth in its normal relations, and especially in its subordination of the physical to the spiritual. It must recognize the moral element in man.' Hence the glorification of bodily organs and passions, and the assumption that the soul is a mere efflux from the body, are fatal to the poet's art and influence. Man is not supreme in the universe. God is not a mere name for the All. There is a higher Personality than that of the poet, and a theistic faith is necessary to the greatest poetry. Evolution builds on the past. It is no merit to be wholly unlike. When the moral element: is lacking, egotism leads the writer to overestimate his own powers and to regard all his observations asJ of equal value. All things become divine, and he praises the vile as well as the worthy. The world becomes a wilderness of rubbish, which he merely inventories. [/In his view, man becomes free, not by entering into the communion and life of the personal God, but by asserting the right of every vicious impulse to control his action. This is moral slavery and ruin, and this is the philosophy which underlies the verse of Walt Whitman.
Before proceeding to verify these statements by excerpts from his writings, it will be well to glance
FORMATIVE INFLUENCES OF WHITMAN'S BOYHOOD 425
at the facts of his life, and, if possible, to discover the sources of his philosophy. He was born in the township of Huntington, on the northwestern corner of Long Island, on May 31, 1819. His birthplace was more closely connected with the opposite Connecticut shore, only ten miles away, than it was with the growing village of Brooklyn, forty miles to the west. From Connecticut had come the mingled English, Independent, and Quaker stock, which found its unique expression in himself. When he was only four years of age, however, his father removed to Brooklyn, and there pursued the trade of a mastercarpenter. But the boy frequently visited his grandmother at the old home. There he gathered the eggs of sea-gulls and speared eels. In- the admirable biography by George Rice Carpenter, these surroundings are credited with an important influence upon his mental development: "The poetic gift was born in him when he listened to the song of the bird calling its dead mate, and heard the melodious hissing of the sea w'hispering of death." An element of romance was added by the farmers who occasionally dug in the beach for Captain Cook's treasures, and by the talks of the seamen who had manned our ships in the war of 1812.
He was a sturdy child, bred by his father to the carpenter's bench, and possessed of but two educational advantages, the district school and the circulating library. The "Thousand and One Nights" and the "Waverley Novels" absorbed him. At twelve he became office-boy to a kind-hearted lawyer, then similarly served a physician. He had no ambition for college.
426 WHITMAN A BORN BOHEMIAN
His real training was that of a printer's apprentice and of a school-teacher. Experience as a compositor led to sundry contributions to the "Long Island Patriot" and to George P. Morris's "Mirror" in New York City; and his service as a country pedagogue at Babylon, on the southern shore of Long Island, gave him some practice as a debater and public speaker. He was at that time an abolitionist, a teetotaler, an opponent of capital punishment. He was also a Democrat; he entered the realm of politics, advocated the election of Van Buren to the Presidency, stood for Free-Soil and Reform.
After 1841 he was typesetter, contributor, editor, in turn, of various ephemeral periodicals, and ended by serving on the staff of the Brooklyn " Daily Eagle." For a while his dress, betokened social aspirations, for he wore frock-coat, tall hat, and boutonniere. But he was a born Bohemian, and society irked him. He rebelled against authority and self-sacrifice. He spoke of himself as "stubborn, restless, and unhappy." He was too self-centered easily to find companionship, and he took to solitude, assumed the dress of a workman, and sought relief by wandering. "Lazy and hazy." he spent a couple of years in travel, if so we may, call w'orking his way through the South. In myV judgment, this tour constituted an epoch in his life/ and for this reason I shall speak more fully about it hereafter, and shall seek further light upon it from his writings. In the meantime, let me only say that he was for a brief period an editor on the staff of the New Orleans " Crescent," and that after a few months of such service he made his way homeward by way of
GENESIS OF WHITMAN S GENIUS 427
Chicago and the Great Lakes, though carrying with him affectionate remembrances of the "exquisite wines," the "perfect and mild French brandy," the "splendid and roomy and leisurely barrooms" of the St. Charles and St. Louis hotels.
In 1848 either satiety or poverty compelled him to return to his father's house in Brooklyn. He was now thirty years of age. He spent several years in assisting his father's work of carpentry and building. But all the while he was meditating and writing. He was seized with the ambition to. put his experience into literature, and into literature of a new sort. Between 1850 and 1855 a great change occurred. Until he reached the age of thirty-one he had been a mere writer for newspapers. After this time he was. a writer of verse, so unusual in form and so strange in spirit that it attracted attention and criticism. The genesis of Walt Whitman's peculiar genius has occupied the inquiries of many biographers, but with little of positive result. William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Warren are said to have given him hints. More weight may be attributed to the suggestion that without Whitman's^ knowledge of the English Bible, its Old Testament parallelism and accompanying rhythm, he never would have devised his method. But it was substance rather than form that he thought most of. He wished to be the poet of the crowd, the mouthpiece of primitive humanity, the expression of man's physical nature. With this view, in 1855, he gave up manual work.and devoted himself to literature, so far as an indolent resignation of himself to observation and to writing could accomplish this.
428 HICKS AND EMERSON SOURCES OF WHITMAN
There were two sources of his philosophy.1' Not enough attention has been given by his biographers to the strain of Quaker blood in his veins, and to the influence of Quakerism upon his early religious thought and life. The Van Velsors, from whom he sprang on his mother's side, were of Quaker ancestry. But his grandfather was a friend and comrade of Elias Hicks, the Quaker preacher, who began the movement against the orthodox beliefs, of George Fox, and became the head and leader of the sect called Hicksites. Whittier stood by the old faith; but Hicks gave up the deity of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. In Hicks there was a spirit of revolt and self-assertion that was lacking in the older body. ^11 mere forms of religion, even churchgoing and public prayer, were made little of.i And Walt Whitman was brought up in an atmosphere of shrewd worldliness which placed dependence solely upon the inward light—an inward light which, in his case, showed its insufficiency, apart from the Christian revelation, as a guide to belief or conduct. ^The second influence which shaped the philosophy tof Walt Whitman was more immediate than that of Elias Hicks; it was-that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. A newspaper reviewer, soon after the publication of Whitman's- great work, the "Leaves of Grass," described' it as the production of both a transcendentalist and a rowdy. About the transcendentalism there can be no doubt, and to my mind it is equally clear that this.was mainly derived from Emerson. If the reader is surprised at this, or inclined to doubt, I would refer him to my exposition of Emerson's philosophy in a preceding essay of this volume. In these early days
LEAVES OF GRASS 429
Whitman went about everywhere with a copy of Emerson's "Essays" in his pocket. He called Emerson his master, and Emerson himself recognized in Whitman the same ideas of which he alone had been thus far the advocate, remarking pleasantly that "Leaves of Grass" was a combination of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York " Herald."^ Whitman's disjointed and rhapsodic method of utterance, both in prose and in poetry, was possibly caught from Emerson, together^ with his fundamental conceptions that Nature is orig4 inally and mainly physical, that spirit is an efflux from• matter, and that mind is to be interpreted in bodily . terms. ^A materialistic, deterministic, and fatalistic philosophy pervades all of Whitman's writing. It is the glaring but natural outcome of Emerson's more guarded but none the less pernicious doctrine. This philosophy is the secret of Whitman's glorification of man's physical nature, and it makes " Leaves of Grass" little more than the history of his own body. That body he conceives to be only a significant part of the vast universe, of which good and evil are alike and equally the manifestations.- The poet is a part of the All—he is indeed the soul of the All—worthy of ad- *s miration therefore in all his impulses and powers. ( Whitman is a pantheist like the Brahman, and he can J sing the praises of lust, as the Hindu carves its doings J in the Caves of Elephanta.
The publication of " Leaves of Grass" was unquestionably the advent of a novelty in American literature. Until 1855 Whitman had been content with prose. But desire for independence grew by what it fed on. Wanderlust, at first a physical instinct, be
430 EMERSON S CRITICISM OF LEAVES OF GRASS
came at last consciously intellectual. Freedom became a passion, and asserted itself in- his. writing. Every great passion tends to rhythmical expression. Abraham ■ Lincoln's address at Gettysburg may be put into lines/ that read like poetry. In his Southern tour Whitman had given such rein to impulse that he came to regard all impulse as divine. He felt himself surcharged with elemental forces that had hitherto no proper outlet in literature. He wished to voice the humanity and energy of the illiterate horde with which he identified himself—he would represent, not the world of books, but the world of men. He would make his verse conform to his subject: he spoke of his poems as
lawless at first perusal, although on closer examination a certain regularity appears, like the recurrence of lesser and larger waves on the seashore, rolling in without intermission, and f1tfully rising and falling.
Emerson did much to commend "Leaves of Grass" to the general public. He called it " the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Whitman says of Emerson's letter conveying this eulogium, " I regarded it as the charter of an Emperor." This was only natural, since. Whitman was the inheritor of Emerson's philosophy, if hot of his delicacy or of his style. But Emerson greatly objected to the publication of his private letter, and he afterward added criticisms which seemed like confessions of regret for his premature enthusiasm. For Whitman was no blind or passive admirer, but one determined to carry Emerson's philosophy to its logical conclusion. In a long talk with Whitman on Boston
WHITMAN UNCHANGED BY CRITICISM 431
Common, Emerson sought to convince him that rhyme and rhythm are not unnatural, and that reticence with regard to some bodily relations is consistent with ideal truth. Whitman was unconvinced, though somewhat impressed by the words of his master. He could write with unusual humility:
Whether my friends claim it for me or not, I know well enough that in respect to pictorial talent, dramatic situations, and especially in verbal melody and all the conventional technique of poetry, not only the divine works that to-day stand ahead in the world's reading, but dozens more, transcend (some of them immeasurably transcend) all I have done or could do.
But he also wrote a eulogy of Emerson which served for self-justification:
His final influence is to make his students cease to worship anything—almost cease to believe in anything, outside of themselves. . . No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil's setting up independently—no truer evolutionist.
He came at last to depreciate his benefactor. In 1872 he wrote:
Emerson has just been this way . . . lecturing. He maintains the same attitude—draws on the same themes—as twenty-five years ago. It all seems to- me quite attenuated (the first drawing of a good pot of tea, you know, and Emerson's was the heavenly herb itself—but what must one say to a second, or even third or fourth infusion?)
And the result of Emerson's criticism, like the opposition of other critics, was only to confirm the poet in his chosen method. So. he writes:
When the book aroused such a storm of anger and condemnation everywhere, I went off to the East end of Long Island 432 A POET OF CHAOS
and Peconic Bay. Then came back to New York with the confirmed resolution, from which I never afterwards wavered, to go on with my poetic enterprise in my own way, and finish it as well as I could.
Whitman's aims and methods were certainly original. In notes which he left at his death, he charged himself:
Make no quotations, and no reference to other writers. Lumber the writing with nothing—let it go as lightly as the bird flies in the air or a fish swims in the sea. Avoid all poetical similes; be faithful to the perfect likelihoods of nature— healthy, exact, simple, disdaining ornaments. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all; make full-blooded, rich, flush, natural works. Insert natural things, indestruCtibles, idioms, characteristics, rivers, states, persons, and so forth. Be full of strong sensual germs! . . Poet! beware lest your poems are made in the spirit that comes from the study of pictures of things—and not from the spirit that comes from the contact with real things themselves.
Emerson's later judgments with regard to Whitman were, as I have already intimated, less favorable than were his earlier utterances. He calls Whitman's catalogues of natural objects " the auctioneer's inventories of a warehouse." The poet mistook these for poetry, whereas they were simply materials for poetry. His philosophy spoiled his artt^Ii Whitman was a poet at all, he was a poet of chaos, for his work is " without form and void "; the creative and shaping hand is lacking. ■^He does not perceive that art is not merely the copyist of nature, but the copyist of the higher nature, the discoverer of the unifying principle of nature, the revelation of the spiritual and moral Author and End of nature. Since Whitman would not recognize the God of nature, he could see nature only in bits. He
PANTHEISTIC PHILOSOPHY A FOE OF ART 433
was " hypnotized by phenomena "; like Yankee Doodle, he "could not see the town, there were so many houses." This is the real explanation of his wearisome cataloguing, which often runs into a maundering vacuity. It also accounts for his eulogy of the mean and the low, the vulgar and the vile. He has no sense of proportion, because he has no proper standard of judgment." He forgets that nature is man's garden, a garden not perfect, but one which man is to dress and keep. Poetry sees the ideal thought in nature and reproduces it in verse. To fancy that the ugly and the vicious are divine, that one man is as good as another, merely because both are found in the world, is to make real poetry impossible.
This same philosophy degrades the form of art as well as its substance. Beauty wakens in us sympathetic feeling, and clamors for rhythmical expression. The poet thinks instinctively in numbers—the numbers indeed are born with the thought. The highest truth clothes itself in melodious phrase. ' Great poets are great artists as well as great lovers of truth. As the sense of beauty and of truth becomes more acute, poetry becomes more rhythmical and more melodious. Recitative gives place to song. Walt Whitman scouts these higher modes of expression, and imitates only the voices of physical and animal nature. But in doing this he descends to the lower methods of aboriginal man, and, to adopt his own phrase, "sends over the roofs of the world only a barbaric yawp." We might as well give up Handel and Beethoven, and go back to the music of tom-toms. The lower form of poetry indicates a lower form of
434 "° CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!"
truth, and copies only a lower form of nature. In my judgment, Whitman's best poems, the " Song of the Universal," the "Proud Music of the Storm," the "Song of the Redwood Tree," the "Song of the Exposition," and, above all, "O Captain! my Captain!" are those in which he comes nearest to the conventional forms of poetical expression, most nearly forgets his dogmas of the"body7ancl most avails himself of the garnered wisdom of the past.
Before I pass from the consideration of the mere form of Whitman's verse, I must quote his greatest poem, if only to show how near he came to achieving both technical and emotional success. "O Captain! my Captain!" will live, when all else that he has written is forgotten. Better than any other poem, it expresses the universal sorrow which followed the death of our martyred President, Abraham Lincoln:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores
a-crowding; For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck
You've fallen cold and dead.
WHITMAN S EGOTISM 435
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will; The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won:
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead. (375)
Here is genuine emotion, but emotion clothed in nearly
correct metrical form, ft shows that Whitman could
write poetry when his soul was stirred by something
outside himself. There are defects even here which
it were ungracious to criticize, but they are all defects
due to his method, and we lose sight of them when we
enter sympathetically into his grief over the unspeak-
able loss which the nation suffered when its great
Captain died. Unfortunately, with all its occasional
flashes of genius, his free-verse is ordinarily not so
near the requirements of poetry as is some of his
prose. Its art is infantile and defective; it is indolent
and often commonplace; the most remarkable thing
about it is that it was ever printed as poetry.
^Another infelicity clings to Walt Whitman's art;
namely, his boundless egotism. This too is the fruit
of his philosophy.^ He is possessed by the pantheistic
delusion that the universe reaches personality only in
man. He himself is the typical manifestation of the
universe and its typical representative. Every atom
of his body and every thought of his mind is there-
fore of value. The complete expression of himself
will be the exposition of universal humanity. He criti-
cized Ruskin's view that poetry should have
436 A SENSE OF SIN WANTING IN WHITMAN
nothing to do with the poet's special personality, nor exhibit the least trace of it—like Shakspere's great unsurpassable dramas. But I have dashed at the greater drama going on' within myself and every human being—that is what I have been after.
Homer, Vergil, and Dante have been reticent about themselves; we know little about them; their poetry is objective rather than subjective. Whitman would reverse all this; he says unblushingly, "I celebrate myself "Vlie would express in his verse every impulse ofhis nature.' This naked individualism is the result of self-deification. And this naked individualism, in turn, corrupted his art. He was too great an admirer of himself to be conscious of his own defects of style. He could not tell the commonplace from the inspired.
Our criticism of Whitman's art becomes very quickly a criticism of his morality.<-^His blatant egotism is the egotism of the atheist who sees nothing in the universe higher than himself. He sees no divine holiness in contrast with his own moral imperfection; he perceives no moral evil in himself, and so is blind to the greatness of the good. His sense of sin is as weak as his sense of God. But I must not prematurely condemn him. There is one utterance of his which has been quoted in his favor. In his letter to Edward Dowden, dated January 18, 1872, he describes his aim in literature:
I seek to typify living Human Personality, im.nensely animal, with immense passions, immense amativeness, immense adhesiveness—in the woman immense maternity—and then, in both, immenser far, a moral conscience, and in always realizing THE COARSE EGO IN WHITMAN S VERSE 437
the direct and indirect control of the divine laws through all and over all forever.
So far as my reading of his works informs me, this is the only tribute which the author makes to morality, or law, or God. It is so exceptional a tribute, and is so incongruous with the general drift and spirit of his writings, that I must regard it as a tribute to his correspondent, rather than to the great realities which his poems and his life ignored. As we shall hereafter see, the poet was quite capable of impersonating a morality which he did not possess, in order that he might not utterly lose the good opinion of his friends. uThe Whitman cult is so frequently unacquainted with his poems and his life, that duty seems to require the publication of features in both which eulogists have hitherto ignored. It is a thankless and unpleasing task, and I undertake it with regret. I proceed to quote certain passages of his verse, in which egotism and coarseness are evenly matched:
Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, of mighty Manhattan the
son, Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breeding; No sentimentalist—no stander above men and women, or
apart from them; No more modest than immodest. (54)
Joy of the friendly, plenteous dinner—the strong carouse, and drinking!
O, while I live, to be the ruler of life—not a slave!
To be indeed a God! (384)
Teacher of the unquenchable creed, namely, egotism. (168)
438 Wh1tman's Thes1s
I know perfectly well my own egotism;
I know my omnivorous lines, and will not write any less;
And would fetch you, whoever you are, flush with myself. (81)
I will effuse egotism, and show it underlying all—and I will
be the bard of personality; And I will show of male and female that either is but the
equal of the other; And sexual organs and acts! do you concentrate in me—for
I am determin'd to tell you with courageous clear voice,
to prove you illustrious. (24)
Behold! the body includes and is the meaning, the main
concern—and includes and is the Soul. (25)
I swear I think now that everything without exception has an
eternal Soul. (391)
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of
the stars; And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
the egg of the wren. (62)
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! (54)
Through me forbidden voices;
Voices of sexes and lusts—voices veil'd, and I remove the
Voices indecent, by me clarified and transfigur'd. (55)
Fall behind me, States!
A man before all—myself, typical before all. (303)
- The divinity of the common man was Whitman's thesis, and that for the reason that the individual summarizes and expresses the universal. It was a dim apprehension of the universal, without recognition of its unifying principle. Whitman perceived the power
A MAN WITHOUT A SHRINE 439
that works in and through nature, but failed to see the personality of that power. ^He chose a non-moral, instead of a moral God. The only unifying principle he could discern was himself. So he could believe all his ideas and passions to be manifestations of the indwelling Deity. His system was an " illegitimate consecration of the finite." Good and evil alike, in others as well as in himself, were revelations of the spirit that moved through all, and that spirit was only the personification of matter, something non-moral, evil as well as good. He liked the "refreshing wickedness " of stage-drivers and ferry-hands, for to him, in quite other than the scriptural sense, there was " nothing common or unclean." What Emerson said of Gibbon applies equally to him: "The man has no shrine—a man's most important possession."' Hence he could glorify every bodily appetite, and make even the life of the prostitute a subject of his verse. I must connect this celebration of vileness with his own practical cutting loose from restraint. He would not have thus deified passion, if he had not previously broken away from a personal and holy God.
As to Whitman's immorality, at least in his early life, we are not left to conjecture. His own letter to John Addington Symonds, dated August 10, 1890. and written in his seventy-second year, is sufficiently explicit:
My life, young manhood, mid-age, times South, etc., have been jolly bodily, and doubtless open to criticism. Though unmarried I have had six children—two are dead—one living Southern grandchild, fine boy, writes to me occasionally— circumstances (connected with their fortune and benefit) have prevented me from intimate relations.
440 WHITMAN S IMMORALITY
I do not find in this, or in any other writing of Walt Whitman, the least sign of regret for the "jolly life" of those Southern years, or for the subsequent abandonment of his offspring. His paternity was like that of Rousseau, which permitted his own children to be foundlings. Bliss Perry, in his otherwise comprehensive and judicial biography of Whitman, has minimized the poet's aberrations, and has attributed them to sudden floods of passion which overtook a sensitive nature and served as an early stage of its education. Much as I should like to accept this explanation, it seems to me inadequate, in view of two outstanding facts: first, that Whitman never expressed regret for the escapades, never suppressed or retracted what have always seemed his vicious utterances; and, secondly, that, with regard to the most serious suspicion of his correspondent, Whitman ventures upon no direct denials. Symonds had been reading " Calamus," a group of poems celebrating the intimate friendship of men for men. Some of the lines troubled him, and, as Perry says:
"His familiarity with certain passages of Greek literature increased his curiosity. He wrote to Whitman begging for a more exact elucidation, and Whitman, in order to avoid any possible misconstruction, wrote frankly in reply concerning his own early relations with women."
Yes, but he said nothing about his early relations with men.
Whitman was something of a poseur. His urbanity and dignity were at times the veil which hid an inward sense of difference between his own standards and those accepted by the world around him. He would not
WHITMAN A POSEUR 44I
argue, and he would not disclose; but he could ignore. So he went steadily on his way, only the more determined by criticism to live his own life and maintain his own independence of all ordinary moral as well as all ordinary literary standards. He had a fine faculty of concealment, but he was also capable of arrant dishonesty. His persistent self-glorification and occasional falsification of facts throw doubt upon the sincerity of his seeming disclaimers. Whitman was not only guilty of indelicacy in sending to various journals extravagant eulogies of his own poems, but he prefaced his "Leaves-Droppings" with a letter to Emerson, from which I quote the following sentences:
The first edition, on which you mailed me that till now unanswered letter, was twelve poems—I printed a thousand copies, and they readily sold; these thirty-two Poems I stereotype, to print several thousand copies of. . . The way is clear to me. A few years, and the average annual call for my Poems is ten or twenty thousand copies—more, quite likely.
Mr. Perry tells us, however, that, of the "Leaves of Grass " of 1855,
"An edition of a thousand copies was planned, but only about eight hundred seem actually to have been printed. . . Then came the tragedy of hope deferred. There were practically no sales. In his old age Whitman used to refer goodnaturedly to the one man who actually bought a copy of the 1855 edition."
The biographer calls the letter to Emerson a "romancing about the sale of the first edition," and speaks of
"Whitman's nervous condition at the time. He was overexcited, no doubt, and felt that he was playing for high stakes."
442 TllOREAU S SEARCHING CRITICISM
It seems to me rather to deserve severe censure, as a deliberate attempt to deceive the man who had first given him currency and credit in the literary world. ^Whitman's appetite for praise grew by what it fed on; self-appreciation became monumental; it lasted to the end; for, long after admirers, themselves straitened in means, were contributing to his support because they believed him penniless, he was erecting for himself a mausoleum which cost four thousand dollars, and at his death he had in the bank several thousand dollars more. "The good, gray poet" must submit to some discount of his pretensions.
Late in life Whitman said to Prof. G. K. Palmer: "There are things in 'Leaves of Grass' which I would no sooner write now than I would cut off my right hand; but I am glad I printed them." Whittier called the book " muck, obscenity, vulgarity, bombast," and he threw it into the fire. The intensity and particularity of its references to sensual relations disgusted him. It was indeed a sort of phallic frenzy. Thoreau praised it as a study of nature, but thought that the beasts might have so spoken. That was a significant and searching criticism. Whitman admired the beasts. He said:
I think I could go and live with the animals. I stand and look at them long and long. They are so placid and selfcontained. They do not fret and whine about their condition; they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins; they do not make me sick, discussing their duty to God. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. What blurt is this about virtue and about vice? . . Evil propels me, and refusal of evil propels me; I am indifferent.
OBSCENITY EXALTED TO A PRINCIPLE 443
Whitman's rejection of a holy God is followed by a blinding of his soul to sin. And of this it has been well said, " The man who lives like an animal and cares not for moral failure, having no desire for things noble or great, is worse than an animal, because he is so much more than an animal." In "Leaves of Grass" Whitman hints indeed at physical relations and contacts of which the mere animal is ignorant and guiltless, and which remind the reader of Oscar Wilde.
What is the truth about his glorification of the body? We may grant that there is a squeamishness which is only prudery. Oversensitiveness with regard to bodily organs is a sign of undisciplined imagination. Education gives a certain freedom, both in conversation and in plastic art. The human form is noble and divine, even in its nudity. But only when immoral suggestion is wholly absent, and when form suggests the supremacy of spirit. In other words, nature in this aspect utters a symbolic language, and is beautiful only when she is moral; when she is immoral, she needs to be ashamed. The bodily organs and relations are worthy of reverence, and are subjects for poetry, only so far as they symbolize spiritual truth and minister to its influence. To make the body in itself an object of worship, or to regard it as the parent and master of the soul, is to reverse all right relations and to teach a fundamental immorality. Yet this is the doctrine of Whitman.L His poetry is a poetry of the flesh. Reticence with regard to sexual relations is necessary if we would recognize the rightful reign of spirit over body. But Whitman has exalted obscenity into a principle.
444 WHITMAN PRAISED BY NOTED MEN
It would be difficult to conceive more unblushing announcements of immoral ambition than are contained in some of his poems. The Attorney General of Massachusetts evidently took this view of the case w hen he threatened to prosecute Whitman's publishers for printing an obscene volume, and James R. Osgood and Company in consequence gave up the publication of the "Leaves of Grass." Secretary James Harlan, in Washington, in like manner dismissed Whitman from his $1,600 clerkship because that book was found in his possession. But the poet gained stout defenders Rossetti declared the work to be "incomparably the largest performance of our period in poetry," though he objected to its "agglomeration." William Dean Howells spoke of Whitman, after a visit, as "emanating an atmosphere of purity and serenity," in spite of the poet's own assertions that he loved and depicted impurity as much as he loved and depicted purity. John Burroughs said that " Americans may now come home: unto us a man is born." He credited Whitman with "the primal spirit of poesy itself," "the most buoyant and pervasive spirituality," "the most uncompromising religious purpose," though he saw in him grave defects. Alcott, Conway, Bryant, Beecher, came to see Whitman; and in England, Lord Houghton, Myers, and Swinburne praised him, though Swinburne came at last to break away from his spell. Women have been found to justify his erotic verse, and to see in it only the frank avowal of innocent natural instincts. I am content to place my reader in the seat of judgment. Since he "knows the ordinance of God, that they who practise such things are worthy
WHITMAN CHANGED BY THE CIVIL WAR 445
of death," let him judge whether those are guiltless who, though they do not the same, yet " consent with those who practise them."
There came a day when Whitman's glorification of sexual relations became a glorification of comradeship. The passion of man for woman gave place to the passion of man for man, and this passion merged into something democratic and universal. Our Civil War stirred him. I do not find that he had interest in the slave, or that he rejoiced in his emancipation. He was no abolitionist, at least in his later years. But he was concerned for the Union of the States, and for the men who were defending it. His own brother was wounded in one of the first battles of the war, and Whitman started for Washington to care for him. When the brother recovered from what proved to be a slight wound, Whitman began a visitation and help to others who were sick and wounded, until he had ministered in this way to nearly a hundred thousand men. We must not withhold from this service our grateful acknowledgments. It was a service entirely voluntary and without pay. It was not the ordinary service of a nurse, but that of a companion and friend. He brought paper and envelopes, with postage-stamps, and wrote letters dictated by the boys to their parents or friends at home. He carried to thousands of bedsides little packets of sweetmeats or tobacco. He even read the Bible to those who requested it, though he ordinarily trusted more to his own kindly and sympathetic talk, to cheer his patient. All this was done in hours of leisure from the work of the government office in which he had found employment, and its value
44<J THE NEW RESOLVE OF WHITMAN
largely consisted in the unconventional and hearty method of his address. This practical work for others seems to be the result of a vow registered at the beginning of the war, on April 16, 1861, and suggested by the patriotic rush to arms by so many of the youth of the land. It indicates a wider outlook and an impulse to self-sacrifice, which before this time we see nothing of. The record of this new resolve was found among his papers after his death, and it reads as follows:
I have this day, this hour, resolved to inaugurate for myself a pure, perfect, sweet, clean-blooded robust body, by ignoring all drinks but water and pure milk, and all fat meats, late suppers—a great body, a purged, cleansed, spiritualized, invigorated body.
And in one of his poems he writes:
I have loved the earth, sun, animals—I have despised riches, I have given alms to every one that ask'd, stood up for the
stupid and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others, I have hated tyrants, argued not concerning God. had
patience and indulgence toward the people, taken off my
hat to nothing known or unknown,
I have dismissed whatever insulted my own Soul or def*led my Body. (303)
Upon this breast has many a dying soldier lean'd, to breathe
his last; This arm, this hand, this voice, have nourish'd, rais'd,
restored, To life recalling many a prostrate form: —I am willing to wait to be understood by the growth of the
taste of myself, I reject none, I permit all. (304)
"A BATTERED, WRECKED OLD MAN 447
There is no need of censorship of his writings after 1861. His literary work reflects a new and better condition of body. It was well that he then pledged himself to abstinence, for the demands upon his physical system had hitherto been great, and the calls for sympathy in his new work of relieving suffering were still more exhausting. In 1873, at the early age of fiftyfour, he broke down. A stroke of paralysis shattered his seemingly invulnerable constitution, and from the collapse that followed he never fully recovered. After a time he retired to Camden, New Jersey, bought him a poor little house, and, with the aid of contributions from friends at home and abroad, spent the remainder of his life. He had many visitors. On his seventieth birthday he was given a public reception in Camden, at which his friends gave him praise. But he was, to use his own description of Columbus, "a battered, wrecked old man." And in 1891, when seventy-two years of age, he breathed his last.
The race from which Walt Whitman sprang has been described as "solid, strong-framed, long-lived, moderate of speech, friendly, fond of their horses and cattle, sluggish in their passions, but fearful when once started." Our poet possessed all these peculiarities of both body and mind. As a boy, he was healthy and hearty. As teacher of a country school, composed mostly of girls, he showed little sentiment or partiality toward the sex. As a grown man, he had the calmness and benignity of good nature. These were natural gifts. But behind them and underlying them there was a passion which, when roused, knew no restraint. Robert Louis Stevenson's description of the Scot, as
448 THE AFTERMATH OF WHITMAN
"an iceberg over a volcano," might almost apply to Whitman. On occasion he could let himself loose, and he did this in his tour of the South. The echoes of that exuberant life were always sounding within him. But the woes of his country opened to him a larger vision. A sort of national, yes, even of cosmic, consciousness was developed. His chronic good nature poured itself forth in care for the sick and wounded. He gave what strength he had to kindly ministrations at their bedsides, until paralysis seized him and his strength was gone. His after-life in Camden has been celebrated as the monkish retreat of an Oriental guru, lost in the ecstasy of his identification with the All, and quietly awaiting the transforming touch of death.. There are other views, however, of that Camden life, and I am permitted to quote the following passages from the private letter of a pastor whose work in that city filled part of the time of Whitman's residence there:
"My residence in Camden came in the period of what might be termed the aftermath of Whitman's influence in the city. As there was not much of the earlier, there was less of the later. And what there was, was wholly inimical to righteousness. His personal laxity of belief, if not of act, produced in his followers a license for physical and mental indulgence. Last winter the noblest Christian woman it was my privilege to know in the city of Camden passed away. She was unmarried and had lived to her eightieth year. She possessed a rare, clear, pure mind, and had a remarkable ability to intuit realities back of appearances. Often, in long conversations with her, have I mentioned the person of Walt Whitman, whose home was four doors removed from hers during her girlhood and young womanhood. She told me that hundreds of times she had passed around the whole block to avoid meeting Walt Whitman, whose very eye terrified her THE POETRY OF DEMOCRACY 449
womanhood. Last fall it was my privilege to baptize the last member of the 'Walt Whitman Club' of Camden. The majority had died drunkards, and only the grace of God had saved this man from a like fate."
The result of my inquiries is negative. The impressions of the aged maiden lady thus quoted may have been derived from the general opinion of Christian circles, which in its turn may have been formed by the perusal of Whitman's books, and not from personal acquaintance/ And yet I cannot ignore the testimony of an esteemed pastor to the effect that Walt Whitman's influence was antagonistic to Christianity and to morality.
KWalt Whitman's verse was called by Edward Dowden " the poetry of Democracy." John Burroughs too quotes Whitman as saying that the mother-idea of his poems is democracy, and democracy
"carried far beyond politics into the region of taste, the standards of manners and beauty, and even into philosophy and theology."
t-It was so, only because the poet came to regard himself as the natural representative of the whole race of man. -He was an Occidental mystic, who identified himself with the universe, and saw in his own body and soul the very flower of humanity. "He uses the communal 'I,' like Krishna," said Emerson. Selflove and self-worship expanded into a kindly sympathy with all forms of life. A universal good nature was to him the highest form of virtue. All men are your brothers—in their failures as well as in their gifts, in their vices as well as in their virtues—therefore be
450 WHITMAN S DEMOCRACY ANARCHY
good to them! Their faults are part of them—smile, but do not reprove!" Science" is their united intellect; "the States" are their organized force; "Democracy" is their collective will.'^Whitman is the apostle of this democracy; he could give his time and labor to caring for the suffering, without asking whether they were Unionists or rebels; so he could anticipate a day when there would be "one heart to the globe." As against the exaggerated nationalism of our day, this has an air of plausibility; in fact, it is but the elevation of the actual Walt Whitman into world-wide validity, the declaration of independence on the part of every individual, the transcending of all boundaries of law, and the enthronement of arbitrary impulse. Democracy of this sort is only anarchy, with a better name, as will appear by mere citation from his verses:
I swear I am for those that have never been master'd!
For those whom laws, theories, conventions, can never master. (306)
Copious as you are, I absorb you all in myself, and become the master myself. (307)
Race of veterans! Race of victors!
Race of the soil, ready for conflict! race of the conquering
(No more credulity's race, abiding-temper'd race;)
Race henceforth owning no law but the law of itself;
Race of passion and the storm. (316)
The beauty of independence, departure, actions that rely on
themselves, The American contempt for statutes and ceremonies, the
boundless impatience of restraint. (158)
WHITMANS DEMOCRACY ANARCHY 451
I have lived to behold man burst forth, and warlike America
rise; Hence I will seek no more the food of the northern solitary
wilds, No more on the mountains roam, or sail the stormy sea. (247)
0 such for me! O an intense life! O full to repletion, and
varied! The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me! (264)
1 hear the jubilant shouts of millions of men—I hear
I see but you, O warlike pennant! O banner so broad, with
stripes, I sing you only, Flapping up there in the wind. (279)
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty. (331) I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better,
God, beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself. (333)
Never was average man, his soul, more energetic, more like a God. (335)
Of This Union, soak'd, welded in blood—of the solemn price paid—of the unnamed lost, ever present in my mind.
Splendor of ended day, floating and filling me!
Hour prophetic—hour resuming the past! (338)
I announce a race of splendid and savage old men. (344)
Lo, Soul, see'st thou not, plain as the sun,
The only real wealth of wealth in generosity,
The only life of life in goodness? (436)
As a strong bird on pinions free,
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving,
Such be the thought I'd think to-day of thee, America,
Such be the recitative I'd bring to-day for thee. (451)
452 INFLUENCE OF MUSIC ON WHITMAN S VERSE
Some of these verses have the ring of true poetry, for they are both rhythmical and musical.^It is interesting to learn that Walt Whitman attributed to music much of his inspiration:
Ah, from a little child,
Thou knowest, Soul, how to me all sounds became music;
My mother's voice, in lullaby or hymn;
The rain, the growing corn, the breeze among the long
leav'd corn, The measur'd sea-surf, beating on the sand, The twittering bird, the hawk's sharp scream,
The lowing cattle, bleating sheep—the crowing cock at dawn. (357, 358)
He was a great lover of the opera, the symphony, and the more intricate chamber-music of trained performers. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that he disdained the full-orbed music of verse, and affected a recitative that was well-nigh destitute of both rhyme and rhythm. In his longing for a larger sort of harmony he thr^w away the necessary means for its attainment. t"But he believed that humanity greatly needed "strong, melodious songs," and that the great West of America would yet produce them. This reminds us once more of Rousseau, and of his dream of human freedom and perfection. i^The freedom, however, is freedom from restraint, and the perfection is development of a congenitally pure spirit. That the service of God is the only true freedom, and that human perfection requires submission to God's law, seems never to have dawned upon his mind. The
WHITMAN S FANCY TO FOUND A RELIGION 453
result is that, like Rousseau, he preaches a gospel of license, which will lead, as did Rousseau's, to the disintegration of society and to a " revolution clad in hell-fire." He banished from his verse the rhyme and rhythm of the best poetry, although the harmonic chords of the symphony and the submission of the player to the will of the conductor should have taught him that democracy can give perfection to man only as each individual makes his freedom the voluntary executor of law and the willing instrument of the personal God.
1^/A.ll this bears upon the final question of Walt Whitman's religion. For he fancied himself to be not only the preacher, but also the founder, of a new religion. It was a religion of affectionate comradeship, which put, in place of the God of love and law, the misty conception of a materialistic universe, of a democracy free to do evil as well as good, and of an individualism in which the body_is_supreme. A frugal liver after 1861, he passed into an austerity of diet like that of a Roman Catholic ascetic. Weighing two hundred pounds, six feet in height, with loosened hair and open breast, his Jovian countenance and masterful composure dominated and fascinated his visitors. Abraham Lincoln could say, "Well, he looks like a man!" -But he was a compound of the mystic and the hobo. His "cosmic consciousness" was never taught to recognize Him " in whom all things consist," the Creator and Redeemer of mankind. /He had no sense of sin, and he felt no need of Christ. Born of the people, he wished to express their life. But he had no proper standard by which to judge. He did not
454 BURSTS OF LOFTY THOUGHT IN WHITMAN
see that there is much in life which is not worth expressing, much evil which for virtue's sake we need to cover with a veil. "And yet there are occasional bursts of lofty thought and emotion that make us regret that his wild nature was not tamed and made to work in normal traces. "It pleased God to reveal his Son in me," said Paul. If Walt Whitman could have had that revelation he might have been a true poet and a true man. "That knowledge would have organized and illuminated his verse; would have led him to glorify the spirit rather than the body; would have shown him the duty of confessing sin and of accepting Christ's offer of salvation.
And yet " that which is known of God is manifest," even in him. In a temporary retreat which he found for himself, on Timber Creek near Camden, he communed with nature:
As if for the first time, indeed, creation for the first time noiselessly sank into and through me its placid and untellable lesson,—beyond—O, so infinitely beyond!—anything from art. books, sermons, or from science, old or new. The spirit's hour—religious hour—the visible suggestion of God in space or time—now once definitely indicated, if never again—the untold pointed at—the heavens all paved with it. The Milky Way, as if some superhuman symphony, some ode of universal vagueness disdaining syllable and sound—a flashing glance of Deity, addressed to the soul—all silently—the indescribable night and stars—far off and silently. . . Proved to me this day, beyond cavil, that it is not my material
eyes which finally see, Nor my material body which finally loves, walks, laughs,
shouts, embraces, procreates.
Thought of the Infinite, the All!
Be thou my God! (382. 439)
WHITMAN S AVERSION TO CHURCHES 455
"He was deeply impressed," says Mr. Perry, "by the Sunday services for the insane, in Doctor Bucke's Asylum, finding beneath these crazed faces, strange as it may seem, the peace of God that passeth all understanding."
These were only transient visitations of insight and of conscience. In his early notes we read what seems ,', to have been the general trend of his thinking:
Boldly assume that all the usual priests . . . are infidels, and the . . . are Faithful Believers ... I am as much Buddhist as Christian, . . as much nothing as something. . . The churches are one vast lie. The people do not believe in them; they do not believe in themselves. t
I do not despise you, priests;
My faith is the greatest of faiths, and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern, and all between
ancient and modern. (82)
'I have the idea of all, and am all, and believe in all;
^1 believe materialism is true, and spiritualism is true—I reject
"I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god. (189)
In 1880 he said to Doctor Bucke:
I have never had any particular religious experiences—never felt that I needed to be saved—never felt the need of spiritual regeneration—never had any fear of hell, or distrust of the scheme of the universe. I always felt that it was perfectly right and for the best.
"In his youthful note-book he remarks that' the Bible is now exhausted,' and speaks of ' the castrated goodness of schools and churches.'" "Irritated by 'par
456 Wh1tman's Avers1on To Churches
sons and the police,' he slammed his windows tight on Sunday, to keep out the sound of the bells and choir of a neighboring church." He said:
I always mistrust a deacon; his standard is low. . . The whole ideal of the church is low, loathsome, horrible. . . "Leaves of Grass" is the most religious book among books, crammed full of faith. . . Give those boys a chance—(some urchins who were swimming in the Schuylkill River)—and they would develop the heroic and manly, but they will be spoiled by civilization, religion and the damnable conventions. Their parents will want them to grow up genteel.
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul;
•And nothing, not God, is greater to me than one's self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to
his own funeral drest in his shroud.
^nd I say to mankind, Be not curious about God.
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own
face in the glass. (90)
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred
ways, but that man or woman is as good as God? And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself? (04)
Underneath Socrates clearly see—and underneath Christ the divine I see, The dear love of man for his comrade. (125)
/ J Tl
ave you thought there could be but a single Supreme? There can be any number of Supremes—One does not
countervail another, any more than one eyesight countervails another, or one life countervails another. (291)
It is I who am great, or to be great—it is you up there, or any one. (304)
A RELIGION OF UNMORAL GOOD NATURE 457
Peter Doyle was one of Whitman's intimates, and these are some of his words about the poet:
"He had pretty vigorous ideas on religion ... he never went to church—didn't like form, ceremonies—didn't seem to favor preachers at all. I asked him about the hereafter,' There must be something,' he said. 'There can't be a locomotive unless there is somebody to run it.' I have heard him say that if a person was the right sort of person—and I guess he thought all persons right kind of persons,—he couldn't be destroyed in the next world nor in this."
Mr. Perry tells us that, when on furlough in Brooklyn, Whitman wrote regularly to Peter Doyle. "Sometimes he sent Doyle a ' good long' kiss, 'on the paper here,' like an affectionate child. Often he comforted him, when ill or out of work, with vigorous admonitions" like the following:
As long as the Almighty vouchsafes you health, strength, and a clear conscience, let other things do their worst,—and let Riker go to hell.
Which reminds one of the disciple of Nietzsche, who condensed his precepts for conduct into the words, "So live, that you can look/every man in the eye, and tell him to—go to hell!" Kvhat Walt Whitman meant by " religion" was an unmoral good nature and selfworship, devoid of righteousness or law:
Know you! solely to drop in the earth the germs of a greater
The following chants, each for its kind, I sing. (22)
Omnes! Omnes! let others ignore what they may;
I make the poem of evil also—I commemorate that part also;
458 CHRIST, BACCHUS, AND WHITMAN
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is—
And I say there is in fact no evil; (Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the land,
or to me, as anything else.) (20)
I too, following many, and follow'd by many, inaugurate a
Religion—I descend into the arena; (It may be I am destin'd to utter the loudest cries there, the
winner's pealing shouts; Who knows? they may rise from me yet, and soar above every
Each is not for its own sake;
I say the whole earth, and all the stars in the sky, are for
I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough;
None has ever yet adored or worship'd half enough;
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and hove
certain the future is.
I say that the real and permanent grandeur of These States
must be their Religion; Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur, (Nor character, nor life worthy the name, without Religion; Nor land, nor man or woman, without Religion.) (21)
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge
that pass all the argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own. And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own; And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the
women my sisters and lovers; And that a kelson of the creation is love. (35)
[ The poet does not hesitate to compare himself with the great religious leaders of the past. Christ is mentioned casually, in company with the mythical Hercules, Hermes, and Bacchus. Whitman even ventures to
"DEMOCRATIC VISTAS" 459
claim affectionate brotherhood with our Lord, in his work and his spirit:
I see Christ once more eating the bread of his last supper,
in the midst of youths and old persons; I see where the strong divine young man, the Hercules, toil'd
faithfully and long, and then died. (144)
TO HIM THAT WAS CRUCIFIED
My spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not
understand you; I do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are
others also;) I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you, and to
salute those who are with you, before and since—and
those to come also, That we all labor together, transmitting the same charge and
In "Democratic Vistas" the poet who is to come follows a host of vanished powers, among whom he sees " Christ, with bent head, brooding love and peace, like a dove." HBut Whitman himself at last emerges as the true Poet, who fills all things. In his unbounded egotism he identifies the universe, and the whole / process of evolution, with himself, and, without a f thought of his finireness and sin, aspires to take the place of God:
With laugh, and many a kiss,
(Let others deprecate—let others weep for sin, remorse,
humiliation;) O soul, thou pleasest me—I thee.
O Thou transcendant!
Nameless—the fibre and the breath! (352)
460 SELF-DEIFICATION OF WHITMAN
How should I think—how breathe a single breath—how
speak—if, out of myself, I could not launch, to those, superior universes?
Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee, O soul, thou actual Me,
AnH In! thou gently masterest the orjw,
Thou matpat Timi-, smilest content at Death,
Andjillest, swellp'sf full, th~p vastnesses of Space. (353)
Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name;
Th«» tma Snn nf fipH ehal1 come, singing his songs- (349)
Natnrp and_Map shall hp disjnin'H and diffused no tnnrp;
The true SojLxiLGad_shaU absolutely fuse them., (3S0)
*tl Chanting the Square Deific" is a poem after the model of Emerson's "Brahma." It might possibly be interpreted as an adoption for poetical purposes of an Oriental and pantheistic philosophy. But it is more than this. Whitman made this philosophy the guide and excuse for his practical life. He not only identified himself with the All, but he regarded the AH as expressing himself. It was a Brahminical selfdeification, which held all nature, all history, all religions, as the outcome of the one life that throbbed in his veins and clamored for manifestation in himself. But for the philosophic garb that clothes it, and for the poetic halo that surrounds it, we might call it blasphemous. We must not determine the degree to which moral perversity may unconsciously reach. Let me only quote the significant lines of this poem which makes Jehovah, Christ, Satan, and the Holy Spirit, equally with Brahma, Saturn, Hermes, and Hercules,
"CHANTING THE SQUARE DEIFIC" 461
to be mere transient effluences from the poet's changeless side:
Chanting the square deific, out of the One advancing, out of
the sides; Out of the old and new—out of the square entirely divine, Solid, four-sided, (all the sides needed) . . . from this side
JEHOVAH am I,
Old Brahm I, and I Saturnius am.
Consolator most mild, the promis'd one advancing,
With gentle hand extended—the mightier God am I,
Foretold by prophets and poets, in their most rapt prophecies
and poems; From this side, lo! the Lord CHRIST gazes—lo! Hermes I—
lo! mine is Hercules' face. (392, 393)
For I am affection—I am the cheer-bringing God, with hope, and all-enclosing Charity;
But my Charity has no death—my Wisdom dies not, neither
early nor late, And my sweet Love, bequeath'd here and elsewhere, never
Defiant, I, SATAN, still live—still utter words—in new lands
newly appearing, (and old ones also;) Permanent here, from my side, warlike, equal with any, real
as any, Nor time, nor change, shall ever change me or my words.
Santa SPIRITA, breather, life,
Beyond the light, lighter than light,
Beyond the flames of hell—joyous, leaping easily above hell;
Beyond Paradise—perfumed solely with mine own perfume;
Including all life upon earth—touching, including God—
including Saviour and Satan; Ethereal, pervading all, (for without me, what were all? what
were God?) (393, 394)
462 Wh1tman's V1ew Of 1mmortal1ty
It is difficult to determine, and still more difficult to describe, the views of Whitman with regard to a future life. They probably varied with his moods of feeling, and became more definite and hopeful toward the close of his career. As the life of the body grew feeble, the desire for a larger and freer existence grew stronger. What hope he had seems to have been derived from his evolutionary philosophy, together with an unconscious appropriation of the Christian idea of progress toward the good, which that philosophy was unable to supply:
Now that he has gone hence, can it be that Thomas Carlyle, soon to chemically dissolve in ashes and by winds, remains an identity still? . . Does he yet exist, a definite, vital being, . . an individual? . . I have no doubt of it. . . When depress'd by some specially sad event, or tearing problem, I wait till I go out under the stars for the last voiceless satisfaction.
In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,-
Nestles the seed Perfection. (466)
What do you think has become of the young and old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it, And ceas'd the moment life appear'd. (36)
I believe of all those billions of men and women . . . every one exists this hour, here or elsewhere, invisible to us, in exact proportion to what he or she grew from in life, and out of what he or she did, felt, became, loved, sinn'd, in life. (319)
Wh1tman's V1ew Of 1mmortal1ty 463
For what is the present, after all, but a growth out of the
past? (As a projectile, form'd, impell'd, passing a certain line,
still keeps on,
So the present, utterly form'd, impell'd by the past.) (346)
Are Souls drown'd and destroy'd so?
Is only matter triumphant? (355)
The dirge and desolation of mankind. (356)
I hear the overweening, mocking voice, Matter is conqueror—matter, triumphant only, continues onward.
Tell me my destination! (397)
I understand your anguish, but I cannot help you.
Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither. (398)
. . . the threat of what is call'd hell is little or nothing to me; And the lure of what is called heaven is little or nothing to
me; . . . Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with
me, and still urge you, without the least idea what is our
destination, Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell'd and
'-Here is only the instinct of immortality, vague and dim, without the certainty afforded by a positive revelation. Evolution has its unpromising aspect for the soul inclined to evil. If the future is only a natural growth out of the past, there is no remedy for sin, and no prospect other than a reproduction of man's present iniquity and misery. For this reason the poet's verse vibrates between a dreadful recognition 4G4 Wh1tman's V1ew Of 1mmortal1ty
of unchanging abnormity, and an irrational ecstasy of hope:
I say distinctly I comprehend no better sphere than this
earth, I comprehend no better life than the life of my body. (414)
I do not know what you are for, . .
But I will search carefully for it. (327)
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a
With that sad, incessant refrain: Wherefore, unsatisfied Soul? and Whither, O mocking Life? (349)
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones. (178)
Not one word or deed—-not venereal sore, discoloration, privacy of the onanist, putridity of gluttons or rumdrinkers, peculation, cunning, betrayal, murder, seduction, prostitution, but has results beyond death, as really as before death. (286)
Yet Whitman cherishes an inextinguishable hope. He appropriates the results of Christianity, without fulfilling its conditions:
I swear I think there is nothing but immortality! (392)
My rendezvous is appointed—it is certain;
The Lord will be there, and wait till I come, on perfect terms;
(The great Camerado, the lover true for whom* I pine, will be
I know I am deathless;
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by the carpenter's
compass; I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt
stick at night. (50)
Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deed,
Thou yieldest up thyself. (488)
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther saill
O daring joy, but safel Are they not all the seas of God!
O farther, farther, farther sail! (354)
"Passage to India" was published in 1870. It expresses Whitman's later longings for the brotherhood of man. The first voyage of Columbus is made the symbol of that venture of the spirit which heralds and precedes every advance into the future of the individual and of the race. Of this collection of his poems he said:
There's more of me, the essential, ultimate me, in that than in any of the poems. . . The burden of it is evolution—the one thing escaping the other—the unfolding of cosmic purposes.
Passage to India!
Lo, soul! seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann'd, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together. (347)
O glad, exulting, culminating song!
A vigor more than earth's is in thy notes!
Marches of victory.—man disenthralls—the conqueror at
466 "THE SINGER IN THE PRISON"
Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good steadily hastening towards immortality,
And the vast all that is call'd Evil I saw hastening to merge itself and become lost and dead. (482)
Ah Genoese, thy dream! thy dream!
Centuries after thou art laid in thy grave,
The shore thou foundest verifies thy dream. (348)
Have we not grovell'd here long enough, eating and drinking
like mere brutes? Have we not darken'd and dazed ourselves with books long
For presently, O soldiers, we too camp in our place in the
bivouac-camps of green; But we need not provide for outposts, nor word for the
countersign, Nor drummer to beat the morning drum. (365)
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
done, Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best. Night, sleep, and the stars. (489)
i/l find in all Whitman's verses only one poem which indicates that he had grasped the idea of a righteous God and of a righteous administration of the universe. To him law and penalty are non-existent; justice and judgment are not the foundations of God's throne. Only one poem intimates that the thought of condemnation and retribution had ever impressed him, and even this poem makes death, and not a suffering and redeeming God, to be the source of pardon. That poem is entitled "The Singer in the Prison." It shows that the poet had powers of versification which
"THE MYSTIC TRUMPETER" 467
it surely would have profited him more commonly to use:
O sight of shame, and pain, and dole!
O fearful thought—a convict Soul!
A soul, confined by bars and bands,
Cries, Help! O helpl and wrings her hands;
Blinded her eyes—bleeding her breast,
Nor pardon finds, nor balm of rest.
It was not I that sinn'd the sin,
The ruthless Body dragg'd me in;
Though long I strove courageously,
The Body was too much for me.
(Dear prison'd Soul, bear up a space,
For soon or late the certain grace;
To set thee free, and bear thee home,
The Heavenly Pardoner, Death, shall come.
Convict no more—nor shame, nor dole!
Depart! a God-enfranchis'd Soul!) (420-422)
^Walt Whitman's doctrine of the future is summed
up in his own words, especially in the poem entitled
"The Mystic Trumpeter," and in his "Song of the
I do not think Life provides for all, and for Time and Space— but I believe Heavenly Death provides for all. (397)
0 I see now that life cannot exhibit all to me—as the day
1 see that I am to wait for what will be exhibited by
468 "SONG OF THE UNIVERSAL"
Nothing ever has been, or ever can be, charged against me,
half as bad as the evil I really am. I charge that there be no theory or school founded out of me; I charge you to leave all free, as I have left all free. (427)
I absolve you from all except yourself, spiritual, bodily—
that is eternal—you yourself will surely escape; The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious. (440)
Hymns to the universal God, from universal Man—all joy!
A reborn race appears—a perfect World, all joy!
Women and Men, in wisdom, innocence and health—all joy!
Riotous, laughing bacchanals, fill'd with joy! (458)
For it, the partial to the permanent flowing,
For it, the Real to the Ideal tends.
For it, the mystic evolution;
Not the right only justified—what we call evil also justified.
From imperfection's murkiest cloud,
Darts always forth one ray of perfect light,
One flash of Heaven's glory. (466, 467)
Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, that quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from
us, Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space; Health, peace, salvation universal.
Is it a dream?
Nay, but the lack of it the dream,
And, failing it, love's lore and wealth a dream,
And all the world a dream. (468)
Was Walt Whitman a poet? Yes, a poet in the lower realms of poetry, lie had poetry in solution, which needed the touch of creative imagination to crystallize into pleasing form; he had the golden ore,
WITHOUT LAW AND WITHOUT LIBERTY 469
but it was so mixed yvith quartz and slag as to seem rough and uncouth; he had flashes of insight, but his sky was generally cloudy and of uncertain promise. His poetry lacked in substance as well as in form. He had no hold upon the truth of things that enabled him to organize his material. Arbitrary in form as in substance, he apotheosized the body, and every impulse of the body was represented in the irregularity and lawlessness of his verse. '"'Whitman sought liberty without law; but, because he ignored Christ, he lost both law and liberty. *-His fundamental error was his choice of an impersonal and non-moral, in place of a personal and moral God. Self-willed and pleasureloving, he "refused to have God in his knowledge," and "God gave him up to a reprobate mind." He lost all sense of righteousness in God or man. The love which he celebrated was love without moral distinctions, love for what is, rather than for what ought to be, love for nastiness as well as for purity, for wickedness as well as for goodness, for the wrong as well as for the right. We search his work from end to end, but find no recognition of any Being who cares for the right or who will vindicate it. The universe has no heart that can feel, and no will that can control; all things are equally phases of its manifestation; there is no security for progress; the only power is man himself. Man is a creature of evil impulses as well as of good, and the evil are often supreme. But yielding to the evil is not sin, for the yielding is only a product of man's nature, and that nature is primarily physical, and so, destitute of conscience or will. Since there is no guilt, there can be no atonement and no
47° WITHOUT GOD AND WITHOUT HOPE
redemption. Christ is only one of many good examples of heroic suffering, and the poet can complacently put himself by Christ's side. What hope has he for the future? Only a vague instinct that yearns for another and a better life, side by side with a conscience that witnesses against him, and protests that all right to such a life has been forfeited by his sin. "Without God and without hope" is the verdict of reason. It is the natural and necessary outcome of a godless philosophy and a godless life, the demonstration of the moral depths to which poetry can descend when liberty is divorced from law.