15 December, 2005Issue 5.1LiteratureNorth AmericaPoetry

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The Most American of Poets

James Womack

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass
150th Anniversary Edition

The first version of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s insatiable poetic project, is one hundred and fifty years old this year. Consider—it is instructive—that in England at about the same time, Tennyson was composing ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ It is with Whitman that one sees the emergence of a distinctively American poetry, an imaginative response to the new continent rather than an attempt to describe North American life using imported European forms. Such a definitive break with Europe made the way clear for the rapid and invigorating poetic evolution of America in the twentieth century.

Think of a world in which Whitman had not existed; a world where, for example, the mellifluous verses of Longfellow were the only model American poets had to follow. Longfellow’s ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ is a poem which remains entirely European, both in its tone and in its form. It is a late offshoot of European Romanticism which applies a European viewpoint to the new material of America. It is not in itself distinctively ‘American.’ On the other hand, Whitman remains the most American of poets. His importance is not simply as a poet: in many ways he is an exemplary figure in American political and social life. However, the best way to enter a consideration of his various importances is to look at his poetry, and Leaves of Grass in particular.

Leaves of Grass is a cushion-cover, which Whitman stuffed with material over thirty-six years, from the 1855 first edition to the death-bed edition of late 1891. Whitman’s work was always controversial: Emily Dickinson considered him ‘improper.’ In England, Gerard Manley Hopkins was both attracted and repelled: ‘But first I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.’ (Letter to Robert Bridges, 18 October 1882).

To explain Hopkins’s attitude is to go part of the way towards explaining Whitman’s significance. The reason Hopkins thought that Whitman’s mind was like his own was because they both had intense gifts of sympathy with the world that surrounded them. Consider the way in which Hopkins inhabits the physical life of the falcon in ‘The Windhover’—the ‘dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air.’ This is a chain of sensations which is intensely mimetic of what it must be like to fly, to feel the air underneath you, steady and supporting but constantly in motion. Compare this with Whitman’s description of the sea, in which, as with Hopkins, the choice of adjectives provokes a strong sense of recognition—this is what the sea is like, what the sea must be like: ‘Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths! / […] Sea of unshovelled and always-ready graves! / Howler and scooper of storms! Capricious and dainty sea!.’ Of course the sea is convulsive, the sea is dainty: we just needed Whitman to point it out to us. Both Whitman and Hopkins have the ability to describe the natural world with intense visuality, to see things better than normal people see them.

But it is also clear why Hopkins expresses reservations. ‘The Windhover’ carries the dedication, ‘to Christ our Lord.’ The idea of Whitman acknowledging any Lord is difficult to entertain. Here are the last three lines from the uncollected poem ‘Two Antique Records’, first published in 1921: ‘But now a third religion I give… I include the antique two… I include the divine Jew, and the Greek sage— / More still—that which is not conscience, but against it—that which is not the Soul I include / These and whatever exists I include—I surround all, and dare not exclude one.’ In other words, where Hopkins sees the world as ‘charged with the grandeur of God’—a place where all natural phenomena carry out a primary duty of praise—Whitman’s philosophy does not allow the poet to abase himself in such a way. For Whitman, everything is interconnected: it is the duty of the poet to feel himself at one with all other things, all other people, all other natural phenomena. It becomes necessary to praise oneself because one’s self contains everything else: ‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I shall assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.’

The intense physical identification with the entire surrounding world leads to moments of high ridiculousness. The admirable democratic impulse behind the following passage, the desire to be at one with the world, is overshadowed by the extent to which it sounds icky:

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!

Far-swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!

Prodigal! you have given me love!
therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love!
Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!

We hurt each other
as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.

Does that mean what I think it means? Am I wrong to have a sudden disturbing mental image of the wild-bearded Whitman, trousers round his ankles, applying himself to a hole in the ground?

More often than not, however, this freedom to feel a part of everything that happens pays great dividends. Whitman’s poetry is one of celebration, of letting it all hang out—as Oscar Wilde called it, ‘the lofty spirit of a grand and free acceptance of all things that are worthy of existence.’ Because the whole world is a part of him, Whitman has to accept anything that occurs. This is not detached observance, but a vast sympathy which makes him wretched among the wretched, sick among the sick:

You felons on trial in courts,
You convicts in prison-cells, you sentenced assassins chain’d and
handcuff’d with

Who am I too that I am not on trial or in prison?
Me ruthless and devilish as any, that my wrists are not chain’d with
iron, or my
ankles with iron?

Or another example:

The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;

The quadroon girl is sold at the stand … the drunkard nods by the

In this last example, the adverb ‘horribly’ is deployed unshowily, perfectly.

In his tolerance, one sees the way in which Whitman manages to give literary expression to distinctive American ideas of freedom. The clear-sighted acceptance of everything which presents itself to his senses distinguishes him from his fellow poets in England. For an English poet of the mid-nineteenth century, one imagines that the anatomist’s table might be a cause for uncomfortable laughter, or for cruel laughter, or for overt pity. The poetical response would be mediated in some way by what was expected of the poet.

Whitman does not have to conform to pre-determined expectations. His leveling, his lack of prejudice—these allow Whitman to speak openly about topics which others might be unhappy about addressing: ‘I hear the trained soprano … she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip.’ Whitman rebuked William Rossetti, who had published an expurgated edition of some of Whitman’s poems: ‘From another point of view Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex, and Amativeness, and even Animality […] I hereby prohibit, as far as mine can do so, any elision of [my lines].’ To be free to talk about any topic, no matter how seemingly ‘improper,’ is an achievement which cannot be over-esteemed: ‘Through me forbidden voices, / Voices of sexes and lusts …. voices veiled, and I remove the veil, / Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.’ Such welcoming openness to all experience is an American trait which needs to be emphasised.

Whitman embodies the freedom to be ridiculous, to be contradictory, to refuse to be judged because one refuses to judge. He pretends to be supremely unconcerned with the actual appearance of his work: what is more significant is the thought behind it, which can be grasped even if the words themselves are not Whitman’s own. A letter to James Russell Lowell from October 1861 allows him ‘liberty to make any verbal alterations’ in the poems he publishes in The Atlantic Magazine. At first, Whitman’s carelessness about the actual language in which his poems are written seems irresponsible. Any verbal alterations? For ‘good’, read ‘bad’? This also seems to contradict Whitman’s earlier letter to William Rossetti. But it is clear that Whitman is distinguishing between two things, and in both of them he is justified. It is important that Whitman’s argument is not diminished by removing the more direct descriptions from his poems: Rossetti’s attempts to bowdlerise them distort much of their meaning. However, in the hands of a sensitive editor, someone whom Whitman trusted as much as Lowell, it is possible to imagine Whitman’s poems retaining their onrushing force even in the face of much rephrasing and reorganisation. It is this force which has been picked up on by later poets, who had to acknowledge it even if they did not approve.

In the twentieth century, Ezra Pound, who placed so much emphasis on the careful editing and structuring of his poems, even when they appear formless, eventually made a grudging poetic peace with Whitman: ‘I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman.’ It is perfectly fitting that the dead Beat poet Allen Ginsberg should start a typically rambling poem about cruising for boys in a late-night supermarket with a half-serious invocation of his predecessor: ‘What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.’ It is Whitman’s example which marks a decisive formal break between American and English poetry, and maybe also the point at which American poetic influence could start to filter back across the Atlantic.

James Womack is a DPhil student in English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford. His thesis deals with W.H. Auden and translation.