Изображения страниц

poetry of apt pupils, with an exuberance of gorgeous blossom, but no principle of reproduction. The poems of Bryant and Longfellow might have been written as easily on the banks of the Thames as on the banks of the Hudson. There is little in them that is distinctively American. Whitman's poems, on the other hand, are saturated through and through with the spirit of the New World. Starting from Paumanock,' 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,' 'A Song of Joys,' 'Song of the Broad Axe,' A Song for Occupations,' 'Pioneers! O Pioneers!' By Blue Ontario's Shore,' 'Drum-Taps' and 'Sea Drift,' it may safely be said, could not have been written elsewhere than on the American Continent, or by one whose spiritual life had not been reared among its people, and nourished by a life-long communion with its magnificent natural phenomena. Whitman is American also in another sense. He is thoroughly democratic. The President is no more to him than a mason, or woodman, or western farmer. Any breath of a political aristocracy, of feudalism, or of caste, is not allowed to taint his pages. Their ideas and institutions are entirely alien to his spirit. He could no more have written the Idylls of the King, or a play of Shakespeare than he could have written the Illiad. The doctrine which he preaches on every page is the greatness of the individual soul. While Spenser writes to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline,' Whitman writes to build up a new and splendid race of average men. As a poet of Democracy, as Democracy exists in the New World, he stands alone.

The messages of great poets to each man and woman,' he has remarked,are, Come to us on equal terms, only then can you understand us. We are no better than you. What we inclose you inclose, what we enjoy you may enjoy. Of his own poems this is a marked feature. Their directness is unquestionable. They place the reader on a level with themselves, and make him feel that he is being addressed by one who is of the same flesh and blood as himself, by one whose thoughts and feelings are, or may be his own. And the reason is that, subjective as Whitman's poems are, and distinctively as they teach the doctrine of individualism, they always rest on that

which is universally human. Perhaps no other poet of the present has a larger vision of that great human heart by which we live,' or more persistently announces it. The 'self' of which he sings is not always his own individual self; as frequently, if not more so, it is the universal self, that universal being of which each individual is but a conscious manifestation. Of this any one can convince himself by a careful reading of the 'Song of Myself.' Take, for instance, the following lines:'I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end.

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now ;'

or take the lines with which the song opens :

'I celebrate myself, and sing of myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belongs to me as good as belongs to you;' or these :

'The city sleeps and the country sleeps,

The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,

The old husband sleeps by his wife, and the young husband sleeps

by his wife;

And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,

And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.'

This mysticism, indeed, forms the background of all Whitman's more important pieces, and is the key to their meaning. Without a clear apprehension of it it is impossible to understand the paradoxes in which his pages abound, or to reconcile his apparent contradictions. Were it not that we have Mr. Burroughs' assertion to the contrary, we should have attributed Whitman's mysticisms to a close study of Emerson. It seems, however, that before he published the first edition of the Leaves of Grass, Whitman had never read Emerson at all, and that he did not become acquainted with the Essay until the following summer. The similarity of their ideas is remarkable, and may

probably be taken as significant of the tendency of American thought.

Whitman is pre-eminently a poet of the modern world. No other has more thoroughly adopted the conclusions of science, or made a more splendid and impressive use of them in his writings. Not unseldom they give a vastness and grandeur to his thought, which is well-nigh overwhelming. At the same time he is very far from being in any sense or degree a materialist. The supremacy of the spiritual he always loyally, and sometimes ostentatiously, recognises. Though almost Greek in his sympathy with nature, and notwithstanding the manner in which he has sung of man's physical constitution, the position which he assigns to the soul is always incomparably higher, as the following from his Preface of 1876 clearly shows:

'Only (for me, at anyrate, in all my prose and poetry), joyfully accepting modern science, and loyally following it without the slightest hesitation, there remains ever recognized still a higher flight, a higher fact, the eternal soul of man, (of all else too) the spiritual the religious-which it is to be the greatest office of scientism, in my opinion, and of future poetry also, to free from fables, crudities, and superstitions, and launch forth in renewed faith and scope a hundred-fold. To me, the worlds of religiousness, of the conception of the divine, and of the ideal, though mainly latent, are just as absolute in humanity and the universe as the world of chemistry, or anything in the objective worlds. . . . To me the crown of savantism is to be, that it surely opens the way for a more splendid theology, and for ampler and diviner songs.'


Still, notwithstanding his modern tone of thought, and the democratic spirit which pervades his writings, the past is by no means disdained by Whitman. Past, present, and future, he holds, are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been. present, he affirms, is but a stage in the eternal process of creative thought, and is what it is through the past. At the same time, however, while admitting his indebtedness to the past, and claiming kinship with it, he asserts also his independence, and claims to stand in his own place with his own day about him :

'I conn'd old times,

I sat studying at the feet of the great masters :

Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.
In the name of These States shall I scorn the antique?

Why These are the children of the antique to justify it.

Dead poets, philosophs, priests,

Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since

Language-shapers on other shores,

Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,

I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted


I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it) Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more

than it deserves,

Regarding it all intensely a long while, then dismissing it,

I stand in my place with my own day here.'

We are warned, however, that our space is already exhausted, and can refer to but one other of the many remaining features of Whitman's poetry. After pointing out that formerly he was considered the best poet who composed the most perfect work, or the one which was most complete in every respect, Sainte-Beuve has remarked that for us in the present the greatest poet is he who in his works most stimulates the reader's imagination and reflection; not he who has done the best, but he who suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your turn.' Judged by this standard Whitman deserves to take a place among the foremost. His works are preeminently suggestive. Any finished picture he seldom presents. His poems are rather suggestions, arousing the reader, and leading him on and on, till he feels the fresher air of a freer thought breathing around him, and sees spreading out before him the limitless and unknown.

'I but write one or two indicative words for the future,

I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness. I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,

Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.'

To the religious spirit which breathes through Whitman's

writings we have already referred; and our assertions on this point have been borne out by several of the passages we have cited for other purposes. Did our space permit, numerous other passages might be cited as bearing directly upon it. But as a last word, and as indicating with considerable fulness the scope and spirit of all that he has written, we transcribe the following:

'And thou America,

For the scheme's culmination, its thought and its reality

For these (not for thyself) thou hast arrived.

'Thou, too, surroundest all,

Embracing, carrying, welcoming all, thou, too, by pathways broad and


To the ideal tendest.

'The measur'd faiths of other lands, the grandeurs of the past,

Are not for thee, but grandeurs of thine own,

Deific faiths and amplitudes, absorbing, comprehending all,

All eligible to all.

All for immortality,

Love like the light silently wrapping all,

Nature's amelioration blessing all,

The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain,
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.

'Give me, O God, to sing that thought,

Give me, give him or her I love this 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 life's lore and wealth a dream,

And all the world a dream. '

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »