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SPECIMEN DAYS AND COLLECT
Whitman's prose in the definitive edition makes a stout volume of more than five hundred closely printed pages. The title, Specimen Days and Collect, gives an imperfect hint of the contents. Here are extracts from journals kept through twenty years. Many bear a resemblance to Hugo's Choses Vues. Largely autobiographical and reminiscent, they are vivid, picturesque, and far better in their haphazard way than a good deal of formal
literature. Here are reprints of prefaces to the several editions of Leaves of Grass, together with papers on Burns, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, a lecture on Lincoln, a paper on American national literature, and yet more ' diary-notes' and 'splinters.' He who loves to browse in a book will find the volume of Whitman's prose made to his hand. The prose is of high importance to an understanding of what, oddly enough, his poetry imperfectly reveals — Whitman's character. To know the man as he really was we must read Specimen Days and Collect.
There is a certain uncanny quality in
in parts of Whitman's verse. The reiteration of particular phrases and words awakens an uncomfortable feeling, a suspicion of not-to-be-named queernesses, to use no plainer term. The constant translation of conceptions of ideal love into fleshly symbols moves the reader to irreverence if not to disgust. Whitman's favorite image of bearded comrades' who kiss when they meet, and who take long walks with their arms around each other's necks, may be ‘nonchalant' but it is not agreeable. Somehow it does not seem as if the doctrine of the brotherhood of man gained many supporters by so singular a method of propagandism.
When from time to time Whitman talked with Peter Doyle about his books, Doyle would say: "I don't know what you are trying to get at.' It is an ironical comment on the great preacher of the needs and virtues of the average man that his poetry should have been handed over to the keeping of those whose jaded taste makes them hanker after the bizarre, after anything that breeds discussion, anything demanding interpretation and defence.
1 Calamus, p. 27.
Yet no one doubts the sincerity of these faithful followers. Whitmanites really like Whitman albeit they protest too much. It is difficult to read him and not like him. Unfortunately the many find it impossible to read him. Whitman prepares his feast, throws open his doors, and bids all enter who will. A few come and by their shrill volubility make it seem as if the dining-room were crowded. The majority do not trouble to cross the threshold. They have heard that the host serves queer dishes; it has even been reported that he is a cannibal.
This, or something very like it, has been Whitman's fate. A taste for his work must be acquired. He is the idol of cliques and societies, and a meaningless name to the great people whom he loved, whose virtues he chanted with confident fervor, and in whom he trusted unreservedly.
Poetry so egoistic might be supposed to reveal the man. Strangely enough, Whitman's poetry, despite the heavy and continued accentuation of the personal note, gives but a partial, a quite imperfect view of the man himself. Whitman tells us so emphatically what he thinks that we are at a loss to know what he himself is. The great Shakespeare, according to popular opinion, is veiled from us through his extraordinary impersonality. Whitman accomplishes a not dissimilar end by diametrically opposite means; he hides himself by over obtrusion of the personal element. The case
is not so common as to be undeserving of study. As a method it has many drawbacks.
Whitman has suffered at his own hands. The egoistic manner, indispensable to his theory and not to be taken with literalness, is nevertheless a stumbling-block. Instruct themselves how they will that in saying 'I'the poet also means “You,' that whatever Walt Whitman claims for himself he also claims for every one else, readers somehow lose hold of the thought and are amazed and angered by the poet's monstrous vanity.
To this feeling the prose writings are an antidote. We learn in a few pages how simpleminded, patient, and lovable this man really was ; how reverent of genius, how free from envy, undisturbed by suffering, ill-repute, and delayed hopes. There was something at once pathetic and noble in his patience, in his magnificent repose and
, stability. The impersonal character of the tree and the rock, which he admired so much, became in a measure his. He bided his time. The success of other poets awakened no jealousy. He never called names, never picked flaws in the work of his brother bards. The better we know him the more dignified and lofty his figure becomes.