What is the reason-why of Walt Whitman's lyric utterances, as soon as any of them is heard, rousing up such vehement intellectual censures and contumely from some persons, and their equally determined bravos from other persons?
Passing by certain of the latter, the complimentary sort, with which the journals, welcoming Walt's reappearance and recovery of his singing-voice after an obstinate three years' dumbness, have accepted that Mocking-Bird Chant printed by us in the Saturday Press, of Dec. 24, preceding, we seize upon and give to our readers, in another part of the paper, a specimen of the sort of censure alluded to - a tip-top cutting-and-slashing criticism from the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, which we have conned with unfeigned pleasure. All of which is respectfully submitted as outset for something else made way to be said, namely:
We feel authorized to announce, for certain, that the Mocking-Bird, having come to his throat again, his cantabile, is not going to give cause to his admirers for complaining that he idles, mute, any more, up and down the world. His songs, in one and another direction, will, he promises us, after this date, profusely appear.
We are able to declare that there will also soon crop out the true Leaves of Grass, the fuller- grown work of which the former two issues were the inchoates - this forthcoming one, far, very far ahead of them in quality, quantity, and in supple lyric exuberance.
Those former issues, published by the author himself in little pittance-editions, on trial, have just dropped the book enough to ripple the inner first-circles of literary agitation, in immediate contact with it. The outer, vast, extending, and ever-wider-extending circles, of the general supply, perusal, and discussion of such a work, have still to come. The market needs to-day to be supplied - the great West especially - with copious thousands of copies.
Indeed, Leaves of Grass has not yet been really published at all. Walt Whitman, for his own purposes, slowly trying his hand at the edifice, the structure he has undertaken, has lazily loafed on, letting each part have time to set -evidently building not so much with reference to any part itself, considered alone, but more with reference to the ensemble - always bearing in mind the combination of the whole, to fully justify the parts when finished.
Of course the ordinary critic, even of good eye, high intellectual calibre, and well accomplished, grasps not, sees not, any such ideal ensemble - likely sees not the only valuable part of these mystic leaves, namely, not what they state, but what they infer - scornfully wants to know what the Mocking-Bird means, who can tell? - gives credit only for what is proved to the surface-ear - and makes up a very fine criticism, not out of the soul, to which these poems alto-gether appeal, and by which only they can be interpreted, but out of the intellect, to which Walt Whitman has not, as far as we remember, addressed one single word in the whole course of his writings.
Then the workmanship, the art-statement and argument of the question. Is this man really any artist at all? Or not plainly a sort of naked and hairy savage, come among us, with yelps and howls, disregarding all our lovely metrical laws? How can it be that he offends so many and so much?
Quite after the same token as the Italian Opera, to most bold Americans, and all new persons, even of latent proclivities that very way, only accustomed to tunes, piano-noises and the performances of the negro bands - satisfied, (or rather fancying they are satisfied), with each and several thereof, from association and habit, until they pass utterly beyond them - which comes in good time, and cannot be deferred much longer, either, in such a race as yours, O bold American of the West!
Walt Whitman's method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of the Italian Opera, which, when heard, confounds the new person aforesaid, and, as far as he can then see, showing no purport for him, nor on the surface, nor any analogy to his previous-accustomed tunes, impresses him as if all the sounds of earth and hell were tumbled promiscuously together. Whereupon he says what he candidly thinks (or supposes he thinks), and is very likely a first-rate fellow - with room to grow, in certain directions.
Then, in view of the latter words, bold American! in the ardor of youth, commit not yourself, too irretrievably, that there is nothing in the Italian composers, and nothing in the Mocking-Bird's chants. But pursue them awhile - listen - yield yourself - persevere. Strange as the shape of the suggestion may be, perhaps such free strains are to give to these United States, or commence giving them, the especial nourishments which, though all solid and mental and moral things are in boundless profusion provided, have hardly yet begun to be provided for them -hardly yet the idea of that kind of nourishment thought of, or the need of it suspected. Though it is the sweetest, strongest meat - pabulum of a race of giants - true pabulum of the children of the prairies.
You, bold American! and ye future two hundred millions of bold Americans, can surely never live, for instance, entirely satisfied and grow to your full stature, on what the importations hither of foreign bards, dead or alive, provide - nor on what is echoing here the letter and the spirit of the foreign bards. No, bold American! not even on what is provided, printed from Shakespeare or Milton - not even of the Hebrew canticles - certainly not of Pope, Byron, or Wordsworth - nor of any German or French singer, nor any foreigner at all.
We are to accept those and every other literary and poetic thing from beyond the seas, thankfully, as studies, exercises. We go back - we pause long with the old, ever-modern one, the Homer, the only chanting mouth that approaches our case near enough to raise a vibration, an echo. We then listen with accumulated eagerness for those mouths that can make the vaults of America ring here to-day - those who will not only touch our case, but embody it and all that belongs to it - sing it with varied and powerful idioms, and in the modern spirit, at least as capable, as loud and proud as the best spirit that has ever preceded us.
Our own song, free, joyous, and masterful. Our own music, raised on the soil, carrying with it all the subtle analogies of our own associations - broad with the broad continental scale of the New World and full of the varied products of its varied soils - composite - comprehensively Religious - Democratic - the red life-blood of Love, warming, running through every line, every word. Ah, if this Walt Whitman, as he keeps on, should ever succeed in presenting such music, such a poem, an identity, emblematic, in the regions of creative art, of the wondrous all-America, material and moral, he would indeed do something.
And if he don't, the Mocking-Bird may at least have the satisfaction of dying in a good cause. But then again he looks so little like dying, anyhow.