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Bardic Symbols

Howells, William Dean. "Bardic Symbols." Daily Ohio State Journal. 28 Mar. 1860: 2.
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review, literary criticism

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Walt Whitman has a poem of this title in the April Atlantic.

Swift denunciation comes always from either ignorance or prejudice, or passion--no less in literature than in any other living affair; and it carries no force with it except to the ignorant, the passionate, and the prejudiced.

It is a pity that criticism should ever forget this; but criticism does; and the newspaper critic particularly seems to think that so he makes a great wind in his angry scoop, he carries conviction with him, and strikes dead the poet whose heart he cannot understand, and cannot find.

Walt Whitman has higher claims upon our consideration than mere magazine contributorship. He is the author of a book of poetry called "Leaves of Grass," which, whatever else you may think, is wonderful. Ralph Waldo Emerson pronounced it the representative book of the poetry of our age. It drew the attention of critics, but found no favor with the public, for the people suspect and dislike those who nullify venerable laws, and trample upon old forms and usages. Since the publication of his book, Walt Whitman has driven hack in New York, and employed the hours of his literary retiracy in hard work. Some months ago he suddenly flashed upon us in the New York Saturday Press, and created eager dissension among the "crickets." Now he is in the Atlantic, with a poem more lawless, measureless, rhymeless and inscrutable than ever.

No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the "Bardic Symbols" symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet's full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

"O baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands
untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand."

If indeed, we were compelled to guess the meaning of the poem, we should say it all lay in the compass of these lines of Tennyson--the saddest and profoundest that ever were written:

"Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!"

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of "divine despair."

We think it has been an error in Whitman to discard forms and laws, for without them the poet diffuses. He may hurry forward with impulses, but he is spent before he reaches the reader's heart through his bewildered understanding. Steam subject, is a mighty force; steam free, is an impalpable vapor, only capable of delicate hues and beauty with the sun upon it.

But O, poet! there is not a sun in every sky.

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Whitman, Walt

This April 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly features Whitman's "Bardic Symbols," which Howells reviews.