Whoever has felt in the past that the originality of American Genius among her poets had never been fully justified, no longer has occasion to think or feel so.
The hitherto unawakened native song has at last burst forth from a large American soul, in just such words as one of her true poets should speak.
All hail then to Walt Whitman, and to this grand result of creative genius, 'Leaves of Grass!’
Nearly two years ago there appeared in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly an article on the 'New World and the New Man.’ In it we are told that History fully warrants the expectation of a new form of man for this new continent, that 'a rich life, sure in due time of its rich expression, is forming here.’ We have a right to say now that this National Genius, with a purely original body and soul, exists for us in this Poet, Walt Whitman. There is vigor, grandeur, and spiritual beauty in this book. There is life in it, true, noble life. No morbid sentiment, but in every line a pulse throbs to which your own heart responds.
Walt ennobles everything he writes about. He makes all created things connecting links in humanity’s chain, and draws us with it to the feet of God. To him there is nothing gross, nothing sensual. He feels that the body and soul are both divine; for the same hand that fashioned them together, never intended one to debase the other.
There are very, very few human beings who can truly comprehend the spirit of these Poems. Most people will read some of the words and toss the book from them with scorn and unjust indignation. They cannot fathom to the deep spiritual significance. They see literally only, and blindly, and therefore condemn the whole, never dreaming of the glorious beauty and purity of the spirit which the words cover. Walt scorns the mock delicacy of men and women, and sets at defiance the usual picked words with which most authors clothe truths which might be offensive to their readers. Truth alone, in her own natural dress, whether speaking of body or soul, does he give you. It need not startle or disgust if you do not pervert it. If our sons and daughters were educated so that they could appreciate this book, we should in the next generation have men and women worthy a broad, free country; we should have true, just men to make our laws and teach us how to keep them.
The law of sympathy, which Leaves of Grass so magnificently describes, allows no paltry or base object in the world. It gives us a new coloring to every earthly scene, and the light of God’s love illumines everything that He had ennobled by creation.
O! this book is a well-spring of delight. Walt Whitman does not attempt to explain the great mystery of life, but he makes that mystery so beautiful with universal sympathy and love, that you are satisfied not to penetrate to it. He is happy in himself, satisfied with himself, and so goes on through the world trying to keep alive this harmony with God, through sympathy and love to man. He teaches us to accept life philosophically, and to feel that if we make the best use of mortality, we are then sure of happy immortality, and if the body, and soul with the body, are not abused, we may be at rest about the future.
There is no hypocrisy here, no accepted dogma or doctrine, but faith in the here of God, as well as the hereafter. You feel in these pages that you grasp hold of a deeply religious nature. He says:
“And I call to mankind, be not curious about God;
For I who am curious about each, am not curious about God,
No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God, and about death.”
“I find letters from God dropped in the street,
And every one is signed by God’s name;
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.”
What can be more beautiful than this?
If all others could find letters from God in the street, those who now see in Walt Whitman nothing but beastliness, would be glad to take him by the hand and pray to be forgiven. Nay, more, they would ask to sit at his feet that they might the better learn to read these heaven-dropped messages.
These bold and truthful pages will inevitably form the standard books of poems in the future of America. They will elevate the flesh and the appetite to their rightful position. We shall understand the use of developing our children. There is at times a grandeur wholly unsurpassed in some of the descriptive portions of the book. The language of [passion?], the full expression, the simplicity, the earnest soul, so big and real, will thrill and please you. Some of it may surprise, but if you have a whole, sweet nature, none of it can offend you. How he says things is forgotten in what he says. The spirit of everything that America, if not the whole world, holds, dances and leaps before you in rapid succession, and if it is the spirit of poetry you seek, more than the material, here you are fully satisfied. Of course there will be an outcry among the critics; the principle and beauty of this book will be fathomless to them. Many wil throw balls of fire at the author, but happily for himself and friends, he is not formed of combustible 'stuff,’ and will neither ignite nor get scorched. Let me again repeat to him [Wasson’s?] words. He is worthy then, for he is indeed the new poet, if not the 'new man of the new world.’ Welcome to great tasks, to great tolls, to mighty discipline, to victories that shall not be too cheaply purchased. To defeats that shall be better than victories, we give the joy of new powers, new work, unprecendented futures.
Rest assured, Leaves of Grass will have many lovers. This new, wild strain, grand and lofty, sweet and harmonious, then again rash and tumultuous at times, leaves you in doubt whether you are reading prose or verse. It is all good, the sudden transition, the obscure connection, the grand sublimity and boldness, but better far the spirit of the writer, so raised beyond everything else, sometimes even beyond himself, grasping at ideas too great for words. God bless him. I know that through 'Leaves of Grass,’ Walt Whitman on earth is immortal as well as beyond it.