The staple of all our Art--poetry, picture, sculpture--is effect, ornament, and sentiment. On this solid material continent, we are dying for lack of bread and water of thought. Our literature is whipped-cream. The thing before him, whether it be a horseblock or a revolution, is not fine enough to occupy the writer; he must tag it to something other than itself. Poetry becomes a ruffled-shirt on a bean-pole.
The least suggestion of Nature unadorned is felt with instant delight, and greeted with general enthusiasm. Merle’s “Good Sister,” the children of Frère, the horses of Rosa Bonheur, the negro-life of Johnson, the “Margaret” of Darley, make a genuine impression. We do not stand doubting before these works, as before the “Venus” of Page, or the Scriptural or historical compositions.
A common instinct assures us that this is the true ideality which heartily enjoys the broad average vital quality of men and things as we meet them in the world.
Into the company of poetasters, with their “questionable, infirm paste-pots,” paint-pots, varnish-pots, their putty, plaster, rouge, buckram--a miscellaneous theatrical property--walks, naked and stalwart, Walt Whitman, and all this trumpery seems to shrivel and melt away before his eyes.
He opens the door and lets in broad daylight on the tawdry finery. He leaves his very coat and breeches behind, in devotion to indecorous but undeniable truth. So, he says, life is tasted, so it must be shown.
Literature becomes our synonym for sophistication; therefore a thinker who is not literary, works revolution.
A man who need neither go into the church, the library, or the clouds,--to Spain, to Arcadia, to Fairy-Land,--but find the passing hour in his [?] as good as any other segment of Eternity, will be studious to render impressions exactly as he receives them; will be a man of veracity, careful only to reveal the presence which presses, to render the quality of the universe as he tastes it, in every moment and every place.
Sermons and poems are mostly trash, and go into the dusthole to-morrow, because they are busy about what shall be or should be, and careless of what already divinely is. They put man’s fancies in place of God’s fact, and are so essentially impious.
Whitman is great, because for him an old shoe, since it actually exists and has come forward out of chaos under creative, inevitable laws, has more interest and is more venerable than any figment or fiction; because this world as it runs and rolls is the breath of His nostrils who alone lives and invites every creature to share His life.
It is a great refreshment in outdoor America to read poems written out-of-doors, by on who has been in the open air. A student who comes from the library to the field, is as little at home there as a sailor on horseback. Every word is either a repetition or a mistake. He omits always the great and permanent features of the scene; he picks cloverheads and pebbles; he misses the green and blue. He renders only exceptions, and overlooks the broad, homely impression which remains with us day after day and year after year, till it becomes the total experience of life.
Whitman is master of his facts. Rendering the world as he has entertained it,—gravel and cartwheel, storm and shine, work and play, horse and man,—he is altogether direct and faithful. Therefore he is a giant among pigmies, and will ask no leave from critics or coteries, but take at once high rank among those who have power to see and to say.
In determination to keep his personality against pretension and exclusiveness of the literary and conventional classes, he has perhaps fallen a pretension of his own. The reaction appears to the best readers a little exaggerated. Whitman is no such braggadocio, no such "rough." He comes on the stage in his red-flannel shirt, to protest against the effeminacy of fashion. It was quite unnecessary. Broadcloth would hardly accommodate his motions; but even in a claw-hammer jacket such muscle, proportion, and native vigor of action, would plainly appear. We allow for a little extravagant self-assertion in a man who goes for the first time among authors and the “cultivated,” and is jealous lest he should discredit his class by stooping and compliance. Making this allowance, we greatly like the central figure in this immense moving panorama. When he forgets his company and the doubt about his fair reception, he is frank, generous, tender, reverent, nonchalant. Under his little affectation there appears to us an immense sincerity.
“It may be,” nay, it is quite certain, “if I had known him I should have loved him.”
Into whatever vagaries he may have been led by the singularity of his position, which may excuse a momentary dizziness, a passing “tète exaltÃ©,” we are convinced that Whitman is at bottom no such egotist. On the contrary, we think him too sensitive to public opinion. If he were more arrogant, more deeply careless of his reception, he would spare us the red-flannel, and make his bow like a gentleman, without this dread of compromising his personal dignity.
With his feet on solid ground of the actual, Whitman is very great. This sense of unfathomable mystery leads him sometimes beyond this footing, beyond even poetic paradox and suggestion, into chaos, in which he loses his follower, and goes on talking nonsense to himself alone. His readers drop away from him in these flights, some at an earlier, some at a later point; but there can be scarce a doubt that he sometimes loses them all. He is conscious of this tendency to vagueness, and more than once offers something like an apology:
O God, my fit is mastering me!
O what is my destination!
O I fear it is henceforth chaos!
Some suggestion of a vastness beyond logic and beyond thought, may just now be demanded as protest against the popular dogmatism, with its monstrous pretension, which bags, explains, defines, and accounts for everything, is as well acquainted with the divine “plan” as with its own phylacteries, and suspects nothing in heaven or earth beyond the measure of its twopenny philosophy. We know how to value the largeness beyond form of Milton, of the Hebrews, of Swedenborg; yet the law remains that common-sense and established order are body and form for all our truth; that by exaggeration, that by breaking up the old heaven in our reaches, we miss the way of power. Our supernatural is always infranatural, and the widest suggestion is after all conveyed not in chaotic, but organic images, in pictures which show what must be involved and preparing in the actual, not threatening dissolution of the frame of things.
Whitman is strongest not when he is vague, but when he fastens and defines. He has always expansion enough. His random method—his panoramic treatment of objects, in which classes, states, worlds, events, are rolled before the mind—is abundant freedom. Let him shift the scene as he pleases, with much or little outward connection, we understand his rapid transition; the logic of his abrupt contrasts is perfect for us; but let him keep always firm hold of the matter in hand, let him not fall through one of his own chasms. Cosmos is one thing, chaos another. The poet shall not, after all, loose the knot of existence, and suffer his thought, Brahminical, to resolve itself back into nebulous, elementary mist.
The reaction against dogma and materialism runs already into rhapsody and mere ejaculation, as in the rigmarole of trance-speaking mediums, and we are threatened on every hand with a period of mere suggestion in poetry, mere protest against order, and kicking at the old limits, time, space, the horizon, and the sky. Nothing can be more tedious than too much of this explosion. At one time men ran from representation into ornament, at another into reflection, and now again we may lose sight of sea and land in the transcendental balloon.
But Nature has spaces larger than any that open in our fancy. Freedom is at last in following, not overleaping her paths. All enduring power is delight in life as we find it or make it. Nothing else can permanently encourage and fortify. The true and healthy suggestion lies in a possible, an actual history. The helpful thought is no trance of faculty and individuality, but open eyed and firm-footed enjoyment of the undeniable quality and tendency of things.
We have indicated what is for us the single fault of Whitman worthy to be named. His span is immense. He is, as he tells us, gross at once and mystical. He is never prosaic, for one who has breadth through all his catalogue of particulars to keep the thread of his thought. He never preaches. He never ornaments. He has made the first extended picture of our life as we live it in America, where thought is not scholastic, where the influence of books is very little, of Nature very great.
The habit of Whitman is directly and sternly opposed to that of our poetic and plastic art. We must take another opportunity to point the contrast, and render, as any man who looks about him may easily do, the verdict of the American people in judgment between an ideal, which is sublimated Fancy, and one which is substantial Fact.