In the 26th of March, 1892, in the City of Camden, New Jersey, there passed from this earthly condition one whose peculiar personality and unique literary work are, in many respects, among the most remarkable that our time or any time has produced. A man of lofty ideals, himself little understood by the vast majority of his countrymen, Whitman, without a feeling of condescension, mingled on terms of perfect equality with the unlettered masses. A man self-centered, he felt that he had a mission to his time and especially to the common folk, whom he loved and whose joys and sorrows he made his own. A man whose splendid optimism rendered him impregnable to every assault of adversity, he calmly and serenely fixed his mind on the Eternal Verities and strove to impart to a materialistic age some measure of his own unbounded faith.
While the name of Whitman, among his admirers, is a word to conjure with, his "Leaves of Grass" has been from the first a stumbling block to many a critic, to say nothing of the general reader. In fact, it is still a moot question in many circles whether he has written, or was really capable of producing, true poetry. Notwithstanding all diversities of opinion, it is undeniable that his following has increased rapidly during the last decade, and it numbered from the first no less a keen-minded critic than John Borroughs. John Addington Symonds and some others have more recently written eloquently in his praise.
For reasons easily apparent, Whitman's great literary contemporaries soon found their proper places in the world's esteem. For example, Hawthorne, gifted with imagination, delicate and subtle fancy and refined humor, is always master of a poetical and highly finished yet limpid style. These various excellencies won for him the admiration of the educated reader, while his skill as a diagnoser of the many conditions of that wonderful organ, the human heart, has placed him securely in the front rank of our modern psychological novelists. Whitman, with very great powers of introspection, and with a weighty and comprehensive message, often utterly disregards style, that, to many a writer, most necessary adjunct to his work; hence he offends the artistic ear, notably so in the case of Mr. Swinburne, that virtuoso in the art of elaboration and ornamentation.
Whitman, beginning his career as bard and teacher at the age of thirty-seven, devoted his days chiefly to the not large volume, "Leaves of Grass," which grew, during its several publications, from the thin and scarce book of the 1855 edition to its present proportions. Although by no means a voluminous writer — his thirty-six years as poet taken into account — he nevertheless has used an immense amount of material. For instance, in the "Song of Myself" he ranges with startling and unprecedented discursiveness over the entire earth; his eye darting from point to point, seizes the central idea and in a few concise words we have a pen picture, a marvel of brevity and comprehensiveness. On the other hand, it cannot be denied by his warmest admirers that he is sometimes turgid and prolix, and like the great philosophical poet, Wordsworth, generally deficient in the quality of humor.
At his first perusal of these poems the reader is often repelled by their apparent total lack of form and artistic finish, but let him persevere, keeping his mind in a condition of receptivity, let him strive for the author's point of view, and gradually he discerns a method in all this madness, this elemental and chaotic strife of words. From the right elevation the globe-encircling oceans could be seen traversed by a vast system of currents, great tidal waves move across the deeps, they dash against the headlands and promontories, they fill the bays and inlets; the victorious waters push far inland the flow of the great estuaries, and the stately ships of the maritime cities are tossed on the swelling flood.
It is not my purpose to enter into an extended dissertation on the literary merits or demerits of Walt Whitman, neither could I hope to add any word of real value to what has been written from that standpoint, so, with the foregoing as preliminary, I will now proceed to the real purpose of this article, to wit, an inquiry into the nature of the Whitmanic message, and its adaptation to the present needs of our race.
Pope said that he lisped in numbers for the numbers came. Chatterton, a mere boy of eighteen, was at the time of his tragic death already prepared for a period of virile productiveness. Keats, in his early twenties, vainly longed for ten years in which to complete some extended masterpiece. Shelley, unequaled in his special though somewhat narrow field, was a mature artist at thirty. Byron, departing in early middle life, left behind a body of work perhaps unsurpassed in quality and bulk by any man at thirty-six. At an age when Burns had succumbed to the cumulative results of an irregular life, Whitman serenely chanted: "I, now thirty-seven years old, in perfect health, begin, hoping to cease not till death."
It is evident that the philosophy which underlies and permeates "Leaves of Grass" underwent a long period of gestation. Before putting pen to paper Whitman had broadened his conception of Eternal Truth, not in the seclusion of the scholar nor in the cave of the anchorite, but by direct personal contact with every form of life, both in nature's solitudes and in the busy haunts of men. Ever the sympathetic friend of the downtrodden, ever the unselfish lover of his kind, he grew from the centre outward, he unfolded in accord with the divine plan. Recognizing all nations and tribes of men to be his brothers, he at the same time was filled with the purest spirit of American patriotism. He fully believed in a great future for our land, as the home of the new race now being amalgamated here.
He would know that land for himself from the Atlantic's bold, indented coast of wave-worn rock to where the far western shore slopes to the unruffled sea, to where the tangled tropic woods are shadowed in the genial waters of the Gulf. He would stand on the summits of lofty peaks and tread the dark and tortuous ravines, would leap the noisy mountain stream and watch the falling cataract while seated 'neath the overhanging cliff; look with his own eyes upon the great chain of lakes, and linger long "by blue Ontario's shore." Steer his flat boat with the current of the winding Mississippi and seek the sources of its tributary rivers; he would tread the streets of our populous cities, would gaze on miles of crowing crops, the broad and unobstructed green of fertile farms; with reverent mien would meditate beneath the silent stars when the lone prairie sleeps in soft and tranquil night; surrounded by the native voices of the trackless wilds, find mid the primal forests' growth a temporary home. In all his wanderings Whitman kept his heart in rapport with nature, and she, the enigmatic and uncommunicative, whispered to him, her trusty friend and lover, the deep secrets of being.
That is a shallow criticism which would denounce Whitman as an egotist. He clearly perceived the identity of all souls with the great Oversoul; therefore the boundless possibilities striving for expression within him he held to be the common heritage of all. Endeavoring by every means to arouse men to a realization of their birthright, he showed them the terraqueous globe and all that it contained. Knowing man to be the microcosm of the macrocosm, he identified himself with every part thereof, the good and the bad alike, nor was his equanimity ever disturbed by certain grossly false charges of personal immorality and the mistaken accusations of those who deemed his purpose an immoral one.
Whitman clearly perceived the universal operation of the law of continuity, the law which causes all things to reappear in their proper season and appropriate form. He says:
"Long I was hugg'd close — long and long.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me, stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul."
The reappearance of all things in their appointed time would be for humanity what is known as reincarnation. Therefore we find in Whitman many lines similar in significance to the following:
"Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety."
"And as for you Life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before."
Whitman cannot be numbered among those sentimentalists who delude themselves with the comforting notion that the reactions of violated law, of disturbed Cosmic harmony, are to be escaped in some way by the transgressor. Here his attitude is firm and uncompromising, as witness the following:
"No one can acquire for another — not one,
No one can grow for another — not one.
The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him,
The teaching is to the teacher and comes back most to him,
The murder is to the murderer and comes back most to him,
The theft is to the thief and conies back most to him."
In this and many other passages of like import he clearly states the Karmic law of ancient philosophy.
But the great, central idea of the message of Whitman and the keynote of many of his chants, is practical universal brotherhood. It is here that he nobly meets the requirements of our age. He vouchsafes no mere lip-offering of altruistic sentiments, but speaks as one who has felt deeply the crying needs of humanity, and has gone forth to alleviate. His comprehensive mind and sympathetic nature would not permit him to draw the line, so we find him looking benignly on all forms of life; they expressed, though in lower degree, the idea incarnate in man. However, the broadening of his attachments did not cause him to view with easy-going nature evil and corruption. Simple and honest himself, he abhorred every sham, every form of injustice and deceit and raised his voice in their vehement denunciation.
He chanted from the first the dignity of all kinds of honest toil, and sought to awake in the humblest laborer true self-respect and a realization of the nobility of a useful life.
The "Song of the Exposition" opens with these lines:
"Ah little recks the laborer
How near his work is holding him to God,
The loving laborer in space and time."
No poet has written with more delicate and tender feeling, with clearer, philosophical insight and joyous, unshaken faith than has Whitman when he deals with that mystery which we call death.
Knowing well that all things were indestructible in their essence, he considered the dissolution of the outward shell to be no calamity. He did not lament when he saw the imprisoned bird burst the bars and spread once more its long-folded wings. He grieved not because the priceless gem must be stripped of its rough and dull outer particles, for so alone could its real beauty be revealed. During his faithful and arduous work of ministration to the sick and dying in the camps of Virginia and in the hospitals around Washington in 1862-5 — a work for which he was eminently fitted by nature — Whitman had often made it his duty "to sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead." Yet his feelings never became callous, to him death lost none of its sacredness.
In his noble threnody, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed" — a poem deeply elegic and replete with exquisite pathos — Whitman pays a heart-stirring tribute to the memory of him who was his ideal of true manhood, from the time that President Lincoln's character, brought out by the exigency of his position as the nation's head in our Civil War, was first manifesting itself to the world. In the opening lines the ever returning Spring, the Lilac blooming perennial, and the drooping Star in the West bring back to the author the thought of him he loves, but unmitigated sadness is the swift-flown night, we feel that the sun will yet appear and now the East is clothed in purple and gold and a single beam darts upward and now another and another — but let us listen to him:
"Come, lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach, strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O death.
From me to thee glad serenades.
Dances for thee, I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee.
And the sights of the open landscapes and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night."
Whitman's pronounced individuality, his democratic spirit and unconventional manner bring him into rapport with those who are weary of the artificialities of life. His unfettered dithyrambics breathing the spirit of the broad open, the untrodden wilds, the interminable waterways, the inland seas and the boundless oceanic dominion, all overhung with restless clouds — an infinite diversity of moving shapes — are therefore a tonic to the jaded mind worn by the monotonous daily rounds, or too often focused on the trivial, the superfluous, the evanescent. By his power to suggest he gives a new bent to our thoughts, imparting his splendid vitality, he stimulates the mind to an activity that shall enlarge its horizon, and he also shows us vistas of things yet to be attained by on-marching humanity.
Whitman, singing the praises of the modern man and his achievements, was a distinctive product of our age, a poet incomprehensible in any other. Though in every way abreast of the time, he, like his great contemporary, Richard Wagner — a modern of the moderns — drank copiously from those deep and inexhaustible wells which were known to the old Vedantins, whose philosophy Schopenhauer said had been the inspiration of his life, and would be the solace of his death. Whitman found in those pure and life-giving waters, whose quality time could not impair, that which cleansed his mentality from all bilious humors and cleared his spiritual eyes. Then he knew that the heart of things is sweet, the soul of man is uncreate, imperishable. He saw that the smallest atom, the meanest object is not to be separated from the Eternal. The humblest duty is performed for the Eternal, the greatest and most beneficient act for that Eternal, man rests in the Eternal, and the Eternal is One and indivisible.
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