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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Life of Walt Whitman » CHAPTER VII WHITMAN’S MANIFESTO
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It is time that we ourselves took a view of the book, for we must see what Whitman had actually done during these last months, and gather what further indications we may as to his general notions of himself and of the world.

The volume consists of a long preface or manifesto[168] of the New Poetry, and of twelve poems by way of example. The preface commences with a description of America, the greatest of poems, the largest and most stirring of all the doings of men. “Here is action untied from strings, necessarily blind to particulars and details, magnificently moving in masses!” Here is a nation, hospitable, spacious, prolific; a nation whose common people is a larger race than hitherto, demanding a larger poetry.

He describes the American poet, who is coming to awaken men from their nightmare of shame to his own faith and joy. That poet is the lover of the universe, who beholds with sure and mystic sight the perfection that underlies all imperfection, for he sees the Whole of things. Past and future are present to him; and with them is the eternal soul. “The greatest poet does not moralise or make applications of morals—he knows the soul.” His readers become loving, generous, democratic, proud, sociable, healthy, by beholding in his poems the beauty of these qualities.

[Pg 96]

“Seer as he is, the poet,” continues Whitman, “is no dreamer. He sees and creates actual forms.... To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art. If you have looked on him who has achieved it, you have looked on one of the masters of the artists of all nations and times. You shall not contemplate the flight of the grey gull over the bay, or the mettlesome action of the blood horse, or the tall leaning of sunflowers on their stalk, or the appearance of the sun journeying through heaven, or the appearance of the moon afterward, with any more satisfaction than you shall contemplate him. The great poet has less a marked style, and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect, or originality, to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains.... I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has, and be as regardless of observation.... You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”[169]

His words never pose before the reader for ornament, they are living things. And for this very reason, he follows no models; his thought is living and original; it must find a new form for its perfect expression, as a new seed would find new growth and leafage.

The poet appeals to every reader as to an equal, because in every reader he appeals to the Supreme Soul. Many may not hear him, but he appeals to all, and not to a coterie.

Whitman then proceeds to the praise of science. Knowledge, bringing back the mind from the supernatural to the actual, brings faith with it; and the soul is the divinest thing that science discovers in the universe. He turns to philosophy, and bids her deal candidly with whatsoever is real, recognise the eternal[Pg 97] tendency of all things toward happiness, and cease to describe God as contending against some other principle.

The poet deals with truth and with the actual. All else is but a sham and impotent. For everywhere and always, the soul which is the one permanent reality, loves truth and responds to it.

The poet is by nature prudent, as one who knows the real purpose of the soul and of the universe, and would act in accordance with that knowledge. He accepts the impulses of the soul as the only final arguments; and only the deeds which it dictates appear to him to be profitable. Living in his age, and becoming its embodiment, he is therewithal a citizen of eternity. The future shall be his proof: will his song remain at her heart? Will it awaken, century after century, the divine unrest, and as it were, create new souls forever?

As for the priests and their work, they are done. The American poets shall fill their place, and the whole world shall answer to their message. Their words shall be in the English tongue—the language of “all who aspire”—but they shall be the very words of the people of America; they shall be native to the soil, and redolent of the air of the Republic. Such poets shall be America’s own, and in them she will welcome her most illustrious visitors. They are her equals; for the soul of a man is as supreme as the soul of a nation. And America shall absorb them as affectionately as they have absorbed her.

Such is the gist of Whitman’s manifesto. Nature the Soul and Freedom; Simplicity and Originality of Expression—these, its dominant notes, recall at once Rousseau, Wordsworth and Shelley, with many another; while certain passages remind the reader that The Germ was but recently published across the sea, the manifesto of another movement associated with the names of the Rossetti family and with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But whatever the reminiscences it awakens, Whitman’s preface is his own. The thoughts were not all originally his. But they had shaped themselves[Pg 98] newly in his brain and under his pen, and every line bears the stamp of originality.

Without staying to discuss the preface let us proceed to a rapid survey of the remaining pages. They are written, it would seem, for measured declamation, in a sort of free chant, which is neither prose nor verse, but whose lines coincide in length with natural pauses in the thought. Whitman himself spoke very deliberately, in a half drawl; he had a melodious baritone voice of considerable range and power, and one can well imagine how he would recite, when alone or with some intimate friend, the first lines, beginning:—
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.[170]

The lines are quite simple and direct; they are intended to place the reader at once in relation with the actual idler who recites them in the summer fields. He is an out-of-doors fellow, who lives whole-heartedly in the present, rejoicing in the world and observing it. He and his soul—he distinguishes decisively between the temporal and the eternal elements in himself whose equal balance, neither abdicating its place nor contesting that of the other, makes the harmony of his life—he and his soul commune together, and discover that the world means Love, and that the very grass is full of suggestions of immortality.

Everything indeed has its word for Walt Whitman; he understands what the streets are unconsciously saying; the animals of the country-side, the working men, the youths and the women, each and all are teaching him something of himself. All life appeals to him; he recognises himself in each of its myriad forms. And his thoughts are the half-conscious thoughts which lie in the minds of all. It is not only the happy and prosperous[Pg 99] whom he represents, but the defeated also, and the outcast.

All things have their mystical meanings; but especially are manhood and womanhood divine. There is nothing more divine than they. As for him, he is proud, satisfied, august. He has no sympathy with whimperings, or conformity to the ideas of others. Is not he himself the fellow and equal of the supreme Beings, of the Night, the Earth, and the Sea?

He has faith in the issue of time; he fully accepts all reality as a part of the whole purpose. He at least will be fearless and frank, and conceal nothing; all desires shall be expressed by him.

And to him all the bodily functions are wonderful. His whole life is a wonder and delight, beyond the power of words to utter. Sounds especially he enjoys; alluding to the passionate emotions aroused in him by the opera, and adding an obscure, erotic dithyramb on the ecstasy of touch, the proof of reality, for we understand everything through touch.

Everything is seen by him to be full of meaning, because he himself is a microcosm and summary of the universe “stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over”. He feels so vividly his personal kinship with the animals which are never pre-occupied about religion or property, that he thinks he must have passed through their present experience “huge times ago,” to include it now in his own.[171] Forthwith, he strings together in a rapid succession of dazzling miniatures, some of the contents of his personal memory; pictures out of his experience or his imagination, that remain vivid and significant to him. His sympathy makes them actually real to him; the figures in them are each a part of himself. “I am the man,” he cries, “I suffered, I was there.”[172]

But he has his own distinct personality. He is the friendly and flowing savage, full of magnetism, health and power—

[Pg 100]
Wherever he goes men and women accept and desire him,
They desire he should like them, and touch them, and speak to them, and stay with them.
Behaviour lawless as snow-flakes, words simple as grass, uncombed head, and laughter, and na?veté,
Slow-stepping feet, and the common features, and the common modes and emanations....

He sees the divine that is in men, and how all the gods are latent in the race, and with them ever more besides. Even in the midst of their absurd littleness, which he fully recognises, he calls men to the reality of themselves, away from the religions of the priests to their own souls. He understands doubt very well, but he has faith, faith in an ultimate happiness for each and all.

He endeavours to express his sense of eternity, and of the friendliness of the world to him:—
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—the vapour from the Nostrils of Death—I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept while God carried me through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.
Long I was hugged 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 I stand on this spot with my Soul.[173]

[Pg 101]

Thus it seems to him that he has existed potentially from the beginning; that all the ages in succession have cared for him, and that now the whole world is full of his kin and lovers. He beholds the universe as gloriously infinite in its assured purpose: God has appointed a meeting-place where He waits for every soul. The way of the soul is eternal progress, and each one must follow that road. My pupils, he exclaims, shall become masters and excel me! They shall be wholesome, hearty, natural fellows, attracted to me because I neither write for money nor indoors.[174]

My religion is the worship of the soul. I am calm and composed, and satisfied about God, whom I do not in the least understand. Death and decay seem wholesome to him; they are the way of life by which he himself came to the present hour, wherein he realises the mystic reality, the life eternal, and the ineffable idea of happiness as the central purpose of the Universe:—
Do you see, O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life, it is happiness.[175]

With an enigmatical farewell, he resumes his place in the life of the world, awaiting such of his readers as belong to him:—
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you, nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.[176]

The other poems are pendants to the first, offering further exemplifications of the precepts of the preface. He appeals, for example,[177] to his fellow workmen and workwomen, that they realise their own greatness and immortality, their own individual destiny; for nothing can ever be so worthy of their reverence as their own soul.

[Pg 102]

He bids them employ and enjoy this hour to the full,[178] for death comes, and it will not be the same as life. Yet death also will be good to the soul—all the signs assure the soul that it will be satisfied; and there is nothing which does not share in the soul-life.

In dreams[179] he recognises some free utterances of the soul, and in sleep, the great equaliser of men. As he watches them asleep all become beautiful to him with the beauty of the soul, which men also call Heaven. Diseased or vile they may be, but their souls forever urge them along the appointed way towards the goal. He seems to see all souls meeting together in sleep, mysteriously to circle the earth, hand in hand. He entrusts himself to sleep with the same security as to Death and Birth.

At the sight and touch of the human body,[180] he kindles with the delight of a Renaissance painter, a Botticelli or a Michael Angelo. The very soul loves the flesh, and the contact of flesh with flesh rejoices it. He writes of the magic force of attraction embodied in a woman; nor of attraction only, but of emancipation. He extols the strength and joy which is embodied in a man. The body of every man and woman, says he, should be as sacred to you as your own, for the body is almost the soul, and to desecrate the bodies of the dead is a little thing beside the shame that we put upon the bodies of the living.
If life and the soul are sacred, the human body is sacred,
And the glory and sweet of a man, is the token of manhood untainted,
And in man or woman, a clean, strong, firm-fibred body,
Is beautiful as the most beautiful face.[181]

He fills a page[182] with quick Hogarthian sketches of the lower types of faces, and then, turning about, acclaims the souls behind them as his equals. They too will duly come to themselves, following towards the light, after the Lord.

He loves thus to enlarge upon the poet’s office as[Pg 103] the Answerer[183] or sympathiser with all men, and how he should be welcome and familiar to each. In the poet’s company, the soul of each one quickens. And yet the poet is no greater than the least; his verses are not nobler than the kindly deed of any poor old woman.

He writes of 1848, the year of Revolutions,[184] somewhat in the style of “Blood Money,” and probably this page is one of the earliest of the fragments, and may date back to the year which it celebrates. In spite of the successes of tyranny, and the failures of the young men of Europe, he sees that Liberty herself is never foiled.

By way of sharp contrast[185] he directs a mocking and colloquial page of satire against the ’cute Bostonians of 1854. Whitman’s dislike of Boston is never for a moment concealed; Jonathan the Yankee he detests. And now he brings home to him the profits of his bargaining; he has dethroned King George only to set up in his place this Republican President, Pierce of New Hampshire, who in these loud-echoing streets employs the strength of America upon the capture of a fugitive slave.

Sometimes he is autobiographical.[186] “There was a child went forth,”—he recites—a country boy who, at West Hills and in Brooklyn, absorbed all the sights and sounds of his world into himself; till the early lilacs, the morning-glories, and the orchard blossom, the quarrelsome and the friendly boys and the bare-footed negro-children all became a part of him. His parents, too, in the daily life of the home as well as by heredity, entered into his make-up; the mother, wholesome, quiet and gentle, the father, virile and hot-tempered, with a streak of craft and astuteness running through him. And as they became a part of me, he says, so now they shall become a part of you that read this page.

Or at his na?vest, we see him standing open-mouthed and amazed, like a very child, before the sheer naked facts of his own story from the date of his birth to the[Pg 104] present hour;[187] and endeavouring to evoke a similar na?ve attitude in the reader, not indeed towards the date of Whitman’s birth, but towards that of his own.

Upon a kindred note we turn the last page also[188]—for it is a proclamation of reverence, reverence for all the old myths; reverence for the high ideals; reverence too for Youth and for Age, for Speech and Silence, for true Wealth and true Poverty, always with stress upon the last member of each pair; for America, too, and for the Earth with its ineffable future; for Truth, for Justice, for Goodness—ay, and, he adds with conscious paradox, for Wickedness as well; above all for Life, but not less for Death. Great is Life, he concludes:—
Great is Life, real and mystical wherever and whoever:
Great is Death:—sure as Life holds all parts together, Death holds all parts together:
Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, Death is great as Life.

How are we to sum up these pages, and figure out what it is they come to? No summary is likely to do justice to a book of poetry, which demonstrates itself by wholly other methods than argument, and it would be foolish for me to attempt it. But there is one point with which I must make shift to deal.

Beginning with a forecast of the New Poetry, as of something which should be in its essence indigenous to America, the natural expression of a new spirit and race and of its attitude towards the Self and the Universe, Whitman has boldly given examples to show what it was he meant. What are we to say of these? Do they give us a new art-form? or, if you will, a new kind of poetry? Do they bring us material for some new law of rhythm or metre?

These are deep questions, and dangerous to answer. For myself, I can but give an affirmative to them, accepting the smiles of the incredulous. And I must do so without a discussion which would here be tedious, even if I were able to make it profitable.

[Pg 105]

There is a simple test of the whole matter which one may oneself apply: Does Whitman’s method of writing arouse, in those who can read it with enjoyment, an emotion distinct in character from that aroused by the methods of all other poets? Does Leaves of Grass awake some quality of the Soul which answers neither to the words of Tennyson nor Browning, Emerson nor Carlyle? The proof by emotional reaction requires some skill in self-observation and more impartiality; but, on the whole, I think those who have tried it fairly seem to take my part, and to answer emphatically in the affirmative.

What then is this emotion which Whitman alone, or in special measure, evokes? It is a further hard but fair question, for it involves Whitman’s personality, and this book is an attempt to answer it. Briefly, it is the complex but harmonious emotion which possesses a sane full-blooded man of fully awakened soul, when he realises the presence of the Eternal and Universal incarnate in some “spear of summer grass”. One may call it the religious emotion; but it is not the emotion of any other religious poetry, saving perhaps some of the Hebrew prophets: and every prophet has his own cry. It is the emotion of a religion which is as large as the largest conceptions which man has yet formed of life; for Whitman, apart from any limitations in his thought, appears to have lived more fully and with fuller conscious purpose than did other men.

In order to make oneself understood at all one speaks in hyperbole, and doubtless I exaggerate. Whitman was, of course, no God among men, nor was he greater than other poets; in a sense he was even less than the least of them, so subjective was his genius; but since he consciously evokes a new emotion, he has his place among true artists, for Art is the power of evoking the emotion in others which one intends. And since the new emotion seems to be altogether ennobling when it is fully realised, being at once enlarging and integrating to the soul, we ought the more gladly to hail and acknowledge him.

[Pg 106]

I say a new emotion, not meaning, of course, that he is alone in calling up the soul, for no great poetry can leave the soul unstirred; but that no poetry of modern times stirs the soul in the same manner as does that of this full-natured man. So far, I think, we may acknowledge Whitman’s success as a poet, and I am not concerned to urge it further. There are many who do not respond to his writings in the way I have indicated, and they naturally refuse him the title. There are others who do, and who accord it to him; and I confess I am of the latter.

The only American poet who approaches him in sentiment is Emerson. Poems like “Each and All,” with its motive of the cosmic unity, “The perfect Whole,” or “Brahma,” with its reconciling all-inclusiveness, are very near in thought to Whitman; so again is “Merlin” with its
Great is the art,
Great be the manners of the bard;
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhyme and number,—

or “Woodnotes”—“God hid the whole world in thy heart”—or the exclamation “When worlds of lovers hem thee in” of the “Threnody”; or his “Test,” when he hangs his verses in the wind. The inspiration of the two men made them akin; but it was far from identical. There are sides of Leaves of Grass which are absent from Emerson’s writings, just as there are phases of Emerson’s thought which are never really touched by Whitman. But above all, while the works of both are exhilarating to the soul, the emotional reactions from them are quite distinct.

Considering Emerson’s influence at the time upon all that was most virile in American thought, we might feel certain that some part at least of his teaching had illuminated Whitman’s mind, and there is sufficient evidence in his own writings to prove it.[189] He said indeed, that it was Emerson who led him to a spiritual[Pg 107] understanding of America, and who finally brought his simmering ideas to the boil.[190] But he also vehemently asserted the independence of Leaves of Grass from any direct Emersonian or other literary influence; and in this the internal evidence of his book supports him. It is really impossible to confuse the flavours of Whitman and of Emerson.

One more comparison, and I will pursue the story. There is much which Whitman obviously shares with Shelley. Their kinship of inspiration is too significant for a passing note, and might well be followed over many pages. The writer of Leaves of Grass, and the youthful author of Queen Mab, had drunk at the same fountain of love and wonder.[191]

Shelley’s Defence of Poetry should be read alongside of the Preface of 1855. In it also you will find it stated that the poet lives in the consciousness of the whole; that he is not to be bound by metrical custom, the distinction between poets and prose-writers being but a vulgar error; it is sufficient if his periods are harmonious and rhythmical. Poetry is therein discovered as the great instrument of morality, for it exercises and therefore strengthens the imagination, which is the organ of love—that going-out of a man from himself to others, in which morality finds the final expression.

Here, as in Whitman’s pages, the permanence of poetry is asserted; its significance is not to be exhausted by the generation in which it found expression. Poetry is the motive power of action and creates utilities. It is the root and blossom of science and philosophy. Poetry is the interpenetration of a diviner nature with our own; it turns all things to loveliness, and strips off that film of use and wont which holds our eyes from the vision of wonder. The great poets are men of supreme virtue and consummate prudence. They are the world’s law-givers.

[Pg 108]

It must be enough for us to have noted the parallel, which might easily be pressed too far. There are regions of thought and expression in which their opposition would, of course, appear even more striking; we need not pursue the subject, remembering that much of what they share derives from the influence which we associate with the works of Rousseau.

Whatever our opinion of Whitman’s astonishing “piece of wit and wisdom,” we cannot be surprised that in some quarters it was received with contemptuous silence, and in others with prompt and frank abuse. The Boston Intelligencer,[192] for instance, credited it to some escaped lunatic; the Criterion[193] to a man possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love; while the London Critic,[194] comparing him to Caliban, declared he should be whipped by the public executioner.

It is, perhaps, more astonishing that some of the leading journals and reviews of America—the North American Review, Putnam’s Monthly, and the New York Tribune[195]—for example, noticed the book at some length and with friendly forbearance, if not with actual acclamation. The first of these gave the book, in its January issue (1856), three pages of discriminating welcome from the pen of Edward E. Hale, a religious minister of liberal mind and warm heart, whose own inner experience was not without resemblance to Whitman’s in its harmonious development and absence of spiritual conflict.[196]

Whitman was probably prepared for the abuse; it was the indifference of the public which astonished him. At first, it would seem, there was no sale whatever for the book;[197] and Emerson was the only one of its readers who found it specially significant.

Having spent the summer months in solitude in the[Pg 109] country,[198] Whitman decided upon a somewhat questionable method of advertisement: he contributed unsigned notices of his book to the Brooklyn Times,[199] with which he appears to have been connected,[200] and to a phrenological sheet issued by Fowler and Wells, his agents on Broadway. He fortified himself[201] for his task by observing that Leigh Hunt had written for the Press upon his own work, and even claimed the high example of Dante.

These articles, whose anonymity seems to infringe on the impartiality of the Press, and to be in some sense a breach of journalistic honour, are not a little astonishing. That in the phrenological journal may, perhaps, be dismissed as a mere publishers’ circular or puff, contributed, as such things frequently are, by the writer. As to the other, Whitman was for a while the editor of the Brooklyn Times, and may have written on himself while serving in this capacity, or perhaps at the request of the actual editor, doubtless his personal friend. Or, again, if we would excuse, or rather explain, his action, we may regard the reviews as his own attempt to look impersonally at his work.

Whatever we may think of the moral aspect of the notices, or however we may account for them, they have considerable interest as further expositions of his purpose, re-inforcing the Preface after an interval of meditation. As such, and as a corrective of popular misapprehensions, he doubtless intended them. In these pages he lays special emphasis on the American character of his work. He notes his studied avoidance of all foreign similes and classical allusions. He compares himself with Tennyson and other poets, only to declare that he is alone in understanding the new poetry, which will not aim at external completeness and finish, but at infinite suggestion; which will be an infallible and unforgettable hint—a living seed, not merely of thought, but of that emotional force which is of the Soul and alone can mould personality.


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