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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Life of Walt Whitman » CHAPTER VIII THE MYSTIC
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In September, 1855, Mr. Moncure Conway, having heard of Whitman during a visit to Concord, called upon him in Brooklyn, with an introduction from Emerson. Walt was then living with his family in one of a row of small artisans’ houses, in Ryerton Street,[202] out of Myrtle Avenue. At the moment, however, he was correcting proofs in the little office where his book had been printed, and wore a workman’s striped blue shirt, open at the throat. A few days later, he called upon Mr. Conway, his sister and another lady, at the Metropolitan Hotel, where his manners and conversation were enjoyed and approved. He was then garbed in “the baize coat and chequered shirt” in which he appears in the Leaves of Grass portrait.

Mr. Conway in his story has somewhat confused the details of these visits with those of another paid by him upon a Sunday morning some two years later, when the Whitmans seem to have moved to a more commodious house on North Portland Avenue. The matter is not important, and we may follow the main lines of the picturesque account which he contributed in October, 1866, to the Fortnightly Review.[203]

According to this narrative, Whitman was discovered basking in the hot sunshine on some waste land outside Brooklyn. He was wearing the rough workman’s clothes of his choice, was as brown as the soil and as[Pg 111] grey as the grass bents. His visitor was at once impressed by the exceptional largeness and reality of the man, and by a subtle delicacy of feeling for which Leaves of Grass does not appear to have prepared him. Whitman was slow, serene, gracious; in spite of the grey in his hair and beard, and the deep furrows across his brow, his full red face and quiet blue-grey eyes were almost those of a child.

Returning to the house, the visitor noticed a quality about him which belonged by rights to the line-engraving of Bacchus which hung in the bare room he occupied. Like a Greek hero-god, he made one ask oneself whether he was merely human. And after crossing the bay with him, and bathing and sauntering along the beach of Staten Island, the visitor seems to have left in a condition of almost painful excitement, unable to give his thought to anything but Whitman.

A few days later, according to this account, Conway found him setting type for the next edition of his book. Although he was still writing occasionally for the press, Leaves of Grass continued to provide his principal occupation. They crossed the ferry together and rambled about New York. Nearly every artisan they met greeted Walt affectionately as an old friend, and not one of them knew him as a poet.

Together they went to the Tombs prison, Whitman always having acquaintances among the outcasts of society, and often visiting them in detention, both here and at Sing-Sing. Here, Conway had an opportunity of estimating the power over others which was wielded by this personality, whose latent force had so much moved himself. The prisoners confided in him, and on behalf of one he interviewed the governor of the prison. The victim had been detained for trial on some petty charge in an unhealthy cell. Whitman repeated the man’s story, and characterised it, with a sort of religious emphasis and deliberation, as a “damned shame”. It was manifestly upon the tip of the official tongue to rebuke Walt for impertinence; but though he was dressed as an artisan, his quiet determined gaze was[Pg 112] too much for the autocrat, who gave way before it and ordered the prisoner to be transferred to better quarters.

Other distinguished visitors called on him from time to time. Of Emerson’s own visits we know next to nothing, but they were frequent and very welcome, sometimes ending with a dinner at Astor House. We have a glimpse of Lord Houghton, sharing a dish of roast apples with his friendly host.[204] Ward Beecher, the famous Brooklyn preacher, was among the callers; and it was on their way from his church that, on Sunday, 9th November, 1856, Mrs. Whitman, in her son’s absence, received Bronson Alcott and Thoreau.

Both men belonged to the circle of Emerson’s Concord intimates, and both have left a record of the successful renewal of their visit upon the following day.[205] The lovable, mystical, oracular Alcott, the delight of his friends, seems to have been greatly attracted by Whitman, whom he knew already, and of whom he has spoken in terms of the highest praise. The mother, he found on that first visit, stately and sensible, full of faith in her son “Walter”; full, too, in his absence, of his praises, as being from his childhood up both good and wise, the faithful and beloved counsellor of brothers and sisters.

They spent two delightful hours with Walt next day, a Philadelphia lady accompanying them and sharing their intercourse with “the very god Pan,” as Alcott styles him. The conversation was to have been renewed on the morrow, but Walt failed to put in an appearance. He was apt to be vague about such appointments, and one could never be sure that he felt himself bound by them. Like a Quaker of the old school, he followed the direction of the hour, and his promises were tentative and well guarded.

Thoreau, too, the naturalist philosopher of Walden, wrote down his impressions of the interview. He was puzzled by Whitman, finding him in many ways a[Pg 113] strange and surprising being, outside the range of his experience. Rough, large and masculine but sweet—essentially a gentleman, he says; but the title is paradoxical and inappropriate, and he qualifies it immediately by adding that he was coarse not fine. As to the last point, after vigorously debating it, Whitman and he appear to have retained contrary convictions. But Whitman himself would have been the first to disclaim refinement, a quality which he associated with sterility. If Thoreau had said he was elemental, we would not now dissent.

They were not likely to understand one another. The two men present a remarkable contrast, though on certain sides they have much in common. Thoreau was about two years the older; his principal book of essays, called Walden after the site of his hermitage, had been published when he was about Whitman’s age. Physically he was most unlike the genial red-faced giant opposite to him. Slight and rather short, with long arms and sloping shoulders; mouth, eyes and nose seemed to tell of solitary concentrated thought. There was something in his face of the frontiersman, that woodland look one sees also in Lincoln’s portraits; something, too, of the shyness wood creatures have.

He disliked and avoided the generality of men. In this he would compare himself with Emerson, who found society a refuge from the shabbiness of life’s commonplace, while Thoreau’s own resource was always solitude. He was continually being surprised by the vulgarity of himself and of his fellows, continually flushing with shame, personal or vicarious; and he sought and found a refuge in the pure and lonely spirit that haunted Walden Pool.[206]

Whitman, on the other hand, though he loved solitude, seems, even in solitude, to have craved for movement. In this he was very far from the orientalism of Thoreau and its strenuous seeking after peace. He loved progress. His genius belonged not to the forest pool, whose re[Pg 114]flections were unrippled by a breeze—the mirror of the abstract mind—but to the surging passion of the ocean beach.

Similarly, in his attitude towards men, he was far removed from both Thoreau and Emerson. Emerson confessed he could not quite understand what Whitman so enjoyed in the society of the common people; and many a Democrat, if he were only as honest, would make the same confession. It was not that Emerson was in any sense of the word a snob; but the emotional side of his nature responded but feebly to certain of the elemental notes whose vibration is felt perhaps more frequently among the common people than elsewhere. Emerson’s fellowship was largely upon intellectual fields: Whitman’s almost wholly upon the more emotional.

Thoreau found society in disembodied thought, and emotional fellowship in the woods. But to Whitman the sheer contact with people, and especially the unsophisticated natural folk of the class into which he was born and among whom he was bred, was not only a pleasure but a tonic which he could barely exist without. In solitude, he became after a time, heavy, inert, lethargic. His mind itself seemed to grow stale. He was a mere pool of water left upon the beach, which loses virtue in its stagnant isolation.

Whitman seems to have been exceptionally conscious of the stream of electric life which is the great attractive power of a city, and which in itself tends to draw all young men and women into its current. It buoyed him up and carried him, giving him a sense of exaltation only to be compared with that which other poets have derived from the mountains, or the wind out of the West. His large body and intuitive mind craved for the magnetic stimulus and suggestion of people moving about him; he did not look to them to save him from the commonplace, nor did he shrink from them as bringing him new burdens of a common shame.

Coarse, actual, living humanity was his supreme interest and passion. And the delicacy and refinement[Pg 115] of the scholar was dreadful to him, because it separated him instantly from the vulgar and common folk. He was one of the roughs, he used to say; and so he was, but with a difference. It was this that puzzled his Concord friends who were quick to feel but slow to understand it. Their perplexity did not, however, turn into mistrust; for their appreciation of all that they understood was full and generous.

Thoreau hardly knew whether he was more repelled or attracted by this “great fellow” who seemed to be the personification of Democracy.[207] Like Tennyson at a later date, he was unable to define him, but stood convinced that he was “a great big something”.[208] A little more than human, Thoreau added; meaning a little larger than normal human development.

In any case, the man was an enigma. He wrote of those relations between men and women for which the poets choose the subtlest and most delicate words in their treasury, in syllables which seemed to Thoreau like those of animals which had not attained to speech. Yet even so, he spoke more truth, beast-like as his voice sounded, than the others. And Thoreau frankly reminded himself, if Whitman made him blush the fault might not be Whitman’s after all.

They did not talk very much or very deeply, as there were four to share the conversation. Thoreau, too, was in a rather cynical mood, and spoke slightingly of Brooklyn and America and her politics, which in itself was enough to chill the stream of intercourse. But they found a common interest in the Oriental writers with whom Whitman was but vaguely acquainted, the scholar advising upon translations. Thoreau and Emerson had both noted the resemblance between Leaves of Grass and some of the sacred writings of India; and the latter once humorously described the Leaves as a mixture of the Bhagavad-Gitá[209] and the New York Herald.[Pg 116][210] Thoreau died in 1862, and this was probably their only meeting.

Thoreau carried off with him a copy of the new edition of Whitman’s poems, fresh from the press, and some of the remarks I have alluded to refer especially to its contents, and to several of the new poems which we must now briefly consider, for it is obviously impossible to give any worthy account of Whitman without attempting at least to outline the successive expressions of his own views about himself, as they are set forth in his book.

None of the twenty new Leaves appears so important as the “Song of Myself,” but among them are some of the finest and most suggestive pages he ever wrote, notably the “Poem of Salutation,” and the “Poem of the Road”.[211] The book is now shorn of its prose preface, which would be a serious loss if large portions of it were not to be found broken into lines, and otherwise slightly altered, upon the later pages. It had been used as a quarry for poems, and some of the blocks underwent but little trimming.

In the “Salutation,” he identifies himself elaborately and in much detail, with all peoples of the globe, finding equals and lovers in every land. The universal survey is faithfully made; the poem is like a rapid passage through a gallery of pictures, and regarded as a whole, suggests the outlines of the world-wide field which its author desires the reader to view. Whitman asserts his comprehensive sympathy; like America he includes all men. He is one with them in their common humanity, and sympathises with them individually in the main purposes and desires of their lives.

The poem opens in the form of question and answer. Looking into Whitman’s face, the questioner sees as it were a whole world lying latent within his gaze and becoming actual as he looks. Taking the poet’s hand, he begs him to explain: Walt accedes with readiness, and immediately forgets the questioner.

[Pg 117]

The subject of the poem—man as the microcosm not only of the universe but of the Race—is not perhaps novel; but its meaning is none the less difficult to expound. For it bears directly upon the cosmic consciousness, in which, as I have said, many of us are wanting. There are some, however, who are at times aware of moods in which they realise the symbolic character of all objects; they see them, that is to say, as forms through which vivid emotions are conveyed to the soul. At such moments, the whole world becomes for them a complex of these symbols, whose authenticity they can no more doubt than the meaning of daily speech, and whose ultimate significance is of an infinite content, which forever unfolds before them.

Such moods were evidently frequent with Whitman, and perhaps became the norm of his consciousness. In them his eyes read the world, as though it were the writing of that infinite and supreme Soul which was himself, and yet not himself; that Soul of All, with which his consciousness was become mystically one. He felt the actual thrill and meaning of the World’s Words; words which he more fully describes or rather tries to suggest, in another poem, afterwards known as the “Song of the Rolling Earth”.[212] In order to explain Whitman’s meaning one would need to make a study of the roots of this kind of symbolism, a task which is here impracticable. We must be content instead with a glance at the poem itself.
“Earth, round, rolling, compact—suns, moons, animals—all these are words to be said,”[213]

he asserts; vast words, not indeed of dots and strokes, nor of sounds, but of real things which exist and are uttered. I myself, and not my name, he says suggestively, is the real word which the Soul understands. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear, not my words but Me, The Word. The words of great poets are[Pg 118] different from those of mere singers and minor poets, because they suggest these ultimate words, these presences and symbols. A symbol, be it remembered, always using the word in the sense indicated, is no arbitrary sign, it is a form or appearance, which seen through the eye—to use Blake’s happy formula—presents to the imagination an unimpeachable, distinct emotional concept.

To Whitman, everything became thus symbolic. He saw the Earth itself—the whole world about him—as a symbol, infallibly presenting to him a distinguishable idea or meaning; not indeed a thought, for the word fails to express something which must clearly be supra-intellectual—the perception of a conscious state of emotion.

Of what then was the Earth a symbol to Whitman’s sight? He says, frankly enough,[214] that he cannot convey the idea in print; but that as far as he can suggest it, it is one of progress, or amelioration; it is generous, calm, subtle; it includes the idea of expression, or the bearing of fruit; it is the acceptance of all things, and it is the general purpose which underlies them all.

I fear that those who seek for simple explanations in plain words will scarcely be satisfied with this. Perhaps Whitman is only reasserting in his own manner the familiar adage that God is the prince of poets, and that the universe is His Chapbook which He offers to all. If so, he either gives a new meaning to the words, or he has rediscovered their old vital sense and redeemed them from the stigma of rhetoric. I do not know whether after all the simple-sounding words are not the more elusive.

The Words of the Earth-Mother spoken to her children are, he would have us believe, ultimate and infallible; all things may be tried by them. That is what he means when he says he has read his poems over in the open air. He has proved them thus to see if their suggestion is that of the Earth. She sits, as it were, with[Pg 119] her back turned toward her children,[215] but in her hand she holds a mirror, the clear mirror of appearances which are true, and in that mirror we may see ourselves and her.
With her ample back toward every beholder,
With the fascinations of youth, and equal fascinations of age,
Sits she whom I too love like the rest—sits undisturb’d,
Holding up in her hand what has the character of a mirror, while her eyes glance back from it,
Glance as she sits, inviting none, denying none,
Holding a mirror day and night tirelessly before her own face.

How much we can see, depends upon our own character. To the perfect man, the Face of the Mother is perfect: to the man ashamed, disfigured, broken, it appears to be such as he. Only the pure behold the Truth. There is no merely intellectual test of truth, for truth is known only by the Soul. As one looks into the mirror, and reads the thought behind appearances, not with the intellect but with the sight of the awakened soul, one grows to understand what Progress means, one sees a little further into the secrets of Love; one learns that the divine Love neither invites nor refuses.

The Sayers of Words are those who with pure insight—or as Coleridge would say, Imagination—behold things as they are apprehended by the cosmic consciousness; and thus beholding them as they truly are, find words which hint to the soul of that Reality which speaks through all appearance. After the sayers come the singers, the Poets who, building words together, create new worlds.

In another poem, the Open Road[216] becomes the symbol of Freedom, Acceptance, Sanity, Comradeship, Immortality and Eternal Battles.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.


[Pg 120]

Among the best known and most popular of the Leaves of Grass, it is also among those which are most filled with recondite and mystic meanings. Over these we must not linger, save to note the indication of the mystic sense by phrases like “the float of the sight of things” and “the efflux of the Soul”. The poem as a whole is marked by musical cadences, and is vivid from end to end with courage and the open air.

After the “Song of Myself,” Thoreau preferred the “Sun-down Poem,” which describes the crossing of Brooklyn Ferry.[217] It is filled with the thought that, even after half a century and in our own day, when others than he will be crossing, still he will be with them there unseen. The thoughts that come to him show him the Soul wrapt around in unconsciousness, and the things which, by contact with the clean senses, are presently realised as meanings by the Soul. The poem is a fine example of Whitman’s delight in movement, in masses of people, and in the surroundings of his city.

In the “Clef-poem,”[218] intended to strike the key-note, not only for his poems, but as it were for the universe itself with its innumerable meanings, he tells how, standing on the beach at night alone, he realised that all things—soul and body, past and future, here and there—are interlocked and spanned by a vast homogeneity of essence. The knowledge sweeps away all possibilities of anxiety about the future after death; experience can never fail to feed the soul. It contents him also with the present: no experience can ever be more wonderful to him than this of to-night, when he lies upon the breast of the Mother of his being. The future can be nothing but an eternal unfolding of this that he beholds already present in his body and Soul.

While dwelling upon the symbolical mysticism which cannot be ignored in Whitman’s whole habit of thought, I may add a further word upon its character.[219] Mysticism appears under several forms. The Indian guru,[Pg 121] winning the eternal consciousness by long practices in the gymnasium of the mind; the lover discovering it through the fiery gateways, and tear-washed windows of passion; the poet seeking it in the eyes of the Beauty that was before the beginning of the world; the Quaker awaiting its coming in silence and simplicity; the Catholic preparing for it by prayer and fasting, by ritual and ceremony; the lover of nature discovering it among her solitudes; the lover of man entering into it only by faith, in the strenuous service of his kind: all these bear witness to the many ways of experience along which the deep waters flow.

Belonging to no school, Whitman had relations with several of the mystical groups; he had least, I suppose, with that which seeks the occult by traditional crystal-gazing and the media of hypnotic trances or the dreams produced by an?sthetic drugs. He was a mystic because wonders beset him all about on the open road of his soul. In him mysticism was never associated with pathological symptoms; it was, as he himself suggests, the flower and proof of his sanity, soundness and health.

He had not learnt his lore from books. Plato and Plotinus, Buddha and Boehme, were alike but half-familiar to him; he never studied them closely as a disciple should. His thought may have been quickened by old Elias Hicks, and strengthened occasionally by contact with the Friends. It often recalls the more leonine, less catholic spirit of George Fox; and the vision of the Soul, standing like an unseen companion by the side of every man, woman, and child, ready to appear at the first clear call of deep to human deep, was ever present to them both, and in itself explains much that must otherwise remain incomprehensible in their attitude. But the world of Whitman was that of the nineteenth century, not of the seventeenth: Carlyle, Goethe and Lincoln, had taken the places of Calvin, Milton and Cromwell. In many aspects the mysticism of Leaves of Grass is nearer to that of The Republic and The Symposium, than to that of Fox’s Epistles and Journal; nearer, that is, to the Greek synthesis, than to the evangelical ardour of the[Pg 122] Puritan. Temperance he loved, but he hated the narrowness of negations.

To return to the book: the thought of the sanity of the Earth is brought to bear upon the problem of evil in a poem[220] which describes how, in spite of the mass of corruption returned to it by disease and death, the earth neutralises all by the chemistry of its laws and life. With calm and patient acceptance of evil, nature refuses nothing, but ever provides man anew with innocent and divine materials. And such, it would seem, is the inherent character of the Universe, and therefore of the Soul.

A poem,[221] whose opening cadences were suggested by the drip, drip, drip, of the rain from the eaves, presents the Broad-axe as the true emblem of America, Whitman’s substitute for the Eagle whose wings are always spread.
Broad-axe, shapely, naked, wan!
Head from the mother’s bowels drawn!
Wooded flesh and metal bone! limb only one and lip only one!
Gray-blue leaf by red-heat grown! helve produced from a little seed sown!
Resting the grass amid and upon,
To be leaned, and to lean on.

Here we enter the picturesque, muscular world of wood-cutters and carpenters so familiar to the author, and we are reminded of the older and more sinister uses and products of the axe. Seen by Whitman, the Broad-axe itself is a poem that tells of strenuous America, with her free heroic life and the comradeship of her Western cities, great with the greatness of their common folk. It tells him of the woman of America, self-possessed and strong; and of large, natural, na?ve types of manhood. It even prophecies to him of Walt Whitman, and sings the “Song of Myself,” the message of the noble fierce undying Self. As a Cuvier can reconstruct an undiscovered creature from a single fossil bone, so might the poet seer have foretold America by this symbol of an axe.

The idea of America is further expounded in several[Pg 123] other poems, especially in the longest of the additions, which was afterwards expanded into “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”.[222] Much of its essential thought, however, and some of its actual phrasing belongs to the old Preface, and has therefore been already noted. It dwells on the potential equality of every citizen in the sight of America herself, an equality based upon the divine Soul which is in each; and also, upon Liberty, which is the ultimate and essential element of all individual life.

The thought of America calls up in Whitman’s mind the picture of that poet, that “Soul of Love and tongue of fire,” who will utter the idea which is America, and which alone can integrate her diverse peoples into one. And here Whitman flings off his cloak which concealed him in the Preface, and openly announces that it is he himself who incarnates the spirit of the land.
Fall behind me, States!
A man, before all—myself, typical, before all.
Give me the pay I have served for!
Give me to speak beautiful words! take all the rest;
I have loved the earth, sun, animals—I have despised riches,
I have given alms to every one that asked, stood up for the stupid and crazy, devoted my income and labour to others,
I have hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and indulgence toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown,
I have gone freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families,
I have read these leaves to myself in the open air—I have tried them by trees, stars, rivers,
I have dismissed whatever insulted my own Soul or defiled my body,
I have claimed nothing to myself which I have not carefully claimed for others on the same terms,
I have studied my land, its idioms and men,
I am willing to wait to be understood by the growth of the taste of myself,
I reject none, I permit all,
Whom I have staid with once I have found longing for me ever afterward.[223]

The poet is that equable sane man, in whose vision alone all things find and are seen in their proper place, for he sees each sub specie ?ternitatis—in its eternal aspect.

[Pg 124]

But while thus boldly declaring himself as the man that should come, he has of course no desire to stand alone, and attempts to outline the equipment necessary for future American poets. They must not only identify themselves in every possible way with America, they must be themselves creative and virile. Those who criticise, explain and adjudge, can only create a literary soil; they cannot produce the flower and fruit of poetry.

Returning to his favourite adage that a man is as great as a nation, he asserts that the true poet is America; frankly reading himself as a whole, he will see the meanings of America. Is then America also a symbol? Assuredly. She is the Republic; she is the Kingdom of God; she is Blake’s Jerusalem; but behold, she is already founded and four-square upon the solid earth.

That he was open-eyed to the materialistic spirit rampant throughout the continent while he was writing, is clearly shown in the bitter mockery of “Respondez,”[224] a poem afterwards suppressed. It is a challenge to thought; an ironic assertion of things that are false and futile, and which yet parade as realities. Though suggestive it is obscure, and its subsequent omission was wise.

Thoughts of the destiny of America,[225] and of the evil and imperfection which he saw about him, hindering, as it seemed, the realisation of that destiny, and of the destiny of individual souls, must often have moved him to passionate longing. He was not one of those who confuse good with evil; he always recognised the difference between right and wrong as among the eternal distinctions which could never cease to hold true. He hated sin as he hated disease, and recognised both as threatening and actual.

If he rarely denounces, it is because he has seen that the way of the soul is along the path of love and not of fear or of hate; and because he recognises the office of[Pg 125] sin in the story of the soul. He is not anxious about vice or virtue, but only about life and love. Love, at its fullest, is something different from virtue; it contains elements which virtue can never possess, and which most ethical codes consign to the category of vice. Such love alone is the expression of the soul; and every student of love discovers sooner or later that the soul has its own intimate standard for judging what is wrong and what is right, and when that which was wrong has now become right for it to do.

Love, then, is Whitman’s code. And when he seeks to call the youth of America away from selfishness and sin, he issues no new table of Thou-Shalt-Nots, but fills their ears with the words of their destiny, and of the meaning of America. For he knows that to sin is to choose a narrow and despicable delight, and that one must needs choose the nobler, larger joy when it becomes present and real. Hence he recalls all the aspirations that went to the birth of America, and describes the parts that women and men must fill if they are to be realised. He reminds his young readers of all the divine possibilities of manhood and of womanhood, and of how those possibilities are for them; and warns them that the body must necessarily affect the soul, for it is the medium through which the soul comes into consciousness.
Anticipate your own life—retract with merciless power,
Shirk nothing—retract in time—Do you see those errors, diseases, weaknesses, lies, thefts?
Do you see that lost character?—Do you see decay, consumption, rum-drinking, dropsy, fever, mortal cancer or inflammation?
Do you see death, and the approach of death?
Think of the Soul;
I swear to you that body of yours gives proportions to your Soul somehow to live in other spheres,
I do not know how, but I know it is so.[226]

Finally, in the new poems, Whitman makes more plain his attitude toward the woman question, as it is called. An American National Women’s Rights Asso[Pg 126]ciation had been founded in 1850, and although its agitation for the suffrage proved unsuccessful, the more general movement which it represented, especially the higher education of women, was gaining ground throughout America. The movement may be said to have been born in New York State, where Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Miss Susan B. Anthony were its most active leaders; but it owed much to Boston also, and notably to Margaret Fuller (Ossoli), whose tragic death had been an irreparable loss to the cause.[227]

Whitman was in cordial sympathy with everything that could forward the independence of women. But he disliked some outstanding characteristics of the movement. It was in part a violent reaction against the unwholesome sentimentalism of the past; a reaction which took the form of sexless intellectualism with a strong bent towards argumentation, perhaps the most abhorrent of all qualities to Whitman.

This movement for women’s rights seemed to him too academic and too superficial; college education and the suffrage did not appeal to him. But he was not the less an enthusiast for the cause itself, as he understood it. His views are simple and clear. A soul is a soul, whether it be man’s or woman’s; and as such, it is of necessity free, and the equal of others. A woman is every way as good as a man. This truth must be made effective in all departments of life.

Then, taking up the thought which underlies the teaching of Plato, a woman is a citizen; and an American woman must be as independent, as dauntless, as greatly daring as a man. Such as the woman essentially is, such will be the man, her son, and her mate. But—and it is here he differs from the leaders of the movement—sex is basic not only in society but in personal life; and the woman unsexed is but half a woman.

Two poems in the new edition, the nucleus of the subsequent Children of Adam, are devoted to these ideas. In the first,[228] he describes the women of his ideal:—

[Pg 127]
They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tanned in the face by shining suns and blowing winds,
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right—they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves.

In the second,[229] he declares that life is only life after love—he means the passionate fulness of love—and indicates that womanhood is to be glorified not through a sexless revolt, but through the redemption of paternity. When the begetting of children is recognised to be as holy and as noble as the bearing of them, then the rights of women will be on the way to recognition.

If motherhood is the glory of the race, then a movement towards perpetual virginity brings no solution of our problem. The only solution lies in the independence of women, and in the evolution of a higher masculine ideal of the sex relation. The whole thing must be naturally and honestly faced. Until we so face it, we cannot understand a world in which it is so implicated, that sex is, as it were, a summing up of all things.

This last thought grew upon him, becoming more prominent in the next edition. In the present one it recurs in the open letter to Emerson printed in its appendix,[230] and gave a peculiar colour to the volume in the public eye. So much was this the case, that a prosecution seemed at one time imminent, many persons regarding the book as obscene. Among timid and conventional people, it seems to be established as a canon of criticism that it is always immoral to discuss immorality. They go but little farther who denounce the purity which is not defiled by pitch; or tear out by the roots all flowers that grow upon dung-heaps.

Such then, added to the old, formed the contents of the new edition of 1856. The appendix included Emerson’s letter, which Whitman had been urged to publish, by Mr. C. A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun,[Pg 128] and a personal friend of Emerson.[231] He succeeded in convincing Whitman, who appears at first to have doubted the propriety of such an action. There is no evidence that Emerson resented the use thus made of his glowing testimony, although he would probably have modified his words had he written in acknowledgment of the enlarged volume. A sentence from the letter appeared also upon the back of the book: “I greet you at the commencement of a great career.—R. W. Emerson.” This, together with the storm of indignation aroused by the absolutely frank language of the poems dealing with sex, gave the book notoriety and a rapid sale.

It is the least pleasing of the editions of Leaves of Grass, insignificant in appearance, and yet aggressive, by reason of that Emersonian testimonial. The open letter at the end, of which I have already spoken, is far from agreeable to read. It is careless, egotistical, na?ve to a degree, and crowded with exaggerations. Addressing Emerson as master, it proceeds to denounce the churches as one vast lie, and the actual president as a rascal and a thief. It is so egregiously self-conscious that it makes the reader question for a moment whether all the egoism and na?veté of the preceding pages may not have been worn as a pose; but a moment’s further consideration gives the question a final negative. Few men are without their hours of weakness; and that Whitman was not among those few, the letter is proof if such were needed.

The letter is not void of interest, since it records the rapid sale of the previous edition of a thousand copies, and anticipates that in a few more years the annual issue will be counted by thousands. This sanguine forecast explains the permanent and otherwise unreasonable disappointment of Whitman at the reception of his book.

It still made its appearance devoid of the usual adornment of a publisher’s name upon the title-page.[Pg 129] Messrs. Fowler & Wells were again the principal agents, others being arranged with in the chief American cities, in London also, and Paris and Brussels. Plates were cast from the type, and a large sale was prepared for. But the New York agents soon withdrew, unwilling to face the storm of public opinion,[232] and perhaps the dangers of prosecution, and the book fell out of print when only a thousand copies had been issued.

The two ventures of 1855 and 1856 had brought Whitman little money, a mere handful of serious readers, and some notoriety. Though he did not give in, he began to look about him for some supplementary means of delivering his soul of its burden. His youthful success on the political platform, his love of crowds and of personal contact, his extraordinary popularity among the younger people, and his own keen sense of the power of oratory, turned his thoughts to lecturing.[233] He would follow the road which Emerson and Thoreau had taken. He would evangelise America with his gospel. Henceforward, as his mother said, he wrote barrels of lectures,[234] and at the same time he studied his new art more or less systematically. After his death a package of notes on Oratory, and the rough draft of a prospectus were found among his papers; the latter was headed, “15 cents. Walt Whitman’s Lectures.” It belongs to the year 1858.

By this time he had planned to write, print, distribute and recite throughout the United States and Canada a number of lectures—partly philosophical, partly socio-political, partly religious—with the object of creating what he conceived to be a new, and for the first time truly American attitude of mind. The lectures were ultimately to form a second volume of explanation and argument which would sustain the Leaves. He had now omitted any preface to the poems, the creative work standing alone. But having printed the second edition[Pg 130] and thus relieved his mind of its most pressing burden, he recognised that the work of explanation and of criticism remained.

Moreover, he conceived that his lectures would quicken public interest in his book; while, by showing himself, he hoped to dispel some of the misapprehensions which concealed his real meaning from the popular mind. He alludes whimsically in this memorandum to the offensive practice of self-advertisement, of which he was not unconscious, remarking that “it cannot be helped,” for it is the only way by which he can gain the ear of America, and bid her “Know thyself”.

Finally, he proposed to earn his living in this manner. He would have preferred to give his services without fee, in the Quaker fashion; but for the time being at least, he must make a charge of ten dollars (two guineas) a lecture, and expenses, or an admission fee of one dime (about sixpence) a head.

The idea of lecturing was probably as old as the idea of the Leaves of Grass; he seems to have been considering it ever since he returned from the South. But now he formulated his ideas, which were of course those underlying the Leaves, and thought much and cogently on the style and manner of public speaking. His conclusions betray an ideal for oratory as individual and as mystical as that for the poet’s art.

Whitman, the lecturer, is conceived as a prophet possessed by the tempestuous passion of inspiration. The orator is to combine the gifts of the great actor with the inspiration of the Pythoness and the spontaneity of the Quaker prophet. His gestures should be large, but reserved; the delivery deliberate, thought-awakening, elliptical, prophetic, wholly unlike that of the glib platform speakers of his day and our own. At first, erect and motionless, the speaker would impress his mere personality upon the assembly; then his eyes would kindle, like the eyes in that strange marble Balzac of Rodin’s, and from the eyes outward the whole body would take fire and speak.

[Pg 131]

He conceived of oratory not as the delivery of some well-prepared address, but as the focussing of all the powers of thought and experience in an hour of inspiration and supreme mastery. He saw how much it entailed—what breadth of knowledge, what depth of thought, what perfect flexibility of voice and gesture trained to clear suggestion, what absolute purity of body, what perfect self-control. For, he would say to himself, the great orator is an artist as supreme as Alboni herself; his voice is to be as potent as hers, and his life must show an equal devotion to its purpose.

In this conception of the orator we have then a most interesting parallel with that of the poet. And just as Whitman the poet stands part way between the writer of prose and the singer in verse, including in himself some of the qualities of each, and adding an inspiration wholly his own, so Whitman the orator appears in this vision standing between the actor-singer and the lecturer or preacher, improvising great words.

The political aspect of his enterprise is suggested by a brief memorandum, dated in April, 1857,[235] wherein he notes that the “Champion of America” must keep himself clear of all official entanglements, devoting himself solely to the maintenance of a living interest in public questions throughout the length and breadth of the land. Standing aside from the parties with their clamorous cries, he must hold the public ear by nobler tones.

In another place[236] he writes that as Washington had freed the body politic of America from its dependence upon the English crown, so Whitman will free the American people from their dependence upon European ideals. The mere publication of such frank, but private assertions of Whitman’s own faith in himself, will doubtless arouse a ready incredulity in the reader’s mind. It might, perhaps, seem kinder to his memory to suppress them altogether; but upon second thought it will, I think, appear possible that he was a better judge than others of his own ability. His personality was one of[Pg 132] extraordinary power, and his outlook of a breadth which was almost unique. And, as I have said, he felt himself to be an incarnation of the American spirit.

At the time, America was without leadership. Lincoln was still unseen; and Whitman was fully as capable of filling the highest office in the United States as several who have held it; while nothing in the circumstances or traditions of the White House made it absurd for any able citizen, of whatever rank, to entertain the thought of its tenancy. This would be especially true of a popular New Yorker, who made perhaps the best of all candidates for a Presidential campaign. The Republican party had but just been formed, and for the first time had fought an election. Thunderclouds of war were in the air, urged on by the ominous forces of slavery, and America was without a champion.

I think the idea of political leadership crossed Whitman’s mind at this time, and that he put it definitely aside. The hour cried out for the man, and the cry was not to go unanswered; but with all his power and all his goodwill and fervour, Whitman became slowly convinced that it was not to be he. He had seen too much of party man?uvres, and had too vigorous a love of personal liberty, to contend for office. But he did covet the power of a prophet to stir the heart of America, and appeal to her people everywhere in her name. He never gave up the idea of lecturing or lost his interest in oratory; but the lectures he planned, the course on Democracy and the rest, remained undelivered. It is as though he had prepared himself and stood awaiting a call which never came.

Instead, he turned once more to add new poems to his collection. A hint in explanation is to be found in a poem written about this time,[237] in which he tells how, having first sought knowledge, he then determined to live for America and become her orator; he was afterwards possessed by the desire for a heroic life of action, but was given the commission of song. Finally, another[Pg 133] change came over his spirit; the claims of his own life seized him; he could not escape from the passion of comradeship which overwhelmed him and wholly absorbed his thought.[238] We shall consider this phase in the next chapter, but before doing so, it will be well to recall the political events of the hour and the circumstances surrounding the advent of a new power and personality into American life.


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