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In October, 1867, the new volume appeared; it was intended to replace the former final edition of 1860, and in itself was now regarded as final. Whitman wrote home to his mother that at last he had finished his re-arrangings and corrections, for good.[458] But he was mistaken; for because the book was a whole, every page which he added to it in succeeding years entailed a new revision of the rest. Each new note affects the old sequence, which thus requires to be ordered anew.

The book might be handsomer, he says; but he notes that he has omitted some excessive phrases, and even dropped a passage or two which had not stood the test of time; and now he feels that the volume proves itself to any fair-minded person. Beyond these alterations, the book contains little that is new.

That public interest in Whitman was increasing is shown by the appearance this year of the first of those brief biographical studies which have since become so numerous. It was from the pen of his intimate friend, Mr. John Burroughs, than whom none knew him better during the Washington days; and having besides the full advantage of Whitman’s supervision, remains a principal authority to this day.[459]

Equally important was the preparation in England this autumn of a volume of selections by Mr. W. M. Rossetti.[460] The editor of the Germ, that most interesting expression of a new and pregnant spirit in art whose[Pg 222] brief but brilliant course had ended a few years before the first appearance of the Leaves, was the right man to introduce Walt Whitman to the English reader. Both he and his brother, the poet, had for several years been admirers of Whitman’s work; and before the publication of the new edition he had written an able notice of the book in The Chronicle, a short-lived organ of advanced Catholic views.[461]

This was widely copied by the American press. It preserves a judicial tone, which while fully appreciating the literary value of the new work, is far from indiscriminate praise. Mr. Rossetti frankly protested against what he regarded as the gross treatment of gross things, not so much on ethical as on ?sthetic grounds; against jarring words and faulty constructions. He noted the obscurity and fragmentary character of many passages, commented on the agglomerative or cataloguial habit, and upon the author’s justifiable, but at first sight exasperating, self-assertion.

Much of this was, at least from its writer’s literary point of view, just and valuable criticism. Mr. Rossetti was less fortunate when he asserted that if only he were brought down by sickness many things would appear very different to Whitman; for while the remark contains an incontestable element of axiomatic truth, its particular application was based upon a misapprehension of the poet’s character. He conceived that Whitman’s faith depended upon physical well-being—just as Walt once declared that Goethe’s religion was founded simply upon good digestion and appetite—thus missing the spiritual basis of his personality.

But if Rossetti’s literary criticisms are searching and upon the whole just, his praises are not less notable. Leaves of Grass he describes as by far the largest poetical performance of our period; and while acclaiming him the founder of American poetry, he foresees that its author’s voice will one day be potential and magisterial wherever the English language is spoken.

[Pg 223]

The criticism was followed by the compilation of a volume of selections containing nearly one half of the current Leaves of Grass, and a large part of the original Preface of 1855. The enterprise brought the compiler into cordial personal relations with the poet.[462] There had at first been a slight misunderstanding as to the scope of the English version, and an expurgated but otherwise complete edition had been suggested. Whitman could not be a party to such a volume, and would naturally have preferred his own complete book to any selections. But in Mr. Rossetti he recognised an understanding friend. While frankly expressing his own views, he was most cordial and generous in the declaration of his faith in his correspondent’s wisdom, and of his desire to leave him unshackled.

The selections contained none of the poems which had aroused the indignation of Mr. Harlan and his friends, and would probably have more than satisfied the very different criticisms of Emerson. Their publication established the foundation of Whitman’s English fame, which now rapidly outstripped his American. Already known to the few—to such men for instance as Tennyson, Dante G. Rossetti, Swinburne, W. Bell Scott, J. A. Symonds and Thomas Dixon—Leaves of Grass was from this time eagerly sought after by a considerable number of the younger and more vigorous thinkers.

Although they never met, Whitman’s friendship with Symonds is so important that I cannot pass it by without some reference to the younger man’s character.[463] He had been, as is well known, an exceptionally brilliant Oxford scholar; who had shown so little trace of the disqualifying elements of genius that his painfully accurate poetic form carried off the Newdigate prize. After his studies at Balliol, he entered early manhood with impaired sight, an irritable brain and incipient consump[Pg 224]tion. His temper was naturally strenuous, but this quality was accompanied by introspective morbidity.

In the autumn of 1865, at the age of five and twenty,[464] the late Mr. Frederick Myers introduced him to Leaves of Grass; his reading of one of the Calamus poems—“Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me”[465]—from the edition of 1860, sending, as Symonds says, electric thrills through the very marrow of his bones. Whitman of course rode rough-shod over all the scholar’s academic and aristocratic prejudices, and required slow assimilation. This process continued during the next four years; but he says that the book became eventually a more powerful formative influence in his life than Plato’s works,[466] or indeed any other volume, save the Bible.

Married already, and already largely an invalid, life was full of difficulties for so keen and eager a mind; and the Leaves became his anchor, especially the poems of Calamus.[467] It was in 1869 and 1870[468] that he realised their full value.

Already his mind had responded to the idea of the cosmos and of cosmic enthusiasm,[469] suggested to it in the Hymn of Cleanthes, in certain pages of Marcus Aurelius, Giordano Bruno, Goethe, and the Evolutionists of his own time. To these ideas Whitman brought conviction and reality. It was through his study of the Leaves that Symonds came to understand for himself the infinite value and possibility of human comradeship, and became a glad participant in the Universal Life.

For twenty years the two men corresponded as close friends; and there were few in whose admiration for his work Whitman found such keen satisfaction. But Addington Symonds was always a conscientious as well as an affectionate and reverent friend; and while at a later date he publicly protested against Mr. Swinburne’s assault,[470] and in his posthumous study of Whitman,[Pg 225] proved himself second to none in his admiration of him whom he called Master, yet he himself made some of the frankest and most trenchant criticisms of his friend’s work. He thus preserved his independence, and, unlike that of the mere disciple, his praise of Whitman is rendered really valuable by this quality.
Picture of Anne Gilchrist.


In the summer of 1869, Mr. Madox Brown lent a copy of the Selections to his friend Mrs. Alexander Gilchrist, the widow of Blake’s biographer. She responded to the book’s appeal, and immediately borrowed Mr. Rossetti’s copy of the complete volume.[471] While wholly approving the omission from his Selections of such poems as the “Children of Adam,” and herself making some partial reservation with regard to these as perhaps infringing in certain passages the natural law of concealment and modesty, she expressed to Mr. Rossetti, in fervid and impassioned phrases, the joy that came to her in this new gospel, worthy at last as she thought of America. Her friend obtained her permission to allow her letters to him to be published; and they appeared in the Boston Radical for May, 1870.

Her words of womanly understanding stirred Whitman too deeply for much outward expression.[472] He hardly regarded them as a declaration of individual friendship, showing himself at the time even a little indifferent[473] to the personality of their writer. They were, he knew, a testimony not so much to him as to his Leaves of Grass, which were a half-impersonal utterance, and as such he received them with gratitude.[474] Nothing, not even O’Connor’s brilliant vindication, had so justified the poems to their maker.

Whitman has been roundly abused by Mr. Swinburne[475] and others, because, as they say, he lacks the romantic attitude toward woman. Mr. Meredith has shown in his own inimitable way the fiends that mask themselves[Pg 226] too often under this romantic mien; and one is not always sure whether Whitman’s honesty is not in itself a little distasteful to some of his critics.

It is true that he has addressed woman as the mother or the equal mate of man, rather than as the maid unwed, as though his thought of sex transcended the limits usually assigned to it. I am persuaded that the explanation of this is to be found in the fact that Whitman’s mystic consciousness had broken many of the barriers which have constricted the passion of sex too narrowly during past centuries. He heard all the deeps of life calling to one another and responding with passionate avowals of life’s unity. The soul of the lover—as all the poets have been telling us since Dante’s day—discovers its true self in the beloved person: but the soul of Whitman discovered itself as surely and as passionately in the Beloved World. The expression is so novel that it sounds well-nigh absurd to ears that do not “hear”. But for those who can hear, Whitman’s voice is all surcharged with the lover’s passion; not less intense but larger in its sanity than the voices of other poets.

Again we may justly urge that, in general, it was Woman as Madonna, rather than as Venus, whom he contemplated. Or shall we say he saw the Madonna in Venus, as Botticelli did? His love, when he wrote, was that of a man of middle life, in whom the yearning tenderness of fatherhood mingled with the other currents of passion. His vision beheld the Divine Child, without whom love itself is incomplete. For fatherhood and motherhood are seen by the insight of the poet to be implicit in the passion of sex, and it was impossible for Whitman, the seer, to think of one apart from the other.

As a wife and a mother, Anne Gilchrist recognised the beauty and purity of Whitman’s conception of love; and his book was to her like the presence of a great and wise comrade.[476] She was the first woman who had publicly recognised his purpose in these poems, and it was an act[Pg 227] of no small heroism.[477] Whitman might well be moved by it.
Picture of Walt at about fifty.


The Selections had appeared in 1868, a year which also saw the publication[478] of O’Connor’s tale, The Carpenter, in whose pages commences that legendary element in Whitman’s story, which follows the advent of the more striking personalities. Here Whitman is confused with Christ, somewhat as was Francis by his followers, more than six centuries before.

That such a thing should have been possible in the Whitman circle requires a few words of explanation. I have already described the poem in which he himself claims comradeship with “the Crucified”.[479] The further assertion of such a claim inevitably fell to O’Connor, whose work was always marked by an element of vehemence and even of excess. Brilliant, generous, eloquent, he was oftener a fervid partisan than a safe critic.

Having already coupled Whitman’s name with the greatest in literature[480]—an act of audacity, even if we accept the conjunction—it was but natural that, finding the man himself nobler even than his works, he should compare him with the greatest masters of human life. He was not satisfied even with the praises he had piled upon his hero in his indignant rejoinder to the Hon. James Harlan.

O’Connor’s tale is of no great value; but it reminds us that there was in Walt something which bewildered those who knew him best: something Jove-like says one;[481] something that, judged by ordinary standards, was superhuman, alike in its calm breadth of view and its capacity for love. They observed that what others might do under the constraint of exceptional influences, of intellectual conviction, moral ideal or religious enthusiasm, he did naturally. He did not rise to an occasion, but always embraced opportunity as though from a higher level. He was not shocked or alienated by[Pg 228] things which shocked other men; and personal slights and injuries hardly touched him, dropping from him at once. He was the best of comrades, and yet he was a man of deep reserve. And he was so many-sided that his friends were hardly aware that he concealed something of himself from them. Always when you met him again you found him bigger than you had remembered him; and the better you knew him, the less certain you would be of accurately forecasting his actions or understanding his thoughts.

If, however, we call him superhuman, it must be by an unusual manner of speech; for he was, as we know, the most human of men, seeming to be personally familiar and at home with every fragment of humanity. He comprehended the springs of action in individuals, as the soul comprehends the purpose of each limb and article of the body. He had the understanding which comes through a subtle sympathy with the whole of things.

Explain or ignore it as we will, there is in every man that which is Divine; but usually this side of his nature is, as it were, turned away from view. Our personality has deeps which even our own consciousness has not plumbed, though at times it catches a glimpse of them. And we know that there are men whose consciousness is as much deeper than ours as ours is deeper than that of a babe. Whitman was one of these; and the fact that he was such a one must always render the writing of his biography a tentative task. It seems as though O’Connor, feeling this, had thrown his own attempt at portraiture into the form of a sort of parable. For his friends, while they saw possibilities in him which they also recognised in themselves, saw also others which bewildered them by their suggestions of the old hero-stories; and it cannot therefore be wondered, if sometimes they found in his life a similitude to that of the Nazarene.

The world is ever telling over the old legends, and wondering in spite of itself if, after all, they might be true. In our nobler moments we find ourselves rebelling[Pg 229] against the traditional limitations of our manhood; something within our own hearts assures us that humanity is destined to attain a nobler stature. Every new revelation of the possibilities of life, every new incarnation of humanity in some great soul, brings to our lips the name of Jesus. For in it the aspirations of the world’s childhood have been made our own.

We can never believe that the story of the Christ closed with the earthly career of Jesus. We know that He will come again; that humanity will renew its promise; that the old stock will break once more into prophetic blossom. And waiting and watching, at the advent of every great one, our hearts cry out the ineffable name of our hope, at whose very hearing the soul of faith is refreshed. Every great soul assures us that the old, old stories are more than true; they are prophetic for our very selves; speaking to us of a Divine destiny and purpose to which we, too, may—nay, must—eventually arise. To Whitman’s closest friends such was his gospel.

But it was not every one who could read him so significantly. Merely intellectual people, trying him by their own standards, often found him stupid. A young doctor, for instance, who had known him in New York, and was now a fellow-boarder with him upon M Street, records his own impression formed at this time, that Walt was physically lazy and intellectually hazy;[482] that his conversation was disappointingly enigmatic and obscure, and his words were misty, shadowy, elusive adumbrations. His vocabulary, says this gentleman, even when he was deeply affected by natural scenes, was almost grotesquely inadequate; they were “tip-top,” he would declare; and you could only gather from his manner and the tone of his voice that he meant more than a shabby commonplace.

The doctor, who was doubtless an encyclop?dia of accurate knowledge, found his companion sadly ignorant[Pg 230] of the common names of the trees and birds they noticed on their rambles. A few years later, however, Whitman displayed so considerable a knowledge in these directions that one may at least suppose he profited considerably from his companion’s information.[483] And even if he did not know their names, he came near to knowing their actual personality; which is probably more than even the worthy doctor attempted.

It is very certain that Whitman was no dreamer of vague dreams. His face at this time was equally expressive of alertness and of calm. His small eyes, grey-blue under their heavy-drooping passionate lids, were of an extraordinarily penetrating vision. They were the eyes of a spirit which looked out through them ceaselessly as from behind a shelter. Circled by a definite line, they had the perceptive draining quality of a child’s when it is first awake to all the world’s storehouse of strange things.[484] Never a merely passive onlooker, he was always a dynamic force, challenging and evoking the manhood of his friends.

This is notably the case in his relations with Peter Doyle, of whom I have already spoken as one of Walt’s closest companions during the greater part of the Washington period. Doyle was a young Catholic, born in Ireland but raised in the Virginian Alexandria.[485] His father, a blacksmith and machinist, eventually went to work in a Richmond foundry; and when the war broke out, Pete, who was a mere lad, entered the Confederate army. Soon after, he was wounded and made a prisoner, and being carried to Washington, he obtained during his convalescence[486] the post of conductor on one of the tram-cars running upon Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a course of some four miles, from Georgetown, by the White House and Treasury and near to Armory Square, up the hill by the Capitol and down again to near the Navy Yard on the Anacostia River. And in such[Pg 231] a course he was bound sooner or later to make the acquaintance of Whitman.
Drawing of Doyle at twenty-two and Walt at fifty.


Their meeting occurred one wild stormy night, perhaps in the winter of 1864-65,[487] when Pete was about eighteen. Walt had been out to see John Burroughs, and was returning wrapt around in his great blanket-rug, the only passenger in the car. Pete was cold and lonely: something about the big red-faced man within promised fellowship and warmth. So he entered the car and put his hand impulsively on Walt’s knee. Walt was pleased; they seemed to understand one another at once; and instead of descending at his destination, the older man rode an extra four miles that night for friendship’s sake.[488]

Pete was a fair well-built lad, with a warm Irish heart; and in Walt, who was old enough to have been his father, the fraternal and paternal qualities alike were[Pg 232] very strong. Separated from his own children, and his own younger brothers whom he had dearly loved, his heart’s tenderness expended itself upon other lads, and upon none more than upon Pete. There are few ties stronger than those which bind together the man or woman of middle life whose sympathies are still natural and warm, and the adolescent lad or maiden upon life’s threshold.

Whitman did not appear merely as a good fellow to his young comrade: his affection ran too deep for that. This is well illustrated by an incident in their relationship.[489] In a passing fit of despondency Pete declared that life was no longer worth living, and that he had more than half a mind to end it. Walt answered him sharply; he was very angry and not a little shocked. This occurred upon the evening of his departure for Brooklyn for one of his visits home, and the two separated somewhat coldly.

Walt arrived really ill, suffering from a sort of partial and temporary paralysis, which seems to have attacked him at times during the latter part of his residence in Washington. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he wrote his friend a letter full of loving reproaches, of affectionate calls to duty, and promises of assistance. The unmanly folly of Pete’s words had, he says, repelled him; but afterwards the sense of his indestructible love for the lad had returned again in fuller measure than ever, and he became certain that it was not the real Pete, “my darling boy, my young and loving brother,” who had spoken those wicked words. He adjures him, by his love for his widowed mother and for Walt his comrade, to be a man.

Many of the letters to Pete, during the vacations in Brooklyn from 1868 to 1872, are marked by a sort of paternal anxiety for the young man’s welfare. Pete was impulsive and emotional; he was not one to whom study or thrift was naturally easy. Walt aided him all he could in both directions. He was always encouraging[Pg 233] his “boys” to read good books, combining still, as in earlier years, the r?les of teacher and comrade; but he never checked in any degree his friend’s boyish, generous and pleasure-loving nature. And his love was returned with the whole-hearted loyal devotion of the true Celt.
Picture of Peter Doyle at fifty-seven.


This friendship with Doyle was only one among many,[490] and the fact that Pete was a Catholic and had been a Confederate soldier, shows how far such relations transcended any mere similarity of opinion. Indeed, there is nothing more notable in the circle of Whitman’s friends than their extraordinary dissimilarity one from another.

Day after day, Pete would come to the Treasury building after his work was done, and wait sleepily there till Walt was free; when they would start off upon a stroll, which often extended itself for many miles into the country. Walt frequently had other companions upon these rambles. Sometimes it would be John Burroughs, and sometimes quite a party of men, laughing, singing and talking gaily together as they went.

Whitman was the heart of good-fellowship; he was the oldest of them in years, but in years only. One wonders sometimes whether he himself realised that all these men were so much his juniors. There was no comrade, either man or woman, who had grown up beside him, learning with him the lessons of life. His mother was the great link with his own boyhood, and the letters which he wrote to her from Washington[491] show how strong was his attachment to her, and how great his capacity for home-love.

It is, then, not a little tragic that he had no home to call his own. In a sense he was a solitary man; in the midst of his all-embracing love and his self-revealing poems, Walt Whitman lived his life apart and kept many secrets. In spirit he was as solitary as Thoreau, nay, even more than he, for, though his fellowship was with the life Universal, his consciousness of it seemed unique.

[Pg 234]

His self-reliant, masculine nature was attractive to women, with whom he had, as one of his friends phrased it, “a good way”. With them and with children he was natural and happy.

Vague and anonymous figures of women move from time to time across his story. In 1863 it is with “a lady” that he first remarks the President’s sadness.[492] In 1868 he has great talks and jolly times with the girls he meets on a trip in New England,[493] and he writes of his “particular women friends in New York”. In 1869 he declares laughingly, he is quite a lady’s man again as in the old days.[494]

Women trusted him instinctively, and he repayed their trust by a remarkable silence as to his relations with them. He understood the hearts of women, for there was in him much of the maternal. This quality often finds quaint expression in his letters to Pete, who is “dear baby”[495] sometimes, and who found more than one kiss sent him upon the paper.

As he became famous, Whitman had his queue of visitors. Now it is a spiritualistic woman, who breaks off her interview in order to converse with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln; and now a Mrs. McKnight,[496] who would paint his portrait. Later, when he fell ill, “Mary Cole” came and ministered to him.[497] Mrs. O’Connor, with Mrs. Burroughs and Mrs. Ashton, belonged to the circle of his friends. With women, as with men, he had his own frank way of expressing affection, and many a time he greeted them with a kiss, knowing it would not be misinterpreted.

From 1868 to 1870 he was engaged upon a brief political treatise, apparently suggested to him by Carlyle’s vehement assault upon Democracy and all its ways, in Shooting Niagara.[498]

Life in Washington during and after the war had made the short-comings of Democracy very evident to[Pg 235] Whitman. The failure of President Johnson and his attempted impeachment, had been followed by drastic measures for enforcing Republican ideas in the South by all the abominable methods known to corruption and carpet-bag politicians. The year 1868 saw the election of Grant to the Presidency, and under him corruption extended in every direction. Grant’s real work was finished at Appomattox,[499] and his eight years of official life added nothing to his fame. But Whitman, sharing the national regard for a simple-minded, downright soldier, heartily approved his nomination, and urged his brothers to support him.

For the carpet-bag reconstruction of the South he had, of course, no sympathy. He longed for a union of hearts, and looked ardently forward to the day when the South, whom he loved so passionately, would realise again her inalienable part in the union. Without her America was incomplete. And in the “magnet South”[500] was much that was personally dearest to Whitman’s heart.

The more extreme Abolitionist sentiment had combined with the exigency of party to create a position in the Southern States which was intolerable to all right feeling. The suffrage had been taken away from the rebellious whites and given instead to the negroes. It was as though the management of the household affairs should be entrusted to wholly irresponsible children. One need hardly add that it was not the negro who ruled, but the political agent who bought his vote and made a tool of him. Such a policy only exasperated the antagonism between North and South.

And Whitman, though he hated slavery, saw that the negro was not ready to exercise the full rights of citizenship. When the negro vote in the capital became dominant in political elections, and the black population paraded the city in their thousands, armed and insolent, they seemed to him “like so many wild brutes let loose”.[501]

[Pg 236]

It was upon this question of negro-citizenship that he quarrelled with O’Connor. They had been arguing the subject, as O’Connor would insist on doing, and Walt, for the nonce, had the better of the bout. Thoughtlessly, and in the heat of the moment, he pressed his advantage too far; O’Connor lost his temper—perhaps Walt did the same—but when a moment later the older man returned to his usual good humour and held out his hand warmly to his friend, O’Connor’s wrath was still hot; he was offended and refused the reconciliation. In spite of their friends the sad estrangement continued for years.

The political treatise appeared at last under the title of Democratic Vistas.[502] It is the outcome of Whitman’s experiences and meditations upon the purpose of social and national life, especially during the last decade in Washington. In many respects it is an enlargement of portions of the first Preface.

In these fragmentary political memoranda Whitman is seen as the antagonist of what is often supposed to be the American character. The book is a scathing attack upon American complacency, which is even more detestable to Whitman than it was to Carlyle. He recognises the vulgarity and corruption that everywhere abound; the superficial smartness and alert commercial cunning which have taken the place of virtues in the current code of transatlantic morals. Flippant, infidel, unwholesome, mean-mannered; so he characterises New York, his beloved city. As fiercely as Carlyle he detests all the shams and hypocrises of democratic government, and he is as keen to discover the perils of universal suffrage.

But withal he holds fast to faith, and offers a constructive ideal. The jottings are threaded together by the reiterated declaration that national life will never become illustrious without a national literature. It is precisely here, says he, that America is fatally deficient.[Pg 237] Except upon the field of politics, what single thing of moral value has she originated? And what possible value has all her material development unless it be accompanied by a corresponding development of soul?

There is something like an inconsistency of attitude in this book; for here, on the one hand, we have Whitman assuming the r?le of the moralist, denouncing, menacing, upbraiding, and generally allowing himself to employ the moralist’s exaggerated, because partial, manner of speech. On the other hand, we find, interspersed among these passages of condemnation, others which assert his unwavering faith in the issue, his constant sense of the heroic character of the people.

Whitman never professed consistency, but his inconsistency is generally explicable enough. In this case he is of course denouncing the America of his day, only because he is regarding her from the popular point of view as something perfect and complete. He has faith in America when he views her as a promise of what she shall be; but even then only because he sees far into her essential character. The shallow, popular optimism is, he knows, wholly false; for if America is to triumph, as he believes she will, it can only be by the profound moral forces which are silently at work beneath the trivial shows of her prosperity.

The last enemy of the Republic was not slain when the slave party of secession, with its feudal spirit, was overcome. The victory of the North has for the present secured American unity, and with it the broad types both of Northern and of Southern character essential to the creation of a generous and profound national spirit. But America has set forth upon the most tremendous task ever conceived by man; a task indeed beyond the scope of any man’s thought. Urged on by the inner destiny-forces of the race, she is attempting to realise the race-ideal of a true democracy. To accomplish her errand she must be nerved and vitalised by the highest and deepest of ideals; for hers is a world-battle with all the relentless foes of progress.

Whitman, seeing clearly the dark aspect of the future,[Pg 238] the wars and revolutions yet in store, and having counted the cost of them, though he had faith that America would eventually achieve her purpose, yet might well be foremost in scourging her light moods of optimism with bitter words. And though he had not despaired of America—and even if he had, would have been the last man to suggest despair to others—though, also, he knew and loved the real soul of the nation; he was not so blind to possibilities of disaster, possibilities which he had faced more than once in recent years, as to suppose that she was of necessity chosen to be the elder sister of the Republics of the coming centuries.[503]

On the contrary, while he had no doubt of the growth and progress of humanity, he knew that a branch of the race might wither away prematurely; and he saw in the current culture and social beliefs of the city populations a wholly false and mischievous conception of American destiny. If the people of America were to perceive nothing but a field for money-making wherever the Stars and Stripes might float, then their patriotism would be worthless, and the Republic must fall.

He loved America too passionately to be cynically indifferent as to her fate. In spite of unworthy qualities, she yet might realise the world’s hope. But seeking ardently for a way, there was only one that Whitman could see; it was the way of religion. The old priestcraft was effete, but religion had not died with it.[504] In a new fellowship of prophet-poets, who should awaken the Soul of the Nation in the hearts of their hearers, as did the prophet-poets of Israel, in these and in these alone he had assurance—for already he seemed to behold them afar off—assurance of the future of his land.[505]

[Pg 239]

Whitman agreed with Carlyle as to the infinite value to the race of great men. He continually asserts their necessity to Democracy; not, indeed, as masters and captains so much as interpreters and as prophets. The truly great man includes more of the meaning of Democracy than the little man, and is therefore the better fitted to explain the purpose of the whole. Moreover, according to Whitman, it is for the creation of great personalities that Democracy exists; for he differs widely from the Platonic mysticism with its Ideal State as the goal of personal achievement.

He includes in his philosophy of society what is best both in the individualistic and the socialistic theories. He sees progress depending upon the interplay of two forces, which he calls the two sexes of Democracy[506]—Solidarity and Personality. It is for great souls to declare in the[Pg 240] name of Personality the fundamental truth of Democracy, that every man is destined to become a god. They must realise for themselves, and assert for the world, that a man well-born, well-bred and well-trained, may and must become a law unto himself.

According to Whitman, the one purpose of all government in a democracy is to encourage by all possible means the development of Soul-consciousness in every man and woman without any exception.[507] For, speaking generally, one may affirm that every fragment of humanity is ultimately capable of the heroism which is the force at humanity’s heart; but each fragment can only realise its possibilities as a part of the whole, and as sharing in the life of Solidarity.

To accomplish this destiny, and not for reasons of merit, Democracy encourages and requires of every one a participation in the duties and privileges of citizenship. And similarly, it requires that every one should be an owner of property in order that each may have his own material cell in the body politic.[508]

All persons are not yet prepared for citizenship; but such as are minors must be wisely and strenuously prepared, for Democracy suffers until all become true citizens.

The idle and the very poor are always a menace to Democracy.[509]

Even a greater menace, if that be possible, is to be found in the low standard of womanhood which still prevails in America. Woman, if only she would leave her silliness and her millinery,[510] and enter the life of reality and enterprise, would, by the majesty of maternity, be more than the equal of man. I think, though approving of women’s suffrage, he doubted whether it could effect the change he desired to see.

It cannot be doubted that, like Plato, he saw in the triviality of the women of the upper classes especially, one of the gravest dangers which beset the Republic. For the aim of Democracy is great free[Pg 241] personalities, and these can only be produced from a noble maternity. Unless motherhood and fatherhood in all their aspects become a living science,[511] and the practice of personal health is recognised as the finest of the arts, any achievement of the purpose of Democracy must be slow indeed.

Of other and very secondary kinds of culture, desirable enough in their place, America, he continues, has no lack. In some respects she is more European than Europe. But to personality, and the moral force which is personality, she is alarmingly indifferent. We have fussed about the world, cries this stern speaker of truth to his age and nation; we have gathered together its art and its sciences, but we have not grown great in our own souls. Our mean manners result precisely from that.

Thus he returns to reiterate the cry that can always be heard whenever we open any book of his, the cry of the quintessential importance of religion in every field of human life.[512] For religion is the life of the soul; that is to say, it is the heart of life.

Whitman’s religion, however, is not that which is taught by churches and churchmen. It is a religion extricated from the churches. In a notable passage[513] he declares: “Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated self to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the Divine levels, and commune with the unutterable”. In short, religion is moral or spiritual force: it is that which forms and maintains existence: without it, the continued life of nation or individual is inconceivable.

For a nation, too, has its soul-identity; and must become conscious of that if it is to live, much more if it is to lead. The awakening of America to this consciousness of its spiritual purpose Whitman awaits, as the prophets of Israel awaited the Messiah.[514] And we may add that with its realisation of nationhood, there comes[Pg 242] to a people the sense of its membership in the solidarity of the race.

Now this soul-consciousness, he proceeds, comes to a nation through its literature. In its songs and in its great epics, a people tells and reads the secrets of its life; it sees there, as in a glass, the Divine purpose which tabernacles in its own heart.

A literature which can do this for America will not be made by merely correct and clever college men, or by fanciful adepts in the arts of verse. Those who make it must breathe the open air of Nature; they must, in the largest sense, be men of science. But in Whitman’s language nature and science include more than the material and the seen. They are the world of reality and its knowledge; and the soul is the essence of reality: wherefore its experience is the sum of knowledge.

Thus made, literature will for the first time be worthy to quicken and immortalise the life of America.[515] It will feed the infant life of the real nation. Reading it, Americans will become aware at last of their world-destiny; and they will face the whole of life and death with a new faith and joy. America will become not merely a new world, but the mother of new worlds:[516] and lowering as the skies must often be, and tragic though the day’s end, she will behold the stars beyond.

Such, in crudest outline, is the gist of Whitman’s tractate; which, with the fifth edition of the Leaves, appeared early in 1871. Leaves of Grass now included Drum-taps; but the poems of President Lincoln’s death, with other matter suggested by the close of the war, were separately published in a little volume of 120 pages, which, while containing poems upon the lines suggested in Democratic Vistas, and reverting again to old themes, was more especially marked by those in which the idea of death as a voyage upon an unknown sea is dominant.

[Pg 243]
A page of Walt's handwritten manuscript, circa 1875.


The little book was called Passage to India, after the opening poem; and it has a completeness of its own, closing with a “Now Finalé to the Shore”. In its preface, he alludes to a plan which he had entertained—his active imagination entertained so many plans which he never realised![517]—the scheme of a new volume to companion and complement the Leaves, suggestive of death and the disembodied soul, as the Leaves were of the life in the body. He found, however, that the body was not so soon to be put aside; to the end, its hold upon him was extraordinarily tenacious. Doubting his ability for the task, he became content to offer a fragment and hint of what he had intended.

Passage to India is among his finest efforts.[518] Some of its single lines ring like clear bells, while the movement of the whole is varied, solemn and majestic. He shows his reader how the enterprise and invention of the world is binding all lands together to complete the “rondure” of the earth. The opening of the Suez Canal and of the Pacific Railroad are fulfilling the dream of the Genoese, who sought a passage to India in the circumnavigation of the world.

But, says Whitman, with that characteristic mystical touch which is never absent in his poems, it is only the poet who conceives of the world as really one and round. For none but he understands that the universe is essentially one, Soul and Matter, Nature and Man. To the mystic sense, India becomes symbolic of all the first elemental intuitions of the human race. Thither now again the poet leads his nation, back to its first visions and back to God.

Returning almost to the phrases of his first great poem,[519] Whitman declares his sureness of God, and his resolve not to dally with the Divine mystery. For him, God is the heart of all life, but especially the heart of all life that is true, good and loving: He is the reservoir of the spiritual, and He is the soul’s perfect and immortal comrade. Thus Whitman’s idea of God em[Pg 244]braces the “personal” element, so-called, which has been predicated by Christian experience and dogma.

When the soul has accomplished its “Passage to India”—has realised the unity of all[520]—then, says he, it will melt into the arms of its Elder Brother, the Divine Love. He does not mean that it will lose its slowly gained consciousness of selfhood; but that, to employ a formula of the Christian faith, it will enter the Godhead as a distinct Person. For the Godhead of Whitman’s theology is the ultimate unity of ultimate personalities—Many-in-one, the God of Love, the Heart of Communion or Fellowship.

It is with a splendid cry of adventurous delight and heroic ardour that Whitman sets out upon his perilous voyage, seeking the meaning of everything and of the whole, all hazards and dangers before him, upon all the seas of the Unknown: but not foolhardily—“Are they not all the seas of God?”

In passing, we may note that in these Washington poems the feeling for formal perfection is often clearly manifested. Many of the shorter lyrics repeat the opening line at their close. And careful reading, or better, recitation, will show that some at least of the longer poems are constructed with a broad, architectonic plan.

It is indeed a great mistake to suppose that Whitman was careless of form. Paradoxical though it sound, it was nothing but his overwhelming sense of the necessity for a living incarnation of his motive-emotions which led him to abandon the accepted media of written expression. He probably laboured as closely, deliberately and long upon his loose-rhythmed verses as a more precious stylist upon his. Whether successful or no, he was most conscientious and self-exacting in his obedience to the creative impulse, and in his selection of such cadences and words as seemed to his ear the best to render its precise import.

[Pg 245]

Probably the quiet life at Washington, and the intercourse there with studious and thoughtful men and women, helped his artistic sense. With a few exceptions, however, the Washington poems are somewhat less inevitable and procreative in their quality than those of an earlier period. They are not less interesting, but they are less elemental.

“The older he gets,” wrote a correspondent of the New York Evening Mail, “the more cheerful and gay-hearted he grows.”[521] Though he was now beginning to wear glasses, his jolly voice as he sang blithely over his bath, and his thrush-like whistle,[522] his hearty appetite and love of exercise, bore witness to vigour and good spirits.

The circle of his friends grew daily wider, and a measure of international fame began to come to him. Both in Germany and in France his book was being read, criticised and admired.[523] Rossetti’s selections had given him an English public, which was eager now for new editions of his complete poems; he had cordial letters from Tennyson and Addington Symonds; Swinburne addressed him in one of his “Songs before Sunrise,” and there were many others.[524]

From time to time he would receive an invitation from some academic or other body to recite a poem at a public function. Thus, in the autumn of 1871, he gave his “Song of the Exposition” at the opening of the annual exhibition of the American Institute;[525] it is a half-humorous poem, which follows some of the political themes suggested in Democratic Vistas. Again, at midsummer, 1872, he recited “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free”[526] on the invitation of the United Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire; making at this time a further tour as far as Lake Champlain, to visit his sister Hannah, who was married unhappily and far from all her people.[527]

[Pg 246]

Later the same autumn, old Mrs. Whitman left Brooklyn to live with her son, the colonel, in Camden; a quiet unattractive artisan suburb of Philadelphia. The old lady, now nearly eighty, partially crippled by rheumatism, and a widow for some eighteen years, did not long survive this transplanting. But sorrows came thick upon the Whitmans at this time. And first of all, it was Walt himself who broke down and was house-tied.


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