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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Life of Walt Whitman » CHAPTER XVIII AMONG THE PROPHETS
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With the completion of the main body of his work, and before we pass to the details of his last years in Camden, a brief digression into wider fields may perhaps be permissible. For Whitman’s thought, though it is very consciously his, is interestingly related to that of the preceding century and of his own, and no study of him would be at all complete which left this fact out of consideration. Readers who prefer to follow the path of events will find it again in the next chapter.

While it is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between the Essayist on Man and the Singer of Myself, they were at least agreed as to the proper subject for human study.

Physically they were most dissimilar—Pope, a little, deformed, ivory-faced wit, all nerves and eyes; Whitman, a huge, high-complexioned, phlegmatic peasant-artisan. Between their thought lay the century of Rousseau, Goethe and Hegel, of Washington, Robespierre and Napoleon. And their mental contrast was as marked as their physical. It is clearly indicated in the formal character of their work: Pope’s, a mosaic of brilliant couplets; Whitman’s, a choral or symphonic movement.[636]

Wholly lacking in the intellectual dazzle of the Augustan wits, Whitman’s strength lay rather in those naturalistically romantic regions of the imaginative[Pg 290] world which in the eighteenth century were being rediscovered by certain provincial singers, the forerunners of the Lake-poets. In the verses of Scottish poets from Ramsay to Burns; in Macpherson’s “Ossian,” and, finally, in the work of two men who were Londoners but “with a difference”—the soul-revealing cries of Cowper and the lyric abandonment of Blake—there was restored to English poetry that emotional quality which had been banned and ousted by the self-conscious club-men of the eighteenth century.[637]

Just as the passion of high conviction returns to English politics with Burke, and to English religion with Wesley, so it finds expression once again in the rhythmical impulse of Lyrical Ballads and the Songs of Innocence. There is here a new feeling for beauty, a new sense of the emotional significance of Nature.

With the return of that enthusiasm based upon conviction, which the sceptical Deism of Pope abhorred, there came a more elastic use of metre. For the movement of poetry should vary as the pulse varies under emotion. Passion now took the place of logic in the guidance of the rhythm of thought. And as the spirit of the poet lay open to the stars, his ear caught new and ever subtler rhythms, and became aware that every impelling motive for song has its own perfect and inalienable movement. His attention passed from current standards and patterns to those windy stellar melodies unheard by the town-bred Augustan ear. All this, with much more, is revealed in the work of the new poets, from Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley to Tennyson.

When Whitman came, his spirit was aware of this newly apprehended canon of poetic form. At first, he tried the medium of rhymed verses; but his were without inspiration. When self-expression became imperative he abandoned them.

For the poet, nothing can be more important than the emotional atmosphere which his verses create, for he[Pg 291] is conveying rather moods than fancies, inspirations of the soul rather than thoughts of the intelligence. Eventually, it is the poet’s own personality or attitude of mind that most affects the world; and it seemed to Whitman that this must communicate itself through the medium of his thoughts by their rhythm or pulse of speech and phrasing. The manner of speaking means more almost than the matter spoken, because it is by the manner, and not by the thought, that the speaker’s attitude toward life is most intimately conveyed.

It need hardly be said that there are rhythms which suggest and evoke gladness and exaltation; others which call forth melancholy; others which predispose to lascivious passions, and so forth: the thought is older than Plato. Whitman wished to convey to his readers all that I have attempted to describe in the foregoing pages; his own attitude towards life, that of a fearless, proud, abysmal, sympathetic, wholesome man. And he found no medium among those in current use which seemed to him effective for his purpose.

He had to go back to the prophets of Israel, and the rhythm into which their message was put anew by the seventeenth century translators, to find a model. It was from them, and from a study of the movements of prose, but especially of speech, that he came to his own singular, and not inappropriate style. At the last definition, the appeal of Leaves of Grass is intended to be that of an intimate kind of speech. It would be interesting, in this connection, to compare Whitman’s manner with that of the other writers of his period who have most distressed the purists—Browning, Carlyle, Emerson and Meredith—but that field is too large for us to enter now.

Addington Symonds once said[638] that Whitman had influenced him even more deeply than Plato; and the juxtaposition of the two names is as singular as it is suggestive. For while the “arrogant Mannhattanese”[Pg 292] is far indeed from the founder of the Academy, there is something essentially Platonic in Whitman’s attitude toward poetry. For Whitman was a moralist in the highest sense. With Plato, he dreamed always of the Republic, and that dream was the moving passion of his life.

He would—at least in his earlier years—have said with Plato, in his Laws, “The legislator and the poet are rivals, and the latter can only be tolerated if his words are in harmony with the laws of the State”. But over the last phrase he would have laughed, adding, In my Republic the citizens think lightly of the laws!

Like Plato, he accused all the poets whom he loved best of an essential hostility to the Republic. Their whole attitude implied an aristocratic spirit, which discovered itself in their rhythms, and struck at the life of America. He would only admit such poets as are in harmony with the spirit of the Republic, and interpret the genius of America.

It was for America, then, that he made his chants; chanting them, as he hoped, in such fashion that they might forever nerve new soldiers for the battle which he saw her destined to maintain through all the ages against the ancient tyrannies of the past.

If one were to seek among modern writers for those whose genius is related to Whitman’s, one would, I suppose, name first Rousseau, with his moody self-consciousness, his great social enthusiasm, his religious fervour, and his passionate perception of beauty in Nature.[639] And then, after Goethe, to whom I have several times referred in passing, one would add Byron, that audacious egoist, who, threatening the Almighty like some Miltonic Lucifer, fascinated the gaze of Europe.[640]

But Whitman had almost nothing either of the morbid sentiment or dramatic skill of the French reformer, nor had he Byron’s theatrical and somewhat futile[Pg 293] rhetoric of rebellion. He was indeed very much at peace with the cosmos; his confessions are frank, but impersonal; his egoism may be Satanic in its pride, but then for him, Satan, though he remains in opposition, is really an essential factor in the government of the worlds. Temperamentally he was nearer to George Sand;[641] and, on at least one side of his nature, to Victor Hugo.[642]

It is rather as a prophet than as a literary figure that we must compare him with his great contemporaries. On this side, he was obviously related to Millet, to Beethoven and to Wagner—but it seems simpler roughly to set him over against several men of his own craft who hold a European reputation—to Carlyle, Mazzini, Emerson, Morris, Browning, Tolstoi and Nietzsche.

With Whitman, Carlyle[643] recognised the underlying moral purpose of the universe, and the organic unity or solidarity of mankind; but being himself a Calvinistic Jacobin of irritable nerves, these convictions filled him, not with a joyful wonder and faith, but with contempt and despair. He never saw humanity as the body of a Divine and Godlike soul; and though he was continually calling men to duty and repentance, he did so from inward necessity rather than with any anticipation of success. For he felt himself to be a Voice crying in the wilderness. Whitman worshipped the hero as truly as did Carlyle; but then he saw the heroic in the heart of our common humanity, where Carlyle missed it; hence his appeal was one of confidence, not despair.

For Mazzini, the word “duty” was not a scourge but a magician’s wand, because he believed.[644] The Italian was not, like Carlyle, an iconoclast, but a messenger of good tidings; and if he carried a sword, it was in the name of the Prince of Peace. Like Whit[Pg 294]man, he was conscious of the world-life pulsing through him; in himself he found the peremptory spirit of the Republic demanding from him both blood and brain. Like Whitman also, he looked to a comradeship of young men for the regeneration of his nation; and to a poet to come for the great words which alone can unite men and nations, creating the world anew in the image of Humanity. For them both, religion was the ultimate word—a religion free from the shackles of dogma, free in the spirit of the Whole—and it was a word which the world could only receive from the poets that are to be. But while thus similar in their aspirations, they were very different in temper and circumstances. For Mazzini was a fiery, nervous martyr to his cause, a Dantesque exile from the land of his love. And yet his appeal, at least in his writings, is not so intimate as is that of the less vehement apostle of liberty.

With Emerson,[645] whose relationship to Whitman I have already discussed, there is the great contrast of temperament. For in him, passion seems to have played but little part. He is one of the noblest of those constitutional Protestants and individualists who are incapable of feeling the fuller tides of the catholic passion of social sympathy. His earnest and profound spirit seems to dwell forever in the sunny cloisters of a thoughtful solitude, far distant from life’s rough and tumble.

Browning’s belief that the immanent Divinity finds expression through passion, and is lost in all suppression of life;[646] and his faith in the universal plan, which includes the worst with the best, relate his thought to Whitman’s. For them both, each individual life contains a part of the divine secret. It is the concrete personality of things which they seek to express, though in very different ways.

Browning astonished Carlyle by his confident cheerfulness. And his optimism was founded upon knowledge, or at least did not depend upon ignorance. Though he believed in the triumph of the divine[Pg 295] element in every soul—the element of love—he recognised the reality of evil, and saw life as a battle.

But not as a battle between the body and the soul, or between vice and virtue: the conflict, for Browning as for Whitman, is ultimately between love as the inmost spirit of life, and all other virtues and vices whatsoever. Love alone “leaves completion in the soul,” and solves the enigmas of doubt.

Browning’s conception of a Democracy, in which all men should “be equal in full-blown powers,” and God should cease to make great men, because the average man would have become great, was set forth in some of the earliest work of a genius as precocious in its development as that of his master Shelley.

But it would be easy to exaggerate the relationship which I have indicated. For Browning was a cosmopolitan and delightful gentleman, who in his later years cultivated music and studied yellow parchments and the freaks of human nature, in a Venetian palace; while Whitman was sauntering through old age in the suburb of an American city, appearing by comparison uneducated, uncouth and provincial. Appearance is, however, deceptive, for the earth Walt smacks of is the autochthonous red soil of the creation of all things.

Tolstoi, aristocrat as he is by birth and education, is yet a peasant in his physical and spiritual character; a Russian peasant, with the moujik’s almost Oriental stubbornness of resignation and passivity. Like Whitman, he is one of the people, and in some respects he is an incarnation of Russia, as Whitman was of America. But while there are many obvious relations between the two men, their contrast is the more striking. Tolstoi has the Oriental tendency towards pessimism and asceticism. He sees the body and spirit in irreconcilable conflict. And similarly he opposes forever pleasure and duty; so that his is a message of the endless sacrifice of self.

An abyss of terror surrounds him, from which he can only escape by a life of resolute and loving self-[Pg 296]devotion.[647] His gospel is one of escape, and is in many respects nearer in spirit to Carlyle’s than to Whitman’s. Tolstoi’s detestation of the State is, doubtless, largely traceable to the military despotism under which he has lived.

There is a certain element of pessimism also, in the attitude of William Morris, as of Ruskin his master. But though he flings back the Golden Age into the thirteenth century, his gospel is really one of actual joy. When the citizen finds pleasure in his daily work, the State will prosper; such is his promise for the future, and his condemnation of the present. Carlyle urged men to work, in order to kill doubt, and silence the terrible questions; but Morris finds that the questions are really answered by work, if only it is done in the spirit of the artist, and in fellowship with others.[648]

Like Whitman, Morris was one who seemed to his friends almost terribly self-sufficing; he could stand alone, they thought. But strong as he seemed in his solitude, he was the poet of fellowship, of a fellowship which is man’s fulfilment and immortal life. Though Whitman’s view of that life was more philosophical, and his personality had a more mystical depth, the two men had much in common, especially in the aggressive and elemental masculinity of their character, and their superb joy and pride in themselves.

It would be interesting to compare Whitman’s general position with that of Nietzsche; that most perplexing figure of young Germany in revolt from Hegel and all the past, from the restraint, system and conventions which threaten the liberty of the individual spirit. But Nietzsche is difficult to summarise; and time has not yet given us the perspective in which alone the general forms of his thought will become evident.

It is clear, however, that he expresses that spirit of rebellion which was so marked a feature of the first[Pg 297] Leaves of Grass; a rebellion against all bondage, even though it call itself virtue and morality. And this, be it remembered, was always a part of the real Whitman; it was the side of the Square Deific which he has aptly named “Satan”.

Between Nietzsche’s “overman,” jealous of every tittle of his identity, and always a law unto himself, refusing to bow his neck to the virtues and vices of the “weaker brother”; and Whitman’s self-asserting Ego, there is the same striking resemblance. One can never omit the dogma of the sacredness of self-assertion, with the criticism of Christianity which it involves, from any statement of Whitman’s position. He evidently detested that plausible levelling argument, so potent for mischief to the race-life which it professes to guard—that one must be always considering the effects of example upon the foolish and perverse, and endeavouring to live down to their folly and perversity, instead of up to the level of true comradeship. Be yourself, say Whitman and Nietzsche, and do not waste your life trying to be what you fancy for the sake of other people you ought to be.

Whitman’s doctrine of equality is again really not unlike Nietzsche’s doctrine of inequality; for it only asserts the equality of individuals because of the overman latent in each one; and is different enough from the undistinguishing equalitarianism of popular philosophy.

But Whitman had the balancing qualities which Nietzsche lacked. As he said once to Mr. Pearsall Smith: “I am physically ballasted so strong with weightiest animality and appetites, or I should go off in a balloon”. In his case, self-assertion was not associated with mania; for it never snapped those ties of comradeship and love which keep men human, but became instead a bond for fuller and nobler relations with men and women.

The comparison with Nietzsche suggests the limits of Whitman’s Hegelianism. For though he once declared that he “rated Hegel as Humanity’s chiefest teacher and the choicest loved physician of my mind and soul”;[Pg 298] and again, that his teaching was the undercurrent which fructified his views of life,[649] yet it may well be doubted whether he ever really mastered the full Hegelian theory, or realised the futility of many of those generalisations in which German idealism has been so prolific. It was because Hegel saw life, both the Me and the Not Me, as a single Whole, and found a place for evil in his world-purpose, that Whitman hailed him as the one truly “American” thinker of the age. But in the individualism of Nietzsche is the partial corrective of Hegel’s position; and as I have suggested, Whitman would have accepted it as such.

Perhaps the foregoing very rough and ready comparisons may have thrown some light on the outstanding features of Whitman’s personal message and influence. But there remains another, which I have already suggested, and to which for a moment we must return.

Whitman was essentially a prophet-mystic, and while he derived nothing from most of the men with whom his thought is related, the indirect influence upon him of George Fox the Quaker is certain.[650]

Fox’s distinguishing quality was his intense personal reality; there are few more vivid figures on any page of history. This seems to be due to the fulness of life which he realised, and could focus in his actual consciousness. From this he did not derive “advanced views” but vital power. And vital power is equally, and perhaps in fuller measure, characteristic of Whitman, manifesting itself by various signs in his daily life, and in the phrases of his book.

In Whitman, as in Fox, this was an attractive power of extraordinary force. Around Fox it created a Society of Friends; and one cannot doubt that sooner or later a world-wide Fellowship of Comrades will result from the life-work of Whitman.

[Pg 299]

Fox’s “Friends”—though the meaning of the title may originally have been “Friends of the Truth”—were real friends; united in a new ideal of communion. They shared the highest experience in common; meeting for the purpose of entering together into “the power of the life”.

And Whitman also realised that life at its highest is only revealed to comrades. His view of religion was even less formal than that of the early Quakers; but he, too, preferred to sit in silence with those he loved, realising that Divine power and purpose which was one in them.

Quakerism has not unfairly been spoken of as a spiritual aristocracy; there seems to be something essentially exclusive about it. On the other hand, it is essentially democratic and would exclude none; but the methods necessary to its conception of truth do not appeal to the many.

Similarly, the Fellowship of Whitman’s Comrades must be an aristocracy of overmen—if the words can be divested of all sinister association and read in their most literal sense.

Whitman recognised that his inner teachings could only be accepted by the few, and for them he set them forth. But for the many also, he had a message. And though the actual comrades of Whitman must be able to rise to his breadth of view and depth of purpose, that purpose embraces the whole world.

For the possibility of Comradeship is implicit in every soul; and there is none—no, not the most foolish or perverted or conventionally good—who is ultimately incapable of entering into it. The fellowship must be as essentially attractive as was the personality of Whitman himself; and if few should be chosen to be its members, yet all would be called.

Once realised as the one end of all individual and social life, such a Comradeship would transform our institutions and theories whether of ethics, politics, education or religion. In a word, it would change life into a fine art. For it could be no Utopian theory, but the[Pg 300] most practicable of gospels. The seed has been already sown, and we may now await with confidence the growth of a tree through whose branches all the stars of faith will yet shine, and in whose embracing roots all the rocks of science will be held together.


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