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Walt Whitman Post by :Dstyles Category :Essays Author :John Cowper Powys Date :September 2011 Read :3488

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Walt Whitman

I want to approach this great Soothsayer from the angle least of all profaned by popular verdicts. I mean from the angle of his poetry. We all know what a splendid heroic Anarchist he was. We all know with what rude zest he gave himself up to that "Cosmic Emotion," to which in these days the world does respectful, if distant, reverence. We know his mania for the word "en masse," for the words "ensemble," "democracy" and "libertad." We know his defiant celebrations of Sex, of amorousness, of maternity; of that Love of Comrades which "passeth the love of women." We know the world-shaking effort he made--and to have made it at all, quite apart from its success, marks him a unique genius!--to write poetry about every mortal thing that exists, and to bring the whole breathing palpable world into his Gargantuan Catalogues. It is absurd to grumble at these Inventories of the Round Earth. They may not all move to Dorian flutes, but they form a background--like the lists of the Kings in the Bible and the lists of the Ships in Homer--against which, as against the great blank spaces of Life itself, "the writing upon the wall" may make itself visible.

What seems much less universally realized is the extraordinary genius for sheer "poetry" which this Prophet of Optimism possessed. I agree that Walt Whitman's Optimism is the only kind, of that sort of thing, that one can submit to without a blush. At least it is not indecent, bourgeois, and ill-bred, like the fourth-hand Protestantism that Browning dishes up, for the delectation of Ethical Societies. It is the optimism of a person who has seen the American Civil War. It is the optimism of a man who knows "the Bowery" and "the road," and has had queer friends in his mortal pilgrimage.

It is an interesting psychological point, this difference between the "marching breast-forward" of Mrs. Browning's energetic husband, and the "taking to the open road" of Whitman. In some curious way the former gets upon one's nerves where the latter does not. Perhaps it is that the boisterous animal-spirits which one appreciates in the open air become vulgar and irritating when they are practised within the walls of a house. A Satyr who stretches his hairy shanks in the open forest is a pleasant thing to see; but a gentleman, with lavender-colored gloves, putting his feet on the chimney-piece is not so appealing. No doubt it is precisely for these Domestic Exercises that Mr. Chesterton, let us say, would have us love Browning. Well! It is a matter of taste.

But it is not of Walt Whitman's Optimism that I want to speak; it is of his poetry.

To grasp the full importance of what this great man did in this sphere one has only to read modern "libre vers." After Walt Whitman, Paul Fort, for instance, seems simply an eloquent prose writer. And none of them can get the trick of it. None of them! Somewhere, once, I heard a voice that approached it; a voice murmuring of


"Those that sleep upon the wind, And those that lie along in the rain, Cursing Egypt--"


But that voice went its way; and for the rest--what banalities! What ineptitudes! They make the mistake, our modern free-versifiers, of thinking that Art can be founded on the Negation of Form. Art can be founded on every other Negation. But not on that one--never on that one! Certainly they have a right to experiment; to invent--if they can--new forms. But they must invent them. They must not just arrange their lines to look like poetry, and leave it at that.

Walt Whitman's New Form of Verse was, as all such things must be, as Mr. Hardy's strange poetry, for instance, is, a deliberate and laborious struggle--ending in what is a struggle no more--to express his own personality in a unique and recognisable manner. This is the secret of all "style" in poetry. And it is the absence of this labour, of this premeditated concentration, which leads to the curious result we see on all sides of us, the fact, namely, that all young modern poets write alike. They write alike, and they are alike--just as all men are like all other men, and all women like all other women, when, without the "art" of clothing, or the "art" of flesh and blood, they lie down side by side in the free cemetery. The old poetic forms will always have their place. They can never grow old-fashioned; any more than Pisanello, or El Greco, or Botticelli, or Scopas, or any ancient Chinese Painter, can grow old-fashioned. But when a modern artist or poet sets to work to create a new form, let him remember what he is doing! It is not the pastime of an hour, this. It is not the casual gesture of a mad iconoclast breaking Classic Statues into mud, out of which to make goblins. It is the fierce, tenacious, patient, constructive work of a lifetime, based upon a tremendous and overpowering Vision! Such a vision Walt Whitman had, and to such constant inspired labour he gave his life--notwithstanding his talk about "loafing and inviting his soul"!

The "free" poetry of Walt Whitman obeys inflexible, occult laws, the laws commanded unto it by his own creative instinct. We need, as Nietzsche says, to learn the art of "commands" of this kind! Transvaluers of old values do not spend all their time sipping absinthe. Is it a secret still, then, the magical unity of rhythm, which Walt Whitman has conveyed to the words he uses? Those long, plangent, wailing lines, broken by little gurgling gasps and sobs; those sudden thrilling apostrophes and recognitions; those far-drawn flute-notes; those resounding sea-trumpets; all such effects have their place in the great orchestral symphony he conducts!

Take that little poem--quite spoiled before the end by a horrible bit of democratic vulgarity--which begins:


"Come, I will build a Continent indissoluble; I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon--"


Is it possible to miss the hidden spheric law which governs such a challenge? Take the poem which begins:

"In the growths, by the margins of pond-waters--"
Do you not divine, delicate reader, the peculiar subtlety of that reference to the rank, rain-drenched anonymous weeds, which every day we pass in our walks inland? A botanical name would have driven the magic of it quite away.

Walt Whitman, more than anyone, is able to convey to us that sense of the unclassified pell-mell, of weeds and stones and rubble and wreckage, of vast, desolate spaces, and spaces full of debris and litter, which is most of all characteristic of your melancholy American landscape, but which those who love England know where to find, even among our trim gardens! No one like Walt Whitman can convey to us the magical ugliness of certain aspects of Nature--the bleak, stunted, God-forsaken things; the murky pools where the grey leaves fall; the dead reeds where the wind whistles no sweet fairy tunes; the unspeakable margins of murderous floods; the tangled sea-drift, scurfed with scum; the black sea-winrow of broken shells and dead fishes' scales; the roots of willow trees in moonlit places crying out for demon-lovers; the long, moaning grass that grows outside the walls of prisons; the leprous mosses that cover paupers' graves; the mountainous wastes and blighted marshlands which only unknown wild-birds ever touch with their flying wings, and of which madmen dream--these are the things, the ugly, terrible things, that this great optimist turns into poetry. "Yo honk!" cries the wild goose, as it crosses the midnight sky. Others may miss that mad-tossed shadow, that heartbreaking defiance--but from amid the drift of leaves by the roadside, this bearded Fakir of Outcasts has caught its meaning; has heard, and given it its answer.

Ah, gentle and tender reader; thou whose heart, it may be has never cried all night for what it must not name, did you think Swinburne or Byron were the poets of "love"? Perhaps you do not know that the only "short story" on the title-page of which Guy de Maupassant found it in him to write that word is a story about the wild things we go out to kill?

Walt Whitman, too, does not confine his notions of love to normal human coquetries. The most devastating love-cry ever uttered, except that of King David over his friend, is the cry this American poet dares to put into the heart of "a wild-bird from Alabama" that has lost its mate. I wonder if critics have done justice to the incredible genius of this man who can find words for that aching of the soul we do not confess even to our dearest? The sudden words he makes use of, in certain connections, awe us, hush us, confound us, take our breath,--as some of Shakespeare's do--with their mysterious congruity. Has my reader ever read the little poem called "Tears"? And what purity in the truest, deepest sense, lies behind his pity for such tragic craving; his understanding of what love-stricken, banished ones feel. I do not speak now of his happily amorous verses. They have their place. I speak of those desperate lines that come, here and there, throughout his work, where, with his huge, Titanic back set against the world-wall, and his wild-tossed beard streaming in the wind, he seems to hold open by main, gigantic force that door of hope which Fate and God and Man and the Laws of Nature are all endeavoring to close! And he holds it open! And it is open still. It is for this reason--let the profane hold their peace!--that I do not hesitate to understand very clearly why he addresses a certain poem to the Lord Christ! Whether it be true or not that the Pure in Heart see God, it is certainly true that they have a power of saving us from God's Law of Cause and Effect! According to this Law, we all "have our reward" and reap what we have sown. But sometimes, like a deep-sea murmur, there rises from the poetry of Walt Whitman a Protest that must be heard! Then it is that the Tetrarchs of Science forbid in vain "that one should raise the Dead." For the Dead are raised up, and come forth, even in the likeness wherein we loved them! If words, my friends; if the use of words in poetry can convey such intimations as these to such a generation as ours, can anyone deny that Walt Whitman is a great poet?

Deny it, who may or will. There will always gather round him--as he predicted--out of City-Tenements and Artist-Studios and Factory-Shops and Ware-Houses and Bordelloes--aye! and, it may be, out of the purlieus of Palaces themselves--a strange, mad, heart-broken company of life-defeated derelicts, who come, not for Cosmic Emotion or Democracy or Anarchy or Amorousness, or even "Comradeship," but for that touch, that whisper, that word, that hand outstretched in the darkness, which makes them know--against reason and argument and all evidence--that they may hope still--for the Impossible is true!


(The end)
John Cowper Powys's essay: Walt Whitman

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