(Today, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson reign as the King and Queen of Nineteenth Century American poetry. It wasn’t always so. In 1896, four years after Whitman’s death, John Burroughs, one of America’s most beloved authors at the time, published an appreciation of his friend of thirty years, Whitman: A Study, in recognition of the fact that “A great many readers, perhaps three fourths of the readers of current poetry, and not a few of the writers thereof, cannot stand Whitman at all, or see any reason for his being.” But Burroughs had been deeply impressed from the start, having first read Whitman’s poems at the age of twenty or twenty-one in 1858 or 1859. Within a few years, Burroughs had taken a job in Washington D.C., where he befriended the poet whom he considered almost saintly, a living embodiment of the bold new energies in the poems. More than a century later Whitman: A Study remains a compelling defense of the man. Here are some excerpts, starting with a comparison between Whitman and Slabsides, Burroughs’s cottage in West Park.)
The writing of this preliminary chapter, and the final survey and revision of my Whitman essay, I am making at a rustic house I have built at a wild place a mile or more from my home upon the river. I call this place Whitman Land, because in many ways it is typical of my poet,–an amphitheatre of precipitous rock, slightly veiled with a delicate growth of verdure, inclosing a few acres of prairie-like land, once the site of an ancient lake, now a garden of unknown depth and fertility. Elemental ruggedness, savageness, and grandeur, combined with wonderful tenderness, modernness, and geniality. There rise the gray scarred cliffs, crowned here and there with a dead hemlock or pine, where, morning after morning, I have seen the bald eagle perch, and here at their feet this level area of tender humus, with three perennial springs of delicious cold water flowing in its margin; a huge granite bowl filled with the elements and potencies of life. The scene has a strange fascination for me, and holds me here day after day. From the highest point of rocks I can overlook a long stretch of the river and of the farming country beyond; I can hear owls hoot, hawks scream, and roosters crow. Birds of the garden and orchard meet birds of the forest upon the shaggy cedar posts that uphold my porch. At dusk the call of the whip-poor-will mingles with the chorus of the pickerel frogs, and in the morning I hear through the robins’ cheerful burst the sombre plaint of the mourning-dove. When I tire of my manuscript, I walk in the woods, or climb the rocks, or help the men clear up the ground, piling and burning the stumps and rubbish. This scene and situation, so primitive and secluded, yet so touched with and adapted to civilization, responding to the moods of both sides of life and imagination of modern man, seems, I repeat, typical in many ways of my poet, and is a veritable Whitman land. Whitman does not to me suggest the wild and unkempt as he seems to do to many; he suggests the cosmic and the elemental, and this is one of the dominant thoughts that run through my dissertation. Scenes of power and savagery in nature were more welcome to him, probably more stimulating to him, than the scenes of of the pretty and the placid, and he cherished the hope that he had put into his “Leaves” some of the tonic and fortifying quality of Nature in her more grand and primitive aspects.
His wildness is only the wildness of the great primary forces from which we draw our health and strength. Underneath all his unloosedness, or free launching forth of himself, is the sanity and repose of nature.
* * *
The more I saw of Whitman, and the more I studied his “Leaves,” the more significance I found in both, and the clearer it became to me that a new type of man and a new departure in poetic literature were here foreshadowed. There was something forbidding, but there was something vital and grand back of it. I found to be true what the poet said of himself,–
“Bearded, sunburnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding. I have arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them.”
* * *
We can make little of Whitman unless we allow him to be a law unto himself, and seek him through the clews which he himself brings. When we try him by current modes, current taste, and demand of him formal beauty, formal art, we are disappointed. But when we try him by what we may call the scientific standard, the standard of organic nature, and demand of him the vital and the characteristic,–demand of him that we have a law of his own, and fulfill that law in the poetic sphere,–the result is quite different.
More than any other poet, Whitman is what we make him; more than any other poet, his greatest value is in what he suggests and implies, rather than in what he portrays; and more than any other poet must he wait to be understood by the growth of the taste of himself. “I make the only growth by which I can be appreciated,” he truly says.
His words are like the manna that descended upon the Israelites “in which were all manner of tastes; and every one found in it what his palate was chiefly pleased with. If he desired fat in it, he had it. In it the young men tasted bead; the old men honey; and the children oil.” Many young men,–poets, artists, teachers, preachers,–have testified that they have found bread in Whitman, the veritable bread of life; others have found honey, sweet poetic morsels; and not a few report having found only gall.
* * *
Whitman will always be a strange and unwonted figure among his country’s poets and among English poets generally,–a cropping out again, after so many centuries, of the old bardic prophetic strain. Had he dropped upon us from some other sphere, he could could hardly have been a greater surprise and puzzle to the average reader or critic. Into a literature that was timid, imitative, conventional, he fell like leviathan into a duck-pond, and the commotion and consternation he created there have not yet subsided. All the reigning poets in this country except Emerson denied him, and many of our minor poets still keep up a hostile sissing cackling. He will probably always be more or less a stumbling-block to the minor poet, because of his indifference to the things which to the minor poet are all in all. He was a poet without what is called artistic form, and without technique, as that word is commonly understood. His method was analogous to the dynamic method of organic nature, rather than to the mechanical or constructive method of the popular poets.
* * *
[We must place Whitman] not among the minstrels and edifiers of his age, but among its prophets and saviours. He is nearer the sources of things than the popular poets,–nearer the founders and discoverers, closer akin to the large, fervent, prophetic, patriarchal men who figure in the early heroic ages. His work ranks with the great primitive books. He is of the type of the skald, the bard, the seer, the prophet. The specialization and differentiation of our latter ages of science and culture are less marked in him than in other poets. Poetry, philosophy, religion, are all inseparably blended in his pages.
* * *
The world always has trouble with its primary men, or with the men who have any primary gifts, like Emerson, Wordsworth, Browning, Tolstoi, Ibsen. The idols of an age are nearly always secondary me: they break no new ground; they make no extraordinary demands; our tastes and wants are already adjusted to their type; we understand and approve of them at once. The primary men disturb us; they are a summons and a challenge; they break up the old order; they open up new territory which we are to subdue and occupy; the next age and the next make more of them. In my opinion, the next age and the next will make more of Whitman, and the next still more, because he is in the great world-current, in the line of the evolutionary movement of our time. Is it at all probable that Tennyson can ever be to any other age what he has been to this? Tennyson marks an expiring age, the sunset of the feudal world. He did not share the spirit to which the future belongs. There was not one drop of democratic blood in his veins. To him, the people were an hundred headed beast.
* * *
One hesitates even to call Whitman the poet of “democracy,” or of “personality,” or of “the modern,” because such terms only half define him. He quickly escapes into that large and universal air which all great art breathes. We cannot sum him up in a phrase. He flows out on all sides, and his sympathies embrace all types and conditions of men. He is a great democrat, but, first and last and all over, he is a great man, a great nature, and deep world-currents course through him. He is distinctively an American poet, but his Americanism is only the door through which he enters upon the universal.