American Poets


[Auszug: Whitman]




1. The Poetical Works of Bryant, Whittier, Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Holmes, Lowell, Harte, Miller, Whitman.
2. The Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Edited by Samuel Longfellow. London, 1886.
3. The Poets of America. By E. C. Stedman. London, 1885.

NATIONAL character is unfairly judged by its least fortunate expression. Conspicuous features rarely indicate the substance, the most blatant voices seldom utter the deepest truths. They may usurp attention by their grotesqueness or their noise; but the nation is most faithful and adequately represented in less obtrusive details. Especially is this the case in America, where democratic institutions encourage misapprehension by giving expression to the largest aggregate of human selfishness. To Englishmen, the special value of American poetry is, that it reflects the inner spirit and progress of the national life, reveals the pure feeling, the high ideals, the culture and refinement of our Transatlantic neighbours, expresses the mind and heart of the country more fitly than irrelevant habits or superficial peculiarities of manners and customs. If any one still believes the Americans to be merely a shrewd, boastful, peering, fluent people, atrophied by the exclusive worship of wealth, let him read their poetry. America herself has been quick to recognize that, as an instrument of progress, national poetry possesses inestimable value. She felt, and wisely felt, that she could not dispense with so powerful an agency to quicken the pulse of patriotism, to kindle energy and awaken hope, to disclose the ennobling ideals that are embodied in worthless forms, to keep sacred the shrine of freedom from the desecration of cant and self-interest. She had faith, and with reason, in the native sense of beauty which underlay her hard and selfish civilization; she knew that

A cold outside there burns a secret fire
That will find vent, and will not be put out.'




Apart from the extreme difficulty of discussing a poet like Whitman, to whom existing standards cannot be applied with exactness, the contest which rages round his name seems to necessitate a more lengthy examination of his merits than can be included in a general article. From the first he has invited dogmatic criticism. As wild and unkempt as he is fresh and vigorous, he has excited as much opposition as enthusiasm. Is his extravagance originality or inflation, his lawlessness genius or license, his obscurity depth or nonsense, his self-assertion strength or bluster? Only in the briefest outline will it be possible to indicate our view of the nature of his claims, and of the degree of his failure and success.

He claims, though it is understood that his views have undergone some modification, to be the founder of a new literature, the prophet and poet of the United States as the Great Republic of the present and the great Democracy of the future. The past does not legislate for him, for every generation is a law to itself. He admits no such contracted view of art or human nature as belongs to an aristocratic literature, relegates the stock materials and forms of poetry to the background, includes all words among the means, all classes, characters, actions, occupations, functions among the subjects, of poetic representation. He abjures all respect to received opinion, all [390] deference to accepted canons, all obedience to authority. For the poet of America he demands absolute freedom of treatment, unbounded liberty in choice of form and subject. He composes systematically with the ever-present purpose of breaking down the barriers between prose and verse, and creating a new style which shall supersede all others in case, variety, and flexibility. Yet at the same time he professes to write with that unconscious naturalness which is the art of arts and the sworn foe of artificiality. In his pictures of practical life no selection is exercised, but every element is represented. He sings of men as a microcosm of the world, in his relations to the past, the present, and the future; of Personality with the egotism of one who, in celebrating himself, celebrates the Adam of the nineteenth century, the manhood of the American democracy; of materialism with an ideal realism which treats 'objects gross and the unseen world' as one, and the body as the living garment of the soul; of Universality with the enthusiasm of an American patriot who rises above distinctions of race or nationality to chant the evangel-song of democratic comradeship. It forms a curious comment on Whitman's claims that he finds more readers in the Old World which he despises than in the New which he glorifies, and that the multitude, whose singer he professes to be, welcome. Longfellow but remain absolutely ignorant of the literary merits of their own poet.

Such pieces as the burial hymn to Lincoln 'When lilacs last, &c.,' or 'Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,' stamp Whitman as a lyric genius of the highest order. In creative force and imaginative vigour Whitman stands, in our opinion first among American poets. But he has not justified his claim to initiate a new departure in the form or the substance of poetry. His finest passages are written when, in the sweep of his lyric passion, he forgets his system and his purpose. His poems come before the world in a shape which is as attractive to some as it is repulsive to others. In either case the audacity of the strange attire rivets attention. Yet the form is not new. At their best his lines have the sweep of the Hebrew prophets; they roll in upon the ear, rythmic as the waves beating on the shore. But just as often they resemble the baldest prose of Tupper. Whitman denounces rhyme as the medium of inferior writers and trivial subjects. His slatternly prose irresistibly suggests the conclusion, that his revolt against the tinkling serenader's style was confined, if it was not stimulated, by mechanical incapacity or at least by a want of artistic patience. In the first heat of his revolutionary enthusiasm, he claimed to throw art to the winds, and to demonstrate its futility when [391] applied to the higher forms of poetry. In his maturer judgment he poses as the Wagner of poetry. It is possible, and even probable, that poetry, like music, may undergo great rythmical changes; but whatever change takes place will be in the direction, not of the neglect, but of the development of Art. It is no defence of Whitman's theory that he wished to render poetry inartistic; it is a complete and adequate defence, that he attempts to produce in verse the cosmical symphony, the strong musical pulse that beats throughout the world, the great undersong of the universal surge of Nature. Had this conception been in his mind from the first, had he been an innovator and not a mere iconoclast, he might have worked out his system less crudely. His vocabularly is strong and rich. He bows to no aristocracy of words. He hopes to see the Versailles of verse invaded by the language of the 'Halles' He uses whatever expression most forcibly conveys his meaning, without regard to conventionalities. Thus his language is piercingly direct, and he repeatedly strikes out original epithets or phrases which create a picture in themselves.

In the protest which Whitman makes against conventionalities of form and language, he did good service; but he only echoes the voice of Emerson. His claim to be the founder of a new poetic school is more justified by the substance than the form of his verse. A characteristic feature in his treatment of his vast measureless subject is the method which he adopts of union instead of division comprehension, not selection. The body is not divided from the soul, nor the spiritual separated from the material world. Modern science, by its analysis, lays waste much of the old domain of the imagination; Whitman shows that modern poetry may, by its synthesis, gather into a focus the scattered rays of light, and keep scientific research in contact with humanity. In his democratic theories he gives utterances to no novel thoughts, though he expresses his convictions with so striking a force that the ideas appear original. His view is that of a transcendental evolutionist. He clothes in concrete form the abstract ideas of Emerson. To his own noble ideal of the future of Democracy he adheres with a confidence, which even his gloomy estimate of the present condition of society wholly fails to shake. On the wide breadths of his canvas he throws, with strangely vivid patches of local colouring, the restless activities and energies of his nation. His theory of poetry excludes him from exercising the principle of selection. He only ends his catalogues when his sense of number and variety is satisfied. Clumsy and [392] inartistic though the device may be, his lists are sometimes a powerful means of expressing vastness.

But it is not the size of the picture, nor the novelty of the thoughts, nor the audacity of the form, which constitute the fascination of Whitman's poetry. It is the impressive personality of the writer; the force and vitality of his broad living sympathy with his fellows, whatever their degree or condition; the strength of the dear love of comradeship, which is as feminine in its tenderness as it is masculine in its passion; the fresh, breezy, open-air character of his descriptive touches. The mongrel words, the transitions, the slang, the bald prose, the unendurable catalogues, hardly check the swing and volume of the whole poem, which moves with the force of thousands sweeping forward as one man. Whitman's attempts to assimilate the results of science lead him to contemplate Nature as a whole, and to render general effects rather than minute details. Yet, though his picture of the mocking-bird is ornithologically incorrect, he often displays a faculty of close observation which is as accurate as his local touches are vivid. His introspective attitude causes him, as a general rule, to represent the effect of Nature upon the mind rather than the natural object itself. Thus, in one of his lyric outbursts upon midsummer night, he expresses the physical ecstasy which it produces, not the special features of the

     '. . . bare-bosom'd night, . . . magnetic nourishing night,
Night of south winds, night of the few large stars!
Still nodding night mad, naked, summer night.'

The passages in the 'Children of Adam' are, in our opinion, ineffably and unnecessarily disgusting. But their place in the poem is obvious, and Whitman may appeal to a life of singular nobility and heroism to rebut the charge of pruriency. In theory he has right on his side. If every part, every natural action, every organ of humanity, were equally honoured and sacred, mock modesty would be at an end. To be naked and not ashamed the primitive innocence of the savage is the ideal state. Prurience thrives in concealment: it canuot bear exposure. But Whitman either did not pause to consider whether it is possible to re-establish the primitive condition of unconsciousness, or, as we incline to think, was too fanatical in his convictions to reflect upon the fearful risks by which such an attempt is inevitably accompanied. It is this fanaticism which is at once his strength and his weakness. To it he owes that vehement absorption in his creed which belongs to the prophet: it raises his passion to an elemental force; it enables [393] him to sing the future of Democracy in a voice of full-toned ecstasy which never shakes or falters. On the other hand, it deprives him of humour and self-criticism; it changes his consciousness of strength into an arrogance which is blind to all merit in the work or the methods of others; it inspires him with an exaggerated contempt for that Art to the principles of which his genius pays a silent and perhaps unconscious homage.

Like all modern versifiers, American poets of the cultured school are characterized by scholarly refinement of thought, command of dainty fancies, and mastery of the technicalities of their art. As the special birthright of their nation, they possess fluency of language, genius for effective illustrations, and power of condensing thought into portable epigrammatic shape. Their native nimbleness of mind enables them to approach their subjects from many different points of view, each of which suggests, a profusion of novel associations. It is this power that imparts to their verse the charm of freshness. Their poetry has the transparent brilliancy, the sparkle, and the sharp outline of cut glass. But it is vitreous, not opaline. There is little depth of light and shade, no flesh-tints, no broad, massive effects of colour. This class of American poetry, as the abundance of the crop seems to indicate, is the fruit of extreme culture. The soil in which it grows is never rank of course, but neither is it deep or rich. There is not the gusto and relish of life among cultivated Americans which seem to belong to master-minds. The climate has sharpened the mental perceptions, but dried up the marrow and the juice. The intellect preponderates over all that is emotional and spontaneous: the critical and discerning elements overpower the passionate and fervid. Refinement seems to rob the literary character of its bone and sinew, and culture to bleach its flowers of their colour. And, after all, the grace of strength transcends all other grace. Touches of anything gross and strong are rare: the dauntlessness of Nature seems exhausted; there is little that is grand-hearted, tumultuous, and self-forgetful.

On the other hand, and in these days it is a most legitimate source of pride, nothing is more remarkable than the consistent purity of the moral tone, and the unfailing delicacy of feeling. There are few, if any, lines in the whole range of this class of American poetry that a dying poet need wish to blot. From first to last, there are no insidious suggestions.

The democratic school of poets, with all their glaring faults, recognize that dainty perfection of expression is no substitute for stimulating thought; and that subtle analyses of the lighter emotions or deft-fingered sketches of society may display in[394]genuity or fancy, but afford no occasion for the exercise of creative force or imaginative power. Whitman has failed to revolutionize poetry. Rhyme and metre will endure so long as the songs of men or birds; Art will outlive the longest life. But the future is, we believe, in other respects with him and his school. He illustrates, as often by failure as by success, what are the true needs of modern poetry. Power, and force, and freedom, confer an immortality which no culture can secure. Behind the poetry there must be a living personality, a nature, coarse-fibred perhaps, but strong, deep, and vehement. Modern poetry, again, must be full of human interest. The cultivated poets of America have carried description to the highest pitch of perfection, perhaps because it affords the readiest escape from the crudities of their material civilization. But pictures of Nature, however exquisite, are comparatively valueless, unless they form the backgrounds for human action. The living figures are too often absent. It is in this field of human life and character that American novelists have reaped abundant harvest. There is yet room for her poets. The dramatic element is strong in Bret Harte, and, though Whitman draws types rather than individuals, his poetry is thronged with the concrete realities of life. Lastly, the future position of poetry must largely depend on her attitude to modern science. Legends, and myths, and romance, seem destined to disappear: but in their place are revealed unsuspected expanses of knowledge, and unbounded vistas opened to the imagination. Here again Whitman has proved a worthy pioneer. In many striking passages he has anticipated and assimilated the latest results of scientific enquiry.

To conjecture the future of poetry, whether in the Old or the New World, would be a fond and foolish task. Mr. Stedman considers that many causes combine at the present moment to check its growth in America. Among the principal causes of impaired vitality, and of the blight which destroys the promised fruit, this acute and fair-minded critic includes the Law of Copyright. The following paragraph, with which we conclude our survey of American poetry, is taken from his remarks upon this important subject:

'All classes of literary workmen still endure the disadvantage of a market drugged with stolen goods. Shameless as is our legal plundering of foreign authors, our blood is most stirred by the consequent injury to home literature, by the wrongs, the poverty, the discouragement to which the foes of International Copyright subject our own writers.'





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Quarterly Review.
Bd. 163, 1886, Oktober, S. 363-394.

URL: https://archive.org/details/quarterlyreview82smitgoog

Unser Auszug: S. 363 u. 389-394.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer