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Chapter 8: the Southern influence---Whitman

We have had to speak, thus far, mainly of work done within three somewhat narrowly restricted areas, with their respective centres in or about Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Before the outbreak of the Civil War a distinct type of literary energy manifested itself in the South, with Charleston, S. C., as its principal centre. In earlier days the South was the region in which literature had its slowest development. Even then, however, it possessed a single writer who, representing the best type of Southern colonist, should be considered before we approach the work of the thoroughly Americanized Southerner. This writer was Colonel William Byrd of Westover, Va., whose very interesting papers have recently come to light. Byrd founded the city of Richmond, lived in lordly fashion, and had perhaps a larger library than any man in New [200] England, its catalogue including 3438 volumes. He was also a member of the king's council for thirty-seven years and finally its president. He was a patron of art and science and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain. Colonel Byrd was one of the commissioners to run the Virginia boundary through the Dismal Swamp in 1728, and he attended the actual surveyors half a mile into the then terrible Swamp. No New England writer at that day could possibly have written so cheery and jaunty a description of their struggle--

The skirts of it were thinly planted with dwarf reeds and gall-bushes, but when we got into the Dismal itself, we found the reeds grew there much taller and closer, and to mend the matter were so interlaced with bamboo-briers, that there was no scuffling through them without the help of pioneers. At the same time, we found the ground moist and trembling under our feet like a quagmire, insomuch that it was an easy matter to run a ten foot pole to the head in it, without exerting any uncommon strength to do it. Two of the men, whose burdens were the least cumbersome, had orders to march before, with their tomahawks, and clear the way, in order to make an opening for the surveyors. By their assistance we made a shift to push the line half a mile in three hours, and then reached a small piece of firm land, about one hundred yards wide, standing up above the rest like an island. Here [201] the people were glad to lay down their loads and take a little refreshment, while the happy man whose lot it was to carry the jug of rum, began already, like Esop's bread-carriers, to find it grow a good deal lighter.

17th .... Since the surveyors had entered the Dismal they had laid eyes on no living creature; neither bird nor beast, insect nor reptile came in view. Doubtless the eternal shade that broods over this mighty bog, and hinders the sunbeams from blessing the ground, makes it an uncomfortable habitation for anything that has life. Not so much as a Zealand frog could endure so aguish a situation. It had one beauty, however, that delighted the eye, though at the expense of all the other senses: the moisture of the soil preserves a continual verdure, and makes every plant an evergreen, but at the same time the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air, and render it unfit for respiration. Not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it, no more than the Italian vultures will over the filthy lake Avernus or the birds in the holy land over the salt sea where Sodom and Gomorrah formerly stood.

In these sad circumstances tlre kindliest thing we could do for our suffering friends was to give them a place in the Litany. Our chaplain for his part did his office, and rubbed us up with a seasonable sermon. This was quite a new thing to our brethren of North Carolina, who live in a climate where no clergyman can breathe, any more than spiders in Ireland.

It is impossible to read this and not recognize in every sentence the jaunty, manofthe-worldly, almost patrician air with which this [202] cheery Englishman pursues his investigations, a tone so absolutely remote from that of any New England excursion into the wilderness; but North and South at that time never came in contact. A hundred years later — that is, sixty or seventy years ago — relations had begun to exist between the far-off regionspolitically at Washington; socially in Philadelphia, where the Virginia ladies did their shopping; educationally in New England, whither the Southern boys came in shoals to the Harvard Law School under Judge Story, and whence tutors and governesses were sent, on very low pay, to teach the white children on the plantations. During my own college days, in 1841, I spent weeks on my uncle's plantation in northern Virginia, where he had married into a prominent Virginia family. The old life prevailed, but impoverished. The cotton planters farther south were still rich, but unceasing tobacco crops had exhausted the land; they had books also, but old, like the buildings, and they were mainly kept in the little office of the owner, with the door always open, night or day — whole sets of old English reviews and magazines in wornout bindings, and hardly a book that had [203] been bought for a dozen years, so that the few new works by Longfellow and Dickens which I carried down were received as they might have been on a desolate island. Indeed, it seemed like an island race living there, with a sweet accent of its own.

The extreme slowness with which anything like original literature was developed in the South is pretty easily accounted for. Colonel Byrd represented a class of English gentlemen which had much to do with the making of the South socially and politically, but which could leave to its descendants only a somewhat limited intellectual inheritance. The isolated, aristocratic life of the Southern whites was founded upon conservatism. Up to the very middle of the nineteenth century their instinct led them to follow tradition in questions of culture and taste, as well as of manners. Unfortunately, good taste and achievement in art are far less likely to spring from conservatism and the aristocratic life than are good manners and skill in politics. The greater and better part of Southern literature has been produced since the Civil War.

William Gilmore Simms.

There were, however, three or four antebellum writers who attempted to give literary [204] expression to the Southern life or the Southern spirit. The first of them in point of time was William Gilmore Simms. He was in some respects akin to Cooper; a writer of robust temper, a talent for narrative, and an eye for the picturesque in Southern history. He was, however, even less a finished artist than Cooper, and not one of his many romances has gained a sure place in literature. His work as a whole affords an interesting picture, but not a great picture, of Southern life and manners.

Hayne and Timrod.

Simms was born, and lived for most of his life, in Charleston, which was also the native city of the two poets, Hayne and Timrod, who, apart from Lanier and Poe, are now best known among Southern poets. Paul Hamilton Hayne's poetry is neither markedly Southern nor markedly original. It has a certain smoothness and elegance, but lacks force. A few lines from The Mocking bird may serve to illustrate both its merit and its limitations :--
A golden pallor of voluptuous light
Filled the warm Southern night:
The moon, clear orbed, above the sylvan scene [205]
Moved like a stately queen,
So rife with conscious beauty all the while,
What could she do but smile
At her own perfect loveliness below,
Glassed in the tranquil flow
Of crystal fountains and unruffled streams?

This is evidently the composition of a conscientious practitioner of English verse rather than the song of a poet who cannot help singing. The verse of Henry Timrod, Hayne's contemporary and friend, is far more rugged, more characteristic of the South, more personal. Even in descriptive passages there is a certain sweep and vigor which Hayne's style altogether lacks:--

Through lands which look one sea of billowy gold
Broad rivers wind their devious ways;
A hundred isles in their embraces fold
A hundred luminous bays;
And through yon purple haze
Vast mountains lift their plumed peaks cloud-crowned.

These lines are quoted from Timrod's best poem, The Cotton Boll, a rhapsody upon the South, which concludes with a characteristically stirring defiance of the North:-- [206]

To thy will
Resigned, O Lord! we cannot all forget
That there is much even Victory must regret.
And, therefore, not too long
From the great burthen of oui country's wrong
Delay our just release!
And, if it may be, save
These sacred fields of peace
From stain of patriot or of hostile blood!
Oh, help us, Lord! to roll the crimson flood
Back on its course, and, while our banners wing
Northward, strike with us! till the Goth shall cling
To his own blasted altar-stones, and crave
Mercy; and we shall grant it, and dictate
The lenient future of his fate
There, where some rotting ships and crumbling quays
Shall one day mark the port which ruled the western seas.

If this is not quite great poetry, it is undeniably strong poetry, and this, we remember, is all that can fairly be said of almost all the poetry which was produced, and applauded, in the North during the same period. Timrod and Hayne, like Simms,--who also produced some creditable verse,--shared the privations of the South after the war.

Edgar Allan Poe.

Of the two men whose names are most prominently associated with Southern literature, one had a Southern quality of mind rather than of political faith. In the case of Edgar [207] Allan Poe, nature tried the experiment of bringing extremes together. The outcome of the effort was a perplexing personality, the object of a discussion, not to say dispute, which has never yet been adjusted. Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston Jan. 19, 1809, the child of two wandering actors, and was adopted on their death by a wealthy tobacco merchant of Richmond, Va. Though sent to school for a time in England, his training, habits, and tastes all belonged to the Virginia of that day, and with a reckless absence of all the qualities of social rectitude in other respects, he combined strangely enough a singular elevation of mind, a refinement amounting to purity, in all his relations with the other sex: a quality perhaps of more redeeming value than any other single virtue, both for the poet and for the man.

Edgar Allan Poe was, in fact, so far as his art was concerned, a dweller in a visionary land of his own; in his life he was for the most part of the earth earthy. His place in purely imaginative prose-writing is as unquestionable as Hawthorne's. He even succeeded, as Hawthorne did not, in penetrating the artistic indifference of the French mind; [208] and it was a substantial triumph, when we consider that Baudelaire put himself or his friends to the trouble of translating even the prolonged platitudes of Eureka and the wearisome narrative of Arthur Gordon Pymr. Neither Poe nor Hawthorne has been fully recognized in England; and yet no Englishman of their time, unless De Quincey, has done any prose imaginative work to be named with theirs. But in comparing Poe with Hawthorne, we see that the genius of the latter has hands and feet as well as wings, so that all his work is solid as masonry, while Poe's is broken and disfigured by all sorts of inequalities and imitations; he did not disdain, for want of true integrity, to disguise and to falsify, and (I have myself seen proofs of this among the Griswold Mss.) to suggest or even prepare puffs of himself.

But, making all possible deductions, how wonderful remains the power of Poe's imaginative tales, and how immense is the ingenuity of his puzzles and disentanglements! The conundrums of Wilkie Collins never renew their interest after the answer is known; but Poe's can be read again and again. It is where spiritual depths are to be touched that [209] he shows his weakness; his attempts at profundity are as unsuccessful as they are rare; where there is the greatest display of philosophic form he is often most trivial, whereas Hawthorne is usually profoundest when he has disarmed you by his simplicity. The truth is, that Poe lavished on things comparatively superficial those great intellectual resources which Hawthorne reverently husbanded and used. That there is something behind even genius to make or mar it, this is the lesson of the two lives.

Poe makes one of his heroes define another as “the monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius.” It is in the malice and fury of his critical work that his own low moral tone betrays itself. No atmosphere can be more belittling than that of his New York Literati: it is a mass of vehement dogmatism and petty personalities; opinions warped by private feeling, and varying from page to page. He seemed to have absolutely no fixed standard of critical judgment. There was, indeed, little unbiased criticism anywhere in America during those acrimonious days, when the most honorable head might be covered with insult or neglect, while any young poetess [210] who smiled sweetly on Poe or Griswold or Willis might find herself placed among the Muses. Poe complimented and rather patronized Hawthorne, but found him only “peculiar and not original;” saying of him, “He has not half the material for the exclusiveness of literature that he has for its universality,” whatever that may mean; and finally, he tried to make it appear that Hawthorne had borrowed from himself. He returned again and again to the attack on Longfellow as a willful plagiarist, denouncing the trivial resemblance between his Midnight Mass for the dying year and Tennyson's Death of the old year, as “belonging to the most barbarous class of literary piracy.” To make this attack was, as he boasted, “to throttle the guilty;” and while dealing thus ferociously with Longfellow, thus condescendingly with Hawthorne, he was claiming a foremost rank among American authors for obscurities now forgotten, such as Mrs. Amelia B. Welby and Estelle Anne Lewis. No one ever did more than Poe to lower the tone of literary criticism in this country; and the greater his talent, the greater the mischief. [211]

Poe's criticisms sprang from prejudice and the narrow logical faculty in which his intellect mainly consisted, while the poetry upon which his fame rests was the product of true creative power. That poetry is of small bulk and of smaller range. Most of it is based on neither deep thought, nor passionate feeling, nor spiritual insight. Its excellence is perhaps harder to account for than in the case of any other English poet. Even its sentimentalism is not quite of a kind to bring about the popularity of The Bells and The Raven, and even its melodiousness is hardly capable of explaining the hold which poems like Israfel maintain upon readers of the best poetry in all tongues.

The two most commonplace things that can be said about Poe's verse are, that it is “weird” and that it is “musical;” but perhaps they say pretty much all that need be said. The real merit in this poetry, the quality which makes it perfect in its kind, is so subtle as to elude definition. A little may be done by comparison: there are passages in Blake, in Beddoes, and, above all, in Coleridge, which seem to suggest Poe's habitual mood and tone. With what in English verse [212] so naturally as with Kubla Khan does the opening stanza of Israfel compare?--

In heaven a spirit doth dwell
Whose heart-strings are a lute;
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

It is easy to say that there is nothing in this, any more than in those famous lines:--

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
In caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

And in truth there is nothing in them, nothing but beauty and wonder and magic.

It is in this glow of fancy alone that Poe seems in any real sense to represent the South. The fact of his New England birth does not account for this detachment; it is due rather to his absorption in his own fantastic life of the mind. Poe's career was a sad one, of which the events are too well known to need retailing here. He was a man to pity, rather than admire, the victim of irresponsibility, of impulse, of drink, of opium,--of himself, [213] in short. His best work was not, like that of the greatest, sanest creative spirits, the outcome of a strong and complete personality; it was reflected from the single clear facet which his nature could present to any ray.

It happens to us rarely in our lives to come consciously into the presence of that extraordinary miracle we call genius. Among American authors, Poe probably stood next to Hawthorne in the vividness of personal impression which he produced upon those who saw him. One may still recall his strange face, with its ample forehead, brilliant eyes, and narrowness of nose and chin; an ideal face, anything but coarse, yet with the look of over-sensitiveness which, when uncontrolled, may prove more debasing than coarseness. It was a face to rivet one's attention in any crowd, yet a face that no one would feel safe in loving. I remember the impression which he made upon the occasion of his first appearance in Boston.

After his introduction he stood with a sort of shrinking before the audience, and then began in a thin, tremulous, hardly musical voice, an apology for his poem, and a deprecation of the expected criticism of the Boston [214] public; reiterating this in a sort of persistent, querulous way, which did not seem like satire, but impressed me at the time as nauseous flattery. It was not then generally known, nor was it established for a long time after,--even when he had himself asserted it,--that the poet was himself born in Boston; and no one can now tell, perhaps, what was the real feeling behind the apparently sycophantic attitude. When, at the end, he abruptly began the recitation of his perplexing “Al Aaraaf,” everybody looked thoroughly mystified. The verses had long since been printed in his youthful volume, and had reappeared within a few days, if I mistake not, in Wiley & Putnam's edition of his poems; and they produced no very distinct impression on the audience until Poe began to read the maiden's song in the second part. Already his tones had been softening to a finer melody than at first, and when he came to the verses:--

Ligeia! Ligeia
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,
Oh! is it thy will
On the breezes to toss? [215]

Or capriciously still,
Like the lone albatross,
Incumbent on night
(As she on the air)
To keep watch with delight
On the harmony there?

his voice seemed attenuated to the faintest golden thread; the audience became hushed, and, as it were, breathless; there seemed no life in the hall but his; and every syllable was accentuated with such delicacy, and sustained with such sweetness, as I never heard equaled by other lips. When the lyric ended, it was like the ceasing of the gypsy's chant in Browning's Flight of the Duchess; and I remember nothing more, except that in walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard. Indeed, I feel much the same in the retrospect, to this day.

Sidney Lanier.

We have treated Poe as representing the Southern mind, though he was born in Boston; but in reality the only Southern poet of leading quality was Sidney Lanier. Emerson said unjustly of Shelley, that although uniformly a poetic mind, he was never a poet. As to all the [216] Southern-born poets of this country except Lanier, even as to Hayne and Timrod, the question still remains whether they got actually beyond the poetic mind. In Ticknor's Little Giffen and Pinkney's I fill this Cup, they did. In Lanier's case alone was the artistic work so continuous and systematic, subject to such self-imposed laws and tried by so high a standard, as to make it safe, in spite of his premature death, to place him among those whom we may without hesitation treat as “master-singers.” Even among these, of course, there are grades; but as Lowell once said of Thoreau, “To be a master is to be a master.” With Lanier, music and poetry were in the blood. Music was at any rate his first passion. As a boy he taught himself to play the flute, organ, piano, violin, guitar, and banjo; the firstnamed instrument was always his favorite, or, perhaps, that of his father, who “feared for him the powerful fascination of the violin.” But his parents rather dreaded his absorption in music, apparently thinking with Dr. Johnson that musicians were “amusing vagabonds.” The same thought caused a struggle in the boy's own mind, for he wrote [217] at eighteen that though he was conscious of having “an extraordinary musical talent,” yet music seemed to him “so small a business in comparison with other things” which he might do, that he wished to forsake the art. It appears from the same note-book that he already felt himself called to a literary career. He was at that time a student at Oglethorpe College, a Presbyterian institution, now extinct, near Midway, Ga. Here he graduated at eighteen, with the first honors of his class, although he had lost a year during which he was a clerk in the post-office at Macon. Lanier became a tutor in the college on graduating, but left his post to enlist as a private in the Confederate army.

He enlisted in the Macon Volunteers of the Second Georgia Battalion, the first military force which left Georgia for the seat of war. He remained in the service during the whole war, and, though three times offered promotion, would never accept it, from a desire to remain near his younger brother, who was in the same regiment. He was in the battle of Seven Pines, that of Drewry's Bluffs, and the seven days of fighting about Richmond, Va., including Malvern Hill. [218] After this campaign he was transferred with his brother to the signal service, because, as envious companions said, he could play the flute. In 1863 his detachment was mounted; and later each of the two brothers was detailed to take charge of a vessel which was to run the blockade. Sidney was captured and spent five months as a prisoner at Point Lookout. It was almost at the end of the war (Feb., 1865) that he was exchanged, and he returned home on foot, having only his flute and a twenty-dollar gold piece which had not been taken from him when his pockets were searched, on his capture. He reached home March 15, and was dangerously ill for six weeks, during which his mother died of the pulmonary disease which he had possibly inherited.

In 1873 he took up his abode in Baltimore, having made an engagement as first flute for the Peabody Symphony concerts. Here he resided for the rest of his life, engaged always in a threefold struggle for health, for bread, and for a literary career. To his father, who kept open for him a place in the law office at Macon, he wrote (Nov. 29, 1873) that, first, his chance for life was ten [219] times greater at Baltimore; that, secondly, he could not consent to be a third-rate struggling lawyer for the rest of his life; and that, in the third place, he had been assured by good judges that he was “the greatest flute player in the world,” and had also every encouragement for success in literature. As a result, he stayed, breaking down at short intervals, but playing in the orchestra winter after winter,--writing, lecturing, teaching. He studied laboriously, as his books bear witness. He had a theory of verse. It seems ingenious, suggestive, and overstrained, but it is easy to believe that to one who takes it on the middle ground where Lanier dwelt, halfway between verse and music, it might seem conclusive.

Most of us associate its fundamental proposition with the poet Coleridge, who, in his Christabel, announced it as a new principle in English verse that one should count by accents, not by syllables. This bold assertion, which plainly marked the transition from the measured strains of Dryden and Pope to the free modern rhythm, was true in the sense in which Coleridge probably meant it; nor does it seem likely that Coleridge overlooked [220] what Lanier points out,--that all our nursery rhymes and folk-songs are written on the same principle. There is certainly nothing more interesting in Lanier's book than the passage in which he shows that, just as a Southern negro will improvise on the banjo daring variations, such as would, if Haydn employed them, be called high art, so Shakespeare often employed the simplest devices of sound such as are familiar in nursery songs, and thus produced effects which are metrically indistinguishable from those of Mother Goose.

Lanier was a critic of the best kind, for his criticism is such as a sculptor receives from a brother sculptor, not such as he gets from the purchaser on one side or the marbleworker on the other. What can be more admirable than his saying of Swinburne, “He invited me to eat; the service was silver and gold, but no food therein save pepper and salt;” or of William Morris, “He caught a crystal cupful of yellow light of sunset, and persuading himself to deem it wine, drank it with a sort of smile.” Among the fullest and most suggestive of these criticisms is his estimate of Whitman. [221]

Whitman represented to Lanier a literary spirit alien to his own. There could be little in common between the fleshliness of Leaves of grass and the refined chivalry that could write in The Symphony lines like these:--

Shall ne'er prevail the woman's plea,
We maids would far, far whiter be,
If that our eyes might sometimes see
Men maids in purity?

In Lanier's lectures before Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore upon The English novel and its development he has much to say upon what may be called the antikidglove literature, a product which is really no better than the kid-glove literature, at which it affects to protest. Lanier quotes the lines of Whitman, “Fear grace, fear elegance, civilization, delicatesse,” and again the passage in which the same poet rejoices in America because “here are the roughs, beards, . . . combativeness, and the like;” and Lanier shows how far were the founders of the RepublicWashington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams — from this theory that there can be no manhood in decent clothes or wellbred manners. He justly complains that this rougher school has really as much dandyism [222] about it as the other--“the dandyism of the roustabouts,” he calls it; that it poses and attitudinizes and “is the extreme of sophistication in writing.” “If we must have dandyism in our art,” he adds, “surely the softer sort, which at least leans towards decorum and gentility, is preferable.” Then, going beyond literature to the foundation of government, he quotes the ancient Epictetus against this modern school, and asserts that true manhood has no necessary connection with physical health or strength, and that the true athlete is he who is ruler over himself.

Lanier complains of this type of democracy --the merely brawny and sinewy--“that it has no provision for sick, or small, or puny, or plain-featured, or hump-backed, or any deformed people,” and that is really “the worst kind of aristocracy, being an aristocracy of nature's favorites in the matter of muscle.” Then he describes some weak-eyed young man in a counting-room toiling to support his mother, or send his brother to school, and contrasts him with this physical ideal. “His chest is not huge, his legs are inclined to be pipe-stems, and his dress is like that of [223] any other bookkeeper. Yet the weak-eyed, pipe-stem-legged young man impresses us as more of a man, more of a democratic man, than the tallest of Whitman's roughs; to the eye of the spirit there is more strength in this man's daily endurance of petty care and small weariness for love, more of the sort which makes a real democracy and a sound republic, than in an army of Whitman's unshaven loafers.” This came, be it remembered, from a man who fought through the seven days of fighting before Richmond; who had “given his proofs,” as people used to say in the old days of dueling.

We have followed out this line of thought about Whitman, not merely for its own sake, but because it probably draws Lanier into sharper expression and more characteristic statement than are to be found anywhere else in his works. That he could criticise profoundly one much nearer to himself than Whitman is plain when Lanier comes to speak of Shelley, of whom he has a sentence that seems to be another shot in the bull's-eye of the target. He says:--

In truth, Shelley appears always to have labored under an essential immaturity; it is very possible that [224] if he had lived a hundred years he would never have become a man; he was penetrated with modern ideas, but penetrated as a boy would be; crudely, overmuch, and with a constant tendency to the extravagant and illogical,--so I call him the Modern Boy.

It remains to be said that in Lanier's poetry we find the working out of these ideas, but according to the free faith which he held. There is uniformly a wonderful beat and cadence in his poems,--a line of a dozen syllables mating with a line of a single syllable in as satisfactory a movement as can be found in his favorite Mother Goose or in the “patting Juba” of a plantation singer. The volume of his poetry is less than that of Hayne, but its wealth and depth are greater. Having spent so much of his life in playing the flute in an orchestra, he has also an ear for the distribution of instruments, and this gives him a desire for the antiphonal, for introducing an answer, or an echo, or a compensating note. In the poems that most arrest attention,as the Cantata at the opening of the Philadelphia Exposition,--this characteristic was so developed as to give an effect of exaggeration and almost of grotesqueness, which was, however, so relieved by the music that [225] the impression soon passed away. But into his description of sunrise in the first of his Hymns of the marshes, he puts not merely such a wealth of outdoor observation as makes even Thoreau seem thin and arid, but combines with it a roll and range of rhythm such as Lowell's Commemoration Ode cannot equal, and only some of Browning's early ocean cadences can surpass. There are inequalities in the poem, little spasmodic phrases here and there, or fancies pressed too hard,--he wrote it, poor fellow, when far gone in his last illness, with his pulse at one hundred and four degrees, and then unable to raise his food to his mouth,--but much the same is true of Keats's great fragments, and there are lines and phrases of Lanier's that are not excelled in Endymion, and perhaps not in Hyperion.

A passage from those “hymns” must be quoted. It is called simply Dawn:--

But no; it is made; list! somewhere,--mystery,
In the leaves? in the air?
In my heart? is a motion made;
'T is a motion of dawn, like a flicker of shade on shade.
In the leaves 't is palpable; low multitudinous stirring
Upwinds through the woods; the little ones, softly conferring, [226]
Have settled my lord's to be looked for; so, they are still;
But the air and my heart and the earth are a-thrill,--
And look where the wild duck sails round the bend of the river,--
And look where a passionate shiver
Expectant is bending the blades
Of the marsh-grass in serial shimmers and shades,--
And invisible wings, fast fleeting, fast fleeting,
Are beating
The dark overhead as my heart beats,--and stead and free
Is the ebb-tide flowing from marsh to sea--
(Run home, little streams,
With your lapfuls of stars and dreams),--
And a sailor unseen is hoisting a-peak,
For, list, down the inshore curve of the creek
How merrily flutters the sail,--
And lo, in the East! Will the East unveil?
The East is unveiled, the East hath confessed
A flush: 't is dead; 't is alive; 't is dead, ere the West
Was aware of it; nay, 't is abiding, 't is unwithdrawn;
Have a care, sweet Heaven! 'T is Dawn.

All that Lanier did afforded but a glimpse of what he might have done, had health and time been given him, but these were not given, and his literary monument remains unfinished. He died of consumption at Baltimore, at the age of thirty-nine, Sept 7, 1881, leaving a wife and four boys. His [227] work will long live as that of the Sir Galahad among our American poets.

Walt Whitman

We may, perhaps, include here what is to be said of Whitman, not so much because he lived for a time in the South, as because Lanier's criticisms thus bring him freshly to mind. He was, indeed, a person and a poet singularly detached from place. He lived in New York, in New Orleans, in Washington, and was always ready to take the road for a new experience. He was carpenter, printer, editor, government clerk. Perhaps it was from his early years in the neighborhood of New York city, just then beginning to outgrow its provincial character, that his first inspiration was drawn. Several of his poems record the delight with which the manifold restless forces of life in the new metropolis affected him, and the fondness which grew in him for all sorts and conditions of men as he saw them upon the wharves and streets of New York.

In the stricter sense of the critics, Whitman may not be called a poet. There seems to be a provision in nature for a class who appear at long intervals, who become known as poets, [228] and yet who resolutely confine themselves to a few very simple stage properties, and substitute mere cadence for form. There was for many years an Ossianic period, when simple enthusiasts sat up at night and read until they were sleepy about the waving of the long grass on the blasted heath, and the passing of the armed warrior and the whitebosomed maiden. Ossian is not so much read now, but Napoleon Bonaparte admired him and Goethe studied him. Neither is Tupper now much cultivated; but I remember when his long rambling lines were copied by the page into many extract books, and that he too was welcomed as relieving mankind from the tiresome restraints of verse. It would be a great mistake, doubtless, to class Whitman with Ossian on the one side,--though he names him with Shakespeare among the writers whom he studied in youth,--or Tupper on the other; but it would be a still greater error to overlook the fact that the mere revolt against the tyranny of form has been made again and again before him, and without securing immortal fame to the author of the experiment.

It is no uncommon thing, moreover, for [229] the fiercest innovating poets to revert to the ranks of order before they die. Whitman abstained, through all his later publications, from those proclamations of utter nudity to which Emerson objected, and omitted some of the most objectionable instances of it from later editions; and was also far more compressed and less simply enumerative than when he began. True poetry is not merely the putting of thoughts into words, but the putting of the best thoughts into the best words; it secures for us what Ruskin calls “the perfection and precision of the instantaneous line.” It fires a rifle-bullet instead of a shower of bird-shot; it culls the very best phrase out of language, instead of throwing a dozen epithets to see if one may chance to stick. For example, Emerson centres his Problem in “a cowled church-man; ;” Browning singles out an individual Bishop Blougram or Rabbi Ben Ezra, as the case may be; but Whitman enumerates “priests on the earth, oracles, sacrificers, brahmins, sabians, lamas, monks, muftis, exhorters.” In The song of the broad-axe there are nineteen successive lines beginning with the word “where;” in Salut au Monde eighteen in succession begin with [230] “I see.” In I sing the body Electric he specifies in detail “wrists and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,” with thirteen more lines of just such minutiae. In the same poem he explains that he wishes his verses to be regarded as “man's, woman's, child's, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's, father's, young man's, young woman's poems.” This is like bringing home a sackful of pebbles from the beach and asking us to admire the collected heap as a fine sea view. But it is to be noticed that these follies diminish in his later works: the lines grow shorter; and though he does not acquiesce in rhyme, he occasionally accepts a rhythm so well defined that it may be called conventional, as in the fine verses entitled Darest thou now, 0 soul? And it is a fact which absolutely overthrows the whole theory of poetic structure or stricturelessness implied in Whitman's volumes, that his warmest admirers usually place first among his works the poem on Lincoln's death, Mily Captain, which comes so near to recognized poetic methods that it falls naturally into rhyme.

Whitman can never be classed as Spinoza was by Schleiermacher, among “Godcated” [231] men; but he was early inebriated with two potent draughts — himself and his country:--

One's self I sing, a simple separate poem,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En Masse.

With these words, two of them French, his collected poems open, and to these he has always been true. They have brought with them a certain access of power, and they have also implied weakness. We cannot attribute final and complete acceptance to any poet in whom the emotion of high and ideal love between the sexes has no visible place. When Thoreau says of Whitman, “He does not celebrate love at all; it is as if the beasts spoke,” 1 the verdict seems to be final. Not only has he given us no love poem, in the ordinary use of the term, but it is as hard to conceive of his writing one as of his chanting a serenade beneath the window of his mistress. This not only separates him from the poets of thoroughly ideal emotion like Poe, but from those, like Rossetti, whose passion, though it may incarnate itself in the body, has its sources in the soul. [232]

As time went on, this less pleasing aspect became softened; his antagonisms were disarmed by applauses; although this recognition sometimes took a form so extreme and adulatory that it obstructed his path to that simple and unconscious life which he always preached but could not quite be said to practice. His career purified itself, as many careers do, in the alembic of years, and up to the time of his death (March 26, 1892) he gained constantly in friends and in readers. Intellectually speaking, all critics now admit that he shows in an eminent degree that form of the ideal faculty which Emerson conceded to Margaret Fuller — he has “lyric glimpses.” Rarely constructing anything, he is yet singularly gifted in phrases, in single cadences, in casual wayward strains as from an ALolian harp. It frequently happens that the titles or catch-words of his poems are better than the poems themselves, as we sometimes hear it said in just praise of a clergyman that he has beautiful texts. “Proud music of the storm,” “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” and others, will readily occur to memory. Often, on the other hand, they are inflated, as “Chanting the Square [233] Deific,” or affected and feeble, as “Eidolons.” One of the most curiously unAmerican traits in a poet professedly so patriotic is his way of employing foreign, and especially French words, to a degree that recalls the fashionable novels of the last generation, and gives an incongruous effect comparable only to Theodore Parker's description of an African chief seen by some one at Sierra Leone: “With the exception of a dress-coat, his Majesty was as naked as a pestle.”

Of all our poets, he is really the least simple, the most meretricious; and this is the reason why the honest consciousness of the classes which he most celebrates — the drover, the teamster, the soldier — has never been reached by his songs. He talks of labor as one who had never really labored; his Drum Taps proceed from one who has never personally responded to the tap of the drum. He has something of the turgid wealth, the rather self-conscious amplitude, of Victor Hugo, and much of his broad, vague, indolent desire for the welfare of the whole human race; but he has none of Hugo's structural power, his dramatic or at least melodramatic instinct, and his occasionally terse and brilliant condensation. [234] He sometimes suggests a young man of rather ideal stamp who used to invite Mr. Emerson and others to give readings at his room in Boston, many years ago. He was an ardent disciple of Fourier, and had painted on his door in large golden letters the motto of Fourier, “Universal Unity,” with beams of starlight diverging from it in all directions. Below this was the motto, hung separately and painted in neat black and white, “Please wipe your feet.” Unfortunately, Whitman himself, with all his genius, was not quite careful enough to provide the foot-mat.

1 Letters, p. 345.

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