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Walt Whitman: poet of the people

The first publication of Leaves of Grass by now famous poet, Walt Whitman, was a failure. People like to believe that they can recognize excellence when they see it; but the fact remains that they cannot and will not, unless it assumes a familiar form. It is quite simple for university professors and literary critics to praise Whitman and his book today; it was impossible for them to do so in 1860.

The first quality in the book to repel readers was the verse form; in the poetry of Whitman there was no apparent pattern. His poems seemed to be prose passages cut up and arranged to look like verse. After the academic critics accepted Whitman, many learned justifications were put forward concerning his verse. One professor argued that in rejecting the rhythm of the line (the usual rhythm in conventional verse) for the rhythm of the phrase (the rhythm of natural speech), Whitman was simply following a good American custom of ignoring verse patterns as the eye sees them and following the sound as the ear hears it. Another maintained that Whitman consciously combined rhythmic features of prose and conventional verse in order to evolve a new form. A number have expended considerable energy trying to show that assonance, alliteration, and parallelism (features found in much conventional poetry) are not missing from Whitman’s verse. But all hasten to argue that the verse form in Leaves of Grass is not as unorthodox as it appears.

The second quality in the book to repel readers was the obvious confusion shown by Whitman between nature and art. All great poetry from the golden age of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to the middle of the nineteenth century is marked by careful discrimination between raw nature and art. Aristotle laid down the principle that “the most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly will not give so much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait; Longinus said that “Nature fills the place of good fortune, Art that of good judgement,” and that too many images “make for confusion rather than intensity”; and Demetrius wrote that “not all possible points should be punctiliously and tediously elaborated, but some should be left for the comprehension and inference of the hearer.” The great ancient critics, apparently, believed that the primary function of the artist was to select from nature certain details which would be representative, vivid, and coherent, and which could be architectonically organized. The artist had to differentiate sharply between nature (whether it was human or physical) and art which was the representation of nature, organized and processed into a coherent art form.

But Whitman made no such fine differentiation. Whitman believed the poet is merely “the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution.” The “absurd error” of considering nature and art as distinct was never made by Whitman. As a result, Leaves of Grass was definitely something new in the literary world, for it was an attempt to reproduce life precisely as the poet saw it, with no effort made to select material or organize it.

The third quality in Leaves of Grass to repel readers was the intense individualism of the poet. Of all arts, poetry is one of the most egoistic. The world accepts the fact, for no one questions Shakespeare’s bland assertion that as long as his verse lives his mistress will live. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself; and from that theme he rarely departed. No poet has used the personal pronoun I as frequently as has Whitman.