Whitman, Walt 1819—1892

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Editors: A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 13,350 words

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Walt Whitman 1819—1892

WALT WHITMAN MAY be America’s most uneven great poet. There is general consensus that Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s gradually accreting collected poems, is better in its early incarnations than in its late ones. But from the beginning, Whitman could be maddeningly inconsistent. His prodigious variety is by no means always a defect. By turns highfalutin and slangy, abstract and quirkily concrete, the idiom of his early editions shows an unusual range that is one of Whitman’s greatest strengths: his often brilliant idiomatic variety registers a potentially daunting range of mid-nineteenth century American life, which he sometimes appears content simply to celebrate. But the stylistic melange of Whitman’s poetry is not always so successful or so convincingly accounted for. From its first publication, Leaves of Grass was by turns pithy and vague, incisive and baggy. Whitman is often trite and bombastic, effects characteristically associated with his notorious though sometimes brilliant “catalogs” or extended lists. In “Salut au Monde!” (1856) the poet is determined to “see” all the races and nationalities that people the earth. This perhaps laudable project leaves him badly overextended. Whitman’s imagination cannot keep pace with his determination, and the resultant catalogs display an air of distraction, as if the poet had had time to do no more than quickly fill in the blanks, deploying the first thing that came to mind, which frequently was cliché:

I see vapors exhaling from unexplored countries,
I see the savage types, the bow and arrow, the poison’d splint, the fetich, and the obi
I see African and Asiatic towns,
I see Algiers, Tripoli, Derne, Mogodore, Timbuctoo, Monrovia,
I see the swarms of Pekin, Canton, Benares, Dehli, Calcutta, Tokio,
I see the Kruman in his hut, and the Dahoman and Ashantee-man in their huts,
I see the Turk smoking opium in Aleppo,
I see the picturesque crowds at the fairs of Khiva and those of Herat,
I see Teheran, I see Muscat and Medina and the intervening sands, I see the caravans toiling onward

There is material even in relatively weak passages like this one that will repay attention: the biblical parallelism; the obsessive fascination with place names, in whose sounds the audience is invited to revel; the implication that the poet, who is supposedly omniscient, may be omnipresent as well. Yet few would wish the poem longer than it is. Composed mostly of lengthy catalogs like the one from which the lines above are excerpted, “Salut au Monde!” continues on for 226 lines, some twelve pages. The poet himself, as he nears the finish line, seems slightly dazed by his prodigious effort:

My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.

If the reader too emerges glassy-eyed, this stupor is not necessarily a sign of the poet’s failure, as this state resembles meditative absorption, a condition Whitman might well have wished to produce.

But stretches like this hardly characterize Whitman at his finest. Just as he keeps his eye on unlikely detail in his strongest descriptive passages, so is his diction capable of unexpected idiomatic swerves, which serve to alter in dramatic ways the enunciatory situation, the public and oratorical or intimately conversational scene the audience is invited to imagine. Whitman is often at his brilliant best in short passages in which the poem’s audience is talked to directly and personally, and talked to, moreover, in circumstances intriguingly difficult to pin down. In the early editions of Leaves of Grass, the audience, fuddled or made restive by one of Whitman’s long lists, is regularly pulled up short by brief passages of a very different order. Addressed directly to the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1380200027