“I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.”
A strong, manly, individuality; a warm-hearted, ever flowing human sympathy; a rich and sympathetic imagination; and above all, a powerful, living and upright soul, a warm faith in the sanity and inherent rightness of the universe, and a profound spiritual insight, are some of the qualities of this great poet and greater man.
Of Walt Whitman’s departure from the ordinary poetical forms, of his defence of his own peculiar vehicle, we have little to say; it is his evangel that concerns us, and the mission embodied in his poems.
Walt Whitman thoroughly believes in himself, or to speak more, truly, in the truth which he represents. His is the only heroic figure in modern literature; he meets us in his poems as a man, a friend, and a teacher; a strong, forceful, well balanced soul, a complete, symmetrical personality, a giver of strong and wise counsel. We never lay down his poems without feeling that we have spoken with one of the elect, the heroes of the race.
It has been said of the Apollo Belvedere, that, as you look on the wonderful symmetry of that figure, the perfect harmony of power and beauty, its graceful strength constrains you to shake off fatigue, the bent shoulders and weary head are raised up, and one feels for the moment that the divine youth and celestial vigour of the god course through the veins.
Very like this is the effect of Walt Whitman, only in his case the impression is lasting, and the influence of this perfectly poised soul and manly individuality, once felt, can never be forgotten.
He has his own ideals, in poetry as in life; and he courageously acts up to them, and retains his belief in his own intuition of truth, even when the whole of tradition is against him.
“A phantom rose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice. What singest thou? it said,
Knowest thou not that there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards,
And that is the theme of war, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then answered,
I too haughty shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged with varying fortune, victory deferred and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain at the last) the field, the world,
For life and death, for the body and for the eternal soul.”
Walt Whitman’s spiritual ideal, based upon the truth and reality of the soul, differs widely from that Oriental ideal which is daily becoming more rehabilitated in the modern world’s esteem.
The Oriental ideal, basing itself also on the reality of the soul, and convinced that the true life is realised when the soul lives through the man, seeks to obtain this life by a monastic suppression of the senses, by a continual war on the body.
This ideal found its way into Europe; and flourished for centuries, being accepted as the very refinement of Christianity, becoming vocal in the teachings of Saint Francis of Asisi. It reigned triumphant in the breasts of the pious monks, and it is pre-eminently an ascetic, self-effacing character that answers to the Christian model of a “saint.” This ideal finds its justification in the sermon on the Mount; and it cannot be wondered at that a religious teacher, sprung from an obscure and down-trodden nation under the sway of alien rulers, and harassed by a tyrannical Government, should have given to his doctrine a tone of resignation, should have placed his ideal in self-effacement, and should have set his goal in another world.
There is another faith than this of the East. Its ideal is a strong, manly soul, drawing its strength from a harmony with the deep purposes of nature, a firm powerful will, always warring for the weak, the down-trodden, and the oppressed; a perfect bodily life, breathing the vigour of that nature which builds the oak, and perfumes the roses; an abundant love for humanity, for the sinner as well as the saint, for the obscure as for the privileged, for the ignorant as for the wise; and, above all, a free-flowing and abundant life, a perfect equilibrium, the man balancing the universe, and standing upright and unabashed before heaven and earth, in this, or in any other world. This is the ideal of Walt Whitman.
“From this hour I ordain myself loose of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, the north and south are mine,
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know that I contained so much goodness.”
Still higher notes are struck further on in the same poem, the Song of the Open Road;
“Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities, and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things.”
Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gaiety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formulas!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priest.
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them,
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women.
Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.”
This poem, the Song of the Open Road, is a majestic chant of freedom in which the poet gradually rises from the symbol, a fact in outward nature, to the truths the symbol contains, to the deep spiritual forces and powers which are foundations of the visible universe and on which the visible universe rests like foam on a river, or like a summer cloud on the bosom of the air.
Again and again in these poems this truth is taught, that the powers of the spirit of man are the realities, the firm and permanent immutables, and that the external appearances of life are but the shadows that vanish, or the canvas whereon the soul paints and records its workings.
“I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion’s sake.
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Of your real body, and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the moment of death.”
But what is by far the most characteristic quality of this poet is his broad humanity, his gospel of friendship.
It thrills from his poems, like a new revelation, raising an echo in every heart, and breaking through the artificial barriers which divide soul from soul.
How many interests all men have in common, and how vastly do they transcend in importance the points of difference! Does not the same sun shine on all, are we not the common recipients of nature’s benefactions, do not the same hearts beat in all bosoms? Why not then recognize our brotherhood?
“Come! I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.”