Birds and Poets
John Burroughs

Part 3 out of 4

path of the creator lies.

It is no doubt this tendency, always more or less marked in highly
refined and cultivated times, to forget or overlook the primary
basic qualities, and to parade and make much of verbal and
technical acquirements, that led Huxley to speak with such bitter
scorn of the "sensual caterwauling of the literary classes," for
this is not the only country in which books are produced that are a
mere skin of elegant words blown up by copious literary gas.

In imaginative works, especially, much depends upon the quality of
mere weight. A stern, material inertia is indispensable. It is like
the immobility and the power of resistance of a piece of ordnance,
upon which the force and efficacy of the projectile finally depend.
In the most daring flights of the master, there is still something
which remains indifferent and uncommitted, and which acts as
reserve power, making the man always superior to his work. He must
always leave the impression that if he wanted to pull harder or to
fly higher he could easily do so. In Homer there is much that is
not directly available for Homer's purposes as poet. This is his
personality,--the real Homer,--which lies deeper than his talents
and skill, and which works through these by indirections. This
gives the authority; this is the unseen backer, which makes every
promise good.

What depths can a man sound but his own, or what heights explore?
"We carry within us," says Sir Thomas Browne, "the wonders we seek
without us."

Indeed, there is a strict moral or ethical dependence of the
capacity to conceive or to project great things upon the capacity
to be or to do them. It is as true as any law of hydraulics or of
statics, that the workmanship of a man can never rise above the
level of his character. He can never adequately say or do anything
greater than he himself is. There is no such thing, for instance,
as deep insight into the mystery of Creation, without integrity and
simplicity of character.

In the highest mental results and conditions the whole being
sympathizes. The perception of a certain range of truth, such as is
indicated by Plato, Hegel, Swedenborg, and which is very far from
what is called "religious" or "moral," I should regard as the best
testimonial that could be offered of a man's probity and essential
nobility of soul. Is it possible to imagine a fickle, inconstant,
or a sly, vain, mean person reading and appreciating Emerson? Think
of the real men of science, the great geologists and astronomers,
one opening up time, the other space! Shall mere intellectual
acumen be accredited with these immense results? What noble pride,
self-reliance, and continuity of character underlie Newton's

Only those books are for the making of men into which a man has
gone in the making. Mere professional skill and sleight of hand, of
themselves, are to be apprized as lightly in letters as in war or
in government, or in any kind of leadership. Strong native
qualities only avail in the long run; and the more these dominate
over the artificial endowments, sloughing or dropping the latter in
the final result, the more we are refreshed and enlarged. Who has
not, at some period of his life, been captivated by the rhetoric
and fine style of nearly all the popular authors of a certain sort,
but at last waked up to discover that behind these brilliant names
was no strong, loving man, but only a refined taste, a fertile
invention, or a special talent of one kind or another.

Think of the lather of the modern novel, and the fashion-plate men
and women that figure in it! What noble person has Dickens
sketched, or has any novelist since Scott? The utter poverty of
almost every current novelist, in any grand universal human traits
in his own character, is shown in nothing more clearly than in the
_kind_ of interest the reader takes in his books. We are led along
solely by the ingenuity of the plot, and a silly desire to see how
the affair came out. What must be the effect, long continued, of
this class of jugglers working upon the sympathies and the
imagination of a nation of gestating women?

How the best modern novel collapses before the homely but immense
human significance of Homer's celestial swineherd entertaining
divine Ulysses, or even the solitary watchman in Aeschylus'
"Agamemnon," crouched, like a night-dog, on the roofs of the
Atreidae, waiting for the signal fires that should announce the
fall of sacred Ilion!

But one need not look long, even in contemporary British
literature, to find a man. In the author of "Characteristics" and
"Sartor Resartus" we surely encounter one of the true heroic cast.
We are made aware that here is something more than a _littérateur,_
something more than genius. Here is veracity, homely directness and
sincerity, and strong primary idiosyncrasies. Here the man enters
into the estimate of the author. There is no separating them, as
there never is in great examples. A curious perversity runs through
all, but in no way vitiates the result. In both his moral and
intellectual nature, Carlyle seems made with a sort of stub and
twist, like the best gun-barrels. The knotty and corrugated
character of his sentences suits well the peculiar and intense
activity of his mind. What a transition from his terse and sharply
articulated pages, brimming with character and life, and a strange
mixture of rage, humor, tenderness, poetry, philosophy, to the cold
disbelief and municipal splendor of Macaulay! Nothing in Carlyle's
contributions seems fortuitous. It all flows from a good and
sufficient cause in the character of the man.

Every great man is, in a certain way, an Atlas, with the weight of
the world upon him. And if one is to criticise at all, he may say
that, if Carlyle had not been quite so conscious of this weight,
his work would have been better done. Yet to whom do we owe more,
even as Americans? Anti-democratic in his opinions, he surely is
not so in spirit, or in the quality of his make. The nobility of
labor and the essential nobility of man were never so effectively
preached before. The deadliest enemy of democracy is not the
warning or dissenting voice, but it is the spirit, rife among us,
which would engraft upon our hardy Western stock the sickly and
decayed standards of the expiring feudal world.

With two or three exceptions, there is little as yet in American
literature that shows much advance beyond the merely conventional
and scholastic,--little, I mean, in which one gets a whiff of the
strong, unbreathed air of mountain or prairie, or a taste of rude,
new power that is like the tonic of the sea. Thoreau occupies a
niche by himself. Thoreau was not a great personality, yet his
writings have a strong characteristic flavor. He is anti-scorbutic,
like leeks and onions. He has reference, also, to the highest

It is very likely true that our most native and original characters
do not yet take to literature. It is, perhaps, too early in the
day. Iron and lime have to pass through the vegetable before they
can reach the higher organization of the animal, and maybe this
Western nerve and heartiness will yet emerge on the intellectual
plane. Let us hope that it will indeed be Western nerve and
heartiness when it gets there, and not Eastern wit and epigram!

In Abraham Lincoln we had a character of very marked and lofty
type, the most suggestive study or sketch of the future American
man that has yet appeared in our history. How broad,
unconventional, and humane! How democratic! how adhesive! No fine
arabesque carvings, but strong, unhewn, native traits, and deep
lines of care, toil, and human sympathy. Lincoln's Gettysburg
speech is one of the most genuine and characteristic utterances in
our annals. It has the true antique simplicity and impressiveness.
It came straight from the man, and is as sure an index of character
as the living voice, or the physiognomy, or the personal presence.
Indeed, it may be said of Mr. Lincoln's entire course while at the
head of the nation, that no President, since the first, ever in his
public acts allowed the man so fully to appear, or showed so little
disposition to retreat behind the featureless political mask which
seems to adhere to the idea of gubernatorial dignity.

It would be hardly fair to cite Everett's speech on the same
occasion as a specimen of the opposite style, wherein ornate
scholarship and the pride of talents dominate. Yet a stern critic
would be obliged to say that, as an author, Everett allowed, for
the most part, only the expurgated, complimenting, drawing-room man
to speak; and that, considering the need of America to be kept
virile and broad at all hazards, his contribution, both as man and
writer, falls immeasurably short of Abraham Lincoln's.

What a noble specimen of its kind, and how free from any verbal
tricks or admixture of literary sauce, is Thoreau's "Maine Woods"!
And what a marked specimen of the opposite style is a certain other
book I could mention in which these wild and grand scenes serve but
as a medium to advertise the author's fund of classic lore!

Can there be any doubt about the traits and outward signs of a
noble character, and is not the style of an author the manners of
his soul?

Is there a lyceum lecturer in the country who is above manoeuvring
for the applause of his audience? or a writer who is willing to
make himself of no account for the sake of what he has to say? Even
in the best there is something of the air and manners of a
performer on exhibition. The newspaper, or magazine, or book is a
sort of raised platform upon which the advertiser advances before a
gaping and expectant crowd. Truly, how well he _handles_ his
subject! He turns it over, and around, and inside out, and top-side
down. He tosses it about; he twirls it; he takes it apart and puts
it together again, and knows well beforehand where the applause
will come in. Any reader, in taking up the antique authors, must be
struck by the contrast.

"In Aeschylus," says Landor, "there is no trickery, no trifling, no
delay, no exposition, no garrulity, no dogmatism, no declamation,
no prosing, . . . but the loud, clear challenge, the firm,
unstealthy step, of an erect, broad-breasted soldier."

On the whole, the old authors are better than the new. The real
question of literature is not simplified by culture or a
multiplication of books, as the conditions of life are always the
same, and are not made one whit easier by all the myriads of men
and women who have lived upon the globe. The standing want is never
for more skill, but for newer, fresher power,--a more plentiful
supply of arterial blood. The discoverer, or the historian, or the
man of science, may begin where his predecessor left off, but the
poet or any artist must go back for a fresh start. With him it is
always the first day of creation, and he must begin at the stump or



Before genius is manliness, and before beauty is power. The Russian
novelist and poet, Turgenieff, scattered all through whose works
you will find unmistakable traits of greatness, makes one of his
characters say, speaking of beauty, "The old masters,--they never
hunted after it; it comes of itself into their compositions, God
knows whence, from heaven or elsewhere. The whole world belonged to
them, but we are unable to clasp its broad spaces; our arms are too

>From the same depth of insight come these lines from "Leaves of
Grass," apropos of true poems:--

"They do not seek beauty--they are sought;
Forever touching them, or close upon them, follows beauty, longing,
fain, love-sick."

The Roman was perhaps the first to separate beauty from use, and to
pursue it as ornament merely. He built his grand edifice,--its
piers, its vaults, its walls of brick and concrete,--and then gave
it a marble envelope copied from the Greek architecture. The latter
could be stripped away, as in many cases it was by the hand of
time, and leave the essentials of the structure nearly complete.
Not so with the Greek: he did not seek the beautiful, he was
beauty; his building had no ornament, it was all structure; in its
beauty was the flower of necessity, the charm of inborn fitness and
proportion. In other words, "his art was structure refined into
beautiful forms, not beautiful forms superimposed upon structure,"
as with the Roman. And it is in Greek mythology, is it not, that
Beauty is represented as riding upon the back of a lion? as she
assuredly always does in their poetry and art,--rides upon power,
or terror, or savage fate; not only rides upon, but is wedded and
incorporated with it; hence the athletic desire and refreshment her
coming imparts.

This is the invariable order of nature. Beauty without a rank
material basis enfeebles. The world is not thus made; man is not
thus begotten and nourished.

It comes to me there is something implied or understood when we
look upon a beautiful object, that has quite as much to do with the
impression made upon the mind as anything in the object itself;
perhaps more. There is somehow an immense and undefined background
of vast and unconscionable energy, as of earthquakes, and ocean
storms, and cleft mountains, across which things of beauty play,
and to which they constantly defer; and when this background is
wanting, as it is in much current poetry, beauty sickens and dies,
or at most has only a feeble existence.

Nature does nothing merely for beauty; beauty follows as the
inevitable result; and the final impression of health and finish
which her works make upon the mind is owing as much to those things
which are not technically called beautiful as to those which are.
The former give identity to the latter. The one is to the other
what substance is to form, or bone to flesh. The beauty of nature
includes all that is called beautiful, as its flower; and all that
is not called beautiful, as its stalk and roots.

Indeed, when I go to the woods or the fields, or ascend to the
hilltop, I do not seem to be gazing upon beauty at all, but to be
breathing it like the air. I am not dazzled or astonished; I am in
no hurry to look lest it be gone. I would not have the litter and
debris removed, or the banks trimmed, or the ground painted. What I
enjoy is commensurate with the earth and sky itself. It clings to
the rocks and trees; it is kindred to the roughness and savagery;
it rises from every tangle and chasm; it perches on the dry oak-
stubs with the hawks and buzzards; the crows shed it from their
wings and weave it into their nests of coarse sticks; the fox barks
it, the cattle low it, and every mountain path leads to its haunts.
I am not a spectator of, but a participator in it. It is not an
adornment; its roots strike to the centre of the earth.

All true beauty in nature or in art is like the iridescent hue of
mother-of-pearl, which is intrinsic and necessary, being the result
of the arrangement of the particles,--the flowering of the
mechanism of the shell; or like the beauty of health which comes
out of and reaches back again to the bones and the digestion. There
is no grace like the grace of strength. What sheer muscular gripe
and power lie back of the firm, delicate notes of the great
violinist! "Wit," says Heine,--and the same thing is true of
beauty,--"isolated, is worthless. It is only endurable when it
rests on a solid basis."

In fact, beauty as a separate and distinct thing does not exist.
Neither can it be reached by any sorting or sifting or clarifying
process. It is an experience of the mind, and must be preceded by
certain conditions, just as light is an experience of the eye, and
sound of the ear.

To attempt to manufacture beauty is as vain as to attempt to
manufacture truth; and to give it to us in poems or any form of
art, without a lion of some sort, a lion of truth or fitness or
power, is to emasculate it and destroy its volition.

But current poetry is, for the most part, an attempt to do this
very thing, to give us beauty without beauty's antecedents and
foil. The poets want to spare us the annoyance of the beast. Since
beauty is the chief attraction, why not have this part alone, pure
and unadulterated,--why not pluck the plumage from the bird, the
flower from its stalk, the moss from the rock, the shell from the
shore, the honey-bag from the bee, and thus have in brief what
pleases us? Hence, with rare exceptions, one feels, on opening the
latest book of poems, like exclaiming, Well, here is the beautiful
at last divested of everything else,--of truth, of power, of
utility,-- and one may add of beauty, too. It charms as color, or
flowers, or jewels, or perfume charms--and that is the end of it.

It is ever present to the true artist, in his attempt to report
nature, that every object as it stands in the circuit of cause and
effect has a history which involves its surroundings, and that the
depth of the interest which it awakens in us is in proportion as
its integrity in this respect is preserved. In nature we are
prepared for any opulence of color or of vegetation, or freak of
form, or display of any kind, because of the preponderance of the
common, ever-present feature of the earth. The foil is always at
hand. In like manner in the master poems we are never surfeited
with mere beauty.

Woe to any artist who disengages Beauty from the wide background of
rudeness, darkness, and strength,--and disengages her from absolute
nature! The mild and beneficent aspects of nature,-- what gulfs and
abysses of power underlie them! The great shaggy, barbaric earth,--
yet the summing-up, the plenum, of all we know or can know of
beauty! So the orbic poems of the world have a foundation as of the
earth itself, and are beautiful because they are something else
first. Homer chose for his groundwork War, clinching, tearing,
tugging war; in Dante, it is Hell; in Milton, Satan and the Fall;
in Shakespeare, it is the fierce Feudal world, with its towering
and kingly personalities; in Byron, it is Revolt and diabolic
passion. When we get to Tennyson, the lion is a good deal tamed,
but he is still there in the shape of the proud, haughty, and manly
Norman, and in many forms yet stimulates the mind.

The perception of cosmical beauty comes by a vital original
process. It is in some measure a creative act, and those works that
rest upon it make demands--perhaps extraordinary ones--upon the
reader or the beholder. We regard mere surface glitter, or mere
verbal sweetness, in a mood entirely passive, and with a pleasure
entirely profitless. The beauty of excellent stage scenery seems
much more obvious and easy of apprehension than the beauty of trees
and hills themselves, inasmuch as the act of association in the
mind is much easier and cheaper than the act of original

Only the greatest works in any department afford any explanation of
this wonder we call nature, or aid the mind in arriving at correct
notions concerning it. To copy here and there a line or a trait is
no explanation; but to translate nature into another language--to
bridge it to us, to repeat in some sort the act of creation itself--
is the crowning triumph of poetic art.


After the critic has enumerated all the stock qualities of the
poet, as taste, fancy, melody, it remains to be said that unless
there is something in him that is _living identity,_ something
analogous to the growing, pushing, reproducing forces of nature,
all the rest in the end pass for but little.

This is perhaps what the German critic, Lessing, really means by
_action,_ for true poems are more like deeds, expressive of
something behind, more like acts of heroism or devotion, or like
personal character, than like thoughts or intellections.

All the master poets have in their work an interior, chemical,
assimilative property, a sort of gastric juice which dissolves
thought and form, and holds in vital fusion religions, times,
races, and the theory of their own construction, naming up with
electric and defiant power,--power without any admixture of
resisting form, as in a living organism.

There are in nature two types or forms, the cell and the crystal.
One means the organic, the other the inorganic; one means growth,
development, life;
the other means reaction, solidification, rest. The hint and model
of all creative works is the cell; critical, reflective, and
philosophical works are nearer akin to the crystal; while there is
much good literature that is neither the one nor the other
distinctively, but which in a measure touches and includes both.
But crystallic beauty or cut and polished gems of thought, the
result of the reflex rather than the direct action of the mind, we
do not expect to find in the best poems, though they may be most
prized by specially intellectual persons. In the immortal poems the
solids are very few, or do not appear at all as solids,--as lime
and iron,--any more than they do in organic nature, in the flesh of
the peach or the apple. The main thing in every living organism is
the vital fluids: seven tenths of man is water; and seven tenths of
Shakespeare is passion, emotion,--fluid humanity. Out of this arise
his forms, as Venus arose out of the sea, and as man is daily built
up out of the liquids of the body. We cannot taste, much less
assimilate, a solid until it becomes a liquid; and your great idea,
your sermon or moral, lies upon your poem a dead, cumbrous mass
unless there is adequate heat and solvent, emotional power. Herein
I think Wordsworth's "Excursion" fails as a poem. It has too much
solid matter. It is an over-freighted bark that does not ride the
waves buoyantly and lifelike; far less so than Tennyson's "In
Memoriam," which is just as truly a philosophical poem as the
"Excursion." (Wordsworth is the fresher poet; his poems seem really
to have been written in the open air, and to have been brought
directly under the oxygenating influence of outdoor nature; while
in Tennyson this influence seems tempered or farther removed.)

The physical cosmos itself is not a thought, but an act. Natural
objects do not affect us like well-wrought specimens or finished
handicraft, which have nothing to follow, but as living,
procreating energy. Nature is perpetual transition. Everything
passes and presses on; there is no pause, no completion, no
explanation. To produce and multiply endlessly, without ever
reaching the last possibility of excellence, and without committing
herself to any end, is the law of Nature.

These considerations bring us very near the essential difference
between prose and poetry, or rather between the poetic and the
didactic treatment of a subject. The essence of creative art is
always the same; namely, interior movement and fusion; while the
method of the didactic or prosaic treatment is fixity, limitation.
The latter must formulate and define; but the principle of the
former is to flow, to suffuse, to mount, to escape. We can conceive
of life only as something constantly _becoming._ It plays forever
on the verge. It is never _in loco,_ but always _in transitu._
Arrest the wind, and it is no longer the wind; close your hands
upon the light, and behold, it is gone.

The antithesis of art in method is science, as Coleridge has
intimated. As the latter aims at the particular, so the former aims
at the universal. One would have truth of detail, the other truth
of _ensemble._ The method of science may be symbolized by the
straight line, that of art by the curve. The results of science,
relatively to its aim, must be parts and pieces; while art must
give the whole in every act; not quantitively of course, but
qualitively,--by the integrity of the spirit in which it works.

The Greek mind will always be the type of the artist mind, mainly
because of its practical bent, its healthful objectivity. The Greek
never looked inward, but outward. Criticism and speculation were
foreign to him. His head shows a very marked predominance of the
motive and perceptive powers over the reflective. The expression of
the face is never what we call intellectual or thoughtful, but
commanding. His gods are not philosophers, but delight in deeds,
justice, rulership.

Among the differences between the modern and the classical
aesthetic mind is the greater precision and definiteness of the
latter. The modern genius is Gothic, and demands in art a certain
vagueness and spirituality like that of music, refusing to be
grasped and formulated. Hence for us (and this is undoubtedly an
improvement) there must always be something about a poem, or any
work of art, besides the evident intellect or plot of it, or what
is on its surface, or what it tells. This something is the
Invisible, the Undefined, almost Unexpressed, and is perhaps the
best part of any work of art, as it is of a noble personality. To
amuse, to exhibit culture, to formulate the aesthetic, or even to
excite the emotions, is by no means all,--is not even the deepest
part. Beside these, and inclosing all, is the general impalpable
effect, like good air, or the subtle presence of good spirits,
wordless but more potent far than words. As, in the superbest
person, it is not merely what he says or knows or shows, or even
how he behaves, but the silent qualities, like gravitation, that
insensibly but resistlessly hold us; so in a good poem, or in any
other expression of art.


Wherein the race has so far lost and gained, in being transplanted
from Europe to the New England soil and climate, is well
illustrated by the writings of Emerson. There is greater refinement
and sublimation of thought, greater clearness and sharpness of
outline, greater audacity of statement, but, on the other hand,
there is a loss of bulk, of unction, of adipose tissue, and shall
we say of power?

Emerson is undoubtedly a master on the New England scale,--such a
master as the land and race are capable of producing. He stands out
clear and undeniable. The national type, as illustrated by that
section of the country, is the purest and strongest in him of any
yet. He can never suffer eclipse. Compared with the English or
German master, he is undoubtedly deficient in viscera, in moral and
intellectual stomach; but, on the other hand, he is of a fibre and
quality hard to match in any age or land. From first to last he
strikes one as something extremely pure and compact, like a nut or
an egg. Great matters and tendencies lie folded in him, or rather
are summarized in his pages. He writes short but pregnant chapters
on great themes, as in his "English Traits," a book like rich
preserves put up pound for pound, a pound of Emerson to every pound
of John Bull. His chapter on Swedenborg in "Representative Men" is
a good sample of his power to abbreviate and restate with added
force. His mind acts like a sun-lens in gathering the cold pale
beams of that luminary to a focus which warms and stimulates the
reader in a surprising manner. The gist of the whole matter is
here; and how much weariness and dullness and plodding is left out!

In fact, Emerson is an essence, a condensation; more so, perhaps,
than any other man who has appeared in literature. Nowhere else is
there such a preponderance of pure statement, of the very attar of
thought, over the bulkier, circumstantial, qualifying, or secondary
elements. He gives us net results. He is like those strong
artificial fertilizers. A pinch of him is equivalent to a page or
two of Johnson, and he is pitched many degrees higher as an
essayist than even Bacon. He has had an immediate stimulating
effect upon all the best minds of the country; how deep or lasting
this influence will be remains to be seen.

This point and brevity has its convenience and value especially in
certain fields of literature. I by no means would wish to water
Emerson; yet it will not do to lose sight of the fact that mass and
inertia are indispensable to the creator. Considering him as poet
alone, I have no doubt of his irremediable deficiency here. You
cannot have broad, massive effect, deep light and shade, or a
torrent of power, with such extreme refinement and condensation.
The superphosphates cannot take the place of the coarser, bulkier
fertilizers. Especially in poetry do we require pure thought to be
well diluted with the human, emotional qualities. In the writing
most precious to the race, how little is definition and
intellectual formula, and how much is impulse, emotion, will,
character, blood, chyle! We must have liquids and gases and
solvents. We perhaps get more of them in Carlyle. Emerson's page
has more serene astral beauty than Carlyle's, but not that intense
blast-furnace heat that melts down the most obdurate facts and
characters into something plastic and poetical. Emerson's ideal is
always the scholar, the man of books and ready wit; Carlyle's hero
is a riding or striding ruler, or a master worker in some active

The antique mind no doubt affords the true type of health and
wholeness in this respect. The Greek could see, and feel, and
paint, and carve, and speak nothing but emotional man. In nature he
saw nothing but personality,--nothing but human or superhuman
qualities; to him the elements all took the human shape. Of that
vague, spiritual, abstract something which we call Nature he had no
conception. He had no sentiment, properly speaking, but impulse and
will-power. And the master minds of the world, in proportion to
their strength, their spinal strength, have approximated to this
type. Dante, Angelo, Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, saw mainly man,
and him not abstractly but concretely. And this is the charm of
Burns and the glory of Scott. Carlyle has written the best
histories and biographies of modern times, because he sees man with
such fierce and steadfast eyes. Emerson sees him also, but he is
not interested in him as a man, but mainly as a spirit, as a
demigod, or as a wit or a philosopher.

Emerson's quality has changed a good deal in his later writings.
His corn is no longer in the milk; it has grown hard, and we that
read have grown hard, too. He has now ceased to be an expansive,
revolutionary force, but he has not ceased to be a writer of
extraordinary gripe and unexpected resources of statement. His
startling piece of advice, "Hitch your wagon to a star," is typical
of the man, as combining the most unlike and widely separate
qualities. Because not less marked than his idealism and mysticism
is his shrewd common sense, his practical bent, his definiteness,--
in fact, the sharp New England mould in which he is cast. He is the
master Yankee, the centennial flower of that thrifty and peculiar
stock. More especially in his later writings and speakings do we
see the native New England traits,--the alertness, eagerness,
inquisitiveness, thrift, dryness, archness, caution, the nervous
energy as distinguished from the old English unction and vascular
force. How he husbands himself,--what prudence, what economy,
always spending up, as he says, and not down! How alert, how
attentive; what an inquisitor; always ready with some test
question, with some fact or idea to match or to verify, ever on the
lookout for some choice bit of adventure or information, or some
anecdote that has pith and point! No tyro basks and takes his ease
in his presence, but is instantly put on trial and must answer or
be disgraced. He strikes at an idea like a falcon at a bird. His
great fear seems to be lest there be some fact or point worth
knowing that will escape him. He is a close-browed miser of the
scholar's gains. He turns all values into intellectual coin. Every
book or person or experience is an investment that will or will not
warrant a good return in ideas. He goes to the Radical Club, or to
the literary gathering, and listens with the closest attention to
every word that is said, in hope that something will be said, some
word dropped, that has the ring of the true metal. Apparently he
does not permit himself a moment's indifference or inattention.
His own pride is always to have the ready change, to speak the
exact and proper word, to give to every occasion the dignity of
wise speech. You are bartered with for your best. There is no
profit in life but in the interchange of ideas, and the chief
success is to have a head well filled with them. Hard cash at that;
no paper promises satisfy him; he loves the clink and glint of the
real coin.

His earlier writings were more flowing and suggestive, and had
reference to larger problems; but now everything has got weighed
and stamped and converted into the medium of wise and scholarly
conversation. It is of great value; these later essays are so many
bags of genuine coin, which it has taken a lifetime to hoard; not
all gold, but all good, and the fruit of wise industry and economy.

I know of no other writing that yields the reader so many strongly
stamped medallion-like sayings and distinctions. There is a
perpetual refining and recoining of the current wisdom of life and
conversation. It is the old gold or silver or copper, but how
bright and new it looks in his pages! Emerson loves facts, things,
objects, as the workman his tools. He makes everything serve. The
stress of expression is so great that he bends the most obdurate
element to his purpose; as the bird, under her keen necessity,
weaves the most contrary and diverse materials into her nest. He
seems to like best material that is a little refractory; it makes
his page more piquant and stimulating. Within certain limits he
loves roughness, but not at the expense of harmony. He has
wonderful hardiness and push. Where else in literature is there a
mind, moving in so rare a medium, that gives one such a sense of
tangible resistance and force? It is a principle in mechanics that
velocity is twice as great as mass: double your speed and you
double your heat, though you halve your weight. In like manner this
body we are considering is not the largest, but its speed is great,
and the intensity of its impact with objects and experience is
almost without parallel. Everything about a man like Emerson is
important. I find his phrenology and physiognomy more than
ordinarily typical and suggestive. Look at his picture there,--
large, strong features on a small face and head,--no blank spaces;
all given up to expression; a high predaceous nose, a sinewy brow,
a massive, benevolent chin. In most men there is more face than
feature, but here is a vast deal more feature than face, and a
corresponding alertness and emphasis of character. Indeed, the man
is made after this fashion. He is all type; his expression is
transcendent. His mind has the hand's pronounced anatomy,--its
cords and sinews and multiform articulations and processes, its
opposing and coordinating power. If his brain is small, its texture
is fine and its convolutions are deep. There have been broader and
more catholic natures, but few so towering and audacious in
expression and so rich in characteristic traits. Every scrap and
shred of him is important and related. Like the strongly aromatic
herbs and simples,--sage, mint, wintergreen, sassafras,--the least
part carries the flavor of the whole. Is there one indifferent or
equivocal or unsympathizing drop of blood in him? Where he is at
all, he is entirely,--nothing extemporaneous; his most casual word
seems to have lain in pickle a long time, and is saturated through
and through with the Emersonian brine. Indeed, so pungent and
penetrating is his quality that even his quotations seem more than
half his own.

He is a man who occupies every inch of his rightful territory; he
is there in proper person to the farthest bound. Not every man is
himself and his best self at all times and to his finger points.
Many great characters, perhaps the greatest, have more or less
neutral or waste ground. You must penetrate a distance before you
reach the real quick. Or there is a good wide margin of the
commonplace which is sure to put them on good terms with the mass
of their fellow-citizens. And one would think Emerson could afford
to relax a little; that he had earned the right to a dull page or
two now and then. The second best or third best word sometimes
would make us appreciate his first best all the more. Even his god-
father Plato nods occasionally, but Emerson's good breeding will
not for a moment permit such a slight to the reader.

Emerson's peculiar quality is very subtle, but very sharp and firm
and unmistakable. It is not analogous to the commoner, slower-going
elements, as heat, air, fire, water, but is nearer akin to that
elusive but potent something we call electricity. It is abrupt,
freaky, unexpected, and always communicates a little wholesome
shock. It darts this way and that, and connects the far and the
near in every line. There is always a leaping thread of light, and
there is always a kind of answering peal or percussion. With what
quickness and suddenness extremes are brought together! The reader
is never prepared for what is to come next; the spark will most
likely leap from some source or fact least thought of. His page
seldom glows and burns, but there is a never-ceasing crackling and
discharge of moral and intellectual force into the mind.

His chief weapon, and one that he never lays down, is identical
with that of the great wits, namely, surprise. The point of his
remark or idea is always sprung upon the reader, never quietly laid
before him. He has a mortal dread of tameness and flatness, and
would make the very water we drink bite the tongue.

He has been from the first a speaker and lecturer, and his style
has been largely modeled according to the demand of those sharp,
heady New England audiences for ceaseless intellectual friction
and chafing. Hence every sentence is braided hard, and more or less
knotted, and, though of silk, makes the mind tingle. He startles by
overstatement, by understatement, by paradox, by antithesis, and by
synthesis. Into every sentence enters the unexpected,--the
congruous leaping from the incongruous, the high coming down, the
low springing up, likeness or relation suddenly coming into view
where before was only difference or antagonism. How he delights to
bring the reader up with a short turn, to impale him on a knotty
point, to explode one of his verbal bombshells under his very nose!
Yet there is no trickery or rhetorical legerdemain. His heroic
fibre always saves him.

The language in which Taine describes Bacon applies with even more
force to Emerson:--

"Bacon," he says, "is a producer of conceptions and of sentences.
The matter being explored, he says to us: 'Such it is; touch it not
on that side; it must be approached from the other.' Nothing more;
no proof, no effort to convince; he affirms, and nothing more; he
has thought in the manner of artists and poets, and he speaks after
the manner of prophets and seers. 'Cogita et visa,'--this title of
one of his books might be the title of all. His process is that of
the creators; it is intuition, not reasoning. . . . There is
nothing more hazardous, more like fantasy, than this mode of
thought when it is not checked by natural and good strong common
sense. This common sense, which is a kind of natural divination,
the stable equilibrium of an intellect always gravitating to the
true, like the needle to the north pole, Bacon possesses in the
highest degree. He has a preëminently practical, even an
utilitarian mind."

It is significant, and is indeed the hidden seed or root out of
which comes the explanation of much, if not the main part, of his
life and writings, that Emerson comes of a long line of clergymen;
that the blood in his veins has been teaching, and preaching, and
thinking, and growing austere, these many generations. One wonders
that it is still so bounding and strong, so red with iron and quick
with oxygen. But in him seems to be illustrated one of those rare
cases in the genealogy of families where the best is carried
forward each time, and steadily recruited and intensified. It does
not seem possible for any man to become just what Emerson is from
the stump, though perhaps great men have been the fruit of one
generation; but there is a quality in him, an aroma of fine
manners, a propriety, a chivalry in the blood, that dates back, and
has been refined and transmitted many times. Power is born with a
man, and is always first hand, but culture, genius, noble
instincts, gentle manners, or the easy capacity for these things,
may be, and to a greater or a lesser extent are, the contribution
of the past. Emerson's culture is radical and ante-natal, and never
fails him. The virtues of all those New England ministers and all
those tomes of sermons are in this casket. One fears sometimes that
he has been too much clarified, or that there is not enough savage
grace or original viciousness and grit in him to save him. How he
hates the roysterers, and all the rank, turbulent, human passions,
and is chilled by the thought that perhaps after all Shakespeare
led a vulgar life!

When Tyndall was here, he showed us how the dark, coarse, invisible
heat rays could be strained out of the spectrum; or, in other
words, that every solar beam was weighted with a vast, nether,
invisible side, which made it a lever of tremendous power in
organic nature. After some such analogy, one sees how the highest
order of power in the intellectual world draws upon and is
nourished by those rude, primitive, barbaric human qualities that
our culture and pietism tend to cut off and strain out. Our culture
has its eye on the other end of the spectrum, where the fine violet
and indigo rays are; but all the lifting, rounding, fructifying
powers of the system are in the coarse, dark rays--the black devil--
at the base. The angel of light is yoked with the demon of
darkness, and the pair create and sustain the world.

In rare souls like Emerson, the fruit of extreme culture, it is
inevitable that at least some of the heat rays should be lost, and
we miss them especially when we contrast him with the elder
masters. The elder masters did not seem to get rid of the coarse or
vulgar in human life, but royally accepted it, and struck their
roots into it, and drew from it sustenance and power: but there is
an ever-present suspicion that Emerson prefers the saints to the
sinners; prefers the prophets and seers to Homer, Shakespeare, and
Dante. Indeed, it is to be distinctly stated and emphasized, that
Emerson is essentially a priest, and that the key to all he has
said and written is to be found in the fact that his point of view
is not that of the acceptor, the creator,--Shakespeare's point of
view,--but that of the refiner and selector, the priest's point of
view. He described his own state rather than that of mankind when
he said, "The human mind stands ever in perplexity, demanding
intellect, demanding sanctity, impatient equally of each without
the other."

Much surprise has been expressed in literary circles in this
country that Emerson has not followed up his first off-hand
indorsement of Walt Whitman with fuller and more deliberate
approval of that poet, but has rather taken the opposite tack. But
the wonder is that he should have been carried off his feet at all
in the manner he was; and it must have been no ordinary breeze that
did it. Emerson shares with his contemporaries the vast
preponderance of the critical and discerning intellect over the
fervid, manly qualities and faith. His power of statement is
enormous; his scope of being is not enormous. The prayer he uttered
many years ago for a poet of the modern, one who could see in the
gigantic materialism of the times the carnival of the same deities
we so much admire in Greece and Rome, seems to many to have even
been explicitly answered in Whitman; but Emerson is balked by the
cloud of materials, the din and dust of action, and the moving
armies, in which the god comes enveloped.

But Emerson has his difficulties with all the poets. Homer is too
literal, Milton too literary, and there is too much of the whooping
savage in Whitman. He seems to think the real poet is yet to
appear; a poet on new terms, the reconciler, the poet-priest,--one
who shall unite the whiteness and purity of the saint with the
power and unction of the sinner; one who shall bridge the chasm
between Shakespeare and St. John. For when our Emerson gets on his
highest horse, which he does only on two or three occasions, he
finds Shakespeare only a half man, and that it would take Plato and
Manu and Moses and Jesus to complete him. Shakespeare, he says,
rested with the symbol, with the festal beauty of the world, and
did not take the final step, and explore the essence of things, and
ask, "Whence? What? and Whither?" He was not wise for himself; he
did not lead a beautiful, saintly life, but ate, and drank, and
reveled, and affiliated with all manner of persons, and quaffed the
cup of life with gusto and relish. The elect, spotless souls will
always look upon the heat and unconscious optimism of the great
poet with deep regret. But if man would not become emasculated, if
human life is to continue, we must cherish the coarse as well as
the fine, the root as well as the top and flower. The poet-priest
in the Emersonian sense has never yet appeared, and what reason
have we to expect him? The poet means life, the whole of life,--all
your ethics and philosophies, and essences and reason of things, in
vital play and fusion, clothed with form and color, and throbbing
with passion: the priest means a part, a thought, a precept; he
means suppression, expurgation, death. To have gone farther than
Shakespeare would have been to cease to be a poet, and to become a
mystic or a seer.

Yet it would be absurd to say, as a leading British literary
journal recently did, that Emerson is not a poet. He is one kind of
a poet. He has written plenty of poems that are as melodious as the
hum of a wild bee in the air,--chords of wild aeolian music.

Undoubtedly his is, on the whole, a bloodless kind of poetry. It
suggests the pale gray matter of the cerebrum rather than flesh and
blood. Mr. William Rossetti has made a suggestive remark about him.
He is not so essentially a poet, says this critic, as he is a Druid
that wanders among the bards, and strikes the harp with even more
than bardic stress.

Not in the poetry of any of his contemporaries is there such a
burden of the mystery of things, nor are there such round wind-harp
tones, nor lines so tense and resonant, and blown upon by a breeze
from the highest heaven of thought. In certain respects he has gone
beyond any other. He has gone beyond the symbol to the thing
signified. He has emptied poetic forms of their meaning and made
poetry of that. He would fain cut the world up into stars to shine
in the intellectual firmament. He is more and he is less than the

He stands among other poets like a pine-tree amid a forest of oak
and maple. He seems to belong to another race, and to other climes
and conditions. He is great in one direction, up; no dancing
leaves, but rapt needles; never abandonment, never a tossing and
careering, never an avalanche of emotion; the same in sun and snow,
scattering his cones, and with night and obscurity amid his
branches. He is moral first and last, and it is through his
impassioned and poetic treatment of the moral law that he gains
such an ascendency over his reader. He says, as for other things he
makes poetry of them, but the moral law makes poetry of him. He
sees in the world only the ethical, but he sees it through the
aesthetic faculty. Hence his page has the double charm of the
beautiful and the good.


One of the penalties Emerson pays for his sharp decision, his
mental pertinence and resistance, is the curtailment of his field
of vision and enjoyment. He is one of those men whom the gods drive
with blinders on, so that they see fiercely in only a few
directions. Supreme lover as he is of poetry,--Herrick's poetry,--
yet from the whole domain of what may be called emotional poetry,
the poetry of fluid humanity, tallied by music, he seems to be shut
out. This may be seen by his reference to Shelley in his last book,
"Letters and Social Aims," and by his preference of the
metaphysical poet throughout his writings. Wordsworth's famous
"Ode" is, he says, the high-water mark of English literature. What
he seems to value most in Shakespeare is the marvelous wit, the
pregnant sayings. He finds no poet in France, and in his "English
Traits" credits Tennyson with little but melody and color. (In our
last readings, do we not surely come to feel the manly and robust
fibre beneath Tennyson's silken vestments?) He demands of poetry
that it be a kind of spiritual manna, and is at last forced to
confess that there are no poets, and that when such angels do
appear, Homer and Milton will be tin pans.

One feels that this will not do, and that health, and wholeness,
and the well-being of man are more in the keeping of Shakespeare
than in the hands of Zoroaster or any of the saints. I doubt if
that rarefied air will make good red blood and plenty of it.

But Emerson makes his point plain, and is not indebted to any of
his teachers for it. It is the burden of all he writes upon the
subject. The long discourse that opens his last volume [footnote:
_Letters and Social Aims_] has numerous subheadings, as "Poetry,"
"Imagination," "Creation," "Morals," and "Transcendency;" but it!s
all a plea for transcendency. I am reminded of the story of an old
Indian chief who was invited to some great dinner where the first
course was "succotash." When the second course was ready the old
Indian said he would have a little more succotash, and when the
third was ready he called for more succotash and so with the fourth
and fifth, and on to the end. In like manner Emerson will have
nothing but the "spiritual law" in poetry, and he has an enormous
appetite for that. Let him have it, but why should
he be so sure that mankind all want succotash? Mankind finally
comes to care little for what any poet has to _say,_ but only for
what he has to _sing._ We want the pearl of thought dissolved in
the wine of life. How much better are sound bones and a good
digestion in poetry than all the philosophy and transcendentalism
in the world!

What one comes at last to want is power, mastery; and, whether it
be mastery over the subtleties of the intellect, as in Emerson
himself, or over the passions and the springs of action, as in
Shakespeare, or over our terrors and the awful hobgoblins of hell
and Satan, as in Dante, or over vast masses and spaces of nature
and the abysms of aboriginal man, as in Walt Whitman, what matters
it? Are we not refreshed by all? There is one mastery in Burns,
another in Byron, another in Rabelais, and in Victor Hugo, and in
Tennyson; and though the critic has his preferences, though he
affect one more than another, yet who shall say this one is a poet
and that one is not? "There may be any number of supremes," says
the master, and "one by no means contravenes another." Every gas is
a vacuum to every other gas, says Emerson, quoting the scientist;
and every great poet complements and leaves the world free to every
other great poet.

Emerson's limitation or fixity is seen also in the fact that he has
taken no new step in his own direction, if indeed another step
could be taken in that direction and not step off. He is a prisoner
on his peak. He cannot get away from the old themes. His later
essays are upon essentially the same subjects as his first. He
began by writing on nature, greatness, manners, art, poetry, and he
is still writing on them. He is a husbandman who practices no
rotation of crops, but submits to the exhaustive process of taking
about the same things from his soil year after year. Some readers
think they detect a falling off. It is evident there is not the
same spontaneity, and that the soil has to be more and more stirred
and encouraged, which is not at all to be wondered at.

But if Emerson has not advanced, he has not receded, at least in
conviction and will, which is always the great danger with our bold
prophets. The world in which he lives, the themes upon which he
writes, never become hackneyed to him. They are always fresh and
new. He has hardened, but time has not abated one jot or tittle
his courage and hope,--no cynicism and no relaxing of his hold, no
decay of his faith, while the nobleness of his tone, the chivalry
of his utterance, is even more marked than at first. Better a
hundred-fold than his praise of fine manners is the delicacy and
courtesy and the grace of generous breeding displayed on every
page. Why does one grow impatient and vicious when Emerson writes
of fine manners and the punctilios of conventional life, and feel
like kicking into the street every divinity enshrined in the
drawing-room? It is a kind of insult to a man to speak the word in
his presence. Purify the parlors indeed by keeping out the
Choctaws, the laughers! Let us go and hold high carnival for a
week, and split the ears of the groundlings with our "contemptible
squeals of joy." And when he makes a dead set at praising
eloquence, I find myself instantly on the side of the old clergyman
he tells of who prayed that he might never be eloquent; or when he
makes the test of a man an intellectual one, as his skill at
repartee, and praises the literary crack shot, and defines
manliness to be readiness, as he does in this last volume and in
the preceding one, I am filled with a perverse envy of all the
confused and stammering heroes of history. Is Washington faltering
out a few broken and ungrammatical sentences, in reply to the vote
of thanks of the Virginia legislature, less manly than the glib
tongue in the court-room or in the club that can hit the mark every
time? The test of a wit or of a scholar is one thing; the test of a
man, I take it, is quite another. In this and some other respects
Emerson is well antidoted by Carlyle, who lays the stress on the
opposite qualities, and charges his hero to hold his tongue. But
one cheerfully forgives Emerson the way he puts his thumb-nail on
the bores. He speaks feelingly, and no doubt from as deep an
experience as any man in America.

I really hold Emerson in such high esteem that I think I can safely
indulge myself in a little more fault-finding with him.

I think it must be admitted that he is deficient in sympathy. This
accounts in a measure for his coolness, his self-possession, and
that kind of uncompromising rectitude or inflexibleness that marks
his career, and that he so lauds in his essays. No man is so little
liable to be warped or compromised in any way as the unsympathetic
man. Emerson's ideal is the man who stands firm, who is unmoved,
who never laughs, or apologizes, or deprecates, or makes
concessions, or assents through good-nature, or goes abroad; who is
not afraid of giving offense; "who answers you without supplication
in his eye,"--in fact, who stands like a granite pillar amid the
slough of life. You may wrestle with this man, he says, or swim
with him, or lodge in the same chamber with him, or eat at the same
table, and yet he is a thousand miles off, and can at any moment
finish with you. He is a sheer precipice, is this man, and not to
be trifled with. You shrinking, quivering, acquiescing natures,
avaunt! You sensitive plants, you hesitating, indefinite creatures,
you uncertain around the edges, you non-resisting, and you heroes,
whose courage is quick, but whose wit is tardy, make way, and let
the human crustacean pass. Emerson is moulded upon this pattern.
It is no mush and milk that you get at this table. "A great man is
coming to dine with me; I do not wish to please him; I wish that he
should wish to please me." On the lecture stand he might be of
wood, so far as he is responsive to the moods and feelings of his
auditors. They must come to him; he will not go to them: but they
do not always come. Latterly the people have felt insulted, the
lecturer showed them so little respect. Then, before a promiscuous
gathering, and in stirring and eventful times like ours, what
anachronisms most of his lectures are, even if we take the high
ground that they are pearls before swine! The swine may safely
demand some apology of him who offers them pearls instead of corn.

Emerson's fibre is too fine for large public uses. He is what he
is, and is to be accepted as such, only let us _know_ what he is.
He does not speak to universal conditions, or to human nature in
its broadest, deepest, strongest phases. His thought is far above
the great sea level of humanity, where stand most of the world's
masters. He is like one of those marvelously clear mountain lakes
whose water-line runs above all the salt seas of the globe. He is
very precious, taken at his real worth. Why find fault with the
isolation and the remoteness in view of the sky-like purity and

Still I must go on sounding and exploring him, reporting where I
touch bottom and where I do not. He reaps great advantage from his
want of sympathy. The world makes no inroads upon him through this
channel. He is not distracted by the throng or maybe the mob of
emotions that find entrance here. He shines like a star undimmed by
current events. He speaks as from out the interstellar spaces. 'T
is vulgar sympathy makes mortals of us all, and I think Emerson's
poetry finally lacks just that human coloring and tone, that flesh
tint of the heart, which vulgar sympathy with human life as such

But after we have made all possible deductions from Emerson, there
remains the fact that he is a living force, and, tried by home
standards, a master. Wherein does the secret of his power lie? He
is the prophet and philosopher of young men. The old man and the
man of the world make little of him, but of the youth who is ripe
for him he takes almost an unfair advantage. One secret of his
charm I take to be the instant success with which he transfers our
interest in the romantic, the chivalrous, the heroic, to the sphere
of morals and the intellect. We are let into another realm unlooked
for, where daring and imagination also lead. The secret and
suppressed heart finds a champion. To the young man fed upon the
penny precepts and staple Johnsonianism of English literature, and
upon what is generally doled out in the schools and colleges, it is
a surprise; it is a revelation. A new world opens before him. The
nebulae of his spirit are resolved or shown to be irresolvable. The
fixed stars of his inner firmament are brought immeasurably near.
He drops all other books. He will gaze and wonder. From Locke or
Johnson or Wayland to Emerson is like a change from the school
history to the Arabian Nights. There may be extravagances and some
jugglery, but for all that the lesson is a genuine one, and to us
of this generation immense.

Emerson is the knight-errant of the moral sentiment. He leads, in
our time and country, one illustrious division, at least, in the
holy crusade of the affections and the intuitions against the
usurpations of tradition and theological dogma. He marks the
flower, the culmination, under American conditions and in the finer
air of the New World, of the reaction begun by the German
philosophers, and passed along by later French and English
thinkers, of man against circumstance, of spirit against form, of
the present against the past. What splendid affirmation, what
inspiring audacity, what glorious egoism, what generous brag, what
sacred impiety! There is an _eclat_ about his words, and a brave
challenging of immense odds, that is like an army with banners. It
stirs the blood like a bugle-call: beauty, bravery, and a sacred
cause,--the three things that win with us always. The first essay
is a forlorn hope. See what the chances are: "The world exists for
the education of each man. . . . He should see that he can live all
history in his own person. He must sit solidly at home, and not
suffer himself to be bullied by kings or empires, but know that he
is greater than all the geography and all the government of the
world; he must transfer the point of view from which history is
commonly read from Rome and Athens and London to himself, and not
deny his conviction that he is the court, and, if England or Egypt
have anything to say to him, he will try the case; if not, let them
forever be silent." In every essay that follows, there are the
same great odds and the same electric call to the youth to face
them. It is, indeed, as much a world of fable and romance that
Emerson introduces us to as we get in Homer or Herodotus. It is
true, all true,--true as Arthur and his knights, or Pilgrim's
Progress, and I pity the man who has not tasted its intoxication,
or who can see nothing in it.

The intuitions are the bright band, without armor or shield, that
slay the mailed and bucklered giants of the understanding.
Government, institutions, religions, fall before the glance of the
hero's eye. Art and literature, Shakespeare, Angelo, Aeschylus, are
humble suppliants before you, the king. The commonest fact is
idealized, and the whole relation of man to the universe is thrown
into a kind of gigantic perspective. It is not much to say there is
exaggeration; the very start makes Mohammed's attitude toward the
mountain tame. The mountain _shall_ come to Mohammed, and, in the
eyes of all born readers of Emerson, the mountain does come, and
comes with alacrity.

Some shrewd judges apprehend that Emerson is not going to last;
basing their opinion upon the fact, already alluded to, that we
outgrow him, or pass through him as through an experience that we
cannot repeat. He is but a bridge to other things; he gets you
over. He is an exceptional fact in literature, say they, and does
not represent lasting or universal conditions. He is too fine for
the rough wear and tear of ages. True, we do not outgrow Dante, or
Cervantes, or Bacon; and I doubt if the Anglo-Saxon stock at least
ever outgrows that king of romancers, Walter Scott. These men and
their like appeal to a larger audience, and in some respects a more
adult one, at least one more likely to be found in every age and
people. Their achievement was more from the common level of human
nature than are Emerson's astonishing paradoxes. Yet I believe his
work has the seal of immortality upon it as much as that of any of
them. No doubt he has a meaning to us now and in this country that
will be lost to succeeding time. His religious significance will
not be so important to the next generation. He is being or has been
so completely absorbed by his times, that readers and hearers
hereafter will get him from a thousand sources, or his contribution
will become the common property of the race. All the masters
probably had some peculiar import or tie to their contemporaries
that we at a distance miss. It is thought by scholars that we have
lost the key, or one key, to Dante, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare,--
the key or the insight that people living under the same roof get
of each other.

But, aside from and over and above everything else, Emerson
_appeals to youth and to genius._ If you have these, you will
understand him and delight in him; if not, or neither of them, you
will make little of him. And I do not see why this should not be
just as true any time hence as at present.



"'I, thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.'"

"They say that thou art sick, art growing old,
Thou Poet of unconquerable health,
With youth far-stretching, through the golden wealth
Of autumn, to Death's frostful, friendly cold.
The never-blenching eyes, that did behold
Life's fair and foul, with measureless content,
And gaze ne'er sated, saddened as they bent
Over the dying soldier in the fold
Of thy large comrade love;--then broke the tear!
War-dream, field-vigil, the bequeathed kiss,
Have brought old age to thee; yet, Master, now,
Cease not thy song to us; lest we should miss
A death-chant of indomitable cheer,
Blown as a gale from God;--oh sing it thou!"
ARRAN LEIGH (England).


Whoever has witnessed the flight of any of the great birds, as the
eagle, the condor, the sea-gulls, the proud hawks, has perhaps felt
that the poetic suggestion of the feathered tribes is not all
confined to the sweet and tiny songsters,--the thrushes, canaries,
and mockingbirds of the groves and orchards, or of the gilded cage
in my lady's chamber. It is by some such analogy that I would
indicate the character of the poetry I am about to discuss,
compared with that of the more popular and melodious singer,--the
poetry of the strong wing and the daring flight.

Well and profoundly has a Danish critic said, in "For Ide og
Virkelighed" ("For the Idea and the Reality"), a Copenhagen

"It may be candidly admitted that the American poet has not the
elegance, special melody, nor _recherché_ aroma of the accepted
poets of Europe or his own country; but his compass and general
harmony are infinitely greater. The sweetness and spice, the poetic
_ennui,_ the tender longings, the exquisite art-finish of those
choice poets are mainly unseen and unmet in him,--perhaps because
he cannot achieve them, more likely because he disdains them. But
there is an electric _living soul_ in his poetry, far more
fermenting and bracing. His wings do not glitter in their movement
from rich and varicolored plumage, nor are his notes those of the
accustomed song-birds; but his flight is the flight of the eagle."

Yes, there is not only the delighting of the ear with the
outpouring of sweetest melody and its lessons, but there is the
delighting of the eye and soul through that soaring and circling in
the vast empyrean of "a strong bird on pinions free,"--lessons of
freedom, power, grace, and spiritual suggestion,--vast,
unparalleled, _formless_ lessons.

It is now upwards of twenty years since Walt Whitman printed (in
1855) his first thin beginning volume of "Leaves of Grass;" and,
holding him to the test which he himself early proclaimed, namely,
"that the proof of the poet shall be sternly deferred till his
country has absorb'd him as affectionately as he has absorb'd it,"
he is yet on trial, yet makes his appeal to an indifferent or to a
scornful audience. That his complete absorption, however, by his
own country and by the world, is ultimately to take place, is one
of the beliefs that grows stronger and stronger within me as time
passes, and I suppose it is with a hope to help forward this
absorption that I write of him now. Only here and there has he yet
effected a lodgment, usually in the younger and more virile minds.
But considering the unparalleled audacity of his undertaking, and
the absence in most critics and readers of anything like full-grown
and robust aesthetic perception, the wonder really is not that he
should have made such slow progress, but that he should have gained
any foothold at all. The whole literary _technique_ of the race for
the last two hundred years has been squarely against him, laying,
as it does, the emphasis upon form and scholarly endowments instead
of upon aboriginal power and manhood.

My own mastery of the poet, incomplete as it is, has doubtless been
much facilitated by contact--talks, meals, and jaunts--with him,
stretching through a decade of years, and by seeing how everything
in his _personnel_ was resumed and carried forward in his literary
expression; in fact, how the one was a living commentary upon the
other. After the test of time, nothing goes home like the test of
actual intimacy; and to tell me that Whitman is not a large, fine,
fresh, magnetic personality, making you love him and want always to
be with him, were to tell me that my whole past life is a
deception, and all the impression of my perceptive faculties a
fraud. I have studied him as I have studied the birds, and have
found that the nearer I got to him the more I saw. Nothing about a
first-class man can be overlooked; he is to be studied in every
feature,--in his physiology and phrenology, in the shape of his
head, in his brow, his eye, his glance, his nose, his ear (the ear
is as indicative in a man as in a horse), his voice. In Whitman all
these things are remarkably striking and suggestive. His face
exhibits a rare combination of harmony and sweetness with
strength,--strength like the vaults and piers of the Roman
architecture. Sculptor never carved a finer ear or a more
imaginative brow. Then his heavy-lidded, absorbing eye, his
sympathetic voice, and the impression which he makes of starting
from the broad bases of the universal human traits. (If Whitman was
grand in his physical and perfect health, I think him far more so
now (1877), cheerfully mastering paralysis, penury, and old age.)
You know, on seeing the man and becoming familiar with his
presence, that, if he achieve the height at all, it will be from
where every man stands, and not from some special genius, or
exceptional and adventitious point. He does not make the impression
of the scholar or artist or _littérateur,_ but such as you would
imagine the antique heroes to make,--that of a sweet-blooded,
receptive, perfectly normal, catholic man, with, further than that,
a look about him that is best suggested by the word elemental or
cosmical. It was this, doubtless, that led Thoreau to write, after
an hour's interview, that he suggested "something a little more
than human." In fact, the main clew to Walt Whitman's life and
personality, and the expression of them in his poems, is to be
found in about the largest emotional element that has appeared
anywhere. This, if not controlled by a potent rational balance,
would either have tossed him helplessly forever, or wrecked him as
disastrously as ever storm and gale drove ship to ruin. These
volcanic emotional fires appear everywhere in his books; and it is
really these, aroused to intense activity and unnatural strain
during the four years of the war and his persistent labors in the
hospitals, that have resulted in his illness and paralysis since.

It has been impossible, I say, to resist these personal impressions
and magnetisms, and impossible with me not to follow them up in the
poems, in doing which I found that his "Leaves of Grass" was really
the _drama of himself,_ played upon various and successive stages
of nature, history, passion, experience, patriotism, and that he
had not made, nor had he intended to make, mere excellent "poems,"
tunes, statues, or statuettes, in the ordinary sense.

Before the man's complete acceptance and assimilation by America,
he may have to be first passed down through the minds of critics
and commentators, and given to the people with some of his rank new
quality taken off,--a quality like that which adheres to objects in
the open air, and makes them either forbidding or attractive, as
one's mood is healthful and robust or feeble and languid. The
processes are silently at work. Already seen from a distance, and
from other atmospheres and surroundings, he assumes magnitude and
orbic coherence; for in curious contrast to the general denial of
Whitman in this country (though he has more lovers and admirers
here than is generally believed) stands the reception accorded him
in Europe. The poets there, almost without exception, recognize his
transcendent quality, the men of science his thorough scientific
basis, the republicans his inborn democracy, and all his towering
picturesque personality and modernness. Professor Clifford says he
is more thoroughly in harmony with the spirit and letter of
advanced scientism than any other living poet. Professor Tyrrell
and Mr. Symonds find him eminently Greek, in the sense in which to
be natural and "self-regulated by the law of perfect health" is to
be Greek. The French "Revue des Deux Mondes" pronounces his war
poems the most vivid, the most humanly passionate, and the most
modern, of all the verse of the nineteenth century. Freiligrath
translated him into German, and hailed him as the founder of a new
democratic and modern order of poetry, greater than the old. But I
do not propose to go over the whole list here; I only wish to
indicate that the absorption is well commenced abroad, and that
probably her poet will at last reach America by way of those far-
off, roundabout channels. The old mother will first masticate and
moisten the food which is still too tough for her offspring.

When I first fell in with "Leaves of Grass," I was taken by
isolated passages scattered here and there through the poems; these
I seized upon, and gave myself no concern about the rest. Single
lines in it often went to the bottom of the questions that were
vexing me. The following, though less here than when encountered in
the frame of mind which the poet begets in you, curiously settled
and stratified a certain range of turbid, fluctuating inquiry:--

"There was never any more inception than there is now,--
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now."

These lines, also, early had an attraction for me I could not
define, and were of great service:--

"Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,
Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,
The whole universe indicates that it is good,
The past and the present indicate that it is good."

In the following episode, too, there was to me something far deeper
than the words or the story:--

"The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside;
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the wood-pile;
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in, and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and
bruis'd feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some
coarse clean clothes;
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles:
He stayed with me a week before he was recuperated and pass'd North;
(I had him sit next me at table--my firelock lean'd in the corner.)"

But of the book as a whole I could form no adequate conception, and
it was not for many years, and after I had known the poet himself,
as already stated, that I saw in it a teeming, rushing globe well
worthy my best days and strength to surround and comprehend.

One thing that early took me in the poems was (as before alluded
to) the tremendous personal force back of them, and felt through
them as the sun through vapor; not merely intellectual grasp or
push, but a warm, breathing, towering, magnetic Presence that there
was no escape from.

Another fact I was quick to perceive, namely, that this man had
almost in excess a quality in which every current poet was
lacking,--I mean the faculty of being in entire sympathy with
actual nature, and the objects; and shows of nature, and of rude,
abysmal man; and appalling directness of utterance therefrom, at
first hand, without any intermediate agency or modification.

The influence of books and works of art upon an author may be seen
in all respectable writers. If knowledge alone made literature, or
culture genius, there would be no dearth of these things among the
moderns. But I feel bound to say that there is something higher and
deeper than the influence or perusal of any or all books, or all
other productions of genius,--a quality of information which the
masters can never impart, and which all the libraries do not hold.
This is the absorption by an author, previous to becoming so, of
the spirit of nature, through the visible objects of the universe,
and his affiliation with them subjectively and objectively. Not
more surely is the blood quickened and purified by contact with the
unbreathed air than is the spirit of man vitalized and made strong
by intercourse with the real things of the earth. The calm, all-
permitting, wordless spirit of nature,--yet so eloquent to him who
hath ears to hear! The sunrise, the heaving sea, the woods and
mountains, the storm and the whistling winds, the gentle summer
day, the winter sights and sounds, the night and the high dome of
stars,--to have really perused these, especially from childhood
onward, till what there is in them, so impossible to define, finds
its full mate and echo in the mind,--this only is the lore which
breathes the breath of life into all the rest. Without it, literary
productions may have the superb beauty of statues, but with it only
can they have the beauty of life.

I was never troubled at all by what the critics called Whitman's
want of art, or his violation of art. I saw that he at once
designedly swept away all which the said critics have commonly
meant by that term. The dominant impression was of the living
presence and voice. He would have no curtains, he said, not the
finest, between himself and his reader; and in thus bringing me
face to face with his subject I perceived he not only did not
escape conventional art, but I perceived an enlarged, enfranchised
art in this very abnegation of art. "When half-gods go, whole gods
arrive." It was obvious to me that the new style gained more than
it lost, and that in this fullest operatic launching forth of the
voice, though it sounded strange at first, and required the ear to
get used to it, there might be quite as much science, and a good
deal more power, than in the tuneful but constricted measures we
were accustomed to.

To the eye the page of the new poet presented about the same
contrast with the page of the popular poets that trees and the
free, unbidden growths of nature do with a carefully clipped hedge;
and to the spirit the contrast was about the same. The hedge is the
more studiedly and obviously beautiful, but, ah! there is a kind of
beauty and satisfaction in trees that one would not care to lose.
There are symmetry and proportion in the sonnet, but to me there is
something I would not exchange for them in the wild swing and
balance of many free and unrhymed passages in Shakespeare; like the
one, for instance, in which these lines occur:--

"To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round
About the pendent world."

Here is the spontaneous grace and symmetry of a forest tree, or a
soughing mass of foliage.

And this passage from my poet I do not think could be improved by
the verse-maker's art:--

"This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look'd at the crowded
And I said to my Spirit, _When we become the enfolders of those orbs
and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be
fill'd and satisfied then?_
And my Spirit said, No, _we but level that lift, to pass and continue

Such breaking with the routine poetic, and with the grammar of
verse, was of course a dangerous experiment, and threw the composer
absolutely upon his intrinsic merits, upon his innately poetic and
rhythmic quality. He must stand or fall by these alone, since he
discarded all artificial, all adventitious helps. If interior,
spontaneous rhythm could not be relied on, and the natural music
and flexibility of language, then there was nothing to shield the
ear from the pitiless hail of words,--not one softly padded verse

All poets, except those of the very first order, owe immensely to
the form, the art, the stereotyped metres, and stock figures they
find ready to hand. The form is suggestive,--it invites and aids
expression, and lends itself readily, like fashion, to conceal, or
extenuate, or eke out poverty of thought and feeling in the verse.
The poet can "cut and cover," as the farmer says, in a way the
prose-writer never can, nor one whose form is essentially prose,
like Whitman's.

I, too, love to see the forms worthily used, as they always are by
the master; and I have no expectation that they are going out of
fashion right away. A great deal of poetry that serves, and helps
sweeten one's cup, would be impossible without them,--would be
nothing when separated from them. It is for the ear, and for the
sense of tune and of carefully carved and modeled forms, and is not
meant to arouse the soul with the taste of power, and to start off
on journeys for itself. But the great inspired utterances, like the
Bible,--what would they gain by being cast in the moulds of
metrical verse? In all that concerns art, viewed from any high
standpoint,--proportion, continence, self-control, unfaltering
adherence to natural standards, subordination of parts, perfect
adjustment of the means to the end, obedience to inward law, no
trifling, no levity, no straining after effect, impartially
attending to the back and loins as well as to the head, and even
holding toward his subject an attitude of perfect acceptance and
equality,--principles of art to which alone the great spirits are
amenable,--in all these respects, I say, this poet is as true as an
orb in astronomy.

To his literary expression pitched on scales of such unprecedented
breadth and loftiness, the contrast of his personal life comes in
with a foil of curious homeliness and simplicity. Perhaps never
before has the absolute and average _commonness of humanity_ been
so steadily and unaffectedly adhered to. I give here a glimpse of
him in Washington on a Navy Yard horse-car, toward the close of the
war, one summer day at sundown. The car is crowded and
suffocatingly hot, with many passengers on the rear platform, and
among them a bearded, florid-faced man, elderly but agile, resting
against the dash, by the side of the young conductor, and evidently
his intimate friend. The man wears a broad-brim white hat. Among
the jam inside, near the door, a young Englishwoman, of the working
class, with two children, has had trouble all the way with the
youngest, a strong, fat, fretful, bright babe of fourteen or
fifteen months, who bids fair to worry the mother completely out,
besides becoming a howling nuisance to everybody. As the car tugs
around Capitol Hill the young one is more demoniac than ever, and
the flushed and perspiring mother is just ready to burst into tears
with weariness and vexation. The car stops at the top of the hill
to let off most of the rear platform passengers, and the white-
hatted man reaches inside, and, gently but firmly disengaging the
babe from its stifling place in the mother's arms, takes it in his
own, and out in the air. The astonished and excited child, partly
in fear, partly in satisfaction at the change, stops its screaming,
and, as the man adjusts it more securely to his breast, plants its
chubby hands against him, and, pushing off as far as it can, gives
a good long look squarely in his face,--then, as if satisfied,
snuggles down with its head on his neck, and in less than a minute
is sound and peacefully asleep without another whimper, utterly
fagged out. A square or so more and the conductor, who has had an
unusually hard and uninterrupted day's work, gets off for his first
meal and relief since morning. And now the white-hatted man,
holding the slumbering babe, also acts as conductor the rest of the
distance, keeping his eye on the passengers inside, who have by
this time thinned out greatly. He makes a very good conductor, too,
pulling the bell to stop or to go on as needed, and seems to enjoy
the occupation. The babe meanwhile rests its fat cheeks close on
his neck and gray beard, one of his arms vigilantly surrounding it,
while the other signals, from time to time, with the strap; and the
flushed mother inside has a good half hour to breathe, and to cool
and recover herself.


No poem of our day dates and locates itself as absolutely as
"Leaves of Grass;" but suppose it had been written three or four
centuries ago, and
had located itself in mediaeval Europe, and was now first brought
to light, together with a history of Walt Whitman's simple and
disinterested life, can there be any doubt about the cackling that
would at once break out in the whole brood of critics over the
golden egg that had been uncovered? This
reckon would be a favorite passage with all:--

"You sea! I resign myself to you also--I guess what you mean;
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers;
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together--I undress--hurry me out of sight of
the land;
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse;
Dash me with amorous wet--I can repay you.

"Sea of stretch'd ground-swells!
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths!
Sea of the brine of life! sea of unshovel'd yet always ready graves!
Howler and scooper of storms! capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you--I too am of one phase, and of all phases."

This other passage would afford many a text for the moralists and

"Of persons arrived at high positions, ceremonies, wealth, scholarship,
and the like;
To me, all that those persons have arrived at sinks away from them,
except as it results to their Bodies and Souls,
So that often, to me, they appear gaunt and naked,
And often, to me, each one mocks the others, and mocks himself
or herself,
And of each one, the core of life, namely happiness, is full of
the rotten excrement of maggots;
And often, to me, those men and women pass unwittingly the true
realities of life, and go toward false realities,
And often, to me, they are alive after what custom has served
them, but nothing more,
And often, to me, they are sad, hasty, unwaked somnambules,
walking the dusk."

Ah, Time, you enchantress! what tricks you play with us! The old is
already proved,--the past and the distant hold nothing but the

Or let us take another view. Suppose Walt Whitman had never
existed, and some bold essayist, like Mr. Higginson or Matthew
Arnold, had projected him in abstract, outlined him on a scholarly
ideal background, formulated and put in harmless critical periods
the principles of art which he illustrates, and which are the
inevitable logic of his poems,-- said essayist would have won great
applause. "Yes, indeed, that were a poet to cherish; fill those
shoes and you have a god."

How different a critic's account of Shakespeare from Shakespeare
himself,--the difference between the hewn or sawed timber and the
living tree! A few years ago we had here a lecturer from over seas,
who gave to our well-dressed audiences the high, moral, and
intellectual statement of the poet Burns. It was very fine, and
people were greatly pleased, vastly more so, I fear, than they were
with Burns himself. Indeed, I could not help wondering how many of
those appreciative listeners had any original satisfaction in the
Scotch poet at first hand, or would have accepted him had he been
their neighbor and fellow-citizen. But as he filtered through the
scholarly mind in trickling drops, oh, he was so sweet!

Everybody stirred with satisfaction as the lecturer said: "When
literature becomes dozy, respectable, and goes in the smooth
grooves of fashion, and copies and copies again, something must be
done; and to give life to that dying literature a man must be found
_not educated under its influence."_ I applauded with the rest, for
it was a bold saying; but I could not help thinking how that
theory, brought home to ourselves and illustrated in a living
example, would have sent that nodding millinery and faultless
tailory flying downstairs, as at an alarm of fire.

One great service of Walt Whitman is that he exerts a tremendous
influence to bring the race up on this nether side,--to place the
emotional, the assimilative, the sympathetic, the spontaneous,
intuitive man, the man of the fluids and of the affections, flush
with the intellectual man. That we moderns have fallen behind here
is unquestionable, and we in this country more than the Old World
peoples. All the works of Whitman, prose and verse, are embosomed
in a sea of emotional humanity, and they float deeper than they
show; there is far more in what they necessitate and imply than in
what they say.

It is not so much of fatty degeneration that we are in danger in
America, but of calcareous. The fluids, moral and physical, are
evaporating; surfaces are becoming encrusted, there is a deposit of
flint in the veins and arteries, outlines are abnormally sharp and
hard, nothing is held in solution, all is precipitated in well-
defined ideas and opinions.

But when I think of the type of character planted and developed by
my poet, I think of a man or a woman rich above all things in the
genial human attributes, one "nine times folded" in an atmosphere
of tenderest, most considerate humanity,--an atmosphere warm with
the breath of a tropic heart, that makes your buds of affection and
of genius start and unfold like a south wind in May. Your
intercourse with such a character is not merely intellectual; it is
deeper and better than that. Walter Scott carried such a fund of
sympathy and goodwill that even the animals found fellowship with
him, and the pigs understood his great heart.

It was the large endowment of Whitman, in his own character in this
respect, that made his services in the army hospitals during the
war so ministering and effective, and that renders his "Drum-Taps"
the tenderest and most deeply yearning and sorrowful expression of
the human heart in poetry that ever war called forth. Indeed, from
my own point of view, there is no false or dangerous tendency among
us, in life or in letters, that this poet does not offset and
correct. Fret and chafe as much as we will, we are bound to
gravitate, more or less, toward this mountain, and feel its
bracing, rugged air.

Without a certain self-surrender there is no greatness possible in
literature, any more than in religion, or in anything else. It is
always a trait of the master that he is not afraid of being
compromised by the company he keeps. He is the central and main
fact in any company. Nothing so lowly but he will do it reverence;
nothing so high but he can stand in its presence. His theme is the
river, and he the ample and willing channel. Little natures love to
disparage and take down; they do it in self-defense; but the master
gives you all, and more than your due. Whitman does not stand
aloof, superior, a priest or a critic: he abandons himself to all
the strong human currents; he enters into and affiliates with every
phase of life; he bestows himself royally upon whoever and whatever
will receive him. There is no competition between himself and his
subject; he is not afraid of over-praising, or making too much of
the commonest individual. What exalts others exalts him.

We have had great help in Emerson in certain ways,--first-class
service. He probes the conscience and the moral purpose as few men
have done, and gives much needed stimulus there. But, after him,
the need is all the more pressing for a broad, powerful, opulent,
human personality to absorb these ideals, and to make something
more of them than fine sayings. With Emerson alone we are rich in
sunlight, but poor in rain and dew,--poor, too, in soil, and in the
moist, gestating earth principle. Emerson's tendency is not to
broaden and enrich, but to concentrate and refine.

Then, is there not an excessive modesty, without warrant in
philosophy or nature, dwindling us in this country, drying us up in
the viscera? Is there not a decay--a deliberate, strange abnegation
and dread--of sane sexuality, of maternity and paternity, among us,
and in our literary ideals and social types of men and women? For
myself, I welcome any evidence to the contrary, or any evidence
that deeper and counteracting agencies are at work, as unspeakably
precious. I do not know where this evidence is furnished in such
ample measure as in the pages of Walt Whitman. The great lesson of
nature, I take it, is that a sane sensuality must be preserved at
all hazards, and this, it seems to me, is also the great lesson of
his writings. The point is fully settled in him that, however they
may have been held in abeyance or restricted to other channels,
there is still sap and fecundity, and depth of virgin soil in the
race, sufficient to produce a man of the largest mould and the most
audacious and unconquerable egotism, and on a plane the last to be
reached by these qualities; a man of antique stature, of Greek
fibre and gripe, with science and the modern added, without abating
one jot or tittle of his native force, adhesiveness, Americanism,
and democracy.

As I have already hinted, Whitman has met with by far his amplest
acceptance and appreciation in Europe. There is good reason for
this, though it is not what has been generally claimed, namely,
that the cultivated classes of Europe are surfeited with
respectability, half dead with _ennui_ and routine, and find an
agreeable change in the daring unconventionality of the new poet.
For the fact is, it is not the old and jaded minds of London, or
Paris, or Dublin, or Copenhagen, that have acknowledged him, but
the fresh, eager, young minds. Nine tenths of his admirers there
are the sturdiest men in the fields of art, science, and

In many respects, as a race, we Americans have been pampered and
spoiled; we have been brought up on sweets. I suppose that,
speaking literally, no people under the sun consume so much
confectionery, so much pastry and cake, or indulge in so many gassy
and sugared drinks. The soda-fountain, with its syrups, has got
into literature, and furnishes the popular standard of poetry. The
old heroic stamina of our ancestors, that craved the bitter but
nourishing home-brewed, has died out, and in its place there is a
sickly cadaverousness that must be pampered and cosseted. Among
educated people here there is a mania for the bleached, the double-
refined,--white houses, white china, white marble, and white skins.
We take the bone and sinew out of the flour in order to have white
bread, and are bolting our literature as fast as possible.

It is for these and kindred reasons that Walt Whitman is more read
abroad than in his own country. It is on the rank, human, and
emotional side-- sex, magnetism, health, physique,--that he is so
full. Then his receptivity and assimilative powers are enormous,
and he demands these in his reader. In fact, his poems are
physiological as much as they are intellectual. They radiate from
his entire being, and are charged to repletion with that blended
quality of mind and body--psychic and physiologic--which the living
form and presence send forth. Never before in poetry has the body
received such ennoblement. The great theme is IDENTITY, and
identity comes through the body; and all that pertains to the body,
the poet teaches, is entailed upon the spirit. In his rapt gaze,
the body and the soul are one, and what debases the one debases the
other. Hence he glorifies the body. Not more ardently and purely
did the great sculptors of antiquity carve it in the enduring
marble than this poet has celebrated it in his masculine and
flowing lines. The bearing of his work in this direction is
invaluable. Well has it been said that the man or the woman who has
"Leaves of Grass" for a daily companion will be under the constant,
invisible influence of sanity, cleanliness, strength, and a
gradual severance from all that corrupts and makes morbid and mean.

In regard to the unity and construction of the poems, the reader
sooner or later discovers the true solution to be, that the
dependence, cohesion, and final reconciliation of the whole are in
the Personality of the poet himself. As in Shakespeare everything
is strung upon the plot, the play, and loses when separated from
it, so in this poet every line and sentence refers to and
necessitates the Personality behind it, and derives its chief
significance therefrom. In other words, "Leaves of Grass" is
essentially a dramatic poem, a free representation of man in his
relation to the outward world,--the play, the interchanges between
him and it, apart from social and artificial considerations,--in
which we discern the central purpose or thought to be for every man
and woman his or her Individuality, and around that, Nationality.
To show rather than to tell,--to body forth as in a play how these
arise and blend; how the man is developed and recruited, his
spirit's descent; how he walks through materials absorbing and
conquering them; how he confronts the immensities of time and
space; where are the true sources of his power, the soul's real
riches,--that which "adheres and goes forward and is not dropped by
death;" how he is all defined and published and made certain
through his body; the value of health and physique; the great
solvent, Sympathy,--to show the need of larger and fresher types in
art and in life, and then how the state is compacted, and how the
democratic idea is ample and composite, and cannot fail us,--to
show all this, I say, not as in a lecture or a critique, but
suggestively and inferentially,--to work it out freely and
picturesquely, with endless variations, with person and picture and
parable and adventure, is the lesson and object of "Leaves of
Grass." From the first line, where the poet says,

"I loafe and invite my Soul,"

to the last, all is movement and fusion,--all is clothed in flesh
and blood. The scene changes, the curtain rises and falls, but the
theme is still Man,--his opportunities, his relations, his past,
his future, his sex, his pride in himself, his omnivorousness, his
"great hands," his yearning heart, his seething brain, the abysmal
depths that underlie him and open from him, all illustrated in the
poet's own character,--he the chief actor always. His personality
directly facing you, and with its eye steadily upon you, runs
through every page, spans all the details, and rounds and completes
them, and compactly holds them. This gives the form and the art
conception, and gives homogeneousness.

When Tennyson sends out a poem, it is perfect, like an apple or a
peach; slowly wrought out and dismissed, it drops from his boughs
holding a conception or an idea that spheres it and makes it whole.
It is completed, distinct, and separate,--might be his, or might be
any man's. It carries his quality, but it is a thing of itself, and
centres and depends upon itself. Whether or not the world will
hereafter consent, as in the past, to call only beautiful creations
of this sort _poems,_ remains to be seen. But this is certainly not
what Walt Whitman does, or aims to do, except in a few cases. He
completes no poems apart and separate from himself, and his pages
abound in hints to that effect:--

"Let others finish specimens--I never finish specimens;
I shower them by exhaustless laws, as Nature does, fresh
and modern continually."

His lines are pulsations, thrills, waves of force, indefinite
dynamics, formless, constantly emanating from the living centre,
and they carry the quality of the author's personal presence with
them in a way that is unprecedented in literature.

Occasionally there is a poem or a short piece that detaches itself,
and assumes something like ejaculatory and statuesque proportion,
as "O Captain, my Captain," "Pioneers," "Beat, Beat, Drums," and
others in "Drum-Taps;" but all the great poems, like "Walt
Whitman," "Song of the Open Road," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "To
Working Men," "Sleep-Chasings," etc., are out-flamings, out-
rushings, of the pent fires of the poet's soul. The first-named
poem, which is the seething, dazzling sun of his subsequent poetic
system, shoots in rapid succession waves of almost consuming
energy. It is indeed a central orb of fiercest light and heat,
swept by wild storms of emotion, but at the same time of sane and
beneficent potentiality. Neither in it nor in either of the others
is there the building-up of a fair verbal structure, a symmetrical
piece of mechanism, whose last stone is implied and necessitated in
the first.

"The critic's great error," says Heine, "lies in asking, 'What
ought the artist to do?' It would be far more correct to ask, 'What
does the artist intend?'"

It is probably partly because his field is so large, his demands so
exacting, his method so new (necessarily so), and from the whole
standard of the poems being what I may call an astronomical one,
that the critics complain so generally of want of form in him. And
the critics are right enough, as far as their objection goes. There
is no deliberate form here, any more than there is in the forces of
nature. Shall we say, then, that nothing but the void exists? The
void is filled by a Presence. There is a controlling, directing,
overarching will in every page, every verse, that there is no
escape from. Design and purpose, natural selection, growth,
culmination, are just as pronounced as in any poet.

There is a want of form in the unfinished statue, because it is
struggling into form; it is nothing without form; but there is no
want of form in the elemental laws and effusions,--in fire, or
water, or rain, or dew, or the smell of the shore or the plunging
waves. And may there not be the analogue of this in literature,--a
potent, quickening, exhilarating quality in words, apart from and
without any consideration of constructive form? Under the influence
of the expansive, creative force that plays upon me from these
pages, like sunlight or gravitation, the question of form never
comes up, because I do not for one moment escape the eye, the
source from which the power and action emanate.

I know that Walt Whitman has written many passages with reference
far more to their position, interpretation, and scanning ages
hence, than for current reading. Much of his material is too near
us; it needs time. Seen through the vista of long years, perhaps
centuries, it will assume quite different hues. Perhaps those long
lists of trades, tools, and occupations would not be so repellent
if we could read them, as we read Homer's catalogue of the ships,
through the retrospect of ages. They are justified in the poem
aside from their historic value, because they are alive and full of
action,--panoramas of the whole mechanical and industrial life of
America, north, east, south, west,--bits of scenery, bird's-eye
views, glimpses of moving figures, caught as by a flash,
characteristic touches indoors and out, all passing in quick
succession before you. They have in the fullest measure what
Lessing demands in poetry,--the quality of ebbing and flowing
action, as distinct from the dead water of description; they are
thoroughly dramatic, fused, pliant, and obedient to the poet's
will. No glamour is thrown over them, no wash of sentiment; and if
they have not the charm of novelty and distance, why, that is an
accident that bars them in a measure to us, but not to the future.
Very frequently in these lists or enumerations of objects, actions,
shows, there are sure to occur lines of perfect description:--

"Where the heifers browse--where geese nip their food with short
Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles
far and near;
Where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon;
Where the katydid works her chromatic reed on the walnut-tree
over the well."

"Spar-makers in the spar-yard, the swarming row of well-grown
The swing of their axes on the square-hew'd log, shaping it toward
the shape of a mast,
The brisk short crackle of the steel driven slantingly into the pine,
The butter-color'd chips flying off in great flakes and slivers,
The limber motion of brawny young arms and hips in easy costumes."

"Always these compact lands--lands tied at the hips with the belt
stringing the huge oval lakes."

"Far breath'd land! Arctic braced! Mexican breez'd!--the diverse!
the compact!"

Tried by the standards of the perfect statuesque poems, these pages
will indeed seem strange enough; but viewed as a part of the poetic
compend of America, the swift gathering-in, from her wide-
spreading, multitudinous, material life, of traits and points and
suggestions that belong here and are characteristic, they have
their value. The poet casts his great seine into events and doings
and material progress, and these are some of the fish, not all
beautiful by any means, but all terribly alive, and all native to
these waters.

In the "Carol of Occupations" occur, too, those formidable
inventories of the more heavy and coarsegrained trades and tools
that few if any readers have been able to stand before, and that
have given the scoffers and caricaturists their favorite weapons.
If you detach a page of these and ask, "Is it poetry? have the
'hog-hook,' the 'killing-hammer,' 'the cutter's cleaver,' 'the
packer's maul,' met with a change of heart, and been converted into
celestial cutlery?" I answer, No, they are as barren of poetry as a
desert is of grass; but in their place in the poem, and in the
collection, they serve as masses of shade or neutral color in
pictures, or in nature, or in character,--a negative service, but
still indispensable. The point, the moral of the poem, is really
backed up and driven home by this list. The poet is determined
there shall be no mistake about it. He will not put in the dainty
and pretty things merely,--he will put in the coarse and common
things also, and he swells the list till even his robust muse
begins to look uneasy. Remember, too, that Whitman declaredly
writes the lyrics of America, of the masses, of democracy, and of
the practical labor of mechanics, boatmen, and farmers:--

"The sum of all known reverence I add up in you, whoever you are;
All doctrines, all politics and civilization, exude from you;
All sculpture and monuments, and anything inscribed anywhere, are
tallied in you;
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records
reach, is in you this hour, and myths and tales the same:
If you were not breathing and walking here, where would they
all be?
The most renown'd poems would be ashes, orations and plays would
be vacuums.

"All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it;
(Did you think it was in the white or gray stone? or the lines of
the arches and cornices?)

"All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the
It is not the violins and the cornets--it is not the oboe, nor
the beating drums--nor the score of the baritone singer singing
his sweet romanza--nor that of the men's chorus, nor that of
the women's chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they."

Out of this same spirit of reverence for man and all that pertains
essentially to him, and the steady ignoring of conventional and
social distinctions and prohibitions, and on the same plane as the
universal brotherhood of the poems, come those passages in "Leaves
of Grass" that have caused so much abuse and fury,--the allusions
to sexual acts and organs,--the momentary contemplation of man as
the perpetuator of his species. Many good judges, who have followed
Whitman thus far, stop here and refuse their concurrence. But if
the poet has failed in this part, he has failed in the rest. It is
of a piece with the whole. He has felt in his way the same
necessity as that which makes the anatomist or the physiologist not
pass by, or neglect, or falsify, the loins of his typical
personage. All the passages and allusions that come under this head
have a scientific coldness and purity, but differ from science, as
poetry always must differ, in being alive and sympathetic, instead
of dead and analytic. There is nothing of the forbidden here, none
of those sweet morsels that we love to roll under the tongue, such
as are found in Byron and Shakespeare, and even in austere Dante.
If the fact is not lifted up and redeemed by the solemn and far-
reaching laws of maternity and paternity, through which the poet
alone contemplates it, then it is irredeemable, and one side of our
nature is intrinsically vulgar and mean.

Again: Out of all the full-grown, first-class poems, no matter what
their plot or theme, emerges a sample of Man, each after its kind,
its period, its nationality, its antecedents. The vast and cumbrous
Hindu epics contribute their special types of both man and woman,
impossible except from far-off Asia and Asian antiquity. Out of
Homer, after all his gorgeous action and events, the distinct
personal identity, the heroic and warlike chieftain of Hellas only
permanently remains. In the same way, when the fire and fervor of
Shakespeare's plots and passions subside, the special feudal
personality, as lord or gentleman, still towers in undying
vitality. Even the Sacred Writings themselves, considered as the
first great poems, leave on record, out of all the rest, the
portraiture of a characteristic Oriental Man. Far different from
these (and yet, as he says, "the same old countenance pensively
looking forth," and "the same red running blood"), "Leaves of
Grass" and "Two Rivulets" also bring their contribution; nay,
behind every page _that_ is the main purport,--to outline a New
World Man and a New World Woman, modern, complete, democratic, not
only fully and nobly intellectual and spiritual, but in the same
measure physical, emotional, and even fully and nobly carnal.

An acute person once said to me, "As I read and re-read these
poems, I more and more think their inevitable result in time must
be to produce

'A race of splendid and savage _old men,_'

of course dominated by moral and spiritual laws, but with volcanoes
of force always alive beneath the surface."

And still again: One of the questions to be put to any poem
assuming a first-class importance among us--and I especially invite
this inquiry toward "Leaves of Grass"--is, How far is this work
consistent with, and the outcome of, that something which secures
to the race ascendency, empire, and perpetuity? There is in every
dominant people a germ, a quality, an expansive force, that, no
matter how it is overlaid, gives them their push and their hold
upon existence,--writes their history upon the earth, and stamps
their imprint upon the age. To what extent is your masterpiece the
standard-bearer of this quality,--helping the race to victory?
helping me to be more myself than I otherwise would?


Not the least of my poet's successes is in his thorough
assimilation of the modern sciences, transmuting them into strong
poetic nutriment, and in the extent to which all his main poems are
grounded in the deepest principles of modern philosophical inquiry.

Nearly all the old literatures may be said to have been founded
upon fable, and upon a basis and even superstructure of ignorance,
that, however charming it may be, we have not now got, and could
not keep if we had. The bump of wonder and the feeling of the
marvelous,--a kind of half-pleasing fear, like that of children in
the dark or in the woods,--were largely operative with the old
poets, and I believe are necessary to any eminent success in this
field; but they seem nearly to have died out of the modern mind,
like organs there is no longer any use for. The poetic temperament
has not yet adjusted itself to the new lights, to science, and to
the vast fields and expanses opened up in the physical cosmos by
astronomy and geology, and in the spiritual or intellectual world
by the great German metaphysicians. The staple of a large share of
our poetic literature is yet mainly the result of the long age of


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