Louise Collier Willcox



Walt Whitman



Literatur: Willcox
Literatur: Whitman-Rezeption
Literatur: The North American Review


Turning from his personality to his work, it is as difficult as ever to sum up or to say anything conclusive. There are pages when he seems to be monotonously enumerating things or cognitions; pages, too, when he is presenting ideas as vast and as incomprehensible as the universe. There are pages where we feel that the light he is flooding over existence is almost too glaring and dazzling to bear, and parts that are vague and obscure as a dream, and we grapple in vain to find out what he is driving at. With out one thing, he warns you, it is useless to try to read him, but he does not tell you what the one thing is. You may guess at it many times and not hit it; your novitiate, he warns you, must be long and exhausting, the whole past theory of your life [290] and all conformity to the lives around you must be abandoned. His poems, like all great forces, are as like to do evil as good, and his meaning is not to be come at by study. He will not emerge for you in company, or in a house and least of all in a library. It is just possible that alone upon a high hill, or sailing at sea, or on a quiet island or by merely carrying the book thrust in your clothing as you walk, its mystical meaning may penetrate you.

If one compare Whitman with another contemporary genius, like him mystical and immense, with Robert Browning, it seems that Browning offers a world and Whitman a universe. Browning gives us types, kings, bishops, priests, lovers, actors, painters, sculptors, musicians, charlatans, mediums, popes, lawyers, judges, young women, girls, wives, worldly women, duchesses, saintly women, wicked women; but Whitman goes further: he does not stop to describe his multitudes or to set them into self-describing actions; he merely enumerates them; he hands you the catalogue, the surge of the great human procession as it passes, and trusts you to do the rest. The Yankee, the Southern planter, the Kentuckian, a boatman, a Hoosier, a Badger, Buckeye, a Canadian, a man from Vermont or from Maine, a Texan ranchman, a rafts man, a learner, a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an artist, gentleman, sailor, Quaker, prisoner, fancyman, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest, men, men, men of every hue, trade, rank, caste and religion, from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the New World, he posits and states them, only to gather them together and show their underlying unity, their one breathing body, their similar course, being born, going round and round, passing and coming again, developing from the quahaug in its callous shell to the genius, thin-skinned and alive at every pore to every wafted breeze.

Like Browning, he was born a poet; one who had a word to say to the world and was determined, despite all opposition, to get it said. Like Browning, it was many years before he won any way at all; and, unlike Browning, he died before any sort of general appreciation was offered him. But he himself asserted that the test of his poems could not be set for some hundred years. He felt a supreme and righteous contempt for the trade of writing, as a trade, and for the men "who write all over the surface of the earth and never dig a foot in the ground – just everlastingly write." His own power of suggestion is very great. Without description, without indirect forms, such as parable and [291] narrative, classical or historical allusion, he draws the reader into his atmosphere and spreads his feeling of good comradeship, faith, trust, and cheer about him. The very obscurity of some of his lines seems to lend them thought-suggesting power. They give you no rest any more than the horizon-line which shifts as you move toward it, ever escaping you. Perhaps the difficulty arises from the fact that of ultimate truth there is, and can be, no statement. One uses some tiny symbol, like the word "immortality," to stand for a truth which no man can ever dream of in its actuality. There are statements, like those contained in the opening chapter of St. John, deep enough to drown all our meanings in.

Shelley and Browning both give us intimations of prenatal existence and of future incarnations; but the theory of the immortality and unity of the soul is never absent from Whitman; it is his constant iteration:

"O, living always, always dying,
 O, the burials of me, past and present,
 O me, while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever,
 O me, what I was for years, now dead (I lament not, I am content),
 O, to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at, where I cast them,
 To pass on (O, living, always living!), and leave the corpses behind!"

His sense of eternity is never broken in upon; and, with his unparalleled ability to project himself into all life, and identify himself with all conceptions, comes his unbending power to trust the vast, ungraspable issues of eternity.

Swinburne, in his Whitmania essay, regrets Whitman's lack of education, using education presumably in the sense of a sophisticated intimacy with worldly distinctions, – the kind of education which is pumped into a man by tutors, university lectures, books and travel – in fact, an elaborated initiation into mediocre opinions. As a matter of fact, Whitman was quite as well read, if not as much read, as Swinburne. He was thoroughly versed in the great books of original and primal force, and had a profound education of the kind that is dug out of oneself. The faith that all human knowledge and experience are contained in the soul some place, if we but dig deep enough to get them, hold still enough and ponder long enough to catch and haul them to the surface of consciousness, was a faith which Whitman shared with all seers, prophets, and men of first rank, original genius. How [292] much of their achievement would Tolstoy and Ibsen, Browning and Wordsworth, presumably ascribe to schools and university education? And what would Isaiah and Jeremiah have thought of giving years to the study of theological dispute? Mr. Swinburne knows as well as any one that no great man is excusable who does other than search his soul for his truth and present it again in his own personal form. It was all of a piece with Whitman's democracy to use the rough unmeasured form he chose. He eschewed distinctions, he despised scholarship, he rejected authority, he never quoted and never imitated. Dante quoted Virgil, Tennyson quoted Dante, Shakespeare quoted everybody, and everybody since has quoted Shakespeare; but Whitman quoted no one. Mr. Swinburne is a poet, and so great a poet that it is pathetic to think he sometimes mistook himself for so small a thing as a mere critic. Never in his prose is he capable of speaking from the whole and the unified consciousness. Some little partial, hysterical fit of anger, indignation, denial, raillery or admiration seizes him and spouts out a torrent of words from him, words that fit only into judgments and records when they swing in his long, majestic, rhythmic, measured lines, so intricately rhymed. With such wonderful facility do words jut out at his least idea that it is difficult to fancy what sort of fantastic play they would have had with him but for his inborn metrical genius. Mr. Swinburne accuses Whitman of trying to be a thinker and yet unable to think, a singer and unable to sing. One can easily fancy that some of Whitman's enthusiastic admirers, comparing him with Shakespeare and Shelley, to the detriment of the latter, should have aroused Swinburne's vehement ire. It is quite true that Whitman habitually delves below the upper surface of logical reason for his thought, and also true that in his work he eliminates all process and presents only conclusions. He had about him nothing at all of the artist and the craftsman; perhaps he had fewer talents than any great poet ever known. He presents not a pretty combination of abilities, a gift for rhyme, a keen visual sense, a delicate sensitiveness to verbal cadences; he presents Whitman, a robust whole indivisible as atmosphere; he is not of the make-up of a scholar or an analyst; he is of the make-up of a prophet and seer. He never argues or coaxes. He flings a truth down like a bomb in front of you, careless whether it explode and annihilate you or not. Like the prophet Isaia [293] he exhorts, he predicts, he announces visions and communications; he claims supernal powers of vision and knowledge of truth, but he refuses to reason with you or give you logical evidence. He knew that the whole solution of life lay in love, and that to love God with all your might and your neighbor as yourself was the first and bravest end of man. He knew himself divine, and that all were divine and worthy equally of respect and honor; he knew the universe instinct with life and vitality and divinity, and the very clay clods beneath our feet as latent, possible man. With St. Francis he shared the ecstatic love of animals, breezes, trees, and it is upon this whole-hearted desire for human brotherhood, this unlimited, unbounded belief in love and pardon and infinite growth, that he based, as did Shelley before him, bis claim to brotherhood with "Him Crucified."

"My spirit to yours, dear brother,
 Do not mind because many sounding your name do not understand you,
 I do not sound your name, but I understand you,
 I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you and to salute those who are with you, before and since, and those to come after,
 That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession
        .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
 Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers as we are."

As to his music, it is certainly more irregular, more broken by prolonged strange successions of dissonances and difficult solutions, more unmeasured and difficult of analysis than that of any preceding English poet. Indeed, it comes nearer to having the swing and grandeur of certain psalms, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah and Deborah's Song of Triumph in the King James version of the Bible than the measure of any English poem. It is not to be overlooked that the difference between Whitman's music and that of our earlier, more lyrical poets is in the same line of progression that modern music has moved. That whereas Milton produces splendid organ music with lyric intermezzos, and Swinburne has at command a whole orchestra playing the various instruments separately, teaching the flute the very note of the nightingale, or getting from the violin the weird, sad cry of the sea-mew, or leading the whole orchestra in superb and final choruses, Whitman gives the human voice alone, in irregular, [294] prolonged recitative, only here and there introducing a little singing melody as in "Tears, tears, tears," "Come, lovely and soothing Death," and occasionally mere slangy colloquial talk of the street. On this matter of slang and common speech there are two things to be said. Doubtless, the grave-digger's colloquy in "Hamlet" and the porter's interlude in "Macbeth," and other episodical interruptions of a like nature, now so integral a part of the Shakespearian plays to us, were at the time but the appeal direct to the populace, the common jest and colloquialism of the street offered to bring the people into closer touch. There is something a little shocking in the familiarity, the lack of reserve and dignity in such lines as –

"I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time,
 You should have been with us that day over the chowder-kettle."

One can only reflect that Whitman wrote for posterity and for the ages. Language grows in dignity and in significance and power by distance. Compare the sense of strangeness and power with which a foreign language or an archaism touches us and the insignificance of common familiar talk. "Be not afraid, it is I," lost all its serength when the little child, eager only for substance, translated it into "Don't be scared, it's me coming." Take that fine old passage from the Suttas:

"Like a lion not. startled at noises,
 Like the wind not caught in a net,
 Like the lotus not stained by the water,
 Let me wander alone like a rhinoceros,"

and practically all its beauty consists in its alien atmosphere, in its suggestion of strange, far-away sights and sounds. So perhaps what comes upon us to-day, in Whitman, with the shock of the commonplace may some day be as dignified in its strangeness and beauty as the lines:

"Absent thee from felicity awhile,
 And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
 To tell my story."

Two other points which Mr. Swinburne holds against Whitman are that he is a rhetorician; that he offers us mere words and that he shows no chivalry toward women. Now, rhetoric is the [295] love of high-sounding, fire-new words merely for the words' sake; but this is no accusation to bring against Whitman, who believed himself a prophet with a message as fervently as ever Isaiah or Jeremiah did. He was noticeably oblivious of the sound and texture of words, as well as negligent of their associational value. Whatever words conveyed his meaning most plainly, swiftly, precisely, familiarly, those words he used. His speech was forthright and plain, addressed to the common man, to the ditch-digger as no less important than the Hebrew scholar.

As to the lack of chivalric sentiment toward woman, that must simply be handed over to each individual woman to decide whether she is more honored as Venus, Iseult, Dolores, Félise, the raven-locked woman in the "Triumph of Time," or in Whitman's insistent mention of her as the race-mother, the equal of man, out of whom all creation is unfolded. But it becomes Mr. Swinburne less than any other English poet to make this accusation.

And now here one must glance at that peculiarity which cost Whitman much support, many friends and final recognition, his stubborn refusal to accept the conventional reserves. This mistake cost him Emerson's support; it is the flaw which robs him of many readers. In this connection, we must remember Whitman's theory of the glorification of creation and of creative force. There are no so-called love-poems in his work, there is much glorification of fatherhood and motherhood, and as deep calleth unto deep so his soul responds to the idea of thought and emotion taking upon themselves flesh and form and becoming visible and active in the material world. Woman was to him the great keeper of the race, and the helpmate of man. His love for his own mother he records as the chief affection of his life, and, after that, friendship or, as he preferred to call it, love of comrades.

Again, it is well to call to mind that it is the clean elemental consciousness, it is innocence and purity that most easily invest all processes with holiness and dignity, and possibly as men grow more and more to this altitude will the offence of this part of Whitman's writing become a negligible factor.

Throughout his life he practised faith, hope and charity. His whole object was to live and not to die, and to help other men to live and not to die, but to earn for the body and the mind what adheres and goes forward and is never dropped by death.

[296] There remains one more element in Whitman to remark and one repeatedly brought to mind in three recent books of biography, * namely, the ascription to Whitman by his friends of almost supernal powers, and their unabashed comparison of him with the greatest masters of living. If we are to accept the statement of Mr. Binns and Mr. Carpenter, Whitman's early life was certainly not devoid of reproach. However completely he may have turned from that part of his life afterward, it would seem legitimately to divorce him from the assumption of the highest holiness. His way of feeling life and humanity was large, patient, far-seeing and loving, but his method was definitely to descend into the midst of natural life and spread cheer and good-will. There is another method, which is, living above the general level of righteousness, gradually to exalt that level. This seems to have been the method of such masters of living as St. Francis and Buddha and, above all, of the Supreme Human Pattern.

The note of the Christian Gospel, the note of self-surrender and renunciation, is certainly not sounded in its entirety in Whitman; and yet, disguised, it is there. That note of selflessness which is unworldliness and unconventionality, which refuses to preen itself with belongings and material things, that kind of renunciation which holds its whole life lightly on the hand for any man to take, that free and universal gift of the best of one's personality to whomsoever will partake, these Whitman most certainly had. The complete overcoming of fear and desire, the unafraid acceptance of death, are all forms of asceticism, for asceticism merely means choking out the lower that the higher may live; letting the small and partial self die to make room for the better and bigger self to thrive in the joyful assurance that wherever the little, the casual, the temporal fade, the purposeful and the eternal are conceived and grow. But not his unworldliness, his bigness, his extraordinary prophetical power, his cosmic consciousness, undeniable as these are, justify the claims made for him by his enthusiastic friends, that he stands on the pinnacle with the supreme Masters of Life.



[Fußnote, S. 296]

* "Walt Whitman," Henry Bryan Binns. E. P. Dutton & Co., 1906. "Days with Walt Whitman," Edward Carpenter. The Macmillan Co., 1906. "With Walt Whitman in Camden," Horace Traubel. Small, Maynard & Co., 1906.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The North American Review.
Bd. 183, 1906, Nr. 597, August, S. 281-296.

Gezeichnet: Louise Collier Willcox.

Unser Auszug: S. 289-296.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The North American Review   online
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Literatur: Willcox

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Kuebrich, David: Religion and the Poet-Prophet. In: A Companion to Walt Whitman. Hrsg. von Donald D. Kummings. Malden, Mass. u.a. 2006, S. 197-215.

Malinowski, Bernadette: "Das Heilige sei mein Wort". Paradigmen prophetischer Dichtung von Klopstock bis Whitman. Würzburg 2002 (= Epistemata; Reihe Literaturwissenschaft, 381).

Newcomb, John T.: Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity. Columbus, Ohio 2004.

Price, Kenneth M. / Schöberlein, Stefan (Hrsg.): The Oxford Handbook of Walt Whitman. Oxford 2024.

Willcox, Louise Collier (Hrsg.): A Manual of Mystic Verse. Being a Choice of Meditative and Mystic Poems. New York 1917.
URL: https://archive.org/details/manualofmysticve00williala
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001908007



Literatur: Whitman-Rezeption

Allen, Gay Wilson / Folsom, Ed (Hrsg.): Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City, IA 1995.
URL: https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/pdf/anc.01049.pdf

Asselineau, Roger: The Acclimatization of Leaves of Grass in France. In: Utopia in the Present Tense. Walt Whitman and the Language of the New World. Hrsg. von Marina Camboni. Rom 1994, S. 237-263.

Bamberg, Claudia: Einströmende Dinge. Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Hermann Bahr als Leser des amerikanischen Lyrikers Walt Whitman. In: Literaturkritik.de. Nr. 7, Juli 2013, S. 16-22.
URL: https://literaturkritik.de/id/18117

Bennett, Guy / Mousli, Béatrice: Poésies des deux mondes. Un dialogue franco-américain à travers les revues, 1850 – 2004. Paris 2004.

Eilert, Heide: "Komet der neuen Zeit". Zur Rezeption Walt Whitmans in der deutschen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. In: Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 17.2 (1992), S. 95-109.

Erkkilä, Betsy: Walt Whitman Among the French. Poet and Myth. Princeton, NJ 1980
S. 239-250: Chronological List of French Criticism of Whitman since 1861.

Grünzweig, Walter: Constructing the German Walt Whitman. Iowa City IA. 1995.

Harris, Kirsten: Walt Whitman and British Socialism. 'The Love of Comrades'. New York 2016.

Higgins, Andrew C.: The Poet's Reception and Legacy. In: A Companion to Walt Whitman. Hrsg. von Donald D. Kummings. Oxford 2009, S. 439-454.

Price, Kenneth M. (Hrsg.): Walt Whitman. The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge 1996.

Rumeau, Delphine: Fortunes de Walt Whitman. Enjeux d'une réception transatlantique. Paris 2019.

Rumeau, Delphine: Whitman, antidote à Mallarmé. In: Revue des Sciences Humaines 340 (2021), S. 85-100.
URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rsh/373

Thomas, M. Wynn: Transatlantic Connections. Whitman U.S., Whitman U.K. Iowa City, IA 2005.

Zanucchi, Mario: Expressionismus im internationalen Kontext. Studien zur Europa-Reflexion, Übersetzungskultur und Intertextualität der deutschsprachigen Avantgarde. Berlin u. Boston 2023.



Literatur: The North American Review

Buckley, Thomas L.: The Bostonian Cult of Classicism. The Reception of Goethe and Schiller in the Literary Reviews of the North American Review, Christian Examiner, and the Dial, 1817-1865. In: The Fortunes of German Writers in America. Studies in Literary Reception. Hrsg. von Wolfgang Elfe u.a. Columbia 1992, S. 27-40.

Clark, Harry H.: Literary Criticism in the North American Review, 1815-1835. In: Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 32 (1940), S. 299-350.

Löser, Philipp: Medialer Umbruch und die Gestaltung von Internationalität. Edinburgh Review und North American Review, 1800-1830. In: Märkte, Medien, Vermittler. Zur interkulturellen Vernetzung von Literatur und Film. Hrsg. von Manfred Engelbert u.a. Göttingen 2001, S. 89-130.

Mott, Frank L.: North American Review. In: Ders., A History of American Magazines. Bd. 2. Cambridge, Mass. 1957, S. 219-261.

Taketani, Etsuko: The North American Review, 1815-1835. The Invention of the American Past. In: American Periodicals. A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 5 (1995), S. 111-127.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer