Gerald Stanley Lee



An Order for the Next Poet

For Outline: Walt Whitman.   Details to be filled in, please, by
Samuel Johnson and William Shakespeare


Literatur: Lee
Literatur: Putnam's Magazine
Literatur: Whitman-Rezeption




SOME ten or twelve years ago, I found myself abusing my typewriter, roundly, because, being made for a hard, practical, matter-of-fact world, it had no exclamation point. It was obvious that if a man with a typewriter had emotions, they were not wanted on it. If a man had something suddenly in him that made him want to exclaim on an X —, there were the following things he had to do to get his exclamation point. First, he had to hunt around for an apostrophe key. Second, for a key with a period on it – to make his exclamation point out of. And third, after he had his exclamation point (if he still felt like exclaiming), he had to hunt around for still another key to make the exclamation point work. Then he had to hold it down hard while he exclaimed with it.

All this inconvenience for emotion seemed to me, some ten or twelve years ago, a sorry sign of the times. But occasionally one changes one's mind about one's time, when one has lived in it a little. At all events my typewriter and I have had it out, and I am bound to admit, after our long mutual influence, the typewriter is getting the best of it. What need has a time like this for exclamation points? Is there a single true and deep fact or achievement in this modern world, or a single true and deep thing that can be said about it, that an exclamation point does not look small and pompous after? If a thing is really modern, or an idea, the bare fact of it exclaims enough – does its own exclaiming. The last thing a modern idea, expressed in a modern way, needs, is a pointer after it, an N.B., Exclaim here! (It is wonderful when one once begins agreeing with one's typewriter, how it spreads, – covers a whole age, sometimes.) I have suddenly looked over into my mind and discovered lying there all ready and waiting – actually getting itself written down – something like this: "The most important fact in modern life, which concerns modern art, is that the world is dropping its exclamation points. Poetry has ceased saying 'Oh!' about life, and has gone into the business of living. Poetry used to consist in saying things and suggesting that they might be done. It consists, now, in doing things, and in suggesting, while it does them, that. they never can be said."

It has taken my typewriter some ten or twelve years, apparently, to point this out to me, but I think I see it now. The very Machines – the Hinds of Matter – about us, are engaged in doing things in the world, and poets who are merely engaged in saying "Oh!" in it are prosaic and behind the times. This is why Mr. Alfred Austin, perhaps, who has the appointment just now for saying Oh! in England, is making such hard work [698] of it. Almost anyone would. We may be somewhat slow in recognizing that it is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor beautiful, nor possible that Oh should be said in this modern world; but if Oh must be said, and there is no help for it, it takes a Tennyson to say it. We recognize that. And the feat of being a Tennyson without looking ridiculous is getting more complicated every year. Browning thought he would not try it, and Walt Whitman, a poet on an omnibus across the seas, half-attracted, half-amused, wondered that Tennyson tried it.

Perhaps there is no more glorious or poetic fact about the modern world than the fact that "poetry" is not being read in it. A man who can take the dust from beneath his feet and breathe his own soul into it – a man who every day of his life makes the air about him speak with tongues – does not feel the need of reading poetry. Of course, if one had to read one's poetry in a world like this in order to get it, it would be different. But to this modern man, the wonder of his world new-wrapped about him, the reading of poetry seems intended for people who cannot help it – who cannot do any better. This is the first fact that the next great poet, when he comes, is going to know. The poet of the modern man takes his cue from the silent machines the man has made. He sits at the feet of Electricity. The most modern poetry, like the most modern machinery, outreaches into ether – into the symbolic, the invisible, and irresistible. The rifle of to-day is not allowed its own smoke, and poetry in the future is going to be poetry, not by the way it sounds to a man, nor by the way it looks to him, but by what it does with him. If there is to be any Oh in the new poet, it belongs, as in the new rifle, entirely at the other end. It is the modern spirit. It is part of a world-movement, that the distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts, which has had a certain temporary value, should become extinct. While a thing may be beautiful to us, its beauty does not really appeal to us as finished beauty, until it looks unfinished – until it does more than it can say or look. To the modern man, machines are measured by so many horse-power, philosophers by so many candle-power, and poets by volts. He has not been skipping descriptions of scenery, now these fifty years, for nothing. His habits of mind have become more galvanic, less panoramic and picturesque. He is addicted to the dynamo-habit. He sees with a current. The current makes him feel things more as he wants to feel them – all over, with all his senses at once, and with his body and with his soul. He does not read descriptions of faces. The author who tries to give him a map of a soul – the old, elaborate, empty feature-list, – for a human face, is yawned over. Unless an author can flash the face of a hero into one's being, in some way that one does not know, and that the author himself does not quite know, he is not quite modern enough. There is more poetry to us in a single flashlight adjective (Carlyle's "sea-green Robespierre") than in hundreds of pages of Longfellow or Walter Scott; and John Ruskin in his sunset-glows of description, splendid cloudracks for prose, is watched coldly or with amusement. He is like some huge happy child playing blocks in heaven. And even Ruskin, as he became older, became more modern and began to realize that while a poetic description may be well enough, it is neither one thing nor the other to the typical modern man. It is not the thing itself, and it is not the something else which makes one feel the thing itself.

This something else, which makes one feel the thing itself, is what the modern man demands in poetry, if he reads it – the symbol – the electric current of the thing itself. Hence the momentary, or apparent, disappearance of the "poet." As electricity hides itself in air, or strings itself (like Whitman's singing) on ugly poles, the modern poet is hiding in prose, or he deludes his reader by his [699] matter or by his lack of matter, or by a thousand somethings that seem like something else; but he is a modern poet because he will not be seen or heard as a poetical person. He is an induced current, and having become an induced current in the presence of the beautiful, himself, he induces the current in others. He does it, not by passing the show of the beautiful thing before us, but by playing its symbols upon us. In a vague way we realize from the first that there must be something poetic about him. For his symbols are not mere symbols to us. They come like soft electric currents upon us, flecks of being, delicate strokes of matter. And while we know that it is not exactly "poetry," we do feel the beautiful becoming a part of us while we read, breathing and living in us, possessing us. In the next stage of our experience with this kind of writing we begin to suspect that it may be poetry after all, that poetry is the beautiful in the act of making men beautiful; that it should not be judged by its half-self, the way it looks, or even by the way it sounds. It comes to us deliberately incomplete. The last thing it wants to do is to pose as poetry, or even to be read as poetry. It wants men to know it by its results. A man who reads Walt Whitman for two hours feels like a poet. If he reads Tennyson for two hours, he feels that Tennyson is a poet.

The first specification, then, in the order for the next poet of this modern age, is that his poetry must be smokeless poetry, and that it must not say Oh.

The modern man already feels so much like a poet, with the wonder of his new world, – his subways, and air ships, and wireless telegraphs about him, day and night, – that he is less and less likely, as time goes on, to read poetry – except when he is tired, or when the poetry lifts him over to his real self, the one he is living with every day, and makes him sure he is a poet. No one can ever keep him from reading poetry that reveals his life, that makes him sure he is a poet. But why should he read poetry to be sure that Tennyson is a poet? He would rather admit it.




The second specification, instead of concerning itself with the method or style of the next poet, is concerned with his object. What is he going to do?

Considering the way the machines are singing – that is, the way they are bringing out the hidden and infinite properties of matter, and surrounding us with them, – it looks now as if the next task of the poet would be to do as well with Matter, for Man, as the machines are doing. Here they are – the man's vast machines, symbols of his infinity, playing upon him – playing infinity, eternity, and freedom on him, day and night. The man finds himself in a brand-new material world. The poetry of Scripture is already outsung. The trees of the field not only clap their hands before him (a comparatively idle thing to do), but the clouds of heaven do his work for him, and the stones of the ground plod for him beneath his feet. A pound of coal does as much in a day as a man can do, though six-sevenths of it are wasted.

The problem of the next great poet will be to keep up with the pound of coal. If the machines can do more in the twentieth century with a pound of coal, a bit of matter, than the poets – if they can free the spirit in the pound of coal, bring out the infinity in it, and surround the man with that infinity, they will do more toward making poetry and toward making every man a poet, than the poets themselves can do. The only way a man can be a poet nowadays is to do exactly what the machines are doing and do it better – to grip the hidden properties of matter. And so it comes to pass that, while he does not say so, the modern man is wanting poets more than men have ever dreamed of wanting them before. The difference between the ancient and modern worlds in their attitude towards poets [700) is that the modern world expects its poets to work, to take hold of matter, the way other men have to – the way the very machines have to; to make it do something for the soul – free the infinity in it. Poets who sing without working, or who think they can sing without working – that is, without idealizing a few unidealized realities, and bringing out the infinity in them – are no longer tolerated. The whole world is being posted against them. There is not a hill, a stream, a sunset, nor a flower-bed in it, now, but has its sign up:

The original, or working poet is the spirit of the age. He is the poet who is sought for, and recognized in it. He is recognized in spite of the most overwhelming objections. The modern age needs this type of poet so much that there is hardly anything it will not take with him, for the sake of getting him. Walt Whitman (the first poet this country has produced who ever worked) is a striking example of this.

The poem on a compost heap may or may not be a poem, but the bare fact that a man has been born in the world at last who can write a poem on a compost heap, or who wants to, is a poem in itself. Every morning it makes the world over to some of us, to know that there is a living man in it who loves God – down to the dregs of matter.

Whitman made a compost heap beautiful because he was not lazy with it. He refused to be tired before it. Whitman is the first poet to discover that a man cannot see a compost heap by looking at it with his nose. He sees a compost heap with all his senses at once – inner and outer ones, in its actual relations – its relations to the whole universe – the way God sees it. Whitman is a poet who could only have been produced by a modern and scientific age, and he best expresses the modern age because he is the first poet who has ever been matter-of-fact with a compost heap. Perhaps he is the first poet in the world who had imagination enough to dare to be matter-of-fact with anything. Art, in the days that have gone before, has been a tireless spreading of appearances over things. It has roofed God over with matter. Every time that poetry or art has touched matter it has spread appearances over it, and covered something up. The more appearances a man could spread, the more shamefaced he was before matter, the more of a poet he was supposed to be. Poetry has been prone to be a kind of glamour-trade from the first – to poets who set out to be poets. They have been content, as a class, to use poetry to gild the world with. Most of them have been content to regild the old gilding on it. They have looked upon a poet like Whitman – whose poems have gripped the world and worked themselves into it, matter and spirit – as a mere prophet, or laborer, as belonging to the lower, or poetry-working classes.

But now, even as we look about us, we see all things in change. The measure of a poet's imagination is getting to be his willingness to work on facts, on actual, unyielding, material things, as other people do, until they are beautiful. Having an imagination in the presence of a thing has meant to poets, sliding the mind off from the thing, and making something up about it. Now it consists in refusing to make up anything, in not needing to, in seeing a thing so much that one merely sees it as it is, in its infinite, its matter-of-fact relations – as God sees it. We all have a few things (and have always had), little ganglions of infinity, to thrill our souls with, but the rest of the universe to us is a huge, unlivable, unlovable, dreary cosmic Vacant Lot. To the poet of the modern spirit the Vacant Lot in the universe does not exist. It is being worked over. It is filled with light. He claims all of it as his. He finds the whole universe crowded into every part, and the farthest star, to him, is a part of the daily furniture of his own life. Art means making the universe convenient for his soul. He sings down through dung-hills to [701] blossoms as a matter of course. He assumes that the intention of everything in the universe is to get a man to see it as God sees it. Whitman's poetry comes nearer than anything we have to being great poetry, because with Walt Whitman this working things through to their infinity is what poetry is for.

It is not true, as some of our Whitmanites seem to think, that Whitman is the first poet the world has produced who ever worked; but it is true, perhaps, to say that he is the first poet the world has had, to work so much. He is modern because his whole conception of poetry is work, and he is American because he tried to do several hundred years of work at once. It may be that because he did not do what he tried to do (several hundred years of work at once), he is not a great poet. Perhaps he is a great poet because he tried to do it. There are those who think that only a great poet would have thought of trying. At all events, in a world where very few poets have been virile enough, have had imagination enough to want to work, a poet who wanted to do several hundred years of work at once is going to be remembered. The modern man is going to remember Whitman until Whitman's work is done. He is not going to remember Tennyson as long as Whitman, because Tennyson did not work so much, and because the work that Tennyson tried to do, he did. A great deal of it had been done before. The number of unidealized realities (realities that men needed to see idealized) that Tennyson grasped and wrought out for the nineteenth century is comparatively slight. The beauty in Tennyson is largely ready-made beauty, beauty that nearly everyone sees, or can see, laid on a little deeper, – poetry that has already been pointed out. An original or working poet, on the other hand, a poet who should work out the hidden properties of matter, as Whitman did, the world had not even dreamed of. Whitman had to dream himself. The world had not even the vision of a poet before Whitman was born, who should make ideal so many obstinate, real things – who should be such a maker or doer of beauty.




BUT it is a great pity," exclaims the Dear Public, "it is a great pity, to bring out what on the whole is a rather good idea – the working poet, making every other man a poet, the electro-symbolic current in poetry, – and then spoil it with Walt Whitman!"

This feeling of the Dear Public (O King, live forever!) against having the poet of the modern age persistently pointed out as Walt Whitman, must be met. In the first place, I tried Browning and he would not do. In the second place, there was no one that would, and I can only beg leave to say that the reason this modern age is at present without its poet is because it cannot find a man anywhere large enough to make its poet out of. In the meantime, Walt Whitman – a man, the first rough but immortal sketch of what a modern poet will have to have in him, if he proposes to be a modern poet – has been put forward tentatively by the world itself. There may be a great many things the matter with him. But he is the right size. Walt Whitman seems to be the only poet who has worked himself over large enough – connected himself with the infinite enough – to supply even the outline of the world's great modern poet.

In the third place, the great modern poet is not only going to be as large as Walt Whitman, so that we shall feel the girth of the world in him when he sings, – but he is probably going to be like Walt Whitman. He is going to be more like Whitman – if anything – than Walt was. Walt was a mere presentiment of himself. The nineteenth-century man stands out against the horizon of history, framed in his iron hundred years, as the discoverer of the spirituality of matter, of the poetry of the things he lives with. He has insisted upon being [702] a poet himself. Inasmuch as this amazing crusade of matter, which has been the spiritual achievement of the nineteenth century, is to be continued in the twentieth, and is merely the beginning of the modern age, Walt Whitman comes nearer than anyone else to having the spirit that the modern age demands in a poet – the spirit that takes hold of matter.

In the fourth place, Walt Whitman is not only a greater master of the modern poet's spirit than any other poet, but he is a greater master of the modern poet's technique – symbolism – the one possible poetic device for making the finite infinite, for bringing out the spirituality of matter. Walt Whitman is our greatest master of the power to treat detail at once massively and suggestively. He is the most secret in his effects and causes, the most electric. He is the most impossible poet to find out, the one who works the most without seeming to work. Being our most finite-infinite poet, he is easily our most symbolic one, the one who feels most deeply the electro-symbolic current in a theme, the induced current of association in it, and who plays with it not only upon his reader's mind but upon his daily life.

These reasons in favor of Walt Whitman, it is curious to note, are exactly the reasons most commonly urged against him. When we claim that he is the poet-presentiment, or rather the poet-aboriginal of the future, because he is what he is, we are reminded that the main objection that people have had to Whitman from the first has been that he was not someone else. When we claim that he is the only poet large enough for the poet of the future, we are reminded that he is much too large (the chaos-objection). When we claim that he has the only possible technique for expressing an infinite age – symbolism, – Tennysonians rise in their seats, and Longfellowites, the world over, and tell us that symbolism is not technique, that symbolism is the lazy man's way of not having any technique whatever.

The only answer to these objections is that nearly everyone who cares for Whitman has had them, and has changed his mind about them. It is idle to argue. The appeal is to every man's experience and to his age, the summing up of every man's experience. It is an age which is beating its way out to the universe all around it, an age which is doing with its machines what Whitman is doing every day with:his poems. It is as if the age had folded itself in with Whitman. It reaches in and reaches out with him. He is the only man that can be named who is the alembic of us all in this modern age, and of all our poets. He flocks the age together in a book. He groups it under one name. He is its spirit. He is the singing down in its vast, struggling, self-lifting, speechless heart.

Time was, when a man had to apologize for reading Whitman. Then he had to apologize for reading him as a poet and explained that he was a philosopher. Then he had to apologize for reading him as a philosopher, and explained that he was a poet. Then there followed a time when he was neither one thing nor the other and people apologized for him on the ground that he was Whitman. They explained that nothing could be done about it. Then came the time – the hardest of all – when people apologized for reading Whitman, without having any reasons. They explained that they read him because they could not help it. The time is already at hand when a man who has apologies to make for Whitman begins by apologizing for apologizing. No man can unlock himself – let his soul out to his age – without sooner or later letting himself out to Whitman. As, one by one, we are seen at last slowly, timidly, poking our heads out of our little indoor religions, literatures, poetries, the age with its vast machines, its open spaces, its unbreathed breaths, waits for us, and Walt Whitman, with his vast world-round delights is there waiting with it. He is The Outdoors around every man [703] and around every man's religion and art. It is an age which cannot escape from Outdoors. It does not want to. Outdoors is what the age is for. The farther outdoors we live the more stars we live on. With telescopes, dynamos, and poets, we beat back the night. We are one more sunrise out toward truth every day.

In the meantime Walt Whitman's poetry, in spite of the long, jogging, lumbering places in it, comes nearer to reaching out to what the modern age is trying to be, than any other that we have. Whitman may or may not be considered a poet, but he has outswept the bounds of beauty for human life. He has seen the whole universe in every clod of it. He has God's definition of beauty: naturally he does not express it as well as God does. His symbolism is crowded with hapless places, and God's symbolism never misses the point; but as the ground-plan for a great modern poet – an original or working poet, in a new-built, new-building, working world, – Walt Whitman is the first and only figure large enough that that world has had. He had a larger repertoire of joys – joys with everyday things that any man might have – than any other poet. His autobiography would take in a larger section of the universe.




THERE is another kind of universe besides the Whitman one – the one with the paths of stars in it and crowds of faces flocking through the stars. It is a universe in which the faces come closer – Will Shakespeare's, for instance. The faces do not merely haunt us. They flock through hidden life in us. They take possession of us and make camps in our hearts. While they are with us we are new creatures. We are informed with new lives – the supreme form of information. The world still goes to Will Shakespeare for all moods and to Walt Whitman for but one.

There is no telling what Shakespeare would have done if he had had Walt Whitman's chance – his nineteenth-century, scientific chance; but the probabilities seem to be that Shakespeare would have painted his picture several stars farther out than Whitman did, and he would have put in Camden, near Philadelphia, and a few back counties in Pennsylvania besides. Even as the matter stands, there is still a sense in which William Shakespeare, three hundred years off, is nearer to us than Walt Whitman, whose hands were on our shoulders yesterday. Shakespeare may not be so near to a whole world as Whitman (Whitman hugs a planet better), but he is nearer to us, to each and all of us, dotted about in our separate places and our separate selves, loving and hating each other. For the truth is (and let it not be breathed to the Whitmanite, nor in the house of the ungodly) – the final truth about Whitman is, that Walt Whitman (May the Lord have mercy on his soul!) could not laugh. He could not even cry.

He has easily the most profound vision that has yet appeared in modern life, but the profundity of Whitman, unlike Socrates or Shakespeare's, is second-rate profundity – the profundity that never laughs. It is owing to this trait in Whitman, a certain supernatural lack of humor in him, that it is always going to be necessary to classify him in the world's second order of great men. It has made him the ground-plan for the world's great modern poet, instead of the poet himself.

A lack of humor can generally be accounted for in one of two ways. Some people have little humor because they are too small, their lives are narrow and safe – leave no margin for the unexpected. Others have no humor because they are too large. Their lives are all margin, made of nothing but the unexpected, the unexpected every day and as a matter of course, and there is nothing unexpected about it. Conveniences and inducements for laughing, in such circumstances (or for crying, which amounts to the same thing), are comparatively rare, and a man who has allowed himself the habit – the fixed habit – of being too large, of being everywhere at once, the way Whitman did, – so far as laughing or crying is concerned, is almost sure to be out of practice. Nothing made any difference to Whitman. It was all the same in a thousand years, and a thousand years were as yesterday. If he ever saw, or thought he saw, a difference in anything, he melted it [100] down with a thousand years. It disappeared. He walled his soul out from all our little, human, convenient definitions. His whole physical and spiritual being was shut in with comparisons. There was not a thing that Whitman ever liked that he did not like because it was so much like something else – generally, everything else. There wag not a single thing that Whitman knew, in all the world, that seemed to him very different, on the whole, from anything else in the world – from the day he was born to the day he died. He did not even know when he died. There was nothing peculiar about it. It was not very different from looking at the stars, or going in swimming, or writing a poem. It was more like being born than anything else.

It is not unnatural, perhaps, that a man who was going to be the poet of infinity, should have taken it seriously, should have made a business of infinity, and have somewhat confined himself to it. It certainly ought to be obvious, looking at the matter from the human or artistic point of view, that Walt Whitman – the first man who had ever tried it – could hardly have expected to make himself the poet of the infinite for nothing. A man who let himself as unshiveringly out as Whitman did, would have to take in somewhere. There is little reason to wonder that Walt Whitman, in becoming, the august master of beauty, and learning the modern art of being infinite, should have lost, in a rare degree, the art of being finite. It is an art that is not suffering very much, and it is going to be kept up, thanks to the rest of us (and to almost anybody); but the fact remains, as the one limit in our poet of the limitless, that Walt Whitman, infinite lover of finite things, could not have been the poet of the finite sides of finite things, if he had tried. He was a mere fugue.

A concordance of the finite things that are actually invoked in Whitman's poetry would be larger, possibly, than that of any other poet; but if a concordance of the finite things in Whitman were to be published according to Whitman, it would reveal a very important fact – namely, that one of the chief characteristics of finite things, the way they have of looking very different from each other, is entirely left out in Walt Whitman. If Whitman had had to be a Samuel Johnson in his early career, if he had been condemned for life to writing a dictionary, he would have made harder work of it, for himself and everybody else, than any man who ever lived. He would not have worked it through very far – would have had to publish the A's and B's by themselves, probably with his "Sands at Seventy." He could not have been the author of a dozen of Noah Webster's definitions. On the other hand (it is a poor criticism that does not work backwards and forwards), Noah Webster could never have read twelve pages of Whitman's poetry, or if he had, he never could have found words to say what he thought about it; and what Sam Johnson would have said had better be imagined than described.

In this connection, it seems to the point to say that if Walt Whitman is to be put forward as the representative poet of modern life, it is not going to be enough that he make his reckoning good with William Shakespeare. He must make his reckoning good with Sam Johnson – countless, immemorial Sam Johnson's – in the roll-call of the world.

Sam Johnson's most characteristic work was a Dictionary. A great many things made a great deal of difference to Sam Johnson. In this regard he is not unlike most of the rest of us. He was not Shakespeare, but he was an average man who knew what he thought. No man can be a great poet in this present world without reckoning with Sam Johnson.

If Whitman could have known what Sam Johnson thought about Whitman, or if he could have known it in time, it would have made him something more than the mere ground-plan of the great modern poet. If Whitman had even cared what Sam John[101]son thought, it would have helped. Shakespeare would have cared; and in spite of his three hundred years' handicap, William Shakespeare comes nearer to being the poet of the modern man than Walt Whitman does, because he would have doted on Sam Johnson and Whitman both.

Inasmuch, however, as Walt Whitman did not care what Sam Johnson would have thought about him, it merely remains to be said that, if what is the matter with Walt Whitman is to be pointed out or summed up by any one, Sam Johnson is the man to do it. It would afford infinite relief, in present literary circles, and to a great many thousands of people, if he would. These people – people with Sam Johnson minds – constitute a very large proportion of the living, representative men, in this modern age; and Walt Whitman, whose main song in the world was about not leaving anybody out, has left out every single one of them. He does not recognize that Sam Johnson minds – discriminating and defining minds – exist; and so far as they are concerned, they are free to confess that if Walt Whitman has a mind, they cannot see it.

The fact that a great many people who have minds seem to think that Whitman's was one, makes them vaguely rebellious and miserable. It makes them worry about their own minds – discriminating and defining minds – some of them. It becomes a personal matter. Every man has to have it out, apparently, between his own mind and Whitman's, sooner or later, and there are very few men indeed – especially among the regular or practising Whitmanites – who seem able to help him. They try to help him by telling him (with inferences) that Whitman had a "cosmic mind."

Sam Johnson, however, is not the kind of man who can be put off by being told that Whitman has a cosmic mind. What is the object in having a cosmic mind. If having a cosmic mind puts a man into such a state that he does not know where he is, cannot tell what time it is, cannot see any difference between one thing and another, cannot even tell himself from anybody else – I would rather have a domestic mind!" Sam Johnson breaks out; "my mind is all right!"

As this is the real issue to a man – always, or nearly always, – in his first struggle with Whitman, it is of little use to argue the matter. The issue is purely personal. The best one can do, when one sees Whitman and a new man together, is to stand quietly by and wait while they call each other names. There is nothing for them, or for either of them, but to have it out – Sam Johnson and Whitman, – because both of them are right. Their having a hard time is right also. The harder time they have, the more they need each other.

Nothing could be truer, nothing could be more to the point, for Sam Johnson, than this instinctive stand he takes with Whitman. His mind is all right – that is, for Sam Johnson. It is the one that especially belongs to him, and for the time being, at least, it fits him. It may be hoped that it will not always fit him. In the meantime, there is no denying that a man who cannot hold on to his mind, in reading Whitman, or rather who cannot get it back again afterward, is in a very bad way. The trouble with Whitmanites has always been that they have lost their minds – the minds they had, – and have never got their other ones.

For all practical purposes it is still true, though Whitman has been born in the world and lived out his seventy years in it, that a man needs his domestic mind more, and needs it more times a day, than he needs his cosmic one. It is doubtless true, in a certain sense, that there is little difference between being born and dying. Perhaps, too, dying is more like being born than anything else; but the world has every reason to thank heaven that Sam Johnsons are still overflowing in it, and that a great many different people to whom a great many things make a great deal [102] of difference, are being born in it every day.

Whitman, after all, was a specialist. He was the poet of the sky, the sea, the numberlessness of leaves, streams of faces, the hordes of the generations, – the Poet of the Vast – human and divine – in everything. He was hypnotized day and night by the boundlessness of matter. He was most truly himself when he sat for hours, and watched his thoughts, like surf, beating around the edges of the world.

Being born and dying do not seem very different – around the edges of the world. It is true that Sam Johnson, if he had ever come to a paradox like this, would have said "Pooh!" – a remark which, while it has much truth in it, by no means sums up the matter. Writing a dictionary does not entitle a man to say "Pooh!" at the undefined, merely because it is undefined. Finite creature though he is, it is true of the commonest man that the best places to him – the places where he most loves to go, – are places where he does not carry his dictionary with him. Sam Johnson himself lunged out beyond dictionaries sometimes. And while, taken as a whole, Johnson was probably a man who saw more difference between more things than any other writer, and while he would have sent a man like Whitman – a man whose mind confused death and birth – to Bedlam for it, and would have called Whitman a dreamer and a visionary, – stilf the fact remains to be reckoned with, that Sam Johnson lived all his life crazed with terror because he was going to die, and Whitman sang about it. If Sam Johnson, the seer of difference in the universe, could once have got hold of Whitman, the seer of the sameness in it, he would have found Whitman very practical – the best convenience for living a life and living it every day, and the best convenience for dying, that either he or Jeremy Taylor or any other man had ever dreamed of – outside the New Testament.

We have never had a poet of more massive genius yet, who has not seemed to other men a kind of splendid sleep-walker on the earth, groping about with his eyes open, staring at life instead of living it.

The way the greater poet seems willing to spend the little time he has in a universe like this, in merely looking around in it, and loving it – living, sometimes, as if he were trying to live in the whole of it, – is one of the stock astonishments of the world over every poet's life. The attribute of liking to live in the whole of a universe, of taking it for granted that, in its way at least, the whole of a universe is worth one's while, and worthy of being lived in – which is the distinguishing attribute of every greater poet, – is an attribute that finally accounts for his eventual and inevitable supremacy over the rest of us. He is the surrounder of all men whether they know it or not. If they do not know it, he surrounds them supremely in the end by surrounding all the things there are, that men can love. Either by what we are, or by what we have, a great poet rules us all at last. If he is a poet of nature, his song is the roof under which we wake and sleep and have our being. The morning is his coming out of the night to us. The wind moves the clouds for him. The rivers go down as songs flowing to the sea. Whatever we see or hear or feel in the drama of the day and the night, is the spectacle of the poet's soul to us. Whitman's supremacy is his identity with the universe. In so far as we want the universe, we want Whitman.

But the trouble with Whitman was not that he lived in a whole, single universe, but that he lived in the whole universe in a single mood. The modern man has other moods, and Whitman's one-mood poetry does not represent the reality – the biography – of poetry in the modern age. The modern man is not satisfied to love matter as Whitman does. He loves matter materially as well as spiritually. His mind craves matter because it is matter, because it has time and place in it. From Sam Johnson's point of view, from the [103] logical, pedestrian, or merely intellectual point of view, Whitman's mind, instead of being a cosmic mind, is a merely monstrous one, shambling through space – sprawling helplessly over the huge hollow of it. He loses all patience with it.

It is not proposed to yield one jot or one tittle to any one in the world, in delight in Walt Whitman; but there are times when our souls are Sam Johnson's with a rush. They go surging back to him – good, solid, sturdy, beef-eating, actual, flat-footed, both-footed Sam Johnson! (Please pass the olives.) This ceaseless standing on a planet – one's feet on a whole planet, – as if it were a dot in space; this staring God out of countenance in his own domain – well, there is still something left for us in this world, in this mortal, mercifully-bounded world, except seeing all sides of everything on it, at once, all the time. It is not respectable in a finite being, to be always reasonable – monotonously reasonable. I doubt if even a god would live such an exposed life – as exposed as Whitman's is. He must have shut-in places somewhere; and even if he has not, it comports better with the nature of man to stand on his dignity now and then as a finite being, a plain, finite being, and let the universe go round and round by itself awhile.

There are times in every man's life when a whole earth is worse than none at all. Days still come, to me at least, in what is left of life, when the only thing I want an earth for, is to have some special section on it, plainly marked off and quite by itself, where I can be unreasonably disagreeable to somebody for a minute – one blessed minute; or even unreasonably agreeable, perhaps – blissfully one-sided – anything – anything whatever, – if I may only be allowed to drop gently back from being a Whitman into being a nobody, or rather to get out of being everybody and be somebody in particular again – at all events to stop this ceaseless Whitman-round-and-round, everywhere emptying the finite into the infinite. A moment while Pippa passes with Robert Browning, or for a bit of a scold from Carlyle, or even from Josiah Allen's Wife. Ah, dear brother Whitmaniac! libertad, camerado, have you never longed in all your life – one splendid, guilty moment, in your improved, infinite, Whitman-flooded soul – for a breathing hole of Dooley? – or to nestle down to a prejudice, with little faded-out Charles Lamb?

There is no denying that, in its cosmic exposure, at least, everything is very nearly like everything else – telegraphs through to everything else. Every powerful mind flashes the universe together with resemblances, now and then. But there is a limit. It does not do to burn one's fuses out every day. A normal man does not want to keep his mind in a state of spontaneous combustion all the time.

The Garden of Eden, if it is ever located, will probably be found half way out somewhere between Sam Johnson's Dictionary and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." But there is a great wilderness to go through to get to it – two wildernesses – one of monstrous long grass and planets, and the other of monstrous fences and definitions. The bones of countless victims – pilgrims between the Dictionary and the Stars – can be seen on every hand.

The reason Whitman is not going to be the poet of the modern man is that he could not help being cosmic. He could not be cosmic and domestic both. When the great poet comes he will have the power, not merely of being intoxicated with infinity (which is partly what it is for), but of thinking with it (which also is what it is for). He will know how to separate and discriminate as well as to compare. The poet of the modern man is going to live in the infinite, but he is going to do as he likes about it. He is going to be able to take turns at being a god and a man. He will not feel that he has to be a god all the time. He will have his off-hours, – his hours of enjoying things separately and laughing at them.

[104] he main characteristic of the modern, machine-age is that it is a composite age. The poet of the machine age is going to be a composite.

As the matter stands now, the order for a great modern poet would seem to be:

For outline, Walt Whitman. Details to be filled in, please, by Samuel Johnson and William Shakespeare.




To say that Walt Whitman, nurse of a hundred thousand men, had lost the art of being finite, that he was not human enough to be the poet of the modern man, seems a bit preposterous. One is confronted with sickbeds – infinite rows of them, – and ferries, and omnibus drivers. But the fact that there was not an omnibus driver on the face of the earth that Whitman did not want to embrace, does not prove anything. What did Whitman want to embrace an omnibus driver for? Because he was finite? – or because he was infinite.?

As nearly as one can judge from reading Walt Whitman's poems, he was a man who had regular daily habits of going about the world looking up infinity in everybody. The infinity in everybody was what he liked. He was always seeing trailing clouds of glory, and when he saw a trailing cloud of glory with an omnibus driver in it, he liked it as well as ever.

Whitman was interested in an omnibus driver because he saw him in a certain light, in his own infinite way. If he had to be interested in an omnibus driver in an ordinary way – the way other people are, – he would have made comparatively poor work of it. Whitman's democracy and humanity were both phases of his daily infinity. They were based on his All-men-are-infinite-and-any-man-will-do philosophy. If Whitman had been obliged, under penalty of the law, to get up on a front seat and look at a particular omnibus driver in a particular way – exactly as the omnibus driver looked at himself, – he would have been bored. Browning would have been as happy as the day was long, and for days afterward. So would Shakespeare – if he had got to omnibuses, or had ever sat with an omnibus driver. Thomas Carlyle would have growled at him, loved or hated him, and rolled him into an adjective that would have made him last forever.

What Whitman saw in a man was the universal. He had never seen a man whose place could not be taken by some one else – in his most violently infinite moods, by almost any one else. He could not have written a novel to save his life. He could not even read one. He could, not love men down into their differences – or rather, perhaps, he could not love men enough to live his way out to their differences. It was by loving Jean Valjean thoroughly and in detail that Victor Hugo became a great novelist. Whitman could not love men enough – particular men – to write a novel. If every one is like every one else, or is going to be when he is dead, there is no object in writing a novel. If Whitman had written one he would have had to drag his hero over three or four hundred years or more, in order to get room for him – in order to find any really individualized features for him worth noticing, features that would distinguish him from any other hero, in any other three or four hundred years. Considering the man by and large, the particular did not exist for Whitman. He did not have the daily habit of laughing or crying as a matter of course, the way other people do. He was apt to pass over a thing small enough to laugh or cry about. He did not love men enough to laugh with them. He could not even compliment them enough to laugh at them, or to criticise them. He no more had it in him to be a portrait-painter or a police detective, than the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the Rev. Charles Ferguson, or the Rev. Lewis Carroll of "Alice in Wonderland"; and if he had had to be an actor he would have leased the whole globe for a theatre [105] for two or three hundred years, rolled all the parts into one, and played it all himself.

This is why there has never been a man yet, an individual man, who has been attracted to Whitman, or drawn into him, who has not been lost at first. There has never been a man who has once been received into the real Whitman embrace, who seems to have known, for a long while, what it was that happened to him. He does not even know how it felt. The last he knew, he felt himself being gently, cosmically, rolled out into Everybody. When this has once been done to a man, and done by Walt Whitman, he is never conscious of being anybody – anybody in particular – afterwards. Some of us, after a few years, by a supreme effort manage to swing off and right ourselves. We may be smaller and more ordinary, but we feel happy and useful and as we look back it seems to us that in spite of the marvellous sympathy that purred out of Whitman in the presence of average men – sympathy half cosmic and half physical, – Whitman never in all his life saw an average man as that man saw himself. He could not let himself be fenced up in an average man long enough. He loved him and, in a certain strange, mystic, enfolding way, he gave himself to him; and he made the man feel him, and he enjoyed the man's feeling him; but he could not have put himself in the man, he could not have been the man, for five minutes, to save his life, or to save the man's life. All that he could do was to put himself in the man's place – and be a Whitman in it. This is what he did with everybody. He went around everywhere with every one, shoving people out of themselves and putting in Whitmans. This was the way he lived his immeasurable life with a crowd of Whitmans, a long row of himself, following after him always from afar, which he called the United States. He was not a dramatist.

With most people this putting in of Whitmans was an improvement. But it was not an improvement for Whitman. It resulted in his being the ground-plan of the great modern poet instead of the poet himself. The details of the great modern poet have yet to be filled out. The modern man loves the details, and while he lives he wants to be loved with the details himself. He wishes also to be loved for the things that he knows are really in himself – the things that are particularly his own. Being loved because he is like everybody else is very well; but he wants to be loved because he is different from everybody else. He clings to this difference. He respects the universe as a whole, but he has special engagements in it.

It has been said that man wants the earth. Even the universe is not enough. He not only wants the universe, but he wants some particular place in it that particularly belongs to him. He wants a poet who identifies himself with the place that particularly belongs to him. He wants, in some supreme sense, his own poet – his own, private, personal poet.

This is what Whitman could not be. A man may glory in Whitman, but he never can feel that Walt Whitman especially belongs to him. He is a street-poet. His soul is as public as sunlight. He was never a neighbor to any one in particular. He was never willing to be a neighbor to a man – one man at a time. No soul ever had a private audience with Walt Whitman, and he never in all his life communed with another man except in his own atmosphere, or outdoors, or where he had room enough. He could not coop himself up in another man's mind. With the exception of Columbus, who also, in his own day and generation, believed in a whole world and believed in it enough to want to go all around it, Walt Whitman has been the loneliest man in history. He never knew any one. He has written poems for us – hundreds of pages of poems, – but he never knew us. He never bent down in his heart. He never went in to a man. He makes a man come out to him.

[106] But there is another kind of supreme poet. He is supreme over us, not by surrounding us and everything we know and see and have – by being a kind of horizon for our dreams and senses, a frame for sunsets and winters and summers around our lives. He is the poet who is supreme over us by entering into our lives – who lives our lives with us and loves them with us, not as he would live them, but as we live them, the poet of the inner drama, of the individual human struggle, of the working out of every man's life.

The supremacy of such a poet, instead of resting upon his passion for living his own life and making other men live it, rests upon his passion for living other men's lives, for having other men's lives poured into his life. He takes a turn at them all. He makes himself a world poet by losing his identity in the world for days and weeks at a time. He is made immortal by the number of me he has been besides himself.

Poets – like other men – may be divided into three classes as regards their ability of human experience. The man of the third class has his own individual experience with a thing and is confined to it. The man of the second class is capable of making what might be called the dramatic transfer in its simplest form. He has the power, by dint of sympathy or hard practice, or after many years, of putting himself in the place of another man – of being one more man besides himself, of having the other man's experience with a thing as well as his own experience with it. The man of the first and highest class is a man in whom the power of dramatic transfer is indefinitely, almost infinitely multiplied, with whom it is such a swift and unconscious daily habit of life – putting himself in the place of others, – that as time goes on he sees all things through the experiences of all men, and gazes upon everything that is, through the world's heart.

Everything that has been brought out in the face of the universe by the poets of nature, and everything that has been brought out in the human face by the poets of man, has been brought out and accumulated in the common consciousness of the world, by poets who have lived dramatic lives with the things their poems have been about. Wordsworth, who could not tell one human face from another, presented the world with its mountains, because he was a dramatist in the presence of mountains. He moved himself over into mountains and moved mountains over into himself, until God and the Mountains and William Wordsworth sang together. Browning was dramatic with the faces of men and women. Out of a single look from a single face at a window, he built cities. Whitman was dramatic with the statistics of space, floated in cycles, projected himself into the crowds of the years upon the earth and the piling up of human lives upon it. Ralph Waldo Emerson – the playwright of the unseen, of the hearing that proceeds from another hearing, and the voice that proceeds from another voice (flocking through all of us) – even Emerson was a dramatist, a dramatist of the dreams of dreams. All men, in proportion as they have been poets, have been dramatists. They have become poets by identifying themselves with the inner nature and essence of the things that they are singing about. A great poet can hardly be said to sing about anything. To sing with a preposition, to sing about things or of them, or out of them, or with them, or to them, is beyond the power of the singer of the highest class. Except as a matter of form, perhaps, he cannot get far enough away from the things he sings to sing about them. If the voice of the poet of the locomotive, when we walk the track, is not heard singing in the rails when a train has passed, he is not yet the poet of the locomotive. Let him continue on nightingales.

The machine age is without its great poet because it is waiting for a gjeat playwright – a poet who shall [107] be infinite enough to put himself in the place of an age, and finite enough to put himself in the place of individual men – inventors – the men who are making the age. We are waiting for a Whitman-Shakespeare. The thing the machines are saying is infinity, but the infinity in the machines is only going to be brought out by a dramatic poet – a poet who, out of the din of the machines, shall come to us through the hearts of the men who make them.

The office of the poet of a machine age is going to be to love the typical man of the age, the man who invents machines – to live down through the man's soul to the man's machines, until the machines themselves at last, to him, to all of us, with the dumb and struggling glory in them of the inventor's heart, make the world sing again.

Mechanical things are spiritually discerned.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Putnam's Monthly.
A Magazine of Literature, Art and Life.
Bd. 1, 1907, Nr. 6, März, S. 697-703.
Bd. 2, 1907, Nr. 1, April, S. 99-107.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

Putnam's Monthly   online







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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer