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  1. The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman
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  3. A Companion to Walt Whitman
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Above all things it is fractional and select. It shrinks with aversion from the sturdy, the universal, and the democratic. Like all modern tendencies, it has direct or indirect reference continually to the reader, to you or me, to the central identity of everything, the mighty Ego. Byron's was a vehement dash, with plenty of impatient democracy, but lurid and introverted amid all its magnetism; not at all the fitting, lasting song of a grand, secure, free, sunny race.

It is more akin, likewise, to outside life and landscape returning mainly to the antique feeling , real sun and gale, and woods and shores — to the elements themselves — not sitting at ease in parlor or library listening to a good tale of them, told in good rhyme. Character, a feature far above style or polish, — a feature not absent at any time, but now first brought to the fore, — gives predominant stamp to advancing poetry. Its born sister, music, already responds to the same influences:. Is there not even now, indeed, an evolution, a departure from the masters?

Venerable and unsurpassable after their kind as are the old works, and always unspeakably precious as studies for Americans more than any other people , is it too much to say that by the shifted combinations of the modern mind the whole underlying theory of first-class verse has changed? To-day, something else is wanted. For us, the greatest poet is he who in his works most stimulates the reader's imagination and reflection, who excites him the most himself to poetize.

The greatest poet is not he who has done the best; it is he who suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, and who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your turn. In minds imbued with a frantic greed for the beautiful, all the balances of truth and justice disappear. There is a lust, a disease of the art faculties, which eats up the moral like a cancer. Of course, by our plentiful verse-writers there is plenty of service performed, of a kind.

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The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman

Nor need we go far for a tally. We see, in every polite circle, a class of accomplished, good-natured persons "society," in fact, could not get on without them , fully eligible for certain problems, times, and duties — to mix egg-nog, to mend the broken spectacles, to decide whether the stewed eels shall precede the sherry or the sherry the stewed eels, to eke out Mrs.

But for real crises, great needs and pulls, moral or physical, they might as well have never been born. Or the accepted notion of a poet would appear to be a sort of male odalisque, singing or piano-playing a kind of spiced ideas, second-hand reminiscences, or toying late hours at entertainments, in rooms stifling with fashionable scent. I think I haven't , seen a new-published healthy, bracing, simple lyric in ten years. Not long ago, there were verses in each of three fresh monthlies, from leading authors, and in every one the whole central motif perfectly serious was the melancholiness of a marriageable young woman who didn't get a rich husband, but a poor one!

Besides its tonic and al fresco physiology, relieving such as this, the poetry of the future will take on character in a more important respect. Science, having extirpated the old stock-fables and superstitions, is clearing a field for verse, for all the arts, and even for romance, a hundred-fold ampler and more wonderful, with the new principles behind. Republicanism advances over the whole world.

Liberty, with Law by her side, will one day be paramount — will at any rate be the central idea. Then only — for all the splendor and beauty of what has been, or the polish of what is — then only will the true poets appear, and [] the true poems. Not the satin and patchouly of to-day, not the glorification of the butcheries and wars of the past, nor any fight between Deity on one side and somebody else on the other — not Milton, not even Shakespeare's plays, grand as they are.

Entirely different and hitherto unknown classes of men, being authoritatively called for in imaginative literature, will certainly appear.

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What is hitherto most lacking, perhaps most absolutely indicates the future. Democracy has been hurried on through time by measureless tides and winds, resistless as the revolution of the globe, and as far-reaching and rapid. But in the highest walks of art it has not yet had a single representative worthy of it anywhere upon the earth. Never had real bard a task more fit for sublime ardor and genius than to sing worthily the songs these States have already indicated. Their origin, Washington, '76, the picturesqueness of old times, the war of and the sea-fights; the incredible rapidity of movement and breadth of area — to fuse and compact the South and North, the East and West, to express the native forms, situations, scenes, from Montauk to California, and from the Saguenay to the Rio Grande — the working out on such gigantic scales, and with such a swift and mighty play of changing light and shade, of the great problems of man and freedom, — how far ahead of the stereotyped plots, or gem-cutting, or tales of love, or wars of mere ambition!

Our history is so full of spinal, modern, germinal subjects — one above all. Nor could utility itself provide anything more practically serviceable to the hundred millions who, a couple of generations hence, will inhabit within the limits just named, than the permeation of a sane, sweet, autochthonous national poetry — must I say of a kind that does not now exist?


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It is acknowledged that we of the States are the most materialistic and money-making people ever known. My own theory, while fully accepting this, is that we are the most emotional, spiritualistic, and poetry-loving people also. Infinite are the new and orbic traits waiting to be launched forth in the firmament that is, and is to be, America. Lately I have wondered whether the last meaning of this cluster of thirty-eight States is not only practical fraternity among themselves — the only real union much nearer its accomplishment, too, than appears on the surface — but for fraternity over the whole globe — that dazzling, pensive dream of ages!

Indeed, the peculiar glory of our lands, I have come to see, or expect to see, not in their geographical or republican greatness, nor wealth or products, nor military or naval power, nor special, eminent names in any department, to shine with, or outshine, foreign special names in similar departments, — but more and more in a vaster, saner, more splendid Comradeship, uniting closer and closer not only the American States, but all nations, and all humanity. That, O poets! Why not fix your verses henceforth to the gauge of the round globe? Perhaps the most illustrious culmination of the modern may thus prove to be a signal growth of joyous, more exalted bards of adhesiveness, identically one in soul, but contributed by every nation, each after its distinctive kind.

A Companion to Walt Whitman

Let us, audacious, start it. Let the diplomates, as ever, still deeply plan, seeking advantages, proposing treaties between governments, and to bind them, on paper: what I seek is different, simpler. I would inaugurate from America, for this purpose, new formulas — international poems. I have thought that the invisible root out of which the poetry deepest in, and dearest to, humanity grows, is Friendship.

I have thought that both in patriotism and song even amid their grandest shows past we have adhered too long to petty limits, and that the time has come to enfold the world. Not only is the human and artificial world we have established in the West a radical departure from anything hitherto known, — not only men and politics, and all that goes with them, — but Nature itself, in the main sense, its construction, is different. The same old font of type, of course, but set up to a text never composed or issued before. For Nature consists not only in itself objectively, but at least just as much in its subjective reflection from the person, spirit, age, looking at it, in the midst of it, and absorbing it — faithfully sends back the characteristic beliefs of the time or individual — takes, and readily gives again, the phys[]iognomy of any nation or literature — falls like a great elastic veil on a face, or like the molding plaster on a statue.

What is Nature? What were the elements, the invisible backgrounds and eidolons of it, to Homer's heroes, voyagers, gods? What was nature to Rousseau, to Voltaire, to the German Goethe in his little classical court gardens? In those presentments in Tennyson see the "Idylls of the King" — what sumptuous, perfumed, arras-and-gold nature, inimitably described, better than any, fit for princes and knights and peerless ladies — wrathful or peaceful, just the same — Vivien and Merlin in their strange dalliance, or the death-float of Elaine, or Geraint and the long journey of his disgraced Enid and himself through the wood, and the wife all day driving the horses , as in all the great imported art-works, treatises, systems, from Lucretius down, there is a constantly lurking, often pervading something that will have to be eliminated, as not only unsuited to modern democracy and science in America, but insulting to them, and disproved by them.

Still, the rule and demesne of poetry will always be not the exterior, but interior; not the macrocosm, but microcosm; not Nature, but Man.


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  6. Is it a dream of mine that, in times to come, West, South, East, [] North, will silently, surely arise a race of such poets, varied, yet one in soul — nor only poets, and of the best, but newer, larger prophets — larger than Judea's, and more passionate — to meet and penetrate those woes, as shafts of light the darkness? As I write, the last fifth of the nineteenth century is entered upon, and will soon be waning. Indeed, I am fond of thinking that the whole series of concrete and political triumphs of the republic are mainly as bases and preparations for half a dozen first-rate future poets, ideal personalities, referring not to a special class, but to the entire people, four or five millions of square miles.

    Long, long are the processes of the development of a nationality. Only to the rapt vision does the seen become the prophecy of the unseen. On a comprehensive summing up of the processes and present and hitherto condition of the United States with reference to their future and the indispensable precedents to it, I say I am fully content. My point, below all surfaces, and subsoiling them, is, that the bases and prerequisites of a leading nationality are, first, at all hazards, freedom, worldly wealth and products on the largest and most varied scale, common education and intercommunication, and, in general, the passing through of just the stages and crudities we have passed or are passing through in the United States.

    Then, perhaps, as weightiest factor of the whole business, and of the main outgrowths of the future, it remains to be definitely avowed that the native-born middle-class population of quite all the United States, — the average of farmers and mechanics everywhere, — the real, though latent and silent bulk of America, city [] or country, presents a magnificent mass of material, never before equaled on earth. It is this material, quite unexpressed by literature or art, that in every respect insures the future of the republic. During the secession war I was with the armies, and saw the rank and file, North and South, and studied them for four years.

    I have never had the least doubt about the country in its essential future since.

    Those wondrous stores, reminiscences, floods, currents! Let them flow on, flow hither freely.

    Whitman's Apprentices Anthology

    And let the sources be enlarged, to include not only the works of British origin, as now, but stately and devout Spain, courteous France, profound Germany, the manly Scandinavian lands, Italy's art race, and always the mystic Orient. The shadowy procession is not a meager one, and the standard not a low one. All that is mighty or precious in our kind seems to have trod the road.

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    Ah, never may America forget her thanks and reverence for samples, treasures such as these — that other life-blood, inspiration, sunshine, hourly in use to-day, all days, forever, throughout her broad demesne! All serves our New World progress, even the bafflers, head-winds, cross-tides. Through many perturbations and squalls, and much backing and filling, the ship, upon the whole, makes unmistakably for her destination.

    Shakespeare has served, and serves, may be, the best of any. For conclusion, a passing thought, a contrast, of him who, in my opinion, continues and stands for the Shakespearean cultus at the present day among all English-writing peoples — of Tennyson, his poetry.

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    I find it impossible, as I taste the sweetness of these lines, to escape the flavor, the conviction, the lush-ripening culmination, and last honey of decay I dare not call it rottenness of that feudalism which the mighty English dramatist painted in all the splendors of its noon and afternoon. And how they are chanted — both poets! Happy those kings and nobles to be so sung, so told! To run their course — to get their deeds and shapes in lasting pigments — the very pomp and dazzle of the sunset!

    Meanwhile, democracy waits the coming of its bards in silence and in twilight — but 'tis the twilight of the dawn.