Burroughs’ Study of Whitman

Burroughs’ Study of Whitman

Two facts, of somewhat ominous significance when taken together, are incidentally mentioned by Mr. Burroughs in this volume.* One is the extreme difficulty of writing about so colossal a subject as Whitman. “At times,” he says, “I feel as if I was almost as much at sea with regard to him as when I first began to study him. What is he like? He is like the soil which holds the germs of a thousand forms of life; he is like the grass, common, perennial, formless; he is like your own mystical, yearning, rebellious, contradictory, but ever throbbing with life.” The other fact is the rapidly increasing bulk of Whitman literature, which promises by the end of the century to surpass all that has grown up round any contemporary name—from which it may be judged that quantity is likely to be in considerable excess of quality in Whitman criticism. For this reason the appearance of John Burroughs’ “Study” is all the more to be welcomed; for not only is he a writer of great power and distinction, but as a “poet-naturalist” he is in one respect peculiarly qualified to interpret Whitman, who was less a product of an artificial society than a veritable child of Nature, as deserving of a naturalist’s watchful and patient observation as any bird of the forest. Years ago, in his fine essay on “The Flight of the Eagle” (in Birds and Poets), Mr. Burroughs gave an impressive picture of the sweep of Whitman’s genius; and if we have to confess to some sense of disappointment in the present volume, it is only because we expect much more from him than from an ordinary critic. The book is full of sound judgement and happy phrasing; on page after page there are masterly delineations of Whitman’s character and style—yet somehow there seems to be a failure in the general effect. As an essayist Mr. Burroughs has scarcely a superior among living writers; but it may be that the peculiar qualities which go to the making of his essays—so strong and withal so tender and suggestive in their strength—are not appropriate to the more sustained fabric of a critical and biographical study. His appreciation of Whitman, true and often brilliant though they are, impress a critical reader as being rather disproportionate and disjointed, as if stray jottings had been loosely strung together as the nucleus of a volume, without being shaped and welded into a harmonious whole. No more than fifty pages, less than a fifth of the book, are devoted to the Biographical and Personal, while two hundred pages are given to an examination of Whitman’s attitude towards Art, Religion, Science, etc.; and in all this there is much redundance and repetition—for example, the lines on “Reconciliation” are quoted twice. That Burroughs’ large, calm, healthful temperament qualities him excellently for a sympathetic understanding of a certain aspect of Whitman’s nature, is, I think, beyond doubt; but it may be questioned whether he has enough of the more passionate human element to make his picture a complete one. The “sanity,” on which he insists so strongly in many of his writings has, like all other virtues, its weak side, and unless very jealously watched and tested is apt to drift into an extreme. Much that is called “sanity,” in protest against the ultra-sensitiveness of the age, is in truth nothing more than insensibility.

Mr. Burroughs’ “Study” is mainly a justification of Whitman in face of the many prejudices invoked against him by literary men. As a justification it is unanswerable; and though it does not perhaps contain much that is new, it gives very pointed and powerful expression to what all Whitman-lovers must feel to be essentially true of him. But I would like to suggest that the time has come for the discontinuance of an apologetic, or even explanatory, tone, in speaking of a great writer like Whitman; and that, instead of defending the author of “Leaves of Grass” from the ridicule of his opponents, it would be well to carry the war into their own camp and to show that they are the ridiculous party themselves. “The sense of the ridiculous,” says Mr. Burroughs, “has been enormously stimulated and developed in the modern mind”; but he might have added that this sense is almost always a distorted one. The ridiculous, to most men, is simply the novel and unfamiliar; that they have no real gift of humour is shown by the gravity with which they tolerate a thousand absurd customs handed down to them by their forefathers. The people who affect to laugh at Whitman will be the laughing-stock of posterity; and I submit that the right method is to apprise them, with the most friendly candour, of the destiny that awaits them.

So, too, about “Art.” Surely there never was a controversy more hollow and more futile than that which has raged round the question whether Whitman was an “artist.” It would not be more preposterous to discuss whether Shelley was an artist—and indeed that discussion used to be an actual one some seventy or eighty years ago, before the distinguished critics of the day had been bumped and broken into acquiescence. I could wish that so true a Whitman student as Mr. J. A. Symonds had been saved by a sense of humour from that well-meant but not very felicitous testimonial of his, in which, with a seriousness adequate to so tremendous an occasion, he pledged his own great name as a scholar that Whitman was not devoid of art! He had better have left his fellow-artists and academicians to find out their own errors by themselves; for their adverse judgment in the case of Whitman is of no more importance than in the case of any other great and original writer. Of course they have been wrong “Leaves of Grass”, just as they have been wrong about every similar issue; and the reason is not far to seek. For as Mr. Burroughs well remarks, “The world always has trouble with its primary men, or the men who have any primary gifts. The idols of an age are nearly always secondary men; they break no new ground. The primary men disturb us; they are a summons and a challenge, they break up the old order.” That is precisely why the old order so signally fails to appreciate them, and takes refuge in the miserable contention that they are not “artists.” Well, well; it was no doubt very inartistic of Walt Whitman to be so rugged and Titanic, when Mr. Edmund Gosse and Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton would have liked to measure him with their little six-inch rule. But then we have to remember that all great artists have been denounced as inartistic by the fashionable critics of their age.

Here is one subject which I think should find a place in a complete Study of Whitman, viz., his relationship and affinity to other democratic poets, English and American alike, for in this matter English and American literature are practically one. Now Whitman, startlingly original and modern though he is, could not possibly have come into existence as a social force had there not been a line and succession of earlier nature-poets, in what may be called the revolutionary school of thought; he was in part a later development and reincarnation of that fiery spirit of liberty and love which, half a century earlier, had moved men’s hearts so burningly through the words of Shelley. To trace the course of this great nature-spirit from the time of Shelley and Wordsworth to the time of Whitman—and further to note its influence on contemporary or later writers, as for example on Thoreau and Herman Melville in America, and on Jefferies and Carpenter in England—could not fail to be an interesting and instructive study, to those who would understand this important aspect of Whitman’s character. But the only English poet to whom Mr. Burroughs devotes much attention in this volume is Tennyson, who certainly was brought into touch with Whitman by their pleasant interchange of courtesies, but otherwise belongs to a wholly different world; for at heart Tennyson was one of the most reactionary, anti-democratic, and anti-scientific of men. It is strange to find Mr. Burroughs remarking that Whitman “shared with Tennyson the glory of being one of the two poets of note in our time who have drawn inspiration from this source,” viz., from science. It is true that Tennyson “drew upon science,” as he did upon every contemporary movement, “for his images and illustrations”; but his sympathies with any genuinely scientific spirit were of the most superficial kind, and his later poems exhibit him as a determined opponent and vilifier of the very freedom of thought of which he had once been a tepid admirer. To link Whitman’s name, even incidentally, with Tennyson’s is to link the great with the small, the new with the old, the natural with the artificial, the spirit of freedom, and brotherhood, and equality with the spirit of deep distrust in everything truly democratic.

While holding that the best way to deal with orthodox prejudices against Whitman is to show that such prejudices have always been raised against great revolutionary writers, and have always ignominiously failed, I would also put in a plea for a candid recognition of his real limitations, lest in our reaction from undue disparagement we should tend to the contrary extreme. Great as Whitman is as an interpreter of modern democracy, he does not stand for the entire democratic concept.  There is much more in the full democratic ideal than there is in Whitman, for no one man is capable of expressing the whole gospel of freedom. We feel that he represents, and grandly represents a certain side of democracy—the large, full-blooded, sympathetic, “cosmic” element of it; but he does not represent its more subtle, starry, and spiritual instincts in anything like the same degree that certain other writers have done. Such natures, for example, as those of Shelley and Thoreau are not, either in their lives or their writings, to be included or superseded by Whitman. They each strike a different note; they each have much that he has not—the sublimated lyrical passion, the keen, thrifty humour and incisiveness, democratic to the very core. In view of the tendency to assume that Whitman’s message gathers up and includes all previous messages, a word of protest is perhaps not out of place, for it is much to be hoped that prosperity will not proceed to deify Whitman as it has defied (and thereby stultified) Shakespeare.

Again, while revering the greatness of Whitman’s astonishing genius, let us not be bluffed into an undue submission to his gigantic optimism, even though that optimism be called by the name democratic. Democracy is not merely the en masse; it is also something much more personal and aspiring. The “common and universal” may be, often is, the hateful, and cruel, and foul. There is ‘no dualism or devilism,” says Mr. Burroughs, in Whitman’s democracy. This large spirit of tolerant acceptance is, in its right degree, both cheering and ennobling, but after all, it is no more than a mood; as a reasoned theory of life, it proves like all theories, insufficient. It is not so easy to give the Devil the go-by, though by a mighty exercise of faith we may persuade ourselves that he is not the Devil. That, however, is little more than a change of nomenclature; for even if evil is only misplaced good, still we must all recognize that it is misplaced; and here at once we return to what is practically “dualism”—the well-placed and the mis-placed contrasted.

In the main Mr. Burroughs’ estimate of Whitman seems a thoroughly right one; it carries conviction to the reader, and increases our love and admiration for a great and noble personality. Whatever its deficiencies may be (and, for the reasons stated above, I have purposely dwelt on its deficiencies rather than its merits), the book seems to me to strike a sounder and healthier note than any previous study, not excepting that by Mr. J. A. Symonds, which Mr. Burroughs refers to as “the most notable contribution to the Whitman literature.” After reading these chapters one feels more strongly than ever the power and greatness of Whitman—in Mr. Burroughs’ words, “this full significance in connection with the modern movement; how he embodies it all and speaks out of it, and yet maintains his hold upon the primitive, the aboriginal; how he presuppose science and culture, yet draws his strength from that which antedates these things; how he glories in the present, and yet is sustained and justified by the past; how he is the poet of America and the modern, and yet translate these things into universal truths; how he is the poet of wickedness, while yet every fibre of him is sound and good; how his page is burdened with the material, the real, the contemporary, while yet his hold upon the ideal, the spiritual, never relaxes; how he is the poet of the body, while yet he is in even fuller measure the poet of the soul; in fact, how all contradictions are finally reconciled in him.”

* “Whitman: A Study,” by John Burroughs. (Archibald Constable & Co. 6s.)

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, 1897