Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "The Modern Athenium"

(June 5, 1897)*


 

Brooklyn, 107 North Portland avenue, June 14 [1872]. Dear Son-I got home all right Saturday night-and have been having quite a good time. There is nothing very new-mother is well as usual. I shall print my college poem in a small book -it will be small-and is intended as the beginning of a larger one-I am having it set up at the printing office-will send you one in ten or twelve days. Pete, how are you getting along?-I suppose on 14 the same as when I was there-I see by the papers that the head men have mostly migrated from Washington, and that it is said to be hot and dull enough there. Do you see anything of Mr. Tazistro? I received the letter he sent to the office for me. I am writing this in the house on Portland avenue. We are having a showery afternoon. Good-by, my darling boy-and I will try to write again soon (and a more interesting letter). Walt."

Such is the letter I find on opening at random the new volume of letters of Walt Whitman to his young friend Peter Doyle. It is not a letter, certainly, of any startling literary quality or intrinsic interest. Barring the signature, it is not the sort of letter which would arrest attention, or invite one to read further. It is, indeed, startlingly commonplace, startlingly illiterate, for the man who could say "Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road."

Let us see what he will do when he tries "to write a more interesting letter." I transcribe the one next following, written four days later.

"Brooklyn, June 18, 1872.

Dear Pete-I am having a better time here than I had my last visit. The weather is very pleasant-pretty hot during the middle of the day, but mornings and nights perfect. No moonlight walks out beyond Uniontown here-but I go on the river and cross to and fro in the pilot house. Last night was beautiful. Saturday I spent at Coney Island-went in swimming. Mother is only middling-has some pretty bad spells with rheumatism- will break up here and go with my brother George to Camden, N.J., in September. I suppose you got a letter from me last Saturday, as I wrote you the day before. Pete, dear son, if you should want any of your money send me word. It is either $120 or $130 (I am not sure, but I have a memorandum in my desk at Washington). I am feeling real well, and hope you are, too, my loving boy. Walt."

Now this is not much more interesting than the other, and yet they are both very fair examples of the whole correspondence, which ranges from year 1868 to 1880, and embraces over a hundred letters and notes. I fancy the average reader of ordinary culture will lay the book down with a strange surprise. I confess that I did; and I venture to take myself, not as a critic at all, but merely as an average reader, one of the thousands of persons of ordinary education who read new books, and care something for poetry and prose, and care to know something of the poets and prose writers of their own time. One who has the habit of reading, even slightly developed (and, perhaps, more slightly pursued), will have had the preconceived notion of a man of letters, as a man of some scholarship, some critical insight, some philosophic bent, however small. He will expect to find in any leading writer a modicum of entertainment or instruction, a grace of diction, a felicity of phrase, a force of expression, an incisiveness of thought. He will hope to come side by side with a trained mind which can help him in the perplexities of life, or which at least; can offer him some amusement. He will, in short, expect to find in his man of letters a person of more learning and weight than himself. When he recalls the large array of English writers, he thinks of them surely as men of greater distinction and learning than their fellows; of greater refinement, of greater culture, of surer taste. Their books, which he fondly calls immortal, seem to him something far other and better than he himself could produce; he holds them in a regard almost amounting to reverence. To such a reader the poems of Whitman, however strange they may seem at first, must in the long run make some appeal. He must come to feel, unless he be hopelessly blind, that here, amid all its crudities, there was at least originality, force, imagination, sincerity and truth. He must come to feel the genius of Whitman. And he will feel it, if you please, in spite of, not because of, these crudities, these violences, these infelicities and absurdities which our friends, the Whitmanites, would persuade us to accept.

But in the letters there is not a ray of genius, not a spark of wit, not a trace of critical insight, or philosophic ability, or interesting discourse whatever. There is an interminable waste of small talk, tedious, flat, and humorless to a degree. As a side light on Whitman's character, as a help to estimating his genius, the little book is invaluable, as a contribution to American letters, to that body of original literary work which we have added to the English language, they have not the least value whatever. So that I say, thinking of Whitman's considerable fame and his more considerable worth as a poet, one reads these letters with a strange surprise.

Is it possible that the same man could have written "Leaves of Grass," that prophetic book, and in his commoner moments have penned these ungrammatical pages of trivialities?

So it seems. And I wish I could reconcile the two phenomena. Let us admit for a moment that the letters are as worthless as I say. What then? Other great writers have written sorry productions before now, and we try not to let that influence our judgment of their better things. When we think of Wordsworth, we think of the "Immortality Ode" and the poem on daffodils,

"I wandered lonely as a cloud,"

and a dozen beautiful lyrics, which remain unsurpassable; we forget the yards of tiresome verse which he persisted in producing without the assistance of the muse-without the breath of God, if I may say so.

We leave his musty platitudes to our friends the Wordsworthians. And so, in a different way, with Browning. Granted that he was the greatest of the Victorians; granted that the greater part of voluminous work is so keen and lyrical and so full of vitality that we cannot imagine it ever going into oblivion; nevertheless there are whole passages, whole poems, that we could spare without a pang. When we think of Browning, we think of "Home Thoughts from Abroad," or "A Death in the Desert," or a score of other masterpieces of poetry; we do not think of "Mr. Sludge the Medium." We leave that for the Browning societies.

So, too, of Whitman. Whatever time cares to preserve of his poetry will endure. Whatever is necessary and beautiful to men in it will never be allowed to perish. And for the rest, for the mistaken and inept vagaries of illiteracy and caprice, who cares? They will atrophy and drop away under the gentle treatment of oblivion. We shall still have the inspiriting strain of his manly call for freedom; we shall still have the riches of his wholesome and rugged poetry. And that is surely enough.

But even that hardly reconciles a lover of literature to this "Calamus," as the volume of letters is called. I fancy I see in every man of genius two men-the man and the genius. These two are not altogether separate and distinct; on the contrary, they are most intimately related; and the acts of the one have always an endurance on the other. Sometimes one may be in ascendant; sometimes the other; sometimes they may be almost at a dead point of balance; or again, one may be almost wholly crowded out by the other. But there they are, neither one ever wholly absent. No; I am wrong. The character of the man in never wholly absent from his doings; the character of his genius very often is. But certainly the character of the genius is most wayward and indiscriminate in its choice of a companion, and takes up its habitation with the most unlikely mates. There was the genius of David, which mated with an immoral king; the genius of Omar, which mated with an astronomer; the genius of Marcus Aurelius, which mated with a Roman emperor; the genius of Herrick, which mated with a parson; the genius of Burns, which mated with a roisterer; the genius which was mated to an Oxford man; the genius of Browning, which was mated to a philosopher and a man about town. Now the genius of Whitman was mated to an honest, sober, hale, illiterate working man, who in his letters to his most intimate friend talks chiefly of what he has had for breakfast, and finds his amusement in riding up and down Broadway on a street car.

"Brooklyn, Friday noon, Feb. 23, 1872.

"Dear Son-Your letter received this morning speaks of the mild weather there-but it has been and remains very cold here-so much so that I don't go around half as much as I would like. My cold hangs on, though not so bad as at first. The state of the weather, and my cold, etc., have rather blocked me from having my usual enjoyment here so far-but I expect to make up for it by-and-by. Dear son, I see you are off-I take it by your letter that you are feeling well in health, and having as good a time as the law allows-I wish we could be together there, some of these moonlight nights-but here it is too cold for comfort-(the water pipes here froze again last night, causing trouble). I go out a couple of hours middle of the day, but keep in nights. I have got the new edition of my book under way, and it will be satisfactory I think. It will be in one volume, and will make a better appearance than any of the former ones. Do you go up to the debates in the Senate? I see by the papers they are having high times; Senator Schurz appears to come out ahead of them all; he is a real good speaker. I enjoy the way he skakes them up (very much like a first-class terrier in a pit, with a lot of rats). Pete, I send you $10 enclosed, as you may need it. Should you want more, you write, as I have plenty. I am writing this up in my back-room, home; have had a nice breakfast of hot potatoes and first-rate Oregon salmon with the best coffee that's made-home-made bread and sweet butter-everything tip-top; get along well enough, you must try to do the same; so good-by for this time, my own loving boy.

WALT."

No, not a ray of genius anywhere; only the simple guileless babble of one car driver to another. If the ordinary character of Whitman was obtrusively in evidence in his poems, to the detriment and exclusion of his fine genius, certainly in these homely letters the genius has been driven out altogether, to give place to the everyday man. But there is in them, nevertheless, one laudable trait; they are full of contentment. There is not a peevish word in them from cover to cover, not a complaint. The wonder is that he could have had the lyric impulse and high enterprise of his poetry, and yet maintain himself in serenity among surroundings the least ęsthetic in the world. The beauties of nature did not seem needful to him; of the beauties of art he was as ignorant as a child. His was a human nature unsophisticated and unspoiled. He had all the brawny simple directness of the uneducated classes. He cared nothing for art or culture in our smaller critical sense; he knew nothing of the delicacy and amenity and finesse of the intricate human relation; he sought only the simplest facts of life; and while he professed to stand for broad Democracy in this country, there was a whole class of his fellow citizens to whose interests he was a stranger; he had no eye for the dramatic phases of life in its more attenuated, but no less real necessary strata.

But I wander from Whitman's letters into the endless jungle of Whitmanology. I see myself, in a few paragraphs more, hopelessly mired in the bog of personal preference with the Whitman fellowship in full cry at my heels. And before that unfortunate day arrives, let me say that Dr. Buche and Mr. Maynard have done a service to criticism in putting this little book together. The interview with Peter Doyle is of particular value. Though, it is true, Mr. Doyle has said one or two things that are not altogether fortunate.

For instance, he is reported as saying, "I never knew a case of Walt's being bothered up by a woman. In fact, he had nothing special to do with any woman except Mrs. O'Connor and Mrs. Burroughs. His disposition was different. Woman in that sense never came into his head. Walt was too clean, he hated anything which was not clean. No trace of any kind of dissipation in him."

It is pleasing to know that Walt was never "bothered up by a woman"; but to say that, "Walt was too clean,"-that is an unhappy sentence for his devoted followers. I should think it would make the Whitman Fellowship writhe in their chairs.


Untitled "The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening Transcript, June 5, 1897 [back]