great prime fact about Walt Whitman was his freedom.
He dared to be himself. Like all "originals,"
he overdid it, perhaps. He carried his insistence too
far for his good, it may be; and he might have attained
even greater perfection as a poet, and reached a higher
degree of effectiveness, had he been less peculiar.
But your reformer always runs that risk. He is an experimenter,
an adventurer, who usually over-emphasizes the truth
as he sees it. He is not one who "sees life steadily,
and sees it whole." He is rather one who sees some
particular phase of life, and devotes himself to elaborating
that one view; so that for all his excellent devotion
to the cause of humanity, he usually suffers himself.
He usually grows narrow and strained.
that Whitman grew narrow and strained; he was far too
great for that, far too genuine and wise. Moreover,
his peculiarities of style were native to him. They
degenerated at times to affectations and mannerisms,
but for the most part they were spontaneous and characteristic,
and therefore entirely unobjectionable to the sensitive
taste. After a very little familiarity with him, his
peculiar involutions of speech are no bar to the splendid
message of the man.
however, his disciples come to us chanting in contorted
cadences which are palpably imitations of the "Leaves
of Grass," the impression is most unpleasant.
Mr. Edward Carpenter, the author of "Towards Democracy,"
is one of the best of English reformers, a man who has
thought profoundly, and who dares to believe in his
own conclusions; more than that, he has said many things
that need to be said without fear. Like Whitman, he
is evidently a man of intense individuality, full of
passion for goodness and truth. It seems to the ordinary
reader deplorable that he should be content with a form
of expression that is not his own. And yet, as I say,
from the artistic side he is only an echo of Whitman;
nothing more. This is the obvious criticism, but it
is the true one.
makes this very frank criticism (surely it will be understood),
not because Whitman has too many followers, but because
he has too few. The trouble, perhaps, lies here: we
fail to remember that every new thought seeks its own
equally new setting. That is the mystery of art. In
Whitman at his best, the thought and the form are perfectly
fused in beautiful expression. Beauty, outward sensible
beauty, is always the result of that perfect fusion
of thought and feeling with the plastic medium into
which they are passed by the artist. If the artist is
lacking in emotion, or in brain power, and yet has a
fine technical control of his medium, his work will
be brilliant but unconvincing and unsatisfying. If,
on the other hand, he is endowed with keen reason and
passionate sympathy, and yet is wanting in an instinct
for beauty, his work will fail to allure and entrance
us, however profound and sincere it may be. And the
point to be noted is this: that the quality of beauty
is just as important in art as the quality of truth
or the quality of impassioned helpfulness.
is not that Whitman's imitators neglect the form in
attempting to write poetry, but that they fail to make
it attractive. Open Mr. Carpenter's book anywhere and
you perceive at once that, so far from being negligent
about his manner of writing, he has been exceedingly
careful. He has been at great pains to make his thought
effective by giving it form. The trouble is that he
fails to make it beautiful, so that the manner of his
speech offends where it should ingratiate. There can
be no excuse for leaving the direct and simple methods
of prose save the one purpose-to be more sensuous and
pleasing. But Mr. Carpenter and Whitman's other imitators
abandon the simplicity of prose without a dream of making
their utterance more beautiful, or sensuous, or attractive.
Thus they lose all the effectiveness of good prose and
do not gain even the effectiveness of poor poetry. For
poetry may be very poor indeed in the essentials of
thought and emotion, and yet please us by its musical
quality, its grace and style. Many a versifier delights
our ear for the moment, though he entirely fails to
convince our stubborn reason or move the deeper springs
of affection within us. His failure in these regards,
however, ought not to blind us to his one excellence,
nor make us think lightly of a very important part of
poetry, its charm. For charm, or sensuous beauty is
one third of art, and its lack can never be made up
by emphasizing the other two thirds, passionate intensity
of feeling and charity of thought. One might as well
try to make a two-legged stool stand up by lengthening
its legs instead of adding a third.
is really the mistake that the reformer and the humanitarian
fall into when they attempt anything in the domain of
art. They are so carried away by the force of their
own feelings; they see the truth so clearly that the
plainest statement of it seems to them sufficient. Whereas
that is not the case at all. If a mere statement of
fact were sufficient, then the nearer we come to a mathematical
expression of it the better. We should not express ourselves
in literature, but in algebraic signs.
object of literature is to make reason seem more reasonable
and emotion more intense; and this it does by making
them both more attractive, by giving them manifestation
in some beautiful guise. The truth cannot be the whole
truth, unless it appears in some form of beauty; nor
can goodness be complete, unless it makes us satisfied
with its likeness as in love with itself. I am convinced
that two and two make four; I am glad to love my fellows;
but my whole nature is not made happy until you show
me that the beauty of the world, which so enthralls
my senses, is a third fact related to these other two-is
indeed but a third aspect of the same phenomenon.