Monday, September 07th, 2009 | Author:

These self-reviews are indeed delicious, and I don’t mean .com.  Below I pasted just a few of my favorite moments– some that truly interest me for what he says about the new poetry or the reader– and some that are so funny (intentionally?  please rule, Dr. Richards, but I suspect not) I actually laughed out loud in my office.

For all our intellectual people, followed by their books, poems, novels, essays, editorials, lectures, tuitions, and criticism, dress by London and Paris modes, receive what is received there, obey the authorities, settle disputes by the old tests, keep out of rain and sun, retreat to the shelter of houses and schools, trim their hair, shave, touch not the earth barefoot, and enter not the sea except in a complete bathing-dress.

He makes audacious and native use of his own body and soul.

Nature may have given the hint to the author of the “Leaves of Grass”, but there exists no book or fragment of a book, which can have given the hint to them. All beauty, he says, comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain.

No sniveller, or tea-drinking poet, no puny clawback or prude, is Walt Whitman. He will bring poems fit to fill the days and nights—fit for men and women with the attributes of throbbing blood and flesh.

The eleven other poems have each distinct purposes, curiously veiled. Theirs is no writer to be gone through with in a day or a month. Rather it is his pleasure to elude you and provoke you for deliberate purposes of his own.

He is the largest lover and sympathizer that has appeared in literature.

If health were not his distinguishing attribute, this poet would be the very harlot of persons.

Walt Whitman himself disclaims singularity in his work, and announces the coming after him of great successions of poets, and that he but lifts his finger to give the signal.

To give judgment on real poems, one needs an account of the poet himself. Very devilish to some, and very divine to some, will appear these new poems, the Leaves of Grass: an attempt, as they are, of a live, naive, masculine, tenderly affectionate, rowdyish, contemplative, sensual, moral, susceptible and imperious person…

This poet celebrates himself: and that is the way he celebrates all. He comes to no conclusions, and does not satisfy the reader. He certainly leaves him what the serpent left the woman and the man, the taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, never to be erased again.

Of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, full-blooded, six feet high, a good feeder, never once using medicine, drinking water only—a swimmer in the river or bay or by the seashore—of straight attitude and slow movement of foot—an indescribable style evincing indifference and disdain—ample limbed, weight one hundred and eighty-five pounds, age thirty-six years (1855)—never dressed in black, always dressed freely and clean in strong clothes, neck open, shirt-collar flat and broad, countenance of swarthy, transparent red, beard short and well mottled with white hair like hay after it has been mowed in the field and lies tossed and streaked—face not refined or intellectual, but calm and wholesome—a face of an unaffected animal—a face that absorbs the sunshine and meets savage or gentleman on equal terms—a face of one who eats and drinks and is a brawny lover and embracer—a face of undying friendship and indulgence toward men and women, and of one who finds the same returned many fold—a face with two grey eyes where passion and hauteur sleep, and melancholy stands behind them—a spirit that mixes cheerfully with the world—a person singularly beloved and welcomed, especially by young men and mechanics—one who has firm attachments there, and associates there—one who does not associate with literary and elegant people—one of the two men sauntering along the street with their arms over each other’s shoulders, his companions some boatman or ship joiner, or from the hunting-tent or lumber-raft—one who has that quality of attracting the best out of people that they present to him, none of their meaner and stingier traits, but always their sweetest and most generous traits—a man never called upon to make speeches at public dinners, never on platforms amid the crowds of clergymen or professors or aldermen or congressmen—rather down in the bay with pilots in their pilot boats—or off on a cruise with fishers in a fishing smack—or with a band of laughers and roughs in the streets of the city or the open grounds of the country—fond of New York and Brooklyn—fond of the life of the wharves and great ferries, or along Broadway, observing the endless wonders of that thoroughfare of the world—one whom, if you would meet, you need not expect to meet an extraordinary person—one in whom you will see the singularity which consists in no singularity—whose contact is no dazzling fascination, nor require any difference, but has the easy fascination of what is homely and accustomed—of something you knew before, and was waiting for—of natural pleasures, and well-known places, and welcome familiar faces—perhaps of a remembrance of your brother or mother, or friend away or dead—there you have Walt Whitman, the begetter of a new offspring out of literature, taking with easy nonchalance the chances of its present reception, and, through all misunderstandings and distrusts, the chances of its future reception.

In the verse of all those undoubtedly great writers, Shakspeare just as much as the rest, there is the air which to America is the air of death.

Sure as the heavens envelop the earth, if the Americans want a race of bards worthy of 1855, and of the stern reality of this republic, they must cast around for men essentially different from the old poets, and from the modern successions of jinglers and snivellers and fops.

It is indeed a strange voice! Critics and lovers and readers of poetry as hitherto written, may well be excused the chilly and unpleasant shudders which will assuredly run through them, to their very blood and bones, when they first read Walt Whitman’s poems.

It is the direct bringing of occurrences and persons and things to bear on the listener or beholder, to re-appear through him or her; and it offers the best way of making them a part of him and her as the right aim of the greatest poet.

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  1. Check out the 1855 review called “A Pleasant Quiz.” Its author, too, seems to be hoping there’s humor involved in the bombast of Whitman’s self-reviews:

    “We take it to be a smart satire upon the present tendency of authors to run into rhapsody and transcendentalism . . .”

    I think he’s being way too generous. How about y’all?

  2. Avatar of sarahlawless sarahlawless says:

    There is a habit that a friend of mine has when he says outrageous things. He might say “I think I have made the single most important contribution to modern mathematics, and perhaps humanity in total, in completing this homework problem.” We both laugh, him especially hard, because we know it is terribly exaggerated. He then cuts short his laughter and stares at me. “But seriously,” he’ll say, “This is a massively important thing that I have just done.” He continues the serious look for a moment, then laughs again at his own cleverness.

    I feel that Whitman is treading this same line between being facetious and serious. He says this in mock sincerity as a joke, while at the same time being completely sincere. Perhaps he also feels that he may exaggerate and poke fun at himself, but it would be out of line for a reader to criticize, in the manner that you can make fun of your own failings and then be offended when someone else makes their own joke about these same failings. (Not that Whitman has failings…)

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