WALT WHITMAN IN EUROPE.
With the death and burial of Walt Whitman passes away the most picturesque figure of contemporary literature.
It is true that in England the name of the poet is more familiar than his poetry, and that students of literature are more conversant with the nature of his writings than are the mass of general readers; yet the character of the man and the spirit of his compositions were rapidly beginning to be appreciated by, and to sway an influence over, the whole higher intelligence of the country.
Considering the man and his works, it is almost surprising to find how easily he did conquer for himself an audience, and even admirers, in England. He was par excellence a contemporary American. Not that American who clings to the Puritanic traditions of his English ancestors, but that characteristic product of the New World who looks more with eagerness to the future than with satisfaction on the past, and whose pre-eminent optimism is inspired by his ardent appreciation of the living present. Walt Whitman stood forth as an innovator into such realms, where the rigor of conditions demanded an abstract compliance with rules which were based on absolute truths, and where a swerving from them was evidence of impotence. His unconventional forms, the rhymeless rhythm of his verses, which, in appearance, resembled more a careless prosody than a delicately attuned poesy,—this alone was enough to provoke, at first, an incredulous smile, even among those whose tastes were endowed with more penetration. But Walt Whitman stood forth, besides, as the representative of a principle which, as yet, is looked upon with suspicion by the old world,—of the principle of a broad, grand, all-embracing democracy, which elevates manhood above all forms, all conditions, and all limitations.
The question where metre comes in in poetry, whether it is simply a means of accentuating rhythm, and is not the rhythm itself, and whether it is legitimate to do as Whitman did, to prolong the rhythmic phrase at the expense of metre, until the sense is completed,—all this was a problem for the professors and the critics to decide, and they might wrangle as they pleased. But here was Walt Whitman, recognizing no beauty higher than creative nature, recognizing no law greater than the spontaneous dictates of the moral personality; here was Walt Whitman, a pagan, a pantheist, who recognized more divinity in an outcast human being than in a grandly ordained king, who acknowledged nothing higher than the dignity of the human individuality,—all this was enough to make sober people pause and think, if not shudder.
'Tis true that some, almost all the representative men of literature in England, recognized in Walt Whitman, from the first, a beauty, a grandeur, which appealed to and captivated their higher susceptibilities and mental appreciation. Such critics as George Eliot, Dowden, and even Matthew Arnold, and such poets as Tennyson, Swinburne, and even William Morris, have uttered expressions of the warmest appreciation of his great talent; but the class of general readers are not endowed with such discrimination, and his works, till very recently, were excluded from the shelves of libraries which were catholic enough to embrace the writings of the earliest saints and the latest productions of Zola—on the ground that his poetry was too demoralizing for the general public.
This is not a general statement. I have a specific instance in view, when, in 1886, I went to the Leinster House in Dublin—the public library of the place—and asked for Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." On being informed that they had no copy of it in the library, I put down the book in the suggestion list. A number of Trinity students did the same. The matter was brought before the directors at their monthly meeting, and it appears it was strenuously objected to by the librarian, who pleaded the exclusion of the book on the ground of its being immoral, indecent! We carried the fight from private discussion to correspondence in the press; the editor of the Dublin University Review put the pages of the magazine at our disposal, and it was not until a year afterwards, and until considerable pressure was brought on the directors, that "Leaves of Grass" was admitted into the catalogues of the Dublin library.
But the genuine merit of Walt Whitman's works, as the true inspiration of individualistic genius is always destined to do, is rapidly conquering the opposition and prejudice even of those whose obtuse minds seldom discover the intrinsic good motive frequently underlying an indifferent form. Those whose objections rested on their incapacity of penetrating further than the surface of the headline are rapidly beginning to discern in Walt Whitman's writings a force, a sentiment, a moral passion, and a natural grandeur that is amply compensating for the occasional roughness or looseness of the expressions he mirrors them in. Before his death the good old poet had not only the satisfaction of knowing that his writings have been widely read and universally commented on, but he had the pleasure of seeing his "Leaves of Grass" translated into German by T. W. Rolleston, of Dublin, and Professor Schwartz, of Dresden, of having parts of it translated into French, and a few years ago Mr. Lee consulted me as to the advisability of rendering them into Russian, parts of the book having already been published in the periodicals of the Russian emigrés in Switzerland....