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a happy wife and mother, has learned to accept all things with tenderness, to feel a sacredness in all ? Perhaps Walt Whitman has forgotten—or, through some theory in his head, has overridden —the truth that our instincts are beautiful facts of nature, as well as our bodies; and that we have a strong instinct of silence about some things.
July 11.- I think it was very manly and kind of you to put the whole of Walt Whitman's poems into my hands; and that I have no other friend who would have judged them and me so wisely and generously.
I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these. I do assure you that, strong as I am, I feel sometimes as if I had not bodily strength to read many of these poems. In the series headed “ Calamus,” for instance, in some of the “Songs of Parting,” the “ Voice out of the Sea,” the poem beginning “Tears, tears,” &c., there is such a a weight of emotion, such a tension of the heart, that mine refuses to beat under it-stands quite still—and I am obliged to lay the book down for a while. Or again, in the piece called “Walt Whitman,” and one or two others of that type, I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half-dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “ the superb vistas of
Death.” Those who admire this poem, and do not care for that, and talk of formlessness, absence of metre, and so forth, are quite as far from any genuine recognition of Walt Whitman as his bitter detractors. Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew—they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest ? Are not the hit herto-accepted masterpieces of literature akin rather to noble architecture; built up of material rendered precious by elaboration; planned with subtile art that makes beauty go hand in hand with rule and measure, and knows where the last stone will come, before the first is laid ; the result stately, fixed, yet such as might, in every particular, have been different from what it is (therefore inviting criticism), contrasting proudly with the careless freedom of nature, opposing its own rigid adherence to symmetry to her wilful dallying with it? But not such is this book. Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that,-each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things vital,--that is, a source of ever-generating vitality : such are these poems:
“Roots and leaves themselves alone are these, Scents brought to men and women from the wild woods
and from the pond-side, Breast sorrel and pinks of love, fingers that wind around
tighter than vines, Gushes from the throats of birds hid in the foliage of
trees as the sun is risen, Breezes of land and love, breezes set from living shores
out to you on the living sea,—to you, O sailors ! Frost-mellowed berries and Third-month twigs,
offered fresh to young persons wandering out in the fields when the winter breaks
up, Love-buds put before you and within you, whoever you
are, Buds to be unfolded on the old terms. If you bring the warmth of the sun to them, they will
open, and bring form, color, perfume, to you: If you become the aliment and the wet, they will become
flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees.” And the music takes good care of itself too. As if it could be otherwise! As if those “large, melodious thoughts,” those emotions, now so stormy and wild, now of unfathomed tenderness and gentleness, could fail to vibrate through the words in strong, sweeping, longsustained chords, with lovely melodies winding in and out fitfully amongst them! Listen, for instance, to the penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur, of the passage beginning“ I am he that walks with the tender and growing
night; I call to the earth and sea half held by the night.” I see that no counting of syllables will reveal the
mechanism of the music; and that this rushing spontaneity could not stay to bind itself with the tetters of metre. But I know that the music is there, and that I would not for something change ears with those who cannot hear it. And I know that poetry must be one of two things, either own this man as equal with her highest, completest manifestors, or stand aside, and admit that there is something come into the world nobler, diviner than herself, one that is free of the universe, and can tell its secrets as none before.
I do not think or believe this ; but see it with the same unmistakable definiteness of perception and full consciousness that I see the sun at this moment in the noonday sky, and feel his rays glowing down upon me as I write in the open air. What more can you ask of the words of a man's mouth than that they should “absorb into you as food and air, to appear again in your strength, gait, face,”--that they should be “ fibre and filter to your blood,” joy and gladness to your whole nature?
I am persuaded that one great source of this kindling, vitalizing power—I suppose the great source—is the grasp laid upon the present, the fearless and comprehensive dealing with reality. Hitherto the leaders of thought have (except in science) been men with their faces resolutely turned backwards; men who have made of the past a tyrant that beggars and scorns the present, hardly seeing any greatness but what is shrouded away in the twilight, underground past ; naming the present only for disparaging comparisons, humiliating distrust that tends to create the very barrenness it complains of;
bidding me warm myself at fires that went out to mortal eyes centuries ago; insisting, in religion above all, that I must either “ look through dead men's eyes,” or shut my own in helpless darkness.
Poets fancying themselves so happy over the chill and faded beauty of the past, but not making me happy at all, -rebellious always at being dragged down out of the free air and sunshine of to-day.
But this poet, this “ athlete, full of rich words, full of joy,” takes you by the hand, and turns you with your face straight forwards.
The present is great enough for him, because he is great enough for it. It flows through him as a “vast oceanic tide,” lifting up a mighty voice. • Earth, “the eloquent, dumb, great mother,” is not old, has lost none of her fresh charms, none of her divine meanings; still bears great sons and daughters, if only they would possess themselves and accept their birthright,-a richer, not a poorer, heritage than was ever provided before,-richer by all the toil and suffering of the generations that have preceded, and by the further unfolding of the eternal purposes. Here is one come at last who can show them how; whose songs are the breath of a glad, strong, beautiful life, nourished sufficingly, kindled to unsurpassed intensity and greatness by the gifts of the present. “ Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with
joy. “O the joy of my soul leaning poised on itself, —
receiving identity through materials, and loving
them, -observing characters, and absorbing them! O my soul vibrated back to me from them!