Tuesday, March 6, 2012
1. [Anonymous]. "[Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]." The Merchant's Magazine and Commercial Review 34 (May 1856). 654
Many of these reviews were superlative in their praise or condemnation of Leaves of Grass, so this one's moderate quality stood out, with adjectives like "singular" and "kaleidoscopic" tempered by their neighbors "undisciplined" and "commonplace." The overall tone is one of admiring curiosity while acknowledging the unconventional (for the time) quality of the work. The reviewer takes note of the informal presentation of the poems and of Whitman's portrait, and declares the book unusual and interesting enough to be included in D'Israeli's popular Curiosities of Literature. Somewhat surprisingly, there is no disapproving panic over the occasionally risque subject matter or the use of slang. In my opinion, the most salient quote is where the author says, "appearing at the first glance to be mere unconnected common-place remarks, aphorisms, and opinions, there is yet developed, on further examination, a vast amount of undisciplined power."
2. Whitman, Walt. "Walt Whitman, a Brooklyn Boy." The Brooklyn Daily Times (29 September 1855):2.
I saw that this review was from Brooklyn and eagerly clicked, wondering what the locals made of their controversial poet. When the author said, "other poets celebrate great events, personages, romances, wars, loves, passions, the victories and power of their country, or some real or imagined incident--and polish their work, and come to conclusions, and satisfy the reader. This poet celebrates himself: and that is the way he celebrates all," I thought, this guy seems to really get it. When I read the long paragraph praising the healthy and strong American common man, Walt Whitman, embodying his poetry, I thought, hey, this guy even sounds a bit like Whitman here. Then I scrolled to the publication information and realized, no wonder, it is Whitman, that sneaky bastard! In reviewing his own work, Whitman emphasizes and justifies his lack of a formal, traditionally poetic method. As far as excesses, he really does congratulate himself on his superb masculinity, but considering he wrote "Song of Myself," that's kind of the point. He owns his provocations, saying, "politeness this man has none, and regulation he has none." There is no, "hey, I meant the reader could lick me metaphorically!" here. Whitman is bold in what he desires and expects his influence to be: "not for a model but an illustration, for the present and future of American letters and American young men." He is making a case not just for his poems, but for a radically new approach to poetry in general.
3. [Anonymous]. "[Review of Leaves of Grass (1855)]." The Critic 15 (1 April 1856): 170-1.
"The words 'an American' are a surplusage," says this anonymous reviewer while maligning Leaves of Grass, as if the barbarity of anything American was assumed in the first place, and finally confirmed through these poems; this review is the voice of high culture recoiling from the encroachment of low culture. Much is made of Whitman's unkempt appearance in his photo, but more importantly, this reviewer confidently lays out the poetic standards of the day and observes that Whitman doesn't measure up. The reviewer recognizes the importance of nature to Whitman's philosophy and style, but cannot accept that it is an appropriate approach to poetry: "we grant freely enough that he has a strong relish for nature and freedom, just as an animal has; nay, further, that his crude mind is capable of appreciating some of nature's beauties; but it by no means follows that, because nature is excellent, therefore art is contemptible." Given the poetic standards of the day (and compared to probably a dozen of the other critical reviews), I thought this diatribe was a remarkably coherent criticism of Leaves of Grass, for instance, when complaining about the long lists of everyday objects, and recognizing that Whitman is a threat to poetic standards. This reviewer concentrates on the form of the poem at the expense of fully considering the message; he or she is not ignorant of the message of "universal sympathy," but oversimplifies and dismisses it as already done, and done better.
The third review is most useful in illustrating the cultural assumptions about poetry brought to Leaves of Grass, so I will concentrate on it, although Whitman's hearty attempts to justify his approach reveal some of the same insights. The third reviewer expects "art," "melody," "homage," "regularity," and "civilisation" in poetry; he or she sees art as something refined, in contrast to nature or giving it order rather than springing from it. Great poetry (or perhaps any poetry), in this view, alludes to and builds upon the cultural legacy of previous poets such as Shakespeare. From this perspective, what Whitman does with Leaves of Grass can be interesting or provocative or well-intentioned, but it cannot, by definition, be called poetry, and doing so undermines this other kind of established literary undertaking which is the definition of poetry. Poetry by this definition is a refined and intellectual pursuit with one eye on the past and is written in the most formal and elaborate possible English. When they aren't bemoaning the obscenity or lowbrow qualities of Leaves of Grass, critics are essentially telling Walt, "you're playing a different game."