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Whether they have loved or loathed his poetry, each writer or critic who has encountered "Leaves of Grass" has had to come to some sort of reckoning with Walt Whitman. The Good Gray Poet, the grandfather of American poetry, has been deified by some and labeled a cultural and artistic barbarian by others. While Whitman freely admitted in his preface to the final publication of "Leaves of Grass" that the work was faulty and far from perfect, some critics see no redeeming qualities in Whitman's art. Henry James goes so far as to say, "Whitman's verse...is an offense to art." (James, p.16) James chastises Whitman for extolling and exploiting what James feels are truisms. To James, Whitman's poetry is completely self-aggrandizing; it lacks substance and coherence. Through an examination of a specific poem, "The Wound Dresser", the claims of James and other negative critics can be refuted.
The broadest and most general critiques can be dismissed most readily. Henry James accuses Whitman of refusing to deal with challenging moral questions in his poetry. Whitman speaks of the evils of war, suffering, and senseless death in graphic detail in "The Wound Dresser", but to James these evils are obvious targets for lesser poets.
"A great deal of verse that is nothing but words has, during the war, been sympathetically sighed over and cut out of newspaper corners because it possessed a certain simple melody." (James, p.16)
James denies Whitman's poetry even a simple melody. Whitman is more an emotional opportunist than a poet. James even claims that Whitman's primary goal is the glorification of the Union army. The poem in question, however, hints at a different conclusion. "(was one side so brave? The other side was equally brave)" (Whitman, p.249). In dealing with supposed truisms Whitman's poem begins to ask the question: if the inherent evils of war, suffering, and senseless death are indeed so painfully obvious to you, Henry James, and your world, why are they supported with such fervor? Why in fact do they exist at all? Whitman happens to write from a sincere moral minority of which Henry James is a part. Thus to label Whitman altruistic is to label James as well.
John Jay Chapman levels the most absurd attack on Whitman:
"The man [Whitman] knew the world merely as an outside observer, he was never a living part of it, and no mere observer can understand the life about him.
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"The Wound Dresser" is a personal account and reminiscence of Whitman's days
as a medic during the Civil War.
"The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
...Hard breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard." (Whitman, p.250)
These are hardly the words of a passive spectator. Whitman was an active participant in life; life intoxicated him. His poetry reflects his immediate intense sensitivity to the world around him.
This sensitivity is the basis for Whitman's attempt to create a higher level of coherence and meaning in each poem. This Cosmic Sense, as Richard Maurice Bucke terms it, provides a grand unifying theory which pervades and binds all his poetry (Bucke, p.112). Whitman uses an almost structural method building with paradox and antithesis. The dialectics in "The Wound Dresser", youth and age, innocence and wisdom, noise and silence, image and truth, begin to hint at a universal sense gained by the old man in the poem. The poem is a series of gory and painful memories, yet the old man concludes by saying,
"I recall the experience both sweet and sad, (Many a soldier's arms about this neck have cross'd and rested, Many a soldier's kiss dwell on these bearded lips.)" (Whitman, p.251).
It is precisely this sort of statement, however, that leads Henry James and John Jay Chapman to attack Whitman for lacking any sort of unity or coherence. "We look in vain, however, through your book for a single idea." (James, p.17) Whitman's use of paradox and antithesis does differ from structuralism because these elements do not build upward and point to a single idea. These elements extend horizontally in all directions implying both infinity and universality. This is the source of James' frustration.
"No arrangement of Whitman's thoughts can resolve the paradoxes or discover them in a fully coherent pattern. He was incapable of sustained logic, but that should not blind the reader into impatient rejection of the ebb and flow of hisantithesis." (Matthiessen, p.31)
James and Chapman complain of Whitman's lack of coherence when in reality they themselves are standing against the tide of a universal unity.
James couples his logical attack with one more specific and fundamental. "Art requires, above all things, a supression of one's self, a subordination of one's self to an idea." (James, p.17) Whitman's poetry will never be art because he places his own consciousness above ideas or concepts. His poetry is the supreme statement of one's self; it is the essence of Whitman's ego.
To Whitman, however, ideas are in no way subservient. The ideas and images of any poem affect and shape the consciousness of the poet. Therefore, in order for Whitman to attain his ideal of Cosmic Consciousness, the ideas that propel him into such a state must be at the very least equal if not superior to the ego of any one poet. In "The Wound Dresser" a simple but very potent idea is the driving force behind the poem: the sanctity of life and the struggle to preserve it. This idea causes the old man to choose his occupation as a medic and even to enjoy it in some form. Without this idea to motivate and mould Whitman's conscience, he would never have written,
"I never knew you.
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you" (Whitman, p.250).
As the poem so aptly states, Whitman's poetry exists "in dreams' projections", the very realm of ideas and abstractions. Thus concepts and consciousness become equitable partners in the creation of something larger than the sum of both parts: art. Whitman's art is an amalgamation of coarse reality, paradox, and free floating ideas. Faulty as it is, Henry James is sadly mistaken when he claims that Walt Whitman's poetry is an insult to the very concept of art. At its finest, his poetry is a splendid assimilation of humanity through the eyes of a tender and wise man.
Bucke, Richard Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness. E.P. Dutton Inc., New York: 1923, p.225-37. Rpt. in A Century of Whitman Criticism. ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1969, p.112.
Chapman, John Jay. "Walt Whitman (1898)", The Selected Writings of John Chapman, ed. Jacques Barzun. New York: 1957, p.145-49. Rpt. in A Century of Whitman Criticism. ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Indiana University Press Bloomington: 1969, p.105.
James, Henry. "Mr. Walt Whitman (1865)", Views and Reviews. New York: 1908, p.10110. Rpt. in A Century of Whitman Criticism. ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1969, p.16, 17.
Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. Oxford University Press, New York: 1941, p.51732. Rpt. in A Century of Whitman Criticism. ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1969, p.180.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Bantam Books, New York: 1983, p.248, 251.