Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rough, grim, clumsy - Drum-Taps and Walt Whitman versus Henry James

I would sing in my copious song your census returns of
             The States,
The tables of population and products – I would sing of
             Your ships and their cargoes,  (“Year of Meteors”)

But luckily Walt Whitman only threatens to sing songs of the census.  The short Drum-Taps (1865) and shorter Sequel to Drum-Taps contain Whitman’s Civil War poems, the usual mix of bombast and sublimity, nonsense and profundity, “the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

That is a young Henry James reviewing Drum-Taps for The Nation (pp. 629-34 the first volume of the Library of America Essays).  James’s review is most interesting as an example of a horrible mismatch of sensibility:

But we have seen that Mr. Whitman prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry.  It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.  (632)

Rough, grim, democratic – what could be less like James?

I have an advantage over James in that I know – I have read it many times – that Whitman is a great poet, one of the greatest, so I can be careful to adapt myself to received opinion.  Perhaps another advantage is that I am better trained at reading Whitman, so I can tell the difference between the more minor stuff and the book’s one real masterpiece, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d,” a poem that mysteriously incorporates elements of the rest of Drum-Taps and many of the best poems of Leaves of Grass as well.

    Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.


    The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling closer to thee.  (from stanza 16)

“Lilacs” is somehow a quiet poem in a book of loud poems, whatever that might mean.  They are all written at the same volume.  Leslie Fiedler notices the poem’s “disturbing vagueness,… a sense that its occasion is only nominal, that it mourns someone or something only accidentally represented by Lincoln”* which I take as the source of its power.  Whitman is a perplexing case, a poet who is easily led by specifics into kitsch, but is good with the mysteries of the soul and the sea.

I had to track down a facsimile edition, but it was worth reading Drum-Taps as a unit, as a book.  The dubious poems took on some life, and the good poems seemed better.  I want to work through an example tomorrow.  Whitman reworked all of the material in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, but it is worth reading fresh, as if the war has not yet ended, as if Lincoln is still alive.

*  “Walt Whitman: Portrait of the Artist,” No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature, 1960, p. 68.


  1. Oh goodness! Henry James reviewing Whitman certainly is a mismatch. And thank goodness Whitman only threatened to write about the census, though I suppose if anyone could make a poem about the census interesting it would be him. I understand what you mean by "Lilacs" being quiet even though it is still at the same loud volume as the other poems. Behind the loud volume there is quite a lot of subtlety and even a sort of gentleness.

  2. James' essays have piqued my curiosity recently, but I'd assumed they were more general topical literary criticism (like I imagine his book on the French novelists might look like) rather than actual review-based literary criticism for some reason. Interesting! Your line about Whitman being "a perplexing case" is fascinating: how often our heroes are embarrassing in one light and godlike in another!

  3. For twenty or thirty years or so James was a professional book reviewer. The two Library of America volumes of his essays get close to 3,000 pages, most of it just book reviews. Sometimes of famous books (Middlemarch, Far from the Madding Crowd - "Mr. Hardy has gone astray very cleverly, and his superficial novel is a really curious imitation of something better"), mostly of the detritus of the day.

    But you are right that his more general essays like "The Art of Criticism" are now more influential, along with the prefaces to his own books. The French book is actually mostly a collection of revised versions of his book reviews!

    Isn't it odd, Stefanie? "Loud" and "quiet" are just metaphors, yet they really do describe the difference between poems. "Mannahataa a-march! - and it's O to sing it well! It's O for a manly life in camp!" (from "Drum-Taps") - that's a loud poem.

  4. "Rough, grim, democratic – what could be less like James?"

    And yet: I'm currently reading The Golden Bowl, and "rough, grim, democratic" could be a phrase plucked right out of it, since James, in this his last novel, seems to be setting up and exploring the tension between "old Europe" and the rough, grim, democratic new United States (okay, so maybe not "grim," since most of his characters are awash in light and privilege). It is surprising to find James writing about Whitman, but his quite complimentary assessment makes me wonder if something of Whitman got under his skin, and this "horrible mismatch of sensibility" softened to more of a rapproachement in James' later years.

  5. I have not read The Golden Bowl, nor any late James, but I have a hard time imagining it as too concerned with "the voice of the people."

    It could be that I have understated James's position - that early review is closer to brutal. E.g., "We fins nothing but flashy imitations of ideas." James is skeptical of the very idea of trying to set oneself up as a "national poet."

    In a later note, from 1898, a review of a book of Whitman's letters, James seems more positive about the figure of Whitman, at least, but this cannot be meant well, not by James: "There is not even by accident a line with a hint of style - it is all flat, familiar, affectionate, illiterate colloquy" although it is also "vivdly American" (662).

    1. Ouf. Brutal indeed.

      I didn't mean to imply that James got anywhere close to adopting Whitman's sensibility (he's more like "the voice of a few people in a well-decorated drawing room"). But there's a palpable and almost bemused fascination - in The Golden Bowl at least - with all that's unruly and rough and "vividly American." And he seems, in looking back at America from the novel's London setting, and from the collision of the old world and new represented by the novel's Italian-American marriage, to convey, through sentences no one would dare call flat or familiar, an irrepressible awe about America - something more generous, bigger, better, with more goodness, than in his earlier work.

    2. That is good, that is likely, that with distance James's interest and fascination with the "vividly American" grew.

      The James of that review is only 21 or 22!