Other Books of Interest

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 1954; Eng. Tr„ Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Burroughs, John. Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person. New York: American News, 1867.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman, an American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Carpenter, Edward. Days with Walt Whitman. London: George Allen, 1906.

Folsom, Ed (ed ). Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Kennedy, William Sloane. Reminiscences of Walt Whitman. London: Gardner, 1896.

Loving, Jerome. Emerson. Whitman and the American Muse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Myerson, Joel (ed.). Whitman in His Own Time. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991.

Lecture 9: Whitman Among the Moderns

Before beginning this lecture you may want to . ..

Read portions of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," Ezra Pound's "Cantos" and William Carlos Williams' Paterson.

In this lecture, we'll look at three early respondents to Whitman's legacy: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. These Modernist poets were among Whitman's very first American "answerers," so their opinion is particularly important to the history of Whitman criticism. And all three had subtle, tension-fraught relationships with Whitman—all of them different. Eliot's was the most overtly critical, Pound's shifted dramatically over time from very negatively critical to much more positive, and Williams stated outright that "Whitman created the art of poetry in America."

Each of these major poet's work: Eliot's "The Waste Land," Pound's "Cantos" and Williams' Paterson are written on an epic scale and show major influences from Whitman's works.

Whitman was the most outrageous, outspoken proponent of a break with tradition in his time. In 1855 when he announced a new point of origin for American literature, he intrigued a lot of people, and yet there was much caution regarding Whitman's self-proclaimed "barbaric yawp." Whitman's earliest reviewers admired this "gross yet elevated, superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow fascinating book" (Charles Eliot Norton in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, September 1855).

We know that Whitman was not appreciated for much of his career, and this was true especially at the outset, which begs the question: When and where was Whitman first appreciated? In fact, the first initial attention Whitman received did not come from America, but from England. The volume of selected poems edited by William Rossetti in 1868 won for the American poet such eminent friends in England as Lord Tennyson and Robert Louis Stevenson. Among his earliest admirers was Algernon Charles Swinburne, who in 1871 wrote a poem entitled "To Walt Whitman in America."

The irony of this is that, overseas in America, readers were slow to react to Whitman. The first responses on American shores were either words of comfort and hope in the future

(think here of Edwin Arlington Robinson, who wrote in Walt Whitman, "He shall sing tomorrow for all men.") or parodies (in fact, a whole book of parodies was published).

Send but a song oversea for us, Heart of their hearts who are free, Heart of their singer, to be for us More than our singing can be; Ours, in the tempest at error, With no light but the twilight of terror; Send us a song oversea! —from A.C. Swinburne's "To Walt Whitman in America"

In the 1920s and 1930s, Whitman caught the attention of American High Modernists poets. Let's begin with the most influential of them all, T.S. Eliot.

T.S. Eliot

It's hard to find two more unlike poets that Eliot and Whitman. However, Eliot is important to the discussion here, since he really helped shape modern American poetry.

Eliot was an ardent defender of European cultural tradition as the guiding light of American literature. He was elitist in principle and an ex-patriot (he lived in London, though he had grown up in St. Louis and gone to Harvard). He started writing poetry in college, and eventually turned to writing literary essays. His criticism was published in the Egoist and Criterion (the magazine that he founded). Eliot had a persuasive, academic style; his friend Ezra Pound had more of a "battering ram" approach. Together, the two of them had a tremendous effect on how poetry of the day was not only written, but also how it was evaluated.

T.S. Eliot

His greatest poem was the "The Waste Land," which he began in 1921 and finished four years later in a sanatorium. Many consider this the definitive cultural statement of his time.

But in the academic world, his criticism was just as important as his poetry. Essays like "Tradition and Individual Talent" provided the groundwork for the New Critics and really brought new attention and importance to the art of poetry. He claimed in the essay that guidance was needed to fully understand the intricate art form of poetry.

Therefore, his ideas and opinions were important through the 20th century, which brings us to his opinions on Whitman. What were they? To Eliot, Whitman was an aesthetic failure. He was sentimental, naively nationalistic, and hopelessly chaotic. Perhaps the worst flaw of his poetry, to Eliot, was its formlessness. Eliot describes how he came to Whitman only in his 20s: "I did not read Whitman until much later (1908-9) in life and had to conquer an aversion to his form, as well as to much of his matter, in order to do so."

A little later in a London Athenaeum review of 1919, Eliot wrote that Whitman (along with Hawthorne and Poe) suffered from "the defect of American society ... their world was thin; it was not corrupt enough."

Eliot didn't think that Whitman was radical enough, and that, in fact, Whitman didn't want change. In his essay "Whitman and Tennyson" (The Nation and Athenaeum 1926), Eliot, however has some positive things to say, such as, "Whitman was a man with a message, even if that message was sometimes badly mutilated in transmission; he was interested in what he had to say."

But ultimately, for Eliot, Whitman is representative of an America "which no longer exists." And Eliot described Whitman as "conservative, rather than reactionary or revolutionary; that is to say [he] believed explicitly in progress, and believed implicitly that progress consists in things remaining much as they are."

It seems that Eliot had a very different opinion than most about Whitman's politics. Something stalled for him in Whitman's actual actions. He writes in an essay entitled "American Literature and the American Language" (1953):

To Walt Whitman, a great influence on modern literature has been attributed. I wonder if this has not been exaggerated. In this respect, he reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a lesser poet than Whitman, but also a remarkable innovator in style. Whitman and Hopkins, I think, both found an idiom and a metric perfectly suited for what they had to say; and very doubtfully adaptable to what anyone else has to say.

These are critical comments, and yet there is a suggestion that Eliot was not entirely negative on Whitman. Is it possible there was an influence anyway on Eliot's work?

Ezra Pound

Arguably, Whitman's "Song of Myself'—the first great American personal epic—makes poems like Eliot's "The Waste Land" conceivable. Would Eliot's epic have been possible without Whitman's own language experiment? Maybe, though the way Eliot exploits poetically his emotional experience, and the way he uses his feelings to represent his time and place, and his long lyrical sequences, all point back to Whitman.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

Ezra Pound was a highly influential experimentalist with language. He learned to love language from early on, taking Latin in high school, and he planned to be a poet through college and graduate school (he earned a Masters in poetry at University of Pennsylvania). After trying out teaching and getting fired for misconduct, Pound went to Europe in 1908. He was friendly with a literary circle, and even served as secretary to Yeats for a while.

Here, Pound first tried to establish a new kind of poetry he called "imagism," which was an attempt to present an object directly rather than generalizing about it. He also worked on translations, not only from Latin, but also freely from Chinese and Japanese.

The most important thing he concentrated on from 1920 until his death in 1972 was the writing of his "cantos" (he left 116 in all). They reflect the experiences of the years he composed them.

At heart. Pound believed that a great poem had to be long, and he hoped to write such a poem. Toward that end, he started working on his "cantos"— these were separate poems of varying lengths, combining imagination, memory, descriptions, and excerpts from other works. They were forged into a unity by the heart of the poet's imagination and would somehow, he hoped, form a coherent pattern. What was his model for this? It seems obvious that Pound was looking back to Leaves of Grass for inspiration with these ideas. Whitman, as we know, had a way of making many separate poems cohere in a new kind of long structure that depended completely on the poet's mind and personality.

This bow to Whitman and Leaves of Grass is even more odd, considering how critical Pound had always been of Whitman's poetry. In early works, he openly criticized Whitman's style—the long lines, the generalities, the out-of-control movement.

In an early prose work, "The Spirit of Romance" (1910), for example, Pound complained that Whitman was not master of his art or of the emotions within them. However, as early as 1913, Pound started acknowledging his debt to Whitman publishing a poem ("A Pact") in an influential new journal called Poetry.

By 1948, his affinity for Whitman was so great that "there is no more callow talk about Whitman's not being 'master of the forces which beat up on him."' He obviously both hated and loved his "spiritual father." In his late essay, "What I Feel About Walt Whitman," Pound wrote:

Whitman IS America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but he IS America ... he is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplishes his mission ... I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms. The expression of certain things related to cosmic consciousness seems tainted with this maramis.

Pound finally went on to say, "Mentally I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both)."

In the Pisan "Cantos" of 1948, specifically "Canto 80," there is much reference to Whitman. "Dear Walter" appears in the second stanza. Some of Whitman's favorite phrasings appear in this canto: "The warp and the woof with the sky wet as ocean, flowing with liquid slate."

Pound even alludes to Whitman's friends and mentions the likes of Whitman's tastes. Pound, in the end, concedes that Whitman is the "home of tradition."

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman— I have detested you long enough. I come to you as a grown child Who has had a pig-headed father; I am old enough now to make friends. It was you that broke the new wood, Now is a time for carving. We have one sap and one root— Let there be commerce between us. —from "A Pact" by Ezra Pound

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Williams was born in Rutherford, NJ, near Paterson (the city he'd commemorate with his Whitmanesque personal epic titled Paterson in 1883). He remained there most of his life, setting up his medical practice and working there until poor health forced him to retire.

William Carlos Williams

Williams only wrote at night, and John Keats heavily influenced his first poems.

Gradually, he cultivated a philosophy for his poetry (though he was always opposed to speaking abstractly about it, like Pound and Eliot). He aimed for a simplicity and matter-of-factness in his style. One of his agendas was that he wanted a vocabulary of up-to-date American speech and a poetic line drawn from the cadences of American life. He was very interested in bringing conversations and experience into informing both the sound and sense of his work. It is said that one of the things he aspired to was making poetry actually look easy. He liked to write about things rather than ideas. "No ideas but in things," he said.

Williams met Pound and the poet H.D. (originally Hilda Doolittle) in college and was influenced by their writing experiments, though he stayed on his track to medical school. He eventually went on to specialize in pediatrics—and it's said that he delivered over 2,000 babies over his lifetime.

Therefore, it's kind of easy to see why Williams, of the three poets discussed here, would most closely follow Whitman's lead. Like Whitman, he was a workingman who cared about his work and humanity. His earthly plainness would probably have been appealing to Whitman too. Williams may have discarded the long poetic line, but he kept the idea of basing a poetry around the rhythms of American language, which was a strong concern of Whitman's. The feeling of spontaneity and naturalness that comes from Williams' poetry is a common link with the poetry of Whitman.

And Williams himself acknowledged that Whitman was "a key man to whom I keep returning." He continued to describe Whitman in Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist (1939) as "tremendously important in the history of modern poetry ... he broke through the deadness of copied forms ... that was basic and good."

So it's also easy to agree with Robert Lowell, who said in 1966, "Williams is part of the great breath of our literature. Paterson is our Leaves of Grass."

Paterson (1963) is Williams' great epic, and one of the masterpieces of modern American literature. It is divided into five books (with fragments from an unfinished sixth).

It is about New Jersey, and Williams had special sympathy for Whitman, since Whitman had spent his final years in New Jersey.

In a comment on the poem in 1951, Williams wrote that Whitman, "always said that the poems, which had broken the dominance of the iambic pentameter in English prosody, had only begun his theme. I agree. It is up to us, in the new dialect, to continue it by a new construction upon the syllables."

As Williams is piecing together his poem, he realizes that he is answering Whitman's call. By way of introduction, let's consider the Author's Note to Paterson: "A man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody."

On a very basic level, Whitman connected strongly with his own city, much as Williams did. What Williams is trying to do in Paterson is like a study in miniature of what Whitman tried to do in Leaves of Grass.

Williams, in Paterson, is talking chronologically about a person's life and connecting it with what happens with place. Consider Whitman's poem, "There Was a Child Went Forth Every Day," which we discussed in an earlier lecture.

This idea of a person in flux, who is constantly "becoming" instead of just "being," was obviously a great influence on Williams.

There are physical reminders in Williams' poetry to that of Whitman's. There are long lists, much like in Whitman's work, as well as newspaper accounts, personal letters, and historical surveys. There are conversations everywhere in the text—sometimes among characters, sometimes between reader and writer. Also, there are efforts to connect with the reader as there is in Whitman's call to himself and his reader in "Song of Myself."

Eliot, Pound, and Williams were interested in matters of style. While they conversed with him over such matters, Whitman was also invoked and argued with by poets who were more socially active and engaged on the political left. During the 1930s, journals like New Masses and Comrades frequently reprinted Whitman's poems and published new poems about and to Whitman. Whitman's poetry came to be seen by leftist poets as socially powerful, a clarion call to socialist revolution.

In the next lecture, we'll see how one group of radical voices looks to Whitman for inspiration—perhaps the least likely group— the black voices of the Harlem Renaissance, specifically its leading figure, Langston Hughes.

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