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Transcendental Legacy

Walt Whitman

Paths through "Preface" to Leaves of Grass, 1855

Follow the colored passages for Whitman's answers to these questions. (the same ones posed by Emerson)

Who is the poet?
What is his subject matter? 
What is the ideal form of poetry? 
What is the poem's effect on the reader? 

From "Preface" to the Leaves of Grass (1855)

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical natureThe United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ample largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses....

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies....but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors...butalways most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships--the freshness and candor of their physiogomy--the picturesque looseness of their carriage...their deathless attachment to freedom --their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean--the practical acknowledgement of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states--the fierceness of their aroused resentment--their curiosity and welcome of novelty--their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy--their susceptibility to a slight--the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors--the fluency of their speech--their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul...their good temper and open-handedness--the terrible significance of their elections--the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him--these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it. ...

The American poets are to enclose old and new for American as the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions...he gives them reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his country's spirit....he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.  Mississippi with annual freshets and changing chutes, Missouri and Columbia and Ohio and Saint Lawrence with the falls and beautiful masculine Hudson, do not embouchure where they spend themselves more than they embouchure into him. The blue breadth over the inland sea of Virginia and Maryland and the sea off Massachusetts and Maine and over Manhattan bay and over Champlain and Erie and over Ontario and Huron and Michigan and Superior, and over the Texan and Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas and over the seas off California and Oregon, is not tallied by the blue breadth of the waters below more than the breadth of above and below is tallied by him. When the long Atlantic coast stretches longer and the Pacific coast stretches longer he easily stretches with them north or south....For such the expression of the American poet is to be transcendant and new. It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to much more. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted and their eras and characters be illustrated and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista. Here comes one among the wellbeloved stonecutters and plans with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms.

Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shallOf all mankind the great poet is the equable man. Not in him but off from him things are grotesque or eccentric or fail of their sanity. Nothing out of its place is good or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land .... he supplies what wants supplying and checks what wants checking.If peace is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce--lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality--federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, freetrade, intertravel by land and sea .... nothing too close, nothing too far off ... the stars not too far off. In war he is the most deadly force of the war.His brain is the ultimate brain. He is no arguer ... he is judgment.He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing. As he sees the farthest he has the most faith. His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of thingsIn the talk on the soul and eternity and God off of his equal plane he is silent. He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement....he sees eternity in men and women ...he does not see men and women as dreams of dots. Faith is the antiseptic of the pervades the common people and preserves them...they never give up believing and expecting and trusting. There is that indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the power of the noblest expressive genius. The poet sees for a certainty how one not a great artist may be just as sacred and perfect as the greatest artist....The power to destroy or remould is freely used by him but never the power of attack. What is past is past. If he does not expose superior models and prove himself by every step he takes he is not what is wanted. The presence of the greatest poet conquers...not parleying or struggling or any prepared attempts.Now he has passed that way see after him! there is not left any vestige of despair or misanthropy or cunning or exclusiveness or the ignominy of a nativity or color or delusion of hell or the necessity of hell...and no man thenceforward shall be degraded for ignorance or weakness of sin.

The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer....he is individual...he is complete in himself....the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not....

The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes...but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects....they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls. Men and women perceive the beauty well enough..probably as well as he....The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul. The profit of rhyme is that it drops seeds of a sweeter and more luxuriant rhyme, and of uniformity that it conveys itself into its own roots in the ground out of sight. The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent but dependent. All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain...

The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortunate or misfortunate and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What balks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.... The best singer is not the one who has the most lithe and powerful organ...the pleasure of poems is not in them that take the handsomest measure and similes and sound.

Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is donethe greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and personssome more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read....

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. Nothing is better than simplicity....nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness. To carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subject their articulations are powers neither common nor very uncommon.But to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insousiance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art....The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is....What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.....

The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy....

The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and for encouraging competitors..They shall be kosmos..without monopoly or secresy..glad to pass any thing to any one..hungry for equals night and day. They shall not be careful of riches and privilege....they shall be riches and privilege....they shall perceive who the most affluent man is. The most affluent man is he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth of himself....

A great poem is for ages and ages in common and for all degrees and complexions and all departments and sects and for a woman as much as a man and a man as much as a woman. A great poem is no finish to a man or woman but rather a beginning..Has any one fancied he could sit at last under some due authority and rest satisfied with explanations and realize and be content and full? To no such terminus does the greatest poet bring...he brings neither cessation or sheltered fatness and ease. The touch of him tells in action.Whom he takes he takes with fire sure grasp into live regions previously unattained.....

....The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it. 1855

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