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Walt Whitman: Poet of the Human Whole
William Thur&on Brown
Principal "The Modem School"
PRICE 15 CENTS
Published by 'THE MODERN SCHOOL"
Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Poet, Artist, and Man, this appreciation of a kindred spirit is affectionately inscribed by the Author.
WALT WHITMAN: POET AND MAN.
William Thurston Brown.
Until comparatively recent times, it has been assumed by historians and other writers that the great events and the great changes which history records have been and are the product of a few great personalities or great geniuses; that, as some one has said, institutions are the prolonged shadows of great men. This is what is called "the great man theory." So advanced a writer as Carlyle held that theory, perhaps Emerson also. Today. I think, no thoughtful students of history or sociology or anthropology would entertain that theory for a moment. The fuller knowledge which modern research has produced makes no room at all for any such idea. Great movements, great changes in society, great events in history, are not at all the product of geniuses, but, on the contrary, geniuses or great men are themselves the product of inevitable changes in the economic and sociat organism. The very foundation of sociology as a science is the fact that society is an organism, and the chief thing that makes society an organism is its fundamentally economic nature, the primary necessity of food, and the methods by which that necessity is met. The social organism grows, changes, outgrows, becomes conscious of new and larger necessities, and the so-called "great man" or "genius" is simply the man who becomes aware of this new necessity, with whose creation he had absolutely nothing whatever to do.
That history has personalities worthy to be called "great," no one doubts or questions—the less so now that we understand clearly what these phenomena really mean. And now that we know what they do mean, the thing which must interest us most deeply is the social or economic changes, the social growth, the expansion of the social organism, by which alone such men are possible. We begin to understand that society itself in its evolution is the most fruitful field of study, and to that field we are now applying ourselves with results in intelligence and in well-defined movements such as all preceding history has never once seen. If it is worth while at all to study the writings or personalities of so-called great men, it is simply because such a study throws light upon the nature of the social organism and the social changes which have been or are in progress. And this is the chief reason why a study of Walt Whitman as a poet and a personality of history has value and importance.
In order that those of us who may have little or no knowledge of Whitman's personality and literary product may begin this study with some presumption as to the man'8 real place in the unfolding of human life, I want to repeat the words of two well-known men respecting the value and influence of Whitman's writings. The first is a letter written to Whitman by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1885. Let it be borne in mind that the first issue of Whitman's verse occurred in the year 1855, and that a fairly complete edition of "Leaves of Grass," as he named his collected verses, was issued in 1872. In other words, for nearly a generation some of the most vital of Whitman's literary products had been in printed form when this letter was written by Emerson. The letter is dated: "Concord, Mass., July 21, 1885/' and is as follows:
"Dear Sir:—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of 'Leaves of Grass.' I find it the most extraordinary pieca of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it. as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seems the sterile and stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. T have great joy in it. I find incomparable things, said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
"I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must, have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid-sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits—namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
"I did not know, until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. •
"I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respeets.
R. W. EMERSON."
Who was Emerson, and what is the significance of this letter? Perhaps it is not too much to say that up to date Emerson has had a greater influence upon the thinking of America than any other man. It does not follow, of course, that the opinions of Emerson or his estimates of value are to be accepted without question. But it does at least create a strong presumption in favor of the idea that there is value where he seemed to find value.
This letter is the frank recognition by Emerson of something higher and greater than himself. He had already given the world his best, but he calls " Leaves of Grass" the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed to the literature of the world. He recognizes that it is literature, in all the noble meaning of that word. That is to say, it is a valid and convincing interpretation of life, a fuller and riper and completer interpretation than any preceding American writer, at least, has made. He says he finds in it "incomparable things said incomparably well." And that is exactly what scores, perhaps hundreds, of the most earnest, serious, thoughtful men in all the world have found in Whitman. So wonderful does it seem to Emerson that such a piece of writing should have been produced by any one, especially an American, that he rubbed his eyes to see if he were not dreaming. And I don't wonder at it. America has lagged behind almost every nation in Christendom in its contributions to anything worthy to be called literature.
There cannot be any doubt as to the impression which Whitman made on Emerson. And Emerson never retracted what he said in that letter. It may be that he later on suffered some change of opinion regarding some of the things which Whitman wrote: he probably did, probably felt repelled by them, as many others have felt repelled. I can hardly conceive it possible for Emerson to have accepted Whitman's verses entitled "Children of Adam" with approval. But it surely is a significant thing that a man of the intellectual and moral caliber of Emerson should have written as he did to Whitman; for Emerson was, more than anylhing else, a seeker after the highest things in human possibilities.
I want to deepen in your minds, if I can, the presumption that "Whitman had and has still a profound moral
significance for us by citing one more illustration. It is a
confession of one of the greatest and most democratic of modern English critics, John Addington Symonds. The following are the closing paragraphs of Mr. Syinond's book entitled, "A Study of Walt Whitman":
"After all, the great thing is, if possible, to induce people to study Whitman for themselves. I am convinced that, especially for young men, his spirit, if intelligently understood and sympathized with, must be productive of incalculable good. This I venture to emphasize by relating what he did for me. I had received the ordinary English gentleman's education at Harrow and Oxford. Being physically below the average in health and strength, ray development proceeded more upon the intellectual than the athletic side. In a word, I was decidedly academical, and in danger of becoming a prig. What was more, my constitution in the year 1865 seemed to have broken down, and no career in life lay open to In the autumn of that year, my friend Frederic Myers read me aloud a poem from 'Leaves of Grass.* We were together in his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge; and I can well remember the effect of his sonorous voice rolling out sentence after sentence, sending electric thrills through the very marrow of my mind. I immediately procured the Boston edition of 1860-61, and began to study it attentively. It cannot be denied that much in Whitman puzzled and repelled me. But it was the aesthetic, not the moral, sensibility that suffered; for I felt at once that his method of treating sexual things (the common stumbling block to beginners) was the right one, and wished that I had come across 'Children of Adam' several years earlier. My academical prejudices, the literary instincts trained by two decades of Greek and Latin studies, the refinements of culture, and the exclu-siveness of aristocratic breeding, revolted against the un-couthness, roughness, irregularity, coarseness, of the poet and his style. But, in the course of a short time, Whitman delivered my soul of these debilities.
"As I have said elsewhere in print, he taught me to comprehend the harmony between the democratic spirit, science, and that larger religion to which the modern world is being led by the conception of human brotherhood, and by the spirituality inherent in any really scientific view of the universe. He gave body, concrete vitality, to the religious creed which I had already been forming for myself upon the study of Goethe, Greek and Roman Stoics, Giordano Bruno, and the founders of the evolutionary doctrine. He inspired me with faith, and made me feel that optimism was not unreasonable. This gave me great cheer in those evil years of enforced idleness and intellectual torpor which my ill-health imposed upon me. Moreover, he helped to free me from many conceits and pettinesses to which academical culture is liable. He opened my eyes to the beauty, goodness and greatness which may be found in all worthy human beings, the humblest and the highest. He made me respect personality more than attainments or position in the world. Through him, I stripped my soul of social prejudices. Through him, I have been able to fraternise in comradeship with men of all classes and several races, irrespective of their caste, creed, occupation, and special training. To him I owe some of the best friends I now claim—sons of the soil, hard workers, natural and nonchalant, 'powerful uneducated persons.'
"Only those who have been condemned by imperfect health to take a back seat in life so far as physical enjoyments are concerned, and who have also chosen the career of literature, can understand what is meant by the deliverance from foibles besetting invalids and pedants for which I have to thank Walt Whitman.
"What he has done for me, I feel he will do for others—for each and all of those who take counsel of him. and seek from him a solution of difficulties differing in kind according to the temper of the individual—if only they approach him in the right spirit of confidence and open-mindedness.''
Do not you agree with me that in this confession of Mr. Symonds—so simple, sincere and genuine—we have a real and convincing testimony to the virtue of Walt Whitman? Is it not a remarkable thing that is here recorded : that the simple, straightforward words of a man who all his life lived as a working man. of one who never received a college degree, never was inside of a college as a student, never received anything of the training of the schools such as is commonly considered indispensable for a literary career—that the words of such a man should bear to this child of ancient British aristocracy the message and uplift of a moral emancipation, completely transforming his life, making the world new to him, investing existence for him with such purpose as otherwise he could never have known? Of course, it does not follow that what Whitman did for Symonds he can also do for any one else. It does not follow that his writings can have for men of all classes the effect they had for a man like Symonds. But I am convinced that for many men of every class in society a knowledge of the vgrses of Whitman and a sympathetic understanding of his personality has all the exhilaration and stimulus, in a moral way, that a cold bath has in a physical way. And from personal experience I do not hesitate to say that I know of no other writer, ancient or modern, of whose verse it is more fitting to say: "Come on in—the water's fine."
In the case of Whitman, the facts of his personal biography are altogether the least important things to know. A knowledge of them adds absolutely nothing to
anything he has written. Nothing about his birth or ancestry accounts for him or his writings in any sense whatever. Well does he say of his verses: "These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands—
they are not original with me; If they are not yours as much as mine, (hey are nothing.
or next to nothing; This is the grass that grows wherever the land is, and the water is;
This is the common air that bathes the globe."
And of no book I have ever read does it seem to me so true to say, as Whitman says of his literary product: "This is no book;
Who touches this, touches a man." The most interesting thing to know about him is the fact that his life was lived almost wholly out of doors, in the country in closest contact with nature in her many moods, in the city in closest touch with the great body of workers upon whom the social structure is reared, on the battle-fields of the Civil War and in its hospitals as a nurse, the most efficient, I suppose, that whole period knew. All his life he made himself familiar with natural scenery, tramping over a considerable part of the United States and Canada, and everywhere making himself at home. No other man of his time knew people as familiarly as he did—no other poet in the world's history has approached him in the intimate interpretation of the great varied multitude of ordinary men and women. His life from the age of 28 to 35, when he wrote his "Leaves
of Grass," was spent as a sort of hobo, earning his living always, but moving from place to place and becoming acquainted with all sorts of men and women as comrade and fellow. That, in a large measure, was his preparation for at least the descriptive work which he did. And during those years and all the time he was writing his poems he had perfect bodily health. He was a man about six feet tall and well proportioned. And though his clothing was always plain and often worn, it was always scrupulously clean. Cleanness of body and mind were a vital part of his religion.
Inasmuch as Whitman has given a description of his motive in writing his poems, I cannot do better than quote his own words. "When I commenced, years ago," he says in the preface to the edition of 1872, "elaborating the plan of my poems, and continued turning over that plan, and shifting it in my mind through many years (from the age of 28 to 35), experimenting much, writing and abandoning much, one deep purpose underlay all others, and has underlain them and their execution ever since—and that has been the religious purpose.'7 It
should not be supposed, however, that Whitman means by this term "religious" what is commonly meant by it. Quite otherwise. He explains what he means by it. "Not of course to exhibit itself in the old ways," he says, "as in the writing of hymns or psalms with an eye to the church pew or to express conventional pietism or the sickly yearnings of devotees, but in new ways, and aiming at the widest sub-bases and inclusions of humanity, and tally-
ing the fresh air of sea and land. I will see (said I to myself) whether there is not for my purposes as poet a religion, and a sound religious germinaney, in the average human race, and in the common fiber and native yearnings and elements, deeper and larger, and affording more profitable returns than all mere sects and churches—as boundless and joyous and vital as Nature itself—a germinaney that has too long been unencouraged, unsung, almost unknown. With science the old theology of the East, long in its dotage, begins evidently to die and disappear. But (to my mind) science—and maybe such will prove its principal service—as evidently prepares the way for one indescribably grander—Time's young but perfect offspring—the New Theology—heir of the West—lusty and loving, and wondrous beautiful. The time has certainly come to begin to discharge the idea of religion from mere ecclesiasticism, and from Sundays and churches and church-going, and assign it to that general position, chiefest, most indispensable, most exhilarating, to which the others are to be adjusted, inside of all human character and education and affairs. The people, especially the young men and women of America, must begin to learn that religion (like poetry) is something far different from what they supposed. It is, indeed, too important to the power and perpetuity of the New World to be consigned any longer to churches old or new, Catholic'or Protestant, Saint this or Saint that. It must be consigned henceforth to Democracy en masse, and to literature. It must enter into the poems of the nation. It must make the nation.''
Whatever we may think of Whitman's use of some of these old terms or phrases, when we consider the fact that he wrote his verses as far back as 1855 and this introduction before 1872, we cannot help seeing what a tremendous advance his thought meant over that of any of his American contemporaries. It was nothing less than a revolutionary idea that possessed him, as revolutionary now as it was then, regardless of his choice of words. For what he proposed to do was to include everything within the sphere of that which is to be held supremely sacred. That is exactly what he did. lie refused to recognize any dualism at all, although the church of that time was universally dualistic in its conceptions. Whitman's purpose was the very purpose which makes a man either a true poet or a true philosopher. It was a purpose absolutely akin to that which has animated every great philosopher: that of unifying all knowledge and all life. In this respect. Whitman stands alone, so far as I know, among the poets of all the ages.
But perhaps the question will occur to some one's mind, Was Whitman a poet at all? Is this loosely strung mass of writing poetry? Many have answered: No. He is not a poet. This writing, violating all the rules of rhythm, all the standards of accustomed style, is not poetry. And one immediately calls to mind the works of those poets of the past, ancient and modern, whom the world calls great; such names as Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Spenser, Tennyson, Browning, Goethe, and the rest. When you compare the work of Whitman with the work of these men, you are bound to see a most radical difference. If we are limited for our definition of poet by the standards of style which these accepted poets of the past used, then Whitman is not a poet and what he has written is not poetry. True, rhymes are not poetry, rhyme has 110 essential relation to poetry. The masterpieces of poetry are not written in rhyme—they are composed in some sort of blank verse. They have meter, rhythm, but they do not have rhyme. This is true of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton. Shakespeare and Browning especially. But Whitman does «not. write in blank verse, even, lie has discarded every method which any former poet, observed. And yet, there are lines in some of Whitman's writings which have a rhythm and a power which are not surpassed in those of any other who has ever written.
Where among all the writings of American poets can you match in epic expression these lines addressed to the future of this New World: ''Sail—sail thy best, ship of Democracy! Of value in thy freight—'tis not the Present only, The Past is also stored in thee!
Thou holdest. not the venture of thyself alone—not of thy
western continent alone; Earth's resume entire floats on thy keel, 0 ship—is
steadied by thy spars; With thee Time voyages in trust—the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee;
With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes, epics,
wars, thou bear'st the other continents; Theirs, theirs as much as thine, the destination port triumphant :
—Steer, steer with good strong hand and wary eye, 0
helmsman—thou carriest great companions, Venerable, priestly Asia sails this day with thee, And royal, feudal Europe sails with thee.
Beautiful world of new, superber Birth, that rises to my eyes,
Like a limitless golden cloud, filling the western sky— The Present holds thee not—for such vast growth as thine
—for such unparalleled flights as thine, The Future only holds thee, and can hold thee."
No other American, whether poet or statesman, has ever had anything approaching the conceptions expressed by Whitman—the conceptions of Democracy's destiny.
I could not name another writer who has so combined melody of words with wonder of thought as Whitman in "The Mystic Trumpeter": "Blow, trumpeter, free and clear—I follow thee, While at thy liquid prelude, glad, serene, The fretting world, the streets, the noisy hours of day, withdraw;
A holy calm descends, like dew, upon me, I walk, in cool refreshing night, the walks of Paradise, I scent the grass, the moist air, and the roses;
Thy song expends my numb'd, unbonded spirit—thou freest, launchest me,
Floating and basking upon Heaven's lake.
"Blow again, trumpeter! and for thy theme,
Take now the enclosing theme of all—the sustenance and the pang;
The heart of man and woman all for love;
No other theme but love—knitting, enclosing, all-diffusing love.
0, how the immortal phantoms crowd around me!
I see the vast alembic ever working—I see and know the flames that heat the world;
The glow, the blush, the beating hearts of lovers,
So blissful happy some—and some so silent, dark and nigh to death;
Love, that is all the earth to lovers—Love, that mocks time and space,
Love, that is day and night—Love, that is sun, moon and stars;
Love, that is crimson, sumptuous, sick with perfume;
No other words, but words of love—no other thought but Love.
"0 trumpeter! methinks I am myself the instrument thou playest!
Thou melt'st my heart, my brain—-thou movest, drawest, changest them at will,
And now thy sullen notes send darkness through me;
Thou takest away all cheering light—all hope :
I see the enslaved, the overthrown, the hurt, the oppressed of the whole earth,
I feel the measureless shame and humiliation of my race— it becomes all mine;
"Now, trumpeter, for thy close,
Vouchsafe a higher strain than any yet;
Sing to my soul—renew its languishing faith and hope;
Rouse up my slow belief—give me some vision of the future;
Give me, for once, its prophecy and joy.
glad, exulting, culminating song!
A vigor more than earth's is in thy notes!
Marches of victory—man disenthralled—the conqueror at last!
A reborn race appears—a perfect world, all joy!
Women and men, in wisdom, innocence and health—all joy!
War, sorrow, suffering gone—the rank earth purged— nothing left but joy.
Joy! Joy! in freedom, worship, love! Joy in the ecstasy of life!
Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe!
Joy! Joy! all over Joy!"
The qualities which give immortality to any poems
are not in the form, but in the essence. And if we try
to find an explanation of Whitman's departure from all accepted standards in his style of writing, we shall find it when we discover the purpose which inspired him. Every poet must choose the medium which best serves his purpose. Only on that ground is there any explanation of variety in. poetical forms. Epic poetry differs from lyric, dramatic from didactic, and so on. It is the purpose of the poet which dictates the form in which he will write. Think, then, of the difference—as wide as the world—which lies between the motive or purpose out of which the poems of other men have come and the motive or purpose which created the verse of Whitman. What, for example, were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare and others trying to express? In almost every case these men were attempting to voice either the accepted religious or theological ideas of their time, or, as in the case of Shakespeare, to portray the passions and ambitions, as well as the superstitions, of that portion of society that lived on the backs of the toiling multitude. Not one of those poets who have been called great—except possibly Browning—has ever attempted to sing the songs of the human whole, just as no movement up till our own time— religious or political—has dreamed of in<^uding all. What is Paradise Lost? It is an epic based on the theology of the 16th century, a theology which has been undermined and rendered baseless by the science of today. The same is true of Dante's great poem. What are the poems of Homer and Virgil ? They are epics of an age of war. They embody the myths of their time, and they have
not a word or a syllable in honor of the man who does the fundamental work of the world—for that man was a slave. What are Shakespeare's dramas? Wonderful in their portrayal of human passion of every sort, among those who count in the world's life, they undoubtedly are. But you might read every word he ever wrote without finding one to commemmorate the hopes or desires or destiny of the innumerable class of workers on whose backs the society of that day and the society of this and all days, thus far, is builded. So far as I know, Whitman is the only poet who has sung the songs of the whole of humanity, the first poet who could say: "I do not ask who you are—that is not so important for me:
You can do nothing, and be nothing, but what I will infold you." "Through me many long dumb voices; Voices of the interminable generations of slaves; Voices of prostitutes and deformed persons; Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs;
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of wombs
and of the father-stuff. And of the rights of them the others are down upon.'9 "I speak the pass-word primeval—I give the sign of democracy;
I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms."
Whitman brings the thinking world face to face with the question, May there not be now at our very doors the dawn of a new and incomparably nobler era, an era fraught with vaster consequences than that which gives us our present calendar? Indeed, the whole message of Whitman is exactly the announcement and the moral challenge of such an era now impending, now throwing its first red light up the eastern sky. It should not seem strange that such a phenomenon as Whitman—a man who cannot be classified according to any previous standard—should appear, for it is only history repeating itself. There never yet has been any big change in our human world which poets have not foreseen long before any other class of men did. That is what makes a man a poet. A poet is not a versifier, a lackey—like Alfred Austin, whom Queen Victoria made laureate on the death of Tennyson, in spite of the fact that in William Morris all the deepest feeling and clearest vision of England were finding expression. The poet is a seer. He is the man who sees—sees what is coming through the mist of years, senses the tidal pulse of a new epoch and becomes its herald and singer. That Whitman amply fits this definition is seen in the fact that, though Darwin did not publish his epoch-making discovery in the field of evolutionary science, effecting a complete revolution in all our knowledge, until 1859, Whitman over and over portrays the evolutionary process in his "Leaves of Grass' in 1855.
These older poetical forms with which we are familiar were suited to their time and purpose, just as the various
architectural forms have been. But they are not suited at all to a radically different era, on whose threshold we now unconsciously are standing. We can easily understand that forms of law and government which were perfectly appropriate to an era which accepted as final the divine right of kings must be obsolete in an age which has abolished kings. We can understand that those religious ideas which grew up in an age of almost universal ignorance and superstition must lose their value in an age of widespread enlightenment. If now there should come in human society another and vaster revolution—a revolution which will leave no man the master of another, no man in possession of power over another's destiny, every man and woman a partner in cooperative service, is it not evident that such a new order of society would render many things obsolete and useless which we have grown accustomed to regard as fixed and settled? That a new age should demand and create a new literary form for the expression of its essential meaning is simply inevitable. And that is the significance of Whitman as a poet. He is not the poet of the old, he is the poet of the new. If his verse sounds to many of us strange, uncouth foolish, forbidding, repellent, may it not be because our minds have become warped out of their natural shape by moral or immoral adjustment to an outgrown and decadent civilization?
I suppose the most repellent thing in all the writings of Whitman, that which more than all else staggers men and women, is his treatment of things .belonging to sex.
In the face of Whitman's free and frank glorification of the sexual organs and even the sexual act, many people draw back and refuse to go any further. But the people who shrink from such frank acceptance of sex, even from glorification of sex functions, are not only mistaken, but are positively immoral and unclean, and of all people on this earth are most in need of the moral bath which the writings of Whitman afford.
Think for a moment what is the status of sex and things sexual in our present civilization, in our alleged moral and religious training. Let us see if our present attitude towards sexuality is so perfect and satisfactory, that any change would be a misfortune. And let us see, too, in what direction change must surely take place in this matter. There is nothing about which the mass of humanity are taught less, either at home or at school, than about sex. There is nothing in the whole constitution of man and woman concerning which there is such widespread and dense ignorance as about altogether the most important function human beings possess, the one function which surpasses all others together in importance. We could scarcely be more successful in keeping our children totally ignorant of the meaning or function of sex, if we had deliberately planned to promote such ignorance. Am I not right when I say that our almost universal treatment of sex and sex relations is such as to create the feeling in most minds that there is something essentially low and shameful indissolubly connected with that part of our physical being? The lowest word we can apply to a woman is the word "prostitute." Though why we
should limit that word to one class of women, and not apply it to large quantities' of respectable women and multitudes of respectable men, is quite beyond any rational explanation. Such a situation could obtain only in a civilization that is rotten to the core, a civilization that smells to heaven, a civilization that no alleged revivals of religion, though converts were numbered by the millions instead of the hundreds, can ever make decent or clean. We have a double standard of morals, so that a woman, who from whatever stress of hardship or extremity of want violates a certain convention, is branded forever and becomes an outcast from society, while a man who is guilty of the same thing habitually, and the fact known far and wide, retains his place in society undisturbed. And yet, where there is one woman who is prostituting her sex, there are scores and hundreds of men who are constantly and cheerfully and fervently prostituting their minds, their brains, their whole life in ways far more disastrous.
And we shall have to lay the blame for no small part of this terrible sex immorality, which curses the world, at the door of the Christian Church. This Christian Church has been very fond of quoting the words of its alleged founder: "Ye have the poor always with you." And certainly the membership of the church have done their best to see to it that we shall have quantities of poor forever with us. But they have just as cheerfully and determinedly declared that we must also have prostitution with us. It probably is not well understood by many people, because most people dd not think, will not think,
will suffer any penalty rather than think—but the church and the brothel are both and equally parasitic growths on society, the one as inexcusable and unnecessary as the other, and they will both disappear together.
Upon no subject has the teaching of the church been more pernicious than on the subject of sex. Orthodox Christianity has no more cherished doctrine than that of the Immaculate Conception. The inevitable corollary of that doctrine is that all natural conception, all conception produced in the normal way, is essentially impure and low. That idea even occurs in Mrs. Eddy's teaching. It was inevitable that the Roman Church should teach, as it now teaches, that celibacy, or abstinence from all sexual expression, is the highest condition of human life. ' In other words, that very process without which no man or woman ever came into the world or ever can come is a more or less immoral, base, animal process. And the deliberate suppression and disuse of one of the highest functions of the human body is a religious duty, a religious virtue! The whole influence of the Christian Church in this matter has been an immoral and degrading influence and will sometime be seen so to have been. The domination of the Christian Church over the world will sometime be looked back upon as one long nightmare, one black shadow, one fearful violation of human life.
Society thus far has treated this whole matter of sex in a negative way, never in a positive, constructive way. It cannot be said that we have accomplished anything in this direction to be proud of. Largely as a reaxdt of the widespread ignorance of the meaning of sex which we
foster in our children, leaving the whole subject out of the public school system and letting our boys and girls pick up their knowledge of these things out of the gutter, out of obscene stories and vicious habits, we have reached the proud distinction—absolutely unknown among savages—of making venereal diseases the most common and
widespread of all diseases known to man. So much has this fact been impressed on physicians, that some of them are inclined to call our civilization a "syphilisation." And they are not far out of the way.
The remedy for what we call social or sexual vice does not lie in the direction of suppression or ignorance or mystery or any other sort of superstition. It lies exactly in the direction to which Whitman points: in the direction of fullest knowledge for every child that comes into the world not only of its own sexual significance, but equally of that of the opposite sex; in the direction of including this whole matter of sex within the* area of the things which we hold sacred, giving it the positive sanction of all that belongs to beauty, to happiness, to good. This is not to put a premium on immodesty or to sanction promiscuity—quite otherwise. But, whether we like it or not, we may as well make up our minds that the only direction in which the solution of any problem lies, I care not what, is the direction of freedom and knowledge. Suppression is evasion, always has been, always will be. Life is (expression. Virtue is expression. No man or woman has any more virtue than he or she has positive conviction and generous, joyous expression.
The poetry of Whitman is the denial of dualiam. It
is the affirmation of monism, of one substance, of.all things as good. There is no "base" or "low" in this nature of ours, and it. is only mistaken and degrading human laws that create such ideas in the minds of people. The world has for ages been cursed by the fals& and immoral distinction of "sacred" and "secular"—one of the sole and legitimate products of the so-called religious institution, one of the things which the Christian Church alone has given the world—and we are everywhere suffering beyond all words from that false and immoral distinction. But it is no better to separate the human body into sacred and secular, than it. is to separate one's social or moral life that way. Unless every bit of the body is sacred, none of it is. and none of it can be made so or considered so. If any part of the body is considered by any one profane or low or shameful, you will find that such a person will find none of the body really sacred. And this is the message of Whitman: Sex is sacred, is divine, is fundamental, is the holiest thing this world contains, is the fountain of all that means anything, of all value, of all poetry, of all truth, of all beauty, of all love, of all life. And only as you so regard it can you ever enter into your full inheritance as men and women. More than that, there can be no real morality which does not freely and joyously recognize the sacredness of sex, which does not banish this immoral and degrading sense of shame in the reverent, whole-souled acceptance of sex and all that pertains to it as fundamental to life and beauty and fulfilment. Sings Whitman:
''Sex contains all,
Bodies, Souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations, Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the
seminal milk; All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, All the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth, All the governments, judges, gods, followed persons of the earth,
These are all contained in sex, as parts of itself, and justification of itself." 4'Without shame the man I like knows and avows the
deliciousness of his sex, Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers."
No thoughtful person will question the value of the influence of the Puritan in our race-life and history, but it is easy to exaggerate that influence, to extend it beyond the limits to which it properly belongs. And that is exactly what has been done. Beginning as a mighty protest against despotism, against injustice, and reinforced by theological conceptions which were colossal for their time, the Puritan movement became the resistless conqueror of a vicious and corrupt despotism both in church and state—even if it did not go to the root of the matter—and if it had done no more than give the world a Cromwell, it would defy any attempt at belittle-ment. But when it transcended its proper limits and threw a pall of gloom over one whole side of human life, making pleasure a sin and joy an evil thing and dividing the dominion of the body between a God and a Devil,
producing the most absurd moral monstrosity: so that it is justly said that the Puritans were opposed to bear-baiting, not through any feeling of pity for the bears, but because men might get some pleasure out of it; when that issue was reached, Puritanism became an immoral and irreligious thing, and the world has not even yet escaped from its baneful shadow. And there is no escape from it, or from the sorrowful results which it has produced, except in the whole-hearted acceptance of joy, pleasure, happiness, expression, the sacredness of the whole body—nay, the acceptance of the body as itself containing and implying all the sacredness that ever has been claimed for what is called the soul. If Whitman had done nothing else than sing the sacredness of the body and declare that the body is just as divine, jusf as clean, just as holy, just as sacred as ever the soul has been thought to be, he would have earned the never-dying gratitude of all the unborn myriads of human beings that are to come into this human world. "I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul; And nothing, but God, is greater to one than one's self is, And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his funeral, drest. in his shroud."
The infinite and unspeakable pity and pathos of our world as it is now organized, as life is now lived, or as existence now goes on, lies in the fact that such an innumerable multitude of men and women are doing exactly what Whitman here describes: they
"walk to their own funeral, drest in a shroud."
Be it remembered, too, that if Whitman all through his poems uses the first person, he is, after all, the most impersonal of all poets. He is the poet of affirmation, and the "I" that speaks, that affirms, that enfolds the whole universe, that looks into the face of Nature and pronounces it good—yes, the actual man, Whitman, who in his own clean, natural, healthy, wholesome life hailed every man and woman as comrade and equal, and who lived out the beauty of his poems as naturally as a flower blooms—that "I," that personality, is nothing more than all of us, every last man and woman of us, finding voice, uttering our challenge in the face of warping and hindering and oppressive laws and institutions, claiming our sacred heritage, hungering and thirsting for the bread and water of life, seeking and demanding the uttermost of right and fulfilment. More than that, infinitely more than that, deeper, higher, vaster—the voice of Whitman is the voice of all Nature, of the whole universe, proclaiming laws, principles, truths, which infinitely transcend all these little limiting and enslaving statutes and enactments which measure the degree of our ignorance and our slavery—laws, principles, truths, before whose very names, entering bodily into human consciousness, these blasting, blighting institutions of an insane society shrink and wither and fade like mists before the sun. "I heard you whispering there, 0 stars of heaven; 0 suns! 0 grass of graves! 0 perpetual transfers and promotions!
If you do not say anything, how can I say anything?"
The time is coming, as surely as the earth turns on its
axis, when no one in all the world will look upon chains or shackles or negations or prohibitions of any sort whatever as having virtue, when we shall know that all things are good, and so accepting them shall find them good. Acceptance—that is one of the central words of the vaster and diviner unity which Whitman sings. There is no more justification in feeling a sense of shame regarding the sexual nature than there is respecting the beauty and glory of a day in June, a rose bush, a leaf, a sunset, a poem, a symphony, or any other of the things which we are accustomed to associate with sublimity, with worship, with joy. Find me a man or woman who never has learned or known the first .syllable of the mystery and wonder of love, who never at the thought of another human being has heard "the singing of dried-up springs, felt the sap rising in dead boughs, the renewal of life's creative forces;" never found "strength as well as intoxication" in that thought, "nourishment as well as a feast,"—and I will show you a man or woman for whom Whitman's divinest words will have no meaning, a person who cannot read with any appreciation his exulting paeans of joy in the creative powers and functions of the human body. But find me a man or woman whose whole being has been transfigured by a human love, who has found that other being who "is empowered by love to the miracle of redeeming our soul—as itself by ours is redeemed—from the sense of being a stranger on the earth," that other person in union with whom alone is life and joy and all ennobling service, and I will show you a man or woman who will find not a syllable or sen-
tence in Whitman's words that is not as clean and pure as the dew-drop on a rose, as the air after a shower, as the healthy body of a new-born babe.
I do not wonder at all that Mr. Symonds, whom I have already quoted, should say of Whitman and his epoch-making utterance:
"Whether this cosmic enthusiasm, which has been expressed by Whitman with a passion of self-dedication, a particularity of knowledge, and a sublimity of imagination unapproached by any poet-prophet since the death of Bruno, is destined to reinforce the soul of man with faith and inaugurate a new religion, I dare not even pause to question. We are told that it is not calculated to inspire the ignorant with rapture, to console the indigent and suffering by suggestions of some mitigation of their lot.
"Still, I may point out that it is the only type of faith which agrees with the conclusions and determinations of science. To bear the yoke of universal law is the plain destiny of human beings. If we could learn to bear that yoke with gladness, to thrill with vibrant fibers to the pulses of the infinite machine we constitute—(for if it were possible that the least of us should be eliminated, annihilated, the whole machine would stop and crumble into chaos)—if, I say, we could feel pride and joy in our participation of the cosmic life, then we might stand where Whitman stood with
'feet tenoned and mortised in granite.' I do not think it is a religion only for the rich, the powerful, the wise, the healthy. For my own part, I may con-
fess that it shone upon me when my life was broken, when I was weak, sickly, poor, and of no account; and I have ever lived thenceforward in the light and warmth of it. In bounden duty towards Whitman, I make this personal statement: for had it not been for the contact of his fervent spirit with my own, the pyre ready to be lighted, the combustible materials of modern thought awaiting the touch of the fire-bringer, might never have leaped up into the flame of life-long faith and consolation. During my darkest hours, it comforted me with the conviction that I too played my part in the illimitable symphony of cosmic life. When I repined, sorrowed, suffered, it touched me with gentle hand of sympathy and understanding, sustained me with the strong arm of assurance that in the end I could not go amiss (for I was a part, an integrating part, of the great whole); and when strength revived in me, it stirred a healthy pride and courage to effectuate myself, to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For this reason, in duty to my master Whitman, and in the hope that my experience may encourage others to seek the same source of inspiration, I have exceeded the bounds of an analytical essay by pouring forth my personal confession."
I do not wonder that this book by John Addington Symonds, written simply as a piece of literary criticism, should spontaneously blossom out into this personal confession of moral renewal, of unspeakable moral inspiration and enrichment. It is not at all necessary that his confession should be ours or any one's else. It is not to be thought either that his interpretation of Whitman is
a final or even an adequate one. It isn't. It is limited and narrowed by the very limitations of his own caste, his own training. It is enough to know that Whitman's great inclusive cosmic symphony released the life of even such a man from many of his trammels and made the world new to him. The greatness of Whitman is unlike that of any other poet I can think of. It isn't the greatness of a single personality. It isn't the greatness of mystery, or vast knowledge, or finished mastery of style or anything of the kind. All the greatness Whitman has, either in his verses or in himself, is no other than the inherent greatness of the common man, of the common substance of human life. Unless you find yourself in Whitman, you do not find him at all. He cannot exist for you or for any one, except as fulfilment, as the persuasive voice of your own deepest need, your own highest longing. His spirit is the spirit of the universal. No narrowing sect can be built on the foundation of his vision and utterance. All sects must vanish in the vaster unity of his all-inclusive conceptions. His verse may not serve as the propaganda of that revolutionary process by which mankind will break the shell of an outgrown and hampering social and economic system, but no emancipation of the human race or any part of it is possible of which the song of Whitman is not the natural and inevitable music. If he does not throw the fullest light upon the path which our feet must tread to the day of freedom, he lights up the goal of our journey with a radiance no other poet has ever shed upon it and quickens the pace and lightens the heart on our travel toward it.
Published Lectures by William Thurston Brown:
Will You Have War or Peacet A Plain Question to
Capitalist Society ................................32pp. 10c
Is Humanity Hungering for Godf The Answer of History and Social Science..........................,32pp. 10c
What Socialism Means as a Philosophy and as a Movement ............................................32pp. 10c
Walt Whitman: Poet of the Human Whole............32pp. 15c
Socialism and the Individual.........................32pp. 15c
The Church and Human Progress.....................32pp. 10c
The Hell of War: Who Pays the Bills.................32pp. 10c
The Revolutionary Proletariat. (In preparation)......32pp. 10c
Love and Marriage Series:
I. The Evolution of Sexual Morality.............32pp. 15c
II. Love's Freedom and Fulfilment..............32pp. 15c
III. The Moral Basis of the Demand for Free Divorco ....................................32pp. 15c
IV. Economic and Ethical Conditions of Marital Happiness. (In preparation) ................32pp. 15c
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