Limitations & Demerits of Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Introduction. To call Whitman a great poet is not to assume that he was free of defects and limitations as an artist. It is significant that he has been the subject of sharp controversy. The humanists deplore Whitman’s apparent surrender to a mere flux of impressions, and bemoan his unwillingness to think, analyze and ponder. In Whitman’s own day, critics were sharply divided in their opinion about his work. Lowell found no poetry in Leaves of Grass. In the twentieth century Norman Forster has said: “Turn where one will in his poems, one will look in vain for indications of any discipline, intellectual or ethical, making for self-mastery and spiritual vision.” However, he received acclaim from Emerson, Dowden, Symonds and Swinburne.

      Uneven Quality of Work. Whitman like Wordsworth wrote prolifically. But the quantity is not uniformly matched with quality. He wrote some of the most significant lines of poetry as well as some of the clumsiest. He was an artist of contradictions. He could spill out page after page of undigested impressions, tiresome repetition and exclamations.

      Grotesque Combinations and Linguistic Bad Taste. Whitman in his attempt to experiment with language coined words and phrases, or improvised them from foreign sources. Often these mixtures of words from different levels and contexts produced a jarring effect. Some of his phrases are grotesque combinations of the colloquial and the grandiose. An example of linguistic bad taste and polyglot phrasing is the absurd “tangl’d longdifferr’d eclaircissement of human life”. There are other instances - “See my cantible-You Libertad”, “Exalte .... the mighty earth-eidolon”, “No dainty dolce affetuose I”.

      Whitman’s Form: A Stumbling Block. The poetic form that Whitman developed, after discarding conventional forms, was no doubt a genuine poetic form. But the form was a stumbling block in the way of his popularity; the average man, the very section of humanity he celebrated in his poetry, could not appreciate the form. “It was least calculated to teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade”, because the average man cannot remember those flowing formless lines. Rhyme and meter, after all, are instruments to help memorize lines, and Whitman consciously discards these. Thus, to a large extent, Whitman is a poet for a selected audience.

      Symbolic Mode at times Too Complicated. In Whitman’s early poetry, he is sometimes merely fantastic in his symbolism. There are absurdities of word, phrases, image and symbol. An example of such absurdity is in Section 4 of Song of Myself;

By my life-pumps! Becoming already a creator
Putting myself here and now to the ambush’d womb of the shadows.

      In his early poetry, his symbolism, especially with sexual overtones, is difficult to interpret. But in his later poems, his symbolism is no longer eccentric, it acquires beauty, depth and poetic significance of a high order.

      Sexual Unconventionality Alienated Many. Whitman’s frank treatment of sexual urges in his poetry, though it cannot be termed a limitation or defect as such, served, however, to alienate many readers. People were not, and are still not, prepared to read such frank and open treatment of sexual matters in poetry. As a result his poetry was often dubbed as “beastly” and “obscene”.

      A Great Poet Despite Shortcomings. It is undeniable that Whitman had defects as an artist. He was capable of posing and pretentiousness. He was not a systematic thinker. His use of words is loose and inconsistent. His art reflects the complexity of his personality. Leaves of Grass must be read in fragments and it exists in literature only in fragments. A continuous reading of the work is almost unheard of; indeed, it is impossible. The catalogs, so effective in some places, are decidedly monotonous and boring in others. The endless and repetitious pageant passes by, and though the motive and reason of it is one of the finest and most human in all literature, a weariness takes possession of the reader. But parts of the work are great and these parts give justice to the claim that Whitman rises above his defects to attain greatness as a poet. A poet who is capable of writing:

I am the man, I suffer'd, I was there,
or the lines
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.


Agonies are one of my changes of garments
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels,
I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on
a cane and observe ....

      Can be forgiven all his lapses, and can only belong to the class of great poets.

      Conclusion. Whitman’s claims as an artist cannot be discarded because of the unevenness of his poetic output. Inferior passages are there, but if one ignores them, what remains is fine and massive. Many varieties of what may be called the romantic mood - sense of wonder, mystical elevation, spontaneous response to Nature, love of beauty and strangeness - are rendered by Whitman in poetry. These moods acquire a freshness because Whitman expresses them in a language that produces new effects of freedom and resourcefulness. Above all, Whitman’s poetry contains a body of ideas and feelings which, instead of dividing and frustrating human beings, works towards uniting and satisfying them. Sometimes, indeed, his “barbaric yawp” proves untranslatable, and impossible to transfix with a phrase or theory. But, on the whole, one forgets “the lesser haws, the lumbering failures; the illumined phrases bum clear”. Whitman’s poetry has stood the test of time.

University Questions

Discuss the limitations and lapses of Whitman as a poet.
Whitman’s contemporaries denied him the status of a poet. What is your opinion about Whitman’s defect as an artist? Does he rise above them?

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