Whitman and Tennyson. A review of Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative, by Emory Holloway
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876 ] Whitman and Tennyson A review of Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative by Emory Holloway New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. Pp. xv + 330. The Nation and the Athenaeum, 40 (18 Dec 1926) 426 This book is in no way a critical examination of Whitman’s work; it has nothing to say – thank God! – about Whitman’s influence upon vers libre and contemporary American verse; it is silent about Whitman’s present standing in American literature. Mr. Van Wyck Brooks would have made the subject the occasion for an elegy, Mr. Mencken for a diatribe upon democracy. Mr. Holloway’s subject is “Whitman the Man” and his environment , and he keeps to the matter in hand.1 The book is written in an artless style, which ends by pleasing; and in the end we think of all the things the book might have been and is not, and give the author thanks. It is, I should suppose, as good a biography of Whitman as has been written or is likely to be. For it makes us realize (and I am sure that this is a token of its merit) that a critical appreciation of Whitman’s poetry must take account of place and time. And this the book does without pretending to make any critical estimate itself. It is a modest and efficient book. The time, of course, is the epoch of American history known to readers of Martin Chuzzlewit.2 To most Europeans, I imagine, this is a time which hardly exists; its difference, that is, from the Colonial Period (which we may say ended in 1829 with the defeat of Adams by Jackson) on the one hand, and the Age of Jazz on the other.3 But with relation to Whitman, it must be recognized that his was a time with a character of its own, and one in which it was possible to hold certain notions, and many illusions, which are now untenable. Now Whitman was (and this Mr. Holloway’s book makes abundantly clear) a “man with a message,” even if that message was sometimes badly mutilated in transmission; he was interested in what he had to say; he did not think of himself primarily as the inventor of a new technique of versification. His “message” must be reckoned with, and it is a very different message from that of Mr. Carl Sandburg. [ 877 Whitman and Tennyson The world of the American voyage in Martin Chuzzlewit is the same. Dickens knew best what it looked like, but Whitman knew what it felt like. There is another interesting parallel: Leaves of Grass appeared in 1856, Les Fleurs du mal in 1857: could any age have produced more heterogeneous leaves and flowers? The contrasts should be noted. But perhaps more important than these contrasts is the similarity of Whitman to another master, one whose greatness he always recognized and whose eminence he always acknowledged generously – to Tennyson. Between the ideas of the two men, or, rather, between the relations of the ideas of each to his place and time, between the ways in which each held his ideas, there is a fundamental resemblance. Both were born laureates. Whitman, of course, fought hard against corruption, against Press servility, against slavery, against alcohol (and I dare say Tennyson would have done so under the same conditions ); but essentially he was satisfied – too satisfied – with things as they are. His labourers and pioneers (at that date all Anglo-Saxon, or at least NorthEuropean,labourersandpioneers)arethecounterparttoTennyson’s greatbroad-shoulderedEnglishmanatwhomArnoldpokesfun;Whitman’s horror at the monarchical tyranny of Europe is the counterpart to Tennyson’s comment on the revolutions of French politics, no “graver than a schoolboy’s barring out.”4 Baudelaire, on the other hand, was a disagreeable person who was rarely satisfied with anything: je m’ennuie en France, he wrote, où tout le monde ressemble à Voltaire.5 I do not mean to suggest that all discontent is divine, or that all selfrighteousnessisloathesome .Onthecontrary,bothTennysonandWhitman made satisfaction almost magnificent. It is not the best aspect of their verse; if neither of them had more, neither of them would be still a great poet. But Whitman succeeds in making America as it was, just as Tennyson made England as it was, into something grand and significant. You cannot quite say that either was deceived, and you cannot at all say that either was insincere, or the victim of popular cant. They had the faculty – Whitman perhaps more prodigiously than Tennyson – of transmuting...