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  • Whitman and Stevens in the U.K.: Some Personal Reflections
  • Tony Sharpe

1. How do Whitman and Stevens rank in British curricula? Are they considered essentially poetic equals or is there a significant difference in their status?

I’m unable to answer for the entirety of British university courses, but can respond in respect of those offered at my own institution, and those few with which I’m familiar through my work as an external examiner.

I don’t think it would be true to say that Whitman and Stevens are considered “poetic equals,” but, instead, that Whitman outranks Stevens, as a poet considered seminal to an understanding of American poetry, in a way that Stevens, with his difficult quirkiness, is not. Stevens, that is to say, is an acquired taste, whereas Whitman is a taste you are obliged to acquire—as even Ezra Pound acknowledged when admitting he and Whitman had “one sap and one root” (in his poem “A Pact” [97]). Pound hadn’t anything like the same fellow feeling toward Stevens, who provoked him to a multiplicity of question marks rather than a recognition of connection.

That represents my estimate of the general situation. To speak more personally, I regard Stevens as the jewel in the crown of twentieth-century American poetry (omitting transnationals like Eliot and Auden). I can reread Stevens and discover “fresh transfigurings”(CPP 85) more readily than I can with Whitman, as it happens. The former seems inexhaustible, whereas the latter is on occasions exhausting (often by design).

2. How are Whitman and Stevens being taught in the U.K. today? Is one taught more than the other? Are they taught together?

I’d hope the answer to that first question is “well”! I can’t easily answer the second without undertaking a survey, but imagine that each would be represented within their periods, with possibly [End Page 75] more time allotted to Whitman in his, typically, than to Stevens in twentieth-century courses, where, apart from anything else, the competition for inclusion is greater. There perhaps needs to be borne in mind the fact that some teachers, as well as more students, have an aversion from the readerly challenges Stevens sets that is not replicated when considering Whitman’s invitational rhetoric. I doubt that the poets are frequently taught together, in part because of the predominant periodization that dissevers them. I would not, personally, find significant advantage in their conjunction: when I teach Whitman, I stress line and length and list, the democratization of the Emersonian mission, and see him as a poetic exponent of Thoreauvian “extra-vagance” as well as of an early American instinct toward self-publication and self-publicity. Stevens’ relation to Emerson is more conflicted than Whitman’s, though real enough, and temperamentally he seems closer to the austere, skeptically solitary, complex self-communings and committed visionary productivity of Emily Dickinson. Like hers, too, his musings were not unconnected with a position of social privilege. Sorry to put a firecat among your bucks, but when she declares to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “There is always one thing to be grateful for,—that one is one’s self and not somebody else” (xxi), I hear something Stevens could have said, and her four trees upon a solitary acre, following the course of their particularity, strike a premonitory Stevensian note that Whitman’s live oak in Louisiana does not.

3. Is the link between twentieth-century American poetry and Whitman generally accepted?

I think that the success of Whitman’s self-installation as the good g(r)ay father figure of American poetry is pretty universally acknowledged. His gender-friendliness diminishes the patriarchal oppressiveness that might accrue from such status, and, together with his genuinely moving work among the Unionist wounded, his “little souvenirs of camps and soldiers” (Whitman 605), recalls the Lincoln he so influentially mourned, as evoked in William Carlos Williams’ vignette: “The least private would find a woman to caress him, a woman in an old shawl—with a great bearded face and a towering black hat above it, to give unearthly reality” (American 234). Robert Frost was the twentieth-century poet most obviously inheriting Whitman’s public...