Admirers have long juxtaposed two images of Walt Whitman as artist and craftsman. In the one he himself loved and promoted, he is spontaneous, inspired, and prophetic—uttering poems, as Tu Fu said of Li Po, as unself-consciously and naturally as a bird soars. In the other, he is like some finicky old god (as Li Po suggested of Tu Fu), perpetually tinkering with the stuff of his creation, trying it out in new combinations, determined to keep at it until it comes right. Although they are contradictory, both images are valid, and without them you will not know Whitman, but this new variorum Leaves gives unprecedented authority to the more pedestrian second of them. Whitman’s fussiness about all aspects of his books has often been recognized; here for the first time we have a full demonstration of the amazing amount of energy that he dedicated to revising and reordering his poems. The evidence may surprise those who have continued to think of Whitman as the sounder of barbaric yawps who occasionally stumbles into eloquence, but it must be acknowledged that his goal in revision was not so much to polish art as to shape life. William Butler Yeats observed that those friends who complained about his own emendations failed to recognize what was at issue: “It is myself that I remake.” Likewise, this variorum edition records in the minutest detail Whitman’s great experiment in the self-creation of the expansive and magnanimous native Personality. We can witness the emergence and dismissal of such alternate selves as the ferocious proto-Dadaist of “Respondez!” (“Let him who is without my poems be assassinated! . . . Let shadows be furnish’d with genitals! Let substances be deprived of their genitals!”). That disturbing, mocking, almost demonic Whitman disappears after 1860, but it is good to know that he once played his part in a creation of identity, and he may remind us that the robust, optimistic self Whitman adopted in later years does not deny, but contains, such alter-egos.
The three volumes of this variorum Leaves are the most recent addition to the New York University Press Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, which is now the authoritative edition. They have been in preparation for many years, and students of Whitman have awaited their appearance with lively curiosity. By all indications, they were worth waiting for. Here is displayed a scrupulous record, as the editors say, “of how Leaves of Grass developed over the separate editions and impressions spanning thirty-seven years.” The reader can recover the text of any particular poem in any particular impression, trace the various clusterings of poems through their orderings and reorderings, and (with some difficulty) reconstruct the text (exclusive of prose) of any edition. The process of recovery can be cumbersome at times; but, given the number and complexity of Whitman’s changes, it is difficult to see how it could be less so, and it does yield secrets and offer its own peculiar gratifications. One can applaud the inspired rewriting of the first lines of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” in 1871, or the addition, also in 1871, of the transformational third line of “A Farm Picture,” or the paring, tightening, and increasingly purposeful ordering of the “Drum-Taps” cluster through several editions. On the other hand, one might be appalled at the excision in 1881 of certain hallucinatory passages from “The Sleepers” and bemoan the disappearance of the “Messenger Leaves” sequence after 1860. Judgments of such things will differ, but probably no reader will fail to be struck by what the editors call the “almost biological fecundity” of Whitman’s work—the way poems split or coalesce to form new poems, the way they breed upon themselves, the way they send out roots and feelers in every direction. Here is organicism at its lustiest and most teeming.
The special insights and appreciations earned by the admirably inventive scholarship of this edition are real and welcome, but one should also recognize the limitations the edition deliberately assumes. These volumes are for the initiated and scholarly; no other readers need apply. The editorial process of listing poems chronologically according to their first appearance in Leaves of Grass (rather than in the order to which Whitman finally assigned them) has the virtue of restoring to their original prominence poems Whitman later deleted from the canon, and it demonstrates graphically that later poems were revised far less than earlier ones. However, the chronological scheme also keeps the reader from knowing immediately that “Camps of Green,” originally in “Drum-Taps,” and “Of Him I Love Day and Night,” originally in “Calamus,” were finally placed in “Songs of Parting” and “Whispers of Heavenly Death” respectively. The information, which is of some significance, is easily retrievable, but only if one knows enough to trigger one’s own curiosity about the eventual disposition of the poems and spends a few minutes among various lists and charts. The Comprehensive Reader’s Edition of Leaves of Grass (also a volume in the New York University Press Whitman) provides the information without resort to an apparatus and gives a brief bibliographical history of the poem as well. Of course it lacks all textual detail.
The unspecialized reader of this highly specialized edition will also miss substantive annotation. Upon encountering “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” for instance, we learn that it was first published as the ninth poem of “Enfans d’Adam” in 1860 and that it remained permanently in that sequence (the title of which Whitman mercifully translated in subsequent editions). We learn that Whitman made no verbal changes in the text but several times adjusted its punctuation. All of this is well and good, but if there is anything particularly interesting about this relatively undistinguished poem, it is that Whitman originally wrote it of an eroticized “man,” presumably for inclusion in “Calamus,” then replaced “man” with “woman” and put the poem in “Children of Adam” instead. Because the changes were made in manuscript and this edition deals exclusively with the published poetry, it is perfectly proper and consistent that the information goes unremarked. The variorum of the manuscript poems is to be published separately. But that there is no provision for recording here so revealing a change illustrates with what austerity the editors have conceived their audience. Again, the Comprehensive Reader’s Edition makes the necessary lore available at a glance.
I note such purities and inflexibilities of methodology not to complain about them but simply to identify the proper sphere and application of the variorum edition. For any but the most specialized professional reader the Comprehensive Reader’s Edition will more than suffice. For the scholar, however, the variorum is indispensable; it is one of the most useful tools for the study of Whitman that we now possess. In its records and revelations we can discover one flowering of the discipline—”Continue your annotations, continue your questionings”—that Whitman demanded of his “eleves” in 1867. The line was never altered.