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The Poetic Mind

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

This Was a Poet. By George Frisbie Whicher. New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Whitman. By Newton Arvin. New York: The Macmil-lan Company. $2.75. Whitman’s Pose. By Esther Shephard. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.75.

EMILY DICKINSON and Walt Whitman are a strange pair to sequester within the four walls of a review. Meeting in life, they would not have understood each other, the shy woman and the boastful man; and, in death, they cannot make friends. Yet they had one thing in common: both were poets; and that fact alone has given George Frisbie Whicher, in “This Was a Poet,” Newton Arvin, in “Whitman,” and Esther Shephard, in “Whitman’s Pose,” the same problem: how to probe the poetic mind.

Emily Dickinson once remarked that biographies only succeed in proving the “fleeing of the biographied,” and this discouraging dictum is truer of poets than of other people, and of Emily Dickinson than of most poets. Three conflicting studies had already demonstrated her elusiveness when Professor Whicher performed the difficult feat, as it were, of photographing her.

In a style spare, nimble, always adequate, and at times surprisingly adroit, Mr. Whicher begins by elucidating his own statement: “The quintessence of the New England spirit was embodied in Emily Dickinson; she cannot be rightly understood except in terms of her heritage”: nineteenth-century Amherst “hardly distinguishable among the woods,” the Dickinson strain (“under pressure no Dickinson had ever failed to take an independent line and follow it to the edge of doom”), and Amherst College, with which she literally “grew up.”

Then Professor Whicher indulges what he calls “a perfectly natural and legitimate curiosity,” trying once and for all to identify the two men who successively dominated her imagination. The beloved tutor who hid books in a bush, sent her Emerson’s verses, recognized the poet in her, and then immortalized himself by dying young, says Professor Whicher, was Ben Newton; and the more important “dim companion” who “put the belt around her life” was the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, pastor of a Philadelphia church, married, and seventeen years her senior. Here, as elsewhere, Professor Whicher convinces — though he does not quote in their entirety the documents which constitute his newly discovered evidence. Only once did this reviewer quibble: when he declares that Wadsworth could not have requited Emily Dickinson’s love, even spiritually, since he was not the sort to tolerate in himself “faithlessness of spirit.” Spiritual recognition between two noble human beings is rooted in too high a reality to be considered faithlessness to any third person; and, all inadvertently, an understanding may pass between eyes, while remaining as pure as any tenet of church. Professor Whicher should have used the word “probably.” Probably no “lovers’ understanding” ever existed between them.

But he is right when he says that “Emily Dickinson needed no other incentive to write than the satisfaction afforded by the creative act itself,” her “fame petite” among discerning friends sufficing her till that day, after death, when she would deliver the poems which were her “letter to the world.” Like Blake, she could see macrocosms in microcosms—and what house and garden do not contain a great many of the latter?

Also, her universe was inhabited by a father. Her mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law, and cousins existed; but to Emily Dickinson her father was a “cardinal fact.” How could it be otherwise? With a heart “pure and terrible,” he drove the fastest horse in town; and, one September evening, interrupted a monumental sternness to ring the bell of the Baptist Church to call the attention of his fellow townsmen to an extraordinarily brilliant sunset. The three strongest influences on his daughter, Professor Whicher says, were Yankee humor, the spiritual unrest of the period, and the Puritan tradition; and the latter Mr. Dickinson the lawyer perfectly exemplified. Also, it was he who set before her the reading matter which—even more than Emerson, Dickens, Keats, the Brownings, the Brontes, Ruskin, George Eliot, and Sir Thomas Browne—helped form her mind: the Bible, Shakespeare, and the Springfield Republican.

But stronger than any influence was her own regnant originality. “Emily inherited in full measure,” Professor Whicher says, “the Puritan talent for psychic reconnaissance,” making two fields her own: consciousness and experience. The latter cake being small, not a crumb was allowed to go to waste.

The last part of Professor Whicher’s book is a careful analysis of the subjects and technical aspects of Emily Dickinson’s “gnomic verse,” as well as a spirited defense of her grammatical lapses, obscurities, irregular meters, and daring off-rhymes.

What was her special province? The region of dramatic tension between the mind and experience, he answers. How did she express immaterial values? By elaborations in terms of the material, and by identifying the seemingly unlike. And, through it all, the inscription on her shield? Huckleberry Finn’s: “Trust in the Unexpected.”

Newton Arvin’s “Whitman” and Esther Shephard’s “Walt Whitman’s Pose” comment ironically upon each other, since according to Mr. Arvin’s thesis, the Camden poet was a socialist in his deeper significance, and, according to Mrs. Shephard’s, a poseur extraordinaire—which means a cheat.

On the theory that “Leaves of Grass” can be explained only by “going behind the book itself to the personal and historical circumstances that produced it,” Mr. Arvin has written, in a dense, rationalistic, and colorless style, a book which explains without explaining, though the element of speciousness in the pleading is obviously unconscious. This does not mean the book is valueless. On the contrary, Mr. Arvin’s re-creation of a period is interesting and pertinent. It is merely to state that one reader, at least, cannot write “Q. E. D.” after the last line. The word “socialist,” in 1889, did not mean what it means today. And with the book’s main point Mrs. Shephard has played havoc.

Mr. Arvin cites Whitman’s love of working people as proof of his socialism; but Mrs. Shephard says that this was a late acquisition, being part of the pose which he adopted after reading George Sand’s “The Countess of Rudolstadt.” Mr. Arvin states the premise that “Whitman the man and the poet . . . are totally one”; Mrs. Shephard shows how, again and again, they were as widely separated as the two sides of the Grand Canyon. When he calls Whitman a “spiritual Forty-Niner” with a “special order of sincerity,” and “anything but an impostor,” we cannot but wonder how he would have altered these sentences if he had read Mrs. Shephard’s book before writing his own. And why, when Whitman speaks of capitalists as having been “useful,” is he “vocalizing almost automatically the canons of his place and time,” whereas, when he makes any remark remotely suggestive of socialism, it is his “true self” speaking out? And why should Mr. Arvin assume that Whitman’s growing mysticism, at the end, was mentally a step down? And what does Whitman’s tirade against money prove? Many so-called capitalists could repeat the same words today.

Mrs. Shephard, on the other hand, tends to overstress her interesting discovery, while underestimating the New Orleans trip as part of Whitman’s “long foreground,” and the fact that he would not have aped George Sand’s Tris-megistus if that poet’s utterances had not chimed in with something in his own soul, as well as the fact that, in spite of his egotism, petty artifices, and “fame-greediness,” Whitman would not have seen or heard nature at all if he had not been, at the same time, humble. And did it not occur to her that Whitman’s apparent priming of himself, in the fall of 1888, to tell Horace Traubel a “secret” may have been the belated evidence of a soul trying to “come clean”? One would like to believe it, for the sake of “The Last Invocation” and “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.”

But, for the rest, Mrs. Shephard’s points are well taken. When Whitman wrote: “This is a book; who touches this, touches a man,” it appears that he should have written: “who touches this, touches a man’s conception of what he ought to be in order to become famous as an American poet.” Contradictory Whitman! Did he remember too late that falsity will out? “The soul has never once been fooled,” he wrote in one of his moments of prescience, “and never can be fooled.”


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