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Walt Whitman: From Noon to Starry Night.

Edmund Wilson in nostalgic vein recalling Princeton, Class of 1912-16, remembers that 'indomitable buffalo', Scottish-German Duncan Spaeth, 'who was a permanent scandal by reason of his admiration for Whitman', including in a course on ninteenth-century English poetry a lecture on the good gray poet, whose biography he thus delivered: 'Walt Whitman -- born on Long Island, died in Camden -- found life beautiful!'

Mr. Callow's biography serves us rather better; albeit there are sundry unexpected omissions. While confronting perfectly adequately Whitman's sexual fluidity -- no longer the enigma it was once thought to be -- young Pete Doyle and all, he, surprisingly, makes no significant reference to the Symonds epistolary inquisition and Whitman's Calamitic apostasy. Edward Carpenter, a contextually seminal figure if there ever was one, is regulated to the periphery. This seems odd, since it was from Carpenter's prose-poem, Towards Democracy (1893), that Whitman's influence was imported, as was purveyance in a similar polemic style of the Uranian creed.

As Richard Le Gallienne's biographer, I was, naturally, saddened to find no reference to him in these pages. He, I realise, certainly was the most peripheral of characters, but he was Whitman's most devoted proselyte on this side of the duck pond, and it was he who, in 1894, when Henley turned the commission down, besought John Lane to allow him to edit the works of Whitman. William Michael Rossetti, however, is accorded due space as a midwife to the small blue book which, issued in 1868, cradled between boards for their first thus fledged appearance in England, a hand-picked brood of Whitman's poems.

The lacertilian Gosse, ubiquitous post mortem as he was in egregious life, is expectedly present. Mr. Callow reports his visit to the prophet in decline at Mickle Street, where the poet is still fending off the 'amativeness' of Mrs. Gilchrist, with whom he desires intimacy no closer than 'adhesiveness'. He does not report Gosse's about turn from fawning, sycophantic dispatcher of a copy of On Viol and flute, in 1873 -- accompanying letter: 'There is no one living by whom I am more desirous to be known than by you...I draw only closer and closer to you.'-- to his later and less reverential stance. Receiving Whitman's fresh from the Press Letters, a quarter of a century on, that same devoted disciple calls them 'revolting' and comments: 'One doubts no longer, but I cast no stone'. Gosse, of all closet dwellers, was in no position to do so. With sickening condescension he continues: 'The strange old creature in his loneliness getting this queer gratification for this impulses'. Strange dialogue between Harmodius and Aristegeiton.

Whitman's blade of glass may well be thought, as Blake's grain of sand, a magnificient compression of the cosmos: his Leaves of Grass and Bible of Democracy. Indubitably his Song of Songs was the glory of the commonplace. But those leaves were of calamus gress, the common sweet flag grass of America, and not, for him, solely democratic herbage but also phallic symbol; and he who gathered them exposed himself by the display of a Hemmingway-like insistence on his maleness that strikes as pathological. His fancy lighted, in homo-erotic fashion surely, on the youthful Washington bus-conductor, Peter Doyle, and turned -- a gender mutation of Munby's celebrated predilection for rough-handed, booted, sooty-aproned women -- to lusty, sweat-glistening stevedores, horse-busmen, drivers and soldiers. Leaves of Grass brought fame and infamy. His life was measured out, not with coffee spoons, but by editions of the Leaves. Prophet he may have been, but as his biblical precursor, without honor in his own country, and, in his fifth decade, reduced to peddling his own works, selling books from a basket in the streets of Camden.

The land that Whitman sang was a Never-Never Land, every bit as Pan-esque as that which Barrie's Peter piped. But it was how Whitman sang that brought a new dimension to poetry, made him our archetypal modern poet. The salt sea, beside which he was born, breaking upon the Paumake shore was, he said, what made him a poet. Its beat in his blood was his metric measure. It's surge and ebb and fall, the tides of his rhymes of sound called rhythms. From the leaves of his music, attuned successors, including Miller, Lawrence, Crane and the poets of the Beat Generation, have drawn liberating forces.

Mr Callow pursues the real Walt, 'evasive in his thicket of identities'. He seeks the shadow, which, in this contrary case, in the relaity. He has done his work well, with elegance and clarity, which makes this not only an essential biography, but a pleasure to read.
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:764
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