Walt Whitman: Man, Poet, Philosopher: Three Lectures

By Gay Wilson Allen; David Daiches et al. | Go to book overview

The Man

BY GAY WILSON ALLEN


I

IN SPEAKING ON Walt Whitman the man I shall do my best not to encroach upon the topics of the next two speakers in this series, who will discuss him as poet and as philosopher. But it is difficult to say anything accurately and critically on Whitman the man without considering his art and his thought, for what made him a great poet--great enough to have the first centennial of his masterpiece observed this year throughout his native country and even in many foreign lands--was the remarkable intensity and depth of his life of the mind and the imagination.

We often think of a man's physical life as his real existence, and regard his subjective life as shadowy, illusive, unsubstantial. And so it may be. But Walt Whitman's esthetic and spiritual life was so real to him that he often himself confused the physical and the psychological realms of his experience--or at least wrote and spoke of them in such a way as to cause his readers and biographers to confuse them. One of his greatest literary ambitions was to make his poems seem so real that the reader would forget he was reading a book.

. . . this is no book,
Who touches this, touches a man.

* * * * * * *

It is I you hold, and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms.

As a consequence of such poetic statements as this, Whitman's first biographers assumed that the book and the man were one: if you would know Walt Whitman, they said, read Leaves of Grass. Or they reversed the order, and said that one could not understand Leaves of Grass without knowing its author.

Later biographers and critics of Whitman, however, were to discover that the poet himself had made it difficult to understand the author of Leaves of Grass. Jean Catel, the late French biographer, argued that Whitman deliberately created myths about himself, a view elaborated a few

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Walt Whitman: Man, Poet, Philosopher: Three Lectures
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Foreword iii
  • Contents v
  • The Man 1
  • The Poet 15
  • The Philosopher 35
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