Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition

Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition

by Gary Schmidgall


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Walt Whitman burst onto the literary stage raring for a fight with his transatlantic forebears. With the unmetered and unrhymed long lines of Leaves of Grass, he blithely forsook "the old models" declaring that "poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away." In a self-authored but unsigned review of the inaugural 1855 edition, Whitman boasted that its influence-free author "makes no allusions to books or writers; their spirits do not seem to have touched him." There was more than a hint here of a party-crasher's bravado or a new-comer's anxiety about being perceived as derivative.

But the giants of British literature were too well established in America to be toppled by Whitman's patronizing "that wonderful little island," he called England-or his frequent assertions that Old World literature was non grata on American soil. As Gary Schmidgall demonstrates, the American bard's manuscripts, letters, prose criticism, and private conversations all reveal that Whitman's negotiation with the literary "big fellows" across the Atlantic was much more nuanced and contradictory than might be supposed. His hostile posture also changed over the decades as the gymnastic rebel transformed into Good Gray Poet, though even late in life he could still crow that his masterwork Leaves of Grass "is an iconoclasm, it starts out to shatter the idols of porcelain."

Containing Multitudes explores Whitman's often uneasy embrace of five members of the British literary pantheon: Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Blake, and Wordsworth (five others are treated more briefly: Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Wilde, and Swinburne). It also considers how the arcs of their creative careers are often similar to the arc of Whitman's own fifty years of poem-making. Finally, it seeks to illuminate the sometimes striking affinities between the views of these authors and Whitman on human nature and society. Though he was loath to admit it, these authors anticipated much that we now see as quintessentially Whitmanic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780199374410
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Gary Schmidgall is Professor of English at Hunter College at the City University of New York. His previous books include Shakespeare and Opera, The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar, and Walt Whitman: A Gay Life.

Table of Contents

Note on Notes and Citation

1. An Introduction: Leaves and the Retrospective Lands
"Terrible Query": An American Literature?
"That Wonderful Little Island": British Literature in Leaves of Grass
Prospective: "Lacks and Wants Yet"

2. Shakespeare and Whitman
Whitman and the Bacon Debate
Walt vs. The Bard
Mellifluous and Honey-tongued Poets
Whitman and the Romantics' Shakespeare: Victor Hugo
Parallel Lives?

3. Milton and Whitman
Debutant Poets: 1645, 1855
Whitman and America Read Milton
Camerados Close
Satan and Walt
Answerable Styles
Strange Bedfellows After All?

4. Burns and Whitman
Camerado Bards
Walt Reads Rob
Mystic Tie of Brotherhood
The Self-satisfied Preachers
Outré Beings
Conscious Painful Being
Old Acquaintance
Of Tombs: A Coda

5. Blake and Whitman
Making the Connection
Two Mystics Together Clinging
Other, Stronger Lessons
Poets of Contrariety and Rebellion
Iconoclasts: Poetry Unfettered
Poets of Sexual Delight
Announcing Adhesiveness
Death's Door: A Coda

6. Wordsworth and Whitman
Walt on Wordsworth
The 'Prelude' to Whitman
Prospectus: Knowing the World
'Green' Poets: Nature and Democracy
'Mighty Scheme of Truth': Prophets of a New Religion
'Great Social Principle of Life': Comradery
At War with General Tendency
Separate Persons

7. Whitman and Some Other 'Big Fellows'
Walter Scott
Thomas Carlyle
Alfred Tennyson
Oscar Wilde
Algernon Swinburne

Some Other 'Big Fellows'

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