Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition

Hardcover | November 4, 2014

byGary 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 butunsigned 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 asderivative. 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 Americanbard'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 rebeltransformed 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 creativecareers 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 nowsee as quintessentially Whitmanic.

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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 butunsigned review of the inaugural 1855 editio...

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.

other books by Gary Schmidgall

Format:HardcoverDimensions:400 pages, 9.25 × 6.12 × 0.98 inPublished:November 4, 2014Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0199374414

ISBN - 13:9780199374410

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Table of Contents

Note on Notes and CitationPreface1. An Introduction: Leaves and the Retrospective Lands"Terrible Query": An American Literature?"That Wonderful Little Island": British Literature in Leaves of GrassProspective: "Lacks and Wants Yet"2. Shakespeare and WhitmanWhitman and the Bacon DebateWalt vs. The BardMellifluous and Honey-tongued PoetsWhitman and the Romantics' Shakespeare: Victor HugoParallel Lives?3. Milton and WhitmanDebutant Poets: 1645, 1855Whitman and America Read MiltonCamerados CloseSatan and WaltAnswerable StylesStrange Bedfellows After All?Awakeners4. Burns and WhitmanCamerado BardsWalt Reads RobSelf-esteemMystic Tie of BrotherhoodThe Self-satisfied PreachersOutre BeingsConscious Painful BeingOld AcquaintanceOf Tombs: A Coda5. Blake and WhitmanMaking the ConnectionTwo Mystics Together ClingingOther, Stronger LessonsPoets of Contrariety and RebellionIconoclasts: Poetry UnfetteredPoets of Sexual DelightAnnouncing AdhesivenessDeath's Door: A Coda6. Wordsworth and WhitmanWalt on WordsworthThe 'Prelude' to WhitmanProspectus: Knowing the WorldSelf-empowerment'Green' Poets: Nature and Democracy'Mighty Scheme of Truth': Prophets of a New Religion'Great Social Principle of Life': ComraderyAt War with General TendencySeparate Persons7. Whitman and Some Other 'Big Fellows'Walter ScottThomas CarlyleAlfred TennysonOscar WildeAlgernon SwinburneNotesForewordIntroductionShakespeareMiltonBurnsBlakeWordsworthSome Other 'Big Fellows'

Editorial Reviews

"Eloquently written and provocative, Containing Multitudes demonstrates the myriad ways in which Whitman was indebted to and in dialogue with a British literary tradition. In telling chapters on Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Blake, and Wordsworth, Schmidgall deftly analyzes the numerous echoesand divergences between these prior poets' lyrics and Whitman's verse. This book will be required reading for anyone interested in the subtle ways in which the British poetic canon was transmitted through one of America's most original and influential poets." --Anne K. Mellor, author of Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830