In the civilization of today it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates,
The highest of art’s forms, namely, the literary form, serves beyond all.
The great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.
Sure as materialism, sure as the soul,
Shall arise in this land the literature that shall be eligible to embody not a few phases of life only, but all known and conceivable phases of life,
And comprehend all men and women and all climates and states.
Literature this of the largest friendship, and the vitalest pride, and the truest freedom and practical equality,
Literature the roomiest and least cramped because it shall arise from the broadest geography, the most diverse because it shall absorb the greatest diversity,
Literature of all living things and of the past and future.
What I say has its main bearing on imaginative literature, especially poetry.
The Americans are poetry-loving people,
They import, print, and read more poetry than any equal number of people elsewhere,
Of all races and eras these states with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets,
Their presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.
Of many debts incalculable,
Haply our New World’s chiefest debt is to old poems,
A mass of foreign nutriment, giving identity to the stages arrived at by aggregate humanity, and the conclusions assumed in its progressive and varied civilizations.
Strictly speaking, they are indeed none of them new, for all thoughts are old,
Born out of the insight and inspiration of the same old humanity, the same old heart and brain, the same old countenance yearningly, pensively looking forth;
How small were the best thoughts, poems, and conclusions, except for a certain invariable resemblance and uniform standard in the final thoughts, theology, poems, etc., of all nations, all civilizations, all centuries and times.
But poetry, largely consider’d, is an evolution, sending out improved and ever-expanded types—in one sense, the past, even the best of it, necessarily giving place, and dying out.
America must extricate itself from even the greatest models of the past—not ours originally; ours, however, by inheritance—and, while courteous to them, must have entire faith in itself, and the products of its own democratic spirit only.
The poetry of other lands lies in the past—what they have been.
Shakespeare stands entirely for the mighty æsthetic sceptres of the past, not for the spiritual and democratic, the sceptres of the future,
He is incarnated, uncompromising feudalism, in literature—there is much in him ever offensive to democracy—the democratic requirements are insulted on every page.
The great poems, Shakespeare included, are poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life-blood of democracy,
They cannot span the vast revolutionary arch thrown by the United States over the centuries, fix’d in the present, launch’d to the endless future.
America listens to no such poems in which common humanity, deferential, bends low, humiliated, acknowledging superiors,
Its poetry must be spiritual and democratic.
In the name of these states shall I scorn the antique?
The shadowy procession is not a meagre one, and the standard not a low one,
At present, and doubtless long ahead, a certain humility would well become us,
Not necessarily to mould ourselves or our literature upon them—
What we have to do today is not to create only, or found only,
But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded,
Accepting all, curiously prepared for by them,
To receive them cheerfully, and to work over and present again in our own growths,
To utter the same old human critter,
A queer, queer race, of novel fashion,
And yet the same old human race, the same within, without;
To attain fuller, more definite comparisons, warnings, and the insight to ourselves, our own present, and our own far grander, different, future history, religion, social customs, etc.;
To give them ensemble, and a modern American and democratic physiognomy,
Our own identity, average, limitless, free, in democratic, American, modern, and scientific conditions;
To bring the materials and outline the architecture of a more complete, more advanced, idiosyncratic, masterful, Western personality.
The stamp of entire and finish’d greatness to any nation, to the American republic among the rest, must be sternly withheld till it has put what it stands for in the blossom of original, first-class poems. No imitations will do.
In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these states,
A great native literature headed with a poetry stronger and sweeter than any yet.
America needs her own poems in her own body and spirit different from all hitherto—freer, more muscular, comprehending more and unspeakably grander;
If there can be any such thing as a cosmic, modern, and original song, America needs it, and is worthy of it.
It almost seems as if a poetry with cosmic and dynamic features of magnitude and limitlessness suitable to the human soul, were never possible before. It is certain that a poetry of absolute faith and equality for the use of the democratic masses never was.
America is the region of the future, and the poetry of America lies in the future—
What these states and their coming men and women are certainly to be.
With, indeed, I sometimes think, the richest masses of material ever afforded a nation—more variegated, and on a larger scale—the first sign of proportionate, native, imaginative soul, and first-class works to match, is so far wanting.
The copious dribble, either of our little or well-known rhymesters, does not fulfil, in any respect, the needs and august occasions of this land,
Most modern poems are but larger or smaller lumps of sugar, or slices of toothsome sweet cake,
With many a squeak, (in metre choice,) from Boston, New York, Philadelphia.
The infant genius of American poetic expression lies sleeping far away, happily unrecognized and uninjur’d by the coteries, the art-writers, the talkers and critics of the saloons, or the lecturers in the colleges;
Literature to these gentlemen is a parlor in which no person is to be welcomed unless he come attired in dress coat and observing the approved decorums.
I, now, for one, promulge, the perhaps distant, but still delightful prospect, (for our children, if not in our own day,) of delivering America from the thin, moribund, and watery, but appallingly extensive nuisance of conventional poetry—by putting something really alive and substantial in its place—
A native expression-spirit for these states, self-contain’d, different from others, more expansive, more rich and free,
A sane, sweet, autochthonous national poetry.
I today think it would be best not at all to bother with arguments against the foreign models or to help American models, but just go on supplying American models.
Our fundamental want today in the United States is of native authors, literatuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known—
Not for embroiderers,
(There will always be plenty of embroiderers, I welcome them also,)
But for the fibre of things and for inherent men and women,
Sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief,
Breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage.
The poets I would have must be an engrossing power in the state, radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners,
Accomplishing what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish’d—
A religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the states,
Without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum.
America demands a poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and cosmical, as she is herself—
Truly having which, she will understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin’d and illuming, become a full-form’d world, and divine mother not only of material but spiritual worlds, in ceaseless succession through time—the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.
The poetry of the future aims at the free expression of emotion, (which means far, far more than appears at first.)
American writers are to show far more freedom in the use of words,
Strong and sweet shall their tongues be,
Flowers of genuine American aroma, and fruits truly and fully our own.
They shall report nature, laws, physiology, and happiness,
They shall illustrate democracy and the kosmos,
They shall fully enjoy materialism and the sight of products,
They shall not be careful of riches and privilege, they shall be riches and privilege.
Of them and of their works shall emerge divine conveyers, to convey gospels.
In the future of these states must arise poets immenser far, and make great poems of death,
Death, the future, the invisible faith, shall all be convey’d.
The conditions of the present, needs, dangers, prejudices, and the like, are the perfect conditions for wording the future with undissuadable words;
The time is at hand when inherent literature will be a main part of these states, as general and real as steam-power, iron, corn, beef, fish,
To be evidenced by original authors and poets to come, by American personalities, plenty of them, male and female, traversing the states,
To be electric, fresh, lusty, to express the full-sized body, male and female,
To give the modern meanings of things, to grow up beautiful, lasting, commensurate with America.
Really great poetry is always the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polish’d and select few;
Indeed I sometimes think it alone is to define the Union, to give it artistic character, spirituality, dignity.
I demand orbic bards, with unconditional, uncompromising sway,
Bards of the peaceful inventions,
Bards of the great idea, the voice and exposition of liberty,
To hold up the banner of inalienable rights.
Bards for my own land only I invoke,
Till they strike up marches henceforth triumphant and onward,
Counteract dangers, immensest ones, already looming in America,
Dauntlessly confront greed, injustice, measureless corruption in politics, and all forms of that wiliness and tyranny whose roots never die.
(After all the rest is advanced, that is what first-class poets are for.)
Is it a dream of mine that, in times to come, will silently, surely arise a race of such poets, varied, yet one in soul—nor only poets, and of the best, but newer, larger prophets—to meet and penetrate those woes, as shafts of light the darkness?
A new literature, perhaps a new metaphysics, certainly a new poetry, are to be the only sure and worthy supports and expressions of the American democracy,
By great bards only can series of peoples and states be fused into the compact organism of one nation (the simple elastic scheme.)
Regulation, control, and oversight by self-suppliance—a strong mastership of the general inferior self by the superior self—sine qua non to democracy—is to be aided, secured, indirectly, but surely, by the literatus, in his works shaping, for individual or aggregate democracy, a great passionate body, in and along with which goes a great masterful spirit.
Come forth, sweet democratic despots of the west!
Minstrels latent on the prairies!
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Bards with songs as from burning coals, or the lightning’s fork’d stripes!
Bards towering like hills,
Bards tallying the ocean’s roar, and the swooping eagle’s scream!
O sweep on! sweep on!
America justifies itself, give it time,
If its poets appear it will in due time advance to meet them, there is no fear of mistake,
Only toward the likes of itself will it advance to meet them,
If the one is true the other is true.
An audience of Americans, would they not soon learn to like a hidden sense, a sense only just indicated?—as just to indicate what is meant and let the audience find it out for themselves.
The poet is a recruiter, he goes forth beating the drum—0, who will not join his troop?
The proof of a poet shall be sternly deferr’d till his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorb’d it.
I have thought that both in patriotism and song we have adhered too long to petty limits, and that the time has come to enfold the world. That, O poets! is not that a theme worth chanting, striving for? Why not fix your verses henceforth to the gauge of the round globe? the whole race?
I have thought that the invisible root out of which the poetry deepest in, and dearest to, humanity grows, is friendship. Perhaps the most illustrious culmination of the modern may prove to be a signal growth of joyous, more exalted bards of adhesiveness, identically one in soul, but contributed by every nation, each after its distinctive kind.
My dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets, binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy;
It must run through entire humanity twining all lands like a divine thread, stringing all beads, pebbles, or gold, and like God’s dynamics and sunshine illustrating all and having reference to all;
I would inaugurate from America, for this purpose, new formulas—international poems.
Democracy waits the coming of its bards in silence,
Infinite are the new and orbic traits waiting to be launch’d forth in the firmament that is, and is to be, America.
Let us, audacious, start it.
NEXT: THE AMERICANS OF THE FUTURE