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The 1855 Leaves of Grass
on 28 July 2001
This edition is very different to the later _Leaves of Grass_. Whitman was one of those poets who go on expanding their book of poems throughout their life. (Rather like Baudelaire with his _Flowers of Evil_.) Some people consider the earlier edition superior to the later: certainly it seems more radical, with unhierarchical punctuation (frequent use of . . . .), no titles for the poems, no numbering of sections (Cowley inserts titles and numbering in brackers for ease of reference), and, as the book came to its first readers, no author's name, only an engraving (reproduced in this book) of Whitman in an open shirt and jaunitly cocked hat!
What can anyone have thought opening this unattributed book and turning to the first poem, the 60 pages of what later was called 'Song of Myself''? This immense, fantastic, multi-facated, boastful, ambitious, tender work seems to me a work of art that really justifies the often misused work "original". It's amazing to think that while England had Tennyson, America had
Walt Whitman, an America, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.
Whitman then shouts:
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whitman represents America at what seems to me its best -- bold, immense, pioneering, multiracial, unsnobbish and unashamed to feel. The first edition is perhaps the best place to meet his poetry, as it isn't diluted by many of the later poems, some of which are very short -- more like epigrams (one-sided) than the many-sided long poems here. Whitman also revised his poems later on, adding "poetic" reversals of word-order and using a more "elevated" diction; whereas here the poems are vigorously colloquial ("I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" he declares at one point).