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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

11. Talk to an Art-Union

  • (A Brooklyn fragment.)
  • IT is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them. And perhaps it is the case that the greatest artists live and die, the world and themselves alike ignorant what they possess. Who would not mourn that an ample palace, of surpassingly graceful architecture, fill’d with luxuries, and embellish’d with fine pictures and sculpture, should stand cold and still and vacant, and never be known or enjoy’d by its owner? Would such a fact as this cause your sadness? Then be sad. For there is a palace, to which the courts of the most sumptuous kings are but a frivolous patch, and, though it is always waiting for them, not one of its owners ever enters there with any genuine sense of its grandeur and glory.

    I think of few heroic actions, which cannot be traced to the artistical impulse. He who does great deeds, does them from his innate sensitiveness to moral beauty. Such men are not merely artists, they are also artistic material. Washington in some great crisis, Lawrence on the bloody deck of the Chesapeake, Mary Stuart at the block, Kossuth in captivity, and Mazzini in exile—all great rebels and innovators, exhibit the highest phases of the artist spirit. The painter, the sculptor, the poet, express heroic beauty better in description; but the others are heroic beauty, the best belov’d of art.

    Talk not so much, then, young artist, of the great old masters, who but painted and chisell’d. Study not only their productions. There is a still higher school for him who would kindle his fire with coal from the altar of the loftiest and purest art. It is the school of all grand actions and grand virtues, of heroism, of the death of patriots and martyrs—of all the mighty deeds written in the pages of history—deeds of daring, and enthusiasm, devotion, and fortitude.