Title: J. T. Cobb to Walt Whitman, 15 April 1881
Date: April 15, 1881
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.01199
Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Stefan Schöberlein, and Nicole Gray
Hardly daring to mail this—20 April, 1881.
I am emboldened—a word I dislike and think I never before used—to address you—and shall hope for a line at least in reply, for I would be glad to see your "hand-write" since I may never clasp your right hand, and to have your autograph—
This, from "The Poetry of the Future", prompts me to address you:
"I have thought that the invisible root out of which the poetry deepest in, and dearest to, humanity grows, is Friendship".
I do not intend to burthen you with many words; but I would fain suggest to you that herein may at length be read the world-riddle of "Shakspeare" and his empire over the race of men. Suppose, as I believe, Shakspeare a myth—the Shakspeare—and substitute Bacon; by no means a new idea, but still quite new, as I hold and dwell upon it. In the Sonnets I find the clew to the mystery, and confirmation strong as words of holy writ of the truth, the grand, inspiring truth, of your own deep words. How beautifully you handle Tennyson—never so well, never aught like it that I have seen. The "In Memoriam" is the peerless Immortelle of the "Shakspeare" Sonnets. Love persuaded—convinced—convicted Bacon (as it may have required "Love and Death" combined to convict Tennyson) of the truth and the fact of personal immortality. Had Emerson ever loved as you (I think) have loved, he too would have been convicted. Ah, the soul! deep souls are in (or with) some of us yet, however we come by them.
Tenderness, benevolence, disinterestedness, sympathy, compassion:—Love is infinitely more. George Eliot knows that now. Mrs. Browning knew it while she dwelt in flesh. She, among women, and Bacon among men, they found their Christ and knew him crucified—that love, to become perfect, must needs be crucified. He, too, who sang
"Too, too contracted are these walls of flesh and takes its course
Along the line of limitless desires,"
Shakspeare? Wordsworth never felt that myth. He, like Mrs. Browning, felt (spite of all they knew, or imagined they knew) felt, felt the reality—Bacon.—There is somewhat in the sexuality of marriage barring and dwarfing, however natural and necessary & of course upon the whole, beneficent—Wordsworth and his sister, Renan and his, Charles Lamb and his, ay, Byron and his—these may be the better ideal of human friendship. For there is terror—desperation—in the love of one for the same sex.
[Jas?] T. Cobb
Sappho? Swinburne? Ah, but the use Bacon turned his ten talents to!
Carlyle, like Wordsworth, had neither wit nor humor, nor the musical sense. (O you have the last. I feel that! Has Emerson?) Albeit practiced performers both, I do not find in either Browning or George Eliot the musical sense of Mrs. Browning or even Charlotte Brontë. There are deep-sea soundings of the musical soul, beyond these ears. Carlyle not humorous, not witty? Sly, yes: and canny and superabundantly grotesque and ever wanting to be nobler than he was or could be. His stomach was out of order. The sympathetic ganglia out of gear. That ailed Carlyle. "Bowels of compassion", we can't improve on some deep sayings in Holy Writ.
Wordsworth felt Bacon. He did not feel—poet that he was—the myth Shakspeare, which so exasperated the critic's acumen in Pope and in Coleridge. Wordsworth like Bacon was (or at least aimed to be) a Reformer of Poetry. To either, if poetry had no use, to Wordsworth if it had not divinest use, away with it. Why cumbereth it the ground? Wordsworth like Bacon was patient, elaborate, methodical. He is e'en content to plod to his ends. And was not Bacon? But the quick, fine, instinctive ear for harmony was lacking in Wordsworth. Bacon was all eye, all ear, all touch. Bacon was ever "mediating on that celestial harmony" he felt all about him. Wit—humor—these, moreover, were lacking in Wordsworth, and without them no modern poet can hope to be a dramatic poet in any high sense. Had Wordsworth been the humanitarian Bacon was, or approaching Bacon in this respect, the French Revolution would have struck deeper chords in him than it did; but the chords were not there to strike. Wordsworth was [selfy?] as Milton was The Puritanic leaven was not quite out even of Wordsworth, which is so offensive in his friend Southey. Bacon, through his mother, was certainly thus leavened—but the age of licence and splendid pageantry and personal and material heroism neutralized all evil effects, which when the contest for the truth faith reachd its grand climax crampd and sourd Milton making him austere and spiteful. Bacon was a "bashful" man. He tells us so himself, and was "without arrogancy or overweening"; Most devout, most Catholic, and at the same time (as Emerson says of Shakspeare, in touching upon the Sonnets—those soul-and-body-tell-tale Sonnets, Mr. Whitman) "the most susceptible of human beings". But do you recall Wordsworth's Preface to the Second Edition of his poems?
"The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of the respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings."
"There spake my brother; (Lord Bacon) There my father's grave
Did utter forth a voice!"—
"That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its giddy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn, nor murmur."
One feels the echo of Milton in the close—"Not for this," etc. but the "aching joys" and "giddy raptures" the writer of those "Sonnets" of Shakspeare knew, and the language of Wordsworth is far too intense to describe mere adventurous boyhood? O the unwritten, unwritable, but all-influencing experiences—
Why, the whole tone of the "Shakspeare" writings is courtly and aristocratic. Now this tone could not possibly have been assumed and maintained—counterfeited. It is pervasive in the blood. Bacon could teach and did teach royalty state—Shakspeare teach King's state, as Talma taught Napoleon? I fail to see the point, Mr. Emerson.
I read "12th Night" as a sequel to or illuminating commentary upon the Sonnets. Viola—Feste—the last the mocking phantasm (sad enough, if one reads deep enough) and the musical, unsex'd soul of that "strange malady" the Sonnets treat of, escaping in those sighs of Viola, who never told her love, nor could tell, nor a billionth part thereof. "Confusion of sentiments" in 12th Night too.