Title: Walt Whitman to an Unidentified Correspondent, [August(?) 1881]
Date: August 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.03799
Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Eder Jaramillo, Stefan Schöberlein, Nicole Gray, and Elizabeth Lorang
Of course this will be crude to you—yet it is in parts suggestive—I have marked in blue pencil what might be dwelt upon or touched—
Boston Daily Globe.
"THE GOOD GRAY POET"———
At Work on His New Edition of "Leaves of Grass."———
Complete and Crowning Work of Walt Whitman's Life.———
The Purpose of His Poetry Stated in His Own Language.———
In a small inner room connected with the printing establishment of Rand, Avery & Co., Walt Whitman, the venerable poet, was sitting by a table yesterday reading a volume of "Taine's English Literature." Near by were a pile of corrected proof-sheets bearing the heading "Leaves of Grass." His ruddy features were almost concealed by his white hair and beard. When he laid down his book on the intrusion of the writer his eye, still bright and keen, glowed with a genuine good nature. No; he had no objections to entering into a conversation which should be given to the public, provided there was any interest in what he might say. He was here, he said, to look over the proofs for his book—the new "Leaves of Grass" which J. R. Osgood & Co. are to issue in the fall.
"It is a long time," remarked the reporter, "since the book by that name which occupies so unique a place in literature was first given to the world."
"Yes," replied the poet, leaning back comfortably in his chair and looking reflectively across the table at the writer, who had seated himself opposite. "It is now, I believe, twenty-five years since I began to work upon the structure which I hope soon to complete. And this edition will complete the plan which I had outlined from the beginning. It will be the whole expression of the design which I had in my mind
When I Began to Write.
The whole affair is like one of those old architectural structures, some of which have been 400 or 500 years building, and the designer of which has the whole idea in his mind. His plans are pretty ambitious, pretty extensive, and, as opportunity or means or time permits, he adds part after part, perhaps at quite wide intervals. To a casual observer it looks in the course of its construction rather odd. It is only after the whole is finished and completed that one catches the idea which inspired the designer, in whose mind the relation of each part to the whole had existed all along. Now, that is the way it has been with my book. It has been twenty-five years building. There have been seven different sections. Seven different times have parts of the edifice been constructed, sometimes in Brooklyn, sometimes in Washington, sometimes in Boston and at other places. The book has been printed partially in every part of the United States. And this Osgood edition is to be the complete edifice. My theory in making the book is to give
A Recognition of All Elements
compacted in one—e pluribus unum, as it were. The Osgood book will make a pretty solid, compact volume of over 400 pages, containing some 300 poems, quite a large proportion of them never before printed in book form."
Speaking of his critics at a later period in the interview, the poet said that he began writing when he was 35 years old. The plan of his book involved the unflinching expression of the elements which lie at the foundation of man's being; and when this portion of the edifice appeared alone, without a suggestion as to its subordination to the whole, it made a great hubbub. People supposed that that was the whole building. They had no reason to know that it was part of a very complete and elaborate design, and for a great many years the almost unanimous verdict of critics was very unfavorable. But during the twenty years that had passed since the first part appeared, the other portions of the structure had been gradually added. Still he was aware that the opposition to him had by no means ceased. The large magazines are still shy of him. One of his latest poems, written this summer, was rejected by Harper's Monthly with
A Polite Note from the Editor
to the effect that "the readers of the magazine would not be able to understand it." This poem is to appear in the forthcoming volume. Even Emerson had objected that Walt Whitman never got into form. But the poet trusted that this objection would be obviated in the new work.
Mr. Whitman has his own very distinct views about what constitutes poetry. In his view the emotional, the personal, the human, and even the animal, are essential parts of a profound poem, and are not to be superseded by the aesthetic, [in]tellectual or merely melodious, which latter seem to have had the modern field all to themselves. In fact, it is to restore the body, in all its original strength, directness, simplicity and naturalness, to an equal consideration with the spirit, that Whitman claims to have appeared.
One of his leading English admirers had a long article in a late issue of a London monthly, entitled "Walt Whitman, the Poet of Joy," the drift of it being that for cheeriness, health and all normal buoyancy and sunshine, the American bard stood at the head.
"My poetry," continued Mr. Whitman, "embraces all that relates to nature—impressions of the open air, of the sea and the mountains and all that in modern times is contained in the word nature; the democratic element as illustrated in our political structure, and more especially all of what is signified by
The Word 'Comradeship,'
a general interchange of good offices, good will, sympathy. I have also accepted as a theme the modern business life, the streets of cities, trade, expresses, the locomotive and the telegraph. I have portrayed all these. Orthodox poetry had rather turned up its nose at these things, and the stock poetry of the last sixty or seventy years has remained essentially the same—something very select, not to be jarred by the shock and vulgarity and rush of business life. But I have accepted it all as a part of my work. Neither have I left out the mystery of being, and all that is generally designated under the term beauty, more especially joyousness.
The conversation gradually drifted on to general literary topics. "Of the American poets," he said, "I would place Emerson first, then Bryant, Longfellow and Whittier. I have not much to say of anybody else."
"I think Tennyson is in every respect the poet of our times. Many of my friends have no patience with my opinion on this matter. But to me
Tennyson is One of the First Writers.
He has expressed from the truest poetic instinct all the idiosyncrasies of our age. He has great verbal elegance, and, back of all that, genuine heroism. I think that in Tennyson's poems, full as they are of delicateness, there is just as much heroism as in Homer or Shakespeare."
Going back to the poet's own work, he was asked if his poems are to appear entire in the new edition of his book.
"All of the objectionable passages which were the cause of so much complaint at the time of their appearance will remain. Not a word is to be changed, except for the sake of conciseness. The great difference, as I have intimated before, is that whereas in the original volume they made a main portion of the book here they occupy but five or six pages out of 400. I do not know whether it will appear to the casual reader, but to myself the whole book turns on the secession war. It is the poem of the war. Not in a way in which the old war poems, such as the 'Iliad,' were war poems, but in entirely a new way.
To Me the War Represented
not only itself, not only the great military clash and struggle, but something far deeper, extending infinitely further. It was a struggle for the development of freedom in wider directions than politics. In "Leaves of Grass" are embodied the physical circumstances of the war—its battles, the dead, the character and physiognomy of the armies—and then still more than that."
That there is a great diversity of opinion as to the merit of Walt Whitman as a poet is hardly to be wondered at, considerig the originality of his works and style. Goethe said of Byron that he would always have the advantage of other poets in possessing the most marked personality, the fullest of lights and shades, the most magnetic, the most vehemently fought for and against. In the opinion of the great German this personality formed an incomparable back ground for all the Byronic effusions, beyond any others that can be named from British sources.
The Advocates of Whitman
would undoubtedly present a like claim for their poet.
The three or four years of Mr. Whitman's personal services in the war, from 1861 to 1865, must not be left unmentioned. In the possession, at that time, of a physical health seldom vouchsafed to mortals, he expended it all in the army hospitals and on the battle fields of those terrible years, was on the go night and day, personally ministering to hundreds and thousands, healing the wounded and nursing the sick, Southern as well as Northern. From the overwrought strain of those years comes the paralysis he now suffers under.
A fortnight ago Whitman went down to Long Island, New York, to visit, after fifty years' absence, the place of his birth, the haunts of his childhood, and the old burial places where his ancestors, both on the father's and mother's side, he buried. A very curious account of this visit, of the Whitman and Van Velsor families, and of their two old burial hills, appeared in the New York Tribune of August 4, from the poet himself. He was accompanied by Dr. R. M. Bucke of London, Canada, who is engaged in writing a life of Whitman, and induced the poet to journey thither. Dr. Bucke has been for over two years working at this book, which is to be in two parts, the first a thorough biography of the poet, and the second an exhaustive dissertation on "Leaves of Grass." Dr. Bucke is an ardent admirer of Whitman, considering him the most important personality, from a modern and democratic point of view, that has appeared.
Mr. Whitman writes occasionally for the papers, is running a series of articles entitled "How I Get Around at Sixty and Take Notes" in the [new bi-weekly, the Critic, in New York, and every now and then a gossipy "letter from Walt Whitman" appears in the Tribune. He told a friend lately that he liked to write these off-hand prose contributions, and that he had about as much to do in that way as he cared for. The poet, as we are informed, will have his headquarters at J. R. Osgood's, Tremont street, and may be addressed there. He will keep a vigilant eye to every page and line of his forthcoming volume, which will in a manner be stamped and saturated with his actual personality.]