Commentary

Disciples


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Monday, July 9, 1888.

     In at W.'s at 7.45, evening. W. lying on bed. Inclined to chat—speaking at ease. I let him go on. He hates questions. Voice a bit husky. Very forcible, however, in manner. "You must be better," I said. "I believe I am—just a trifle." [See indexical note p438.3] Had eaten quite well. "I had letters from Bucke today again—two of them." Stopped. Then resumed. "I was glad to hear from Doctor. One of the letters was very gloomy—for him. I got to reading between the lines—catching the tone, the undertone—and somehow I seemed to catch him a little off guard, saying: 'you are sinking—steadily, surely sinking—there is no way out of it'—and I don't know but he's right. [See indexical note p438.4] In fact, I notice that everybody looks at me asquint, as if something was about to happen—people, the papers—everybody almost but you. But I am not at all agreed to it just yet. I have looked a second, third, fourth, time into the Doctor's letter for a gleam of light—the shadow is there still. But we will not admit that we are likely to be thrown down—we must see to it—see if instead of a rout, a ruin, we may not yet whip, or if not whip, at least elude, our pursuers." Bucke's letter palpably affected

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him. "But however it results it is all right—all right: all right for life, all right for death. If only the book was done! [See indexical note p439.1] I look forward with desire at least that far. How lucky we got started before I got into this cloud! Now I must live to finish the job I have undertaken. I remember that you told me while I was dilly-dallying that if we didn't hurry up our November would be our December boughs! It almost came true." "I have no thought of surrender," he finally said.

     All the reprint in shape. Only the Hicks left. "I am laying low for the right hour to tackle that: when the game appears I will spring on it." I overruled him on a head-line decision today. First he said: "Damn you!" [See indexical note p439.2] I explained my reason. Then he said with a laugh: "Bless you!" Got a check for forty dollars from N.Y. Herald last week. Returned it. Had not written anything for the past month. The check reappeared. "That's what I call very unbusiness-like in The Herald," he said, adding however more seriously: "That was downright decent in somebody. Who is the somebody?" Brought him over a big batch of proofs. I watch them more critically than I did when he was well. He says of it: "I only read the commas—I leave all the rest to you." [See indexical note p439.3] The Society of Old Brooklynites has been discussing W. and the Leaves. "It was a mighty thin mess," he replied upon my questioning him, "no body to it all: only ignorance, ignorance—then more ignorance still."

      [See indexical note p439.4] W. referred to Harrison Morris' paper in The American. "I have gone over it—glanced it through (without closely reading it): see enough to comprehend what it amounts to. Harrison is greatly superior to that other Morris who got into this discussion—Charles. It appears that Harrison means to be friendly to me—to accept me as far as he can—to decide a few ugly doubts in my favor—to recognize in me some gleam of literary righteousness: but I am yet far off—very far off. If the canons are to sit in judgment what will become of us? [See indexical note p439.5] The canons would rule out everything that

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is new, fresh, organic—make Homer, Shakespeare, Emerson, impossible. [See indexical note p440.1] It is the very worst sort of logic to try a poem by rules of logic—to try to confirm a round world by square tests—to sit down and argue a poem out, out, out, to an end—yes, to death. I do not say Morris does this: he is young: he will yet shift about until he gets the right point of view. Give Morris my love when you see him. Say to him for me that he must not be afraid to talk right out, very loud, very free, if it is required, letting the consequences take care of themselves."
He added that the case of H. M. reminded him of Kennedy's early experience with the Leaves. [See indexical note p440.2] "Kennedy was choked to the mouth with canons, rules, whatnot—had them all to contend with, to get rid of: the scholastic divinities: but finally he broke loose—got over the fences—was wholly at liberty. He experienced several severe years—was full of doubts, qualms—his growth was gradual—the approval of Leaves of Grass a succession of conquests. Yes, Horace, I am inclined to adopt your assenting view of Kennedy—of his sterling scholarliness—of his plucky adherence to his convictions. Kennedy has roots deep down in good soils—he is like a soldier who has proved himself in many campaigns."

      [See indexical note p440.3] W. monologued about Burroughs as bank examiner. "John had no great skill—he was honest—honest: was eminently conscientious: that's how he fitted into the job. Sometimes we see united in one man the very highest type of conscientiousness—the most exalted, superior, one may say perfect, moral sense—the largest consideration of the transcendental impetus to action—with an average capacity for taking care of everyday life, bank bills, farms, houses, stocks, and so forth. John is a man in whom the thing is well illustrated—O yes, capitally illustrated—and somebody in the government had sense enough to see it. [See indexical note p440.4] That is what made him a valuable man in the service. It is a wonderful perfection in a man: you will find it in Emerson, in Hicks—

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no doubt also in others: I do not know others: most curiously suggestive in these two. It is as if a final touch was put on personality."

      [See indexical note p441.1] John Johnston over from N.Y. Was admitted for a very brief visit. W. has seen but few people during this whole sickness. "I am glad Johnston came—sorry I could not see more of him. He came at a time when my head was having one of its most infernal turns. I told Johnston that Doctor Bucke had saved my life. That is true, too. Saved it, not as a doctor but as a man. I have no great faith in or fear of doctors—they don't seem to do much good or much harm." I had Dowden's letter with me—the letter W. gave me two days ago. Read it again—part of it aloud—and asked W. some questions suggested by it.


50 Wellington Road, Dublin,
April 12, 1873.

My dear Mr. Whitman

 [See indexical note p441.2] Thank you for the kind thought which sent me the newspaper containing good news of your health. It concerns me and others here very much. A few days before the paper came I had heard for the first time—through a friend in Italy—a report authenticated that you were very seriously ill. The paragraph in the newspaper was therefore a relief as well as a sorrow. One's feeling about such apparent evil I find is much controlled by the nature of the person to whom it befalls. [See indexical note p441.3] Over and under all feeling which the fact of your illness produces lies the one feeling (which the growth of my own way of thinking together with your poems and other causes has made very real and strong)—that for some persons, and for you among such persons, casual misfortune or calamity is not a supreme affair. We give our grief to you with the reserve that after all Walt Whitman has not been really laid hold of by chance and change—that after all he eludes them and remains altogether untouched. And if I should happen to live longer

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than you I believe I should have the same conviction about what death could do to you. (Other persons seem like pathetic little flowers who have no title to permanence of being—but such an aristocratic theory of the ownership of a future life ought rather to be addressed to Goethe than to you, whose faith is larger and more charitable.)


 [See indexical note p442.1] The best piece of the news about you is that you are likely to be strong again and to continue your work. I trust that may be so, and rely a good deal on your previous health and vigor, and on the fact that you are not of an age which ought to discourage hope of full recovery. We had been looking forward with very strong satisfaction towards seeing you over among us this year. That I suppose cannot now be expected: but it may come to be a fact at some later time. [See indexical note p442.2] One thing I will ask—that occasionally some friend, if not yourself, will let me hear of your health—a line of writing would be enough. I think Mr. Burroughs would be willing to take the trouble; (and he would add to my gain if he would mention to me the name of anything you may have published since Democratic Vistas. I think I saw some small collection of poems mentioned as having appeared at New York).

My wife joins with mine her love and both go to you together. We are well. I have taken to an attempt at the making of poems since twelve months. [See indexical note p442.3] It has always seemed to me more my proper work than prose, but if a sufficient experiment proves the reverse I shall return in a business-like fashion to prose. I mean to go on quietly, and not print any poems for three or four years at soonest. I have just written an article on Victor Hugo's poetry; and, when it is printed, I will send it to you. There is much in common between Victor Hugo and you, but if I had to choose between Leaves of Grass and La Légende des Siècles I should not have a moment's hesitation in throwing away La Légende. There is a certain air of self-conscious beauty or

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sublimity in the attitudes which Victor Hugo's soul assumes that greatly impairs their effect with me. [See indexical note p443.1] The poems, or many of them, are not thoroughly simple—there is something manufactured in them—they do not adhere and cling quite close, and become an invisible part of the reader. (But I must stop this.)


I think within twelve months of publishing a volume of essays, and intend to include the Westminster one on your poems (I shall remove from it one or two expressions which may have done you wrong with some readers, and which on that account I regret). [See indexical note p443.2] It happens that several of the essays will be concerned with democratic or republican leaders—V. Hugo—Edgar Quinet—Lamennais—Landor—Milton—Whitman.

Please before very long, if it is convenient, let me somehow hear of your health.

And dear friend believe me

Always affectionately yours,

Edward Dowden.


      [See indexical note p443.3] When I got to the Hugo passage W. said: "Read it again." I did so. Then he said: "One part of that would suit O'Connor and one part would suit Burroughs but as a whole it would suit neither. O'Connor always said I was like Hugo—that he saw us sometimes almost like twin brothers. There was a Washington picture of me which he called the Hugo Whitman. But William would not admit that Hugo was artificial—attitudinized. He and John used to quarrel over this, John contending, sure enough, that Hugo was the victim of a sort of divine professional calculation, and denying, with equal vehemence, that he could see any resemblance between Hugo's work and mine. [See indexical note p443.4] The fact is, I think that Dowden was nearer right than either, though as for Hugo's artificiality I would not say as much as Dowden does about it—it does not seem necessary. Dowden draws rather too

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long a bow. Now you see I'm getting into the fracas myself!"
 [See indexical note p444.1] I paused in the letter where Dowden says: "I have taken to an attempt at the making of poems." "What's the matter?" asked W. I read that allusion to the end. Then stopped, waiting to see what he would say. He looked at me fixedly, then broke out into a smile. "I'll bet I know what you're thinking," he remarked. "Well—what was I thinking?" "Why—that that's rather a cold blooded way to talk about writing poetry: that he would start, try, maybe succeed, maybe fail—that if the venture proved unsuccessful he would in business-like fashion go back to the writing of prose. [See indexical note p444.2] You were thinking that poets never wrote real poems that way?" "Exactly." "That real poems sort of make themselves—will not be held back?" "Exactly." W. was quite abstracted for several minutes. Then he came back to me; "You are right—wholly right. I do not know whether Dowden ever wrote, published, the poems. [See indexical note p444.3] If he did I don't think he sent them to me. Leastwise I don't remember that I ever received such a book. However that may be, whatever happened to his verse, Dowden has succeeded in writing prose—in writing some of the best critical prose in modern English literature."


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