Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, May 12, 1888.

      [See indexical note p139.5] W. said: "I have often tried to put myself in the place of a minister—to imagine the forty and odd corns he must avoid treading on." Laughingly: "I often get mad at the ministers—they are almost the only people I do get

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mad at—yet they, too, have their reasons for being. If a man will once consent to be a minister he must expect ruin."

      [See indexical note p140.1] To judge from Mrs. Moulton's Boston Herald letter it would look as though W. recited lines from his own poems on the occasion of her visit. W. demurred positively. "There was nothing at all like that: I never do quote, repeat lines—indeed, could not do it even if I wished to: I remember very few things out of the mass I have written—I could repeat but very few complete lines. Any one of you fellows knows more about my book than I do myself. I wrote the book—why should I be expected to rememeber it? The best people will tell you I ought to forget it as fast as I can. [See indexical note p140.2] Anyway I am not a reciter. Every now and then some woman or man comes in here and chats a while with me—doing most of the chatting themselves, most of them—and then go off and picture me as standing out in the middle of the room and spouting my own poetry. I am not a poetic acrobat—not in the least. When the visitors come—you see lots of 'em youself—I sit very still and try to be good—don't I? But they won't let me be good—I am made in their reports to step out in the full light and go through contortions and behave queer. [See indexical note p140.3] Then they say: 'See, this is Walt Whitman, didn't we tell you he was odd here and there and a bit off in general?'" W. got a lot of fun out of this recitative. I remember that W. at Harned's when called upon to do so could not repeat three lines of the little poem Twilight which recently appeared in The Century. We had to get the magazine for him. He tried on another occasion to recover the Death Carol but could only get a line here and there—not one whole verse: probably knew a dozen lines in all. By the way, the little Twilight poem, like his Emperor William poem, brought him some excited correspondence. [See indexical note p140.4] "I suppose I had a dozen letters objecting to the last word, 'oblivion.' That word, they

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said, was out of place, not my word, inconsistent with my philosophy. I do not feel it to be necessary to fight for my words—I use them and let them go and that's an end on't. But oblivion as I use it there is just the word, both as furnishing sense and rhythm to the idea I had in mind. [See indexical note p141.1] It seems strange to me (perhaps it shouldn't seem strange) how my friends always want to keep me on their track—want me to go the way they think I ought to go: choose even my words for me and declare penalties for disobedience. I suppose every writer has more or less the same experience: the world says jump and he must jump—the world says die and he is dead."

     Referring to Griffin again W. said: "I never knew any other language but the English. [See indexical note p141.2] I never liked text books—could never study a foreign language. Did I say I never knew any language but the English? My enemies would even dispute my knowledge of the English." W. talked of "Shakespeare worship." "It is like Corning's tragedy of the ages: only one Christ, only one, for forever and forever. Only one Shakespeare for forever to forever. To me that is rank nonsense—it leads to imbecility. Yet it may be a safety valve. Some people need harmless enthusiasms: better zest, ardor, warmth, decision, then nothing—than merely colorless inanity: better misapplied heat than no heat at all. [See indexical note p141.3] But for any philosophic mind—for anyone capable of perspective, of seeing back and forward, of measuring here and beyond—the Shakespeare worship is poor business enough—poor business enough."

     Walt's great phrase of excuse for the prejudices and bigotries which he encounters—for frailties which in themselves are offensive to his perception of justice—is, "they justify themselves—they justify themselves." [See indexical note p141.4] He first speaks of a writer in a manner the most freely critical and then says: "But she justifies herself by the fact of her temperament and the ways of her life." Coates' irascibility had super-

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ficially incensed W. Yet W. only said of Coates: "He was supremely irritable—he fired off almost before his gun was loaded: I must have cut a sorry figure in his eyes: he no doubt had the best of reasons for his outbreak." [See indexical note p142.1] W. has a rather general objection to the clergy. "Their teaching is mostly impudence—their knowledge is mostly ignorance—they are arrogant, spoiled." Yet he suffers them because "they after all justify themselves in the scheme of evolution." [See indexical note p142.2] He spoke last night of the great social whirl—of "the porcelains, chinas, hangings, laces, fine dinners, equipages, balls, shows, hypocrisies, hard-heartednesses that make it up," arguing: "I hate it—hate it with my body and with the rest of me: but what I am to do? Try to find a place outside the universe for it? It, too, justifies itself, don't you see?" Some one was saying severe things of someone else. [See indexical note p142.3] W. put in: "Don't do it—save the severe things for yourself." The undercurrent of it all is a protest, but he tempers his mortal protest with the recognition of our immortal destiny. "Why should I take judgment in hand? I throw away all my weapons—all, all: all weapons of harm—every weapon: I want to meet every man, worst man or best man, with the open hand."

     W. had been reading Ingersoll's oration on Conkling. [See indexical note p142.4] "It is not among the Colonel's best pieces: it is too usual for the Colonel: too much like what everybody thinks and says. The Colonel is best when he is off on his own account—letting himself go, go anywhere and however, not caring who is hit." W. again: "I have not been without friends even among the Catholics. I have had friends in the priesthood—half a dozen of them. [See indexical note p142.5] So far concerns the Catholic church, however, I have had in the main to look at it from the outside—I have seen a little of its pageantry and read with deep interest of the royal, gorgeous, superb displays in the cathedrals, especially those down in Rome—in St. Peter's. It is grand, grand—O how grand! Yet it has

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one defect: it lacks simplicity—it has deferred too much to certain sensational elements in its history and environment. [See indexical note p143.1] I could tell you of a wonderful experience—of a related but dissimilar experience—of an incident in which all the integers were simple—were more directly related to life. It was in Washington, during the war, in one of the wards of a hospital—a poor room, with cheaper furniture than this you see in my parlor, which is poor enough: a three legged stool for an altarpiece—no light but the light of a candle: then a priest came and administered the sacrament to a poor soldier. The room was spare, blank—no furnishings: the hearers in the other beds seemed altogether incredulous or else altogether convinced: there was a suspicion of quackery, humbuggery, in the whole performance: no one among the observers except myself perhaps was respectful. [See indexical note p143.2] I stood aside and watched, aroused in places to sympathy, though mainly impressed by the spectacular features of the event—by its human emotional features. All was done solemnly, without noise—done in a way to appeal to your sense of right weight and measure—proportion, proportion. It is necessary for you to know with what sort of emphasis such an incident affected me if you want to get a just perception of my esthetics. [See indexical note p143.3] No magnificent cathedral could quite so well have rounded up my simple picture. I remember another scene—a regiment, once made up of a thousand or twelve hundred men, returned from the war—from the battles, sieges, skirmishings, halts, marches, goings on—coming into Washington, perhaps on an errand only, for provisioning—God knows what: only there on duty for a day or more: now reduced from its proud twelve hundred to its humble one or two hundred men, trailing in, as it may be said, what remained of them, with their colors in rags and their faces emaciated, worn, but with their hearts true. [See indexical note p143.4] Don't that beat a cathedral picture? I think it does—God! it does, it does! It makes your

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heart bleed. Then you worship—get down on your real knees." [See indexical note p144.1]

     After a brief pause W. went on: "I have seen the preparations for the great dinners of state at Washingoton—then the sumptuous fare: the swell military grandees, the political fol-de-rol, the brilliant lights—social form and superficial manners: it is all very staggering in a hollow sort of way. But I have seen something more convincing than that—a simple group of half a dozen veterans gathered about a plain board table, with plenty and good to eat, in a house that was perfectly plain, telling their stories—stories of things done and missed being done, stories of heroism and cowardice, stories of meanness and generosity—stories, yes, of death, of suffering, of sacifice: all told so quietly, too, with no feathers, no tufts, no one wanting to call special attention to himself—everything being kept on a level lower than false ostentation, higher than false humility. [See indexical note p144.2] Don't you think that, too, beats the cathedral picture? I do—I do!" After ruminating: "I may have written these pictures in words somewhere: have I? at any rate, they show what I mean. [See indexical note p144.3] You know, Horace, I don't object to the refinements—to fingerbowls, to napkins, to fresh linen, to glassware, to costly china, to laces: I don't object to them: I only ask them some questions. I ask them why they think they are of equal importance with human affection—with what is directly and irrefragably the initialling root of the social organism. And as to the priesthood—well, I have nothing against the priesthood except my general objection to any class as a class. The priests—Protestant, Catholic, secular, I don't care which—don't study man as though they were themselves men but as though they were themselves priests. Now, I never object to a man—any kind of a man—but I object to a priest—any kind of a priest. [See indexical note p144.4] The instant a priest becomes a man I am on his side—I no longer oppose him.


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