Commentary

Disciples


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Wednesday, May 16, 1888.

     Evening. [See indexical note p161.2] W. at home. Lying on the sofa in the parlor and complaining of ill health—of being "constipated, listless"—and saying: "My blood is so sluggish—my pulse is so low." Then: "But what's the use growling? Everything don't come my way but lots of things do." Talked for a long time recumbent. Then sat up and faced me. [See indexical note p161.3] "Rhys was here yesterday and the day before: he has now gone to New York. He intends to take in Niagara—then go

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over to Canada, spending a few days with Dr. Bucke—then home. He had at first intended not going to Niagara but he finally made up his mind to this: that he would not dare to return to England without having seen both Walt Whitman and Niagara. [See indexical note p162.1] 'After I have seen Niagara, after having seen you,' Rhys said, 'I can fairly say I have been to America to some purpose.' That's what he says. He came up from Washington. What do you think? You couldn't guess. He never called on or saw O'Connor. I was amazed when he told me—it seemed such a woful omission: twenty thousand Niagaras would not make up to me for one O'Connor.
 [See indexical note p162.2]

     Rhys had said to W.: "Since seeing America and seeing you many things in Leaves of Grass which formerly puzzled me are made plain." W. responded: "I shouldn't wonder. That book has an amazing elusiveness: I am still looking for some of its meanings myself." He laughed. [See indexical note p162.3] "I don't wonder Rhys don't give himself airs about the book: the book, indeed, makes us all humble." Again of Rhys: "Just now his great point is to get along—to make a living—and at that I think he has a hard tug. He always has to think of it: he is as poor as any of us—you know that means a great deal. His first lecture in Boston was given the night of the blizzard—did not return the hall money. [See indexical note p162.4] But people there were hospitable—they boosted him on afterwards: made up for the hard night in a hundred ways. By the way, you mustn't suppose Rhys swallows me whole: he takes me with lots of allowance—chokes over me, gags a little: I am not easy to him. Why, Rhys thinks the 'lilt' is indispensable to poetry—he says I haven't got it—therefore: well, you know that therefore: you have heard it before in connection with Walt Whitman. [See indexical note p162.5] Well, I wanted to get into a dispute with Rhys on that point, merely to understand his grounds for it, but there was no opportunity—I was loath to insist upon my argument. Now he has gone—

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I shall never see him again."
"You never were disputatious. Why did you want this fight?" "Only to get the truth threshed out. [See indexical note p163.1] I knew he had good reasons for his attitude: I wanted to learn them—I like to get at the fellows who oppose me—have them explain themselves." "But you and Rhys do very little fighting?" "Very little—very little. Do you ever know me to do any fighting? A kind of love passage—that's my sort of fight. But let me tell you a little more about Rhys. He is very interesting to me. We talked of the poetic lilt. Rhys insists on it: insists on it, come good or bad. Well—the lilt is all right: yes, right enough: but there's something anterior—more imperative. [See indexical note p163.2] The first thing necessary is the thought—the rest may follow if it chooses—may play its part—but must not be too much sought after. The two things being equal I should prefer to have the lilt present with the idea, but if I got down my thought and the rhythm was not there I should not work to secure it. I am very deliberate—I take a good deal of trouble with words: yes, a good deal: but what I am after is the content not the music of words. [See indexical note p163.3] Perhaps the music happens—it does no harm: I do not go in search of it. Two centuries back or so much of the poetry passed from lip to lip—was oral: was literally made to be sung: then the lilt, the formal rhythm, may have been necessary. The case is now somewhat changed: now, when the poetic work in literature is more than nineteen-twentieths of it by print, the simply tonal aids are not so necessary, or, if necessary, have considerably shifted their character."

     Frothingham had somewhere said that Shakespeare "lacked the religious as distinguished from the poetic faculty." [See indexical note p163.4] W. said: "That seems to me to be profoundly true. The highest poetic expression demands a certain element of the religious—indeed, should be transfused with it. Frothingham has hit upon the truth: scholars will not, dare not, admit it, but it is the truth. The time will come when

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Shakespeare will be given his right place—will be put on a low shelf, as the esthetic-heroic among poets, lacking both in the democratic and spiritual: a master, sure enough: yes, a master: but subject to severe deductions. [See indexical note p164.1] People don't dare face the fact Shakespeare. They are all tied to a fiction that is called Shakespeare—a Shakespearean illusion. This is the idea in substance that I tried to exploit in The Critic: tried, I say (I reckon I didn't say the thing in the best style). I never have regarded Shakespeare as the heroic-heroic, which is the greatest development of the spirit: I call the heroic-heroic men the greatest men: Shakespeare is rather the poet of lords and ladies and their side of life. [See indexical note p164.2] Even the Greeks were a little tinged with the same quality. It's very difficult to talk about Shakespeare in a frank vein: there's always somebody about with a terrific prejudice to howl you down."

      [See indexical note p164.3] I asked W. about November Boughs. He replied: "The book will be about one quarter verse—the pieces (the heres and theres) of the last three or four years: the rest of the book will be scraps—little papers from different places: a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of something else. I have kept all the material carefully together: I can't hurry—it's not in me to hurry: yet I'm anxious to get the book out. Some day I'll die—maybe surprise you all by a sudden disappearance: then where'll my book be? That's the one thing that excites me: most authors have the same dread—the dread that something or other essential that they have written may somehow become side-tracked, lost—lost forever." [See indexical note p164.4] DeKay was referred to—his Nimrod, given to Rhys by Gilder and left by Rhys for W. to read. W.: "Rhys took it along with him yesterday." Had he read the book? "No indeed: but I probably read more of it than you would read if you took it up: I am more trained in patience than you are." He laughed. "It is a hideous mess—I cannot think of it except in connection with so much

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medicine."
But "Stedman has always adhered to DeKay and Winter," he added, "especially to Winter—Winter, who, all in all, is about the weakest of the whole New York lot." [See indexical note p165.1] Winter's English book of travels was mentioned. "Yes," said W., "He is always on his marrowbones to something or somebody—especially if that thing or that body is English. There is some stuff in some of the fellows in that New York crowd but in DeKay and Winter, in some others, there is absolutely nothing whatever. [See indexical note p165.2] There's Stoddard, even, who might have blazed out a path for himself but who has chosen rather to spend his whole life in routine: and now he is gray, old, past retrieving. Stoddard's early work was most of it good—not giantesque but above the average: he immediately commenced to deteriorate and has continued to lose ground ever since. [See indexical note p165.3] Our young men have a sneaking hunger for loaves and fishes: they look for fat berths—get them: settle down: they are under orders—they are to obey, obey: and so they succeed in destroying all their individuality. I have met George Edgar Montgomery, a young man who originally promised much: who went to The Times, became dramatic critic—worked hard, hard like a slave. [See indexical note p165.4] He is perhaps another fine spirit destined for sacrifice—destined to the grind, the terrific strain, incident to metropolitan journalism."

      [See indexical note p165.5] W. talked of Kennedy's Whitman [not published until 1896]. "He of course attaches more importance to it than I do—naturally does. I have seen some chapters of the book—I have helped him straighten out some biographical kinks—dates and the like: but that is all. As to the book—the whole: well, I don't know. [See indexical note p165.6] I am a slow arriver: I get there but I always come in last. I will only come at an opinion of the book by waiting—very patient waiting. I read a book in which I have a special interest three times or more—once to get its capital feat-

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ures—then after some delay I go at it again—this time for its atmosphere, spirit, and so on: that's reading number two, remember: then comes number three: I read finally for conclusions. [See indexical note p166.1] As to Sloane—well, he ought to be able to do something worth while: he's full of telling stuff: full of it: always, however, in a slightly disarranged, chaotic condition. Kennedy just misses being"
"Being Kennedy!" I put in. "That's just the word: being Kennedy: just misses being Kennedy. Some day he may get himself all together—then he'll do work his own size."

      [See indexical note p166.2] Referring to Swinburne W. said: "He is always the extremist—always all pro or all con: always hates altogether or loves altogether: as the boys say, he goes the whole hog or nothing: he knows no medium line." "When he loved you he loved you too much. Now he hates you he loves you too little." "I suppose that's so: I don't know what I deserve or what I don't deserve. Tom said the other day: 'Swinburne either insults you or hugs you—he knows nothing between': that's just the point—yet that 'between' something or other is more worth while than all the rest."

      [See indexical note p166.3] W. asked me: "You worked a long time ago in a print shop, didn't you?" "Yes, for four years." "Good! good! that's better than so many years at the university: there is an indispensible something gathered from such an experience: it lasts out life. After all the best things escape, skip, the universities." W. again: "There was a kind of labor agitator here today—a socialist, or something like that: young, a rather beautiful boy—full of enthusiasms: the finest type of the man in earnest about himself and about life. [See indexical note p166.4] I was sorry to see him come: I am somehow afraid of agitators, though I believe in agitation: but I was more sorry to see him go than come. Some people are so much sunlight to the square inch. I am still bathing in the cheer he radiated. O he was a beautiful, beautiful boy!" "What

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was his name? Where did he come from?"
"I could not catch the name—he was from the west. [See indexical note p167.1] He said he just came in to say 'how d'ye do' and go again: that he was sure Leaves of Grass would do more for the new dispensation than anything else he knew. I don't see how anything could do more for the new dispensation than such a boy himself. Horace—he had your blue eyes: there was a flavor of the German in him: he said he was the son of an emigrant. [See indexical note p167.2] Well—you might crowd this room with emperors and they would only be in the way, but that boy—O he was a beautiful boy—a wonderful daybeam: I shall probably never see his face again—yet he left something here with me that I can never quite lose. Cheer! cheer! Is there anything better in this world anywhere than cheer—just cheer? Any religion better?—any art? Just cheer!"


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