Commentary

Disciples


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Wednesday, June 27, 1888.

     To W.'s at 8, evening. Going into his bedroom I picked up trailed beyond the doorway into the hall what proved to be an old Symonds letter. I said to W.: "See what I found outside." He took it, handed it back. "What is it? Read it." I read it aloud.


Clifton Hill House,
Bristol, Feb. 25, 1872.

Dear Mr. Whitman:

 [See indexical note p387.3] I received the Washington newspaper with your new poem, for which I hasten to thank you. It is, I think, in your finest style. The conception is most impressive: for this transference to the unseen spiritual influences of the night of what the poet feels of past splendor, and of Love and Struggle in the present life, and of Faith for the future, strikes somehow a soul-thrilling and elevating chord that tunes the whole poem to the pitch of

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a Heroic Symphony. Movements V and VIII are especially grand. [See indexical note p388.1] Who indeed but you are the singer of Love and Faith in their new advent? I have nothing worthy to send you in return. But yet I must exchange my token for yours—brazen for golden gifts, as the Greek poet said. Therefore I venture to enclose a study of Greek friendship. [See indexical note p388.2] The misfortune of my poem is that it presupposes much knowledge of antiquity—as for instance that this Aristodemus returning alone from Thermopylae to Sparta was visited there with universal disgrace, that the Spartan youths lived not at home but in bands called "Herds," that the Spartans sacrificed to Love as the inspirer of Heroism before engaging in battle, and that, as a mere matter of recorded history, Callicrates was the most beautiful man among the Spartans and that he died in the ranks at the very opening of the battle of Platea. You to whom all things seem at first sight clear will need no further explanation.


I wrote to you some days since. More now I will not add—except that I am ever yours

J. A. Symonds.


      [See indexical note p388.3] "That was before Symonds addressed me as 'master,'" said W. "Symonds surely has style—do you notice? His simplest notes are graceful—hang about sweetly after they are done—seem to be heartbeats. I am very fond of Symonds—often regret that we have not met: he is one of my real evidences: is loyal, unqualifying—never seems ashamed—never draws back—never seems to be asking himself, Have I made a mistake in this Wait Whitman? [See indexical note p388.4] His Love and Death is indeed a beautiful poem—just barely lacks real greatness—is in places virile: a bit too decorative, here and there, maybe—on the whole triumphantly worth while. Symonds has got into our crowd in spite of his culture: I tell you we don't give away places in our crowd easy—a man has to sweat to get in."


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      [See indexical note p389.1] W. not so bright as yesterday—sat reading when I entered. Complained. Two Germantown people down stairs. "I have not seen them—cannot," said W. "I know them but could not ask them up: my head is so like a raw sore—I cannot describe it in any other, better way: it worries me to receive strangers—I cannot stand it." Doctor not over today. Since it has got generally understood that no one is admitted to his room fewer visitors come. Reads but only for brief snatches of time. "Any consecutive reading hurts my head—I cannot apply myself." Examined the Lincoln paper this evening—is trying to get it ready to put into November Boughs. Returned the proofs of pages to sixty-five. [See indexical note p389.2] Book probably half done now if the Hicks goes in. "Half done!" he exclaimed jubilantly: "half the way home!" Frank Harned is getting Hicks and W. W. portraits ready for the book. Returned W. Burroughs' Pepacton. [See indexical note p389.3] He handled it for a minute—then looked dubiously at me over his spectacles. "It is not his best work—I often wonder why John wrote it: it has good points but interests me less than almost anything he has written." What of the new German Emperor? [See indexical note p389.4] "I am not very hopeful of the empire—not disposed to trust him—I mean the new man there—the martinet emperor. Perhaps the time has not yet come for so good a man as Frederick—Germany was not ready for him."

      [See indexical note p389.5] Mrs. Davis approached W. about a portrait over the mantelpiece in his room. "Mr. Whitman, what a charming, winning face this lady has. I take a look at her every time I come into the room." "Ah! do you think that?" "Yes." "Some day when I feel more like it than I do now I will tell you about her. [See indexical note p389.6] She was an old sweetheart of mine—a sweetheart, many, many years ago." "Is she living yet?" The question seemed to stir W. profoundly. He closed his eyes, shook his head: "I'd rather not say anything more about that just now."


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      [See indexical note p390.1] Harned in today. Still concerned about the will, which W. has not touched, the promise of Sunday evidently forgotten. Baker says he has repeatedly mentioned the matter to W. but it seemed to do no good. I recurred to it. W. took my jog kindly. "I promise you that I will attend to the matter in a day or two at most," adding: "Write to Bucke to that effect—it will console him." [See indexical note p390.2] I told him I had despatched letters to Burroughs, Bucke and Kennedy describing his condition. Gave me the Washington photo which he inscribed to me. [See indexical note p390.3] On the left he wrote: "Walt Whitman taken from life 1863 War time Washington D.C." To the right he wrote: "to Horace Traubel, from his friend W. W., June, 1888." Wrote in a firm hand in my presence, the card resting on his knees. "I can't say more, Horace, than that I want you to have it. [See indexical note p390.4] As for the picture—it is first rate—everybody at the time considered it capital: Eakins likes it—says it is the most powerful picture of me extant—always excepting his own, to be sure."

      [See indexical note p390.5] Left with W. a copy of Detroit Free Press containing a paper on The Poet, Walt Whitman. Discussed with him the origin of the poem The Dismantled Ship. "Yes," he said, "it was suggested by the picture in Harned's parlor: "that's me—that's my old hulk—laid up at last: no good any more—no good"—pausing— "a fellow might get melancholy seeing himself in such a mirror—but I guess we can see through as well as in the mirrors when the test comes." [See indexical note p390.6] Alluding to the care with which I preserve all the mems. concerning him that I find or he gives me he said tonight: "You always come into this room hungry and I always try to feed you but I don't believe you ever get enough. Did you ever go home satisfied?" Then he laughed. And after his laugh he spoke again: "After all you may be doing a public service, as Bucke calls it. Bucke said to me when he was last here: 'Walt, every scrap of paper in this room is precious

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—will some day be interesting to the world.' Maurice always runs to extremes."
I said: "I don't expect you to agree with us about the value of these odds and ends. [See indexical note p391.1] You have destroyed many papers and letters." "Yes—I suppose I have: many of them." "Don't do it any more—give them to me." W. burst out in the midst of a laugh: "Is that a request or a command?" "Neither—but you once promised to do it." "So I did—and haven't I pretty decently kept my promise?" "I think you have." Then he grew earnest. [See indexical note p391.2] "God knows boy you are welcome to the stuff—most of it seems to have no value to me: if you think it has any significance—is data for history—take it—preserve it—welcome—welcome."


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