Commentary

Disciples


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Tuesday, July 24, 1888.

     The second of the three Rhys letters given me by W. yesterday follows. It contains a poem for W.'s birthday.


The Union League Club,
New York, 30th May, '88.

Dear Poet,

I write to wish you all that you wish for yourself—all that is best, on your birthday to-morrow! I meant to have had the lines overleaf complete to send you for the day, but somehow they do not fall into the right order. However, you will take the will for the deed, I know; and perhaps in a day or two I may be able to render them in a better shape, when I write again to tell you of my doings since I saw you last. A splendid time to-night at Metropolitan Opera House, listening to Col. Bob Ingersoll. (Vide morning papers!) More of this anon. I am at Stedman's. He sends birthday greetings.

With great love,

Ernest Rhys.



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TO WALT WHITMAN
On his 69th birthday.


Here health I bring you in one draught of song
Caught in my rhymster's cup from earth's delight
Where English fields are green the whole year long,—
The wine of might
That the new-come Spring distills most sweet and strong
In the viewless avis alembic wrought too fine for sight.


Now shall all pain be gone for this one day,
As, drinking deep of this brimm'd wassail cup,
You feel the years uncoil and their travailing pass away,
Till, ere you drink it up,
Again the sun's quick fires you feel pulse brainword through
         the blood,

Again, as when in youth they pulsed, making the world seem
         good.



For this the Magic wine,
That, tasted by the chosen lips, makes Life as long as
         Thought,—

Elixir this long sought,
Filled of the sun and the wind and all green growing things,
The salt of the sea and the sweet of the earth,
And the potencies of death and birth,—
That tasted once makes men as gods and the common world
         divine.



     W. was inclined to see a merry side to the Rhys poem. "You see, if I can't write poetry I can inspire it." "So you like this poem?" "Yes, don't you?" He spoke particularly of the last verse, and of the descriptive lines: "All green growing things, the salt of the sea and the sweet of the earth." I had these letters in my pocket when I saw him today. Letter three he had me read aloud. "I like to hear such things about the Colonel. He is always a marvel of a man to me—a sort of child man who is honest with himself: who acts out according to his nature—is on the square—has neither false reserve nor false parade."


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The Union League Club,
New York, 7th June, 1888.

Dear Mr. Whitman,

These last days have been so crowded with work and play that there has been no fair chance to do any writing. What with Stedman—who celebrated my last night in America yesterday by toasting me with mint-juleps at the Hoffman House, and Col. Bob Ingersoll, who has been giving me all sorts of wrinkles in oratory at his own house and in public. (It was a great experience to hear him speak to an audience of actors at Madison Square Theater on Tuesday,)—and what with endless other episodes of a friendly and delightful kind, it is a wonder that I have the heart to say Goodbye to America at all. At last the end has come however. I sail by the Crystal this afternoon at three o'clock for Leith, and with this news I must say once more Goodbye, and be silent again for awhile.

With much love!

Ernest Rhys.


     W. said, commenting again on this letter: "Do you notice Horace, nobody ever says of Ingersoll: 'He took me round to the club,' or 'he bowled me off with a big dinner somewhere or other,' or such things? Ingersoll seems to have no taste for that sort of life—he lives too close to nature. No doubt he lives a full life—is comfortable—all that: but he seems to disdain the sham pleasures, the sickly sophistications, of the professional man-about-town, who is seen everywhere at resorts, who is a good fellow to all the literary swells. God bless the Colonel for his simple heart!" W. still resting upon the slender thread of an improvement that imparts no strength. But says his "mind is easier" and "for that a man should be grateful." "I am like Mary Davis' old woman," he added, "who says: Don't talk to me about trouble and trial—I am too busy with my blessings!" Harned rallying him on his possible vote for Harrison W. retorted: "Don't be too damned sure on that score. I was inclined to Harrison at one time but now I hold off. I couldn't swallow him at the best without gagging."


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     I was visited last evening by a press reporter—a son of Rebecca Harding Davis. He brought a letter of introduction from Talcott Williams. W. said: "Yes, he was here too—but I didn't know that was what he was here for. I asked him his name: he said he was Richard Harding Davis." "He asked me if you had any political opinions. I said, 'No—none of a decided sort that I knew: I knew you were a free trader but that was all.'" "That was about right—you said about all that could be said. You might have said also that if Walt Whitman has any political or religious opinions, he would like to have some one tell him what they are." "I told him I thought you had a great faith but that your stock of opinions had run out." W. was very merry over this: "That was mighty good—better still, was mighty true. I wonder if the young man took it in?" "The boy brought a photographer with him," further explained W. "Yes—he got a view of the house." "Is that so? Then I'd bet he took it from the most detestable point of the compass." "You talk like a victim." This made him laugh. "Probably I do. But I have had some tough experiences with reporters and illustrators." After a pause he added: "So you say that was the son of Rebecca Harding Davis? I thought him an Irish boy: I like him—he was so candid, so interesting. Such tall, wholesome looking fellows are rare among American youngsters."

     Harned broached the subject of the restriction of immigration, and happening to say, "most people believe in it—it's very unpopular now-a-days not to believe in it," W. exclaimed contemptuously: "All, did you say, Tom—or almost all? Well, here's one who spits it all out, contract labor, pauper labor, or anything else, notwithstanding." Harned said: "I did not say I believe in restriction—I said most people do." W. went on vehemently: "Well for you, Tom, that you do not say it. I have no fears of America—not the slightest. America is for one thing only—and if not for that for what? America must welcome all—Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not—all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come. We may have drifted away from this principle

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temporarily but time will bring us back. The tide may rise and rise again and still again and again after that, but at last there is an ebb—the low water comes at last. Think of it—think of it: how little of the land of the United States is cultivated—how much of it is still utterly untilled. When you go West you sometimes travel whole days at lightning speed across vast spaces where not an acre is plowed, not a tree is touched, not a sign of a house is anywhere detected. America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people—the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home—close the doors in their face—take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system—convinced that we have solved our problem? I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure—such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be."
W. spoke with the greatest energy. It is a subject that always warms him up. "You see," he said finally, "that the immigrant, too, like the writer, comes up against the canons, and has to last them out."

     W. read some proof today. In reading proofs W. rarely consults his copy. Yet he seems by instinct to catch the printer's aberrations. "I rely a good deal upon my general feeling about a piece when it comes back to me in type." In generally easy mood all though our rather vigorous talk. He said: "The best medicine is time: let us not rob time of its due." Harned had brought in some pears: "They seem right from God Almighty—are the best I have ever eaten—beautiful to look upon and quite as fine to taste." W. wrote to Bucke today. Says he rarely hears from O'Connor. "William has his own troubles." I wrote to Burroughs for W. yesterday. "For years and years John has seemed to avoid me. I never try to guess why. Sometimes I think he is a little afraid of my friends. You, for instance, Horace—Bucke: you are too boisterously radical!" "But you don't think he is afraid of you?" To this he instantly said: "It never occurred to me that he could be: I do not think I have any reason for believing John's attitude towards my work or towards me has changed."


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