Commentary

Disciples


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Friday, September 7, 1888.

     Saw Oldach today about binding November Boughs. Will give me an estimate to-morrow. Gave Myrick copy for duplicate plates—content and pagings. Plates of Specimen Days and Leaves of Grass not yet secured from Sherman. November Boughs will be finished by Monday night. Called on W. about eight, evening. Corning and Harned had just gone. Corning has bought W.'s horse and carriage. W. had previously tendered them to Bucke for what Bucke calls "an imaginary debt", Bucke declining. W. said to Corning: "I first offered it to somebody to whom I owed two hundred dollars." Said to me concerning it: "It marks a new epoch in my life: another stage on the down-hill road." "I shouldn't think with your idea of death that you would speak of it as a down road." "Sure enough—the word was false: up road: up—up: another stage on the up-hill road: that certainly seems more like me and I want to be like myself."


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     W. sat this evening with his big blue bath-robe on—head thrown rather back: gray hat on: dark red tie, carelessly half-undone: leaning side-wise towards the light: Life in London (Carlyle) in his hand. Said he had just taken the book up this evening and grown instantly interested. "I think the book is going to be one of the events." Harned had not been in for nearly a week. W. had welcomed him as "the prodigal." Speaking of Thurman's sudden sickness in N. Y. last evening when about to speak: "He should go home: he would lose nothing by it and the world would gain. We have passed beyond Thurman: he was left behind by a past dispensation." I told W. Bucke was afraid I was pushing him too strenuously with the book. "Maurice, don't you believe it! Not at all—not at all. It's the best thing for me—it's the only thing that has kept me alive. The work has not weakened, it has strengthened, me: it has steadied my nerves—been a star ahead: sustained me when everything else would have failed." Then he added: "As the sailors say when they are pretty sure of the harbor—we're going to fetch it! We've got past all, or nearly all, the dangers, headlands: our time is coming now: the voyage is near done." Asked me: "Isn't Corning inclined to taffy—soft-soap—something like that? He has been here a number of times: Talks volubly, cheerfully (I like his optimism): seems inclined to pile it on pretty thick. That tendency to overpraise—is it usual with him? Yes? I was afraid so: I had that impression myself. What do you attribute it to? I like nearly everything in Corning but this: it is so laboriously sugary: it spoils the taste in its excess." "It's the minister in him—the hireling minister who has to oblige everybody in his parish." "You talk like a Quaker but I guess you are right: what is first a studied habit may afterwards become second nature. The case is saved if we say Corning is as he is because he must be."

     I read W. an Independent editorial. When I came to the close of the third sentence he laughed heartily at the thrust. Before I had gone far he interrupted me to say: "That's Stoddard—Stoddard, I guess: and it's well written, too—he writes

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well: it bears the marks of his hand. You see, I still pass for a cipher in certain circles."
When he found his poem quoted in full he added: "That's fair: give the devil—the Independent—his due: let's thank God for this one touch of grace. The enemy seem to be still about—there are plenty of enemies left—we must still stand to our arms. Horace, read the rest of the piece—let me hear it all: tell me the worst."

"Poetical Fads.
"One of our magazines announces that it will publish at an early date an article entitled, Has America Produced a Poet? the author being a well-known English critic. While we hope for an affirmative answer to the question, we trust that this Englishman will not, like so many of his countrymen, name Walt Whitman as the poet. It is curious the veneration in which this man's works are held in England, and the reflected glory they obtain in this country on that account. There may be something interesting and venerable in Whitman's personality as there is, undoubtedly, something pathetic in his poverty; but we have always failed to comprehend the interest in his poetry—we call it such by courtesy—that Lord Tennyson and others have frequently manifested. During the winter we commented on one or two of Whitman's effusions that appeared in the Herald. Now another appears in The Century for September—Old Age's Lambent Peaks—that is, indeed, less shocking, but no less involved and unrhythmical. Here it is:



"'The touch of flame—the illuminating fire—the loftiest look
         at last,

O'er city, passion, sea—o'er prairie, mountain, wood—the
         earth itself;

The airy, different, changing hues of all, in falling twilight,
Objects and groups, bearings, faces, reminiscences;
The calmer sight—the golden setting, clear and broad;
So much i' the atmosphere, the points of view, the situations
         whence we scan,

Bro't out by them alone—so much (perhaps the best) unreck'd
         before;

The lights indeed from them—old age's lambent peaks.'



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"Nothing can be said for these lines except that they are original in their construction and obscurity. They will be read and extolled by a dozen or two Whitmaniacs; but that is all.

"The effort to make a man's poetry great by creating a clique and a claque to sound his praises is bound to be unsuccessful, whether the deity be Browning or Shelly in England and in Boston or Whitman in New York. Writing of this very subject, Mr. J. T. Palgrave, the editor of that incomparable collection of English lyrics known as The Golden Treasury, and at present Professor of Poetry in Oxford University, said, in a recent letter to the editor of The Independent: 'We are deluged in this country just now with criticisms on the poets, and I often regard it as a proof of their essential vitality that they survive the praises of cliques and societies.' As a corollary of this statement, we may say that if a poet's works are worthy they will be recognized and live without any co-operative enthusiasm.

"Editors have a certain duty to the public in their section of poems for publication. There is no doubt that one of the chief causes of the disrepute into which poetry has fallen is the woeful inferiority of the stuff and twaddle published in our periodicals under the name of poetry. Better do as The Atlantic did a few months ago and as it does again for September—omit poetry altogether, if poetry can not be found. Editors must be heartless, must be cruel to contributors, in order to be kind to readers."

      "That's me," said W.: "Is there any reason being further deceived in me? That's a good sample indictment: it takes me up in several items and convicts me without qualification. It sounds wonderful like Dick Stoddard—good enough to be his, bad enough to be his." W. said: "A Symonds letter is a red day for my calendar. This is one of them—an old letter." He reached it forward to me. "Symonds is as tall as a mountain peak—and gentle: always gentle. He hasn't got William's guts: he lacks that first brutality of utterance which goes with the initiators and inspirers: but for pure grace and suavity of phrase, for a certain element of literary as distinguished

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from oratorical eloquence, he is unexcelled. Symonds is a craftsman of the first water—pure as crystal—fine, fine, fine—dangerously near the superfine in his weaker moments. I am always strangely moved by a letter from Symonds: it makes the day, it makes many days, sacred."


Clifton Hill House,
Bristol, Oct 7, 1871.

My dear Sir.

When a man has ventured to dedicate his worth to another without authority or permission, I think he is bound to make confession of the liberty he has taken. This must be my excuse for sending you the crude poem in which you may perchance detect some echo, faint and feeble, of your Calamus. As I have put pen to paper I cannot refrain from saying that since the time when I first took up Leaves of Grass in a friend's room at Trinity College Cambridge six years ago till now, your poems have been my constant companions. I have read them in Italy by the shores of the Mediterranean, under pine trees or in caverns washed by the sea—and in Switzerland among the Alpine pastures and besides the glaciers. At home I have found in them pure air and health—the free breath of the world—when often cramped by illness and the cares of life. What one man can do by communicating to those he loves the treasure he has found, I have done among my friends.

I say this in order that I may, as simply as may be, tell you how much I owe to you. He who makes the words of a man his spiritual food for years is greatly that man's debtor.

As for the poem I send you—it is of course implicit already in your Calamus, especially in Scented Herbage of my Breast. I have but set to an old tune the new divine song: for you know that on this side of the Atlantic at least people most readily listen to the old tunes. I fear greatly I have marred the purity and beauty of your thought by my bad singing.

I am an Englishman, married with three children, and am aged thirty.

Answer to this I scarcely expect, as I certainly do not deserve

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it. The poem I send is due for reasons already set forth. It is a printer's proof at present and no more.


I am your grateful and attached

John Addington Symonds.


     W. said: "That was one of the first, if not the very first, of the Symonds letters. It starts off with the good will which he has never abated of to these very last days. It makes a fellow walk pretty straight when a man like that takes him so dead in earnest. Symonds has always seemed to me a forthright man—unhesitating, without cant: not slushing over, not freezing up. He has written me many letters: they are all of the same character—warm (not too warm), a bit inquisitive, ingratiating." Another letter W. called my attention to was in an envelope endorsed in his own hand: "friendly note from Ward, the sculptor (will send an order and money after May 1)."


140 East 38th Street,
New York, April 23, 1876.

My dear Mr. Whitman:

Your note was received and I am only waiting until the 1st of May when I shall be more "flush" to send you an order for five copies of your complete works.

I am glad that you are publishing your works in this complete form and feel sure that you will be well repaid in every way for the effort.

I hope to do more than this in the way of getting subscribers.

Very Sincerely Yours

J. Q. A. Ward.


     I said to W.: "After all a large proportion of the vital people got on your side. The enemies did not understand you, but the people with blood by and bye got a notion that you were some shucks." He was "satisfied to have it said that way," adding: "I have quite well realized that I gradually secured a considerable body of approbation: things never got easy with me, by they did get less cruel." W. gave me an army pass

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made out to W. to put among my papers. He had endorsed it: "Pass Burnside's Army Jan '63." It read this way:


Provost Marshall General's Office,
No 330 Army of the Potomac,
Falmouth Station, Dec 27th, 1862.

The Bearer Walter Whitman has permission to pass from Falmouth Station to Aqua Creek Landing by rail for the purpose of business. This pass will expire this the 29th day of December (twenty-ninth).

By command of M. R. Patrick, Provost Marshall General.
F.C. Miller
Major and Provost Marshall.



     W. in mighty good feather this evening. Said he had just found an Oscar Wilde letter but "would not give it to" me "just yet." Wanted "to read it again." "Wilde," he said, "may have been some of him fraud at that time but was not all fraud. My letter from him seems wholly sincere. He has extraordinary brilliancy of genius with perhaps rather too little root in eternal soils. Wilde gives up to much to the extrinsic decorative values in art." Also said: "I am laying aside one thing and another for you from day to day. You will do what you will with them—you will throw them away if that seems best to do—you will use them some way—this way—this way or that (perhaps publish them): I do not wish to tie you up at all—to say what you must or may not do: I prefer to leave you free to dispose of anything I may pass over into your hands as you see fit: put it into the fire, put it anywhere: I feel safe in your hands." Before I left he handed me four letters done up in a string. They proved to be one each from Conway, Hotten, William Michael Rossetti and Trowbridge. "You will find that Conway commits himself to Leaves of Grass powerful like in his letter. Hotten writes as a publisher—almost apologizes for himself." Rossetti's envelope was endorsed by W.: "first installment from W M Rossetti free will ordering." I did not stop further to talk about the letters.


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