Commentary

Disciples


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Monday, November 12, 1888.

     8 P. M. W. sitting in his chair. The light was lowered. His head was dropped in his right hand. Was aroused at my entrance. "Oh! it 's Horace!" How had he been to-day? "Not very well: all right the fore part: then I had a bad turn: it has gripped me now since the middle of the afternoon." Yet talked with fluency. Musgrove in to-day. His impressions of W. not favorable. Gilchrist in yesterday "for ten minutes." Visitors not plenty the last week or so. Got W. his English draft exchanged for $14.43. Took notes to Ferguson this morning. W. pleased to find how well the matter ran over to the second page after his addition. W. added to paragraph one everything from "people of the world" to "from the point of view alluded to." He had written on the margin of the proof: "please put this in as mark'd—and send me proof to-night—I want it to make two pages." He talked about the draft. "It gives us useless trouble sending money that way: I try to induce the fellows over there to send me postal orders when they owe me anything—must remit. I have thought the English post-office department in some ways superior to ours: they have introduced some marked improvements—a good many of them through Anthony Trollope, who was

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so long employed in the service. James, there in New York, afterwards Postmaster General, was a man who seemed to me to be of sterling merit: such a man should be held on to—should not be let go of after a term or two: the trouble is that we don't live in an age of public emulation but of private greed."
Held up before me a note from some lady (he did n't say who): " I 'm going to send this to Doctor: he thinks much more of these trifles than I do, than we do."

     Bucke is expected. Had W. his date? "No—nothing definite." Was Bucke likely to be here this week? "Hardly: but we can't tell: he may come over night in a burst of glory." The confusion in his room "sometimes reacts," as he laughingly said to-night: "kicks like a gun." We hunted without success for a copy of the November Boughs frontispiece. "Damn this mix-up!" he exclaimed. Then: "But I 'm the chief mix-up myself: so why should I growl?" Camden alive with torchlight paraders. W. said: "Let them have their blare: to-day is theirs: but how about to-morrow? The tariff sneak-thieves seem to expect another generation of rule: they are arrogant, almighty: but there 's another something coming: maybe they can't guess it: I can: let them not be too certain: pride comes before the fall: it 's when they seem most sure, sufficient, self-satisfied, prosperous, that there comes the smash-up: heap up your treasure—gold, goods: heap them high—way up: then beware! The Greeks—nearly all of them: the writers, the race traditions: are full of this idea: the idea that the gods hate prosperity—this sort of prosperity: the idea that when men sit heaped all round with possessions, loot, then the end is near—then look out!"

     I handed W. Bucke's letter of the 9th to me. He read it aloud. B. remarks: "W. writes very cheerfully—speaks of feeling 'better still'"—W. put in: "Yes—that was three or four days ago: but to-day? To-day he 's not so sassy!" Afterwards Bucke said: "He seems to like Ed Wilkins well, as I was sure he would." W. exclaimed: "He

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does! He does!"
—pronouncing "does" playfully like "doos," as is his habit when pleasantly moved. At the end of the letter came this passage: "Should this meter go it is my dream to devote the rest of my life (not many years perhaps, but still a few) to the study and promulgation of the new religion ('the great idea') and I should hope to find younger men to pass on the"—the rest of the sentence was "work to when I lay it down," but W. dropped the letter on his lap at the "the," laughed and exclaimed: "Gas! gas!—O Doctor, Doctor, what are you after now!" I said: "What is his religion? He is hazy about it." W. renewing his laughter: "Indefinite? yes indeed: but that very mystery, haziness—that is the religion!" Then W. took the thing a bit more seriously: "And yet I suppose Bucke has reasons and more reasons: even gas has reasons—even gas is an important agent of power: why, science tells us that heat, gas, accounts for all the operations of nature: everything returns to the one force, element—whatever it is called: all life is a witness to the basic part so played in physics by the gases." I said: "That lets in even the politicians." W. laughed even more: "It does? do you say that? then I take it back."

     He remarked that his little note on the poets sent to The Critic had not yet appeared. "Perhaps it will not appear: it may not meet their purpose: who knows but the whole project fell through? The question was not addressed to me alone: it was a circular, filled in for me: it was no doubt widely circulated. There 's little profit in such cogitation: none, I sometimes think: it tends rather to do harm than good. Emerson says somewhere that no matter how much the critic fails to tell the history of his book he never fails to tell his own. That was one of Emerson's characteristic slaps." I asked: "Don't you think that very often personal criticism is superior to official criticism? comes more surely from the inidvidual and goes nearer the mark?" W. was quick to say: "Undeniably: that is profoundly true: I don't know but the best criticism—the real fundamentals

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in criticism—is always mouth to mouth, face to face, one person with another, as you with me here now."

     W. went on talking on the question of "lights" in literature. "I had a letter from a fellow last week: did I show it to you? I intended that you should see it. The letter was from England: some one, not a célèbre—not even literary, markedly, I suppose—yet a man of considerable cuteness, writing it. His fad is Keats: he thinks Keats is the man. He offered me some very free criticisms of Leaves of Grass. Oh! I wish I had the letter here: I must have sent it to Bucke: I did not intend to—I wanted you to see it, know about it, before it went." "How do you regard Keats, on the whole, anyway? You don't refer to him often or familiarly." He replied: "I have of course read Keats—his works: may be said to have read all: he is sweet—oh! very sweet—all sweetness: almost lush: lush, polish, ornateness, elegancy." "Does he suggest the Greek? He is often called Greek." "Oh no! Shakespeare's Sonnets, not the Greek: you know, the Sonnets are Keats and more—all Keats was then a vast sum added. For superb finish, style, beauty, I know of nothing in all literature to come up to these Sonnets: they have been a great worry to the fellows: and to me, too: a puzzle: the Sonnets being of one character, the Plays another. Has the mystery of this difference suggested itself to you? Try to think of the Shakespeare plays: think of their movement: their intensity of life, action: everything hell-bent to get along: on: on: energy—the splendid play of force: across fields, mire, creeks: never mind who is splashed—spare nothing: this thing must be done, said: let it be done, said: no faltering." He shot this out with the greatest energy of manner and tone, accompanying animated gestures, saying in conclusion: "The Sonnets are all that is opposite—perfect of their kind—exquisite, sweet: lush: eleganted: refined and refined then again refined—again: refinement multiplied by refinement." Then he saw no vigor in them? "No: vigor was not called for: they are personal:

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more or less of small affairs: they do their own work in their own way: that 's all we could ask and more than most of us do, I suppose."
He regarded the Plays as being "tremendous with the virility that seemed so totally absent from the Sonnets."

     W. again: "I have never given any study merely to expression: it has never appealed to me as a thing valuable or significant in itself: I have been deliberate, careful, even laborious: but I have never looked for finish—never fooled with technique more than enough to provide for simply getting through: after that I would not give a twist of my chair for all the rest." Then after an interval: "I don't know but that sounds very imperious: yet it seems to be to be absolutely true: it is after all the great underlying fact in all modern art—the writers, the poets: oh! the poets! the whole brood of them: the fellows in England, here: the magazine men: the insane emphasis put on the way things are done rather than on what is done." "Tennyson?" He protested vigorously: "No—not Tennyson: certainly, not the Tennyson: Tennyson is exceptional—survived himself: I referred to the average, the total, the tendency." "Take Coquelin," he said: "take Coquelin, the French actor, who opens in Philadelphia to-night: it seems to me he is the exemplar of it all: art: art: art: again and again art, art, art—art refined out to the last limit: art refined to a line that has no beyond. With Coquelin it is—what is the end to be sought? is my audience literary, artistic, scientific—to be pleased as such? If so what has to be done to make that point?—not what is natural, spontaneous, fit: no: rather what comes closest to meeting the case: let there be no mistake about this: the case must be met, then all is won!" That, to him, was "contemporary literature in the work of the mass of its writers": it was a false note. "Lowell: take Lowell: might we not even class him with the disciples of form—of exquisite workmanship: a sort of Coquelin off the stage as Coquelin is a sort of Lowell on the stage?"


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     W. has been much stirred by Tennyson's illness. "One piece of news in the papers to-day has made me more cheerful: Tennyson's improvement: it was a close call, I am told: now, however, we may look forward to a favorable outcome." I saw something over in the Horace corner. I asked: "Is that for me?" "What?" I pointed my finger that way. He looked around. "Why, yes: it is for you: I came near forgetting it: it is a Rolleston letter: it refers in part to Grashalme—the German Leaves (a remnant of the Leaves!): you ought to keep it among your scraps, notes, memoranda: you have a lot of letters by this time about editions." I sat down on the edge of the bed and read the letter aloud. W. said: "It has an ardent, unforgettable tang—it tastes sweet to me: not the literary something or other of it: no: its simply human quality: I like that above all else." Here is the letter:


Delgany, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, Feb. 11, '85.

My dear Walt:

I have been too long in acknowledging the receipt of a newspaper containing the short poem about the Arctic singing bird. It is really a thing to give thanks for—a piece of verse that shows poetry at its greatest. Would it be too great a favor to ask for, if I begged you to let me have it in your own handwriting?

I suppose Dr. Bucke sent you a letter I wrote him about Dr. Karl Knortz and his judgment on my translation, which letter I asked him to forward to you. Since then I wrote to Dr. K. explaining my views, and asking him if he would revise the manuscript without impairing its literality. I have not yet had an answer to this proposal. If he would take it up in the manner I suggest a really good thing might be made of it. I should earnestly like to see it fairly afloat and before the public in Deutschland.

We are settled now pro tem in the County Wicklow on the lower slopes of the Wicklow Mountains and about two miles from the sea, which we have a good view of from the windows. We are within easy reach, by train, of Dublin,

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which is advantageous for me, as I am coming forward in the political line and belong to the Dublin Young Ireland Society. Our president, John O'Leary, is a splendid fellow—a lion-like old man with long full gray beard, jet black twenty years ago, when he was sent to penal servitude for the Fenian rising in '65. He was released after six years of condition of not returning to Ireland till '85. He is now trying to instil a spirit of tolerance into the rather narrow and bitter patriotism of the National League. He and O'Donovan Rossa were fellow prisoners! so strangely do men's paths merge.


I wonder if you have seen Irving act? I used to admire him very much, and hear he has improved lately. I have seen his Hamlet twelve times and each time with new interest.

Did you like the translation of the Greek Hymn to Zeus I sent you from Dresden?

T. W. Rolleston.


     Before I left W. said: " I 'm not saying everything I think about the work: I depend mainly upon you: I don't want to embarrass you with suggestions: assume your own initiative: stay close to the printers: you will understand each other. Take my love to all the boys: the typos: tell them Walt Whitman not only was but is one of them. Good night! Good night!"


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