Commentary

Disciples


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Friday, January 11, 1889.

     8 P. M. W. lying on bed. Did not get up while I stayed: was cheerful: talked vigorously and long: seemed generally in good trim. Said he was not on the bed because he felt worse but simply for a change and some little rest. Asked at once about the book: what had been done to-day? McKay met me at Oldach's: we had discussed and ordered cover. W. greatly interrogative: "So you ordered one? Are promised one next week? I was afraid I did not commit myself radically enough for you to go on: I am glad you went on of your own accord." Then: "Whatever turns up we retain the privilege of final rejection"—adding: "I suppose it is a question of durability: it remains to be seen how far these present books will answer: that can only be known by waiting, use." Referred to "great covers." I suggested: "Perhaps some day there will be a Whitman edition produced in such style." "That is very far off, if at all: but there are places, people, who want them: the big British libraries, the museums: even here there are some rich men: rich men's sons, families. Do you know young Ed Reed?—the lawyer?—the young man down Federal Street? He has fine bindings: some very fine, rare: I have seen them: he has shown them to me." So on and so on. "But for the present I suppose we have nothing to do but wait—see what comes about."

     New York Mail and Express copied Press paragraph as a telegram. W. remarked: "That is usually the way: the thing you don't wish circulated goes the rounds: it is copied from one end of the land to the other: the thing you wish noticed, read—think must be read beyond a doubt—that falls flat, is altogether forgotten." I returned him Carpenter's note. "You found it just as I said, did n't you?"

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W. had been "turning the matter over and over," he said. "I am confident it was never drawn—never received: I would not have forgotten. You know that would have been, is, a notable event—not easily dismissed: but to make certain about it I looked all through my note book to-day and through the check book: there was not a sign of it: besides, the draft was marked as 'not drawn.'" Then W. laughed heartily till the bed shook. "I seem to be getting up wrong anyhow nowadays. You know the little piece I sent The Century the other day—the six or seven lines?" I said no. He had not told me of it. "No? why I thought I had told you? Anyhow, I sent them a piece—marked it twelve dollars (I always settle the price myself). To-day there comes along a letter from Gilder—a few lines, I think signed by him—dictated, I suppose—written on a type machine—in which he says something this way—that he is glad I am able to do these things again: that he encloses my price: but there was no check enclosed—nothing there at all, check or cash. I returned him the note stating this in effect."

     Something was said about Clifford's message of thanks for The Critic piece. W.: "Oh! I 'm glad he got it." Expressed himself as "a little or a good deal dubious" about "both the pieces" himself. "I must wait and see what comes of 'em—see what I make of 'em myself." It was "a problem"—to him "a strange sort of difficulty." "What they amount to, what they signify, I could not at all estimate." I said: "Bucke appears to be well satisfied—almost enthusiastic." W.: "Well—I don't see it that way: Doctor says it is fierce, powerful: then asks, where the devil do you get this power—that is all." Was that not enough? "Not at all. whether the poem has any congruity with what has gone before, that is another question: that is the question: there may be the fierceness, the power: that is not enough." What had been my feeling? "I liked it—liked it much:

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the first part is clear, good: the last three lines are not so easy for me: I confess I don't grasp them."
He said warmly: "Good! good! your state appears to be precisely mine: you will have to wait as I do: see what is finally evolved." He expresses his frequent suspicions that this work he attempts now is not congruous with what has preceded it. He realizes "a loss of grip": that "the old power will never come back": but the question remains: "If not all, why not some?" Said he had sent copies of the 1889 poem to O'Connor and Kennedy. Neither one has so far acknowledged it.

     Suddenly after a pause W. exclaimed: "Poor Nellie O'Connor! She has a hard time of it!" Then: "She is a slight woman: weighs ninety pounds—perhaps a little more. O'Connor is a heavy man: built like Oldach: that same figure—compact: she is a typical Yankee girl: rather intellectual than physical: bright, good." "I can't help thinking of the talks I used to have with Eldridge—Charles Eldridge: our strolls together: often having Nellie O'Connor in mind. We would wonder if O'Connor showed her sufficient consideration." I asked: "Was not O'Connor an affable man enough to meet with?" "Oh yes! there was no doubt about that: but it seems almost the rule among foreigners—even the sons of foreigners—to regard woman less deferentially—less considerately, I suppose we may say: less gently: than we find is the case here. Nellie? We both liked her—oh! had a great affection for her—particularly Charles"—then after a short pause: "But I don't know: I liked her as much as he did." W. again as to foreigners: "The helpmate business they do not comprehend as we do. They do not recognize that it must be a reciprocal relationship." He did not wish to "hypercriticise": had come to this conclusion by careful study. It was true "our fellows make a popinjay of a woman: dress her up—give her jewelry, toggery—creams, candies—which is all paltry, mean, enough": but then "that is the mere surface of the evidence: below all that there 's a something more—a nearer

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approach to what should be than is found in Europe—found here among Europeans."
I told W. how Christlieb traveling here in America was surprised for instance to see a husband go and get his slippers for himself in the evening instead of waiting for his wife to do it. He thought the American woman would go to the devil if this thing kept on. W. said warmly: "It is a good illustration." He knew "we have nothing to boast about": he knew, he felt, that "we have no reason to point a finger at Oriental customs or any others and say: 'There, there alone, is the sin.'" Yet "we have made a decided move." I contended for greater freedom all around. W.: "I feel that as deeply as you do: I consider it the glory of this age that it dares throw off restrictions—throws them right and left: demands to go free: and this freedom must be for the women as well as the men. I look to see woman take her place in literature, in art—show what are her innate potencies, powers, attributes." But was not motherhood precious above all: not bookwriting or ornamental acquirements? "Yes, I allow all that: but it is important to have the books because of what they reflect: as the alter ego—the other self: men nearer realize what they are through what they see in others: O'Connor calls it 'the philosophy of the passions': sees it as the chief fact, the interfusing atmosphere, so to speak, of the Shakespearean, or, as he positively insists, the Baconian, plays."

     A great question, W. thought it: "the question of questions, perhaps: who knows?" "O'Connor makes much more of that factor in the Plays than I do: warms up a good deal more about it: but what he says is substantially true." The Washington clipping he gave me yesterday—what paper was it from? What was its date? "It was in the Washington days," he said slowly (he always speaks slowly): then seeming to catch on to the inquiry in my face: "Yes, I wrote it: I am the man." But how about the reference to him? Had he inserted that? "No—that was interpolated: I don't know how it came about. The paper was edited by

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—let me see, who was it? Burbage, Savage: some name or other near that: oh! I have it: Burritt: I think he lately died."
His memory is a bit shaky here and there but he generally gets it together again. "Burritt would often come in of a Saturday night: take his coat off: set lustily to work. He probably got hold of my piece—knew I had been present at the concert: my habits, enjoyment: inserted that line or two. The concerts were always a treat: I was always on hand: the players were most of them Italian: spoke miserable English—a mere show of it: but I got along very well with them, as I always did, do: I struck up acquaintance with all of them. They were likeable fellows: I think they thought I was a likeable fellow. Sitting here of late, calling up, as often occurred, old times—these among a curious hunger to possess a file of The Herald: get hold of my pieces again: re-read." They would be "oddities at least."

     He paused: was serious, yet in a fraternal mood. "I can now see one of those Italian players: he played E flat cornet, I think they called it: very bright, animated: one of the best if not the best. I was always loafing about: had a quick if not a technical ear. This man would come to the crucial passages with immense gusto—would often play solo interludes, whatnot: then would come the lull—a chance for the others to whack away—he being silent for a space. Then it was I would see his dark eyes glancing about—catch me—as if to say, how was that? do you approve? are we agreed?" "I looked upon those concerts in the open air—the nights often so beautiful, calm—as bright gleams athwart the sad history of that harrowing city and time. Yet my enjoyment was altogether untechnical: I knew nothing about music: simply took it in, enjoyed it, from the human side: had a good natural ear—did not trouble myself to explain or analyze."

     Whether it was "best so" had been a question he had "often heard debated and had debated" himself. "Some

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insist that, given the vital intuition, a man is better without than with a knowledge of technique."
W. said: "I don't know about that: I think that a risky assumption: I think my best talks on this have been with Mrs. Gilchrist. She was very vehement: she would say: 'No! no! rather than hurting it betters.' First, of course, there needs to be the feeling, the bottom appreciation." I pointed to Ruskin—had just been reading The Eagle's Nest. W.: "I have heard that: but he is wrong—all wrong: Mrs. Gilchrist alone, standing as she did, for what she did, was sufficient refutation." I think he delights to conjure with that name. He spoke of her "vast information," her "eminent qualities." "It is one of my great regrets, that of all of these great, solid, cute, keen criticisms hers—I have heard them in hundreds (all good—some supremely ample)—none have been written down—written by her, by some of us—by some one who had the good fortune to meet, realize her." He considered that "they deserved, as they would have had, an immortality." He "commiserated" me that I had not witnessed "the power, the heart, she displayed, even in a case like the matter we have been talking about." "She was courageous: nowhere afraid to assert truths—often profound truths—as we knew, knowing her. I was her contention that no man can know too much of science: not even the artist himself, the poet, the writer." W. regarded Mrs. Gilchrist as "a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good." "If her sayings had been recorded—I do not say she would pale, but I do say she would equal the best of the women—the best of the women of our century—add something as great as any to the testimony on the side of her sex." W. added: "And now that I have said this much to you about Mrs. Gilchrist I don't mind giving you a draft of a note I once wrote to her acknowledging her wonderful recognition and understanding of me. Whatever notion you might have of my extravagance when I speak of her or write about her would be dissipated at once if you by a miracle could spend a single hour in her

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presence: I have often spoken to you of Frances Wright: well, here was Frances Wright—glorious Frances—and something still more glorious added: in this woman—this great soul."
He directed me to the table where I found what he spoke of. The letter was written on two pages of the American Institute poem sheets pasted together. I asked W.: "Do you mean me to read this aloud, too?" He was very still. In a glow, too. "Yes, if you will."


Nov. 3, 1871.

[To A. G., Earl's Cone, Halsted, Essex, Eng.]

I have been waiting quite a long while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wished to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy.


     I finished. W. lay there on his bed. His eyes were closed. "Horace," he said: "there are some things in the world too big for it: they seem to crowd it out at the sides—to demand more room. I have had to spend a good deal of time for thirty years thinking of my enemies: they have made me think of them: even when I have tried to forget I had any enemies, have been compelled to reckon with them.

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But when I turn about and look at my friends—the friends I have had: how sacred, stern, noble, they have been: the few of them: when I have thought of them I have realized the intrinsic immensity of the human spirit and felt as if I lived environed by gods. I do not mean to be extravagant—to say too much—Horace: you know how much I hate gush, effusion, flattery: but I can't help acknowledging that while I have had the worst enemies that ever were I have also had the best friends that ever were: perhaps the one comes to offset the other—the passionate love to offset the venomous hate. I don't need to name anyone: yet there are Dowden, Symonds: there is William: and John, too: and do you know Swinton? he is fiery true always: oh! what's the use? They don't need to be named to you: and the Mrs. Gilchrist—a woman among women: she saw me as no one else did—certainly no other woman ever did. Here we have had the hate and the love: how I have been bedevilled! how I have been blessed! I never feel quite certain of myself—certainly I am never certain of the Leaves: the Leaves still seem to be a trial merely: but my friends—of you—of Rossetti, of Tom, of Doctor, of Rolleston—oh! after all there are quite a lot of you: oh! of you I feel certain: there is no doubt about you: you are my rock of ages: but for you, for the assurances you have always been bringing me—you fellows—I would never feel that I and my book had done more than simply passed across the stage into oblivion."
Then he referred to his letter to Mrs. Gilchrist: "The substance of that letter—its feel: what it starts out to say to her: oh! with a few words taken out and put in—it would do for any one of you! I have not said much about it but the sense of it all has stirred my heart profoundly and drawn me closer and closer to you with each year." After a pause he said: "Horace, maybe I have said too much—been too wordy: but the facts remain facts: I feel just what I have tried to say."

     In talking of W.'s early adherents I mentioned Bryant. "Walt: you and Bryant were personal friends. Did he

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ever care for your work?"
"I can't say he did: Bryant was trained in the classics—made no departures. He was a healthy influence—was not a closet man: belonged out of doors: but he was afraid of my work: he was interested, but afraid: I remember that he always expressed wonder that with what he called my power and gifts and essential underlying respect for beauty I refused to accept and use the only medium which would give me complete expression. I have often tried to think of myself as writing Leaves of Grass in Thanatopsisian verse. Of course I do not intend this as a criticism of Bryant—only as a demurrer to his objection to me: Thanatopsis is all right in Thanatopsisian verse: I suppose Bryant would fare as badly in Leaves of Grass verse as I would fare in Thanatopsis verse. Bryant said to me: 'I will admit that you have power—sometimes great power.' But he would never admit that I had chosen the right vehicle of expression. We never quarrelled over such things. I liked Bryant as a man as well as as a poet: he I think liked me as a man: at least I inferred so from the way he treated me. Bryant belonged to the classics: liked the stately measures prescribed by the old formulas: he handled them so marvelously well. Breaking loose is the thing to do: breaking loose, resenting the bonds, opening new ways: but when a fellow breaks loose or starts to or even only thinks he thinks he 'll revolt he should be quite sure he knows what he has undertaken. I expected hell: I got it: nothing that has occurred to me was a surprise: there probably is still more to come: that will not surprise me, either." A long good talk vividly impressing me.

     I wonder often over W.'s long sentences—if they are to come out right at last (as they mostly do) after devious windings. He was serenely glowing to-night. He stirred me. He rarely lets himself loose in this personal fashion. I wrote to Stedman for W. to-day: sent the message out of my sheet of notes. Copies of Boston Herald arrived at last. Gave three to W., kept one for McKay, kept one for myself. In leaving I picked up a piece of paper on the floor by the

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door. I went back under the light to see what it was. It was three lines in W.'s handwriting. W. asked from the bed: "What is it?" I read it: " 'If you would know what books are best worth reading,' was the saying among European scholars in the 16th and 17th centuries, 'look in the Index Expurgatorious.'" W. said: " That 's what it is: yes, I remember: take it along: paste it in your hat: it 's worth having around to think about."


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