Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 121] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sunday, February 10, 1889

     5.45 P.M. W. sitting by the middle window. "I've been looking at the sky," he said. Cold yellow and gold northwest. The sun was gone. This was only the afterglow. He was easy and cordial. Ready to talk. No visitors today. Big fire in the city. I described it to him. He asked many questions. Hunter was up at the house. Left word with my father for me to say to W. his feet were too bad for him to try to get to Mickle street. W. said: "I should have been glad to see him: he's always a tonic." Hunter is doing German translations. Consults with my father concerning these. "That is just like him," W. said: "that stamps the man: I knew he did it. Hunter is very literary but always literarily honest, straight-forward: he comes over to see your father when he has doubts: the ordinary literary fellow would wash them over, mystify the text, put on the show of knowledge, then let the thing go. Hunter is too honest: has too much conscience for that: he must have the truth." He continued: "The trouble is that writers are too literary—too damned literary. There has grown up—Swinburne I think an apostle of it—the doctrine (you have heard of it? it is dinned everywhere), art for art's sake: think of it—art for art's sake. Let a man really accept that—let that really be his ruling thought—and he is lost." I suggested: "If we say politics for politics' sake they get mad." W.: "So they do: that is very good: it's true: politics for politics' sake, church for church's sake, talk for talk's sake, government for government's sake: state it any way you choose it becomes offensive: it's all out of the same pit. Instead of regarding literature as only a weapon, an instrument, in the service of something larger than itself, it looks upon itself as an end—as a fact to be finally worshipped, adored. To me that's all a horrible blasphemy—a bad-smelling apostasy."


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 122] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

     Nothing new from O'Connor. "I looked in the mail for a letter from him: there was none—no word at all: things are ominously quiet: I have great hope that he will linger on for some time, perhaps as he is now." Here W. paused. Then: "But that's poor wishing indeed: it seems cruel to make such a wish: I have had enough experience in the hospitals to know what it means to linger on, in helpless pain, through agonies of body and spirit, sometimes with even the consciousness of the man departed. Poor William—poor me: I want him to live, I want him to die: "I can't think of being left in the world without him." I asked: "How could you be, Walt?" "That's so: how could I be? But the body is stubborn: it craves bodily presences: it has its own peculiar tenacities—we might say aspirations as well as desires." Then he spoke of his own condition. "I may say through you to anybody who wishes to know about me that I am still resolute, cheery, though badly whacked: I'm like a tree with the chief limbs gone: I may be even getting worse: we have to get something: I don't see how I'm getting better: so I must be worse: still, I'm not worrying about that. My life from my bed to my chair, from my chair to my bed again, is tedious, but endurable." I said: "Your troubles are local—physical: you are all right every other way." But he shook his head. "I don't know: it is true I feel pretty comfortable: am having a spell of good weather now: but I'm like the remains of myself physically—no more." But he admitted: "I can write, read, work: I find I can laugh, cry, be myself, still, in most ways: I suppose I shouldn't kick because I can't climb mountains."

     I spoke of Clifford. "He didn't see anything strained in that Critic review." W. said: "No: nor do I: Clifford is right. I don't think Doctor has done half justice to that piece: it deserves a great deal more—oh! a great deal more—than he has been willing to give it: I myself think it among the best things recently said in our favor." Then as he poked away at the fire: "The Doctor runs off that way at times: I can't explain it." Sarrazin was mentioned. W. said: "Of course that's a heavier gun: I know the Critic stuff is light weight brought up against anything so formidable, inclusive, as Sarrazin's study." I asked W. how he liked having S. consider him as a Yankee. He took that good-naturedly. "I have not the slightest objection in the world: as he uses the word I am willing to accept it: Kennedy shied over it: I haven't yet written Sloane to say I am unperturbed

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 123] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
but shall do so."
"To Europe we are all Yankees," I said. W.: "Yes: that tells the tale: just as we are all Christians in a Christian country—though the Christianity of you and me, Horace, wouldn't make anybody rich, eh?" Amused.

     I described a flight of crows I had seen an hour before on the river— "a perfect line of at least eighteen," I said: W. putting in, "like a file of soldiers, I suppose?" I spoke of how as the birds got farther away south they swung and swayed at last like one bird and disappeared. W. said: "I never knew crows to fly like that: I have seen them in groups, clusters, but not in lines: but the gulls and hawks often form so." I went into more detail. Then he said: "They undoubtedly were crows: it was, must have been, a fine spectacle." I asked him about the gulls. "They are the most wonderful of all the birds on the river," I said. He said: "So they are, the gull makes its big stroke—then it is still: floats, floats, across long sweeps of space, without any apparent motion: it is indeed a great sight. The crow never flies that way: he flaps his wings incessantly: is nervous, without inertia." Then he said: "You make me mad for outdoors when you bring in such reports: yet I can't go out: so your reports are the next best thing: they bring outdoors in here a bit: it's only a borrowed satisfaction: yet it helps some."

     I said: "I dropped in at the Academy today." He was all attention at once. "And saw the picture?" "Yes." "And what of it?" I didn't say much of it. "Mrs. Burleigh came up while I stood there." "What did she say?" "She said it failed to give you personality: that made it you only usual: that you are not a usual man." He reflected: "That's interesting—maybe significant: I don't know. But the main thing is, how did it hit you?" I said: "I don't see that that's the main thing—but I don't mind saying it didn't hit me." "Do you mean hit you for good?" "No: I mean that it left me indifferent." Then he asked me: "Might you not get more out of it if you studied it longer?" I could not deny that. He then asked: "What is the cardinal fault? there must be one: otherwise you would not have been left indifferent: could you put it into a word?" The picture is at the head of the stairs. People who passed it as I stood round asked each other: "Who is that old man?" W. finally said: "I see that you don't want to be quizzed: that's more significant to me than if you said something."

     In the meantime it had grown quite dark. With my help W. closed

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 124] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
the blinds, shoved the chairs about into position and lighted the gas. "What do you think of this?" he asked, handing me a big portrait endorsed "John Addington Symonds 1889—to Walt Whitman." He said: "Don't you think our fellows will have to look to their laurels when we get such work as this from abroad—from Switzerland? Look at that: look at the Bucke picture, too: we can't beat it: we have bragged some and there was some reason for it: but here these other people come along with a challenge. It only goes to show how things go round the earth—talents, trades, everything: how what one has another gets: we are getting so close together the world over no one can have any secrets from the rest." W. saw "an Emersonian something or other" in the brow and eyes of Symonds. Then he asked me: "Do you remember Gilder—Watson Gilder? Well—this is in Gilder's style—Symonds and Gilder have some look in common." But he added: "Symonds is the profounder, subtler man by far." "Taking Symonds' knowledge of Greek literature, life, and what he knows of the Italians four or five centuries ago, I don't think his equal can be found in modern criticism—never has been, in fact, so far." I asked W.: "Do you regard Symonds as a thick and thin friend of Leaves of Grass." "Yes I do: and that makes it all the more remarkable that his reply to Swinburne—you knew he had replied to Swinburne?—was such a milk and water affair: I never knew him to do anything so shallow." Then he handed me an envelope: "The picture came with this note: take this with you: then you will see how he stands: he is off in Switzerland somewhere, writing, it appears: but the letter will tell you." I asked: "Didn't Roden Noel also score Swinburne?" W.: "Yes: but they wouldn't print it." But I had seen it in one of the English quarterlies at Harned's. "Oh yes: I do remember now, I think: someone did print it."

     Discussed photographs again. I remarked, picking up the Symonds: "A portrait painter having only technical proficiency, lacking spiritual insight, is beaten out completely by a photograph like this." W. said: "I endorse that: endorse it to the echo: taking the run of paintings: leaving out the very worst, not considering them at all: I think forty out of every fifty would be entitled to be set aside for a picture such as this. I say so knowing that photograph involves a mechanism—is, as some might say it, without soul, spirit: think how much chemicals have to do with it all!" He took up the

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 125] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
picture: pointed to it here and there: "See these lines—how faithful they are, how undoubtedly true! perhaps a little too chemically definitive now and then: so full, so adequate, yet so damned simple, too." He added: "The photograph has this advantage: it lets nature have its way: the botheration with the painters is that they don't want to let nature have its way: they want to make nature let them have their way." He suggested that I take the Symonds and Bucke pictures along "and show them to people, so it may be seen that we have in America here rivals for photographic honors." I said Bucke was a good subject for a painter. W. thought so too. "I wonder that he was not nabbed long ago." Then as he slowly wrapped the pictures together: "I see the Emerson look in Symonds." I suggested: "And yet it's not the look of prophecy, is it?" "No: the Emerson in Symonds is not the seer Emerson but the scholar Emerson—not the Emerson that foresees but the Emerson that sees." Then he asked me: "Did you read the Symonds letter? He says some real things: he's on our side: perhaps not hotly, drastically, vehemently with us, but inclined our way with a few reservations." I said: "I'll read the letter now while I'm here." Sat down.


Am Hof,
Dasos Platz,
Jan. 29, 1889. Switzerland.

Dear Mr. Whitman:

I have to thank you for many mementoes in the shape of newspapers. One which lately reached me, of Dec. 28, 1888, contains the welcome news that you are recovering from your last severe and tedious attack of illness.

Your November Boughs has been my companion during the last week. I have read it with the deepest interest, finding the autobiographical passages regarding your early life and the development of your great scheme particularly valuable. Rejoicing also in the delightful vigour of your critical notes.

Now I am eager to get the nine hundred page volume of your Complete Works, and do not know where it is published. I shall try to obtain it through my London bookseller.

I have long wished to write about your views regarding the literature of the future. Each time I have attempted to do so, I have

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 126] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
quailed before my own inadequacy to grapple with the theme. But I have in preparation a collection of essays on speculative and critical problems, one of which will be called Democratic Art and will be based upon your Democratic Vistas and Leaves of Grass. This I have been working at during the last month; and however imperfect it may be, I have contrived to state in it a portion of what I think the world owes to you both for your suggestions and for the illustrations you have given in your poems—not only by asserting the necessity of a new literature adequate to the people and pregnant with the modern scientific spirit, but also by projecting and to a large extent realizing that literature in your own work.


Meanwhile I am able to echo the words of your friend Dr. Bucke in his "impromptu criticism," and to congratulate you now in the autumn of your life upon the achievement of a monument "more enduring than brass or marble."

Believe me, dear master, to be, though a silent and uncommunicative friend, your true respectful and loving disciple

John Addington Symonds.


     I said: "There's 'master' again, Walt: does it sound any better to you there than in Rolleston's letter?" He said "no" at once. "It does not sound good to me anywhere: I appreciate the reasons why but I can't condone them. I have an idea that if we sat here together and they called me 'master' I'd feel like a fool." I said: "Suppose I called you master, or Bucke came and did it, or Tom, or O'Connor, how would you take it?" He broke loose vehemently: "I couldn't conceive of such a thing: I guess I'd send you home till you learned better manners: maybe I'd give you hell right then and there!" But he said: "We have to consider where they are, where we are: what is back of them, what is back of us: how innocent the thing might be in them, how guilty it would be in us: all that: not that I want to make light of it even in them—even in them it's a term, has connotations, I hate." I asked W.: "How about that monument?" He smiled: "I have my doubts about monuments: I'm afraid Symonds is anticipating or thinking about somebody else." W. summed up: "The fact remains that this letter on the whole places Symonds radically with us—places us radically with him: we are of one

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 127] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
substance: he is not a flamboyant spouter: yet he leaves us in no doubt as to his essential loyalty. Symonds is a man whose range of production is extraordinary: he is a critic scholar of the first international all-time rank."

     On my way to Philadelphia this forenoon early I left a little note for W. suggesting that he should "dedicate" my book. Also that he should answer Dave's question about copies for review. He had acquiesced. "Here is the book, just as you wished it: it's your conquest as well as mine: as I have said, I should always consider it our common book."

     As to Dave's question: "I have no plans, no prejudices, in that matter: I want to do mainly what you fellows agree should be done: I have no plans to give out—no plans not to give out: no plans of any kind. Perhaps a copy for the Herald—for James Gordon Bennett: perhaps a copy for the Century, for Gilder." Did he feel to extend that free list? "No indeed: that is not in the program: a few of them only. You know that is one way to pay debts—to recognize kindnesses, acts of goodwill: give people your handiwork: as everybody seems to agree that we have a handsome book, we would not be ashamed to send it out among our friends." Would he send a copy to Howells? "Why not? Howells has not done so bad: I think we ought to be very much interested in what he did have there in Harper's—that he was willing to go even that far: it was certainly a great advance to take that step: rather than complaining that it is not more we ought to be glad it is not less." He thought it "very significant" that Dave found "no fault with the book." He laughed. "No doubt Dave thought we blundered into the good result: nevertheless, we got there: he could approve of the result." Salter is to go with me to see W. Tuesday at four. W. approved. He said: "I'm willing you should tote anybody here you've a mind to: I know you will not overdo it: we must always remember as I used to say to Tom when he threatened to overdose me with champagne: 'Remember I only hold a pint.' Nothing would better please me than to entertain my friends: it would relieve me: I am house-fast: but nothing exhausts me more: except for you, Tom, one or two others, a stranger occasionally, I have to keep myself in executive session—sit with closed doors."


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.