Commentary

Disciples

 
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Tuesday, February 19, 1889

     4 P.M. W. not doing anything in particular. "I am tied up to the wharf today: not trying out my sails any." Did not look very well. "What have you got there? what's the big book?" he asked. I handed it to him. Johnson's China. "I should be interested to look through it," he said. Read title page aloud. Passed the pages quietly through his fingers. Stopped at the section, Poetry. "Ah! this! I must see this!" and so on. "It's about the East—that wonderland." Asked me about the fire in Philadelphia: in the yarn district. Extensive. "They have been telling me of it: it is quite near the river, isn't it?" What had I done in town today? "Who have you seen?" Told him about Brown, who says he couldn't probably give us a picture bigger than six by nine: that this would cost twenty-four fifty. W. said quietly: "I'm trying to make out what that size would be. "Let's measure it." W. laughed: "That's what I say: but where's the measure? I had a measure here once, but"—swinging his hand towards the piles of papers everywhere— "God knows where it's hidden away." But he added: "Let it be six by nine: that sounds big enough to handle." I left the original with Dave. "Perhaps our wise course would be to have it made small, so we can use it in the book—the new edition we are going to get out for the pocket." Still, his caution intervened. He resents having to make prompt decisions. "Anyhow, let me consider it: I will let you know tomorrow just

 
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about what I deem the best thing to have done." He seemed to divine me. "Yes: I know I'm slow: I was built slow: I seem to be made on the Dutch plan."

      "I have had a short note from Doctor today," he said, reaching towards the table: "here it is: take it along: he will not be here till Thursday." I put in: "Or later." W.: "Yes: or later: we won't believe him till we see him." Brown thought the photo would reproduce well. W.: "Glad to hear it"—adding: "Some of 'em seem to go straight to hell in the process." Made up a bundle of newspapers to send to O'Connor. Wrote him a postal. Ed says W. woke up feeling rocky. Face decidedly swollen. Now improved. From a tooth? W. said: "I am ballooned one side: look at me: ain't I likely to go up?" And laughingly: "We're a gassy lot: we can never tell to what dizzy flights our loquacities will lift us." Was rather disposed to fun. But still said: "I'm way below par."

     He picked papers up from the table. "Look at these! They are the papers you brought me from Dave yesterday: both contain reviews of November Boughs: one is the Pall Mall Gazette, the other is the London Echo: the Gazette goes into the matter quite liberally." I asked: "Who wrote the pieces?" "It does not say: in neither case is there any signature." "What shall I do with them?" "Perhaps for one thing you had better take the papers over and let Dave see them: he may find sentences to quote: besides, you will want to read them yourself: take them in your pocket: but don't leave them with Dave: I must on no account lose them." I said: "I thought you didn't care a fig for reviews." "I don't: but think what would happen if Bucke came along and found them gone!" While we were talking, Mrs. Davis brought in his dinner. W. said: "Here's Mary with the grub: won't you sit down and have a bite?" And then he added as he started buttering a slice of bread: "That's the round of my life: got up, ate my meals, went to bed again: not getting up very far, either, nor eating much, nor even sleeping enough to brag about!"

     I went home. Was held up by a messenger at the door. The telegram was from Bucke. "Cannot get away before Monday. Tell W. and write." Which confirmed our uncertainties.

     7 P.M. Stopped in at W.'s again. Showed him Bucke's telegram. Disappointed. But he said: "Well—there's nothing imminent." Then,

 
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as to writing: "Let me see: have I anything to say? I guess not: I shall not write tonight." Did not feel, did not look well. Yet he said: "I have eaten a decently hearty dinner." He explained: "The trouble with me today is not so much in what I do as in what I do not feel." I said: "Discomfort is worse than pain. He said: "Yes: much worse: I've had more than one of the poor boys in the hospitals say to me: God, Walt, I wish I felt some pain!" "Pain may mean life: the absence of pain may mean death." "Precisely: who had more right than I have to say that? Not only from what I have seen in others who suffered but from what I have suffered myself."

     I said to W.: "You don't feel like talking tonight: I'll skip off." He said: "I'm not spry, to be sure, but then you are always a tonic to me: don't hurry off just yet." Then he put on his glasses. "I've got something for you to do anyhow: after you do that you may go if you feel so disposed." After turning over a lot of papers on the table he handed me some stuff pinned together. "Look at it: look it over: I rooted it out of a hole today while I was after something else." "It looks tasty," I said. He was very jolly over it. "From your point of view it is tasty." I examined it. W. said: "I can easily tell you what it is: I want you to read it all to me: there are three letters: you have heard of Bram Stoker—Irving's man: he took a shine to me over there in Ireland when he was in college: wrote me from there—but was afraid to mail the letter: the second letter tells about it: he has been here: I value his good will highly: he seems to have remained of the same mind, mainly in substance, as at first." I continued turning it over. "Am I to read it?" I asked. "If you will," he said. There were two Stoker letters and the draft of a letter from W. acknowledging them. "It's a rather long story," I said: "there are several chapters to it." I also asked him: "Did you read them over today when you found them?" He said: "No: I left that job for you: I haven't read them since they came in '76: when I sit here, when you read to me, when I have nothing to do but listen, I feel composed, at peace, more than usually impressionable: I take things in without any effort, then—moreover, retain them." I said: "I am willing enough to read." W.: "You see—there's method in my laziness: I'm doing the best I can in the littlest ways as well as the biggest to conserve the few dribbles of vitality that are left to me. John is always giving me advice about that: and Doctor:

 
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but God knows, Horace, and you know, too, that I need no advice on that score—that I anticipate them." Then I read. Stoker's last letter first, then his first letter, then Walt's reply.

Dublin, Feb. 14, 1876.


My dear Mr. Whitman.

     I hope you will not consider this letter from an utter stranger a liberty. Indeed, I hardly feel a stranger to you, nor is this the first letter that I have written to you. My friend Edward Dowden has told me often that you like new acquaintances or I should rather say friends. And as an old friend I send you an enclosure which may interest you. Four years ago I wrote the enclosed draft of a letter which I intended to copy out and send to you—it has lain in my desk since then—when I heard that you were addressed as Mr. Whitman. It speaks for itself and needs no comment. It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light. The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first. The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation—and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress. I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views—I think with success. Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write. Dowden promised to get me a copy of your new edition and I hope that for any other work which you may have you will let me always be an early subscriber. I am sorry that you're not strong. Many of us are hoping to see you in Ireland. We had arranged to have a meeting for you. I do not know if you like getting letters. If you do I shall only be too happy to send you news

 
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of how thought goes among the men I know. With truest wishes for your health and happiness believe me


Your friend


Bram Stoker.

     After going this far I waited for W. to say something. He was not disposed to talk. "He was just about a boy back in those days: now it was fifteen years ago: he has been here: I think the man Stoker repeats, fulfils, the boy: I never quite think of myself as being the subject of such utterances. There's one sentence in his letter which hit me hard." I said: "I'll bet I know which one it is." He nodded. "I'm rather persuaded that you do: which?" I quoted: "I write this openly—." W. interrupted me. "That's it: that's me, as I hope I am: it's Leaves of Grass if Leaves of Grass is anything: 'I feel that with you one must be open': that explains Children of Adam, everything." I thought he might say more. He didn't. I gave him time. Then I read Stoker's first letter.


Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 18, 1872.

     If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. [W. exclaimed: "I don't know that I'm the man he takes me to be, but I did like to get his letter—and I like to get it today again as you read it to me!"] If you are not I don't care whether you like it or not and only ask you to put it into the fire without reading any farther. [ "It has been here quite half a lifetime without getting into the fire!"] But I believe you will like it. [ "I did, I do, like it!"] I don't think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn't like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world—a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. [ "I don't know about that: I'm only about as weak and as strong as other people!"] You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose—is that you will in some manner let me know that my words

 
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have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like—but if you do you will miss the pleasure of this next sentence, which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is uncertain of his own strength might try to encourage himself by a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of mortal man—a man to whose candor Rousseau's Confessions is reticence—can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call you Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. [ "He was a sassy youngster: as to burning the epistle up or not—it never occurred to me to do anything at all: what the hell did I care whether he was pertinent or impertinent? he was fresh, breezy, Irish: that was the price paid for admission—and enough: he was welcome!"] I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become a second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. [ "I hope not: Stoker or anybody else!"] You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. [ "There's 'master' again!"] In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. [ "My wings may be free but the same can't be said of my backside!"] I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to "give up all else" so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet. I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. [ "Not to a certain degree but altogether! and not only in letters: everywhere!"] I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all—and I have chosen the latter course.
 
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[ "The boy fires off a hell of a big prologue—eh? Horace? He does not know how indifferent I am whether to terms or no terms!"] I don't know whether it is usual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you—for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. [ "Come, Bram, Mr. Stoker: get down to business: this is all only preliminary!" and: "How little he realizes how little I have to do with the literary brotherhood!"] Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life. If you care to know who it is that writes this, my name is Abraham Stoker (Junior). My friends call me Bram. I live at 43 Harcourt St., Dublin. I am a clerk in the service of the Crown on a small salary. [ "How did I get the impression that he was still in college?"] I am twenty-four years old. Have been champion at our athletic sports (Trinity College, Dublin) and have won about a dozen cups. I have also been President of the College Philosophical Society and an art and theatrical critic of a daily paper. I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world. I take a delight in letting people I don't like—people of mean or cruel or sneaking or cowardly disposition—see the worst side of me. I have a large number of acquaintances and some five or six friends—all of which latter body care much for me. Now I have told you all I know about myself. [ "And a mighty graphic picture it is too: I seem to see you not as in a glass darkly but as in the broad day lightly: I do, I do!"] I know you from your works and your photograph, and if I know anything about you I think you would like to know of the personal appearance of your correspondents. You are I know a keen physiognomist.
 
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I am a believer of the science myself and am in an humble way a practicer of it. I was not disappointed when I saw your photograph—your late one especially. The way I came to like you was this. [ "More analysis? I'm almost afraid of it! But go on: may the good Lord have mercy on my soul!"] A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in the Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among my friends. I say it to my own shame but not to my regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out—without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti's edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read it far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night, and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book lying open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. [ "Autobiography is the only real biography, Walt," I stopped to say, W. adding his "amen" and saying: "It's absorbingly interesting, eh, Horace?"] Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer's day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti's edition (for Rossetti is all I have got till I get the complete set of your works which I have ordered from America). One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours— "the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports," you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your own land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this, Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards
 
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you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to try to quote any instances [ "Yes: don't quote: we can get along very well without quotations."] of what thoughts of yours I like best—for I like them all and you must feel that you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you—have said more about myself to you than I have ever said to any one before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was with no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. [ "Beautiful! but all of it from the inside: almost painfully so: he is youthfully self-conscious: sees things in their exaggerations!"] If you ever would care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak so to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. [ "How sweet, indeed! where there is love, why not? why not?"] I don't think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.


Bram Stoker.

     W. said: "Horace, I call that an extraordinary occurrence: that he should have let himself go in that style: or do you argue that it's all studied out—even the spontaneity? It all sounds easy and informal to me—not verbally stiff in the joints anywhere: I was, I am, inclined to accept it for just what it pretends to be. I may be gullible, deceived, fooled: yet I am confident I have made no mistake." I said: "There's still your letter to Stoker to read. Shall I read it? or do you know it well enough to not have it repeated?" He replied: "Read it, Horace: I want to get it tucked securely away in my noddle before I say good-bye to it." This is the letter:


March 6, '76.


My dear young man,

     Your letters have been most welcome to me—welcome to me as Person and as Author—I don't know which most—You did well to

 
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write me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and so affectionately, too. I too hope (though it is not probable) that we shall one day meet each other. Meantime I send you my friendship and thanks.

     Edward Dowden's letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been received. I shall send the books very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written E. D.

     My physique is entirely shattered—doubtless permanently, from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dressed, and get out every day a little. Live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits. Write to me again.


Walt Whitman.

     I got up, put the letters into my pocket and started off. "Good night, Walt." He called me: "I say good night, too. I wonder whether you understand at all the functions you have come to fulfil here! that you're the only thing between me and death?—that but for your readiness to abet me I'd be stranded beyond rescue? I want you to understand."


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