Commentary

Disciples


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Tuesday, March 19, 1889

     11.30 A.M. W. reading the Record. Looked well. "Well—what do you bring along that is new?" Spoke of Saturday Review. "There seems to be frequent mention in it of Doctor Bucke and of O'Connor: I thought after you had read it, and Dave, it might be sent to O'Connor and by him to Doctor Bucke." Said nothing by way of criticism. Asked about the weather. "Warmish, isn't it? I thought it much so last night—dampish, warmish." Was the room comfortable? "I keep up the fire: but I could be reasonably warm anyhow: I am sure of one thing with regard to myself—the condition of my skin: my skin is free: I perspire freely: I don't know but every day this winter my body has been at times in a state of perspiration—incipient perspiration, anyhow." I said: "You did not tell this to the Doctor the other day?" "No—I did not dwell upon it." "Yet," I argued, "it was his contention the other day that a great deal of your trouble was of the skin." "I know it: but then I pride myself—I have a sort of vanity that way—that I understand myself a good deal better than the doctors understand me—even Doctor Bucke. Of course I listen to all that is said: welcome, invite, all the doctors say, or anybody: but then I go my own way—hold by my own views. Especially do I listen to Doctor Bucke." Then after a slight pause: "And in this, therefore, as in literary matters, in writing, I listen (listen intently) to all the critics have to say—then pursue my own convictions, 'whim' you may call it, after all." I said: "You listen to your friends as General Grant used to hold his councils of war." W.: "How is that?" "Out of politeness, merely, having determined upon a course of action before anybody has a chance to offer you any advice." W.

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laughed. "Do they said Grant did that?" I said: "They don't say it: Grant has said it himself."

     W. was very merry over this: "Horace, I shouldn't wonder but I'm treed: yes, I guess you've got the facts in the case." Here he pulled out his watch. "I suppose Doctor is home now—or nearly: it's near twelve." He pointed to the table. "I got the picture down there today." He referred to a card photograph of Edward Carpenter. I said some natural friendly things of it. W. said: "You are right: it is fine—an illuminated face. Oh! he's been here: it's very like! You should see him—the two of you should meet." I looked doubtful. "And you will see him too: he loves America—our institutions, the general air of things here: I am sure he will be here again." Then in a detached sort of way: "Edward is a kind of Anarchist or Socialist." I said: "I think he's more of the Socialistic turn." W. asked why I said that. I explained. He then said: "Yes—I realize the difference you indicate. I should say he was a Socialist then." Didn't I like the photo? Wasn't it "extra excellent?" He said: "We have lately had a fine run of photos from abroad: they threaten to drive us close: we'll have to look to our laurels: now here's another." Pointed to the Symonds on the mantel: "Was it ever beaten?"

     Gave me a copy of To-day containing Carpenter's Defense of Criminals. I asked him if he had read it? "No," he said: "I dipped into it but did not attempt to take it up seriously: it's out of my line." This made me laugh. "Walt—there's your old gag: it's out of your line: nothing's out of your line. When there's a subject up on which you don't want to commit yourself you say it's out of your line. Nothing's out of your line: you include everything or you're a fraud!" He shook his fist at me: "Why so hot, my little man? Of course you're right, but why should you make such an ado about it." "Walt—do you remember how mad you got when Kennedy said you was foxy?" "Well what has that got to do with what we're talking of now?" I said: "Oh, nothing, of course: I was only wondering—" He broke in: "I shouldn't wonder but you are wondering: wonder on and be damned!" I said: "Walt—you ain't very polite, but I forgive you." Half good nature, half testiness in him. He hates quizzing. Quizzing seems to him like being driven. He'd rather go to hell than be driven into heaven. I read him this passage from a letter written by Morris to me yesterday: "Williams and I took a trip across to

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Walt's this morning and found him in famous form. He looks remarkably well and entertained us most delightfully with his good talk."
"Famous form" amused W. Then he said: "Good! as I have said before, it helps to be told how well you are getting along, even if you know you are not getting on at all."

     W. has been "enjoying" Current Literature. "I am not yet all done with it: it is a many-sided publication." Ingersoll's address on Mary Fiske there. W.: "I have read it again and again: oh! it is superbly large, inclusive: full, too, of poetic strokes: I don't know but it's about the finest thing he has ever done—which is no low rating I can assure you." Then he had a sudden question for me: "Guess what!" I said: "I'm guessing: what is it?" He said: "Did you see Sunday's Press? It gave away some secrets." What were they? "It says that I make three hundred dollars a year. It published a piece about 'profits of professions': in the course of it is the statement: 'It is said that Walt Whitman of late years has earned about three hundred dollars annually with his pen.'" This seemed very funny to him. "Evidently somebody's keeping a very close watch on me," he said: "so I've got to be careful how I behave?" Again: "I wish it was three hundred but I'm afraid it is not."

     7 P.M. W. reading Current Literature. I had a letter from Johnston (J.H., N.Y.). Asked W. for J.'s address, which he gave me. Said: "He was here about three weeks ago—came of a Sunday: I think only stopped off long enough to see me, then went back. Does Tom know him? He is a genuine enthusiastic fellow." I spoke of some painting of W. in J.'s possession. "Paintings? he has dozens of 'em! one in particular—you know it?—a picture by Charles Hine"—spelled the name— "I don't know but the best of all. Hine is dead now—died in New Haven: I once gave you his wife's letter—do you remember? I think you would like to see that picture—it is characteristic: I was in full bloom then: weighed two hundred and ten pounds— two hundred and ten to two hundred and fifteen: full-haired (my hair's scant now): and so forth"—he laughed. I repeated O'Connor's description to him. W. said: "Narrowest at the flanks? I don't know what he means by narrowest at the flanks: I suppose he means, of less bulk: that I was. Besides, in those years I was in the best health: not a thing was amiss: I was like Carlyle's man, who, asked the state

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of his system, exclaimed: 'System? system? what have I to do with systems?'"
W. was struck with this from R.H. Hutton:


      "Goethe was the wisest man in modern days who never lacked the wisdom of a child; the deepest who never knew what it was to kneel in the dirt with bowed head and broken heart.... He knew all symptoms of disease, a few alleviations, no remedies. The earth was eloquent to him, but the skies were silent."

     I asked W.: "You say I should read this: I have read it: what is your own impression of it?" But of that he left me to judge for myself. He counselled me: "It is one of those things which require to be long chewed on before the juice is got from it."


     Harry Fritzinger came in. W. turned to me. "This is Harry, Horace—Warren's brother." I knew him but we had not met in W.'s presence before. "Harry has gone to work with the dredging company: this is his first day." Harry sort of edged off, saying something about washing up. W. asked: "Why such a hurry? that makes no difference to me: this is a very short visit to me—just coming in and going out." But H. persisted. W. said: "Do as you must: but be sure you come in and say good night." W. called my attention to a couple of blankets and a blue counterpane hanging over the footboard of the bed. "They are a present from Warren," he said: "It is quite gay, isn't it? I ought to keep warm now." Club meeting this evening. W. asked: "What is on the cards?" "Doctor Pepper is to speak on The University in Modern Life." "Doctor Pepper? Then it should be well done: I do not know him but I have seen him: he always appeared to me to be a man of great personal force: I have seen him at work, but it was years ago there at the University."

     I asked W.: "What would you say of the University and Modern Life?" "I wouldn't say anything: I'd rather be excused." "But suppose you couldn't dodge it—had to say something?" He took my quizzing genially this time. "You know: I have said everything to you before. I have nothing new to announce." "But suppose you had to talk?" "Had to? I never have to: but you know my feeling about the colleges: I do not object to anything they do that will enrich the popular life—emphasize the forces of democracy: the trouble is that so much they do is bent the other way—seems to me simply hopeless

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scholartism [sic] or encourages reaction: is bookishness rather than revelation: is not vital, brutal, instant instinct but the distillation of distillations God knows how many removes from origins."
I said: "Well—I got you to say something, anyhow!" He added: "Yes, you did: I don't take it back: so much of the work we might be warranted in expecting the university to do has to be done outside universities today: the university is only contemporary at the best: it is never prophetic: it goes, but not in advance: often, indeed, as dear Sidney used to say here, has its eyes set in the back of its head." I asked: "Isn't this all inevitable as long as the university is an aristocratic rather than a democratic institution?" W.: "I do not deny it: in fact, that may be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, of the matter!" Then he broke into a laugh: "Those university folk, you can see, wouldn't care a tinker's damn to have me address them on the subject: at the same time I believe every man should have his fling: so let them go on talking their savior-of-society nonsense: let them go on believing there's no hell: there's a day of reckoning ahead." I interrupted: "Then what will happen?" "Then we'll have more schools or no schools: schools from bottom to top, for all or for none." I said: "Why, Walt, you're almost as foolish a democrat as I am!" He balanced his glasses on his thumb and said with a little chuckling: "I hope I am: be patient with me: I'll arrive." This time I escaped with my skin. He was patient with me. But even my catechisms try his goodwill.

     I said: "Walt, they'll ask me about you at the Club. What shall I say?" "Tell them I am still chained to my rock but that I can still flap my wings: tell them I may not be just as I have been physiologically but that as for sassiness—well, say I'm almost as sassy as ever." I said: "And incidentally you will be sassy until you're dead!" He smiled. "You think so? that would certainly be very desirable." Searched round—finally found some of the Sarrazin sheets. "Take these," he said: "if anybody asks about Walt Whitman say: 'Here's the whole story: take one.'" He added: "That only sounds like a joke—it's really dead in earnest." W. had made up considerable mail—mostly papers: said: "I always write William's postal in the evening: write it last: it's my prayer for him—for us." He also said: "Show Dave the Saturday Review, then mail it right off to O'Connor tomorrow: I shall write William that it is sent."


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     He handed me a big yellow soiled envelope. "Look at that," he said. He had written on the envelope with a vast hand: "Translations (by Sloane Kennedy, Feb. 27, 1889) of Karl Knortz's & T.W. Rolleston's prefaces to the Grasheline booklet." He had spelled "halme" "heline." He's a poor German. W. said: "It's a big job." I asked: "What's a big job?" He pointed to the manuscript in my hand. "I don't see it," I said: "where does the big come in?" "Reading it," he said: "reading it to me!" I expressed amazement, spreading out the six closely written pages in my hands. "Do you want to?" "Certainly." I looked at my watch. "Is it too late? what time is it?" I said desperately: "It's never too late: here goes!" I read Kennedy's letter first.


Belmont, Feb. 27, 1889.

Dear W. W.:

The German Grashalme received. How honors thicken and cluster. The book is a remarkable step forward. Do you know it gave me a curious (perhaps to you not altogether intelligible) feeling as I read your familiar poems in the foreign tongue I have so long been reading. I seemed to see, to feel, you doubled, foreignized, speaking over there the same message to a new nation: and I also imagined this as but the beginning of a long pilgrimage you were to make around the world, uttering your gospel in the thousand tongues of men. It was a very peculiar feeling—something grand and thrilling in its forecast, or prophecy-tinge.

I give you here an accurate line for line translation of all of Knortz's and Rolleston's prefaces, although I don't deem them worth much (for novelty)—except the inevitable biographical summary of Rolleston. The translations are very well done. The German tongue (flexible, many-inflected, wide-ranging language) links itself admirably to your long sentences. They have translated the very best of the poems for foreign presentation, I think.

Do you know anything about how Rolleston came to be so good a German scholar? Studied in Germany when a boy doubtless? Do you know whether he or Knortz is married?

Give my love to Doctor B. You can make any use you want to of the translation, though I merely made it for you.

W.S. Kennedy.



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     W. said: "If I am to make such use of this as I choose I think I'll give it to you: it's safer in your hands than in this rag shop: I can have it back again if I design other things for it: just at present I don't see what can be done to give it publicity—if that is called for at all. Place it somewhere so you can put your hand right on it if I need it: that's the only condition I attach to the transfer." I said: "Walt, you honor me." W. shook his head. "No, you honor me: the way you accept my commissions—you honor me!" Then W. said: "Kennedy's letter contains some significant touches—as where he speaks of the flexibility of the German language: and no doubt, as he says, the free swinging long lines of the Leaves lend themselves to translation into the German." W. paused. Then: "But perhaps that might be said of any language: perhaps any literature that is free, without sophistication, could be passed from one language into any other language without mortal shock: which may be taken to be, in the full, a big figure on our side of the controversy over style." Then W. said: "But you stopped reading: I didn't mean for you to stop with the letter: I want to hear how that preface sounds, too, coming to me through your voice." He laughed. "Wasn't that a funny quip in the letter where Sloane suddenly stopped to ask if I knew whether Knortz or Rolleston are married! Funny! funny!" Pause. "But read."


     Karl Knortz's Preface


     "The poet of that much berated volume, Leaves of Grass, occupies a peculiar position not only in American literature but in the literature of the world. He sets aside our ordinary metrical rules, and signs his 'barbaric yawp' in his own way. One could perhaps put up with these peculiarities of Whitman were he not at the same time a sovereign scorner of all rules of English grammar, whereby portions of his poems are rendered hard to understand and portions can't be understood at all even by the doughtiest student of the English language. Whitman is like the primeval American forest, the beauties of which cannot be wholly and entirely enjoyed by the eye of a professional landscape gardener. Whitman is an Optimist par excellence: everything in the world is as good as, under the existing circumstances, it can be, and therefore he accepts all things and all persons with the same unwavering love. Moreover, the carefully defined rules of aesthetics have no existence for him; and as in

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social, political and religious questions he both strives for and countenances the greatest possible freedom, so he claims the same for himself in the realm of poetry. He consequently makes the most extended use of so-called poetical license, and occasionally offers his readers very strong tobacco to smoke. He himself apologizes not a whit for these spontaneous outbursts (Expektorationen); he is a part, or representative, of Nature who, it is well understood, does not apologize for her laws.

     "In spite of—or perchance in consequence of—these features, Whitman's poems are distinguished by an imposing wealth of thought, surprising beauties, and lofty sentiments, so that in the opinion of many of our brother literati he is one of the most important poets of the day.

     "The germ-idea of the present little volume came from Rolleston, who has also made by far the greater number of contributions to it. This was no light task; Whitman himself maintains that he is untranslatable. The language of the translated poems will seem to most readers as harsh, stiff and undignified: but the original is still worse in this respect.

     "Whether, by the publication of this booklet, we shall gain friends for Walt Whitman in Germany or not, we will leave undecided; but if I should find only the fiftieth part of the enemies in Germany that Leaves of Grass has in America, it will have readers enough, and the publisher at least can rest satisfied."


     Rolleston's Introduction


     "Walt Whitman fills a vacant place in the world's literature. He is a poet in whom American Democracy has at last found a voice. Perhaps all other American poets might as well have written in Europe, as far as concerns the essential content of their work. But as Emerson said when he sent Carlyle a copy of Whitman's first poetical collection, 'He is incontestably American.' He gets his inspiration not from books and traditions, but from the life and activities about him.

     "This is saying a good deal, but for Whitman not enough, I believe. The time will come when the world will recognize him as a World Poet, as one whose work has the same worth in the most distant lands as it has at home. But in our much-reading and yet non-poetical age Whitman will scarcely gain this recognition. Cold and dead to him are the stock poetic diction and the poetic forms. The

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last he throws away altogether, and in his hands language acquires again a wondrous new life.

     "His course in this respect follows the sentiment of Goethe: 'Measured rhythms fascinate, I grant; talent revels in them; but how quickly they excite deep disgust in us,—hollow masks, lifeless and bloodless. The creative spirit itself does not like to appear unless it can think on some new form and make an end of the dead one.' But this complete break of Whitman's with the established rules and definitions offends most readers of today at the first glance. People try too much to approach Walt Whitman on the side of the critical understanding, or intellect. But if you get hold of him in the right way, you will find that his influence on you is not chiefly intellectual, but moral. Indeed, if I were to speak as a true Whitmanite, I should describe the strange influence of his poems as in a high, if not the highest, degree a physiological influence. He, himself, as well as others, demands of a poetry that assumes to satisfy the needs of the American Republic, that, like nourishing food or air, it should make its existence perceived in the bodily as well as in the spiritual life of its readers. But with many the chief question seems to be, 'Can we label these Creations of Whitman with the name "poetry" or not?' A certain critic maintains that some kind of artistic form is necessary in poetry, and blames our bard because he sometimes alternates verses of forty or more syllables with those of five or six. But not to go into this subject—I only remark that such criticism is not at all in place in speaking of the Whitmanesque verses. Certainly these have their faults: they suffer sometimes from obscurity and monotony, as well as a kind of childish flatness, or insipidity, which is only saved from being displeasing because it is throughout naïve and free from any trace of assumption. But one may hardly speak of the faults and merits of Whitman's poetry any more than of Nature's; for his verse wells up out of the depth of a heart sound to the core, and is so pure, so straightforward, so unmasked by any kind of petty feelings, that we must regard it in the light of a production of nature rather than as an art-product. The thing had to be done thus and in no other way. If we find in his books that which amazes, bewilders and foils and yet irresistibly attracts us and exercises upon the soul of the reader who is groping his way anxiously along an influence in the highest degree stimulating, strengthening, elevating, freeing—we very willingly leave undecided what name we shall give such a wondrous dynamic, or rather, daemonic, force.

     "[He then translates from Sainte-Beuve a passage, the single idea

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of which is the familiar dictum that the greatest poet is he who suggests the most.] In strict accord with this sentiment [he goes on] Walt Whitman stands as a pioneer, a stimulator to thought and action, rather, perchance, than a model or type. His best follower, he says, is he who learns through him to surpass the master.

     "From a letter received by Mr. Rolleston from Walt Whitman he quotes as follows: 'I approve of your attempt to translate certain of my poems into the German tongue. Indeed, arrogant as the statement may seem, I had more than my own native land in view when I was composing Leaves of Grass: I desired to take the first step toward calling into existence a cycle of international poems. The chief reason-for-being of the United States of America is to bring about the common good will of all mankind, the solidarity of the world. What is still lacking in this respect can perhaps be accomplished by the art of poetry, through songs radiating from all the lands of the globe. I had also in mind, as one of my objects, to send a hearty greeting to these lands, in America's name. And glad very glad would I be to gain entrance and audience among the Germanic peoples.'"


     W. said when I folded up the sheets of paper from which I had been reading: "What a difference there is between Rolleston and Knortz in those prefaces! how much more Rolleston covers—how much broader his horizon is! how he ranges comprehensively right, left, around, in the largest spirit—sternly, yet without rancor!" I said: "I don't agree with him when he speaks of this as a non-poetic age." "Don't you?" "No: I think it is the most poetic of all the ages." W. said: "It's possible that from our point of view such an assumption is required: I am willing you should make it: I am quite inclined to acquiesce in it: at first flash it may seem startling—incredibly impossible." He added: "Some day I want you to enlarge on that: I want you to put it down, in black and white, so it can be understood—so it can be understood for and against: you should say something in that line in one of your letters to William: it would hit him hard. I don't know whether it's so much the originality of your idea or its unequivocalness—its vehemence—that eats into me." W. said he did not assent to K.'s idea that there was nothing "novel" in the prefaces: "Certainly Rolleston particularly tickled me—what he said so finely about the physiological influence of Leaves of

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Grass, and what he said about poetry—the name, the word, the verbal entity. I have always made much of the physiological: I never want it to be neglected, flouted, made light of: I remain in touch with the earth no matter how high I soar."
As to poetry—being an acknowledged "poet"—W. laughed. "I wouldn't put up any fight for the word or advise my friends to: it's not worth such devotion." I said: "You mean that if they are jealous of the word—want it—let them have it?" "Yes: I mean that: that's all I mean: though when we please we have our own peculiar uses for the word also."


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