Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, January 23, 1890

     5.35 P.M. Went down to W.'s with Harrison Morris, who was to speak this evening (and now has spoken) before the Young Peoples' Section of the Ethical Society on Browning.

     W. instantly asked us about the weather, "Isn't it getting colder and colder?"—Twilight—a cheerful fire burning in the stove, the door of which was partly open. Said he had not been out "of course—though I was out—let me see—on yesterday? No—I guess not—but certainly the day before." As to his good health— "Well—here I am—I can still answer to my name." I returned him the Review of Reviews. Morris made some comment on W.'s interest in the magazine—W. assenting— "I like to read reviews and resumes of books, even if I find nothing in them—to find there is nothing is something!"

     Morris engaged him talking of Tennyson's new book. Had brought W. English papers from Gilchrist. Did W. think Tennyson could keep up or add to his former work? "I doubt whether the old fellow can: with my taste, appetite, gusto, I do not come away entirely satisfied. I doubt if Tennyson can add anything to the already-delivered message. The main thing is, is he able to keep it up—keep it up indefinitely." And yet— "I hardly anticipate anything more—that 'Crossing the Bar' was very pretty, pensive, pessimistic. It has a virtue,

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a characteristicality, its own—a decided character of its own."
And he called it again "a pessimistic poem," adding to Morris' question— "Yes, I think it markedly so." But should he call Tennyson a pessimist? To this he was averse. "I should not call him that—not apply the word—but pessimism is an element, a strong element. I think he's the poet (though he's in a sense manly, strong, sane,)—that on the whole he stands for that which signifies ennui, decadence." And yet this was no merely Tennysonian flavor— "rather, it inheres to the age—the time. I think almost all of the fellows—literary fellows (poets, writers)—except Emerson—are led off, astray, into the field of despair—led off by a tendency of the moment. Emerson is exceptional—I think Emerson inevitably begets a healthy don't-care-a-damn-ness—the feeling of a man who goes out in the snow, buffets weather, storms—don't care a damn! Longfellow—even Bryant—are a part of the same tendency—there are few if any of the moderns who are not. If I have any council to give you young fellows, it would be, don't start out in that vein—don't dissipate life, waste it, in such a venture—the venture of morbidity, despair, sickly sweetness!" And again—later on when Morris led back to the question—asking if Tennyson was "artificial" "I should not apply that word—I should not myself start out with a crying-in-the-wilderness impulse. Only, there is no doubt a great many even of the young men are set that way—the poets so-called—set the way of darkness, introspection, disquietude." And the women—what of them? "Perhaps they are, perhaps they are—I should rather say of them, let them go on: but for the men—the poets—oh! I would have them be careful. There is an ominous tendency against us—in fact, we all have a side that way—the vessel is filled nearly to the top: in fact, literature, the literary profession, rather begets it. It's like a taste for certain kinds of relishes—you soon get it, grow into it, are of it. But in America—we in America—with all the future before us—our outlook, what we are, expect—we

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should be the last to deliver to that tendency."
And when Morris asked him direct as to Tennyson's pessimism, W. responded: "Yes, I think there is some of it—much of it—in Tennyson." Then of Whittier's "Burning Driftwood" said almost contemptuously: "Whittier has a tendency to pad out: there are portions of the poem of the utmost beauty—wonderfully fine—but Whittier makes a great mistake—seems to think a poem is good in proportion to its length. About one-quarter of 'Burning Driftwood' is very fine—nearly three-quarters padded. If I were the absolute master of the proof, I should have hacked out one-half at least—probably two-thirds." And again: "The wonder about Whittier is, that he still holds out at the great age of 82—that he can work at all. Whittier is very abstemious—has always been: like Carlyle, who was always unwell—but lived beyond all the rest." At this a touch at Quakerism—W. saying: "The Quaker nativity seems to tell, somehow—the absence of too great artificiality—a certain sort of almost impossibility to make-believe. I think the Quaker—the typical Quaker—is a certain sort of materialist—they like the world, and all that: but a certain spirituality remains—a purity, aspiration. After all that is said and done—a Quaker can hardly be without some of this—whatever the form of belief: and his materiality is itself his own—like bathing, keeping clean and all that. To see Quakerism—its practical, living side—you must see it on Long Island, as I did, those first years." Spoke of "the center of Long Island—Jericho"—the two opposed meeting houses in one enclave—an impossibility in Pennsylvania—where "they not only split off but quarrel like the devil—won't have anything to do with each other"—and so on—finally: "I don't know if any sect has such a democratic feeling—one fence elsewhere rarely includes two bands of worshippers!"

     At first we sat in the dark. By and bye, noting I drew near the fire to wind my watch, he turned his chair about—got up and fixed the window. "I'll strike a light"—and refusing Morris'

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offer of help— "I act just the same when my friends are here as when they are not—I always reason that they like it best so."

     As we rose to go, he protested somewhat, but on learning that Morris had a Browning essay to read at the meeting in town tonight, he said: "Then I won't urge you to stay, of course"—adding however— "But you, Harrison—you would drink a toddy if I mixed it for you?" Morris assented and W. thereupon swinging about in his chair to the center table said: "I take pride in my toddies: I am vain enough to think no one knows how to make them better." Before he started however, he suddenly snatched a red rose up from the table and held it out. "See what a fellow I have here—that's from the Odenheimer girl: ain't it grand?"—then setting to work, mixing M. a strong dose which was with us the joke of the rest of the evening. As to himself partaking: "No—I shall not drink—I have been eating a very full supper. This is some of Tom Harned's whiskey—he brought it." When Morris called the dose strong, W., ironical and smiling, said: "Perhaps it would taste better if I put a little whiskey in it!" But M. did flinch in the ordeal. W. also gave us doughnuts, explaining to Morris that they were Mrs. Davis' make, but remarking when he learned we were on our way to take tea in Philadelphia: "Then I won't urge you to take more—to fill up on them."


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