Commentary

Disciples


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Monday, July 6, 1891

     8:00 P.M. Just in W.'s as the town clock struck eight. W.'s room dark—he, however, sitting on the edge of the bed, about to get up. Warrie asked, "Shall I touch the glimmer?" And W.'s— "Yes, Warrie, do"—was followed by this amusing outburst from W.: "Do you remember the Frenchman?—the fellow who said—When I want to meet ze friend, I zay, at the station I will be, I will ride me zere in ze car. But when Shakespeare makes appointment wiz ze friend he affirms—I will ride me on lightnings, I will come in the turmoil of thunders, I will mount ze tempest. And zat—zat—zat—is imagination, genius—zat is ze great man made sure!" W. uttered this with great passion, humor—real eloquence—made his voice ring. Then with a laugh, "Did I never tell you that? Did you never hear it? That is queer—it is one of my favorite stories—one of the very richest I know. I heard it somewhere a long time ago—I give you the amount of it. But its real power is some of it lost. But it is a thing to know!" Then went with Warrie to the chair—I meanwhile closing the blinds. As soon as he was seated he asked me, "Which would you rather have—milk punch or ice cream? I want to treat you." And Warrie was sent for the cream. W. on his return, talked over train Warrie was to take in morning, W. admitting, "It will not do for him to go till I am up—I am very dependent upon him." Then asking, "What time is it we hear the great whistle in the morning?" Warrie said, "Six." But W. shook his head, "No, it's not as early as that." I said, "Seven," and W.: "That's more like it—well, that would not be too early for me, I always hear it." I secured Doctor's hat and glasses, and Warrie will take them over, along with the bird for Johnston.

     The Critic today contained the following in "The Lounger": The Pall Mall entertained its readers a few weeks ago with this veracious record of the day's doings at 328 Mickle Street, Camden, on May 31:

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"A Camden (N.J.) telegram to Dalziel says: Walt Whitman, the poet, celebrated his seventy-second birthday on Sunday in a quiet but happy way. The weather was delightful, and Mr. Whitman sat in a little summer-house receiving callers nearly all day. The arbor was filled with flowers before dusk. The 'good grey poet,' though not able to get about very briskly, is in good health and spirits. The old gentleman entertained his guests with selections from his own works. From time to time, as groups gathered, he would open a volume, and, eying his audience critically, select a passage which he believed would please them. Letters of congratulations were received from Lord Tennyson, Mr. Stedman, and many others."


I have called this "veracious," but must qualify the term. For, as a matter of fact, Whitman did not sit in an arbor surrounded by flowers, nor did he read any "selections from his own works," or "receive callers" during the day. The guests assembled in his two "downstairs" rooms at six o'clock in the evening; then Whitman came down from his bedroom, assisted by his nurse, and immediately the dinner began. Otherwise, however, the paragraph is correct! A report of this birthday dinner, embodying the greater part of the conversation as taken down by a stenographer, and giving the text of most of the letters that were read, will be published in the August number of Lippincott's.

Speaking of the poem, "The Midnight Visitor," recently credited to Walt Whitman in the Tribune, a correspondent of that paper says: "Eleven years ago, Walt Whitman read these verses to me at my own fireside, where the old poet is ever a welcome guest. I am not likely ever to forget how my dear old friend, who still enjoys a good dinner and the camaraderie of his friends, recited these sad and pathetic lines by a blazing fire of hickory wood. But he never claimed to have written them himself. On the contrary, he always assured me that the poem was a translation from the French of Henri Murger. And I have before me now, in the fair round handwriting of Walt Whitman, the six verses of the poem, with these words at the bottom, 'Translated from the French of Henri Murger.' I am thus particular because Walt Whitman never claims any literary honor not his own."


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Suspecting the authenticity of the poem, I had already written a letter of inquiry on the subject, when I came upon this note in the Tribune. It is satisfactory as to the main point, but it leaves one in doubt as to whether Whitman himself translated the verses. I should say he had not, for the simple reason that the lines rhyme. In the only poem of Whitman's in which he has been guilty of an attempt to rhyme, the failure is lamentable. The failure to rhyme, I mean, for the poem itself—"O Captain! my Captain!"—is one of his best and most admired. Mr. Horace L. Traubel informs me that the version of "The Midnight Visitor" is one in which several hands, including Mr. Whitman's, have had a share.

W. said, "I am satisfied with that. Yes, we now know who the Lounger is—the mystery is dissolved. But I have for some time suspected it was Joe—but Joe must have experienced a change of heart. I sent him over today a copy of the facsimile birthday note. He will probably use it." The Pall Mall paragraph amused W. into great laughter. "We all know how purely made-up it is—out of whole cloth—a determination with somebody to make a story. But to read my own pieces! It is the last thing I could bring myself to do—I never do it, in fact, except on very special occasions. How did Arnold ever come to write as he did? I do not know—it was certainly an invention or a—mistake! I authorize you to say this anywhere for me. That Tribune paragraph quoted I have no doubt is from John Swinton. It is strong and to the point. The curious thing is, that after this long the question should come round again—curious that anybody should care."

     He had a letter from Bucke today. Wondered that Bucke gave the house instead of the office address of Costelloe, with whom he will stay in London. "I am interested to know what the Tennyson introduction will amount to—if Doctor will see Tennyson."

      "This," he said by and by, "is a letter I had from Woodbury today—the Emerson man. He assured me that the anecdote will be expurgated from the new edition." Letter from table:

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Seattle, Washington, June 27th, 1891

Walt Whitman,

I write to inform you that I have expunged from the forthcoming Edition of my "Talks With Emerson" a paragraph referring to yourself, which I have learned was offensive to you. It should not have been printed. Time was, perhaps, when the publication of an eccentricity would not have injured you. Perhaps, indeed the effect would have been to the contrary. Such was my feeling I remember in regard to the effect of the incident when I mentioned it. I have learned with regret that it has caused you pain.

Your utterance was a noble help to me in days when I sorely needed it, and I would not bring one shadow across your brow.

Yours with high respect,

Charles Woodbury


I remarked the fact—the odd fact—that Woodbury did not grant the truth of our protest but simply moved in deference to W.'s pleasure—in fact, intimating that the thing must be true but that W. himself has shifted from the early ground, etc., W. allowing, "There is a good deal in what you say. As I see it now, you have touched bottom." I proposed to write Woodbury more specifically—W. not protesting.

     Showed W. a letter I had from Talcott Williams, and its "grace—delicate complimentariness" seemed to strike him:
Ye Painte Shoppe,
1833 Spruce Street, Philadelphia
July 4. '91

My dear Traubel:

I have been deeply touched by your reference to my work in the Conservator. The impression you record is the one above all others I desire to make by my daily work & it is a soulfelt encouragement to know that I make it on any earnest soul like your own. But I long since accepted, at first unwillingly & now gladly, the anonymous conditions of our journalism. It is right and better I think that our efforts for good, which leave each of us but infinite debtors, should be lost in the

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general current rather than given a personal recognition. Praise the Press when you can but not


Your sincere and grateful friend

Talcott Williams

TW

I enclose $10—(2 months) for Walt Whitman.

"The good Talcott! It is a good word to have from him."

     W. greatly amused at my story of getting the Doctor's glasses. I went in at Fox's to be told the glasses were not there—I insisted, the salesman insisted. Finally I sat down on a chair in front of the counter. "What are you going to do about it?" I asked.

      "I don't know: we haven't the glasses here."

      "That's unfortunate—as my friend goes to Europe tomorrow and must have his glasses."

      "But they are not here."

      "I am sorry for it—but I came for them, he must have them, you must give them to me."

     He looked astonished—aghast. I was to sit there till they were produced? He went back towards the wall—then forward again.

      "I do not understand."

      "Neither do I—but he must have his glasses."

     I took off my hat—sat there unperturbed. Astounded and perhaps indignant he renewed the search and found what I came for!

     W. laughed a long time over this. "It was the thing unsaid—the sitting there—which brought him!" The indirection of circumstance, I called it, at which W.: "Yes, the best thing in circumstance, too. And the whole story rich and funny. You must tell it to Doctor."


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