Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, March 12, 1892

     8:10 A.M. Batch of letters at Post Office, among them Bucke's—10th March. Baker sends me two copies Telegram (10th), containing facsimile from which the advertisement was cut out, as warned us from Creelman. They call W.'s own letter and mine introducing it (which they mainly reproduce at the foot) "touching." Other letters still—one from Gilchrist, two from Symonds. Longaker tells Anne, "Mr. Whitman has seen his last rally," and to me he said, "I seem to see a decline day by day." Strangely has ceased almost altogether to use his left hand—and even the right is "lamed," truly enough, as he says. The other night while Warrie was absent the bell became detached from the wire. Mrs. Davis was unable to reconstruct the line, so W. asked for his cane, which she gave him. But after he had got his cane he could not use it—could not comfortably lift it—and so he had to call her when she was wished. This is significant of the subtle loss that is day by day preparing him for the end. Was in and spoke with W. a few minutes, but did not wish to mention Symonds till I had myself read the letters.

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W. very cordial, but very silent. Still asks, "Is there any notable news? Do you hear anything notable?"

     6:15 P.M. Again at W.'s and this time for a little talk with him. He has been spending a very bad day—a day of incuriosity, silence—without appetite, relish, strength. The west window still unopened, the papers untouched, the mail unasked for. All day long the one story—turned from left to right, a little to eat twice, the visits of the doctors, to whom he paid but little attention. No visitors—the left leg getting troublesome—the right lung still clogged and resisting his endeavors to use that side for rest. He had just been turned and so I went quietly into the room and closed the door. He instantly recognized me, dark as it was, and attempted to say my name—choking on the "O Hor"—and after his cough proceeding with his salutation, after which inquiring, "Now tell me the news, Horace." I said at once, "I have a couple of letters from Symonds, which I would like to read to you." "From who?" "Symonds." "Oh! the noble fellow!" "Can you stand them now or shall I postpone?" I saw at once that he was eager to hear. "Read them now—now—now." I saw he was determined, so drew the letters from my pockets and opened the first and read it—difficultly—for nightfall made the light very dim:
Davos. Feb. 27. 1892.

My dear Traubel,

Hearty thanks for your letters to myself.

Johnston, Wallace & Carpenter have sent on to me, by wire, your cablegrams, & under cover your letters to them—which latter have been by me duly returned to their owners.

So, out here, in these Alpine snows, where we have been blocked by avalanches for some time, with only an express post bringing mail in & out, I have been daily & punctually informed of what is going on by our dear great Master's sick-bed in Camden.

I have got to know you more closely through the perusal of this painfully interesting correspondence, & to sympathise most deeply in all your hours.

And there I have your photograph upon my working table. Altogether then you see that I have been living in near relation to your spirit.


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It is a good & great thing this which the love & service of Whitman has wrought for us all. It is what his spirit, if it soon arrives at a fuller knowledge of the whole, will appreciate as the best outcome of his teaching—this creation of comradeship, sensitive pulsation of emotion noble in its quality, between men so far apart.

Are we to hope, in Whitman's case, for a prolongation of life after all he has been going through?

I do not venture to answer the question.

Yet the attitude which he preserves upon his couch of mortal weakness is worthy of his previous life, the seal set upon his teaching.

Please tell Warry that I think of him, & am grateful to him. He may never have heard of me.

Believe me your true friend & comrade

John Addington Symonds


He interrupted me at several places. Done this, I hurried into the next room for a candle, which I lighted and set on the little table at W.'s head. "Does it hurt your eyes?" I asked. "No, not a bit. Do not be afraid." Whereupon I started in to read the second note:
Davos. Feb. 27. or 28.
in the deep night, 1892.

My dear Traubel,

I scribbled to you a very hasty note this evening—a mere handshake—to catch the night's post.

I am overwhelmed with proofs: two books going on together: one a big new Life of Michelangelo, which costs me hours of labour in its final revision through the press: the other a volume of descriptive essays by my daughter Margaret & myself (she is the little girl on my back in an old photograph I once sent to Whitman, & some one told me he still keeps) about our experiences here. It is to be called "Our Life in the Swiss Highlands"; & when it comes out, I will send you a copy, as it has much personal about myself & life here in it.

Well, I wanted only to say that I wrote a few lines under great pressure of work, for which my strength is not quite adequate at present. And then there came to me a good pleasant friend of mine here, with a trouble of his own to communicate. Our interchange of counsel

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& sympathy lasted a couple of hours; & I am refreshed again by this wholesome contact with true loving confiding human life.


And, to wind my story up, I return now in the dead hours of the night—to you & Whitman; he may die this year or that, & a great light will be extinguished; but he lives for ever in the words which he has left behind him, in the spirit he has created beneath the very ribs of intellectual & academical death in such poor men as I am.

You do not know, & I can never tell any one, what Whitman has been to me. Brought up in the purple of aristocratic school and university, provided with more money than is good for a young man, early married to a woman of noble nature & illustrious connections, I might have been a mere English gentleman, had not I read Leaves of Grass in time.

I am not sure whether I have not abused the privilege of reading that book. It revolutionized my previous conceptions, & made me another man. Revolution is always a bad thing. And so, bred as I have described myself, it is possible that I have not attained to that real & pure nobility of nature in dealing with my fellow men which Whitman teaches & exemplifies.

I only know that he made me a free man: he helped me to work at my chosen trade, literature, for better or for worse, as I was made to do it: but he also made me love my brethren, & seek them out with more perhaps of passion than he would himself approve.

Working upon a nature so prepared as mine was, the strong agent of Whitman's spirit could hardly fail to produce a fermentation.

He says himself: I shall do harm as well as good.

To clinch all, he has only done for me good; & the harm which may have come to me, from intemperate use of his precepts, is the fault of my previous environment and my own feeble self.

I pour all this out upon you now, because, while Whitman is lying on his death bed, you must hear what one of his disciples—a man sworn to him unto the grave—has to say about the effect of his prophecy.

If I have seemed to be cold, here & there, about Whitman, it is not because I am not penetrated with his doctrine; but because I know by experience how powerfully that doctrine works, & how it may be misused & misunderstood.

Yours

J.A.S.



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If Whitman is able to hear a word from an old friend, whisper in his ear that so long as I live I shall endeavour to help on his work, & to the best of my poor ability shall try to do this in his spirit. J.A.S.


Several times he cried out, "Loving Symonds! Dear Symonds!" and several times he had me re-read passages. "Do you hear it all?" "Every word, every word—I am attentive to every word," which was very evident—the tears gushing out of his eyes, and his whole body and brain evidently stirred by the words of the letters. When I was done, and had folded up the letters, he called to me, "It is a noble thought for Symonds, to send so warm a message, at such a time: he and Ingersoll, to me, justify so much—are elements, proofs. And he must be better—surely better—for there is scarcely anything at all in the letters about his health. You read the letters entire?"—evidently with a moment's suspicion. "Yes, every word." "That is the way I like to hear them." "I read them to Brinton today." "And what did Brinton say?" "He called them extraordinary missives." "They are that—so they are." And after a pause, "How is the good Brinton himself?" How the picture fastened itself upon me—the flickering candle, the pale face on the bed, all attention—his left hand pushing forward the left ear—his several interruptions and questions! I read him likewise, now, Gilchrist's letter, which had come in this morning:
Centreport. Suffolk Co. N.Y.S. L.I.
U.S.A.
8 March 92.

My dear Traubel

All of your post-cards duly received—for w'ch kindness I am very much obliged to you. Sorry to have this morning's news of a relapse. Trust the old fellow will rally again, all right.

Give Walt my kindest remembrances & love, & tell him that we all think of him as he patiently lies upon his sick bed. I prize & admire his last edition extremely. Also tell Walt, please, that my life-size half length oil painting & last portrait of him, is about to be engraved by an

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eminent French engraver. I will write again when the name of the engraver & of the publisher is settled upon.


Yours very truly

Herbert H. Gilchrist

P.S. Glad you have my book. Have you two nurses now?


He did not seem to take much interest in that intelligence about the etching, though he exclaimed, "The French artists and craftsmen are always a wonder to me." Referring to the last passage of Symonds' second letter I asked, "Wouldn't that be something to send to Kennedy, who always half-suspects Symonds?" "So it would—and you will send it?"

     I blew the light out and laid the candle aside, he remarking, "That's right," then returned and sat on edge of the bed, holding his hand—smoothing and rubbing hand and forehead and he seeming to appreciate it. Told me Longaker had been over and said pleasant things of L.'s "fidelity and quiet capacity," saying he always "made much" of this "posture of reserve in any man." I left copy of Telegram with him. "I will try to look at it tomorrow," he promised, I putting it on table. My check for eight dollars left with him this morning he gave to Warrie with the injunction to put it in the stamp box, where it now lies along with the other, from Webster, which has never been banked. Inquired, "I wonder how far Arthur Stedman has got with the book?" "Pretty far—it must be nearly ready for the market." "I would like to make a suggestion if it is not too late." "Of what nature?" "That he call it, 'Leaves of Grass, Jr.'" "I will write—give him the question and the idea." "Do it then, though I suppose it will avail little." Had he heard of the "Walt Whitman Jr.," who writes for one of the English labor papers? "Yes, and I am told he is a bright fellow." How had the day been spent? "Here, just as you see me now—in helplessness, pain—oh! Horace, I am drinking to the dregs!" And again, "The slow drag of these days is horrible—horrible."


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     McKay told me this afternoon he had only 600 or 700 "Leaves of Grass" in sheets left: should a couple thousand more be issued, for the contingency of W.'s death? I would write to Bucke and question Harned, and if the three of us agreed McKay would print at once. I mentioned a part of this to W. "Dave says he has sold 600 to 700 copies since last September." "Can that be possible?" "That is his statement." "Then we will have a little money next settlement?" "Yes indeed—quite a block." "Good! Good!" What did he think of McKay's issue of more sheets at once? "I don't know what I think: I guess it would be all right. Anyway I leave it with you to settle with him." McKay says Wanamaker will take orders for W.'s books but not keep them on sale. W. laughed when I mentioned it. "It is an old story—a pull on the old string." Towards the end our talk dwindled down to a word and then silence. W.'s total utterance, while sane and cheerful, was the product of pain. His words came out between coughings, with much effort—detached, one from the other, but thoroughly coherent—at times he could not speak two words in one breath—would pulse them out at great cost. He was very fervent when I kissed him good-bye. "Go, Horace—yes, it is right to go—but God bless you! And come again! Yes, again and again!" It is sorrowful to witness the subtle losses, day by day—the inexorable downward-making influences that operate for his death and now seem to wipe out all hindrances. With Bucke and Longaker I feel that he has made his last rally.

     11:10 P.M. Gilbert spent the evening with me up home. I walked downtown with him when he left, stopping in at my mother's, from whom I got Bucke's letter of 11th. Mrs. Davis on watch at 328. Warrie still out. W. called several times, by means of bell. But did no talking. Right side grown almost impossible. Asked for some brandy and water. Thanked "Mary." "I am altogether useless," he said. Asked, too, "Is the night cold?" and "Is there plenty of fire?" And again, "What day is it?" Suffers intensely from left ankle and insists on having it out of bed, resting on a chair.


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