Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: William H. Ballou

Date: June 28, 1885

Publication information: The Leader and Herald 28 June 1885: 4.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00517

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

WALT WHITMAN.

———

Special Correspondence of the Leader.]

NEW YORK,June 27.

It having been announced that Walt. Whitman was about to go abroad to visit Lord Tennyson, I hastened from New York to Camden, N. J., to solicit an interview. Camden is the alleged Brooklyn of Philadelphia. It certainly is as old-fashioned as New York's great suburb but not half so dirty. After crossing the Delaware, covered with oil, I asked the ferry-gate tender if he could direct me to Whitman's residence.

"Residence!" echoed the old man, with a smile, "why Lord bless you, any one in these parts could do that; only 'taint no residence, it's a little bit of a house upon Mickle street, just big enough to sit in anywhere and spit out of the windows. You'll find it just between Third and Fourth streets."

The corner groceryman pointed out a low two-story frame house, which looked like a cube with faces eighteen feet square.

The old paint on the clapboards might have been olive-colored when put on in the silurian age, and the window sills, bordered with white, were mounted with old-fashioned green blinds. As I passed one of the parlor windows to mount the rickety door steps I saw a small photograph of Victor Hugo, framed and bordered with mourning, hanging in a pane of glass. Then I thought of the numerous obituary accounts of Hugo throughout the English-speaking world which had interwoven the two names together as the exponents of the most advanced literature of the two hemispheres. A young woman not over thirty years of age came to the door.

She ushered me into a little parlor, and without taking my name, went upstairs to announce to the poet the arrival of a guest.

While waiting, I glanced around the room. The furniture was of the plainest old-fashioned type; there were the old wooden rocking-chairs, with cane bottoms, the varnished wooden chairs, a plain rag carpet, and a dreadfully antique fire-place. A canary sang with all his might. Piles of papers and magazines were stacked in chairs, on the floors and stands. Several oil paintings were pendant to the walls—one of the father and one of the mother of the poet—the latter showing a true Amsterdam Dutchwoman, from whom Whitman inherited most traits of character.

I was interrupted in my investigation by the sound of firm footsteps descending the narrow stairs. A tall form appeared in the doorway, straight as an arrow, and my hand was cordially grasped. The poet's hair and whiskers were fleecy, shining, white and long, his clothing was of the simplest type—a sack coat of tweed, and trousers of the same material, hand-knit hose, and low calf shoes of granger type.

"Sit there in the easy rocker," began Mr. Whitman, in a clear, musical voice. "I want the light to shine on you, so that I can see you while I talk. Yes; I am going to visit Tennyson very soon, I hope. When I was in Washington, during the war, he wrote to me, inviting me to visit him in England, and become his guest. A friendly correspondence ensued, and we became very communicative. In 1874 I was stricken with paralysis, and our correspondence was interrupted. Since then it has continued at intervals. I am a great admirer of Tennyson, and I cannot say that he has ever put on record any critical or literary opinion of me. English visitors at my little home bring messages from him from time to time, by word of mouth, of the warmest and most affectionate nature. I look forward to my visit abroad with great expectation.

"My health? Well, although apparently in health and spirits, I am really what I call myself—a half paralytic, and adhere closely to my own home and rooms. I have numerous offers of assistance from abroad, but have no occasion for it, and in all such cases decline with thanks. My income is just sufficient to keep my head above water—and what more can a poet ask? Wealth and luxury would destroy my working force. As it is, I am sixty-seven years old and still in the harness, writing from time to time. I will probably have a new volume out in the course of the year. One of the titles I have thought of for it is, 'Sands at Sixty-seven.' The book will comprise a number of poems not hitherto published, various prose articles, and will be of that melange character for which I am criticised.

"What about criticism? Why, I may say that it is certain that I do not and shall not fail in either my poetic or prose work to vigourously maintain the same principles on account of which I have been so vigorously attacked. My spirits and energies are, perhaps, more vigorous than ever, and I think I can say that I have not only not grown querulous in my old age, but have more faith and gayety of heart than in any former period of my life. I think my forthcoming writings will indicate this.

"What about the poetry of the future? Oh, I believe that America is going on her way in the best method that is fitting to her. The great requisite is to establish the basis of a grand materialistic civilization—products, machinery, intercommunication and all that practical modern improvements can achieve, equally spread over our vast domain. I think that the things done during our existence as a people in the past century are just the best that could have been done. Upon these bases in the future and in good time will come an intellectual, literary and artistic development fitting for us. While I am satisfied with the absorption so far of foreign literary ideals and contributions as nutriment, yet I look forward to the time when poetry and other great imaginative results will be produced in the United States as becoming to them as were the æsthetic products of the classical ages of Greece appropriate to such ages.

"I am somewhat of the opinion that Boston, New York and the Atlantic coast will be but the stimulus or nursery of the great work that may find their local origin in the West. I have said to others that the prairies offer the suggestion of the grandest imaginative works. I have spent some portion of my life on the Western prairies and among the Rocky Mountains. Several of the poems I wrote there if left out of my works would be like losing an eye. Sometimes I think my Western experiences a force behind my life work.

"Also the battlefield? yes, I derived much inspiration from such sources. A large part of "Leaves of Grass" consists of war poems and a variety of subjects, occurences on the field at night, or in the woods, a pause, the retreat, the torper of a hot day in a crowded hospital, a squad of cavelry crossing a ford and a great variety of themes all jotted down at the time and on the spot. For three years I devoted my services to the sick and wounded, my health and strength being all the time perfect. The scenes and sights I met with and of the most realistic description were made the subject of poems and form that section of the book called 'Drum Taps.' I find it curious how thoroughly these pages are read and accepted in the South and by Confederates as well as Union soldiers. I think it due to the fact that my work was divided equally among rebel and loyal soldiers and my poetic thought was consequently inspired by both sides."

When I asked Whitman what he thought of his own work as the poetry of the future he answered vaguely: "It won't do for us to absorb and chew forever on the poetry of the old world, of which Shakespeare is the most illustrious model. We must have a great poetic expression from out our own soil and conforming to our public and private life as in the West. The primary materials for poetry are the same forever. My favorite illustration is that of a font of type. It (poetry) must be set up over again consistently with American, modern, and democratic institutions.

"My opinion of other American poets? There is a general idea, and Steadman originated it, that I scorn our other poets. My attitude is eminently respectful. I am a great admirer of Bryant, Emerson, Whittier, and Longfellow—these only and proportionately in the order given. I would put Bryant first in many respects. For a long period I placed Emerson at the head of American poetic literature, but of late I have reversed the order and consider Bryant worthy of the leading place on account of a certain native vitality and patriotic character, as well as an odor in his poetry the same as in the woods and by the sea shore. Emerson's great points are intellectual freedom, perfect style, and real manliness; but the tendency of his writings is to refine and sharpen off till the points are lost. Whittier is especially fervid, rather grim, expressing a phase of Quaker-Puritan element in New England history that is precious and rare beyond statement. I think in his old age he is inclined to be a little more liberal and to get out of the narrow rut of Puritanic Quakerism. Longfellow as a poet of grace and sweetness and amiability will always be welcome. Don't know that I have anything to say concerning the great brood of poets springing up who fairly spatter the pages of the press. They often seem to me like the echoes of an echo.

"About politics? I am an optimist. Although I always voted the Republican ticket until the last time, when I staid at home, I am satisfied with the administration. Cleveland seems to me like a huge wall, great on his impediments, as it were. His character is just what is wanted to bring a solid resistance against political corruption.

"My idea of a book? A book must have a living vertebra to hold it together.

"My religion? I should refuse to be called a materialist entirely. I think I combine that with the spiritualistic inseparably in my books and theory. I believe in Darwinism and evolution from A to izzard (Z). To satisfy me there must be a combination of modern science with a loftier and deeper theology than anything that has ever been furnished in the past. My belief is that things in our time, politics, religious investigation, sociology—the movements of all are going on as well as possibly could be. There is a certain sort of activity going on, which if left to continue, all the results that reformers desire will be achieved. Everything is progressing as it should. The result will be a hardening and healthifying of the muscles—a freedom of all of these things.

"I don't think America or the age realize their own unparalleled conditions and virtues. These are as near perfect as they can be in the vast aggregate of people.

"I want to stamp a greater hope and faith—an optimism on the age.

"Some friends say that I think myself attended by the demon of Socrates and await the instigation of the unseen power before making any move in particular.

"I fear not death. Socrates uttered the greatest truth when he said, 'No evil can befall a good man, whether he be alive or dead.'

"I am an old bachelor who never had a love affair. Nature supplied the place of bride with suffering to be nursed and scenes to be poetically clothed.

"Twelve years ago I came to Camden to die; but every day I went into the country and naked, bathed in sunshine, lived with the birds and squirrels and played in the water with the fishes. I recovered my health from nature. Strange how she carries us through periods of infirmity out into realms of freedom and health.

"I write three hours per day, haunt the Delaware River most of the time, am a good liver, not a teetotaler, only regret that I did not cultivate the use of tobacco and have a pipe as a companion and solace for my old age."

At the beginning of the interview, the old poet was ill at ease. He had his doubts about the interview as a vehicle of communication. When I consented to take his words verbatim et punctuatim et literatim he was satisfied and became more and more inspired in his talk. His cheeks became flushed and a happy light shone in his eyes. "I have given you enough," he said as he extended his hand for a farewell grip, "but such trains of thought have been started that I must retire to my room to continue them safely on their journey."

WILLIAM H. BALLOU.

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