Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman at Home

Creator: George Johnston

Date: January 23, 1886

Publication information: Cecil Democrat 23 January 1886.

Source: Our transcription is based on Ernest J. Moyne, "Walt Whitman and Folger McKinsey or Walt Whitman in Elkton, Maryland: A Study of Public Taste in the 1880's," Delaware Notes 29 (1956): 103-117.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00520

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




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Walt Whitman at Home.

A Visit to the Good Gray Poet of Camden.


Saturday, December 12th, 1885, was a bright sunshiny day, the memory of which will linger long in the mind of the writer, and to which he will look back with feelings of reverence and respect for the destiny which threw him in contact with the good white-haired poet of Camden, the world-renowned Walt Whitman; the poet par excellence of the nineteenth century, the exponent of the millennial splendors and harmonies which greeted the prophetic vision of Holy John in the Patmian Isle; the interpreter and expounder of that which is to be, when the latter day glories of modern civilization and development have been brought to perfection, and science and poetry and religion shall have been blended into an intellectual trinity, for the enlightenment and elevation of mankind; Walt Whitman, the hoary-headed poet and priest, who for a quarter of a century, in spite of the jeers and frowns of humanity, has kept bright the flame of the true poetic fire which he himself kindled in the long ago beneath the altar in the new temple, which he in early manhood dedicated to the worship of the phantasms that the next generation may see resolved into a sublime and glorious reality. We, for the writer was accompanied by a friend, found the old sage in a small frame tenement in one of the thoroughfares of Camden, N. J., where he has resided for some years. His house is not large, and is quite as unpretentious as the man himself. A few gentle taps brought his housekeeper, who is also maid of all work, to the door, and we were ushered into the presence of the friend of Lord Tennyson; the unknowable, the incomprehensible, the undefinable Walt Whitman. He occupied aa easy chair in the northeast corner of the room, which was apparently about twelve by fourteen feet. His hair and beard, both of which were white as the driven snow and of great length, blended beautifully with the hair on a robe made of the hide of a prairie wolf, which covered the chair in which he sat, and differed little from it, except that some of the hair on the robe was slightly flecked with black. Indeed, the hair of the man was so much like the hair of the beast, that it was difficult to distinguish the one from the other; and his face, as he greeted us kindly and shook us warmly by the hand, would have seemed, had we been a little farther away from it, as the broad, bright sun shining through a halo of the thinnest vapor which its rays were powerless to dispel, but in doing so irradiated it with an unearthly glory, so bright and genial was the good-natured smile that played upon the old man's countenance, and so warm and captivating and magnetic were the glimpses we now and then caught of the inner part of the man that was hidden behind this strange exterior.

On the wall over the mantel-piece was suspended a portrait of one of the poet's ancestors, who came from Holland about a century and three-quarters ago. It was well preserved, and had as meek an expression of countenance as Moses may have been supposed to have had when he stood on the mountain top and looked across Jordan into the promised land, after the toils and trials of forty years in the wilderness. In the recesses on either side of the chimney were portraits of the poet's father and mother. They looked as if they might have been good-natured, mild-mannered people who were in love with nature and with themselves.

We didn't think of it at the time, but it appears to us since that there might have been just a little resemblance between the portrait of the poet's mother and the poet himself, but we are sure there was not much.

Scattered over the mantel-piece and the table and suspended on the walls were photographs of the poet's friends. They lay around loose, like snow flakes in winter time; sometimes they were piled up in drifts, and possibly some of them were on the floor. Of books there were many, and, like the pictures, they were scattered everywhere around the room; on the chairs, on the sofa, on the floor; most of them shut, but some of them open as if they sought to drink in the wild, weird music of their owner's voice, and were trying to catch the words of wisdom that fell from his lips and made the little room where he dwelt an intellectual Mecca for the poets of all nations and all climes.

Shortly after we entered, two other visitors came into the room. They were young ladies just ready to bloom into early womanhood—pupils from Bryn Mawr College. They walked straight up to the venerable figure in the chair and, gently laying one arm on the old man's shoulder, reverently kissed his cheek.

Pretty soon the writer made an incidental remark about the growth of the new Philadelphia City Hall, and the old man remarked that he often gazed upon it from a distance, and it always seemed to him like the airy fabric of a vision, and even its unfinished tower as it pointed skyward was a shape of beauty, notwithstanding Goss, the English poet, had said it was the ugliest thing he had seen in America.

After a casual remark by one of the young ladies which led the old man to say that it wasn't a nice thing to be a literary hack and write for people whenever they ask you, one of the girls rejoined, "But doesn't it make you feel good to think of what will come after you?" This pointed question, which may be pardoned in consideration of the artless innocence and inexperience of the questioner, the sage seemed to think demanded something more than a categorical answer, and he proceeded to make a deliverance upon the subject of the implied implication of writing for posthumous fame, and in his curiously quaint and philosophical manner proceeded to say that no great writer thought of the future, but wrote as the guiding spirit of his inner manhood prompted him at the moment, without any regard to futurity, and that he didn't believe Shakspeare wrote the half of the sonnets attributed to him, for the reason, as he seemed to wish us to think, of their intense egotism. Continuing, he said, "Some of the wilder or more daring of the poets, such, for instance, as Hugo and Keats, may have written for futurity, but not so Tennyson; he wrote to please himsel and his family, and accepted his lordship for that reason. The trend of his early writings was radical, but he had become conservative like Emerson, who left his pulpit and evoluted from a priest into a philosopher. Whittier," he continued, "is rather radical, but most of them are conservative as they should be. Nature is conservative, but her power for breaking down the mystical is amply provided for. The reason is good, but there is something like Socrates' demon behind it. His demon did not command him to do things, but not to do things; for instance, not to escape from the death penalty. This," said the sage, "was the spirit which impelled me to write the 'Leaves of Grass,' wherein I have sought to embody the lessons it taught me." Just here the writer ventured to ask if that wasn't the same idea expressed by Shakspeare when he says there is a divinity which shapes our ends? "Yes," he replied, "possibly it may be," but, while his voice said yes, his manner of saying it meant no, and we could not resist the conclusion that in the deepest recesses of his soul he referred to something grander, and higher, and nobler, and better, than the divinity to which the immortal dramatist referred. What it may have been we cannot tell, for the conversation of the poet is as hard to comprehend as his poetry. His attempt to express his own opinion of the spirit which guided him, seemed like the vain effort of a bird with broken pinion trying to rise and soar heavenward. Frequently he hesitated and halted for a word, and then his thoughts went back as it were along the pathway he had trod to look for it, and while doing this he repeated himself and went on, only to do the same thing again and again. It was like the finite attempting to grasp the infinite; it was mortality trying to express the immortal emotions and gorgeous conceptions that struggled for an outlet but failed to find it; but his conversation, with all its incomprehensibility, impressed the writer with a consciousness of his own insignificance, as compared with the gigantic intellect of the intellectual giant in whose presence he stood, and left a pervading sense of the indescribable pleasure like that produced by reading his poetry, the intellectual essence of which may be felt, but the effect of which cannot be described.

At the conclusion of the interview, which we have tried to describe, the young ladies took an affectionate leave of the venerable philosopher, one of them leaving the prints of her fresh young lips on his cheek, and the other taking the print of his lips which he impressed upon her cheek away with her.

There may be parts of Walt Whitman's poetry so incomprehensibly common, so deeply obscure, as to suggest the idea that they are immoral, but no one can see the author of them face to face and hear him talk, and not be convinced of the purity, the wisdom, and the goodness of the man. He that in the chilling midnight air and amid the falling dew on the bloody field of battle lay beside the wounded soldiers that the warmth of his body might warm them into life, and did it so frequently that he became a hopeless paralytic, can't have a bad heart; can't be amenable to the charge of intentional immorality.


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