Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Untitled

Creator: Anonymous

Date: June 19, 1885

Publication information: Marietta Register 19 June 1885.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00522

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




image 1
Written for the Marietta Register, Brooklyn Times, Iowa Register, Chicago Tribune.

Gosse the English poet who recently visited this country said when he called upon Horace Howard Furness, the Shakespearian scholar, Hon. Geo. H. Boker, the dramatist, and Walt Whitman, the poet, that he had seen literary Philadelphia. The most original and the greatest of this literary trio, Walt Whitman, does not live in Philadelphia, nor in Pennsylvania, but is a citizen of Camden, N.J. Camden is a prosperous city of some fifty thousand souls, situated on the left bank of the Delaware river opposite Philadelphia, and for purposes of classification may be called a part of the larger city. A swift steam ferry boat bears one over the Delaware and deposits one on the Jersey shore. Near the pier stand a row of street cars with sleepy horses and drousy drivers waiting for all unwary strangers who hope to save time by riding. In the course of fifteen minutes, the driver having scoured the wharves for the purpose of borrowing a bit of chewing tobacco, takes his place on the forward platform and gently asks the horse to go. The horse does not move. The drive repeats his request and emphasizes it with a Jersey oath. The animal at once starts off at an easy walk. It is a characteristic of the Camden street railway horse that he never moves till he bears the driver swear. The car jogs up Market street, the principal thoroughfare of the city. The ubiquitous urchin and a group of gigling school girls are the only evidence of life one sees on the street. The bright energy which marks the growing Western city is absent. The only part of New Jersey that seems to be in accord with the spirit of the times are those sections of the State which are not too far removed from New York City to partake of its life and character.

THE HOME OF WHITMAN.

Camden is monotonous and for a city of its age and opportunities unlovely. The people bear a stolid air of indifference and apparently feel little interest in what is going on about them. It is about the most unattractive city in this part of the country so far as external surroundings are concerned, yet Walt Whitman who is considered by a majority of the literary men of England to be our greatest poet has chosen it for his home. The natives are unconscious of his greatness. When I asked a respectable officer of the country where the poet lived, he said, "O, Whitman, the fellow that scribbles poetry, you mean? Why, he lives down on Mickle street, I believe. To tell the truth, I don't know just where; never took much stock in poetry of any kind, you know." If Camden had been the home of Lincoln and I had asked this man where he lived the answer, in all probability, would have been, "O, Abe Lincoln, the man that freed the slaves; he lives just round the corner. We don't take much stock in those emancipation cranks here."

Mickle street is a narrow thoroughfare, three blocks south of the main street. The dwellings on it are unpretentious and for the most part old. There is probably not a house on the street which would sell for five thousand dollars. Many of them would be high priced at five hundred. Walt Whitman lives in an old narrow frame house which is built near the pavement and is entered by three wooden steps rising from the sidewalk. The poet's home is an humble one. The exterior is plain and the weather boards are sadly in need of paint. The hall door stood open revealing walls which had not been touched by the paper hanger for years. The first door to the left as one enters is the poet's sitting room. A worn ingrain carpet covered the floor. The walls were adorned with a number of portraits, engravings, and photographs. On one side of the chimney-piece was a portrait, in oil, of Emerson; on the other side was the portrait of an old lady, Whitman's mother; across the room was good likeness of Washington and from the rear wall Lincoln and his family looked down upon me. Near the door a canary bird sang in a gilded cage. On the small stand between the two windows which looked out into the street were a number of books, among them The Russians at the Gates of Heart, Homes of Old English Writers and Burrough's Fresh Fields.

HIS APPEARANCE.

In a few minutes Whitman entered leaning on his cane. "I am right glad to see you this beautiful May afternoon," he said, in tones sweet as the silver notes slipping from the throat of the song bird above our heads. "Be seated, I will sit here where I can see the children at play beneath the green leaves," and the poet took his favorite place by the open window. The light fell full upon his face. It illuminated a large and well rounded head sprinkled with snow white hair; eyebrows high and arching over a pair of clear blue eyes; a nose straight, strong, broad and well proportioned; mouth firm and ample. The mustache that conceals the upper lip is silvery and the beard that falls to his broad breast has the white luster of his hair. His physiognomy suggests the antique at once. His head and bust are those of a sculptured Greek. Whitman wears a broad open linen collar and is generally attired in a suit of loose, dark clothes.

I have described the appearance and surroundings of the poet at length because he is one of the most interesting figures in the constantly diminishing group of the world's great contemporary literary men. He is so recognized abroad and he is steadily gaining just recognition in this country.

THE POET OF OUR DAY.

Whitman deals with the things about us. Sings of that which is most familiar and commonplace, if you will, and his countrymen overlook the truth and beauty of his utterances because they are not heard as a voice afar off. In England the every day American life which he celebrates has the charm of distance and his readers readily pass under his strong spell. There have always been a number of great souls in this country which went forth to him. Lincoln involuntarily exclaimed, when he first saw Whitman, "He looks like a man," and Emerson wrote Whitman when his first book appeared, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start."

HIS VIEWS OF AMERICAN BARDS.

"The old poets are dropping off," said Mr. Whitman, continuing the conversation, "Victor Hugo was the last to enter the silent land. Versatile, earnest, brilliant, he was the poet of mercurial France. Too much of a Frenchman for us perhaps, but the better poet of his nation for that. He represented the life which he sang.

"I like to think how natural, simple and pure are the characters of our great poets, Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant and Whittier. Emerson and Longfellow I knew well. Amiability is the word which best describes their delightful natures. Longfellow visited me here, sat where you now sit, and I quickly learned to love him. Emerson, of whom I saw much, was very like Longfellow in this respect. Simple, sweet natures, each reflected his soul in his song. Whittier I know through his writings and they tell me he is like the others. In these great men I have observed that there is none of the smallness, none of the jealousies, none of the distrusts which some of the lesser literary men allow to creep into their lives and which often show themselves unpleasantly in their works. Still, a poet is none the less a poet because he is obscure. I recognize the poetic instinct in the humblest writer of verse. There is some good in them all. I fancy that the number of those who have poetic ideas is legion. The one who can express what he feels is the exception, the rara avis whom the world calls a poet. The light bits of versification which find their way into the current periodicals have some poetry in them. It may not be great nor grand but it is poetry."

POETRY AND EVOLUTION.

"Will you define poetry?" I asked.

"My young friend you ask me a difficult question. All of us have some idea of what poetry is but which one of us is competent to define it. Define life, the soul, being, and then perhaps you can or perhaps you will have defined poetry. The dim outposts which marked the limits of poetry are receding. A re-adjustment is taking place. Poetry is not what it was because the limits of life and the soul have been altered by the acceptance of even so much of the theory of evolution as can be received by intelligent christians. We now must see life and the soul from a different and more comprehensive point of view."


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