Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Visit to Walt Whitman

Creator: H. R. Haweis

Date: January 13, 1886

Publication information: The Pall Mall Gazette 43 (13 January 1886): 1–2.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00527

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




image 1

A VISIT TO WALT WHITMAN.

BY THE REV. H. R. HAWEIS, M.A.

I HAD always intended to visit Walt Whitman should I ever get the chance. The chance come to me a month ago (December) at Philadelphia. He lives at Camden, a town just across the Ferry. I had never shared in the general vituperation which greeted "Leaves of Grass" when it appeared in an English dress, under the auspices of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, much as there was repulsive even in that expurgated edition. There seem to me flashes of genius and clear insight which no age, least of all our own, can afford to despise. The man who wrote "Whispers of Heavenly Death" could not be a mere licentious charlatan. The revolt of Whitman against rhyme is like the revolt of Wagner against stereotyped melody, and in his way he seemed to me to be in search of a freer and more adequate method for conveying the intimate and rapid interior changes of the soul. Over and above this Whitman's wild stanzas, with their lists of carpenters' tools and "barbaric yawps," their delight in the smoke and roar of cities, as well as in the solitudes of woods and silence of mountains, and seas of prairies,—seemed to me to breathe something distinctive, national, American—with all his confusion of mind. I could hardly read his superb prose description of the Federal battlefields—and those matchless pages on the assassination of President Lincoln (of which he was an eye-witness), without feeling that Whitman was no figure-head—one more monkey, in fact—but a large and living soul, with a certain width of aboriginal sympathy, too rare in these days of jejune thought and palsied heart. In Camden the old man lives quietly and inoffensively. The people like him—he has survived calumny and abuse. The gentleness and ease of his disposition has endeared him to all who come habitually in contact with him; but he seeks no one, is in failing health, and lives poorly, but not uncomfortably. His friends and admirers have lately presented him with a horse and carriage, and what is better, the wherewithal to keep it. Before that, almost the only exercise and amusement of his failing years consisted in going to and fro on the crowded boats over the wide ferry between Camden and Philadelphia, looking at the people, and chatting, especially with the common men and little children—on the whole, he seems to think Nature less spoiled and sophisticated there than elsewhere. We found him, late in the afternoon, just come in from his drive—a rather infirm but fine-looking old man, with a long, venerable white beard, a high, thoughtful forehead, and a great simplicity of manner and a total absence of posing. He received us with ease and even grace, and one almost forgot that he was himself only a poor peasant—a soldier in the great war, and after that a ceaseless worker in the army hospitals, and not good for much else in most people's eyes. Emerson and the Concord and Cambridge folk had some hopes of him at one time, but they ended by looking askance at him; he was clearly out of their orbit—out of every one's orbit but his own. In that content—quite unsoured by abuse—plain in life—with a wide, shrewd look at the world, and a great fund of what Confucius called "humanity." Walt sat in his armchair by the lamplight, looking a good deal older than he is, for he is only sixty-six. "Tell me," he said, "about Browning. I have had kind words from Tennyson and many of your people, but Browning does not take to me. Tell me about Gladstone. What will become of you all? You are hurrying on, on, but to what kind of a democracy are you hurrying?" He seemed more anxious to hear than to speak; he made us talk to him. Once or twice he alluded to Emerson. "I saw him quite in the last days when his memory was gone," he said. "Was not that painful?" I asked. "No, no!" he said, with a glow in his eyes, and leaning forward in his chair. "It seemed to me just right; it was natural; Nature slowly claiming back her own—the elements she had lent—he did not seem to feel it painful. I did not; it was all as it should be—harmony, not discord. As he lived, so he died"—then more slowly, and the old habit of thinking in pictures came back to him, "like a fine old apple-tree going slowly to decay—noble work done, getting ready for rest, or," and he paused and seemed to be thinking of days long past—"like a sunset." But I soon found there was not much to gather from the Aftermath of Walt Whitman. He, too, seemed going slowly the way of the old apple-tree. His brain went very leisurely—with only an occasional flash. He gave us one more image, I thought a powerful one. I was alluding to the unknown, immeasurable public which seemed to engulph immense cheap editions of books. "Who buys, who reads these tracts, tales, poems, sermons, which circulate in millions, and which we should never care to open?""You forget," said Walt, "there is a sea below the sea. We are but on the surface." It would have been difficult to hit upon a more graphic image, or one more nicely to the point. I think Walt, as he likes to be called, was tired, not very communicative at all events—or perhaps we had not the power of drawing him out. He was, however, very gentle and courteous to the ladies, and before we left gave us two pamphlets, one containing a few poems, and another in prose. He wrote his name in each, and, as he seemed to be suffering physicallly from rheumatism, I rose to go. We left with a pleasant, genial feeling of having been conversing with an agreeable and thoughtful old man, but scarcely with the Walt Whitman whose name has been for thirty years notorious rather than famous throughout the civilized world, and whose works have been freely extolled, execrated, and ridiculed, but probably little bought and less read.


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