Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Chat with the Good Gray Poet

Creator: Cyrus Field Willard

Date: December 1887

Publication information: American Magazine 7 (December 1887): 217–222.

Source: Our transcription is based on a photocopy of a copy of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00545

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




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A CHAT WITH THE GOOD GRAY POET.

BY CYRUS FIELD WILLARD.

AT the sign of the Golden Turtle, Poulson's, Philadelphia—I have forgotten the street—my friend Mr. Patterson, a devotee of poetry and pictures, and myself, scribbler, sat one Sunday investigating some oysters in the mysterious dish invented by Mr. Poulson and known to Philadelphia fame as a Chincoteague roast. I will not describe this dish, as I intend to write a five-page article about it, with copious draughts—illustrations I mean—for Mr. Patterson's Art Magazine.

Suddenly friend Patterson broke the voluptuous, gastronomic silence. "I say, old man, you must n't leave Philadelphia without seeing Walt Whitman." I had finished the Chincoteague roast and I rose to the occasion. Paying the bill, the only sad feature connected with the restaurant, we boarded a cable car—noble invention which saves poor horses from hack-work worse than literary—arrived at the ferry, took the boat, and were soon in the land of Jersey.

Camden is a remarkable town for two rather contradictory facts, namely, that it suffers from a strict Sunday prohibition law and enjoys the presence of the non-prohibitory Walt Whitman.

We consulted a directory—Walt Whitman, poet, 328 Mickle Street, was the result. We found the house, a humble two-story, paint-faded wooden one: "W. Whitman" on the door plate. We knocked with reportorial timidity. A pleasant-faced lady of forty appeared at the door and informed us that the poet was out driving and would not return till dark. We departed sadly, but bethought ourselves of Colonel Tom Donaldson of Philadelphia, who, Mr. Patterson said, was a great friend of Whitman and would give us a letter of introduction that would insure us a hearty welcome in the evening.

We found the famous Colonel in his den amid a chaos of books, pictures, Indian curiosities and weapons. On one of his walls hung framed the first dollar bill contributed to the Blaine Campaign Fund; it was given by a boy. On another wall was a Meissonier, painted for the Colonel by his friend, the superb Frenchman. Treasures and triumphs of art simply crowded this curious rookery, picked up by Donaldson in his almost unlimited travel: and, taking a tallow dip in his hand, the portly politician piloted us, with pardonable pride, through his fantastic corridors, where whosoever comes is very fain to linger.

Finally he gave us a letter to Walt, and some hints how to approach him. "Don't let him suspect you are drawing his cork, or he will be mum—not champagne, but mum as an oyster; I have taken some chaps there who could n't get more than 'ah!' or 'oh!' from the good, gray poet. He will flow if he feels like it, but he won't be pumped. To use his own pet phraseology, he's 'a spontaneous old cuss or nothing at all.'"

Armed with this letter, we again rapped at the Poet's door, and were shown into his study by the pleasant-faced housekeeper, who took the letter upstairs. The gaslight in the narrow hall was the only illumination, but by it we could discern several pictures on the walls and an immense litter of papers on the tables and chairs. In a few minutes we heard a slow, heavy step, and then in the doorway, with his back to the gas, leaning on a cane, but still erect under the snows of nearly seventy winters, stood the massive original, I might say aboriginal, Walt.

We advanced with low bows and outstretched hands.

"Friends, how are you?" came a voice like softened thunder; and, passing between us after a hearty shake, the poet sank slowly into a large chair in the dimmest corner.

We had not seen his face, but we hardly dared to suggest lighting the gas, and, following the hint of Colonel Donaldson, opened the conversation, as if we had come to entertain Walt, and not chiefly "to loaf with him and invite his soul."

Starting with the pleasing theme, Massachusetts politics, I hazarded a prediction that Massachusetts was likely to

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go Democratic in about three years; then remarked that I should not be surprised if before long we had a poet for Mayor of Boston.

"Ah!" Walt asked, "who's that?"

"John Boyle O'Reilly," I replied; "a Democrat, but a broad one, whom many Republicans would be proud to vote for."

"A good man," said Walt, "an honest man; I admire him."

"So he does you."

"I have sometimes thought so. But what makes you think your State wil go Democratic?" he continued.

"For several causes: First, the Democratic organization is rapidly approaching perfection; second, the so-called temperance party is crazy to sting the Republican bosom that warmed it; third, a long lease of power has bred bitter factions in the Republican camp; fourth, and most important, the Labor Party and the party of Progressive Socialism are rapidly increasing. The city of Boston is to-day, simply honeycombed with subterranean societies, who do n't yet know quite all they want, but are bound in the near future to get some things."

"What do you think of this socialistic movement?" asked the poet.

"That's something, Mr. Whitman, on which we would be glad to have your light."

Then Walt began: "I do n't know exactly what they 'redrivin' at, like. Seems to me this is a pretty good government, but I see no harm in their having societies subterranean or otherwise; no harm in their paradin', resolootin', pronunciamentoin' and careerin' round, like. Do they celebrate themselves? Let 'em! Even if they do n't half think themselves, they stir up other minds."

"That's what your poetry does," said I.

"Perhaps so; I do n't know," replied the poet.

"Alluding to your poetry," said Mr. Patterson, "I have wanted to ask you what is your theory about poetry?"

"I do n't know that I have any theory about it," Walt answered. "Have you?"

"Well," said Mr. Patterson, "I have fancied that you wished to express an opposition to the set forms, tricks of rhyme and rhythm, and general pettiness of our magazine-poets."

"I dunno about that," said Walt... "P'r'aps a little."

"Yet," said I, "in some of your most popular pieces, do n't you think you have yielded slightly to the common prejudice in favor of regular measures and even to rhyme; as if, perhaps, to show that you could string rhymes if you wanted to? For instance, in 'My Captain,' which I think one of your finest outbursts, did you not yield to melody rather than seek to express the vaster harmonies?"

"Mebbe so," the poet admitted, "but I do n't quite catch on, like, to what you fellows mean by a theory about poetry. Strikes me it's like happiness. Emerson said one day he was walking in a muddy marsh; cold, raw wind; wet under foot; clouds threatening snow; hills all bare; trees bald of their leaves; his feet wet; everything dreary like; he dreary too, very dreary. Suddenly—all of a sudden—he felt happiness: could n't tell why, but it happened to him. What's your theory about such a fact?"

We simply acknowledged the mistiness which involves more or less all human theories; and the Poet resumed his monologue:

"You can't define it; even I, Walt Whitman, who celebrate it, can't define it. It's like beauty; like a handsome person; I've seen 'em: Negroes, Indians, white, yellow, men, women, children, babies, short, tall, well, sick, long-haired, short-haired, white-haired, red-haired, fat, thin, all sorts and all kinds, in all places. All you can say is, that man or that woman impresses you, like, as being beautiful; but why? Now for your theory: it won't work; it won't wash; it 's like a society girl brought up to do nothing, who runs away with a coachman, and is no good except to be looked at."

The poet seemed so pleased at having knocked out the theory question in the first round that I ventured to tell him I would like to hear him recite his poem about Lincoln.

"You'll have to come, then, to the anniversary celebration," said he, "when they let me have my little splurge."

"But," said I, "I live too far away, and I should like to hear you recite it, so

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that I might catch your style of elocution, for I sometimes recite, and would like, if possible, to acquire your mode of delivery."

"You must imagine then," said Walt, with a deep smile that seemed to flood out through the dimness of the room, "an elocution without any elocution, a sort of straight-ahead, right-on way of talking."

"The other night," said Mr. Patterson, "my friend here recited a poem of yours, Mr. Whitman, to a party of ladies who were very much charmed with it."

"Ah! what one was that?" said the ancient poet, with a purr of pleasure in his vast voice.

Whereupon, I repeated these lines of tremendous flattery:

Once in the days of my youthI roamed through a beautiful city,
Noting the houses, the stores, the churches, theatres,
Markets; acquiring the architecture, customs,
Looks and lingo of the people; hiving them
All up for future reference.
City is a Woman who detained me
There for the Love of Me. Houses, stores,
Customs, costumes, churches, theatres, looks
And lingoes all are vanished, are
Gone, are played out. But the
Woman—She remains.

"Yes, I believe I wrote some lines like those," said Walt in low, slow tones, as if his mind, while he spoke, had traveled back years, many years, and was now operating his voice from a great dim distance. Then, with a touch of pardonable vanity in his utterance: "So they liked it, did they?"

"Yes," said I, "they were highly pleased with it."

I then proceeded to mention some people in Boston who were admirers of his, and he exhibited some surprise at the idea of having so many disciples in the City of Isms.

I asked him if he knew the great Julia Ward Howe, and he replied, rather mournfully: "She has never noticed me. I guess she thinks me too audacious-like." I hastened to give him my belief that this truly grand woman, whom I had the pleasure of knowing during her martyrdom at the New Orleans Exposition, was an appreciator of the Pindaric pyrotechnics of his volcanic Muse; and he appeared so pleased that we were beginning to count on a further flow from his mystic lips, when unluckily we perceived that his houskeeper was making signs to us that it was the poet's bedtime. He is somewhat of an invalid, and she watches him with maternal care. So we rose reluctantly.

Noticing that a picture hung behind him, which in the distance resembled Oliver Wendell Holmes, I inquired if it was of him.

"No," said the poet; "that's my father." I stepped nearer the picture, saying, "I cannot see it very well." Mr. Whitman struck a match, and handing it over, bade me light the gas. This gave us a chance not only to inspect the picture, presenting a very fine face, but also to get a good look at our host, an opportunity for which we had hitherto lacked. I don't think he suspected this piece of innocent strategy, but his housekeeper gave us a mischievous smile.

After we had shaken hands and were fairly out in the street again, we could not help bursting into laughter at the thought of having got ahead of the clever old fellow, in our mind's eye, so to speak. And a very interesting head it is for memory to retain, a head well suited to the great body, now, alas! partially paralyzed; a head which one might well expect would naturally produce such noble poems as "My Captain" and "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed."

I know it is quite the fashion to sneer at Walt Whitman's poems. Sidney Lanier said flippantly: "Whitman is poetry's butcher. Huge, raw collops slashed from the rump of poetry—and never mind gristle—is what he feeds our soul with. As near as I can make out, his argument seems to be that because a prairie is wide, therefore debauchery is admirable; and because the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is God."

Whitman's quiet reply to this detraction—not to the detractor, mark you, for his High Serenity never has stooped to return personal abuse—may be found in this sentence of the Preface to "Leaves of Grass": "Poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away."

How differently another man of wider mind and warmer heart proclaims of Whitman. John Burroughs, the well-beloved lover of Dame Nature, thus speaks concerning "Leaves of Grass": "Of the

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future reception of this poem I feel no doubt. At present Walt Whitman, from his novelty alone, with his unprecedented vastness, his scorn of extrinsic ornament, cannot be measured, cannot well be understood. He stretches into the future as other writers into the past. At present he has a limited circle of fervently appreciative readers. In a decade they wil be counted by thousands; and in still another a newer, younger race, growing up, will, as it were, be born to him." And speaking of "Drum Taps," or Whitman's poems about the war, the same delightful Burroughs sums up: "And when the angry hatreds of the struggle shall have passed away, when the venerableness of Time shall have furnished a retrospective vista through which these poems can be gazed on and read and felt to the fathom of themselves—I see how the quality resident in them, looming through the haze of the past, full of the inexpressible associations of that strange, sad war, will have such effects on the American, Southern or Northern, who reads or hears them read, as never yet have been surpassed by bard, or work of art, on man."

So much for differing criticism, fair and unfair! But to speak of Whitman, without giving some examples of his poetry for the benefit of such as have never read him would be unfairest of all. Here, then, is a poetic diamond, unfaceted with rhyme; rough, if you will, but of what priceless water, the water of a country's tears!

Bathed in war's perfume—delicate Flag!
O to hear you call the sailors and soldiers, Flag,like a beautiful woman!
O to hear the tramp, tramp of a million answeringmen!
O the ships they arm with joy!
O to see you leap and beckon from the tall masts ofships!
O to see you peering down on the sailors on the decks!
Flag like the eyes of Women!

Possibly, this is not poetry, but it fills me with finer fervor and more rhythmical delight than all the blank verse that Noll Cromwell's blind secretary, Mr. John Milton, ever perpetrated. I would like to quote part of "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed"; but not to quote it all, if at all, would be a sin, almost a sacrilege. Suffice it in passing, that this remarkable chant funereal has passion, pathos, and picture enough, ay, and music enough, to set up in business a dozen poets of the day. Of the day—happy phrase! Of all days to come is Walt Whitman. And is there anything in the American language that comes close to this?

(For the Death of Lincoln.)


I.


O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done.
The ship has weathered every wrack, the prize wesought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exult-ing,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim anddaring.
But, O heart! heart! heart!
Leave you not the little spot
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

II.


O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells!
Rise up! for you the flag is flung, for you the bugletrills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you theshore a-crowding.
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eagerfaces turning
O Captain! dear father!
This arm I push beneath you
It is some dream that on the deck
You've fallen cold and dead.

III.


My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse norwill,
But the ship, the ship is anchored safe, its voyageclosed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with objectwon.
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with silent tread,
Walk the spot my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

This was written by the man whose book the sapient censors of the Hub's morals in the great Boston Public Library do n't premit to be taken out, on account of some passages which appear to them unclean. But, thank Heaven, hypocrisy in Boston is never long at a premium. The grand old town will awake and shake it from her "like a dewdrop from a lion's mane." The good gray poet, however, it must be cheerfully admitted, has many outlandish oddities, freaks of Caliban flavor, spasms of colossal slang, which at first are repellent, not to say repulsive, to the readers whose minds have been trained, sometimes overtrained, in literary schools. So, perhaps, it would be well for their behoof, and as a contrast to the noble poems quoted, to append an ode lately written to Walt Whitman by one of his admirers:

AMERICA'S GREETING TO WALT.


I.


All hail, O Poet, Western-souled, sublime,
Walt, grand and grandiose,
Whose brimming, brook-like verse,


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Spurts and spatters, tinkles and patters,
Till it swells
To a roar,
Multitudinous, Titanic,
As of many mighty waters in a large-sized panic
Hurtling down the crags of Time.
Yet sweet, withal, as a Niagara of mo-lasses
That overwhelms the petty flies
Who buzz in rhyme,
The Byron Joneses, Bobbie Burns Wil-sons,
And Tennyson Smiths who monopolize
Our splendid magazines;
That hear thin ocean song, O Walt,
Yet know not what it means.
Forgive, O Whitman, large and big andhuge,
These accidental droppings into rhyme,
Which rightly thou disdainest; for thysoul
Belches forth in thunderous warblings
Like the diapason strange
Of the Earth's perpetual friction
On the circumambient air.

II.


In simple guise, at times
Your lays flow gently on,
Like the streams that meander down
Some back alley, until
They meet and greet the gutter's amplesweep.
Then again are they like
The calm, pellucid bosom of Itasca,
Which, sallying forth into the busy
Haunts of men,
Rolls on serenely muddy,
Caring not for anybody,
Under the name and title of
Mississippi, Father of Waters.
High is the verse, O Walt!
Not high like an old, old cheese,
Or a venison steak in Boston,
But high as your own beloved Rockies,
Craggy, formless, piercing heaven,
Yet exceedingly festive and suggestive,
As of vast cathedral spires,
In whose deep caverns peal
Forth the many-choired anthem,
The Miserere and the prayers
For the dead.
Sun, stars, even the nebulæ and
The Darwinian theory, Mother
Earth, Brother Man, animals,
Flowers, years, thought, Nirvana,
Woman, words and silence—
All do praise thee;
For they are but the echo ofthoughts.

III.


Yes, Walt, it is a fact;
Nay, more, a dead give-away,
That you are a bully old
Highwayman of the Ages.
For you do bid them all
"Stand and deliver" all
That is most precious to them all.
And when you have empouched them,
You do ride away, away—
Your serapé streaming straight
Behind you, in reckless careless
Canter,
Whose echoes will resound
Down the animalculæ centuries
Yet to come.
Your heart is like a lemon, Walt,
A lemon to which the water of
Tears and the sugar of years,
When added, will make
A drink divine
To solace the thirst
Of the wonderful race
Yet to come, yet to come!

IV.


So bawl forth your many-
Chorded ululations! Knock
Out the resonant, brassy
Notes, and prattle along like
A lad at play, while ever and
Anon sweet seraph music
Binds together in many-colored
Fabric the composite harmonies
Of your song!
You know yourself—γνωθζ δεαυτόν
Likewise, Savez? and no one else
Knows anything about you, Camarado.
So do I, your loved America,
Your Femme,
Know, what I am I am;
And my deep chasms
And snowy mountains and mellifluousvales
Reflect back the tawny light
Of thy music.


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Only I cannot and I do not try
To do full homage unto thee, dear boy,
But simply wait and say:
"You are a fit spawn
Of me and the years gigantic.
And by'mbye
Some one more fitted than I,
Poor little Amérique—probably
The whole universe—
Will honor the Cosmos Poet....
Till then, dear Walt, ta-ta!
Houpla!

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