Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman on Himself

Creator: Anonymous

Date: June 8, 1890

Publication information: The New York Times 39 (8 June 1890): 1.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00550

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




image 1

WALT WHITMAN ON HIMSELF.

———

HE HAD A MISSION TO PERFORM AND
HE HAS PERFORMED IT.


PHILADELPHIA,June 7.—

Walt Whitman is still able to get out on fine afternoons, when he is wheeled to his favorite spot near the Market Street Ferry, where he can see the boats coming in and enjoy the sight of the white sails of the racing yachts. In the course of a chat this afternoon the old poet said:

"I have been called a sensualist, taking no thought of the spiritual essence and spiritual needs of humanity. I am the poet of the body, and I am the poet of the soul. In that book you will find the soul is celebrated equally with the body, the mind equally with the heart, the spirit equally with the sense.

"Then I have been accused of infidelity, though I say: 'A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.' Francis Howard Williams of Germantown wrote me the other day something that pleased me very much. He writes: 'There has been a deal of howling, of shuddering conventionality about your dear Walt; a deal of holding up of hands in shocked amazement, the dear people all the while forgetful of the fact that in reading Whitman they were looking into a clear mirror which showed them the reflection of themselves, and which didn't make them look prettier simply because the mirror was not cracked, and through all this thunder shower of vituperation you calmly went on your way. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize. To-day there are signs that the vindication for which you waited thirty-five or forty years has come, and in the right way—from without—and it has come from those compelled thereto by inexorable truth.'"

Continuing, Mr. Whitman said: "I see good sense in what was said by John Herbert Clifford, a Germantown Unitarian, who called me prophet and bard, and who quoted Voltaire as saying that if God did not exist man must invent him, and that the old concern to take care of God goes with the modern prompting to take care of man. 'Take care of man, and God will take care of himself and of men's substitutes for him'—a quotation from Goethe."

The old poet paused a while, and then continued: "I had a mission as I understood it, and I was true to it. Why waste more words? But I will merely add that in Lewes's 'Life of Goethe' I read on the 30th day of November, 1884, some words which touched me nearly—words evidently Goethe's own, though Lewes does not credit them to Goethe. The six sentences may be a key to those who like me, but say they don't understand my book. Here are the words from Goethe I set so much store by: 'The laws of property are foreign to innocent nature, only the experience of corruption has given origin to them; but as soon as that corruption has taken place and natural innocence has vanished from manners, the laws of property are sacred and moral feeling will not offend. They have the same validity in an artificial world as the laws of nature have in a world of innocence. But the very thing which constitutes the poet is that he banishes from himself everything which reminds him of an artificial world, that he may restore nature in her primitive simplicity, and if he has done this he is thereby absolved from all laws by which a perverted heart seeks security against itself. He is pure, he is innocent, and whatever is permitted to innocent nature is permitted also to him. If thou who readest and hearest him art no longer innocent, and if thou canst not momentarily become so by his purifying presence, it is thy misfortune and not his thou forsakest. He did not sing for thee.'"


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