Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Excerpt from Chapter 19 of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings

Creator: Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist

Date: 1887

Publication information: Our transcription is based on Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist, Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1887), 233–242.

Source: Our transcription is based on Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist, Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (New York: Scribner & Welford, 1887), 233–242.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00557

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




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In the evenings Walt Whitman sometimes read aloud—rarely his own poems; he was fond of Tennyson; Ulysses he recited impressively—looked the character.

'—all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That greatly loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known;—
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move


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That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine,—'

Walt Whitman frequently examined the collection of prints grouped upon the walls of 1929, North 22nd-street—the engraved beauties after Sir Joshua Reynolds and Romney. He was especially fond of Sir Joshua's full-length portrait of Mrs. Frances Abington, the comic actress; the Poet spoke of Reynolds's "broad careless shadows."

In conversation he once admiringly referred to Sir Edward Thornton apropos of this anecdote:—"One day when driving through Washington, the Ambassador noticed a lady intoxicated and surrounded by a jeering crowd. Sir Edward at once stopped—stepped from his carriage, and drove her home. The incident went the round of Washington and we all felt willing to do anything for this Englishman."It should be added, that Sir Edward knew the lady.

The author of Leaves of Grass mentioned an incident which occurred at Emerson's house. We re-tell the story, as it illustrates the Sabbatarianism that existed in Boston a few years ago. It is not unlikely that some little qualifying circumstance present in the actual situation has been forgotten in narration. We must keep present before our mind's eye Emerson's nobility and natural benignity of manner, nay a graciousness which imparted a charm to his lightest words—even of reproof; "Miss Bremer was at Emerson's house, where conversation turned upon the subject of music, the

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qualities which Swedish music lacked. Miss Bremer went to the piano, and suiting the action to the word, said; 'I will show you that our music does possess these qualities.' Whereupon some of the party immediately asked her to desist, even Emerson himself said, 'No, Miss Bremer, this is Sunday evening, I would rather not—'

"Miss Bremer blushed and seemed put out; but like a good soul she soon recovered and laughed.

"Think of that! I twice questioned my informer before I could believe it."

Walt Whitman goes on to say:—

'I remember the Sunday in New York, Jenny Lind was expected from England; it was afternoon: people had nothing particular to do, and about five thousand were seen all making for the wharf—it was one of the funny sights of America.'

How did Jenny Lind take her reception?

'Very good-naturedly; two police officers made way for the unfortunate lion, or lionne. Though I do not think (if the Queen herself were to come here) any people would go now.'

Why is that?

'Well, America is not so young—and since she has had wars, internal throes of her own, this curiosity has lessened. There were a number of youths, boys and girls who had read a good deal, but had had little chance of satisfying their curiosity; so that a star or great personality attracted them; but since they have traveled the impulse has worn off.'

'...Count Gurowski was thought rather a bear in

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Washington: to me, he did the honour of intrusting his confidences. The Count was aristocratic; his brother having married an Infanta of Spain. He came to America for liberal reasons. Upon one occasion, Count Gurowski was at a soirèe in Boston, where he was introduced to a lady for some special purpose; in the course of conversation it came out that the Count had studied under Hegel. 'Oh: what was the colour of Hegel's eyes?' exclaimed the lady. Count Gurowski could not speak English well, but, animated, vivacious, politely bowing, anxious to understand when the question was repeated—what was the colour of his eyes?" His bear nature was too much for him. "Damn his eyes, what do I care for the colour of his eyes!"

Was the Count lionized in Boston?

'He would never consent to be made a lion of.'

'I used to like being with him. He had a head round as an apple, sharply cut features, and one eye had been knocked out in a duel; I was never tired of looking at him. Count Gurowski died in poverty, though actually in the house of Mr. A—, whose daughter he liked—a girl of thirteen. He knew that he must die, and used to speak of approaching death; 'it has come—it has come, but a brave man does not fear death.' Miss A—, whom he thought much of, has become fashionable; one who, we thought, might have had glints of the Count's wild savage character—through affinity.'
[Possibly Count Gurowski's character suggested that of Baron Jocobi to the author of Democracy (?)].

'...Many friends, persons whom I like being

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with, have no idea that I am an author; I like it all the better; and give 'Memoranda of the War' to pilot-men and engine-drivers. I have great fun sometimes, for you have no idea what a far-off thing a poet or literary man is to them; a poet is something they have vaguely heard of, and when one comes round talking familiarly, their astonishment is great.'

Apropos of international manners, Walt Whitman said:—

'A friend of mine who has lived in Italy, admires the Italians, believes in them. A butcher, here, the other day brought him a joint.' "He flung it down at my door, as though the fellow meant some injury: an Italian would have handled it gently, as though he felt for it."'

'I often think of that which Thoreau told me:—In one of his long pedestrian trips, Thoreau strayed unusually far from human habitation; thirsty and tired he lighted upon a farm, where he asked for accommodation and food; the farmer (a supercilious man) refused haughtily. Thoreau was vexed at the bad treatment; when it suddenly struck him that the farmer was acting a part—and how well he was doing it—as an actor on the stage might! This idea so thoroughly possessed Thoreau, that instead of taking offence at the man's churlishness, he talked to him courteously, till at length the farmer's roughness wore off; Thoreau kept it up, and the two men got on well together, the farmer doing the courtesies of a host irreproachably. I always think of supercilious people as acting a part.'

'That which Edward Carpenter was saying the other

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day about the Japanese, interested me, i.e., that an English friend of his in Japan would not mix in Japanese society, because he felt their manners to be above and so far removed from anything he had previously seen.'

'I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid. I do not think it was so much a love of woods, streams, and hills that made him live in the country, as from a morbid dislike of humanity. I remember Thoreau saying once, when walking with him in my favourite Brooklyn—"What is there in the people? Pshaw! what do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?" I did not like my Brooklyn spoken of in this way.'

'...Tennyson seems to me to be a superb fellow; only, with a personality, such as his, what a pity not to give himself to men. A man cannot invest his capital better than in comradeship. Literary men and artists seem to shrink from companionship; to me, it is exhilarating; affects me in the same way that the light or storm does...'

Another day the Poet gave me these verses, written by him in pencil on the fly-leaf of a book:—

"Gladly would I to be such as he
With his exile and all his persecutions and anguish,
Forego the happiest fortunes of mankind."
...MICHAEL ANGELO (of Dante)."

Did you know Miss Bacon?

'No, I knew people who knew her, and I felt a good deal drawn towards her. She has been described to me

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as a beautiful woman, magnificent physique—altogether, something interesting about her.'

Hawthorne was good to her.

'Yes, it was one of the good things Hawthorne did.'

Talking about the beauty and the figure:—

'Somebody had said, that if we went about nude, no one would look at the face.'

Yes, the figure is neglected now; and the critics censure Greek artists for subordinating face to figure in their divine statues.

'Depend upon it the Greek sculptors were right.

'Since you were last here, Herbert, I have read Bulwer's What will He Do with It.'

Do you like it?

'Pretty well, it is not a book that I should recommend to any but an American—there is no mincing matters, it is thorough-going Toryism. My friends laugh, and say I am getting Conservative—but I am tired of mock radicalism.'

Do not Bulwer's attitudinising heroes irritate you?

'No, it is part of the fun.'

Reverting to the Laureate, the author of Leaves of Grass added:—"Tennyson, as I always say, is my Norman, though I think, that even he, is sometimes shaken in the wind of democracy."

George Eliot was not a favourite with the Poet; we persuaded him to read Romola—"The book is like mosaic, each bit good, but I want a thread, something which carries one on in a novel; and Romola—I do not see much in her yet; she is statuesque; her author always poses her before the reader is allowed to see

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her, as a photographer does—'your chin a little higher, please!'"

The story is melancholy.

'Ah, when the Greeks treated of tragedy, how differently it was done. They did it in a lofty way, so that there seemed to be fulfillment in defeat; a tragedy as treated by the ancients inspires—fills one with hope.'

Of Henry James's essay upon George Sand:—

"I like his cool, calm judgment, though I think the final summing up tone is too depreciatory."

That is a noticeable passage of James's "concerning the ardent forces of the heart. It is George Sand's merit that she has given us ideas upon the...Strange, loveless, seen in this light, are those large, comprehensive fictions 'Middlemarch' and 'Daniel Deronda.' They seem to foreign readers, probably, like vast, cold, commodious, respectable rooms, through whose window-panes one sees a snow-covered landscape, and across whose acres of sober-hued carpet one looks in vain for a fireplace or a fire."

One day, when looking at Bolswert's engraving after Ruben's bold portrait of Cæsar, Walt Whitman said: "What a pity that there is not such a portrait of Lincoln; the portraits of the President are lamentable, horrible, and the worst of it is they are so like!"..."I should like to poke about amongst the antiquities of Europe for two years—think I should appreciate the treasures there—that they are for me."

The following gossip we enjoyed with the Good Gray Poet in the country, near perfumed clover-field, within sound of



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"The low and sulky murmur of the bee."

'I sometimes think that there never has been a life written of anybody.'

Plutarch's—?

'I think them of incalculable use; though probably they give us no idea of that which really happened. During the [Secession] War we would now and then read a special article in the newspapers on an important battle, and we used to shout with laughter—the mistakes and fabrications were so ludicrous. So-called lives are little more than statistics.'

'...I remember well once seeing a man fall off a hayrick; I ran miles away. But necessity drives off that qualm. There is an operation in camp—the thing must be done—hundreds dying for want of attendance.'

'...The soldiers' time used to hang heavy on their hands during the winter; they would devise all sorts of things—make ingenious toys, little knick-knacks.'

"The wild roving life of a soldier, not knowing whether you may die to-morrow or what may happen; the camaraderie, being thrown together in that way and under those conditions, is fascinating. I do not think that it has ever been expressed in literature, though the ancients understood it."

"To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream;—ay, there's the rub;"

The Poet criticized the speech as having morbid tendencies; in short, that it showed the dividing line between the untroubled health of the ancients and uneasy consciousness of modern thought.

"I have sometimes felt a little vexed that the good

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William should have failed to see anything in the common people; for unless it be the faithful servant in As You Like It, there is not a single character, in his plays, of the people who is not a booby (Jack Cade, Bottom), and no doubt they were—only it shows how entirely Shakespeare was absorbed in the feudalism of his time."

When in the open and under the blue sky of America, the author of "Leaves of Grass" quoted freely.

"Well, honour is the subject of my story,"—was the commencement of a favourite speech with him. Whenever we hear an actor recite it, our mind reverts to the majestic presence and full sweet baritones of Walt Whitman,—

"The torrent roar'd; and we did buffet it
With lust sinews; throwing it aside
And stemming it with hearts of controversy."

A flexible voice, which could sink to the hoarse whisper necessary to the line:—

"Give me some drink, Titinius."

"....I see that a statue of Burns has been unveiled in Glasgow; Lord Houghton presided. Convivial Burns—fond of comrades, of talking and joking; I think that I—nay, that we should all have liked him. What a tragedy his life was, poor fellow!

"Walter Scott is a great favourite of mine; what happy days and nights I have had from his novels; the good I have had out of The Heart of Mid-Lothian!..."

"You remember what I said about painting;—?"



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Yes, how pleasant it is to be advised to do just that which one is thinking of doing.

"Well, I have never experienced it. When Leaves of Grass appeared, the first piece of advice concerning it was from an old fellow—'Yes, there is something in that which you have written, but why don't you study Addison? you ought to read Addison's works!'"

Of travel:—

"There come epochs in or lives, when the breaking up, the tearing oneself away from old scenes, is of incalculable benefit; and one finds upon looking back, that the years which were spent in roving, were the best, the most important of our life."


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