Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Day With Walt Whitman

Creator: Anonymous

Date: November 8, 1891

Publication information: The New York World 8 November 1891: 26.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00561

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Brett Barney, and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

DAY WITH WALT WHITMAN.

———

FOR THREE LONG YEARS CONFINED TO
HIS HOUSE IN CAMDEN.


———

His Room Littered Knee-Deep in Papers and Manuscripts—His Quaint Cottage —When He Rises, What He Eats and What His Work Is—He Lives in the Memories of the Past—Pathetic and Soulful Utterances of a Good Old Man—Why He Composes No More— The Leaden Track of Days—Tales Read by Candle-Light—His Affectionate Greetings to "the Fellows"—He Has Unique Views on the Upbuilding of Literature—His Life's Philosophy in a Few Words.

———

Walt Whitman, poet and philosopher—God bless him!

Like an old ship's cabin, in the quaint and suggestive phrase of the master himself, is the room in which the venerable poet passes the remnant of his declining days.

Haunted with a vision that the good gray poet was at the last remove of life—indeed, that already for weeks past he had slowly been dying—a special envoy of THE WORLD, as he softly rang for admission to Walt Whitman's humble cottage in Mickle street, Camden, N. J., on Tuesday last, conjured into life almost in spite of himself many details of the sick room—the ashen face against the pillow, the wasted hand, the long white hair and beard, in which has crept the lodgment of the snows of many Winters, the sweep of a thousand memories, grand and pathetic, the harp that once had re-echoed with the songs of the people, awakening only once again, and that very soon now, its strings to pulse with that mute and eloquent melody never yet understood of men—the Song of the Silent Land.

For three long years Walt Whitman has patiently dragged out the leaden hours that visit on whom insidious disease compels to pass life ridden in a chair. It has been a trying ordeal, but the poet has endured it with the sweet resignation that rests on ripe old age as an ivy-green of glory.

The woman attendant answering the door wore a serious face and spoke in the accents of the sick chamber, thus giving color to the idea that the poet was indeed hovering between life and death, a statement recently given the widest publicity in the daily press. For three years Mrs. Mary O. Davis, a sailor's widow, as she loves to call herself, has answered the door of Mr. Whitman's cottage, and has replied to the anxious inquiries of the poet's host of friends, for every one in Camden knows Walt Whitman and looks upon it as a pious duty to call upon and cheer the venerable bard in the evening of his life.

HIS HUMBLE HOME.

Ushered into the snug little parlor, the visitor noted the retreating foot falls of the nurse as she disappeared in a dark hallway, climbing a winding stair to an upper room. Then a deep silence fell. A dog howled mournfully. It seemed to come from the upper rooms. Then silence again. Note this little room. It is characteristic of a literary man. There is studied neglect everywhere. The cold, white mantel is massed with photographs. Faces of friends, evidently. One or two old-time pictures of the poet, stained with age, marked by the tooth of the years. In the corners, statues. Among others, Cleveland and Penn. Cleveland is flaked with a yellow jaundice, and his nose is cracked square off at the end. A horse hair lounge, much worn, stands in a corner. A small bookcase, with curtains of red, daintily trained back, leaving the musty volumes a peep of the daylight, is near by. On top of the bookcase is the model of a full-rigged ship, also several curious sticks, evidently walking canes. The walls are covered with dark paper, relieved by a speck of gold tracery. The woodwork is sombre white, and the paint is cracked badly in many places and is peeling off. A few pictures hang round about. On the centre-table, between the two windows (the fly-screens of Summer are still set although not in use), is the same unstudied neglect, the same confusion of books and papers. Some of the books: A copy of Browning and half a dozen other books, large and small, besides papers and magazines. Such is the poet's parlor. In size it is only half a dozen paces long, a few paces wide. Listen. The dog is howling again. Footsteps on the uncarpeted stair. The door opens. It is she. She speaks, smiling softly and beckoning the visitor away.

THE MOULD OF YEARS.

The first glimpse of the venerable bard was touched, for the visitor, with dramatic interest. There seemed to be a strange suggestiveness of Enoch Arden in the mien and humble garb of the grand old figure, sitting there so quietly in his seat in the corner, reading from his large, black-covered book, and marking the dim lines with the lean, outstretched figure of a brown hand. The chair was of drab wood masked with an old bearskin lap-robe, against whose shaggy coat rested the snow-white head of the poet in an attitude of repose. Over his narrow, stooped shoulders was pinned a small brown shawl, fairly hidden by the white beard, which gleamed soft and silken, the glory of ripe old age. A coarse brown woollen garment, something after the fashion of a bath-robe, enshrouded the poet's shrunken form.

In this strange room nothing had been moved or touched for years. Heaped round the chair, in some places knee-deep, were masses of old letters, papers, manuscript, the odds and ends of a student's den. A small table was littered with sheets of writing, books and papers. The relic of a lunch was within reach of the poet's hand. There was a jar of preserves, also a tooth-brush, a whetstone, a curious, enamelled tin box, circular in form, ink, pens, paper, a dozen musty letters and some old brass keys. On another table, just behind the chair, were heaps of dust-sprinkled papers and a package of letters, tied with a faded blue string. On a small sheet-iron stove, in a big yellow bowl, dry pine filled the corner, while the bare floor was clouded with the rubbish and accumulations of years. Apparently nothing had ever been disturbed. A generous sprinkling of dust, and a dry, ancestral gloom that hovered everywhere suggested the mould of ages. Then there was the ample, old-fashioned bed, with its white spread, the bed a step or two from where sat the studious bard. A stiff-backed rocking-chair stood near the bed. It was marked with a white tidy. Then more heaps of papers. Then more dust and slumbering mould, with the brown boards of the floor peeping out here and there from underneath its load of rubbish. The three windows were all on the same side, each to each. The blinds were closed. White curtains were drawn part way down. A strange semi-twilight brooded over the hollow, echoing room. As with the chamber below, a few paces right and left compassed the floor space.

And in the midst of such surroundings as these the venerable bard sat reading out of his large book, here in the intense silence, the intense solitude of a dismantled and antique chamber. It all seemed so unreal, yet withal the scene was dramatic; dramatic, too, with the added dignity of deep pathos, and the vision came back of Father Time hoarding up the treasures of the years in his book of the eternal, the past and the forgotten.

HIS RUGGED PERSONALITY.

The venerable face kindled with a kindly glow, and the bard extended a lean hand, bidding welcome to his humble cottage home.

"So you came all the way from New York to see a poor old man," he said, in a soft voice, adding a touch of emphasis in the gentle motion of his left hand in the slight bending of the head. "Well," he added, "it is a long time now since I was in the great city; as a journalist I suppose most of the fellows have forgotten me."

"Oh, not at all, Mr. Whitman; on the contrary, the papers have recently been filled with kind words for you and for your books."

"Yes?" mused the old man, with the faintest suggestion of interest. Then he broke in on his own train of thought, abruptly.

"Do they say that I am dying?"

"They say, some of them, that you have been a very sick man, but that you bear up with dauntless resolution."

"Ah!" said the old man, apparently relieved. He went on:

"For three years now, I have not left this room. I cannot walk. I am suffering with a malady the doctors call progressive paralysis. The doctors are getting things down very fine these days, and some of them are damnably clever."

There was a fire in the venerable bard's thought.

Walt Whitman in his old age, confined to his room, with only the resource of books to while away the lean hours, manifests the same rugged personality, the same terseness and broadness of expression that have characterized him all through life. Those who imagine that the bard clothes his speech in rhetorical figures are indeed mistaken. Certainly twice in the interview of yesterday the poet referred to Mr. Tennyson as "that fellow," to the newspaper men as "those fellows," to the doctors as "fellows" and once or twice characterized certain advance in literature and science as "damnably clever." To eliminate these touches, to gloss over Mr. Whitman's conversation would be to perpetrate an absurdity. It would rob a unique character of the very factors of fearlessness and terse-turned characterization for which, throughout his past life, he has ever been famous.

DAYS, DAYS, DAYS.

Like many old men, Mr. Whitman dwelt on his infirmities. "After the war," he said, "I was too reckless of my strength. I soon suffered the first strokes of what has since developed into progressive paralysis. I came from Washington to New Jersey, but did not have much benefit. I have never been the same man since.

"How do I spend my day? Oh, the days seem to mean so little to me now. They come and go, and one day is in turn followed by another, which in due course gives way to its successor; and I am always sitting here, now reading, sometimes writing, but always striving to endure with patience what time has at last reduced me to.

"It is, my boy, as though I were some old hulk, thrown up on the shores of time. As far as my life goes it is written in the past. For years it was my wish to live long enough to round out my life's story in my little book, 'The Leaves of Grass.' This is now accomplished, and I am now composedly waiting for the end, employing my time as best I may day by day. But what is there left for an old man in this busy world of ours?"

Here there was a touch of that pathos which occasionally crept into the bard's thought, beautiful in its eloquent tribute to the glory of this lengthening span of years.

"I used to be an early riser," went on the poet, "and I suppose I get up quite early yet a little earlier. I then bathe very thoroughly. I always used to be fond of bathing. I enjoy it yet. Then I eat a little breakfast. Some coffee, some bread. Then I read, or try to write to friends, or, in fact, anything to pass the time. I do not eat at noon. My dinner I take at 4 o'clock. I am very fond of mutton and rice, with a little, sometimes. But in general I am a frugal eater. All my life I have been such. I never cared anything for dainties. I ate solid food. I try to follow the same diet now as far as I am able."

Here, with the treachery of an old man's present memories, back again swept the shadow of his malady, and he said:

"But then I am not as strong as I look. This fat and flesh that you observe in my face"—it was the dream of an old man who fondly clung to the thought that he looked robust and strong, as in the old days—"would seem to indicate," he was saying, "that I am in better health than I really am. I do not suffer any pain. But it seems to me as though a great numbness, an inertia, had come over me. Physically I may say"—

He is calm now.

"That I am a wreck; my thoughts come and go, however, without apparent fret or loss."

"I cannot say that they do," responded the old man slowly, as if dreaming of the past. "I cannot think with the facility of those other days. The spirit does not seem to move me."

There was a deep silence. I waited. By and by he spoke, resting his hand on his beautiful brow.

"It seems to me, it seems to me"—

Here he extended both brown hands and rolled them in circles, the one slowly round the other, after the fashion of one winding yarn.

"It seems to me," he is saying, "that I am like the one spoken of in Tennyson, somewhere—a man wound round and round and round in a great net or web, from which he is never to escape while life endures. This sense of mental obscurity never seems to leave me, and I suppose blots out whatever poetical fancies might otherwise visit me here in my solitude and loneliness."

It seemed like a dream. Yet here was blended the beauty and pathos of the ivy-green years. In this there was no dream.

TALES BY CANDLE-LIGHT.

By and by, the bard resumed his fluttering tale of how he spent his slow paced day. He was saying gravely:

"After I eat my mutton and rice, or bit of onion, or whatever else I may have, I continue my work reading or writing to my friends."

"And what do you read first?" I ventured; "what books, now in your old age, do you return to with the greatest pleasure, of all that you have read in the years gone by?"

The spark of interest swept back, and kindled into a soft glow. This is what he told me—

"Of all the books written by the fellows," he went on, "I think that the one book that all through life has had the greatest charm for me, and to which I now turn first in old age, is Scott's 'Tales of Border Minstrelsy.' If you have never read them I would advise you to do so at once. You can get a cheap edition for 30 cents. Scott loved to take long walks or long horseback rides over the hills, and in the course of these poetical wanderings collected and poetized the lays of the people. There are stories of unrequited love, of war and of deeds of chivalry. I read the book with keen delight when I was about fourteen years old, and I find it one of my best companions in old age and affliction.

"I sometimes read these tales these days by candle-light. I sit here in my chair until half-past 9 o'clock. That is late, is it not?"

"Yes, it is late," I was saying.

"Then I go to bed and sleep awhile. When the next day comes it finds me waiting—I am always waiting now."

Who can penetrate the sublime pathos of that last utterance!

BACK TO NATURE.

He went on, after a time, to tell me all about his reading. He kept posted, he said, on the literature of the day. Friends sometimes sent him papers. These he carefully read, from end to end.

"I keep an eye," he continues, as I sit and listen, "on what the fellows are doing these days. It seems to me there is too much straining after rhetorical effect. If people would forget to write for a few years there would be a return to more simple and truthful forms."

"In what way?" I ventured, not quite clutching his thought.

"Because, my boy, that people which cherishes the past in tradition, in memory, rather than set it down in flourishes, needs always to be a simple people, whose literature would, in effect, be a coming back to nature in the true spirit of men who exalt the past. Here again I must refer you to the simple ballads of the rude borderers that Scott and other fellows write of."

The thought seemed new and interesting. When he paused I suggested his opinion of the poetry of the day. He spoke at once.

"It seems to me," he said, "that there is more attention given by the fellows of to-day to rhymes than to rhythm. That covers it, I fancy."

WALT WHITMAN'S HOUSE IN CAMDEN.

Sir Edwin Arnold's visit to the aged bard flooded the American's soul with joy. Though several days had passed, he spoke with a touch of enthusiasm of the surprise and pleasure Sir Edwin's thoughtful visit had afforded him.

"We recited poetry together for over an hour, and had a chat on Longfellow and Emerson," said the poet, "and it was, indeed, a source of gratification to me to hear Sir Edwin tell me that he knew half my poetry by heart. He made good his boast, too, by reciting for me until I was fully convinced. When we parted I gave him a copy of my poems. I trust we shall meet again. Sir Edwin said if he had me with him he could make me young again. What do you think?"

What could I say?

HIS LIFE'S PHILOSOPHY.

The venerable man then spoke of the world outside. He said a number of things indicating that he was posted on the daily round of newspaper talk. He inquired after his newspaper friends in New York, naming them, and asking to be remembered to them all.

"My life's work is ended," he was saying when I started to come away. "I have lived to round out my 'Leaves of Grass.' I have no literary ambition left now. I pass the days as best I know how. Tell all the newspaper fellows in New York that, although I do not know them personally, I send them my best wishes. I used to be of the craft years ago, you know.

"You want to know in a word, then, the sum total of my life philosophy as I have tried to live it and as I tried to put it in my books. I will tell you. It is only the closest student would find it in my works. I do not care whether or not the fellows understand me. The sum total of my view of life has always been to humbly accept and thank God for whatever inspiration towards good may come in this rough world of ours, and, as far as may be, to cut loose from and put the bad behind always and always."

And with these brave words from one who spoke in the accents of peace, good will and charity towards all the world, I left the venerable poet to his dreams.


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