Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Day with the Good Gray Poet

Creator: Theodore F. Wolfe

Date: 1895

Publication information: Our transcription is based on Theodore F. Wolfe, Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1895), 201–217.

Source: Our transcription is based on Theodore F. Wolfe, Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1895), 201–217.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00566

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




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———

A DAY WITH THE GOOD
GRAY POET

———

Walk and Talk with Socrates in Camden—The Bard's Appearance and Surroundings—Recollections of his Life and Work—Hospital Service—Praise for his Critics—His Literary Habit, Purpose, Equipment, and Style—His Religious Bent—Readings.

"HOW can you find him? Nothing is easier," quoth the Philadelphia friend who some time before Whitman's death brought us an invitation from the bard; you have only to cross the ferry and apply to the first man or woman you meet, for there is no one in Camden who does not know Walt Whitman or who would not go out of his way to bring you to him." The event justifies the prediction, for when we make inquiry of a tradesman standing before a shop, he speedily throws aside his apron, closes his door against evidently needed customers, and—despite our protest—sets out to con-duct us to the home of the poet. This is done with such obvious ardor that we hint to our guide that he must be one of the Whitmaniacs," whereupon he rejoins, I never read a word Whitman wrote. I don't know why they call him Socrates, but I do know he never passes me

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without a friendly nod and a word of greeting that warms me all through." We subsequently find that it is this sort of "Whitmania," rather than that Swinburne deplores, which pervades the vicinage of the poet's home.

Our conductor leaves us at the door of three hundred and twenty-eight Mickle Street, a neat thoroughfare bordered by unpretentious frame dwellings, hardly a furlong from the Delaware. The dingy little two-storied domicile is so disappointingly different from what we were expecting to see that the confirmatory testimony of the name "W. Whitman" upon the door-plate is needed to convince us that this is the oft-mentioned "neat and comfortable" dwelling of one of the world's celebrities.

We are kept waiting upon the door-step long enough to observe that the unpainted boards of the house are weather-worn and that the shabby window-shutters and the cellar-door, which opens aslant upon the sidewalk, are in sad need of repair, and then we are admitted by the "good, faithful, young Jersey woman who," as he lovingly testifies, "cooks for and vigilantly sees to" the venerable bard. A moment later we are in his presence, in the spacious second-story room which is his sleeping apartment and work-room.



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"You are good to come early while I am fresh and rested," exclaims Walt Whitman, rising to his six feet of burly manhood and advancing a heavy step or two to greet us; "we are going to have a talk, and we have something to talk about, you know," referring to a literary venture of ours which had procured us the invitation to visit him. When he has regained the depths of his famous and phenomenal chair, the "Jersey woman" hands him a score of letters, which he offers to lay aside, but we insist that he shall read them at once, and while he is thus occupied we have opportunity to observe more closely the bard and his surroundings.

We see a man made in massive mould, stalwart and symmetrical,—not bowed by the weight of time nor deformed by the long years of hemiplegia; a majestic head, large, leonine, Homeric, crowned with a wealth of flowing silvery hair; a face like "the statued Greek" (Bucke says it is the noblest he ever saw); all the features are full and handsome; the forehead, high and thoughtful, is marked by "deep furrows which life has ploughed;" the heavy brows are highly arched above eyes of gray-blue which in repose seem suave rather than brilliant; the upper lid droops over the eye nearly to the pupil,—a condition which obtains in partial ptosis,—and we

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afterward observe that when he speaks of matters which deeply move him his eyelids have a tendency to decline still farther, imparting to his eyes an appearance of lethargy altogether at variance with the thrilling earnestness and tremor of his voice. A strong nose, cheeks round and delicate, a complexion of florid and trans-parent pink,—its hue being heightened by the snowy whiteness of the fleecy beard which frames the face and falls upon the breast. The face is sweet and wholesome rather than refined, vital and virile rather than intellectual. Joaquin Miller has said that, even when destitute and dying, Whitman "looked like a Titan god."

We think the habitual expression of his face to be that of the sage benignity that comes with age when life has been well lived and life's work well done. The expression bespeaks a soul at ease with itself, unbroken by age, poverty, and disease, unsoured by calumny and insult. Certainly his buffetings and his brave endurance of wrong have left no record of malice or even of impatience upon his kindly face. His manly form is clad in a loosely fitting suit of gray; his rolling and ample shirt-collar, worn without a tie, is open at the throat and exposes the upper part of his breast; all his attire, "from snowy

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linen to burnished boot," is scrupulously clean and neat.

His room is of generous proportions, occupying nearly the entire width of the house, and lighted by three windows in front. The floor is partly uncarpeted, and the furniture is of the simplest; his bed, covered by a white counterpane, occupies a corner; there are two large tables; an immense iron-bound trunk stands by one wall and an old-fashioned stove by another; a number of boxes and uncushioned seats are scattered through the apartment; on the walls are wardrobe-hooks, shelves, and many pictures,—a few fine engravings, a print of the Seminole Osceola, portraits of the poet's parents (his father's face is a good one) and sisters, and of "another not a sister."

There are many books here and there, some of them well worn; one corner holds several Greek and Latin classics and copies of Burns, Tennyson, Scott, Ossian, Emerson, etc. On the large table near his chair are his writing materials, with the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, and the Iliad within reach. Bundles of papers lie in odd places about the room; piles of books, magazines, and manuscripts are heaped high upon the tables, litter the chairs, and overflow and encumber the floor. This room holds

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what Whitman has called the "storage collection" of his life.

"And now you are to tell me about yourself and your work," says the poet, pushing aside his letters. But, although he is the best of listeners, we are intent to make him talk, and a fortunate remark concerning one of his letters which had seemed to interest him more than the others—it came from a friend of his far-away boyhood—enables us to profit by the reminiscential mood the letter has inspired.

In his low-toned voice he pictures his early home, his parents, and his first ventures into the world; with evident relish he narrates his ludicrous experience when he—a stripling schoolmaster—"went boarding 'round." Than this, there was but one happier period of his life, and that was when he drove among the farms and villages distributing his Long Islander:"that was bliss."

Later he was a politician and "stumped the island" for the Democratic candidates, but the enactment of the fugitive slave law disgusted him, and he declared his political emancipation in the poem "Blood-Money." At odd times he has done "a deal of newspaper drudgery" and other work, but his "forte always was loafing and writing poetry,—at least until the war."

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He began early to clothe his thought in verse, and was but a lad when a poem of his was accepted for publication in the New York Mirror, and he depicts for us the surprised delight with which he beheld his stanzas in that fashionable journal.

A pleasure of those early years was the companionship of Bryant, and he details to us the "glorious walks and talks" they had together along the North Shore in sweet summer days. This, he says with a sigh, was the dearest of the friendships lost to him by the publication of "Leaves of Grass;" "but there were compensations, Emerson and Tennyson." Of later events he speaks less freely. Of the years of devoted service to the wounded and dying in army hospitals, when day and night he literally gave himself for others,—living upon the coarsest fare that he might bestow his earnings upon his sick boys,"—of these years he speaks not at all, save as to the causation of his "war paralysis.""Yes, it made an old man of me; but I would like to do it all again if there were need." Of his long years of suffering and his brave and patient confronting of pain, poverty, and imminent death, his "Specimen Days" is the fitting record.

Replying to a question concerning a dainty volume of his poems which lay near us, and

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which we have been secretly coveting, he says, "You know I have never been the fashion; publishers were afraid of me, and I have sold the books myself, though I always advise people not to buy them, for I fear they are worthless." But when he writes his name and ours upon the title-page, and lays within the cover several portraits taken at different periods of his life, we wonder if he can ever know how very far from "worthless" the book will be to us. We tender in payment a bank-note of larger denomination than we could be supposed to possess, with a deprecating remark upon the novelty of an author's handling a fifty-dollar note, whereupon he laughs heartily: "A novelty to you, is it? I tell you it's an impossibility to me; why, my whole income from my books during a recent half-year was only twenty-two dollars and six cents: don't forget the six cents," he adds, with a twinkle. Then he assures us that he is not in want, and that his "shanty," as he calls his home, is nearly paid for.

He proposes a walk,—"a hobble" it must be for him,—which may afford opportunity to change the note; and as we saunter toward the river, he leaning heavily upon his cane, it is a pleasure to observe the evident feeling of liking and camaraderie which people have for him.

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They go out of their way to meet him and to receive merely a friendly nod, for he stops to speak with none save the children who leave their play to run to him. He seems mightily amused when one wee toddler calls him "Mister Socrates," and he tells us this is the first time he has been so addressed, although he understands that some of his friends speak of him among themselves by the name of that philosopher. So far as he knows, the name was first applied to him in Buchanan's lines "To Socrates in Camden."

Everywhere we go, on the ferry, at the hotel where we lunch, he receives affectionate greeting from people of every rank, yet he is not loquacious, certainly not effusive. He shakes hands but once while we are out, and that is with an unknown man, and because he is unknown, as Whitman afterward tells us.

During luncheon we speak of a recent visit to Mrs. Howarth (the poetess "Clementine"). Whitman is at once interested, and questions until he has drawn out the pathetic story of her struggles with poverty, disease, and impeding environment, and then declares he will go to see her as soon as he is able. He declines to receive a copy of her poems, saying he is far more interested in her than he could possibly

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be in her books, and that he "nowadays religiously abstains from reading poetry." Confirmation of this latter statement occurs in our subsequent conversation. A friend of ours had met Swinburne, and had been assured by that erratic (please don't print it erotic) bard that he thinks Whitman, next to Hugo, the best of recent poets. When we tell our poet of this, and endeavor to ascertain if the admiration be reciprocal, we find him unfamiliar with Swinburne's recent works. Reference to the latter's retraction of his first praise elicits the pertinent observation, "The trouble with Swinburne seems to be he don't know his own mind," but this is followed by warm encomiums upon "Atalanta" and its gifted author.

Whitman had seen Emerson for the last time when the philosopher's memory had failed and all his powers were weakening: instead of being shocked by this condition, Whitman thinks it fit and natural, "nature gradually reclaiming the elements she had lent, work all nobly done, soul and senses preparing for rest." Mentioning George Arnold,—

"Doubly dead because he died so young,"—
we find that Whitman loved and mourned him tenderly. He expresses an especial pleasure

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and pride in the successes of the poet Richard Watson Gilder,—"young Gilder," as he familiarly calls him. He loves Browning, and laments that "Browning never took to" him. He thinks our own country is fortunate in having felt the clean and healthful influences of four such natures as Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, and Longfellow.

Indeed, he has a good word for everybody, and discerns laudable qualities in some whom the world has agreed to contemn and cast out. He has glowing expressions of affection for his devoted friends in all lands, and only words of excuse for his enemies. Of the pharisaic Harlan, who dismissed him from a government clerkship solely because he had, ten years before, published the poems of "Enfans d'Adam," he charitably says, "No doubt the man thought he was doing right." Concerning his harshest critics, including the author of the choice epithet swan of the sewers, "he speaks only in justification: from their stand-point, their denunciations of him and his book were deserved; he never dreamt of blaming them for not seeing as he sees."

After our return to his "shanty" we read to him a laudatory notice from the current number of one of our great magazines, in which one of his poems is mentioned with especial favor;

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whereupon he produces from his trunk a note written some years before from the same magazine, contemptuously refusing to publish that very poem. Evidences like this of a change in popular opinion are not needed to confirm Whitman's faith in his own future, nor in that of the great humanity of which he is the prophet and exponent.

Questioned concerning his habits and methods of literary work, he says he carries some sheets of paper loosely fastened together and pencils upon these "the rough draft of his thought" wherever the thought comes to him. Thus, "Leaves of Grass" was composed on the Brooklyn ferry, on the top of stages amid the roar of Broadway, at the opera, in the fields, on the sea-shore. "Drum Taps" was written amid war scenes, on battle-fields, in camps, at hospital bedsides, in actual contact with the subjects it portrays with such tenderness and power. The poems thus born of spontaneous impulse are finally given to the world in a crisp diction which is the result of much study and thought; every word is well considered, the work of revision being done "almost anywhere" and without the ordinary aids to literary composition. In late years he wrote mostly upon the broad right arm of his chair.



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Complete equipment for his work was derived from contact with Nature in her abounding moods, from sympathetic intimacy with men and women in all phases of their lives, and from life-long study of the best books; these Job, Isaiah, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—have been his teachers, and possibly his models, although he has never consciously imitated any of them. His matter and manner are alike his own; he has not borrowed Blake's style, as Stedman believed, to recast Emerson's thoughts, as Clarence Cook alleged. His style would naturally resemble that of the Semitic prophets and Gaelic bards,—"the large utterance of the early gods,"—because inspired by familiarity with the same objects: the surging sea, the wind-swept mountain, the star-decked heaven, the forest primeval.

His purpose, the moral elevation of humanity, he trusts is apparent in every page of his book. By his book he means "Leaves of Grass," the real work of his life, representing the truest thoughts and the highest imaginings of forty years, to which his other work has been incidental and tributary. After its eight periods of growth, "hitches," he calls them, he completes them with the annex, "Good-bye my Fancy," and thinks his record for the future is made up;

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hit or miss, "he will bother himself no more about it."

While not professing a moral regeneration or confessing the need of it, he yet assures us, "No array of words can describe how much I am at peace about God and about death." The author of "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cannot be an irreverent person; the impassioned "prayer"—

"That Thou, O God, my life hast lighted
With ray of light, ineffable, vouchsafed of Thee.
For that, O God, be it my latest word, here on my knees,
Old, poor, and paralyzed, I thank Thee....
I will cling to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me.
Thee, Thee, at least, I know"—
is not the utterance of an irreligious heart. One who has known Whitman long and well testifies that he was always a religious exalte, and his stanzas show that his musings on death and immortality are inspired by fullest faith. As we listen to him, calmly discoursing upon

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the great mysteries,—which to him are now mysteries no longer,—we wonder how many of those who call him "beast" or "atheist" can confront the vast unknown with his lofty trust, to say nothing of actual thanksgiving for death itself!
"Praised be the fathomless universe
For life and joy, for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love,—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death."

We who survive him will not forget his peaceful yielding of himself to "the sure-enwinding arms," nor the abounding trust breathed in his last message, sent back from the mystic frontier of the shadowy realm: "Tell them it makes no difference whether I live or die."

In our chat he discloses a surprising knowledge of men and things, and a more surprising lack of knowledge of his own poetry. More than once it strangely appears that the visitor is more familiar with the lines under discussion than is their author. When this is commented upon he laughingly says, "Oh, yes, my friends often tell me there is a book called 'Leaves of Grass' which I ought to read." So when we, about to take leave, ask him to recite one of his shorter poems, he assures us he does not remem-

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ber one of them, but will read anything we wish. We ask for the wonderful elegy, "Out of the Cradle endlessly Rocking," and afterward for the night hymn, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," and his compliance confers a never-to-be-forgotten pleasure. He reads slowly and without effort, his voice often tremulous with emotion, the lines gaining new grandeur and pathos as they come from his lips.

And this—alas that it must be!—is our final recollection of one of the world's immortals: a hoar and reverend bard,—"old, poor, and paralyzed," yet clinging to the optimistic creeds of his youth, throned in his great chair among his books, with the waning light falling like a benediction upon his uplifted head, his face and eyes suffused with the exquisite tenderness of his theme, and all the air about him vibrating with the tones of his immortal chant to Death,—"the dark mother always gliding near with soft feet."

Another hand-clasp, a prayerful "God keep you," and we have left him alone in the gathering twilight.

We will not here discuss his literary merits. The encomiums of Emerson, Thoreau, Bur-roughs, Sanborn, Stedman, Ruskin, Tennyson, Rossetti, Buchanan, Sarrazin, etc., show what

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he is to men of their intellectual stature; but will he ever reach the great, struggling mass for whose uplifting he wrought? His own brave faith is contagious, and we may discern in the wide-spread sorrow over his death, in the changed attitude of critics and reviewers, as well as in the largely increased demand for his books, evidences of his general acceptance.

His day is coming,—is come. He died with its dawn shining full upon him.


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