Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Chats with Walt Whitman

Creator: Grace Gilchrist

Date: February 1898

Publication information: Temple Bar 113 (February 1898): 200–212.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00568

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




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Chats with Walt Whitman.

———

"That glorious man Whitman will one day be known as one of the greatest sons of earth, a few steps below Shakespeare on the throne of immortality."—Wm.Rossetti.

WALT WHITMAN, whose 'Leaves of Grass' evoked such a storm of literary and moral condemnation in the now happily remote and Philistine fifties and sixties—in two great countries, American and England—it was the present writer's privilege often to see and to hear converse amid a knot of intimate friends, during a period of two years spent in the quiet Quaker city of Philadelphia, towards the close of the Poet's life.

Time has not yet passed its verdict on this athlete of Democracy. A hundred years scarcely adds one name to the ranks of the immortals, thus his literary reputation may safely be left for "the amplitude of Time to ripe," whilst I offer my little appreciation from the human, and not the literary point of view, and perhaps to have been so remembered is what this great humanist would have best desired.

For those readers who wish for a critical and literary estimate of him there are many, both by friend and critic. 'Walt Whitman,' by his personal friend Mr. John Burroughs; 'A Study of Walt Whitman,' by the late Mr. Addington Symonds; Mr. Havelock Ellis's paper upon him, contained in his essays entitled the 'New Spirit,' and Robert Louis Stevenson's rather faint-hearted one in his book of 'Memories and Portraits'; and the still older, and more exhaustive study of him, by his warm personal friend and admirer—Mr. Maurice Bucke.

Thus relieved of all literary responsibility, my mind travels back to formal, prim, Quaker Philadelphia, and the long, hot dewless evenings of an American summer, to a street planted with long rows of plane trees, "one of those long straight streets, running at right angles to each other, and long enough to present that always pleasing effect of vista—converging lines that stretch

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out indefinitely." These pleasing effects being further enhanced by the clear, cloudless skies, from which no canopy of smoke ever hovered to blacken buildings or trees.

Walt Whitman lived in the somewhat dreary and ugly suburb of Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware river, and he would on many a fine afternoon cross by the five o'clock ferry to Philadelphia, and taking the car, reach our house in time for tea-supper. After that was over, we would all take our chairs out, American fashion, besides the "stoop,"—that is, on to the pavement, below the front steps of the house. The poet sat in our midst, in a large bamboo rocking-chair, and we listened as he talked, on many subjects—human and literary. Walt Whitman was at this time fifty-eight, but he looked seventy. His beard and hair were snow-white, his complexion a fine colour, and unwrinkled. He had still, though stricken in 1873 by paralysis, a most majestic presence. He was over six feet, but he walked lame, dragging the left leg, and leaning heavily on a stick. He was dressed always in a complete suit of grey clothes with a large and spotless white linen collar, his flowing white beard filling in the gap at his strong sunburnt throat. He possessed a full-toned, rather high, baritone voice, a little harsh and lacking in the finer modulations for sustained recitation; having an excellent memory, he declaimed many scenes from Shakespeare, poems by Tennyson, and occasionally his own. The 'Mystic Trumpeter' was a favourite with him, because he had often recited to his soldiers in the hospitals the opening lines beginning—

"Hark! Some wild trumpeter. Some strange musician,
Hovering unseen in the air, vibrates capricious tunes to night.
I hear thee, trumpeter—listening, alert, I catch they notes,
Now pouring, whirling like a tempest round me,
Now low, subdued—now in the distance lost."

About the house, and whilst bathing and dressing before breakfast, he might be heard singing opening bars of many songs—some culled from operas, some from popular street airs; perhaps a bar from the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' I never remember to have heard him sing a song completely through, only bars and snatches, here and there—reminiscences lingering in his memory, from his opera and concert going days. He said of his turn for reciting, that he entered into it more from the side of pure physical enjoyment in the free exercise of his lungs than from mere intellectual appreciation of the poem or play he recited. Perhaps it was thus with his singing: he had no preconceived idea of rendering any set harmony or musical motif—it was rather, with him, an outburst of pure emotional

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and physical abandon to the delight of living. In a sense, this was an element in his personality—it was a very grand one, magnetic, and charged with the great elemental forces, which drew in great and small natures to minister to his omnivorous humanity. Yet those not under the spell of his large personality felt him to be rather like a great mountain basking in the full glare of the noonday sun—they longed, in looking up, for the shade of the valley, al laws too defined, too open; they feared to approach nearer—there was no shelter from the fierce rays beating on the rough crags of his robust individuality. Mr. Havelock Ellis has aptly described him as a huge "Titanic Undine," for, devoid of all religious experiences, he was never troubled by those painful searchings of the heart for moral and religious certainties which beset more sensitively poised souls.

His talk was often of the actors and singers of his prime, of the books from which he had received the highest pleasure. His greatest enjoyment in music was derived from the Italian operas, from those of Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti. Alboni had been his favourite prima-donna; Jenny Lind, who came to New York in her prime, he cared little for—her singing, sweet and bird-like as it was, lacked the fire or the passion to move him.

The authors he talked most of were Homer, Shakespeare, Scott, George Sand, and Bulwer Lytton; Scott he loved even better than Shakespeare. One quaint method of reading which he indulged in would have driven the devout book-lover wild. He would tear a book to pieces—literally shed its leaves, putting the loose sheets into the breast pocket of his coat—that he might pursue his reading in less weighty fashion under the branches of his favourite trees at Timber Creek. Many have averred that they never heard him laugh—he laughed rarely, but when he did, it was a deep, hearty, melodious laugh. He laughed at very simple things—homely jests, and episodes in daily life. One exceedingly simple story of illustrative of this he would jokingly relate, to emphasise his own love of notice.

An old fellow in a drunken fit, having returned home and thrown himself down on his bed, is awakened by the noise of several people in his room gossiping about their affairs—where they have been, and whom they have seen. The old fellow raises his head, and asks: "Did anyone inquire after me?" On joining a group of friends Walt would often laughingly ask: "Did anyone inquire after me?" And after recounting this story, laugh in his slow leisurely way, with a twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes, their blueness intensified by their overhanging, bushy, snow-white brows.



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He was quite indifferent, however, to any form of persiflage, repartee, chaffing, or nay form of "smart" talk—remaining always perfectly grave and silent amid that kind of by-play; or, as with an importunate questioner, generally withdrawing himself altogether from the group of talkers, and finally leaving the room. In his large, serene, sane personality there was no room for trifling or the display of "intellectual fireworks"; with him existed no arrière-pensèe. His phraseology was direct and simple, free from all bookishness or studied grace of expression. He stuck to homely Yankee idioms, with a fair percentage of slang.

He had in extreme the American trait of sympathy and of deference to the young. He loved very young men, and boys and girls, and if there was one present at the social board, or among a group of older talkers, he never rested till he had drawn such a one into the conversation; whilst some animated discussion was in full swing, he would turn to the callow listener with the query. "And what does G—say?" though probably the opinion thus solicited was not of the smallest importance to any rational being present. If any quaint character whom he encountered in his jaunts on car or ferry struck him as an oddity, he would say that he or she was quite "Dickensee."

Dickens, however, was with him not such a favourite novelist as Scott, or Bulwer Lytton. George Sand's heroines he preferred to Shakespeare's. He dwelt much upon 'Consuelo,' the most beautiful of George Sand's novels. One scene he once laughingly enacted. It was that in which old Porpora, the musician, is trying to teach his frivolous fine lady pupils to declaim their songs with intelligence. Amongst them is Consuelo, Porpora's one earnest pupil.

Porpora says, "There is one amongst you who sings well." "Is it I?" exclaimed half a dozen—and as the old man rises they push him down. (Here Walt would rise and imitate them).

"How often," said Walt, "have I dwelt upon that passage?" Someone here asked him if George Sand's heroines did not equal Shakespeare's. He answered: "I don't know why, but Shakespeare's heroines give me very little satisfaction. I think it is partly owing to the fact that women never actually acted in Shakespeare's time; bys were dressed up, and I think that Shakespeare must have had those boys in his mind. I always compare Shakespeare's plays to large, rich, splendid tapestry—like Raphael's historical cartoons, where everything is broad and colossal. Royal kings and queens did not really talk like that,

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but ought to if they did not; it is redeemed in that way. Now you can't say that of nature—a tree is what it is, and you can't make it out better than it is."

Asked if he did not admire Rosalind, Portia, and other favourite heroines—

"No, I think Consuelo far superior to any of Shakespeare's heroines." He added that he relied upon translations, for he could not read French with any enjoyment. Did he think the worse of George Sand for the latitude she took in the relation of marriage?

"No," he replied unhesitatingly, "the finest teachers in life, the most artistic, are the darkest; it is necessary for an artist to see everything—to go to the depths of life. I don't regret anything about George Sand; her very frailties were the result of her good qualities. She was impatient of the goody-good; she wanted something freer."

Yet another favourite chapter of his in 'Consuelo' was the one where Hayden and Consuelo, having set forth on their travels, she disguised as a boy, come to the canon's garden by moonlight, and there, beneath his window among the flowers and the cool dew, pout forth sweet music—Consuelo singing in her rich pure contralto voice, and Hadyn skillfully accompanying her with his violin. They are both tired and belated; it is with them a question of no song, no supper. They hope by the former to touch the heart of the canon, and in this they succeed, for he invites them in, giving them supper and a night's lodging.

One evening in October, one of those lovely, warm, still evenings of the American fall, the conversation turned on beauty. Walt doubted if extreme beauty was well for a woman.

"But," queried one, "how could the Greeks have got on without it?"

"Now arises the almost terrific question," answered Walt: "is there not something artificial and fictitious in what we call beauty of the Greeks? The wholesome outdoor life of the Greeks begets something so different from ours, which is the result of books, picture galleries, and bred in the drawing-room." The grace of the Venus of Milo is here instanced. Another talked (a woman) suggests that her face lacks intellect. Walt rejoined energetically, "So much the better. Intellect is a fiend. It is a curse that all our American boys and girls are taught so much. There's a boy I take a great interest in; he is sent to a school in Camden, his people want him to be taught shorthand, and three languages; why, it's like putting jewels on a person before he has got shoes. The boy

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is sharp enough of wit. I suggested that he should study literature, and soon. But no, this learning is helpful.

"Education, what is meant by the grammar, I think the study of that fatuous—filling growing boys with a lot of dead matter, perfectly useless. For my part when I meet anyone of erudition I want to get away, it terrifies me. Amongst the young boys and girls there is a tendency to dyspepsia, to wear glasses, and look interesting.

"They don't know how to handle a gun, or ride, or run.

"I would have a boy taught ciphering, reading, writing, and give him plenty of literature. I would be very particular about the company he should associate with; he should be athletic, and learn to express himself."

"Was Consuelo too intellectual?"

"Why, no, she was bred in a rich and sunny land, and she cultivated the fine voice she had."

Did he like Boston?

"Not very much."

"You don't like its people?"

Here his friend noted that he never forgot the poet's sweet and human smile, as he said—

"People are much the same everywhere"; but he added, "there is not enough abandon about the Bostonians."

Did he not think Shakespeare must have been a very jolly fellow to know?

"I think so," said Walt. "I think one can see and understand him without knowing all abut the little fats of his life. There are a great many fellows here who would like to be Shakespeare scholars. I remember an old general, a very noble old fellow. He had a belief that Shakespeare's sonnets were theological discussions. He gave me his book, very dull I remember. I think I shall give Mr. T. a copy of it.

"Have you see Tennyson's new poem, 'Harold'? Tennyon's treatment of these old subjects is like beautiful wrought chins, nothing more."

Upon another occasion, my brother—with whom most of the conversations here cited were held, and by whose care in transcribing them and kind permission I am now enabled to put them to their present use—visited Walt at his brother George Whitman's house at Camden.

Walt was led to describe some of the beginnings of his older friendships—of his meeting with John Burroughs, the American naturalist.

"I have known him about fourteen years; his health failed

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before he went into the army, and he went in to be either killed or cured. I fell in with him there. He is just the same as when I first saw him, always the same. Not like some of my friends, very thick at first, then falling off."

Professor Dowden was an English admirer whose letters Walt greatly prized. One passage in one of Professor Dowden's essays especially appealed to him.

"I was much moved—unspeakably so, by that quotation Dowden gives from Hugo—'Fine genius is like a promontory stretching out into the infinite.'"

Late in the same year (1876) his friend again visited Walt at Camden. He found him musing alone in the twilight of a December afternoon.

"This is one of the few evenings in which we have twilight."

The talk turned on poets.

"The poetry that appears in the various magazines, with its cheap sentiment, is like small change—a certain amount of it is wanted. How good is that article in the January number of Appleton's Journal on Heine! I have read it twice. I should almost call it Shakespearean in its deep reflectiveness. He is not at all blinded or led away by his subject—such a true portrayal of Heine."

"What an unhappy nature Heine's was!" rejoined his friend.

"Well—no, I should hardly say that. He bore his sufferings—bore up through it all; there was something buoyant and cheerful in him. Poor fellow! I often think of him lying on that couch, so patient through it all.... I suppose it is impossible in a translation to get a notion of his power of language, and dashing brilliant wit."

Of Hugo, Walt Whitman remarked—

"I can't swallow his exaggeration and bombast. There are some who defend all that, but I can't stomach it. I have tried to, because there is so much that I like about him, sympathetic withal. I think 'Les Miserables' about the best thing he has written. Jean Valjean is fine, also Cosette.

"I like his 'La Légende des Siècles' best. I have heard it read aloud and translated at the same time, by an old Frenchman. I know there is something in a personal magnetism. All that I know about ships and whalers has been picked up through the medium of close personal narration. I remember how gratified I was when in the presence of whalers or fishermen my poems were read descriptive of these events, and when the fishermen or whalemen were moved and excited, I felt it a triumph."



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He reverts to Bostonians and their ways.

"They are supercilious to everybody; there is Emerson, the only sweet one among them, and he has been spoilt by them."

"Yes, it is a stultifying atmosphere for him."

"That is just what I should say. There are certain recognised parlour laws of propriety which we allow. But to carry their notions of drawing-room properties into poetry is too absurd."

Would he like to go to California?

"No, if the world were before me, instead of behind me—I might; but it is not by going to fresh countries that you see new things and faces and fresh experiences of people, it's the same old round, all the world over. Literature can't express everything. There is an effervescence—an atmosphere that can't be caught. Literature, with all its proud haughtiness, must come down. I have often tried to write what I have said."

To all forms of personal criticism Walt Whitman was adverse, and leaned over on the side of charity and of tolerance.

It was a point very strongly insisted upon by him, that all the mock gentility and homage of society detracted from the true dignity and freedom of the individual, and I never heard him employ the term "lady" or "gentleman" to anyone. He was fond of children, retailing their quaint ways in many amusing anecdote.

"I have quite a circle of acquaintance amongst the gamins in Camden. I was walking there the other day when a little boy, whom I suppose I had spoken to and taken some notice of, said to his father, 'There goes a good man.' I turned round and said, 'Don't you be so sure of that,'—the child looked quite abashed."

Perhaps the child was nearer the truth than the poet guessed, if humanity at large is destined to gain moral health and strength from his poems, just as the wounded soldiers of the Secession War revived in his invigorating presence, so full of "the august beauty of the strong."

Of the ordinary forms of social amusements Walt Whitman fought very shy. Strawberry teas, of which the Americans are very fond, he described as "very stupid things"; "I don't care," he said, "about that kind of thing at all. I like being with those I love, I never get tired of that."

On physical perfection and the systematic cultivation of the body he laid great stress—as much as in his poems. When

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asked if he had cultivated his body as much when he was a boy as in middle life, he answered—

"More so, oh! I used to be more proud when I went to the bath and someone would say that I was the finest-shaped youngster in the bath, that I have been of all my literary admiration since."

A favourite summer haunt of the poet's was a farm in New Jersey named Timber Creek. Here he led a perfectly al fresco life, and was more completely in his element than at any other time of the year. He distinguished the note of every bird, and noted any rarer warbler which chanced to build his nest at the White Horse, a lovely spot near Timber Creek. In the Spring of the year of which I write he stayed at Timber Creek, and dilated on these pleasures:—

"The birds at the White Horse—oh! how beautiful they are now. They have burst upon me all at once. I am studying them anew, and there is one little bird that lurks in the background, and sings by himself. Then all the birds strike in together. I can't find his nest; the boys, who have all a farmer's lore, have described him to me, but I am not satisfied."

"Was your favourite buzzard among them?"

"Yes."

He liked reading critiques on himself. In one of these chats by the creek, his friend asked him how he liked one which had appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for that year (1877).

"I liked it," said Walt; "I was a good deal tickled by the title ('Walt Whitman the Poet of Joy')—the dashing off kind. I was so pleased with it that I wrote to the office of the Gentleman's Magazine, for Clive's address, sending a portrait of myself, but received no answer." [The real name of the author of this appreciative article was Arthur O'Shaughnessy.]

"I sometimes wonder," he mused, "that I am not more ostracized than I am on account of my free opinions."

"Yes," replied his friend, "we are almost completely so. In Philadelphia the question is—what church do you go to?"

"Good, you don't know what you escape by it. It is well to go to church sometimes to see what people are like. For my part, I am so out of these things, that I am quite surprised when I go, to find myself living in such a different world. The people round here have been warned by the school director of my poems, and that I am an improper person, and bad character for the young men and maidens to associate with. The time of my boyhood was a very restless and unhappy one; I did not know what to do."



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Still under the trees at Timber Creek, the following conversation, half earnest, half jest, took place between Walt Whitman and his young English friend.

"I think," said Walt, "I shall have to leave these parts. Do you have that old expression of having your nose put out of joint when a new lover comes? I used to be a great King Pin down here; I daresay you have noticed something of the same sort yourself?"

"No, indeed, I have not; I think you are labouring under an hallucination. I hope you will stick down here a good time, and not take any kinks into your head."

"Well, it does me good to hear anything like that; when a wise man sees anything that other people can't, the people call it a kink."

He once more reverted to Shakespeare—

"It is not dwelt upon, but what a great deal of superfluous matter there is in Shakespeare—a great deal might be left out. Unlike the Greeks, they would not have anything in but what was absolutely necessary, and that is why the moderns are so inferior in art. We want pretty verbiage, part of a poem or a picture, without reference to the whole."

"I don't see that is any use trying to refine Shakespeare into Greek—he is essentially Gothic."

"Yes, you have hit it—hit the bull's eye; Shakespeare is distinctly Gothic."

Sometimes Walt Whitman described his more stirring life in New York in his prime:—

"At one time," he said, "nothing was so exhilarating to me, not even books or picture galleries, as a walk down Broadway. There was something so stirring in the scene—the brilliancy, the contact with crowds of new faces. The gaily-dressed people, the crowds of foreigners in Spring. Then the fine vista of buildings, some four and five stories high. In July I used to seek the sea; the débris and the atmosphere in parts of the City became unpleasant to me. The sea is so soothing, so sympathetic. Oh! I used to spend hours by the sea."

Did he like companionship in walking?

He laughingly quoted Emerson—the sun seems to look down, and say, "Why so hot, my little man?"

He contrasted him didactically with George Sand.

"Emerson has not George Sand's art of preaching without appearing to be sermonizing, which is the art of arts. One does not like to be told one must not laugh or smile.... Emerson conforms in small conventional things; he says himself that, as

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he does not give up in all the large important things in life, he can afford to in the small affairs of life."

He described Carlyle as "kinky"—a word he often made use of, meaning crotchety.

"Carlyle has terrible deficiencies and gaps; he is not amorous like the Greeks."

Of the late Mr. Addington Symonds, Walt spoke with very warm regard, and of his literary admiration he was justly proud.

"What Mr. Symonds admires in my books is the comradeship; he sys that he had often felt it, and wanted to express I, but dared not! He thinks that the Englishman has it in him, but puts on gruffness, and is ashamed to show it."

Mr. Symonds generously acknowledges his debt to Walt Whitman in his last book, which appeared after his death.

"I came across a saying by bacon, that bad-tempered and ill-natured people are the vermin of humanity, but," he added indulgently, "you can't say what these things are—how much of it is not stomachic. Literature, with all its uses, has had pernicious influences. It has marred that story-telling faculty—the memory. I have known labourers who have recited poems to me with wonderful clearness. My dear mother possessed the story-telling faculty; whenever she had been anywhere she could describe it, tell me all about it.

"If I had to choose, were I looking about for a profession, I should choose that of a doctor. Yes; widely opposite as science and the emotional element are, they might be joined in the medical profession, and there would be great opportunities for developing them. Nowhere is there such call for them."

"Doctors seem rather to hold back from that."

"Oh, a doctor should be a superb fellow. He does not approach at present to what he should be."

Once his friend asked him if he would really care to visit England, or if the atmosphere, physically and morally, might not prove oppressive.

"Oh, no," he answered; "you don't know me. No, I should be glad to get away; I could spend the rest of my time in England, though it does not do to say so to Americans."

"You would miss the democratic atmosphere?"

"Oh! I should have my friends there, as I have here."

"Yes; I don't see why one can't be as democratic in England as in America."

"More so, I think."

In the summer of 1877 Walt read some of his poems to the students of Swarthmore College.



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Afterwards he said of this occasion—

"They did not see what I was driving at—it was not to be expected that they should. After it was over, the boys took me round to have some refreshments that I liked. I felt a good deal flattered...."

Walt Whitman was not a full or copious letter-writer; his letters were, in the main, more like telegraphic dispatches than letters, the postcards being his favourite mode of written communication; but I give these one or two letters addressed to his friend because they serve to picture the mode and surroundings of his daily life.

The letters were written in the summer of 1877 and the winter of 1878. The first two are written from Camden, after his return from Timber Creek; the last from his friend's house in Philadelphia, when that friend was staying away from home:—

"431, STEVENS STREET, CAMDEN,
Sunday morn, July 22nd (1877).

DEAR HERB,—Here I am, at my room and haunts in Camden, so different from the Creek, and bathing and exercising in the open air, yet I keep myself busy, at one thing and another. I am feeling pretty well so far (Yet I attribute my feeling pretty well now to my visit for the last year and a half, to the Creek and farm, and being with my dear friends the S—'s). We had a nice healthy ride up from Kirkwood, Mrs. S. and I, Friday morning, and I enjoyed it much. I am glad I came up that way, instead of the railway. I went over to your Mother's yesterday afternoon, about 5½ and stayed till 8. Nothing especially new with them. Mother Bee and Giddy are all well and in good spirits. We had a good tea, I punished a fearful quantity of good oatmeal, and mush and stewed blackberries—then we sat and talked for an hour and a half in the cool of the evening on the front stoop. Then a delightful jaunt home to Camden, a most lovely evening (the moon and Jupiter in conjunction, and I 'speering' them all the way home especially on the river).

"I am particularly busy at some writing, feel most first rate for me, to-day. Herb you will see by the enclosed that Bucke is in Camden (or en route thither). Write to me,

"Your old WALT.

"I have written to-day to Mrs. Stafford."

To the same—

"1929, NORTH 22ND STREET,
Saturday, 6 P.M.

DEAR HERBERT,—I will just write a line to put in your mother's letter. I am well as usual. We have had three awful hot days and nights (but I have stood 'em capitally) up to last evening when it rained hard and though warm enough again yet it is now quite tolerable. I have been here 24 hours (go back to Camden this evening). Your mother and Bee and Giddy are very well. I am writing this up in the bow window room



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—it is jolly up here—I slept like a top last night. We all sat in the big room in the dark, till 10 (had to put down the windows it was so coolish and windy).

"Herb, your Creek picture looks steadily good. Don't give out the more you are acquainted with it and examine it—seems to me indeed a true bit of Nature.

"I miss the Creek and Spring—miss my dear friends at the house. Shall write to Mrs. S. probably same mail with this—rec'd your letter—and thank you for it, as I close it is 6 o'clock a real fine evening.

"Love to you from
"Your old WALT."

"Six o'clock, and a real fine evening"—thus do we take our last look at Walt Whitman, leaving him in the mellow glow of his life's evening. Pencilled on the flyleaf of a favourite book were those beautiful lines Michael Angelo addressed to Dante—

"Gladly would I to be such as he
With his exile and all his persecutions and his anguish
Forego the happiest fortunes of mankind."

Might these lines not serve this free, strong poet for his own epitaph? He rests three miles from Camden. His monument, a huge stone banked against a hill, a design he himself chose from Blake's fine engraving of Death's Door.

GRACE GILCHRIST.

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