Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Days with Walt Whitman: A Visit to Walt Whitman In 1877

Creator: Edward Carpenter

Date: 1906

Publication information: Our transcription is based on Edward Carpenter, Days with Walt Whitman: With Some Notes on His Life and Work (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1906), 3–32.

Source: Our transcription is based on Edward Carpenter, Days with Walt Whitman: With Some Notes on His Life and Work (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1906), 3–32.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00571

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




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A VISIT TO WALT WHITMAN
IN 1877

IT was on the 2nd of May 1877, that—crossing the water from Philadelphia—I knocked at the door of 431 Stevens Street, Camden. The House, a narrow three-storied one, stood in one of those broad tree-planted streets which are common in the States; and Whitman was staying there, boarding with his brother Colonel George Whitman and wife—making the establishment at any rate his headquarters, though frequently absent from it. I waited a few minutes in a sitting-room of the usual type—on or two ornamental tables, with photograph books, things under glass shades, &c.—while "Walt' was called upstairs. He soon came down, slowly, leaning heavily on the banisters, always dragging somewhat his paralysed leg—at first sight quite an old man with long grey, almost white, beard, and shaggy head and neck, grey dress to; but tall, erect, and at closer sight not so old—a florid fresh complexion, pure grey-blue eye (no sign of age there), and full, strong, well-formed hands.

At the foot of the staircase he took me by the hand and said, "I was afraid we should miss after all"—this in reference to a previous unsuccessful call I had made. There was no hurry in his manner; having found me a seat, and then only leaving hold of my hand, he sad down himself and asked me "what news I brought from Britain". War had just been declared between Russia and Turkey. Like other Americans, his sympathies lay with Russia. His idea was that Russia stood in need of a southern outlet (Constantinople) for her people and growing energies, that Turkey was falling in pieces, and that England was beginning to pursue "the wise policy of absolute non-intervention". Conversation then turned on England. He asked about friends there; also about myself some questions.



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Meanwhile in that first ten minutes I was becoming conscious of an impression which subsequently grew even more marked- the impression, namely, of immense vista or background in his personality. If I had thought before (and I do not know that I had) that Whitman was eccentric, unbalanced, violent, my first interview certainly produced quite a contrary effect. No one could be more considerate, I may almost say courteous; no one could have more simplicity of manner and freedom from egotistic wrigglings; and I never met any one who gave me more the impression of knowing what he was doing than he did. Yet away and beyond all this I was aware of a certain radiant power in him, a large benign effluence and inclusiveness, as of the sun, which filled out the place where he was—yet with something of reserve and sadness in it too, and a sense of remoteness and inaccessibility.

Some such impressions, at any rate, I gathered in the first interview. I remember how I was most struck, in his face, by the high arch of the eyebrows, giving a touch of child-like wonder and contemplation to his expression; yet his eyes, though full of a kind of wistful tenderness, were essentially not contemplative but perceptive—active rather than receptive—lying far back, steady, clear, with small definite pupils and heavy lids of passion and experience. A face of majestic simple proportion, like a Greek temple as some one has said; the nose Greek in outline, straight (but not at all thin or narrow, rather the contrary), broad between the brows, and meeting the line of the forehead without any great change of direction; the forehead high, with horizontal furrows, but not excessively high; the head domed, and rising to a great height in the middle, above the ears—not projecting behind; ears large and finely formed; mouth full, but almost quite concealed by hair. A head altogether impressing one by its height, and by a certain untamed "wild hawk" look, not uncommon among the Americans.

After some conversation Whitman proposed a walk across to Philadelphia. Putting on his grey slouch hat he sallied forth with evident pleasure, and taking my arm as a support walked slowly the best part of a mile to the ferry. Crossing the ferry was always a great pleasure to him. His "Brooklyn Ferry" and the section entitled "Delaware River—Days and Nights" in "Specimen Days", sufficiently prove this. The life of the streets and of the people was so near, so dear. The men on the ferry

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steamer were evidently old friends; and when we landed on the Philadelphia side we were before long quite besieged. The man or woman selling fish at the corner of the street, the tramway conductor, the loafers on the pavement—a word of recognition from Walt, or as often from the other first. Presently a cheery shout from the top of a dray; and before we had gone many yards farther the river was down and standing in front of us—his horses given to the care of some bystander. He was an old Broadway "stager", "had not seen Walt for three or four years"; and tears were in his eyes as he held his hand. We were now brought to a standstill, and others gathered round; "George" was ill, and Walt must go and see him. There was a message for the children, and in his pocket the poet discovered one or two packets of sweetmeats for absent little ones. But for the most part his words were few. It was the others who spoke, and apparently without reserve.

Thus we rambled through Philadelphia—mostly using the tramcars. The Yankees do not walk; the trams in their large towns are very complete, and are universally used for all but short distances. Whitman could not walk far. I was content being with him anyhow. He certainly was restfulness itself. When we reached the Ferry on our return, the last bell was ringing—we might have caught the boat, but Whitman seemed not to think of hurrying. The boat went, and he sat down to enjoy life waiting for the next.

A few days later, Walt having gone into the country to stay with his "dear and valued friends," the Staffords, I paid him a visit there. "White Horse", or Kirkwood, was the third of fourth station from Camden on the Camden and Atlantic line; and consisted at that time of only some half-dozen houses and stores, forming a centre to the scattered and outlying farmsteads of that part. The Staffords' little farm lay a mile and a half or so from the station—a five or six-roomed wooden house, a barn, one or two fruit trees, and a few fields running down 300 to 400 yards to a little stream. The country level, very slightly undulating, wooded here and there, not unlike some parts of Cambridgeshire that I have seen—neither particularly attractive or unattractive. Here on this farm, and working it himself, lived Mr. Stafford with his family; he a loyal Methodist, sometimes acting as local preacher, silent-mannered, dark-skinned, of bilious temperament, subject to illness, hard-working, and

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faithful; his wife a fine woman of cultured expression and spiritual mind, pretty well absorbed in domestic work; two songs, young fellows, one of whom, Harry, at this time working in a painter's office in Camden, was a great ally and favourite of Walt's; a grown-up daughter, and one or two children. Here Whitman would often stay, weeks or months at a time, boarding and living with the family, and attracting the members of it to him, and himself to them, with the ties of enduring friendship. Mrs. Stafford once said to me: "He is a good man; I think he is the best man I ever knew".

It was his delight and doubtless one of the chief attractions of this favourite resort, to go down and spend a large part of the day by the "creek" which I have spoken of—and which figures so largely in "Specimen Days". At a point not a quarter of a mile distant from the house it widened into a kind of little lake surrounded by trees, the haunt of innumerable birds; and here Whitman would sit for hours in an old chair; silent, enjoying the scene, becoming a part of it, almost, himself; or would undress and bathe in the still, deep pool. At this time he was nearly sixty years old, and for some eight years on and off had been stricken with paralysis. As is well known, he attributed his partial recovery very largely to the beneficence of this creek, with its water-baths and sun-baths and open-air influences generally.

That day being Sunday I found the family all at home, and Whitman in the midst of them when the opportunity occurred I told him something of the appreciation of his writings that had grown up in England during those years. After a pause he asked if the Rossetti edition was out of print. I said I thought so. W.: "I hope it is; I approved of Rossetti's plan for the time being, but now would rather appear without alteration." [I am here simply transcribing my notes made a day or two after; these are not his exact words, but as good as I could remember.] "I had hardly realised that there was so much interest in me in England. I confess I am surprised that America, to whom I have especially addressed myself, is so utterly silent. Lowell, and indeed almost all the critics, say that I am crude, inartistic—do you think that?" I said I had heard such criticisms, but I did not myself think his work crude and hasty; on the contrary, much of it seemed to me to have been written very deliberately and carefully; and as to the

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question of art, I thought he had laid an altogether broader basis of style (instancing some of his poems)—a great foundation; others would build here and there upon it, but he had struck the main lines. W.: "I did in fact, re-write and destroy much before I published; I cannot think that I have altogether attained, but I have planted the seed; it is for others to continue the work. My original idea was that if I could bring men together by putting before them the heart of man, with all its joys and sorrows and experiences and surroundings, it would be a great thing; up to this time I have had America chiefly in view, but this appreciation of me in England makes me think I might perhaps do the same for the world also. I have endeavored from the first to get free as much as possible from all literary attitudinizing—to strip off integuments, coverings, bridges—and to speak straight from and to the heart." [In reference to this, he said at another time that it had been a "whim" of his when writing "to discard all conventional poetic phrases, and every touch of or reference to ancient or medieval images, metaphors, subjects, styles, &c., and to write de novo with words and phrases appropriate to his own days".]

When we went in to dinner Mr. Stafford was already seated; I think he was about to say grace. Walt, with greater grace, stood for a moment bending over him from behind, and clasped Stafford's head in his great hands; then passed on in silence. What a large sweet presence—so benign, yet so determined! The children loved him, and the little boy would lie coiled, lost, on his knees, half-asleep, half-awake, Walt's hand covering and compressing his entire face.

In Philadelphia, the day before, Whitman had introduced me to his English friends, the Gilchrists. Mrs. Gilchrist, widow of Alexander Gilchrist, the biographer of Blake, was a capable and large-minded woman. A year earlier she, with two daughters and a son, had come from England for a two or three years' visit to the States, and had settled in Philadelphia. As is well known, she was the first of Englishwomen to fully and publicly recognise (as she did in some printed letters) the splendid genius of the poet, and that at a time (1868 or '69) when "Leaves of Grass" to most of the literary world was little better than the incoherent ramblings of a maniac. More than once did she relate to me how, on first opening the volume, when her eye fell upon the fine nearly full-length engraving (taken from a daguerrotype) of the

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author, she exclaimed: "Here at last is the face of Christ, which the painters have so long sought for"; and she always maintained that the reading of the book itself did but confirm and deepen that first impression.

At the Gilchrists' house Whitman would not unfrequently stay. Indeed there was a kind of prophet's chamber for him there, always ready. And as it happened that he was about to pay a visit there, it was arranged that I also should come. They lived at No. 1929, North 22nd Street. If the American method of numbering streets and housing is prosaic, it certainly has the advantage of being practical. Philadelphia is like a chessboard; you find your way by co-ordinate geometry. The streets are straight, parallel, and not far from infinite in length. The address being put in your hands, you know at once the exact spot to which you are destined.

I remember very well arriving, bag in hand, and finding the whole family (a general custom in Philadelphia on those warm evenings) sitting out on the doorsteps—Whitman in the midst, in an armchair, his white beard and hair glistening in the young moonlight, looking like some old god—the others grouped around him or at his feet. After this for a week of evenings I made one of the party. How pleasant it was! Whitman had a knack of making ordinary life enjoyable, redeeming it from commonplaceness. Instead of making you feel (as so many do) that the Present is a kind of squalid necessity to be got over as best may be, in view of something always in the future, he gave you that good sense of nowness that faith that the present is enjoyable, which imparts colour and life to the thousand and one dry details of existence. As I have hinted before, he was no great talker, and would generally let the conversation ebb and flow at its own will, without effort, ready apparently for grave or gay alike.

Unlike many highly important people who seem to enjoy holding forth to a general audience, Whitman, as I thought preferred to let conversation turn on the pivot of personal relationship. Often as not he would have his listener by the hand; and his words too had an attractive force, from their very simplicity and purity from affectation or display. I think he did not really care to have conversational dealings with people except on such a basis of personal affection. To such as he did not like—to all mere gabblers, bores spying and prying persons—he became as a precipice, instantly and utterly inaccessible.

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Certainly it was one of the pleasures of his society that you always felt he was there in person, bonâ fide, not by deputy; and no current notion of politeness could make him do a thing he did not enjoy doing. One evening we were looking over some fine engravings, mostly portraits, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, Lelys, and others from Mrs. Gilchrist's collection. He enjoyed them greatly, and very deliberately, dwelling long and long over some of them, criticizing style, workmanship, composition, character, &c. But when he had had enough of it all—well, he said so! I have seldom known any one who, though so cordial and near to others, detached and withdrew himself at times more decisively than he did, or who on the whole spent more time in solitude. Also no rough draft of his character would be complete which did not take into account the strong Quaker element of obstinacy which existed in him—but this might require a separate chapter!

To return to our evenings. I have said something about Walt Whitman's manner in conversation; I cannot attempt to reproduce its effect, but I will just transcribe such notes of some of his remarks as I have by me.

One evening conversation turned upon the Chinese. W.: "I fancy they are like the Germans, only more refined. My notion is that the Germans are simple, true, affectionate folk, but there is a kind of roughness, one may almost say brutishness, about them; the Chinese have the same good qualities, with a certain alertness and grace which the Germans lack." I quoted some accounts of Japan by a man who had lived there for a long time, and who told me that the manners of the old Japanese aristocracy were so elaborately perfect that he himself would go any distance to get out of their way, feeling such a boor compared with them! This amused Whitman; seemed to "tally with his own idea". Mrs. Gilchrist wondered, with regard to the natives of India and Orientals generally, that the degradation of the women did not bring about a gradual deterioration of the whole race. W.: "I suppose that among the masses of the people the women (and men too) live, after all, much as they do in the West, and as they must do in all times and climes; and that the special treatment in the East only applies to the upper classes. The masses in every part of the globe are dominated by the necessities of Nature. Thus are among the Greeks and Romans the peasant-life must have had its races of fine women." And here he cited Juvenal, and his comparison of the effeminate

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lady of his time with the "stern magnificent mothers" of the early days of Rome.

Going on to Oriental literature, Whitman spoke of "Sakúntala", the Indian drama, its "modernness" —the comic scenes especially being as of the times of Shakespeare; and of the great Hindu epic, the "Ramáyana"; and told the story of Yudísthura, which occurs as an episode in the latter. Conversation got round presently—I think in reference to the cramped life of "high-born" women in the East—to the shoddiness and vulgarity of modern well-to-do life. W.: "It seems a strange thing to me, this love of gilt and upholstery among the Americans—that people leading a free natural open-air life should, directly they make a little money, want to go in for sofas, expensively furnished rooms, dress, and the like; yet it seems to be a law, a kind of necessity, that they should do so. I suppose it is partly that each man wishes to feel himself as good as others, to feel that he can have of the 'best' too; democracy showing itself for a time in that way, reducing the borrowed old-world standard of superiority to an absurdity; and I guess it will not last for ever."

We did not generally sit up later than eleven. Breakfast was at 7.30 or 8. Walt's arrival in the morning was as exhilarating as a fine sunrise. After breakfast and a chat we would separate to our respective occupations. In the afternoon, almost every day I was there, the poet went off to Camden to visit his sister-in-law, who was at that time confined to the house, and to whom , I believe, he was much attached. As I have said, Walt was very simple and domestic in his ways; and would quite enjoy, on a rainy afternoon, having a game of twenty questions such as he had "often played in camp with the soldiers during the war", or would take pleasure in preparing some little dish of his own devising for the evening meal. One evening we pressed him to read. He would not recite anything of his own; but he read out Tennyson's "Ulysses" —in a clear, strong, and rugged tone. The subtle harmonies of the Tennysonian verse effloresced under the treatment, but the sterner qualities of the poem stood out finely. We expressed admiration. He said: "I guess it is about the best Tennysonian poem". Another evening, I remember, he told us how, when living a New York, he had had a "fancy" to visit Sing-sing prison, the great penal establishment up the Hudson river. He obtained permission to do so,

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got to know one or two of the warders, and for some time went there pretty frequently. He wrote letters for the prisoners, &c. "It was a whim."

We had a long talk on manual labour. Most of us agreed it would be a good thing for all classes to take part in—not to be left to one class only. Walt maintained with regard to reforms and the like, that it was no good trying to benefit people (labouring people for instance) who did not feel the need of any change. "Many people came to me at one time about slavery, and 'wondered' that I was so quiet about it; but, in truth, I felt that abolitionists were making quite noise enough, and that there were other things just as important which had to be attended to." We got talking of Abraham Lincoln—I suppose in reference to slavery—and I mentioned the story that Lincoln went out of his mind and nearly committed suicide over a love affair. Walt, who always was a great admirer of Lincoln, and who knew a good deal about him and his history, gave this a most emphatic denial, saying that Lincoln was "never even near being crazy".

One of the most amusing incidents of my stay occurred one morning shortly after breakfast, when a visiting card was handed in bearing the ominous inscription "Madame Dorbiney D'Aubigné", and was quickly followed by the appearance of an elderly and loquacious little lady. She was one of those detached women with a reticule who travel about the world in quest of anything "interesting". She had been, she told us, all over the States and seen many celebrities, but could not return to Europe without visiting Whitman—and it was only by a piece of luck that she had found out where he was staying. However, it soon began to appear that her interest in Walt was not so great, naturally, as in herself; for after a few preliminary compliments she settled down to tell us all about the wonderful D'Aubigné family to which she belonged. It ramified all over the civilised world, she sad; and the name was spelt in ever so many different ways, but they were all branches of the same family, they were all related to each other—as her own name indeed showed. Walt listened in an amused manner, and for about ten minutes was quite decently courteous and patient. Then I suddenly perceived that his face was becoming 'precipitous'; the little woman of course was addressing him, no one else being of any importance; but he seemed to be becoming deaf, there was no speculation in

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his eyes; it was rather awful; for a minute or two she tried vainly to effect a lodgment for her words, to get any kind of handhold on the sheer surface, and then gathering up her tackle, she made the best of a bad job, bade a hasty good-bye, and disappeared.

I told Walt about a visit I paid to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the criticisms of "Leaves of Grass" which I heard on that occasion. I saw the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table" at his house in Boston. He was then about 70 years of age—a dapper active little man, full of life and go, rather enjoying the visits of strangers— "Oh yes, I have a large 'parish'—people write to me and come and call from all parts of the world—we authors are rather vain, you know and quite enjoy a little homage; but my parish is not as big as Longfellow's—not as big as Longfellow's. But this is not a good time for you to see Boston. Boston is very empty now—(getting up and glancing through the window) very empty; you might almost see a fox run down the street; &c., &c." I said something about American literature and "Leaves of Grass". "Oh! Whitman," he said, "well—well—well—Whitman is all very well—he has capacity, but it won't do—it won't do. I tell you what, it's something like this: you know, skilful cooks say that the faintest odour, the merest whiff, of assafœtida, will give a piquant flavour to a dish—and I can believe that; but to drench it in assafœtida, no, that won't do. The poets coquette with Nature, and weave garlands of roses for her, but Whitman goes at her like a great hirsute man—no, it won't do. Now", he continued, "the other day Lowell and Longellow and I were chatting together, and the subject of Whitman turned up. Said Lowell, 'I can't think why there is all this stir about Whitman; I have read a good deal of his poetry, but I can't see anything in it—I can't see anything in it'. 'Well', said Longfellow, 'I believe the man might have done something if he had only had a decent training and education'. As to my own opinion, why", said Holmes, "I have already given you that. So you see what we think of him in America." Whitman was a good deal amused, and took it all in good part, saying he knew pretty well already what they thought.

As the days went by I began to see more clearly the depths which lay behind the poet's simple and unconcerned exterior. Literary persons, as a rule, write over their own heads; they talk a little bigger than themselves. But Whitman seemed to fill out

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"Leaves of Grass", and form an interpretation of it. I began to see that all he had written there was matter of absolute personal experience—that you might be sure that what was sad was meant. There was the same deliberate suggestiveness about his actions and manners that you find in his writings—only, of course, with the added force of bodily presence; and far down too there were clearly enough visible the same strong and contrary moods, the same strange omnivorous egotism, controlled and restrained by that wonderful genius of his for human affection and love. "Who has the most enamoured body?" were words which somehow his presence often suggested. It was with real reluctance that, a week after my arrival, I bade adieu to all that friendly household; and the next morning but one, from the stern of the Siberia, watched the flat shores of New England, and the lighthouse that marks the entrance to Boston Harbour, recede and dip below the broadening waters of the Atlantic.


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