Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Days with Walt Whitman: Walt Whitman in 1884

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), 35–45.

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), 35–45.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00572

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




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WALT WHITMAN IN 1884

THE next time I saw Walt Whitman was the 17th of June 1884. He had then left Stevens Street, owing to the removal of his brother, but was still living in Camden, in a small house which he had himself part-purchased—328 Mickle Street. He had at that time, for housekeepers, an elderly workman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Lay, with whom he was on easy terms, and with whom he had his meals. In appearance I thought him much the same as in 1877—a trifle thinner perhaps, and certainly more infirm. Some expression of weariness too I thought I saw, which would likely arise from the increased

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confinement of his life. "I keep going," he said, "much the same. Visits from English friends are perhaps my chief diversion." Then, after tender inquiries, especially for Mrs. Gilchrist (who was now in London), "have just had a visit from Oscar Wilde—who told me about England; I made him do the talking—rather liked him. I have occasional letters from Dowden—a steady friend—and others. Bucke's book

1 "Walt Whitman," By R. Maurice Bucke, M.D. Philadelphia, 1883.
is going off slowly—not much cared for by my friends—but I like it. I opposed the book all along, till Bucke, getting fairly out of patience, came one day and said, 'Now I am just as obstinate as you, and I intend to bring it out whether you like it or no—so you had better make the best of the matter and help to make it authentic as far as you can'; whereupon I caved in,

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laughing heartily, and wrote the account of my birthplace and antecedents which occupies the first twenty-four pages of the book."

"I thought that there was a germinal idea in Bucke's book—the idea that 'Leaves of Grass' was above all an expression of the Moral Nature. As to O'Connor's letters—I must say I like them. They are comforting. Just as any woman likes a man to fall in love with her—whether she returns it or not—so to have once aroused so eloquent and passionate a declaration is reassuring and a help to me." We then spoke of the money-making and gentility business at New York—I remarking that I thought it had all increased considerably since I was there in '77, and he corroborating, though holding that it probably had to be gone through "for reasons."

Here I find the following passage

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among my notes: "I am impressed more than ever with W.'s contradictory, self-willed, tenacious, obstinate character, strong and even extreme moods, united with infinite tenderness, wistful love, and studied tolerance; also great caution [he says: 'the phrenologists always say that caution is my chief characteristic—did you know that?'] and a certain artfulness, combined with keen, penetrating and determined candour; the wild-hawk look still there, 'untamable, untranslatable,' yet with that wonderful tenderness at bottom."

The next day Walt came over, at noon, to Crowell's hotel, where I was staying; we dined and went to Fairmount Park in the afternoon. Talked a little about social questions. W.: "I believe, like Carlyle, in men; I think that notwithstanding all set-offs the great capitalists and masters of private enterprise have, in America at least, been useful.

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I have myself had all along a tender feeling for Co-operation, but for that doubt whether a committee or an elected person could or would do the work." As to England, he seemed to think that emigration would relieve it, and he looked upon the law and custom of entail as the "hard-pan underlying your social institutions.""I like and welcome all agitation, even the fiercest, but like Carlyle have little belief in reform talk. Society, like a person in middle life, is set and you have to make the best of it. I am, I hope, a bit of a reformer myself. Yes, we must grow generous, ungrasping masters of industry; absurd as the idea would seem to most now-a-days, I believe that is the upshot of what is going on. The creation of a large, independent, democratic class of small owners is the main thing—though it is never once mentioned by our economists and politicians.

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I am satisfied that for America Free Trade and open admission of all foreigners is an integral part of its theory; the future of the world is one of open communication and solidarity of all races; and if that problem cannot be solved in America it cannot be solved anywhere."

We drove to Fairmount Park in a 'bus, walked a little, sat at the refreshment tables, and listened to the band—Walt absorbed and quiet for the most part, recognised by a few among the well-dressed crowd, but seeming to hold himself aloof with almost an air of hauteur—looking fine withal in his grey suit and with grey uncovered head, tho' perhaps a little weary. He asked me somewhat about my life and doings at home.

The following evening I stayed to supper with Whitman in the little kitchen of his home, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Lay. They seemed homely decent

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people, rather dull and quiet. Walt, who was dressed just in shirt and trousers—for the weather was hot—kept things going. Afterwards we sat in the front room with Folger McKinsey, a young Philadelphian of literary leanings, who had come in. Walt talked about Shakespeare, the Bacon theory, the greatness of the historical plays, the "dragon-rancours" of the barons, King Lear, &c. "I will not be positive about Bacon's connection with the plays, but I am satisfied that behind the historical Shakespeare there is another mind, guiding, and far, far reaching, giving weight and permanent value to what would otherwise have been only two plays a year written for a witty, alert, jocose audience—chiefly of young gallants."

The conversation turned somehow on death. W.: "It is in reality a very different affair from the romantic stage view of it; deathbed speeches and 'scenes' are

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of the rarest occurrence. I have witnessed hundreds of deaths, and as a rule it seems just a matter of course—like having your breakfast, or any other event of the day, and met with indifference at the last, and with apathy, or unconsciousness."

After an hour or two we went out and walked a little through the Camden streets—Walt, as usual, with plentiful greetings to passers-by. He would insist on our coming into a shop and having some refreshment, and then a few minutes later at the corner of a street, left us, I remember, with that queer brusque manner of his which so often offended his friends—just coldly saying "Ta-ta," and going off as if he didn't care if he never saw us again!

The next morning (June 30) was my last visit to Whitman; we had a long and intimate conversation. He was very friendly and affectionate, and sat by the open window downstairs enjoying the wafts

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of fragrant air, while he talked about "Leaves of Grass." "What lies behind 'Leaves of Grass' is something that few, very few, only one here and there, perhaps oftenest women, are at all in a position to seize. It lies behind almost every line; but concealed, studiedly concealed; some passages left purposely obscure. There is something in my nature furtive like an old hen! You see a hen wandering up and down a hedgerow, looking apparently quite unconcerned, but presently she finds a concealed spot, and furtively lays an egg, and comes away as though nothing had happened! That is how I felt in writing 'Leaves of Grass.' Sloane Kennedy calls me 'artful'—which about hits the mark. I think there are truths which is it necessary to envelop or wrap up." I replied that all through history the old mysteries, or whatever they may have been called, had been held back; and added that probably

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we had something yet to learn from India in these matters. W.: "I do not myself think there is anything more to come from that source; we must rather look to modern science to open the way. Time alone can absolutely test my poems or any one's. Personally, I think that the 'something' is more present in some of my small later poems than in the 'Song of Myself.'"

This was the last I saw of Whitman. I left him sitting there by the window in his downstairs room, close to the street and the passers-by—his clear eye undimmed by age, his rugged, loving nature unaltered; though there was a certain grave weariness in his otherwise majestic presence, which gives one a touch of sadness when one thinks that he had still nearly eight years to pass of increasing physical disablement and of continually diminishing vitality, culminating at last in serious bodily misery and wretchedness,

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before death might relieve him of the burden of the flesh.


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