Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman

Creator: William Roscoe Thayer

Date: June 1919

Publication information: Scribner's Magazine 65 (June 1919): 674–687.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00574

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

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By William Roscoe Thayer

I first came to know Walt Whitman in 1885, when he was sixty-six years old. I had been living for several years in Philadelphia, where Whitman, who had a little home in Camden, across the Delaware, was a conspicuous figure. One used to see him of an afternoon shuffling down Chestnut Street, a man so unusual that even if he had not dressed to attract attention, you would not have passed him by unnoticed. Although he leaned somewhat sideways owing to his crippled leg, he must have stood nearly or quite six feet tall. His shoulders were broad, and neither age nor infirmity had broken down the original robustness of his frame. But what impressed you most was his face, with its fresh, pink skin, as of a child, and the flowing beard, white and soft and patriarchal, like that of one of John Bellini's saints. He wore a gray suit-sack coat, waistcoat, and trousers—which might have been of homespun—but was not, and a white unstitched shirt with collar carefully turned over on either side and unbuttoned, so that you saw this sinewy throat and a span below it of his chest, which also had its fledge of whiting hair. The broad brim of his soft, gray, felt hat shaded his eyes so that you were not sure whether they were light blue or gray, but you could not miss seeing the perfect arch of the brow over each of their sockets.

And so Walt made his slow progress down the street, dragging his lame foot along with a shuffling sound, and supporting himself on his stout stick. This was his parade. Nearly every one knew who he was; many nodded or said, "Hullo, Walt!" and now and then some pal or acquaintance would stop and speak to him. He answered all salutations cheerily and looked at the throngs which swept toward him with the same searching interest with which in earlier days he had scrutinized the crowds on the Brooklyn ferry-boats. His eyes were dimmer now, but his heart kept its old zest. Occasionally, he would stop to peer into a win-

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dow or to make a brief call at some shop where he had a crony. Sometimes you ran upon him at the little musty old bookstore of David McKay, on Ninth Street above Chestnut. McKay, an enterprising Scot, had undertaken to publish Walt's books after the attorney-general of Massachusetts declared them to be unfit for the readers of that Commonwealth, and Osgood, the Boston publisher, had hastily thrown them out. McKay, I think, would have welcomed further persecutions as an advertising asset.

Having finished his outing and received his homage for the day, Walt got into a street-car—they were horse-cars then—and went down to the Market Street Ferry, which carried him back to Camden.

From the first, I looked at him in these casual sidewalk passings with much curiosity; for I have always been eager to see the very form, complexion, and bearing of persons who for any reason have won notoriety if not greatness. In Walt's case there was something of the added piquancy of forbidden fruit. I had grown up in the belief that he was a strangely dissolute man who, unlike most of his tribe, shamelessly spread the records of his debauches on the printed page. Nobody

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had forbidden me to read him; and at college I had dipped into "Leaves of Grass," but in the spirit of one looking for confirmation of an unintelligible prejudice, and I found the uncouthness of Walt's so-called verse intolerable. The utter openness of the passages which had stirred the attorney-general were, I had sense enough to see, not deliberately erotic, but physiological, an offense against taste rather than morals.

It happened that I spent an August Sunday down at Wallingford with Dr. Horace Howard Furness, an old friend of mine, or at least one whose human kindness was so genuine and so winning that it made even a young fellow like me feel that we were friends. At any rate, so far as expressing opinions went, I spoke quite freely, and he listened with a wonderful courtesy to what must have often seemed to him—with all of Shakespeare's characters for interlocutors—crude if not callow.

Dr. Furness himself was one of those rare persons who produce an impression on those who know them that cannot be communicated in writing—an impression immediate , sweet and yet vigorous, almost elusive at the moment, but indelible in memory. He was then a man of fifty one or two, short, with rather a large head already bald, a smooth-shaven face, except for the closely trimmed mustache, a Roman nose, and scholar's brow. Through his gold-rimmed spectacles he looked at you hospitably with that expectancy common to the deaf, and his mouth, too, serious when in repose, quickly lighted up with a smile when he welcomed you, or listened to your talk. He used to sit astride of a chair, leaning his left elbow on its top, where he had contrived a box with a lid for his pipe and tobacco—and having placed you as near as possible in front of him, and lighted your pipe and his, he would hold toward you his beaten-silver ear-trumpet. And then the talk would begin, and as you listened, you took little note of time.

That Sunday we rambled for hours among many fields of literature, he leading, I following, in that unpremeditated way which is one of the conditions of delightful conversation. By chance Whitman was mentioned. "Do you know Walt?" Dr. Furness asked. "No," I replied; "I've often seen him on Chestnut Street and I have dipped into his 'Leaves of Grass,' but the stuff isn't poetry, and I don't like his dirt and vulgarity.""That is only a part and not the most important part of it," said Dr. Furness, in substance. "In his way, Walt is the most remarkable old creature alive. There will not be another like him. Talk with him."

Dr. Furness got up, went to a shelf, took down a volume, came back and opened it.

"As for poetry, my boy, listen to this." And then he read to me from "Leaves" a dozen or fifteen lines beginning:

"I am he that walks with the tender and grow-
ing night."

When he finished, he paused a moment, waiting for the rich sounds to soak in, and then said: "Whether you call it poetry or not, that is great."

Dr. Furness was a reader of such magical power that I believe he could have made you laugh or cry at will over a time-table. His voice was not massive, nor had it in high degree the ventriloquizing quality which enables dramatic readers to feign different parts; but there were in it certain notes of surpassing tenderness and pathos and others of passion, which fitted it perfectly to express the mingling of personal desire and cosmic emotion in that passage from Whitman.

A few days later I took the ferry to Camden, a town which, so far as one could judge from its water-front, was an unlikely abode for even a minor poet. A few minutes walk across railroad-tracks brought me to Mickle Street, on which Whitman lived. It was a street of small, cheap houses, some of them serving both as little stores and dwellings, with here and there a larger building and, at a street-corner, a beer-saloon. An occasional tree, lean and starved and homesick-looking, threw a feeble shade on the sidewalk and gave the only hint of nature to that scene. Poor but respectable, with a suggestion that unrespectability was just round the corner, is the impression I recall of Mickle Street. Number 328 was only a few blocks away. I still remember the trepidation with which I approached it, for I

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have always felt shy at breaking in uninvited on a celebrity. At the last moment, before ringing the bell, a sense of the absurdity and of the impertinence of the situation came over me. What had I to say to him? I could not flatter him. It would hardly be polite to admit that I came out curiosity. I certainly did not go merely to boast afterward that I had shaken his hand. My real motive was that of the naturalist, who wishes to see with his own eyes a unique specimen of mammal, but I could not with delicacy intimate to him that I regarded him as if he were a freak in our fauna. Afterwards, on knowing Walt, I saw that he was the last person in the world to justify such hesitation, for he laid himself out to be a show, and he would have been disappointed if he had failed to draw. He did not ask why you came, if only you came.

So I rang the bell and prepared to take the consequences.

Soon afterward, fresh from the adventure, I wrote to a friend the following description of it, which has at least whatever merit may attach to very vivid first impressions. I reprint it as written, with the signs of haste and the youthful effort to draw a speaking likeness upon it.


August 2, 1885.

While the recollection of it is still fresh I want to give you a description of an hour I spent one day last week with the most singular personage among American writers. Do you guess whom I mean? or shall I tell you?—Walt Whitman. The afternoon was hot and bright and as I crossed the Delaware by ferry to Camden and walked along the straight, level streets I wondered what I should say in explanation of my intrusion, but as soon as I reached the house I lost my perplexity. Even the exterior of Whitman's home, situated at 328 Mickle Street, is simple and friendly enough to dispel formality. The house, or rather, cottage, is only two stories high and less than fie paces wide. It is of wood, and is shaded by a tree in the sidewalk. The front door was open, and when I rang, a comely housekeeper opened an inside summer door, through the slats of which I had already seen her ironing at the end of a corridor.

I asked if Mr. Whitman was able to see visitors—he had had slight sunstroke a few days before—and she said: "Certainly." Having seated me in the little parlor—a sort of double room, the back part of which does service as a chamber, being furnished with a bed and a few wooden chairs—she disappeared, and presently I heard rumbling as of slow movements overhead. I looked at the things about me—all simple, neat, and cozy—and felt half-ashamed to have disturbed the old man. Soon I heard shuffling steps and the regular clacking of a stick on the entry floor, and in a moment Whitman moved into sight through the doorway. Very cordial was his handshake, and ere I had made a short apology for interrupting him, his "Glad to see yer" put me quite at ease. He sat in a wicker-bottomed rocking-chair near one window, and I about six feet from him near the other.

I wish I could draw him for you, because if there be to-day a patriarchal looking man, it is he. His hair and beard are long and very white. His head on the top is egg-shaped, and not a very high forehead stretches down to the bushy eyebrows, in which white and black hairs struggle for prominence. His nose is large, straight, and rather flat, with perhaps a Roman tendency which is buried in the drifts of fleecy hair that cover all the lower parts of his cheeks and face. His eyes are blue, clear and kindly, set in thin almond lids which are so narrow that barely half of each iris is seen. Beneath, the flesh grows in little folds and wrinkles, which are never deep and stiff like those made by suffering or worry. His skin is rosy and as healthy as a child's. He wore a starched cotton shirt, whose broad collar was not fastened at the neck but was left open, exposing his chest. Trousers, that might have been of homespun, and stockings were of his favorite gray color; and worsted-worked slippers completed his dress.

His expression has benignity, tranquility, and contentment. You miss the deep-set eyes and the aggressive manner that you associate with men of passionate or profound genius; but you have the embodiment of the kindly, receptive mature, which is placid, observant, and inter-

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ested in whatever person or subject is before it.

We soon fell into an easy conversation, in which he showed no wish to take the lion's share, or to utter wise saws. He spoke deliberately, often waiting for a word or a clause, and without any affectation, so far as I noticed.

He asked me whether I had not written him two years ago in regard to a letter which he had received from Sidney Lanier. I answered yes, surprised at his good memory. He said that he had never replied because when my letter reached him he was ill, but that he had found Lanier's letter and marked it to send it to me, but that it got displaced again among his disorderly papers. Lanier, he said, wrote "a florid, gushing" letter, and Whitman evidently did not put a high value on him.

After a while we talked about Whitman's own work. I told him frankly that while many parts of his "Leaves of Grass" had given me pleasure, I did not agree with him as to the propriety of publishing in a volume of poetry certain passages that belong in a handbook of physiology. He listened carefully, and replied: "You may be right. Many excellent thinkers hold your opinion. I, however, have always believed the contrary. Now, among the Arabs, if any man should suggest that the absurd custom of veiling the faces of women be abolished, he would be denounced as immoral or as mad. I believe in unveiling. This is the age of exposé. Darwinism makes exposé in everything necessary. When I think how Darwin was abused before the world came round to his side, I see that it is possible that I may live long enough to behold a similar result in my case. And what makes me hopeful is the fact that of late years there has been an increasing number of pure, fine women, old and young, among my warmest friends. You know when doctors can bring a disease to the surface they are satisfied, but if it remain hidden inside, the prospect is very bad. Still, I recognize there are grave objections. But my doctor forbade me to get into a critical or fatiguing discussion."

So I changed the subject—not wishing to induce a stroke of apoplexy—and mentioned that I hoped some time to write a history of the struggle of the Italians for independence. He seemed interested, asked many pertinent questions about the character of the Italians, the pope—whose influence he thought was slight—and about Dante. He had read the "Divine Comedy" in Carlyle's translation and in Longfellow's, but he could not quite understand Dante's great position among poets and in the history of Italy. "But I feel sure," he said, "that the trouble lies with me. I haven't got the right clew. If I knew more it would be clear to me." This was his attitude through all our talk. He made no hasty conclusion, but habitually spoke as if he had not yet sufficient data for arriving at a decisive judgment.

I asked him if among the younger brood of writers he saw encouraging symptoms. "I hardly see anybody to tie to," he answered. "But there's plenty of time. America knows what she's about. We must first clear up the farm, and put things in order—the rest will come later. I can't help thinking that in the past, too, America knew what she was about. If I were a young man, I probably should not go preaching to mankind that they are a good deal better than they've been taught to believe—but as an old man that's my firm belief. In old times the idea was that humanity couldn't be trusted. Perhaps the disparagement acted as a sort of spur to make men do better than they would have done otherwise. Now, however, I put my faith in humanity. Even unconsciously, the great bards seem to teach this same truth, America will produce what she needs in good time. We mustn't be too critical. We're critical of the weather, for instance, but at the end of the year the weather has done its proper work. I don't value the poetry in what I have written so much as the teaching; the poetry is only a horse for the other to ride."

Before I left, he promised to send me Lanier's letter as soon as he should find it. I might repeat more that he said—although his ideas and not his words remain in my mind, and what I have given rarely represents his actual words—but I have already furnished you a fair report. What I have not furnished is the patriarchal look, the simple manners, the placidity which bespoke the genial character.

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This old man, partly paralyzed, very poor, lives undisturbed on the edge of a busy world, which he watches, and has a fellow feeling for everybody. I shall long remember him with his white fleece, pink complexion, and friendliness. If he has not taught others wisdom by his disjointed, reverberated effusions, he has certainly found wisdom for himself.

I soon called on Walt again, and although I quitted Philadelphia that autumn, I frequently returned there and never missed going over to Camden for a chat with him. I kept no notes of our talk, but much that he said remains vividly in my memory, and I will set it down here in the miscellaneous fashion which was particularly characteristic of his conversation.

One could not talk with him for five minutes without being struck by two qualities—his rare gift of discerning natural objects, and the ease with which he seemed to improvise opinions on intellectual matters. Except for a few fundamental ideas, which form the substance of his "message" or doctrine, he was not an orderly thinker at all. His mind was like a barberry-bush which catches wisps of wool from every sheep that passes, as Lowell somewhere said of some one else; and at times it seemed to me that Walt was no more able than the barberry-bush would be to assimilate the stray catches. He was unconcerned to hunt for an opinion, if one did not come readily to his mind, and he announced frankly his lack of knowledge or interest and changed the subject.

Walt did not always care to admit the sources from which he borrowed freely. One day, for instance, he talked about Shakespeare's historical plays, which, he said, showed that Shakespeare was at heart a democrat, and that he had written the plays in order to discredit monarchy and kings and the robber barons, and all that other old feudal nonsense. I discovered afterward that he had appropriated this fantastic notion from his stanch champion, William D. O'Connor.

On another occasion he criticized Ruskin quite in the manner of one who had read widely in Ruskin's books; but when my eyes caught sight of a small paper-covered "Ruskin Anthology" on the little table beside me, I knew what had inspired him.

Once I said to him: "Walt, in 'Leaves of Grass' you have the air of a rough-and-tumble fellow who despises the well-to-do, mannerly people, and especially the learned and the literary. And yet your writings are sprinkled with foreign words (somewhat Whitmanized) and with unexpected references to scientific and other subjects which we don't at first associate you with."

"The fact is," Walt replied, "I used to read all the quarterlies and magazines I could lay my hands on. I read 'em straight through; and so I stored up in my memory all sorts of odds and ends, which I pulled out and used whenever they came in handy."

Being myself already saturated with Emerson, and persuaded that the essence of Walt's gospel of Americanism, and democracy, and, above all, of the supreme value of the individual had been proclaimed by Emerson in imperishable pages long before Walt began his "Leaves of Grass," I was curious from the outset to see whether he would acknowledge any obligations. My own theory was and is that somewhere in the late forties Walt came upon Emerson's "Essays," devoured and absorbed them, found in them a revelation which interpreted American life to him, and deliberately adopted the teachings as if they had been original with himself. When he came to write, he put them in his own language, laying emphasis on this or that particular which most appealed to him, and giving free rein to his wonderful pictorial talent. And just as the disciple usually exaggerates or distorts some non-essential in his master's teaching, so Walt, bent on glorifying the individual, no matter how insignificant it might be, glorified rubbish as if it were the finest gold of the spirit.

At one time, when I was wrestling with the old serpents of fatalism and evil, it occurred to me to go over and consult Walt. Ought not he, if any one, with his genial poise and his apparent acceptance of whatever fortune brought him, to solve these insistent questions?

I attacked him rather too suddenly, in the stand-and-deliver fashion of a much

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perplexed visitor at the Delphic oracle, craving an immediate reply. I asked him how he explained this terrible reality of evil, when the burden of every page of "Leaves of Grass" and of his other writings and sayings was: "Life's all right." And I began to cite the misery—whether of body or of soul—the pain and sorrow and sin and injustice—from which nobody escapes.

He did not let me go on long, but showed a little impatience, and replied almost testily: "Oh, you can't tackle it that way! This ain't a matter to be settled by yes or no. What you call evil is all part of it. If you have a hill, you've got to have a hollow. I wish some one—I've often thought of doing it myself—would crack up the good of evil—how it helps us along—how it all fits in."

"That is just what Emerson once said," I interrupted.

"Did he?" said Walt, with what seemed to me unexpected interest. "Did he? Where did he say that?"

I told him the essay which contains the well-known passage, and I think I also quoted the familiar "Evil is good in the making." It seemed to me that Walt was uncomfortable, as if I had unwittingly startled him into furnishing the clew to his inspiration; and whenever in subsequent talks I referred to Emerson's ideas, I thought that he feigned ignorance of them. In early manhood, he made no secret of his discipleship to Emerson, whom he called "master" in a famous letter. He sent one of the first copies of "Leaves of Grass" to Emerson, violated common propriety by printing in the New York Tribune Emerson's commendation and by stamping a sentence from it on the next edition of the "Leaves." Later, when he came to be accepted himself as a prophet, I suspect that he was glad to forget that he had ever called any one "master." In my frontal attack on the problem of evil, I made no further progress with Walt that day or later. He was neither a philosopher nor a theologian and I doubt whether he had ever felt the problem poignantly. For practical living he found it wise to turn away from or to dodge the grisly questions which challenged too rudely his pantheistic optimism.

"Music helps better than argument," he said to me; "music soothes us, and, like a mother, draws us to her breast, and we fall asleep and we forget our difficulties."

Then I began to perceive that morals, in the deepest sense, did not exist for Whitman. In deifying the Individual, he made each person his own standard to do and think what he chooses; with the result that the Whitmanesque world is made up of its hundreds of millions of individuals as independent one of another as are the pebbles on a beach. They touch but they do not really merge. But human society must be based on the mutual interdependence of its elements; and the corner-stone of social life on every plane above that of the savages is the family. Whatever compliments Walt may have paid to the family in theory, he showed in practice that he neither understood its supreme function nor respected it. The relations between the sexes on which the family depends, meant for him no more than the gratification of appetite. He felt no obligation, no duty, either toward the women with whom he formed a temporary attachment or toward the offspring they bore him. It has been proved, although I did not know it at the time of my acquaintance, that he admitted being the father of six children by two mothers, but he rejected all responsibility for their care and bringing up, casting the burden upon the women whom he abandoned. Nothing can be baser than that.

When, therefore, Whitman's uncritical zealots rhapsodize him as the prophet of a new life and the proclaimed of a higher morality, they do him no service. What is admirable in his poetry and in his message lies in a different field. He can never be a help; on the contrary, by his example he must be a stumbling-block to every individual, man or woman, who is struggling for that standard by which alone the sacredness of the family—and with the family the amelioration of the race—can be safeguarded.

In this respect Whitman dwells at the opposite pole from Emerson, his master in

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the gospel of individualism. Emerson takes it for granted that each individual to whom he addresses his aural call, "Trust thyself!" is already living the life of the spirit, instead of lagging behind in the lowlands of the flesh. Emerson urged perfection on the individual, not that he might enjoy himself for himself, but that he might be the better fitted to play a noble part in society, and to receive and obey the faintest intimation from the soul of the world. He never tolerated the thought of a community made up of units who, having known the higher moral standards, deliberately chose the immoral.

So we can no more adopt Whitman as a model for our life than we could Rousseau, whom he resembles only too closely on the ignoble side. Under promiscuity alone, the system which proposes to make utter selfishness the ideal of society and its members, could Walt and Jean Jacques be accepted as guides.

So much I must say here, because it explains why Walt could not enlighten me as to the problem of evil. The more I saw him the more I recognized that he looked out on the world without any moral prepossession; but he was wonderfully sensitive to some of the deepest emotions. Who better than he has expressed the bewildered surprise, plaintiveness, the sense of unreality, and then the anguish of bereavement? And how nobly, as if he were welcoming an imperial guest, he goes to the threshold to greet death! There was much more than the cant phrases in praise of universal brotherhood, in his allusions to cronies and camerados, and to the thrill he felt when his hand rested on a pal's shoulder or as he looked into responsive eyes of a comrade. The genuineness of these characteristics also was confirmed by acquaintance with him.

However he may have been in earlier days or was then among his intimates, he never, as I knew him, indulged in coarseness. I remember that one morning I asked him why he would not consent to issue here such a volume of selections as William Rossetti's, brought out in England in 1868. That volume, omitting some of the most flagrant and physiological of the tedious, long, prosaic, and repetitious lists, had given Walt his vogue among the intellectual elite in Britain, and I believed that one like it would reach ten times as many American readers as his unexpurgated editions had reached.

He paused a moment, barely shook his head, and said: "That's just what Emerson suggested. Years ago we spent three hours on Boston Common walking up and down, he urging and arguing just as you do, and I listening and thinking and sometimes trying to reply. I couldn't match his arguments, but always something in me kept saying: 'Stick to it, Walt.' And at the end I said to him: 'I can't answer all your reasons, but I guess I've got to hold on to the stuff you don't like. It's all part of the whole; and I can no more honestly cut out that part than any other."

A snap-shot of those two on Boston Common that day would be among the most precious literary relics we American could have.

Walt was equally firm in standing by his form of verse—if that be verse which form has none. He had been attacked so often that I suppose he took it as a matter of course that every new literary "feller" should take a shot at that target. It seems to be pretty well proved now that he developed his Whitmanesque metrical scheme from earlier models and by deliberate experimentation. Until he was thirty or over, he wrote rather platitudinous poems in ordinary iambic metre and rhymes and published them in newspapers. On the little table between the windows of the front room on Mickle Street was a thick quarto volume of Scott's poetry, printed in double column (if I remember rightly), with penciling on the margins. This, he told me, had been his favorite book in the earlier days, and I suppose that Scott's versification was his pattern before he found the requirements of regular prosody too fettering. His general doctrine that metre, which has sufficed for poets in countries more or less despotic, ought not be tolerated by a chosen bard of this land of unlimited democratic freedom, has its allure for the very young in years and for all those who, no matter what their age may be, never grow up to understand that all art is discipline, and that the supreme artists—

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Sophocles and Phidias, Virgil and Dante, Michael Angelo, Titian, Raphael and Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Milton, and Moliere—were supreme for the very reason that the discipline of their art had become instinctive in them, the necessary medium by which they expressed themselves, as water is to the swimmer.

Walt's other argument for his verse form was even more naïve: our versification ought to match in amplitude the boundless sweep of "these States." If accepted seriously, this would mean that even a minor poet in Texas would employ lines of fifty or sixty metrical feet, to keep his relative distance, so to speak, over the Rhode Islander, who ought to be thankful with an allowance of four. Of course Walt himself would have seen the absurdity of this deduction; but as he relied on his emotions and on intuition, and neither would nor could think, he would conclude this decision, as he did the other, by maintaining his position without wavering.

Once I tried a flank movement on his theory.

"You profess," I said, "to make nature your guide and to be satisfied with nothing less broad and free and infinitely varied than you see in her. But the one lesson that nature teaches above all others is form. She takes care that everything from Sirius to a grain of sand shall have its own proper form. She doesn't stew a lot of rose-petals on the ground and call them a rose; she puts them together in a beautiful form. Many of your poems, it seems to me, are like heaps of petals, not always of the same flower, even, and intermingled with other irrelevant things. Their formlessness is contrary to nature."

This argument carried no weight with him. How many hundreds of times he must have heard similar ones! He said simply but without petulance, and as if he rather pitied my intelligence: "Of course my poetry isn't formless. Nobody could write in my way unless he had the melody singing in his ears. I don't always contrive to catch the best musical combination nowadays; but in the older pieces I always had a tune before I began to write."

Those tunes doubtless account for the haunting music of many of his first lines, and of other separate lines interspersed in the poems; but the metrical inspiration rarely continues for more than two or three lines at the most.

As a parting shot I added: "Shakespeare's blank verse doesn't consist of a series of lines each of five rigid metrical feet; but it runs on over more or fewer lines, as the case may be, according to the sense. Hamlet's soliloquy, for instance, if printed in your way, would look very different on the page. The metre runs through it just as in musical composition there is a given key and beat. And, after all, in "O Captain! my Captain!"—the most popular of your poems—you showed that you could use effectively an accepted metre and even rhymes—although you balk at making the rhymes satisfactory throughout." But Walt took no further interest in the matter.

Indeed, it was plain enough that Walt regarded me, as a college graduate, with a certain suspicion and lack of sympathy. His self-appointed mission being to break down all conventions and to shout his "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," he naturally looked upon a college as the last citadel of convention and therefore as his special enemy. Although in England, his readers came mostly from the university and literary circles, over here the colleges, partly from prudery and partly from pedantry, had been very slow even to mention him. At Harvard, in my time, for instance, a professor might casually refer to "Leaves of Grass," but when the student went to the library to consult the book, he found that it was catalogued with two blue stars, which meant that it was kept under lock and key in the "inferno" devoted to obscene productions.

No wonder, therefore, that Walt eyed the academically educated with some distrust. I seemed to him a young man who came out of the university with a little stock of approved formalities, with which I was attempting to make a breach in the Whitmanesque cosmic theory, constructed by him to supplant all others. In truth, however, I had no such ambition; I was moved, as I have stated, by an insatiate curiosity, and by my desire to get from this prophet of a new order some solace for my own perplexities. But to the end I was marred for him by the aca-

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demic attachment. Yet he felt a sort of pity, too; and once, before going to Europe, when I bade him goodbye, he urged me, with some ardor, to stand on my own feet, to think my own thoughts, and not to go on repeating what I had read or heard. What he wished, although he did not suspect it, was, that I, like Mr. Traubel, and one or two other unlimited disciples who passed much time with him in those last years, should give back to him his own thoughts as nearly as possible in his own language.

One day after I had been warmly praising Walt's poems on the Civil War, I said that I thought what he had written about Lincoln would stand along with James Russell Lowell's "Commemoration Ode" as the highest poetic tributes to the martyr president. He surprised me a little by saying that he was one of those academic "fellers," who breathed the fetid air of college lecture-rooms and gave it out in his poems; that he was not a "critter" for us. I replied that although Lowell was a bookman, he was much more; at the very top of our writers for humor and a splendid force for patriotism before and during the war. "You ought at least to read the 'Ode,'" I said emphatically, "and you would see that he isn't the anemic fellow you imagine. Much of his other poetry also is fine, some of it very good; and although he isn't a poet of the first class—who is in our time?—he stands well in the second class."

"You wouldn't persuade me to eat a second-class egg, would yer?" said Walt. "I don't care for second-class poetry, either."

In spite of his avowed ignorance he may have looked into Lowell's poems, and dismissed them long before as having no worth for him. Completely lacking humor himself, even "The Biglow Papers" must have been lost upon him. Walt had, in fact, read most of the American poets who were his contemporaries. We are told that at one time Poe attracted him, and we know that he absorbed Emerson; but I recall only one of whom he spoke with some enthusiasm—Whittier, who had a "fine vein, narrow but deep and fiery, of the Scotch Covenanter in him." I remarked that E.C. Stedman's essay seemed to me the best any one had written till then on Walt himself, being free from prejudice and rich in appreciation.

"Yes," said Walt, "Mr. Stedman is a very hospitable"—he waited a moment for the word—"critic and a good friend." Once or twice Walt mentioned Tennyson, ranking him as a real poet, but I have forgotten which poems he had in mind. He took pride in telling me that Tennyson had invited him to go over to Freshwater for a visit, but that his health was too feeble. That the apostle of formless poetry should be elated over the sympathy of the chief master of poetic form in modern English literature struck me as interesting; but I think that Walt's elation came from the fact that Tennyson was a great poet. Although he was thoroughly democratic in his love of appreciation, he knew the different varieties of incense at a sniff.

Looking back on our chats I perceive now, better than I did then, ho much in his talk with me Walt repeated what he had already written down in his prose fragments. That description of his meeting with Emerson at Concord; or the story of Elias Hicks and the Hicksite schism among the Quakers, bringing in his own boyhood and his recollections of his mother and of going to the annual meetings—all these he has told in print. But even though, owing to his failing vigor, they lacked something when he repeated them by word of mouth, they gained much in reality. The tone of the voice, the patriarchal look of the man, the slight gesture or the hesitation, and his permeating placidity can never be conjured up by those who only read his reminiscences. Walt kept a certain interest in current affairs, but his opinions had been made up long before, and his chief interest then and always was himself. The casual visitor like me might let in a whiff from the world outside, but this was fleeting in comparison with the steady influence of the little group of idolaters who echoed his thoughts, confirmed his delusions that literary "fellers" were everywhere in a conspiracy against him, and so tended to hem in and narrow his vision. The more unrestricted the wor-

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ship which devotees pay to the founder of a cult, the greater the risk he runs; and the freedom which such a founder expects to enjoy by throwing off the fundamental conventions of civilized life and posing as a "rowdy" or a cowboy is an illusory emancipation which shuts more doors than it opens.

But I find that I grow critical, whereas my purpose is rather to call up from time's oubliette Walt's speech and aspect as I knew them thirty years ago. As Dr. Furness said, the old fellow himself was what really mattered. Having seen him once, you never forgot his presence. On a summer afternoon he sat by the right-hand window and you at the left, with the little table covered with half a dozen books between you—the volume of Scott's poems most conspicuous; and he nodded to passers-by on the sidewalk and kept up his not-rapid chat with you. A newsboy would hand in the evening paper and Walt took a penny from a little pile of change on the window-sill and handed it to him with a "Thank yer, Billy" or other cosey greeting. In colder weather Walt settled into his rocking-chair, over the back of which was flung an unusually large and fine silver wolf skin. Whistler himself could not have achieved a more beautiful blend of grays and whites than Walt did when he leaned his fleecy head against the gray fur.

I talked with him frequently about Lincoln, whom I took it for granted he must have known well; but he surprised me by saying that although he "loafed a good deal around the White House," he never ran across the President but twice, and he heard Lincoln speak only twice—once of an evening from the balcony about some battle news. "He had rather a high voice with carrying power, but on the whole, pleasant and impressive."

Recently, in looking over John Hay's Diary, I was amused to come upon the following entry for October 29, 1863: "I went down to Willard's to-day and got from Palmer, who is here, a free ticket to New York and back for W. Whitman, the poet, who is going to New York to electioneer and vote for the Union ticket." So Walt's loafing around the White House was not wholly unremunerated.

I heard him say nothing that can add to his well-known and, in their way, unsurpassed descriptions of hospital scenes; but he made one characteristic remark which may be worth repeating.

"The human critter," he said, "has become too self-restrained. He thinks it isn't manly to show his emotions, and so he tries to keep as hard and mum as a statue. This is all wrong. The Greeks howled when they were hurt and bawled with rage when they were angry. But our soldiers in the war would clinch their teeth and not let out a sign of what they were suffering, no matter how badly they were wounded; and so they often died because the surgeons couldn't tell where they'd been hit."

Walt, himself, according to those who knew him in early and middle life, was preternaturally emotional and never attempted to check or to disguise the expression of his feeling at the moment. His disapproval of discipline, which has been one of the chief gains made by normal, civilized men since the Homeric age, harmonizes, therefore, with the rest of his philosophy of unrestraint.

Of references to passing political affairs, I recall only one, bearing on President Harrison: "I guess he is the smallest egg ever laid in Uncle Sam's basket."

I never saw him show resentment, even under unusual provocation. Thus, when Swinburne recanted in his customary vitriolic language his former bombastic laudation, I ventured to ask Walt whether he had seen the ferocious article in the Fortnightly Review. "Yes," he said with a tranquility more effective than sarcasm; "yes, and I rather guess Swineburne has soured a little on me."

Professor Bliss Perry, by far the best of all Whitman's biographers, has analyzed subtly a streak of slyness which ran through Walt's nature. At the time of my acquaintance I could not lay my finger on any more definite example of this than his apparent endeavor to escape from avowing his obligations to Emerson; but I did recognize in him a poseur of truly colossal proportions, one to whom playing a part had long before become so habitual that he had ceased to be conscious that he was doing it. His offhand, hail-fellow-well-met manner was undoubt-

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edly genuine with him in earlier years, and then, after he had adopted his pose, he saw to it that that manner should not be rubbed away by conventional attrition. So he was almost fussily careful to have his costume attract as much attention as possible; and in his talk he stuck to certain illiterate forms—like "critter" and "feller"—in keeping with the character he had assumed. We must remember that he was a contemporary of P. T. Barnum and agreed with that master-showman's views of publicity; so he chose a style both in prose and verse which at once arrested attention; he did not blush to write for the newspapers puffs of himself and his works; he craved notoriety even of the flimsiest sort. "The public," he said to me, "is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away on its hide to let it know you're there." Such egregious self-conceit has afflicted men much greater than Whitman, and, thanks to that quality which makes the artist a magician, the product, literary or artistic, of these men need not be insincere, for they write or paint or compose through their talent and not through their conceit.

On one occasion, when I tried to get them to sum up in definitive terms his creed—a thing which he avoided doing for half a lifetime, because he instinctively felt that vagueness was of the essence of it—he took a copy of the original edition of "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," and turning to the advertisement at the end he marked the margin of the third page. "There," said he, "I suppose you'll find the gist of it all there about as well as anywhere." He gave me the slender volume with its green-cloth cover, and wrote my name in it, adding two or three photographs of himself. One of these, an unusually beautiful portrait of him, represents him as seated in a grape-vine rustic chair—the kind once common in photographer's studios—and on the forefinger of his outstretched right hand a butterfly has just alighted, with wings still outspread. "I've always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters," he said. "They know that I like 'em and won't hurt 'em and so they come."

How it happened that that butterfly should have been waiting in that studio on the chance that Walt might drop in to be photographed, or why Walt should be clad in a thick cardigan jacket on any day when butterflies would have been disporting themselves in the fields, I have never been able to explain. Was this one of the pretty artifacts by which Walt carried out his pose? It doesn't matter; the picture is delightful and it has served ever since as the front piece to the precious little volume. Turn to page three of its advertisements and you will find his own interpretation of himself and his works.

A less venial form of slyness consisted in Walt's lack of candor in regard to his money affairs. During the last six or eight of his life he allowed a few kind-hearted gentlemen—Dr. Furness and Mr. George W. Childs among them—to subscribe an annual sum for his upkeep; and when he grew too lame to walk;, they supplied a horse and phaeton and paid a young man to act as his driver and valet. He even allowed some of his youthful admirers, who were earning a bare minimum wage themselves, to contribute a dollar or two a month apiece toward his support. Such a willingness to receive might be pardoned on the ground that he was affording his well-wishers the superior blessedness of giving, but all the while, unknown to them, he was building out his own resources a four-thousand-dollar mausoleum for himself at Harliegh Cememtary. Apparently Walt doubted as to the value of the monument which posterity would raise to him, and so he took no chances.

And yet, I had the feeling that if Walt had had much, he would have given lavishly; not having, he accepted without stint. Very likely he believed that, as he had bestowed upon the world something beyond all price, the world owed him a living. His tastes were so simple that he would not have known how to spend much wealth; but that four-thousand-dollar tomb remains as an unpleasant evidence of his slyness.

The last time I saw him was, I think, in December, 1891, a few months before his death. His housekeeper, Mrs. Mary Davis, told me at the door that he had been pretty feeble and was staying upstairs, but she would ask him if he could

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see me. He sent down word for me to go up. I climbed the short flight and went into the front room, which took up most of the second story of the small house. There stretched out in a long chair, propped with pillows and well wrapped up, with the grey wolfskin thrown over his knees, lay Walt, a broken, helpless, pathetic figure, who seemed hardly more than an antiquarian wrecking a dingy and disordered old curiosity-shop. The room was filled with the accumulation of years: bundles of newspapers, bric-à-brac, some begrimed and chipped bedroom crockery, statuettes in plaster of Paris, a trunk or two, and a chair and stool long past the time when they could be sat in without caution. Boards strung on trestles made a sort of long table such as paper-hangers use, and this afforded a resting-place for other heaps of letters, documents, and junk. Of the two windows, one was darkened by the shutters being closed, and through the dirty panes of the other I saw the wretched buildings opposite, and the bleak, wintry sky out of which snow-flurries blew intermittently. Seldom have I had so complete an impression of cheerlessness.

And there amid his sordid belongings, apparently deserted, the old man lay dying.

He greeted me with his familiar "Glad to see yer," but in a feeble voice, and I took his hand, which he could hardly move. He said that he'd been very sick, very sick; that the doctor told him he mustn't do anything, nor talk much, nor think much; but he liked to see old friends. Naturally, I started no discussion, but tried to suggest cheerful possibilities, though I knew there were none, and kept fearing I might be outstaying "the little while" which Mrs. Davis had warned me was all that the doctor allowed.

To turn his thoughts away from the dismal present, I asked him what he had been doing before his illness. He replied: "I went through the whole of my poems; read 'em all from beginning to end; and for the first time I had some doubt whether they're going to last."

The pathos of that confession moved me through and through. For what could be more tragic? Here was a man who believed he had made a new revelation to mankind—a prophet, who had borne mockery and neglect, and had at last persuaded a band of followers that he was indeed the true and only prophet—a poet, who in spite of the whimsicality of his poetic forms was recognized throughout the world as a poet—an arch-egoist, who honestly supposed that his personality was and would be immensely precious in human progress—and now, at the end of his life, he expressed a doubt as to the validity of his message or the permanence of his fame.

I told him I believed that the genuine poetical parts of his works would long be read, although what he had written to support his theory of composition or to preach his gospel would probably be gradually forgotten. "Posterity cherishes the poetry in poets," I added, "and not their theories. That is what has happened to Wordsworth and to many another doctrinaire poet. But the true gold lasts—have no fear, Mr. Whitman—but it often takes more than one generation to sift it from the dross." And I mentioned some of the passages in "Leaves of Grass" which seemed to me golden.

Whether my words comforted him or not, I cannot say. Possibly, the doubt he expressed was born of a flitting mood, or perhaps of his lifelong craving for sympathy and acclaim; he could not have doubted seriously, for habit, if nothing else, would have enabled him to play his part through unflinchingly until the curtain fell.

We talked a little more. Then I got up to go—probably the watchful Mrs. Davis was already signaling me from the entry—and I asked Walt whether I could send him anything, some fruit or wine, but he said that he had all he needed and more, and that the doctor didn't let him take much, anyway, His "Good-by, come again," was uttered feebly, because of his physical weakness, but without the slightest suggestion that he had lost courage or was even surprised at the defection of life—life which he had caressed and sported with and glorified, and which now, like a fickle mistress, had abandoned him. Neither that day nor earlier did I

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hear him whisper a complaint against the weariness which old age and incurable disease laid upon him.

I turned at the door and looked back upon him, a gray wraith amid the shadows of that dismal room. Walking to the ferry, I wondered whether, after what he had experienced, he would still sing, if the strength and will to sing should come back to him for a moment:

"I have said that the soul is not more than the
And I have said that the body is not more than
the soul."


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