Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Talk with Whitman

Creator: Anonymous

Date: August 25, 1890

Publication information: Times 25 August 1890: 4.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00605

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

A TALK WITH WHITMAN

———

THE OLD POET'S REMINISCENCES OF
FAMOUS LITERARY MEN.


———

INTERESTING POLITICAL VIEWS


———

Unbounded Admiration for Blaine,
But Only Contempt for Harrison
and His Administration.


———

Walt Whitman, who was 71 years old on May 31, was found yesterday sitting at the window of his two-story cottage in Camden, 328 Mickle street, in a comfortable old armchair presented to him by the son and daughter of Tom Donalson, of the Smithsonian Institute.

When the good gray poet was asked about his health, he cheerily replied: "I feel these sudden changes of the weather, but God be praised I am feeling bright and cheerful, and am blessed with a good appetite and a reasonably good digestion, and what more can an old man ask who, as the Methodists say, is still on 'praying ground and pleading terms.'

"Every fine day I have my stalwart attendant wheel me out, often to the Federal street ferry, where, sitting on the long wharf, I enjoy the mellow light of the sinking sun and the pleasant sight of the eager crowd hurrying off and on the ferry-boats."

Mr. Whitman was asked what foundation there was for the statement contained in Woodbury's recent "Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson" that the Concord philosopher had described an interview with the old poet at the Astor House in New York, at which Mr. Whitman appeared without any coat. He said: "I think it was Sam Bowles, the father of the present editor of the Springfield Republican, who said when offered an astounding piece of pretended news, 'Thanks, but we employ an able-bodied liar of our own.' I would not for an instant say that Mr. Woodbury was a falsifier, but do say that in that statement he makes with so much verisimilitude that this biographer of the great sage of Concord is conspicuously inexact and the author has been imposed upon.

"To be plain and explicit, which is the thing you newspaper men demand, I never called on Mr. Emerson without a coat, which would certainly have been, at least, seemingly disrespectful to the sweet-tempered and gracious old man. We were always on the best of terms, and I well remember his kindly but earnest invitation to come to his home at Concord, and how I enjoyed every moment of the two days I spent there; how, sitting before a fire of hickory logs in his well-appointed study, surrounded by countless books, he told me many interesting incidents in his life, many of them disclosing his inner life and too sacred to be put into cold type.

WHERE WHITMAN LAST SAW EMERSON.

"The last time I saw Emerson I met him in Boston at a supper at Young's restaurant. J. Boyle O'Reilly and Joaquin Miller, the poet of the Sienas, were present."

Pausing the poet's eyes glistened as he said with deepest pathos, "Poor O'Reilly! He had a spirit touched to the fine issues, and in heart and mind and imagination he lived to redress the wrongs of 'that most distressed country,' as Napper Tandy called old Ireland. Ah! how I miss O'Reilly. As Carlyle says in his life of John Sterling, many of my seances with O'Reilly are written in star-fire. They can never see the light of publicity.

"Our meeting at Young's was a most memorable one, and Emerson was kind enough to select the passages from my 'Leaves of Grass' which pleased him the most, and I remember how the old philosopher enjoyed the pleasures of the table, both edendi et bibendi, and with what pleasure he listened to Joaquin Miller's recitations of some passages from unpublished poems, descriptive of his early life when Miller was a 'Forty-niner' in California.

"I never saw Emerson again, but we corresponded for many years and up to the last year of his noble life."

"Do you hear now from Edwin Arnold, the poet?" was asked.

"Indeed I do," he answered, "and I am overjoyed at the latest news I have from Edwin Arnold, at Tokio, in Japan, that his new book, after the style of his 'Light in Asia,' will net him the handsome sum of $25,000. He is enamored of his pleasant life in Japan, and, while loth to leave the country, says: 'My engagements in England are imperative and I must soon sail for merrie England, and after a short stay I will keep my promise to visit you and to renew my pleasant memories of the Pacific slope.'

WHITMAN ON POLITICS.

"What do you think of the political situation?"

The poet promptly replied: "A plague on both your houses. I can't keep up with the sinuosities of American politics. Nor do I want to. I am reminded of what Emerson said to me—quoting from one of his essays: 'The Democrat is the young conservative; the conservative is the old Democrat; the aristocrat is the Democrat ripe and gone to seed, but all stand on the same platform—the supreme value of property which one endeavors to get and the other to keep.'

"When I think of this administration the only broad man, like the simple great ones gone forever and forever by, is James G. Blaine, of Maine. He is versatile, brilliant, statesmanlike in all his views, and I am only sorry that the American people are not as broad as is the Maine statesman, and are not big enough to make him President of the United States.

"As to Harrison, he seems to me to be vapid and to have inaugurated the day of small things. If there is any bigness in the man or his methods I fail to 'observantly distill it out.' What has he done? What will he do? He seems to have divided his own party and run amuck against many of the big leaders, and yet he, the President, wrapped in the triple brass of his own selfishness, hugs to his breast the delusion that he can again be named for President of the United States. I am not a politician, one of those who pretend 'to see the things they see not,' but I can see nothing in the President that the masses can catch on to or enthuse over.

"And taking the administration in its entirety after two years of public trial, judged by the light that beats upon the throne, I can only recall the criticism a celebrated English writer made about the literature of the hundred years he had been asked to give a comprehensive opinion about. He wrote: 'If I have described this period in English literature as vapid and insincere and found it productive of no great results in intellect or in morals, it is simply because there is no great underlying thought in it; but it seems to me as great only in shreds and patches, promising much, in fulfillment nothing.'

"So this Administration strikes me, though it may be because I am withdrawn from the current political thought and may judge the lines as out of joint, and may expect too much of an Administration which evidently seeks first and last to perpetuate its lease of power.

WHAT WHITMAN WRITES.

"I write little now, occasionally for the Century and recently for our mutual friend, Mr. Stoddart, at his request, a poem for Lippincott's. I am an old man now, and write only as the spirit moves me. Whittier is 84, but he writes better than he ever did. Tennyson is 81, but finds time to enjoy semi-occasionally and kindly correspondence with his old friends. One of my latest and most lasting regrets is that I never was strong enough to make a visit to Tennyson, in England, as he has often urged me to do."


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