Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: A Symposium in a Sick Room

Creator: James Matlack Scovel

Date: November 18, 1876

Publication information: Camden Daily Post 18 November 1876.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00615

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




image 1

WALT WHITMAN.

———

A Symposium in a Sick Room.


———

The Greeks ridiculed the idea of death being an evil because it was universal. There is consolation in the idea. Keen and cultured De Quincey wrote an essay on "murder is one of the fine arts."

But it would have puzzled even so great an arbitor elegantiarum in letters as De Quincey to have written anything pleasant about pleuro-pneumonia. Yet there are pleasant things about it—even though 'twixt the sharp twinges of pain one is made to feel the truth of Bailey's couplet—"All religion can inspire is—hope; and all mortality can teach is—bear."

There are pleasant things about the sick room albeit one thinks most about the chances of Tilden's being counted out, and of the prospects of leaving the ills we have and flying to those we know not of. But I repeat there are loci ameniores (better places) even ia pleuro-pneumonia, for, no sickness, no symposium! And the good women—God bless them—who were the first at the sepulchre and the last at the cross—how kind they are at the door of illness. And how gracious to the taste and smell of the man habituated to the doctor's cachet de pain—[the thin wafers hiding calomel]—is the fragrant red-rose and the tube-rose or the pure white lily. Ah! there is more religion in the women than in the stronger sex, and it is well that it is so, for a woman without religion is a flower without perfume—a rainbow without color—a flame without heat.

But I started to tell about Walt Whitman and a symposium. Walt had been to see me and left me asleep and dreaming all night after, of leaves and grass—of Tennyson—and of walking in the Garden with Imaginary Mauds. He promised me a bottle of a rare "old dominion Burgundy." I made a certified case to the doctor by way of certiorari, and got his oral opinion that I might drink some light wine once a day till the returns in South Carolina were heard by the Supreme Court!

The following card in the dear familiar hand-writing of Walt was brought to me

"DEAR S.:—It seems the bottle I left for you was broken by accident. Here is another. Don't mind the tart puckery taste. It is the taste of the grape-skin in the Virginia wine. Hope you are getting all right. Love to you and the household.

W.W."

There was good cheer in this greeting tied on a card on to the neck of the bottle by the "Good Grey Poet," but the cheer was better when Walt himself was announced. It is the personality—the personnelle, do you call it?—of the poet that is to me more attractive than his writings, and my earliest recollections of poetry, [I was 17], contain a memory of the lines about the "Wild barbaric yawp."

Walt was in one of his brightest and happiest moods, and we cussed and discussed things from honest John Dickens, the dramatist, [whose poetry about the "fly sipping treacle" is dear to Judge Horner] down to Tilden, the statesman, Bonsall, the editor, with a few eulogistic sentences about Jacques Strop and Robert Macaire! I never saw my grey haired friend in such royal spirits. Nor do I allude to the generous libation of Jake Lawrence's apple toddy, which having kept for twenty years in Lawrence's cellar, [the original apple jack I mean], Walt thought a sin that it should not begin to gladden a poet's stomach. If I was a painter I would fain paint the grim [to those who don't know him] but much-loving bard as he appeared with a short collar, open and fine beard, frosted poll, but not with age, till I could compare him only to my ideal of Achilles and Ulysses [not "our" Ulysses?] combined.

We touched our glasses—mine the generous Falernian brought by the poet himself—and his the twenty year old apple of Lawrence—to Lord Brolingbroke's toast "Here's to friendship and liberty." Walt talked of Emerson and Tennyson, and of the host of English friends whose words of praise, warm and earnest, have kindled up the great poet's American admirers, till Longfellow himself begins to appreciate the poet of American manhood, whose large utterances will live in the coming ages. Walt agreed with me in thinking "Ulysses" the greatest of Tennyson's short poems. And with his sonorous well-modulated voice the "Good Gray" repeated half of this poem from memory, describing how the wanderer returned to Penelope but weaned of home joys, called those who had stood by him and with a "frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine," opposing "free hearts and free foreheads"—called them to sail again with him "beyond the baths of all the western stars"—and when ebb came in the tide of poetry, the rippling gossip about society and manners, and about Johnson, the poet went on, and I could but think of what a crowning glory it was to a poet's life—like the life of Walt Whitman—that in an acquaintance of many years I had never heard Walt speak ill of a human being.

Noblesse oblige might be for him a fitting crest, or a better and more fitting one kind hearts are more than coronets. For we can truly say of W. W., "His wit, as lambent as bright, ne'er carried away a heart stain on its blade." The light still burned and the old dominion, redolent and fragrant of the Virginia grape, stood on the sideboard when Walt gathered his gray shawl about him. I was loth to let him go, and detained him long enough to tell him that the New York Herald said of him on the 15th instant, "that if he had devoted himself to prose, Walt Whitman would have been America's greatest historian." Walt, himself, seemed loth to go, but he said that all symposiums must end. "When the soul speaks, it speaks no longer," says Schiller, and these pleasant things which, like forgotten music, "can never be written." But who can ever tell me that there are not pleasant places in a sick-room—and even pleuro-pneumonia has its joys. But at ten the good, gray poet with a hearty "God bless you," disappeared slowly down stairs, humming a pleasant song, and at quarter past ten the mino voice on the symposium was hushed—asleep.

J. M. S.
CAMDEN, Nov. 18, 1876.

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