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Title: The Tomb-Blossoms

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]

Date: January 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00321

Source: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 10 (January 1842): 62–68. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society.

Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Kirsten Clawson




THE TOMB-BLOSSOMS.1

BY WALTER WHITMAN.

A PLEASANT, fair-sized country village,—a village embosomed in trees, with old churches, one tavern, kept by a respectable widow, long, single-storied farm-houses, their roofs mossy, and their chimneys smoke black,—a village with much grass, and shrubbery, and no mortar, nor bricks, nor pavements, nor gas—no newness: that is the place for him who wishes life in its flavor and its bloom.2 Until of late, my residence has been in such a place.

Man of cities! what is there in all your boasted pleasure—your fashions, parties, balls, and theatres, compared to the simplest of the delights we country folk enjoy? Our pure air, making the blood swell and leap with buoyant health; our labor and our exercise; our freedom from the sickly vices that taint the town; our not being racked with notes due, or the fluctuations of prices, or the breaking of banks; our manners of sociality, expanding the heart, and reacting with a wholesome effect upon the body;—can anything which citizens possess balance these?



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One Saturday, after paying a few days visit at New York, I returned to my quarters in the country inn. The day was hot, and my journey a disagreeable one. I had been forced to stir myself beyond comfort, and despatch my affairs quickly, for fear of being left by the cars. As it was, I arrived panting and covered with sweat, just as they were about to start. Then for many miles I had to bear the annoyance of the steam-engine smoke; and it seemed to me that the vehicles kept swaying to and fro on the track, with a more than usual motion, on purpose to distress my jaded limbs.3 Out of humor with myself and everything around me, when I came to my travel's end, I refused to partake of the comfortable supper which my landlady had prepared for me; and rejoining to the good woman's look of wonder at such an unwonted event, and her kind inquiries about my health, with a sullen silence, I took my lamp, and went my way to my room. Tired and head-throbbing, in less than half a score of minutes after I threw myself on my bed, I was steeped in the soundest slumber.

When I awoke, every vein and nerve felt fresh and free. Soreness and irritation had been swept away, as it were, with the curtains of the night; and the accustomed tone had returned again. I arose and threw open my window. Delicious! It was a calm, bright Sabbath morning in May. The dew-drops glittered on the grass; the fragrance of the apple-blossoms which covered the trees floated up to me; and the notes of a hundred birds discoursed music to my ear. By the rays just shooting up in the eastern verge, I knew that the sun would be risen in a moment. I hastily dressed myself, performed my ablutions, and sallied forth to take a morning walk.4

Sweet, yet sleepy scene! No one seemed stirring. The placid influence of the day was even now spread around, quieting everything, and hallowing everything. I sauntered slowly onward, with my hands folded behind me. I passed round the edge of a hill, on the rising elevation and top of which was the burial-ground. On my left, through an opening in the trees, I could see at some distance the ripples of our beautiful bay; on my right, was the large and ancient field for the dead. I stopped and leaned my back against the fence, with my face turned toward the white marble stones a few rods before me. All I saw was far from new to me; and yet I pondered upon it. The entrance to that place of tombs was a kind of arch—a rough-hewn but no doubt hardy piece of architecture, that had stood winter and summer over the gate there, for many, many years. O, fearful arch! if there were for thee a voice to utter what has passed beneath and near thee; if the secrets of the earthy dwelling that to thee

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are known could be by thee disclosed—whose ear might listen to the appalling story and its possessor not go mad with terror?

Thus thought I; and strangely enough, such imagining marred not in the least the sunny brightness which spread alike over my mind and over the landscape. Involuntarily as I mused, my look was cast to the top of the hill. I saw a figure moving. Could some one beside myself be out so early, and among the tombs?—What creature odd enough in fancy to find pleasure there, and at such a time? Continuing my gaze, I saw that the figure was a woman. She seemed to move with a slow and a feeble step, passing and repassing constantly between two and the same graves, which were within half a rod of each other.5 She would bend down and appear to busy herself a few moments with the one; then she would rise, and go to the second, and bend there, and employ herself as at the first. Then to the former one, and then to the second again. Occasionally the figure would pause a moment, and stand back a little, and look steadfastly down upon the graves, as if to see whether her work were done well. Thrice I saw her walk with a tottering gait, and stand midway between the two, and look alternately at each. Then she would go to one and arrange something, and come back to the midway place, and gaze first on the right and then on the left, as before. The figure evidently had some trouble in suiting things to her mind. Where I stood, I could hear no noise of her footfalls; nor could I see accurately enough to tell what she was doing. Had a superstitious man beheld the spectacle, he would possibly have thought that some spirit of the dead, allowed the night before to burst its cerements, and wander forth in the darkness, had been belated in returning, and was now perplexed to find its coffin-house again.

Curious to know what was the woman's employment, I undid the simple fastenings of the gate, and walked over the rank wet grass toward her. As I came near, I recognised her for an old, a very old inmate of the poor-house, named Delaree. Stopping a moment, while I was yet several yards from her, and before she saw me, I tried to call to recollection certain particulars of her history which I had heard a great while past. She was a native of one of the West India islands, and, before I who gazed at her was born, had with her husband come hither to settle and gain a livelihood. They were poor; most miserably poor. Country people, I have noticed, seldom like foreigners. So this man and his wife, in all probability, met much to discourage them. They kept up their spirits, however, until at last their fortunes became desperate. Famine and want laid iron fingers upon them. They had no acquaintance; and to beg they were ashamed. Both

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were taken ill; then the charity that had been so slack came to their destitute abode, but came too late. Delaree died, the victim of poverty. The woman recovered, after a while; but for many months was quite an invalid, and was sent to the alms-house, where she had ever since remained.6

This was the story of the aged creature before me; aged with the weight of seventy winters. I walked up to her. By her feet stood a large rude basket, in which I beheld leaves and buds. The two graves which I had seen her passing between so often were covered with flowers—the earliest but sweetest flowers of the season. They were fresh, and wet, and very fragrant—those delicate soul-offerings. And this, then, was her employment. Strange!7 Flowers, frail and passing, grasped by the hand of age, and scattered upon a tomb! White hairs, and pale blossoms, and stone tablets of Death!

"Good morning, mistress," said I, quietly.

The withered female turned her eyes to mine, and acknowledged my greeting in the same spirit wherewith it was given.

"May I ask whose graves they are that you remember so kindly?"

She looked up again; probably catching, from my manner, that I spoke in no spirit of rude inquisitiveness; and answered,

"My husband's."

A manifestation of a fanciful taste, thought I, this tomb-ornamenting, which she probably brought with her from abroad. Of course, but one of the graves could be her husband's; and one, likely, was that of a child, who had died and been laid away by its father.

"Whose else?" I asked.

"My husband's," replied the aged widow.

Poor creature! her faculties were becoming dim. No doubt her sorrows and her length of life had worn both mind and body nearly to the parting.

"Yes, I know," continued I, mildly; "but there are two graves. One is your husband's, and the other is——"

I paused for her to fill the blank.

She looked at me for a minute, as if in wonder at my perverseness; and then answered as before,

"My husband's. None but my Gilbert's."

"And is Gilbert buried in both?" said I.

She appeared as if going to answer, but stopped again, and did not. Though my curiosity was now somewhat excited, I forebore to question her further, feeling that it might be to her a painful subject. I was wrong, however. She had been rather

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agitated at my intrusion, and her powers flickered for a moment. They were soon steady again; and, perhaps gratified with my interest in her affairs, she gave me in a few brief sentences the solution of the mystery. When her husband's death occurred, she was herself confined to a sick bed, which she did not leave for a long while after he was buried. Still longer days passed before she had permission, or even strength, to go into the open air. When she did, her first efforts were essayed to reach Gilbert's grave. What a pang sunk to her heart when she found it could not be pointed out to her! With the careless indifference which is shown to the corpses of outcasts, poor Delaree had been thrown into a hastily dug hole, without any one noting it, or remembering which it was. Subsequently, several other paupers were buried in the same spot; and the sexton could only show two graves to the disconsolate woman, and tell her that her husband's was positively one of the twain.8 During the latter stages of her recovery, she had looked forward to the consolation of coming to his tomb as to a shrine, and wiping her tears there; and it was bitter that such could not be. The miserable widow even attempted to obtain the consent of the proper functionaries that the graves might be opened, and her anxieties put at rest! When told that this could not be done, she determined in her soul that at least the remnant of her hopes and intentions should not be given up. Every Sunday morning, in the mild seasons, she went forth early, and gathered fresh flowers, and dressed both the graves. So she knew that the right one was cared for, even if another shared that care. And lest she should possibly bestow the most of this testimony of love on him whom she knew not, but whose spirit might be looking down invisible in the air, and smiling upon her, she was ever careful to have each tomb adorned in an exactly similar manner. In a strange land, and among a strange race, she said, it was like communion with her own people to visit that burial-mound.

"If I could only know which to bend over when my heart feels heavy," thus finished the sorrowing being as she rose to depart, "then it would be a happiness. But perhaps I am blind to my dearest mercies. God in his great wisdom may have sent that I should not know which grave was his, lest grief over it should become too common a luxury for me, and melt me away."

I offered to accompany her, and support her feeble steps; but she preferred that it should not be so. With languid feet she moved on. I watched her pass through the gate and under the arch; I saw her turn, and in a little while she was hidden from my view. Then I carefully parted the flowers upon one of the

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graves, and sat down there, and leaned my face in my open hands and thought.

What a wondrous thing is woman's love!9 Oh Thou whose most mighty attribute is the Incarnation of Love, I bless Thee that Thou didst make this fair disposition in the human heart, and didst root it there so deeply that it is stronger than all else, and can never be torn out! Here is this aged wayfarer, a woman of trials and griefs, decrepit, sore, and steeped in poverty; the most forlorn of her kind; and yet, through all the storm of misfortune, and the dark cloud of years settling upon her, the Memory of her Love hovers like a beautiful spirit amid the gloom; and never deserts her, but abides with her while life abides. Yes; this creature loved: this wrinkled, skinny, gray-haired crone had her heart to swell with passion, and her pulses to throb, and her eyes to sparkle. Now, nothing remains but a Lovely Remembrance, coming as of old, and stepping in its accustomed path, not to perform its former object, or former duty—but from long habit. Nothing but that!—Ah! is not that a great deal?

And the buried man—he was happy to have passed away as he did. The woman—she was the one to be pitied. Without doubt she wished many times that she were laid beside him. And not only she, thought I, as I cast my eyes on the solemn memorials around me; but at the same time there were thousands else on earth, who panted for the Long Repose, as a tired child for the night. The grave—the grave—what foolish man calls it a dreadful place? It is a kind friend, whose arms shall compass us round about, and while we lay our heads upon his bosom, no care, temptation, nor corroding passion shall have power to disturb us. Then the weary spirit shall no more be weary; the aching head and aching heart will be strangers to pain; and the soul that has fretted and sorrowed away its little life on earth will sorrow not any more. When the mind has been roaming abroad in the crowd, and returns sick and tired of hollow hearts, and of human deceit—let us think of the grave and of death, and they will seem like soft and pleasant music. Such thoughts then soothe and calm our pulses; they open a peaceful prospect before us. I do not dread the grave. There is many a time when I could lay down, and pass my immortal part through the valley of the shadow, as composedly as I quaff water after a tiresome walk.10 For what is there of terror in taking our rest? What is there here below to draw us with such fondness? Life is the running of a race—a most weary race, sometimes. Shall we fear the goal, merely because it is shrouded in a cloud?



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I rose, and carefully replaced the parted flowers, and bent my steps homeward.

If there be any sufficiently interested in the fate of the aged woman, that they wish to know further about her, for those I will add, that ere long her affection was transferred to a Region where it might receive the reward of its constancy and purity. Her last desire—and it was complied with—was that she should be placed midway between the two graves.

———


Notes:

1. This tale is the fourth of nine short stories by Whitman that were published for the first time in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. "The Tomb-Blossoms" was later reprinted as "The Tomb Blossoms" (without the hyphen) in James J. Brenton, ed., Voices from the Press: A Collection of Sketches, Essays, and Poems by Practical Printers (New York: Charles B. Norton, 1850), 27–33. For a complete list of revisions to the original language likely made or authorized by Whitman for publication in this volume, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 88–94. For the publication history of the story, see "About 'The Tomb-Blossoms.'" [back]

2. A tavern is a place of business where customers can purchase alcoholic beverages, as well as food. It was sometimes possible for travelers to obtain lodging at such establishments, as is the case in this story. Taverns, barrooms, and similar drinking establishments feature more prominently in Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times and in his other short stories, including "The Child's Champion," "The Reformed," "The Madman," "Dumb Kate," and "The Love of the Four Students." [back]

3. In Voices from the Press, the passage beginning with "I had been forced to stir myself beyond comfort" and ending with the narrator's description of the "distress" on his "jaded limbs" has been removed. [back]

4. The passages here—beginning with Whitman's description of the fragrance of the apple-blossoms and ending with his personification of the arch with a human voice—are strikingly similar to passages from an article entitled "Horrible Adventure with a Boa Constrictor," which was published in The London Journal on March 15, 1845. It is possible that the later story borrowed from Whitman's "The Tomb-Blossoms," but it seems more likely that the two works are drawn from an earlier source text. See An Officer in the East India Service, "Horrible Adventure with a Boa Constrictor," The London Journal, March 15, 1845, 55–56. [back]

5. In Voices from the Press, this sentence begins a new paragraph. [back]

6. An alms-house is a building or house to accommodate the poor. [back]

7. This exclamation has been cut from Voices from the Press. [back]

8. A pauper is a person who lacks property and income, and a sexton is the officer responsible for digging graves and maintaining burial grounds. [back]

9. The phrase "woman's love" has been replaced with "human love" in Voices from the Press. [back]

10. The two preceding sentences have been combined in Voices from the Press to read as follows: "There have of late frequently come to me times when I do not dread the grave—when I could lie down, and pass my immortal part through the valley and shadow, as composedly as I quaff water after a tiresome walk." [back]


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