Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: February 29, 1840
Publication information: The Hempstead Inquirer 29 February 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00302
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Gertrude Elisberg Moreno, and Kevin McMullen
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 1]
FROM THE DESK OF A SCHOOLMASTER.
I was thinking, the other night, as I sat in mine elbow chair, of the manner in which the past few years of my life had been passed. Sedate minds, it appears to me, take a peculiar pleasure in thus casting a backward glance, and losing themselves among the mazes of old scenes and times. For there is something very delightful in using the beautiful power of memory; and accordingly it has long passed into an axiom, that the old know few occupations of the minds more agreeable than retrospection.
While I was thus engaged in my reveries, the objects present seemed to dissolve and fade away.—Yielding to the gentle influence, I felt myself carried along as it were, like some expert swimmer, who has tired himself, and to rest his limbs, allows them to float drowsily and unresistingly on the bosom of the sunny river. Real things lost their reality.—A dusky mist spread itself before my eyes.—The Spirit of Ideals came and threw his fantastic spells over me; while Recollection advanced with a slow and ghost-like step, and twined her subtle threads around my heart. I wandered far, far away from my then and there existence.—–Quickly and heavily, like waves on the shore, the years seemed to roll back: they gave to my sight scenes long since past, and faces that may never more greet my view.—Forms that the coffin shrouds in its white linings; voices that once sounded joyous and light, but which will never again vibrate the air; eyes that laughed and sparkled, and hands that knew full well the grasp of friendship, appeared to my sense. Like a long forgotten dream, a day of childhood was distinct to me.—I saw every particular tree, and hill, and field, my old haunts. Then leaping off again, remembrance carried me a few years farther on the path; and I was surrounded with the intimates of more advanced youth—young companions to whom I long since gave 'good bye.' It is strange how a train of thought will carry a person onward from period to period, and from object to object, until at last the subject of his cogitations bears no affinity to what he first started from. These mental excursions resemble a bold mountaineer, who, in ascending a cliff, springs from rock to rock, and ultimately arrives at the summit, although when he gets there and looks back, it seems impossible that he could have found a path thither.—And I have sometimes amused myself with tracing the chain retrospectively, and examining each idea, as to the one before it, which it took its rise from: so I have gone on backwards to the originator of them all. What a wondrous quality is that of thought in the human mind!—It darts like lightning; and its erratic sweep takes a wider scope than the winds!
As the reveries I have been describing passed off; and as I realized the actual life around me, a saddening influence fell upon my soul. I considered with pain that the golden hours of youth were swiftly gliding; and that my cherished hopes of pleasure had never yet been attained. And shall it, said I to myself, ever continue to be thus?—Shall I become old without tasting the sweet draught of which the young may partake?—Silently and surely are the months stealing along.—A few more revolutions of old earth will find me treading the paths of advanced manhood.—This is what I dread: for I have not enjoyed my young time. I have been cheated of the bloom and nectar of life.—Lonesome and unthought of as I am, I have no one to care for, or to care for me.
In short, my dear reader, I began to feel a regular and most sentimental fit of the hyp.1—I saw that Low Spirits, a detestable personage who very seldom invades the privacy of my domicilium, was endeavoring to scrape acquaintance with me.—I determined not to admit his familiarities; and cast my thoughts about me for a weapon to repel the attack. All at once, it struck me that it Sunday evening, the time which has immemorially been held sacred to visits from forlorn bachelors to expecting damsels.—No sooner had this idea popped into my brain, than it was followed by another—that in our neighborhood lived pretty little Kitty Denton.—I seized my hat, and sallied forth to—to—to look at the weather. When I returned somewhat past the witching hour of night, I was altogether rid of my melancholly.
1. "The Hyp" (or "Hypp") is an abbreviation of Hypochondriasis, which as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century was a term for a wide range of conditions associated with depression and melancholia. It was believed to be caused by "an obstruction of the spleen by thickened and distempered blood." Although by the mid-nineteenth century the meaning of the term Hypochondriasis had evolved into its present-day definition of "abnormal health anxiety," Whitman is here clearly referencing the earlier use of the word, describing his melancholic mood (John Hill, Hypochondriasis: A Practical Treatise [London: St. James's, 1776], p. 2). For a history of Hypochondriasis and other related conditions, see Clark Lawlor, From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 3. [back]