Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: July 6, 1841
Publication information: Long-Island Democrat 6 July 1841: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00315
Contributors to digital file: Jason Stacy, Vince Moran, Samanthe Braswell, and Kevin McMullen
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS. [No. 9]1
From the desk of a Schoolmaster
As I was taking a solitary walk the other evening, the moon and stars shining over me with a beautiful brightness, I came suddenly upon a man with whom I was bitterly at variance. The philosophic meditation which the balmy coolness and the voluptuousness of the scene had led me into, being thus broken in upon, my thoughts took a different channel. I considered within myself, how evil a thing it is to be at enmity. I thought of the surpassing folly of a man in allowing his disposition to hate, whether in a great or little degree, to be cherished in his mind.—This individual, my enemy, and I, had differed upon a matter of opinion; a sharp word had passed, and after that there was an impassable gulf between us. Miserable childishness! that man, the insect of an hour, whose life is but a passing breath, must have his mighty quarrels with his brother, and for something of a feather's value, entrench himself upon his high dignity, and meet his fancied foe with a scowl or a contemptuous lip-curl.2
He to whom many persons are hateful is a very unhappy being. It is far better to love than to hate. And even he who leans neither one side or the other, but jogs through the world with no stronger feeling for his fellows than indifference, loses all the rich bloom and flavor of life. Down in every human heart there are many sweet fountains, which require only to be touched in order to gush forth. Yet there are hundreds and thousands of men who go on from year to year with their pitiful schemes of business and profit, and wrapped up and narrowed down in those schemes, they never think of the pleasant and beautiful capacities that God has given them. Affection, that delicate but most fragrant flower of Paradise, sits folded up within them, but never blossoms there.—Love and Charity, twin angels of ineffable grace, and favorites of the great Source of Glory, lock their arms around each other, and lie themselves to slumber in those souls—slumber, but wake not. I pity such people: I pity them for that they enjoy no true pleasure; for that they are all gross, sensual, and low; for that they do so little honor to their Maker, and let such costly and glorious treasures lie undigged in the mine.
I would have men cultivate their disposition for kindness to all around. I would have them foster and cherish the faculty of love. To be sure, it may not bring in a per centage like bank stock, or corporation scrip, or bonds and mortgages, but it is very valuable, and will pay many fold. It is a faculty given to every human soul, though in most it is dormant and used not. It prompts us to be affectionate and gentle to all men. It leads us to scorn the cold and heartless limits of custom, but moves our souls to swell up with pure and glowing love for persons or for communities. It makes us disdain to be hemmed in by the formal mummeries of fashion, but at the kiss of a sister or a brother, or when our arms clasp the form of a friend, or when our lips touch the cheek of a boy or girl whom we love, it proves to us that all pleasures of dollars and cents are dross to those of loving and being beloved.3
Ere I close this paper, I will add a sentence or two, lest I be misunderstood. By 'love' as I have used the term in the preceding essay, I do not mean the sickly sentimentality which is so favorite a theme with novelists and magazine writers. What I would inculcate is that healthy, cheerful feeling of kindness and good will, an affectionate tenderness, a warm-heartedness, the germs of which are plentifully sown by God in each human breast; and which contribute to form a state of feeling very different from the puerile, moping love, painted by such trashy writers as Byron and Bulwer, and their more trashy imitators.4
1. There are two editorials labeled "No. 9" in the "Sun-Down Papers." The first appeared in the 24 November 1840 issue of the Long-Island Democrat. [back]
2. The phrase "insect of an hour" is used by Whitman on other occasions as well, such as when he uses this phrase in "Sun-Down Papers.—[No. 8] From the Desk of a Schoolmaster" published in the Long-Island Democrat on October 20, 1840. In this older editorial, Whitman used this phrase when explaining the frailty and shortness of life in one of his more pensive and spiritually deep writings. He wrote, "Kneel, then, oh! Insect of an hour, whose very formation is subject enough for an eternity of wonder—and whose fate is wrapt in the black shroud of uncertainty." In the older use of this phrase and in the use here, Whitman is referring to the insignificance and shortness of a human’s life in order to stress the importance of experiencing the awe of nature or, in this present case, the love of true friendship. This phrase was used by contemporaries of Whitman in writings about mourning and believing in the higher power of God, despite being able to understand the world around them. See William Godwin, St. Leon (London: Richard Bentley, 1835), 295; George Payne Rainsford James, The Desultory Man (Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1836), 242; Samuel Latham Mitchell, The Medical Repository Volume 6 (New York, T&J Swords, 1806), 175; "Time and Change," in The London Saturday Journal (June 4, 1841), 270. [back]
3. This phrase refers to what Whitman and others who conformed to the philosophies associated with the cult of sentimentality would consider the hypocritical consequences of fashion and proper behavior as conventionally understood. Feelings such as love and actions of kindness and generosity should, according to the sentimental Americans, come from the heart in an unaltered manner that did not restrict or conform to proper rules of etiquette or social norms. For more information on the cult of sentimentality and concerns about hypocrisy in this era see: Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1982. [back]
4. The British romantic poet Lord Byron (1788–1824) wrote about romantic love and was notorious for his love affairs and flamboyant behavior that was heightened by his aristocratic background. Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873) was an English author, playwright, and poet who was also from an aristocratic background. Whitman’s view of these poets as "trashy" indicates his disdain for romanticized notions of relationships and friendships. It is also likely that his dislike for these poets comes from his democratic and sentimental ideas about how people should express love for others as they truly experienced it rather than to mimic romantic notions of how "love" was depicted. [back]