Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Mary Whitall Smith to Walt Whitman, 25 July 1885

Date: July 25, 1885

Whitman Archive ID: bos.00019

Source: The Alice and Rollo G. Silver Collection in the Special Collections at Boston University. The transcription presented here is derived from Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896), 234–236. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray

July 25, 1885.

Dear Mr. Whitman:

Before any more days pass I must write and tell thee of our visit to Tennyson,1 which took place day before yesterday.

We sent him thy letter from Lord Mount Temple's, where we were staying. His son Hallam wrote to us from the Isle of Wight, asking us to come Wednesday morning. So, Wednesday, about half past eleven, papa and Alys and I alighted at his front door, where a huge, curly dog overwhelmed us with caresses. Tennyson was not in, but Lady Tennyson2 received us and talked with us until he came. We were walking in the old-fashioned flower garden when we met him, and almost the first thing he said was a "deep remark." He said that he was walking out one evening looking at the stars, so absorbed that he fell into a puddle; but he noticed afterward that the star was in the puddle also! Thereupon we all tried to think of something witty in reply. Something about poet's feet tangled among stars would have been appropriate, but as none of us thought of that reply till afterward, we had to let the opportunity slip. We walked with him and with his son all about the garden for about an hour. He showed us a tree planted by Gambetta,3 and talked to me about Turgeineff,4 and asked all about thee.

As we were going away, he told me to give thee his love. His home is a large, rambling, old-fashioned house full of interesting pictures and engravings. It has a look of being lived in, and all the arrangements were "casual," as English people say. Hats and walking-sticks were lying about in chairs and dogs raced in and out at their pleasure.

Tennyson's "den" is up at the top of a narrow, winding stair—a large, sunny room, lined with books and having a lovely view of Freshwater Bay, framed in the dark green branches of the cedars of Lebanon. They insisted upon our staying to lunch, but made us promise not to put anything in any newspaper about it.

Tennyson seems to have a horror of notoriety, and he told us a great many stories of the annoyances to which he had been subjected from curious, inquisitive, and gossiping visitors.

The chief impression that his conversation made upon me was of a keen and eager mind (he has a wonderful memory for facts) and a keen sense of humor. He tells a funny story as well as anyone I ever heard. We came away soon after lunch, having had a most interesting visit, for which we all felt very grateful to thee..., Alys5 looks forward to going to see thee when she comes home in September, and to showing thee the photograph of himself which Tennyson gave her, with his autograph beneath.

With much love, I am, thy friend,
Mary Whitall Smith

Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Whitman wrote to Tennyson in 1871 or late 1870, probably shortly after the visit of Cyril Flower in December, 1870, but the letter is not extant (see Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man [New York: F. P. Harper, 1896], 223). Tennyson's first letter to Whitman is dated July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

2. Emily Sarah Tennyson (1813–1896) was born Emily Sarah Sellwood and had married Alfred Lord Tennyson on June 13, 1850. [back]

3. Léon Gambetta (1838–1882) was a prominent republican and political leader from France. [back]

4. Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818–1883) was a Russian playwright and novelist. He is regarded as one of the leading figures in Russian Realism. [back]

5. Alys Smith (1867–1951) was a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith and the sister of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She eventually married the philosopher Bertrand Russell. [back]


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