Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 3–4 October 1871

Date: October 3–4, 1871

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01118

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial notes: The annotation, "Splendid off hand letter from John Burroughs—?publish it," is in the hand of Walt Whitman. The annotation, "see notes May 1 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Beverley Rilett, Ashley Lawson, Kevin McMullen, John Schwaninger, Nicole Gray, Marie Ernster, Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, and Stephanie Blalock

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Tuesday Oct. 3d 1871

Dear Walt,

I am writing to you on the spur of the moment in hopes it will help bring me to my senses, for I am quite stunned at the first glance of London. I have just come from St Pauls & feel very strange. I don't know what is the matter with me but I seem in a dream. St Pauls was too much for me & my brain actually reels. I have never seen architecture before. It made me drunk I have seen a building with a living soul, I can't tell you about it now. I saw for the first time what power & imagination could be put in form & design—I felt for a moment what great genius was in this field. But I had to retreat after sitting down a half hour and trying to absorb it. I feel as if I should go no where else while in London. I must master it or it will kill me. I actually grew faint. I was not prepared for it & I though my companions the Treasury clerks would drive me mad they rushed round so, I had to leave them & sit down. Hereafter I must go alone everywhere. My brain is too sensitive. I am not strong enough to confront these things all at once. I would give anything if you was here. I see now that you belong here—these things are akin to your spirit. You would see your own in St Pauls, but it took my breath away. It was more than I could bear & I will have to gird up my loins & try it many times. Out side it has the beauty & grandure of rocks and crags and ledges. It is nature & art fused into one. Of course time has done much for it, it is so stained and weather worn. It is like a Rembrandt1 picture so strong & deep is the light & shade. It is more to see the old world than I had dreamed, much more. I thought art was of little account, but now I get a glimpse of the real article I am overwhelmed. I had designed to go on the continent, but I shall not stir out of London till I have vanquished some part of it at least. If I loose my wits here why go further? But I shall make a brave fight. I only wish I had help. These fellows are like monkeys. I have seen no one yet but shall try to find Conway2 to morrow. I write you this dear Walt to help recover my self. I know it contains nothing you might expect to hear from me in London, but I have got into Niagara without knowing it & you must bear with me. I will give facts & details next time. Go & see Ursula.3

With much love,
John Burroughs

Oct 4—I went to day to see Conway but he was not in—so I went back to St Pauls to see if I really made a fool of myself yesterday. I did not feel as before & perhaps never shall again, yet it is truly grand & there is no mistake. It is like the grandest organ music put into form

P. S. I hope you & O'Connor4 will really make an effort to come over here. You need not mention it but I know it is not settled at all who will come. This you can rely upon, but there will be no more bonds sent till in November.

The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), usually known as Rembrandt, was a Dutch visual artist. He is known primarily for his paintings and etchings. [back]

2. Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907) was an American abolitionist, minister, and frequent correspondent with Walt Whitman. Conway often acted as Whitman's agent and occasional public relations man in England. For more on Conway, see Philip W. Leon, "Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Ursula North (1836–1917) married John Burroughs in 1857 and became a friend to Walt Whitman, a frequent guest in the Burroughs household. When issues of sexual incompatibility arose in the Burroughs marriage, Whitman sided with Ursula against John's sexual "wantonness" and eventual infidelity. While John Burroughs traveled a great deal due to his job as a bank examiner, Ursula and Whitman visited frequently, with Ursula visiting the poet after his stroke in 1873. For more on Whitman's relationship with the Burroughs family, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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