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Charles J. Woodbury to Walt Whitman, 21 February 1866

Walt Whitman,

I1 want to write to you of yourself. It is better to translate you than Epictetus or Marcus Antoninus. To translate you one must be in sympathy with you. I think I am in sympathy with you. I can see that you are a limpid man, a realist, one who looks through all words and shows and bearing into the secret nature with a terrible perception. You look inward, inward at the soul of things. You are terrible for finding a way into the depths. Your poetry is of a new order. You breathe the Modernesque, nothing of the Antique in you. Something flows in your veins warmer than ice-water. Conscientious, earnest, you talk plain words, and command your publisher not to alter a line. Thus, some of your passages seem profane, sometimes blasphemous to the world—you do not hesitate to shock any weather-worn creed or belief.

Damn your critics!

Hear this what I say—

You are a greater Stoic than Xeno or Scævola or Xenophanes, greater, because nothing of impurity clings to you. You are a man whose core and whose breath is conscience, and now I say that not one of these critics (?) not one of the old giants of literature, not one of Europe's best but could come to you and say Peccavi.

I have lived twenty-one years and society has just begun with me. You I have found and with you I talk. I am in moods and anxieties, but you elevate me. And when I am above them, and in those grand still moments in which one sees infinite things, even then I find you far above, and out of your experience and helpfulness looking down at me.

How long have I been a stranger to this foreign land in which I have wandered—foreign, and yet within my own heart? For when most you talk to me of yourself, then most do you talk to me of myself. Is this not true?

Emerson told me to seek you. 'You shall find much of genius there,' said he, in his kind, quaint way; and Thoreau, you know how he speaks of you in his 'Letters.' But Emerson did not say the best thing. I find Genius here, indeed, but so I can find it in Shakespeare, and Mrs. Browning, and in the effete books.

But human heartedness, but self-giving, but brave sense, mettle, hard and heavy force, laconic energy, when books swim in loquacious impotence, how shall I seek them elsewhere? All lives beside are comparatively objectless and dull and dreary in the prospect. Amid all shame and falsehood around and in me, in you I ever find clearly acknowledged and outspoken the truth.

You are of great practical value.

You are a royal fellow.

Can I serve you?

God damn Sec'y Harlan!

One word of myself: I am twenty-one. Twenty-one looked venerable to me six years ago. And, alas, nothing looks venerable to me now. I am pressing the vintage just now for the wine of hell and stammer curses pretty well. I think there was a devil born in me. I have got the dual existence the Germans tell us about, body at night, and mind in the morning, you understand. I am in this village a thousand miles from home, trying to study and write verse. But enough of me.

I look at your picture in 'Leaves of Grass.' I fancy you are growing old and (is it but fancy) that you suffer.

Will you trust me with one line of yourself. I know you are a poet, older than I, and we are strangers. But if you could see me you would trust me, for I swear there is congruity between us.

Your earnest, unique, lyrical words—God bless you for them!

I love you.

(A friend has defended you with a pamphlet has he not. I endeavor in vain to get it. Will you not tell me where to send.)

Charles Woodbury

Walt Whitman, Vir.


  • 1. Charles Johnson Woodbury (1844–1927) was a senior at Williams College in 1865 when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the campus. Woodbury, who later worked as an editor and oil company executive, published his memories of conversations with Emerson in Talks with Emerson (New York: Baker & Taylor, 1890). Whitman objected to the book's characterization of his relationship with Emerson; see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, August 11, 1890, and Tuesday, August 12, 1890; Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999), 471. [back]
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