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John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 31 December 1885

 loc.01153.003_large.jpg Dear Walt:

A happy New Year to you, & many returns of the same. I was right glad to get your letter & to know your eyes were so much better. I feel certain that if you eat little or no meat you will be greatly the gainer. It will not do to take in sail in ones activities &c, unless he takes in sail in his food also.

We are all pretty well here  loc.01153.004_large.jpg this winter so far. I have just sent off the copy for my new vol​ : think I shall stick to "Signs & Seasons" for the title, as this covers all the articles.2 Kennedy3 sent me his essay on the Poet as Craftsman.4 I liked it pretty well: what he has to say about you is excellent. He wanted my opinion about the argument of the essay, so I told him that I never felt like quarreling with a real poet about his form: let him take the form he can use best; any form is good if it holds good poetry  loc.01153.005_large.jpg & any form is bad that holds bad poetry. I would not have Tennyson,5 or Longfellow6 or Burns7 use other forms than they do. If a man excells in prose he is pretty sure to use prose. Coleridge8 is greater in prose than in poetry. Poe is greater in poetry than in prose. Carlyle9 tried the poetic form & gave it up.

I hope you will keep well & that I will see you again before long. How much I wish you were here to eat a New Years dinner  loc.01153.006_large.jpg with us. I wrote to Herbert Gilchrist the other day.10 These must be dark days for he & Grace.11 To me a black shadow seems to have settled on all England since I read of the death of Mrs Gilchrist.12 I wish you would send me by mail or by Express those books of Emerson,13 the essays & the miscellanies. I want to use them. I am going to re-read Emerson, & see how he strikes me now.

With much love John Burroughs  loc.01153.001_large.jpg see notes Aug 3 1888  loc.01153.002_large.jpg

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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden. | N.J. It is postmarked: WEST PARK, | DEC | 31 | 1885 | N.Y.; NEW YORK | JAN 1 | 1 30 PM | 86 | TRANSIT; CAMDEN, N.J. | JAN | 2 | 7 AM | 1886 | REC'D. [back]
  • 2. In his letter of December 21, 1885, Whitman seemed to favor "Spring Relish," which turned into the title for Burroughs's book when it appeared in 1886. [back]
  • 3. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Kennedy had been writing a defense of Whitman and sent a manuscript of the essay to Whitman on January 16, 1885. Growing impatient, he reminded the poet to answer his letter on March 12. Over two months later, on May 24, Whitman responded, finding the manuscript "all right" as well as "lofty, subtle & true" but suggesting Kennedy add "a criticism on Tennyson and Walt Whitman (or if you prefer on Victor Hugo, T and WW)." [back]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was both a highly popular and highly respected American poet. His The Song of Hiawatha, published the same year as Leaves of Grass, enjoyed sales never reached by Whitman's poetry. When Whitman met Longfellow in June 1876, he was unimpressed: "His manners were stately, conventional—all right but all careful . . . he did not branch out or attract" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, May 10, 1888, 130). [back]
  • 7. Robert Burns (1759–1796) was a Scottish poet and pioneer of the Romantic movement in Great Britain. [back]
  • 8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was an English poet and literary critic considered one of the founding figures of British Romanticism. [back]
  • 9. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish writer who wrote frequently on the conflict between scientific changes and the traditional social (often religious) order. For Whitman's writings on Carlyle, see "Death of Thomas Carlyle" and "Carlyle from American Points of View" in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 168–170 and 170–178. [back]
  • 10. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 11. Grace Gilchrist Frend (1859–1947) was one of Anne Gilchrist's four children and Herbert's sister. She became a contralto. She was the author of "Walt Whitman as I Remember Him" (Bookman 72 [July 1927], 203–205). [back]
  • 12. Anne Gilchrist died on November 29, 1885. See Herbert's letter to Whitman of December 2, 1885. Anne Gilchrist's last letter to the poet was sent on July 20. [back]
  • 13. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. Having read Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote a letter to Whitman, famously pronouncing him to be "at the beginning of a great career." In his response, Whitman eagerly addressed the Concord philosopher as "Master." Whitman published both Emerson's letter and his response in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
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