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Walt Whitman to Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, 14 September 1887

 loc.01365.003_large.jpg Dear friend

I am pretty fair in health &c of late & now—pleasant weather here for several weeks—rainy of late—Y'r nice letter from Switzerland came yesterday—one from your father also just rec'd, enclosing the J A Symonds'2 note in answer to Swinburne's3 article—(the article was not worth answering at all—I have not given it a thought)—

Dr Bucke4 has been here for five or six days—leaves to-night—he is well—hearty as ever & much the same—he has (in London Canada) one of the plaster heads5, & is quite enthusiastic ab't it—I suppose the one I sent to y'r father has been rec'd before this—I think it had better be donated to the Kensington Museum, if they will accept it & give it a fair place—Morse6 is still here (in Phila)—is at work on his statuette of President Cleveland—H Gilchrist7 is here—he is at this moment giving some final touches on his oil painting of me—I like it—Some think it too tame—you will doubtless see it, as G. leaves here (NY) on the 21st on the Germania—

Phila is all agog now & for three days to come with the centennial of the Constitution (the idea is good, perhaps sublime, but the carrying out of it more or less tawdry & vulgar)—I am sitting here in the great chair, down stairs—window open—big bunches of flowers on the sill—every thing all right—had toast & a great mug of Whitman's chocolate & hot milk (excellent) for my breakfast—Love to Alys8, to the baby,9 & to all—

Walt Whitman  loc.01365.004_large.jpg Sept. 14, 1887  loc.01365.001_large.jpg  loc.01365.002_large.jpg

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. This letter is addressed: Mrs. Mary Whitall Costelloe | 40 Grosvenor Road | the Embankment | London s w | England. This postal card is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Sep 14 | 1:30 PM | 87. The envelope contains print text in the lower left-hand corner of Walt Whitman's address: Walt Whitman, | Camden, | New Jersey, | U.S. America. [back]
  • 2. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. The British poet, critic, playwright, and novelist Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was one of Whitman's earliest English admirers. At the conclusion of William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), Swinburne pointed out similarities between Whitman and Blake, and praised "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which he termed "the most sweet and sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world" (300–303). His famous lyric "To Walt Whitman in America" is included in Songs before Sunrise (1871). For the story of Swinburne's veneration of Whitman and his later recantation, see two essays by Terry L. Meyers, "Swinburne and Whitman: Further Evidence," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14 (Summer 1996), 1–11 and "A Note on Swinburne and Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 21 (Summer 2003), 38–39. [back]
  • 4. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Whitman is referring to one of the busts of him made by sculptor Sidney H. Morse. See Whitman's letter to Robert Pearsall Smith of September 12, [1887] [back]
  • 6. Sidney H. Morse (1832–1903) was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an earlier bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 105–109. [back]
  • 7. 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]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940), known as Ray Strachey, was the first daughter of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She would later become a feminist writer and politician. [back]
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