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Anne Gilchrist to Walt Whitman, 3–6 September [1871]

Dear Friend1

At last the beloved books have reached my hand2—yet now I have them, my heart is so rent with anguish, my eyes so blinded, I cannot read in them. I try again and again but too great waves come swaying up & suffocate me. I will struggle to tell you my story. It seems to me a death struggle. When I was eighteen I met a lad of nineteen3 who loved me then, and always for the remainder of his life. After we had known each other about a year he asked me to be his wife. But I said that I liked him well as my friend but could not love him as a wife should love & felt deeply convinced I never should. He was not turned aside, but went on just the same as if that conversation had never passed. After a year he asked me again, and I, deeply moved by & grateful for his true steady love, and so sorry for him, said yes. But next day, terrified at what I had done & painfully conscious of the dreary absence from my heart of any faintest gleam of true tender wifely love, said no again. This too he bore without desisting & at the end of some months once more asked me with passionate entreaties. Then, dear friend, I prayed very earnestly, and it seemed to me that I should continue to mar & thwart his life, so was not right if he was content to accept what I could give. I knew I could lead a good and wholesome life beside him. His aims were noble, his heart a deep beautiful true Poet's heart, but he had not the Poet's great brain. His path was a very arduous one and I knew I could smooth it for him—cheer him along it. It seemed to me God's will that I should marry him. So I told him the whole truth and he said he would rather have me on those terms than not have me at all. He said to me many times, Ah, Annie, it is not you who are so loved that is rich, it is I who so love. And I knew this was true, felt as if my nature were poor & barren beside his. But it was not so, it was only slumbering—undeveloped. For, dear friend, my Soul was so passionately aspiring—it so thirsted & pined for light it had not power to reach alone & he could not help me on my way. And a woman is so made that she cannot give the tender passionate devotion of her whole nature save to the greater conquering soul stronger in its powers though not in its aspirations than her own, that can lead her forever & forever up and on. It is for her soul exactly as it is for her body. The strong divine soul of the man embracing hers with passionate love—so alone the precious germs within her soul can be quickened into life. And the time will come when men will understand that a woman's soul is as dear and needful to his & as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: nor what life meant. Never was alive before. No words but those of "new birth" can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.

The first few months of my marriage were dark & gloomy to me within, and sometimes I had misgivings whether I had judged aright, but when I knew there was a dear baby coming my heart grew lighter, and when it was born, such a superb child—all glooms & fear forever vanished. I knew it was God's seal to the marriage, and my heart was full of gratitude and joy. It was a happy and a good life we led together for ten short years, he ever tender and affectionate to me—loving his children so, working earnestly in the wholesome bracing atmosphere of poverty—for it was but just possible with the most strenuous frugality & industry to pay our way. I learned to cook & to turn my hand to all household occupations, found it bracing, healthful, cheerful. Now I think it more even now that I understand the divineness & sacredness of the Body. I think there is no more beautiful task for a woman than ministering all ways to the health & comfort & enjoyment of the dear bodies of those she loves: no material that will work sweeter & more beautifully into that making of a perfect poem of a man's life which is her true vocation.

In 1861 my children took scarlet fever badly: I thought I should have lost my dear oldest girl. Then my husband took it—and in five days it carried him from me. I think, dear friend, my sorrow was far more bitter though not so deep as that of a loving tender wife. As I stood by him in the coffin I felt such remorse I had not, could not be more tender to him—such a conviction that if I had loved him as he deserved to be loved he would not have been taken from us. To the last my soul dwelt apart & unmated & his soul dwelt apart unmated. I do not fear the look of his dear silent eyes. I do not think he would even be grieved with me now. My youngest was then a baby. I have had much sweet tranquil happiness, much strenuous work & endeavour raising my darlings.

In May 1869 came the voice over the Atlantic to me. O the voice of my Mate: it must be so—my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait—any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes—I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me "My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!" It is not happiness I plead with God for—it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing this love—it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly, as gloriously as thy own soul, strong to soar, soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me—see—"he that you love you shall not be given to in this life—he is going to set sail on the unknown sea—will you go with him—" never yet has bride sprung into her husbands arms with the joy I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.

Understand aright, dear love, the reason of my silence. I was obeying the voice of conscience. I thought I was to wait. For it is the instinct of a womans nature to wait to be sought—not to seek. And when that May & June I was longing so inexpressibly to write I resolutely restrained myself, believing if I were only patient the right opening would occur. And so it did through Rossetti. And when he, liking what I said, suggested my printing something, it met and enabled me to carry into execution what I was brooding over. For I had and still have a strong conviction that it was necessary for a woman to speak—that finally and decisively only a woman can judge a man, only a man a woman, on the subject of their relations. What is blameless, what is good in its effect on her, is good—however it may have seemed to men. She is the test. And I never for a moment feared any hard words against myself because I know these things are not judged by the intellect but by the unerring instincts of the soul. I knew any man could not but feel that it would be a happy and ennobling thing for him that his wife should think & feel as I do on that subject—knew that what had filled me with such great & beautiful thoughts towards men in that writing could not fail to give them good & happy thoughts towards women in the reading. The cause of my consenting to Rossetti's urgent wish that I should not put my name (he so kindly solicitous yet not altogether understanding me & it aright) was that I did not rightly understand how it might be with my dear Boy if it came before him.4 I thought perhaps he was not old enough to judge and understand me aright: nor young enough to let it altogether alone. But it has been very bitter & hateful to me this not standing to what I have said as it were, with my own personality, better because of my utter love and faithfulness to the cause & longing to stand openly & proudly in the ranks of its friends; & for the lower reason that my nature is proud & as defiant as thine own and immeasurably disdains any faintest appearance of being afraid of what I had done.

And, my darling, above all because I love thee so tenderly that if hateful words had been spoken against me I could have taken joy in it for thy dear sake. There never yet was the woman who loved that would not joyfully bare her breast to wrest the blows aimed at her beloved.

I know not what fiend made me write those meaningless words in my letter, "it is pleasantest to me" &c., but it was not fear or faithlessness—& it is not pleasantest but hateful to me. Now let me come to beautiful joyous things again. O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman's love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love, stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait—wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul toward my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them—easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breast for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other. "O agonistic throes," tender, passionate yearnings, pinings, triumphant joys, sweet dreams—I too know you all. But, dear love, the sinews of a womans outer heart are not twisted so strong as a mans: but the heart within is strong & great & loving. So the strain is very terrible. O heart of flesh, hold on yet a few years to the great heart within thee if it may be. But if not all is assured, all is safe.

This time last year when I seemed dying I could have no secrets between me & my dear children. I told them of my love: told them all they could rightly understand, and laid upon them my earnest injunction that as soon as my mother's life no longer held them here, they should go fearlessly to America, as I should have planted them down there—Land of Promise, my Canaan, to which my soul sings "Arise, Shine, for thy light is come & the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."

After the 29th of this month I shall be in my own home, dear friend—it is at Brookbank, Haslemere, Surrey. Haslemere is on the main line between Portsmouth & London.

Good bye, dear Walt, Anne Gilchrist

Sept. 6.

The new portrait also is a sweet joy & comfort to my longing, pining heart & eyes. How have I brooded & brooded with thankfulness on that one word in thy letter "the comfort it has been to me to get her words,"5 for always day & night these two years has hovered on my lips & in my heart the one prayer: dear God, let me comfort him! Let me comfort thee with my whole being, dear love. I feel much better & stronger now.


  • 1. This letter is the first from Anne Gilchrist to Whitman. [back]
  • 2. Walt Whitman enclosed books for Gilchrist in his July 28, 1871 letter to William Michael Rossetti. On September 3, 1871, Rossetti replied affirmatively to Gilchrist's query as to the propriety of writing directly to Walt Whitman; see The Letters of William Michael Rossetti, ed. Gohdes and Baum (Durham: Duke University Press, 1934), 80. [back]
  • 3. Alexander Gilchrist (1828–1861). [back]
  • 4. "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" appeared anonymously; Whitman wrote positively of the piece in his December 9, 1869 letter to William M. Rossetti and in his May 11, 1870 letter to William D. O'Connor. In a letter on July 19, 1869, Rossetti had urged Gilchrist to "suppress" her name; see The Letters of William Michael Rossetti, ed. Gohdes and Baum (Durham: Duke University Press, 1934), 31. [back]
  • 5. Whitman wrote these words in his December 9, 1869 letter to William M. Rossetti. [back]
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