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Anne Gilchrist to Walt Whitman, [27 November 1871]

Dear Friend1

Your long waited for letter brought me both joy & pain; but the pain was not of your giving. I gather from it that a long letter which I wrote you Sept. 6th2 after I had received the precious packet, a letter in which I opened all my heart to you, never reached your hands: nor yet a shorter one which, tortured by anxiety & suspense about its predecessor, I wrote Oct. 15,3 it, too, written out of such stress & intensity of painful emotion as wrenches from us inmost truth: I cannot face the thought of these words of uttermost trust & love having fallen into other hands. Can both be simply lost? Could any man suffer a base curiosity, to make him so meanly treacherously cruel? It seems to cut and then burn me.

I was not disappointed at the shortness of your letter & I do not ask nor even wish you to write save when you are inwardly impelled & desirous of doing so. I only want leave and security to write freely to you. Your book does indeed say all—book that is not a book but, for the first time, a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech. Do you know, dear Friend, what it means for a woman, what it means for me to understand these poems. It means for her whole nature to be then first kindled; quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction, that thenceforth she cannot choose but live & die striving to become worthy to share this divine mans life—to be his dear companion, closer, nearer, dearer than any man can be—for ever so. Her soul stakes all on this. It is the meaning, the fulfilment, the only perfect developement​ & consummation of her nature—of her passionate, high, immortal aspirations—her Soul to mate with his for ever & ever. O I know the terms are obdurate—I know hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet—to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years—it will be three in May since I first read the book, first knew what the word love meant. Love & Hope are so strong in me, my souls high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy in me. I know that "greatness will not ripen for me like a pear." But I could face, I could joyfully accept the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate—so that at the last you should say "this is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife—the one I so much want." Life has no other meaning for me than that—all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that—if then, dear Sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, thou takest me on board—me, daring all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close—one with thee. Ah that word enough4 was like a blow on the breast to me—breast that often & often is so full of yearning tenderness I know not how to draw my breath. The tie between us would not grow less but more beautiful, dear friend, if you knew me better: if I could stand as real & near to you as you do to me. But I cannot like you clothe my nature in divine poems & so make it visible to you. Ah foolish me! I thought you would catch a glimpse of it in those words I wrote—I thought you would say to yourself "perhaps this is the voice of my mate" & would seek me a little to make sure if it were so or not. O the sweet dreams I have fed on these three years nearly, pervading my waking moments, influencing every thought & action. I was so sure, so sure if I waited silently, patiently, you would send me some sign: so full of joyful hope I could not doubt nor fear. When I lay dying as it seemed, still full of the radiant certainty that you would seek me, would not lose [me], that we should as surely find one another there as here. And when the ebb ceased & life began to flow back into me, O never doubting but it was for you—never doubting but that the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman was to begin for us here & now. Then came the long long waiting, the hope deferred: each morning so sure the book would come & with it a word from you that should give me leave to speak: no longer to shut down in stern silence the love, the yearning, the thoughts that seemed to strain & crush my heart. I know what that means—"if thou wast not gifted to sing thou wouldst surely die." I felt as if my silence must kill me sometimes. Then when the Book came but with it no word for me alone, there was such a storm in [my] heart I could not for weeks read in it. I wrote that long letter5 out in the Autumn fields for dear life's sake. I knew I might and must speak then. Then I felt relieved, joyful, buoyant once more. Then again months of heart-wearying disappointment as I looked in vain for a letter—O the anguish at times, the scalding tears, the feeling within as if my heart were crushed & doubled up—yet always afterwards saying to myself "if this suffering is to make my love which was born & grew up & blossomed all in a moment strike deep root down in the dark & cold, penetrate with painful intensity every fibre of my being, make it a love such as he himself is capable of giving, then welcome this anguish, these bitter deferments: let its roots be watered as long as God pleases with my tears."6

Annie Gilchrist

50 Marquis Road  
 Camden Sqr. N. W.  


  • 1. Endorsed (by Bucke?): "27 Nov '71." [back]
  • 2. See Gilchrist's September 3–6, 1871 letter to Whitman for this "long letter." [back]
  • 3. The letter was dated October 23, 1871. (The Library of Congress; The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman, ed. Thomas B. Harned [New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1918], 65–66). [back]
  • 4. See the last sentence in Whitman's November 3, 1871 letter to Gilchrist, in which Whitman noted, "there surely exists between us so beautiful & delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy." [back]
  • 5. Gilchrist's September 3–6, 1871 letter to Whitman. [back]
  • 6. Because Walt Whitman did not reply immediately to this letter, Gilchrist recopied it and sent it in December. [back]
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