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Anne Gilchrist to Walt Whitman, 14 July 1872


The 3d July was my rejoicing day, dearest Friend,—the day the packet from America reached me scattering for a while the clouds of pain and humiliation & filling me through & through with light & warmth: indeed I believe I am often as happy reading as you were writing your Poems. The long new one "As a Strong Bird"1 of itself answers the question hinted in your preface &  loc_cb.00112.jpg nobly fulfils​ the promise of its opening lines. We want again & again in fresh words & from the new impetus & standpoint of new days the vision that sweeps ahead, the tones that fill us with faith & joy in our present share of life & work—prophetic of the splendid issues. It does not need to be American born to believe & passionately rejoice in the belief of what is preparing in America. It is for humanity. And it  loc_cb.00113.jpg comes through England. The noblest souls the most heroic hearts of England were called to be the nucleus of the race that, (enriched with the blood & qualities of other races & planted down in the new half of the world reserved in all its fresh beauty & exhaustless riches to be the arena) is to fulfil​ justify outstrip the vision of the Poets, the quenchless aspirations of all the ardent souls that never ever struggled forward upon this earth.  loc_cb.00107.jpg For me, the most precious page in the book is that which contains the Democratic Souvenirs.2 I respond to that as one to whom it means the life of her Soul. It comforts me very much. You speak in the Preface of the imperious & resistless command from within out of which Leaves of Grass issued. This carried with it no doubt the secret of a corresponding resistless power over the reader wholly unprecedented unapproached in literature as I believe, & to be compared  loc_cb.00115.jpg only with that of Christ. I speak out of my own experience when I say that no Myth, no "miracle" embodying the notion of a direct communication between God & a human creature, goes beyond the effect soul & body, of those Poems on me: & that were I to put into oriental forms of speech what I experienced it would read like one of those old "miracles" or "myths. Thus of many things that used to appear to me incomprehensible lies, I now  loc_cb.00116.jpg perceive the germ of truth & understand that what was called the supernatural was merely an inadequate & too timid way of conceiving the natural.—Had I died the following year, it would have been the simple truth to say I died of joy. The doctor called it nervous exhaustion falling with tremendous violence on the heart which "seemed to have been strained": & was much puzzled how that could have come to pass. I left him in his puzzle, but it was none to me—How could such  loc_cb.00117.jpg a dazzling radiance of light flooding the soul, suddenly kindling it to such an intense life, but put a tremendous strain on the vital organs? how could the muscles of the heart suddenly grow adequate to such new work—O the passionate tender gratitude that flooded my breast, the yearning that seemed to strain the heart beyond endurance that I might repay with all my life & soul & body This debt—that I might give joy to him who filled me with such joy, that I might make his outward life sweeter & more beautiful  loc_cb.00114.jpg who made my inner life so divinely sweet & beautiful. But, dear Friend, I have learnt to see that this is not to be so, now: that for me too love & death are folded inseparably together: Death that will renew my youth.

I have had the paper from Burlington3—with the details a woman likes so to have. I wish I had known for certain whether you went on to Boston & were enjoying the music there. My youngest boy4 has gone to spend his holiday with his brother5 in South Wales & he writes me such good news of Per. that he is "looking as brown as a nut &  loc_cb.00108.jpg very jolly" & his home in a "clean airy old farm house half way up a mountain in the midst of wild rough grand scenery, & the sea in sight near enough to hear the sound of it about as loud as the rustling of "leaves"—so the boys will have a good time together, and the girls6 are going with me for the holiday to their grandmother at Colne. W. Rossetti7 does not take his till October this year. I suppose it will be long & long before this letter reaches  loc_cb.00109.jpg you as you will be gone to California—may it be a time full of enjoyment—full to the Brim.

Good-bye dearest Friend Anne Gilchrist.

What a noble achievement is Mr. Stanley's:8 it fills me with pleasure that Americans should thus have been the rescuer of our large hearted heroic traveller. We have just got his letters with account of the five races in Central Africa copied from N. Y. Herald, July9 29.

Anne Burrows Gilchrist (1828–1885) was the author of one of the first significant pieces of criticism on Leaves of Grass, titled "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman (From Late Letters by an English Lady to W. M. Rossetti)," The Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–59. Gilchrist's long correspondence with Whitman indicates that she had fallen in love with the poet after reading his work; when the pair met in 1876 when she moved to Philadelphia, Whitman never fully returned her affection, although their friendship deepened after that meeting. For more information on their relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free" (later "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood") was recited at the Dartmouth commencement on June 26, 1872. Evidently a student organization hoped to annoy the faculty by inviting Walt Whitman to Dartmouth, a seat of New England sobriety and conservatism; see Bliss Perry, Walt Whitman (1906), 203–205. A dispatch to the New York Times on June 29, 1872, reported that Walt Whitman "was cordially met by the venerable gentlemen sitting upon the platform. He then took his position at the desk and read, with clearness of enunciation, his poem, written for the occasion, 'As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free.' As Mr. Whitman himself said to the writer, 'There is no one expression that could stand as the subject of the poem.'" For another first-hand report of this recitation, see Perry, Walt Whitman, 203–205. "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free" was later printed as a pamphlet in 1872. [back]
  • 2. "Democratic Souvenirs" (later "My Legacy") was included in Whitman's "Songs of Parting," which contained a cluster of poems that appeared first in the 1871–1872 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 3. Hannah Heyde (1823–1908), Walt Whitman's youngest sister, resided in Burlington, Vermont, with husband Charles L. Heyde (1822–1890), a landscape painter. For more information about Hannah, see Paula K. Garrett, "Whitman (Heyde), Hannah Louisa (d. 1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on Charles Heyde, see Stevem Schroeder, "Heyde, Charles Louis (1822–1892)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. Percy Carlyle Gilchrist (1851–1935) was a British chemist and metallurgist, and the son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. Along with his cousin, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, he developed the Thomas-Gilchrist process of producing steel from phosphoric pig iron during the late 1870s. See Marion Walker Alcaro, Walt Whitman's Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1991), 252n28. [back]
  • 6. Anne Gilchrist's daughters were Beatrice (1854–1881) and Grace (1859–1947). [back]
  • 7. William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Walt Whitman's work. In 1868 Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Rossetti would remain one of Whitman's staunchest supporters for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in major subscribers to the 1876 Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 8. Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) was a Welsh explorer best known for his travels through Africa, including a rescue mission he led to find missing Scottish explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873). The New York Herald reported on July 2, 1872, that Livingstone—almost certainly Gilchrist's "large-hearted heroic traveller"—was discovered near Lake Tanganyika on November 10, 1871; the Herald's account was one of many that printed Stanley's greeting (possibly apocryphal) to the missing explorer: "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" [back]
  • 9. Gilchrist likely intends "June" rather than "July," as this letter is dated July 14 and therefore makes impossible a copy of an article dated July 29. However, Stanley did not depart for Africa in search of Livingstone until March of 1871, making it possible that the article in question was published in July 1871. [back]
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