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Robert Pearsall Smith to Walt Whitman, 13 August 1889

 loc_jc.00207_large.jpg My dear friend:

Through one & another source we hear of you from time to time—sometimes by your postals, sometimes by the press & again through mutual friends. The latest accounts seem to be that you are better in health in which we rejoice. But both you & I have the one disease which has never in the ages been cured—old age! The Phoenix business of fable don't & won't come to us! What the beyond has or has not for us we may not know.

We have come for the summer to a wonderfully beautiful country home—perfectly ideal in its fascinations &  loc_jc.00208_large.jpgscenery. Probably one third of the country around us is in reserved public commons and woods which the mountainous country displays grandly—and all only 40 miles south of London. For near neighbors we have Tennyson,1 Tyndall2 & quite a host of lesser lights in literature science & art.

Mary3 has a cottage close at hand and her two little girls4 are the poetry of our old age. Your admirer & friend the truly noble Lady Mount Temple5 is now our guest and we have been together reading your Autumn boughs6 this evening. I greatly wish that you could be with us here to let us minister to you!


Alys7 returns to Philadelphia next month to finish her college course and she will see you soon now & tell us all about you. Logan8 is working hard in his college course of which he is making the best use. We hope for the best things for him in the future through the skilful​ use of his pen for which all this work is preparing him. He writes very bright plays for us & then acts them for us with his sisters. I have full use of my one remaining eye and am in much better health in this much criticised but really best of all known climates. loc_jc.00210_large.jpg I do not see any present prospect of our return home for at our age it is everything to us to be near our children in whom we mostly live what remains to us of life.

Goodbye dear friend—let us hear from you (here till October 1st & then to the old address of 44 Grosvenor Road Westminster London) when the spirit moves you.

Affectionately yours Robert Pearsall Smith

Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. 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]
  • 2. John Tyndall (1820–1893) was a British physicist, science teacher, public intellectual, and a pioneer mountain climber. He was an admirer of Tennyson, and the two became lifelong friends. [back]
  • 3. 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). [back]
  • 4. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940) was Mary's first daughter. Rachel ("Ray") eventually married Oliver Strachey (brother of biographer Lytton Strachey) and was a writer and women's suffrage activist who ran for a seat in the British parliament soon after women were granted the right to vote. Karin Stephen (née Catherine Elizabeth Costelloe) (1889–1953) was Mary's second daughter. She would become a British psychoanalyst and psychologist, and the wife of Adrian Stephen (psychoanalyst and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and brother of Virginia Woolf). [back]
  • 5. Lady Mount Temple was an admirer of Whitman; in 1888, she had sent him a gift. In a letter dated April 28, 1888 Hempstead & Son, a customs brokerage house in Philadelphia, notified Whitman of the imminent arrival of apparel sent to him by Lady Mount Temple (for more on this letter and on Whitman and Traubel's dealings with O.G. Hempstead & Son, see Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, May 2, 1888). Whitman described Lady Mount Temple's present as "a beautiful vest of knit stuff, wool, & silk" in his letter to Robert Pearsall Smith of May 7, 1888. [back]
  • 6. Pearsall is referring to Whitman's book November Boughs (1889). [back]
  • 7. Alys Smith (1867–1951) was Mary Costelloe's sister. She would eventually marry the philosopher Bertrand Russell. [back]
  • 8. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was an essayist and literary critic. He was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith, a minister and writer who befriended Whitman, and he was the brother of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, one of Whitman's most avid followers. For more information on Logan, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
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