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Robert Pearsall Smith to Walt Whitman, 13 October 1889

 loc_jc.00213_large.jpg My dear friend

Thank you—thank you! for several kind remembrences of you in periodicals and for your letter & postal,2 all of which bridge over the great separating waters of the Atlantic. Our Alys3 will have before this seen you, I trust, and given us a picture of how you fare in these days. Having got through the murderous heats of the Camden summer, I greatly  loc_jc.00214_large.jpg hope that you will have a cheerful winter. I would that I could look in on you now & then in your wilderness of books & papers! With much to bring pleasure to you from far & near—the hearty tribute of reverence and affection from those whose lives you have helped to illuminate & cheer, yet I know that there must be mixed with it physical & mental heart sinkings when the unsolved, unsolveable problems of sin, pain, sorrow & the unrevealed future  loc_jc.00215_large.jpg must press upon spirits more or less controlled by physical depression. As Keeble​ tells us—"the nearest heart & next our own, knows not one half the reasons why we smile or sigh"—and down in the depths of unrevealable consciousness, the problems are fought out—alas! with what small results of certitude. Not a few of us have met great audiences with bold words while the depths of purgatory were being stirred up within us!


Well, dear Comrade, we are helpless—we must go on with the deepest problems unsolved, & face pain, grief, loneliness, death bravely as we can. From the condition of my heart death is a daily probability to my conciousness​ & I face all my responsibilities in the sense that it may be for me the last time. And yet I find that I can do it cheerfully & can plan & work as though I had a century before me.

You have many, many friends among the young & earnest in whose unsoiled vigorous natures your bracing, tonic words loc_jc.00217_large.jpg find a quick lively response.

In our country home at Haslemere—close, by the way, to Tennysons5 home—are many highly cultivated people who love you. Alys will tell you how like paradise our home there is—and how often we have wished that we might have you there to drive around the beautiful hills, two thirds in woods & undergrowth for miles. I had hoped to guide you across the ocean, but I fear that we may not now hope for that.


Logan6 is bravely & industriously doing his work at Oxford. He shows clear signs of talent but is not in haste to use his pen for the public. Alys has the courage to go alone across the sea to finish her college course & get B. A. added to her name. Mary7 is under a nervous break-down—not suffering much but compelled to great quiet. Her two years old "Ray"8 is all sunshine to us. Her husband9 is pushed forward on the top wave of the new Radical politics—and I am a foundered horse at grass quietly waiting—while always

Yours affectionately R. 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. Whitman sent this letter as an enclosure in his October 28–29, 1889, letter to the Canadian physcian and psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke. [back]
  • 2. Whitman had written to Costelloe on August 8, 1889 and October 15, 1889. [back]
  • 3. 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]
  • 4. John Keble (1792–1866) was an English churchman and poet, after whom Keble College, Oxford was named. His The Christian Year was published in 1827, quickly became popular and serves as the source of several hymns (Kirstie Blair, "Introduction," John Keble in Context [London: Anthem Press, 2004], 1–18; Marion Shaw, "In Memoriam and The Christian Year," John Keble in Context [London: Anthem Press, 2004], 159–174). [back]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was an essayist and literary critic. He was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith. 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]
  • 7. Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." For more information about Costelloe, 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]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]
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