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John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 9 December 1889

 loc_vm.00339.jpg Dear & honoured Friend & Master

I thank you from my heart for the gift of your great book—that beautiful complete book of your poems & your prose, which I call "Whitman's Bible."2

But my heart has not the power to make my brain & hands tell you how much I thank you.

None of your eleves, your disciples, will be able to tell the world what they have gained from you, what they owe to you, what you are for them.

I cannot even attempt to tell yourself (upon this page of paper with this pen in my hand), what it is that makes me ask you now to bless me.


If my health, riven to the bottom like a tree in me, twelve years ago,—& the cares of a family, complicated with this affair of health—had not prevented, I should long ago had come to see you in the flesh, to ask counsel of you, & to assure you of my inviolable fidelity.

We are both growing old, & nearly half a hemisphere divides us. Yet nothing can divide souls, or separate that which is inseparable in the divine nature of the world.

Perhaps we shall yet meet: & then, beyond the death of this life, I shall ask you about things which have perplexed me here—to which I think you alone could have given me an acceptable answer. All such matters  loc_vm.00341.jpg will probably sink into their proper place in the infinite perspective; & when we meet, a comrade's hand-touch & a kiss will satisfy me, & a look into your eyes.

But, if we come to be judged, I shall go to the judgment-seat & say: "Call out Walt Whitman. Let him pronounce upon the doings of this man this me; & let me be confronted with him; before you judges pass your sentence."

I cannot find words better fitted to express the penetrative force with which you have entered into me, my reliance on you, & my hope that you will not disapprove of my conduct in the last resort.

As I cannot talk to you, I feel the need to say this; because you have exercised a controlling influence over me for half a century.  loc_vm.00342.jpgIt is not often, I take it, that one man can say so much as I am saying to a man whom he has never seen.

Those lines which I wrote in September of this year,3 & which I am glad to see now circulated, were calculated for the public mind! They do not tell the half; but, as an old Greek proverb puts it, "the half is better than the whole"—in print at any rate.

When I read your Bible, I miss—& I had missed for many years in new editions—the poem which first thrilled me like a trumpet-call to you. It was called: "Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me" [Calamus 8. ed: 1860–61].4 Why have you so consistently omitted this in the canon of your works?

Upon me, your disciple, it  loc_vm.00343.jpg made a decisive impact. "I put down the book, filled with the bitterest envy."5 And I rose up, to follow you. I miss the words now.—

I am old now, & you are older in years, though everlastingly young, in ways not given to all men to be so. So perhaps I ought not ask why you omitted that poem from "Calamus," & what you meant by it. It means for me so infinitely much. I cannot say how much.

Well: the disciple weighs his master's words, too scrupulously—& thinks perhaps too much of his omissions or dark sayings. He must not ask for answers to his questions, but express the total of the teaching in his works & ways.

That I shall do ever, so far as I am your man—marked with your seal & superscription, & what my addiction to you will later bring  loc_vm.00344.jpgforth, is a matter for the literary historians of England to decide—if only I had life & time for future working.

More & more of you will be found in me, the longer I live & the firmer I become in manhood.

Goodnight, dear man! Yours John Addington Symonds  loc_vm.00337.jpg  loc_vm.00338.jpg

John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey | U. S. America. It is postmarked: Davos | 11.XII.89.VII— | Platz; Paid | B | All; Camden, N.J. | Dec | 24 | 6 AM | [illegible]. There is a New York postmark and an additional postmark, but both of these are illegible. [back]
  • 2. Symonds is referring to the Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman, 1855–1888 (1888). In a letter of December 5, 1889, he wrote to Horatio Forbes Brown: "Old Walt Whitman sends me, with autograph and inscription in his shaky hand, the final and complete edition of his works—one book, a sort of Bible. It is a grand present to the spirit, and (for the future) of incalculable pecuniary value." See The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Volume III: 1885–1893, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969), 417. [back]
  • 3. Symonds is referring to his contribution to Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman (1889). [back]
  • 4. See poem 8 of Calamus. Whitman deleted this poem from the Calamus cluster after 1860. [back]
  • 5. See poem 28 of Calamus. [back]
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