Skip to main content

Tuesday, June 19, 1888.

Tuesday, June 19, 1888.

To W. at 8. Still in his bedroom. Got up off his bed at once and handed me proofs, remarking: "I have had a good afternoon—perhaps a slight trace (very slight but perceptible) of my old vigor." [See indexical note p353.4] He had gone over nearly all the accumulated proofs. Added enough to fill in the Sands to page thirty-nine—also this footnote for page thirty-seven: "The two songs on this page are eked out during an afternoon, June, 1888, in my seventieth year, at a critical spell of illness. [See indexical note p353.5] Of course no reader and probably no human being at any time will ever have such phases of emotional and solemn action as these involve to me. I feel in them an end and close of all." The new poems were, Now Precedent Songs, Farewell, and An Evening Lull. He has filled out these pages—36, 37, 38—with great struggle—"after the drawing of blood," he says. [See indexical note p354.1] I read the note and the poems. "Do they seem to you to lack in dignity?" he asked. "I am aware," he added, "that they are feeble, feeble enough, like an old man who has to lean on a cane, but they belong where they are—are necessary to round my story." He still insists that his "grip is gone—irretrievably lost: I seem to have lost the power of consecutive thought, work—mental volition, I might say: as if the ground had been swept from under my feet—as if I had nothing whereon to stand. [See indexical note p354.2] My brain will not solidify." I said: "Walt, you're only fooling me: all this time you're laying out your plans to get well. What do you want your brain to solidify for anyway? What use would it be to you after it had solidified?" W. laughed outright: "You think I'm a bit foxy? Well—I don't want to assume my cure." "Why not? You say you used to assume cures for the soldiers after the doctors had assumed something else and your men got well." [See indexical note p354.3] W. took the whole thing good naturedly: "Damn you! you're right! Well, let's assume I'm to get well and see how the assumption will work. I do believe I feel a trifle better already!" Said he had "tried to go over the Hicks manuscript" but "didn't get far along: ten minutes of it did me up. I stop work the instant I feel tired." Someone had told him he had lost flesh. Did it seem so to me? "I used to weigh—still weigh, probably—two hundred pounds. [See indexical note p354.4] In physical peculiarity I seem to be both fathered and mothered—both of my parents may be seen in me. I attribute much of my success in weathering this attack to my good stock—to my father, my mother: indeed, not one mother alone—the mothers of five or six generations."

W. asked me if I knew anything in particular about the convention. Spoke of a leg of mutton sent in by my sister, Mrs. Harned, today. "I greatly relished it—took several slices of it: ate the best meal in a fortnight. The asparagus, too, was so good. I want you to thank her and tell her what I have said to you. Her cooking is in itself a treat—everything gets appetizing in her hands: she has a decided genius that way. A good cook is born, not made. [See indexical note p355.1] Your sister never makes the right thing the wrong thing by bad treatment. She is one who could make the desert vegetate."

W. asked me: "Do you remember the Booth letter I gave you some time ago? [See indexical note p355.2] I have found the mate to it—the letter that preceded it, I think. You had better keep the two together if you think they have any significance, which I doubt. I was after Edwin for a picture of his father, you know." As to Edwin himself W. said: "Edwin had everything but guts: if he had had a little more that was absolutely gross in his composition he would have been altogether first class instead of just a little short of it. [See indexical note p355.3] His father had more power and less finish. Edwin is a very noble character—essentially a godlike man."

This was Booth's brief letter:

Newport, Aug. 24th, '84. Dear Sir

[See indexical note p355.4] —I shall go to Boston Tuesday and will endeavor to get a portrait of my father—I have none here.

Many thanks for your kind offer of a copy of your book which I gladly accept.

Truly yours, Edwin Booth.

I kicked a letter from under my foot and picked it up. "What have you got there?" I did not know. Handed the envelope to W. He put on his glasses and leaned towards the light. [See indexical note p355.5] "Oh!" he exclaimed—"that's from Frederick York Powell—English—a great man in his way over there among the cultivated college men. It is a warm letter, too!—it not only satisfies me, it would satisfy you. My claims are big enough, but yours—why, you are simply greedy!" Laughed. "Powell is one of the men, the tribe of the Oxford-Cambridge Israel, who have felt that despite their great scholarship—layers on layers of erudition—that they had something in common with Leaves of Grass. [See indexical note p356.1] I am both surprised and not surprised when a man like Powell comes around. I think sometimes that when a man knows just a little we repel him—that when he knows a little more we invite him. A little learning is a dangerous thing for Leaves of Grass."

Christ Church, Oxford, Nov. 1, '84. Dear Sir.

[See indexical note p356.2] I wish to thank you most heartily for your gift to me which I have just received from Mrs. Wharton.

I could not have received anything from America which I should prize as I do this volume of the Leaves of Grass.

Since I first read your poems years ago now they have always had a great influence on my thoughts and wishes. I should have liked to write to you then, but I did not think I had a right to, and I wished to see you and talk to you, but I never had the opportunity. [See indexical note p356.3] Your gift has given me at least the right to thank you now not only for it but for the great good I have got from your work. Every man I suppose worries out some idea of the right life for himself, but your books have helped me much in getting a truer view of things than I started with. I have found out the truth of your words too from my short experience of life in deed as well as in thought. You have many more worthy listeners but none more grateful than myself. Your Leaves of Grass I keep with my Shakespeare and my Bible and it is from these three that I have got more sympathy than from any other books. [See indexical note p356.4]

I should like to tell you that you have many more friends here than you can even have heard of by letter or paper, men and women who have got a good hold of your poems and their pith.

If you should ever come back to the old country how pleased we should be. I wish it may yet be possible for you to do so.

You will not I hope think that I wish to give you the trouble of sending or writing any answer to these few lines. [See indexical note p357.1] I have not written for that at all, but simply because I wanted you to know that I am very grateful to you and that I am yours faithfully.

Fredk York Powell.

[See indexical note p357.2] W. also spoke of Powell as a "cultive." Disrespectfully? "No—as specifying his tribe. The English cultive seems sometimes to enjoy deserved honors—his scholarship does not necessarily destroy him. Powell is exceptionally sincere." W. still anxious to get all the Sands "safely into type." Then, he said, he could "depart in peace"—after an interval continuing—"if it is necessary!" [See indexical note p357.3] Osler over today. He thinks W. better but still "a victim of progressive paralysis, which has a certain inevitable result." I quoted Jane Welsh's assurance to Carlyle that she preferred Goethe to Schiller because Goethe "did not make her cry." W. took an opposite view. [See indexical note p357.4] "The Greeks were very free, frank—not afraid of pain: to suffer, to hatchel each other—but going off when hurt bellowing, screaming, weeping in anger and pain: even Mars, we are told, among them—and at all times, also, sensitive to the humor, the fun, of the moment. Goethe's constraint was Roman (Stoic) not Greek: the Greek let go; in sorrow, in joy, let go." [See indexical note p357.5] W. is very sensible to form. He noticed too late that A Backward Glance finished at the foot of the page. "If I had been a little more vigilant I should have cut out five or six lines. I like chapters in books to end short of a page—it pleases my eye better so." [See indexical note p357.6] I objected to the use of the Celtic headlines. He did not agree with me at first, but in the end confessed that I was right. He sent a note complimenting the printers on their work. He said tonight: "I was fortunate in striking Ferguson—not only Ferguson but his men. I never met men in all my experience who caught on so well." [See indexical note p358.1] Then again: "When you go to Ferguson in the morning sit about fifteen or twenty minutes and chat with them—see that I am well understood." It has been hard work getting W. keyed to the work. We have discussed every detail together. He is stubborn about having his punctuation, abbreviations and general arrangement strictly followed.

Back to top