Skip to main content

Friday, March 15, 1889

Friday, March 15, 1889

11 A.M. In only for a few minutes to inquire if he expected Bucke over this forenoon. Was reading Press. Said: "Yes, I expect him: he said he would probably be over before dinner. Still, that does not follow: things happen: he does not come: often when forenoon, 'tis afternoon—afternoon, evening." Called my attention to copy Dublin University Review (Nov. 1886) containing a paper by W.B. Yeats entitled The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson. Asked me: "Do you take any interest in Irish poetry?" I said: "I probably would if I had the chance." He smiled. "Anyway, that essay is very fine: I came upon the magazine here: it is an old one: I thought to send it to O'Connor: he always cottons to the literary things." Handed me the magazine. "Read it and send it direct to William or bring it back so I can do so." Any news from Washington? "None: no news from anybody: I drew a blank today."

Ed said W. woke up in a sluggish mood this morning. Did but little all day, reading some. W. said: "I have dipped into Bob again: he is refreshing—he comes along like a big wind." Went into the next room. Found a McKay copy of L. of G. over which he expressed pleasure. He had thought himself entirely out. Found also a manuscript of Passage to India and several other manuscripts which I put in his room by the chair with whatever else there was. He had lately begun mousing among his papers. On the shelf out there were piles of letters, portraits, the whole copy of Specimen Days—all deep in accumulated dust. Here are passages in Yeats' essay marked by W.:

"To know the meaning and mission of any poet we must study his work as a whole."

"For in his works [Ferguson's] grow luxuriously those forms of fancy and of verbal felicity that are above all things portable; while the mighty heathen sought rather after breadth and golden severity, knowing well that the merely pretty is contraband of art. [The italics are W.'s.] With him beauty lies in great masses—thought woven with thought—each line, the sustainer of his fellow. Take a beauty from that which surrounds it—its color is faded, its plumage is ruffled—it is dead."

"He is one of those who apply to all the moral obligations of life the corrosive power of the intellect." [Italics W.'s.]

"In thus describing these persons I have not sought to convey to my readers, for it were hopeless, their fine momentum, the sign manual of the great writers. I am in every way satisfied if I have made plain the personality of the work." [Italics W.'s.]

"Almost all the poetry of this age is written by students for students. But Ferguson's is truly bardic, appealing to all natures alike, to the great concourse of the people, for it has gone deeper than knowledge or fancy, deeper than the intelligence which knows of difference—of the good and the evil, of the foolish and the wise, of this one and of that—to the universal emotions that have not heard of aristocracies, down to where Brahman and India are not even names."

"Of all the many things the past bequeaths to the future, the greatest are great legends; they are the mothers of nations. I hold it the duty of every Irish reader to study those of his own country till they are familiar as his own hands, for in them is the Celtic heart."

"If you will do this you will perhaps be saved in their high companionship from that leprosy of the modern—tepid emotions and many aims. Many aims, where the greatest of the earth often owned but two—two linked and arduous thoughts—fatherland and song. For them the personal perplexities of life grew dim and there alone remained its noble sorrows and its noble joys." [Italics W.'s.]

This was all W. marked. He has often spoken of Ferguson to me. The magazine badly trodden over. W.'s marks not recent but old. He said: "Yes—I did that at the time." Again: "I want you to read it carefully: you'll enter profoundly into its import: anything which tends to keep art, books, writing, poetry, pictures, music, on the level where the people are, without untoward decoration, without haughty academic reserves, has your assent as well as mine, I know."

5 o'clock P.M. W. eating dinner. On the way down I had met Gurd and Bucke at 4th and Mickle. Bucke went to the room with me—Gurd was called up later.

Between mouthfuls W. talked with us. Sometimes would throw himself back in his chair, cross his hands and talk for five minutes at a streak. Then would resume his eating. Bucke looked rather tired, if not ill. Said he had had dinner last evening with Osler at the Rittenhouse Club—then had gone to a Woman's College commencement where he had shaken hands and talked with a great many people. Spoke of the thirty or more graduates. It seemed to amuse Walt hugely. "Thirty more flung out into the void—eh?" Then described his own condition. "I have felt like the devil all day—very bad, unambitious, borne down upon: but I got hold of a book—the essays of Mazzini: picked it up purely by accident, as usual: found in it an essay on Goethe and Byron: it was very fascinating. I confess I got lost in it—dropt all considerations of self—of my private troubles, disease, all that." "I liked particularly in it a line or two there towards the close: it went to confirm me, my long old opinion—an opinion held, however, more from feeling than anything else—not for knowing, perhaps for not knowing. Mazzini said of Goethe, something like this: 'While he illumines, he does not warm.' Oh! I thought that very profound. It was putting my own feeling into words. Seemed to sum him up!"

I suggested: "Then Goethe is electric?" and W. assented: "Partly that." I named Tennyson's motto for the Metaphysical Club—now had the time come for "light without heat." New to Bucke and to W. After an interval in other matters, W. resumed: "While I am willing to accord Goethe a very high place, I could not accord him the highest: the highest place would seem to demand first of all passion, warmth—not artistic power, deftness of technique, primarily, but human passion." I mentioned the Yeats article as dealing with that very point. Said W. quickly: "Yes, it does: oh! grand! Isn't it grand?"—adding: "I thought it very fine—very fine indeed." I argued that it seemed to touch so near the secret of W.'s own power that I looked into it at every point at which W.'s name would be likely to be mentioned to strengthen its illustrations. W. said: "No: that was not necessary. I had not thought of it." Afterwards W. said: "It is probable he does not know me—never read a line of me." I persisted: "Likely—but in essence he does know you." W.'s face lighted up. "That is true, perhaps: in that sense a good many know me who know nothing of me as a person, a concrete existent."

W. had something still more to say of Goethe later on. "But notwithstanding all I said ten minutes ago, I can realize the necessity of Goethe—realize how vast, how deep, a place he occupies—how large the call he answers." Bucke quoted from Goethe a line to this effect: "I know the origin of every line I have written." W. at once insisted: "He was too quick when he said that." But did not that very saying account for what W. missed from Goethe? W. did not answer—only rested in his chair and looked out on the skies. I showed him lithographed portraits of Goethe and Schiller, by my father, which he much enjoyed. I spoke of S.'s "less formal beauty" but W. insisted: "I like this face a hundred times better than the other. But they are both grand faces—grand: and this must be very fine work too."

W. spoke much of his enjoyment of Mazzini. "He seems to make a different layout—to follow different tendencies—from mine: he is more for community, nationality, what I call the generality—less for the development of grand characters, persons." I asked: "But can we ever turn our backs on the person?" "No indeed—essentially not— and it amounts to the same thing in the end I suppose: anyhow, Mazzini puts his own case in a noble way: he has enthusiasm: without that, what is a man? I don't think there can be any great character, really great character, without centrality—some prevailing idea, some purpose at heart: more and more that conviction possesses me, absorbs me." Mazzini was "of course wonderful and profound." "I gleaned great new lights from the piece." But Mazzini's philosophy had started on a line not his. Mazzini "said something for me of Goethe which I had always wished but never found said." W. turned his chair over to the other table—picked up the book and handed it to Bucke: "It is one of the cheap little Walter Scott books—a shilling." B. corrected him: "No, ninepence"—

W. said: "My condition today has been a devil of a one. My head has felt heavy, fluffy, swelled big enough for three." I asked: "With the sherry?" He laughed. "No—I haven't been going greatly into that—hardly at all." Bucke asked: "Not even the swallow and a half?" W. shook his head. "No—not even that: I rarely touch it if I have tea." Then went on with reflections as to his condition. "I have felt like the devil up to about this last hour: now I am mitigated. About this time I encounter a drowsiness, a rest, a lull: there is something in these two or three or more hours, of the late afternoon and evening, which benefits me: the great orb seems then to hit a decline in the immensity which bears a favorable disposition towards me." But his "whole state" had been "horribly sluggish."

Bucke laughingly said: "I see you still have the old gas chimney." "Yes—it is there still. There were two things I should without fail have done today—got that new chimney, for one, and sent copies of November Boughs to Washington for another." The fire had got almost out. Said W. as he pushed his chair towards the stove: "Our fire is low—it is getting cold here." And as he opened the door and laid a smoky log out against the stove: "It is so near to squalor here." Deliberately put paper in, the logs on top of it: then let the fire go. Soon it burned merrily. Then resumed his talk. "I have been gloomy all day—did not start well. Not a letter—not one—not even an autograph letter: a good deal consists in how you commence a day: the autograph letters average about three out of every five: often I sit down with the morning's mail—think, here is a fillip for half an hour!—then these! Some days all the devils are let loose. There was a time when all these fellows enclosed stamps—now it is only occasionally, perhaps one in three, who does so. I have the wood basket there: into that I consign them." Then to me directly: "You don't know, Horace, what a good investment that stove has been: I take a few of the autograph fellows, poke them in, put logs on top of them, apply a match: then the fire is here. It is a great resource in trouble!"

Bucke was saying something about Ben Starr. "We may find him important in meter affairs." W. shook his head: "Never: I know Ben: there is something very fishy in anything he tells. I would particularly suspect his volunteered information." W. asked about the meter—was there anything new? Doctor asked W. if Gurd should come up. W.: "Why, is he downstairs? have him come up this minute." Explaining to Gurd when he entered: "I should have had you come up at once: I did not know till this minute that you were along."

W. gave Bucke a copy of The American containing Frank Williams' first paper, and in an envelope a copy of the Herald notice. He said: "I was rooting about for something else today, and though, as usual, I did not strike what I was looking for, I did find these. Did you have them, Maurice?" Bucke said: "Not the Williams article: I never saw that: but I have seen the Herald piece." W. asked B. if he had heard again from Doctor Hood. Bucke said "no"—adding: "That means there is no change in William's condition: Hood promised to keep me informed." B. spoke of something as "a miracle." W. said: "Miracles are dangerous affairs, Maurice." B.: "You may not be a believer in miracles, Walt, but you are a worker of miracles." W. said: "You are a liberal interpreter, Maurice: you construe me far beyond what I am or could be—far beyond what I want to be." Yet he also said: "What greater miracles than the telegraph, telephone—all the wonderful new mechanism of our day!" At the same time he said he always "wanted to be 'quoted against the theological miracles.'" Bucke's insistence that there was a background for it all, W. said, did "not explain the case." W. added: "The whole miracle dogma business has been swung as a club over the head of the world: it has been a weapon flourished by the tyrannical dynasties of the old world—dynasties murderous, reeking, unscrupulous, barbarous: they have always tried to justify their crimes by an assumed divine grant of some sort. I have often wondered about the Greeks—how much of their mythology they really believed: it looks to me as if their gods like other gods were mostly used not for liberation but oppression: the gods intervened, but often in mean, despicable, poisonous, dastardly ways, "to blind, to paralyze, to afflict, rather than to bless. Think of Mercury sent forth by Jupiter. It was oftener a bad unscrupulous angel than a curer of souls—the inflicter rather than the healer of wounds. The people have always suffered: they have always been the victims of their gods." Bucke asked: "But was not that scheme carried out in objective, in animal, nature?" W. said: "That is no answer, Maurice."

Bucke said: "Walt, when I say radical things about you I get into a hell of a scrape." W.: "Is that so, Maurice? Why, then, do you say the radical things?" "I can't help it, Walt: they sort of say themselves." W. then: "Take my advice: shut up!" B. said: "I can't: you are a disturber of the public peace: you get your friends in trouble as the sparks fly upward." W. stopped munching his toast. "That is true: but don't you know what the scriptures say? The son of man comes to bring a sword." Earnestly. Then went on with his toast. When B. got ready to go, he said: "I'll be here tomorrow morning"—but W. interrupted him: "Don't say that, Maurice: when you say you will come in the morning you never come till afternoon." Bucke exclaimed: "You are a sleuth!" W. then: "Come about eleven, if you can: that is about the stupidest time of the day: make yourself a sacrifice then for the benefit of your race. I have been sitting here all day, hoping you would come in: no mail, no visitors, nothing to do, nothing to say: no nothing!" W. said to me: "And you, Horace, won't you stay a little longer: Doctor has some distance to go but you live just round the corner." B. left with Gurd. I said to W.: "Was there anything special I was to remain for: I'm afraid we overdo our visits." W. said: "Never say that to yourself: you bring me, so to speak, the only fresh air that gets into this room: dismiss your fears peremptorily—they are wholly gratuitous." W. had laid two letters aside for me. Both old letters. One O'Connor's. One Schmidt's. They were tied in a piece of red tape. I asked: "Did you want me to stay to read you these?" "That was the idea," he said. I looked at my watch. "Are you in a hurry?" "Not too much of a hurry for that," I said. I started at once.

Providence, R.I., March 17, 1883. Dear Walt:

I just have your letter of the 16th instant. What must be, must; and of course if the printer wants it so, but mainly because you request it, I accede to the names of books being left as they were set, and not italicized, though I must say the italicizing of such titles has a great artistic charm for me, and I like to reserve quotation marks strictly for quoted matter. ["William always likes things letter perfect as well as spirit perfect: he's a king for that!"]

About the other thing—the paragraphic breaks—I am a good deal more reluctant. I wish I might be indulged in this. The composition is so fiery—moves on so—so sweeps the reader along "like a rushing mighty wind" ["It does that, William: it does that—does that!"] that he needs no paragraphing aid to buoy up interest; and besides the proposed paragraphs really break this rushing continuity and hurt the effect: the paragraphs in the pamphlet being only put at changes of phase in the subject. In one portion of the pamphlet as reset, I am settled that the proposed paragraphing would be simply horrible: I mean the long enumeration of the great books. It becomes ponderous if broken up into paragraphs, and is saved by the rush from sentence to sentence, without pause.

I think, Walt, that the paragraphs in both the Introductory and the G.G.P., had better be let remain as I have fixed them, and I hope the printer will concede this. Don't you know that it is a printer's vice—quite modern, too—to break up everything into scrappy paragraphs, with subheadings, &c.? The effect of my second letter in your behalf—the reply to Chadwick—was seriously marred by this sub-captioning, and I wrote a letter to Whitelaw Reid begging him not to do it any more to any other of my communications. The modern French books are often seriously injured by this excessive paragraphing, which gives an indescribable staccato, dislocated, jerky, hop-skip-and-jump effect to compositions full of intrinsic sobriety. I love better the grand old Aldine manners of the books of former days. ["Well, well, William, I'm afraid the old-gentleman-day-before-yesterday manners will have to go in spite of us! Some of them were very pleasant in their day, but each age makes its own choice of behavior, moral and mechanical!"]

I hope, therefore, my paragraphing may be permitted by the benignant printer. ["William should have come up against our benignant binder: then he would have known what real stubbornness, benignity, was!"]

I was horrified to learn that my footnote about Lowell was set as per copy. It is surprising that Bucke should have taken the liberty of altering words for which I am responsible. ["William was right: the Doctor had no right to do it!"] The note, I guess, will have to stand as it is, for I am at the disadvantage of having left my annotated copy of the pamphlet at Washington, and cannot now precisely remember the phrasing of the note. It began something like—"'Sad pleasure,' because mingled (or words to this effect) with the sense of an act of signal meanness." The note, you see, explained the paradox of the phrase, "sad pleasure," and then kicked Lowell all around his os coccyx with the concise energy of that good animal, the mule. I am sorry it is altered, but it will do as it stands, and I cannot supply the original until I get back to Washington. But Bucke ought to have been ashamed to have done such a thing. Stupid in him, too. ["William is strong about all that, but none too strong: I should have felt the same fury under similar circumstances: I will not brook being edited even to a comma."]

Do let me have a revise. I will return it instanter. My name is Promptness. ["That's so, William! and a good many other virtues, too!"] Good printer-man, thou, too, be not obdurate, but grant me a revise! ["That sounds like us, eh Horace? Good binder-man do for God's sake do something sometime to please us!"—laughing heartily.]

I hope when the book comes out that you can arrange that I may have some copies at wholesale prices. I can put some where they will do good to all concerned.

Have you seen the last edition of Dana's Household Book of Poetry? It is really cheering. The section entitled Poems of Nature has for an epigraph the whole of your "O vast rondure swimming in space"—a conspicuous honor, of course, and several of your poems appear in the body of the collection. This is significant. There has been a change. ["Yes, so there has: we have passed on to another stage: now the question is, is there still another stage for us to pass to or will this end it?"]

I am rummaging my memory for an epigraph for the appendix, as you requested. Nothing has turned up yet, but something will.

I never was so taken with anything as with Bucke's epigraph from Lucretius. I hope to heaven that he has not abandoned it. It should appear in Latin on the title page, with a translation in English prose set in brackets [ ] directly under it. It is ineffably felicitous and apropos. Even the "barbaric yawp" is tallied by the Latin words describing the poetic style of Empedocles. It is a big thing. ["We all voted for that! it was indeed all that William says and more! It's astonishing how clumsy Doctor is about some things and how graceful about others! He was never so unerring as William!"]

I write with a dreadful pen and bad ink. The day is bad here, windy, dusty, raw, bleak, a genuine St. Patrick's.

Faithfully W. D. O'Connor.

I had no trouble with O'C.'s wonderful handwriting, but I stumbled a good deal over Schmidt's. W. laughed: "I'm glad somebody else has some difficulty in threading his way through that labyrinth." I said: "I don't call the writing bad: it's only peculiar." He replied: "Call it anything you please it's just as much a puzzle to me." I stuck to it till I had got to the last word.

Copenhagen, 20 March, 1874. Dear Mr. Whitman.

Your letter of the 4th I received this morning. The numbers of Harper's Magazine and of the New York Tribune did not follow, but most probably they will reach me: printed matter is very often going another way. If your Prayer of Columbus be not too long, I shall try to get a translation of it published in one of our papers.

Immediately after my return from Germany (28th February) I did write to you and sent you a long article of your book in the paper, Fatherland; the last Monday I mailed for you another article in the weekly paper, Near and Far. All these things have been sent to New Jersey. To the treasury in Washington have been sent on all three copies of ........, one in loose sheets (franked), one complete paper bound copy franked and another unpaid (for greater safety, as unpaid letters and papers never fail their man). Some copies of The People's Illustrated Magazine with your portrait and some short biographical notices have also been sent to Washington. With Clausen I sent you in the autumn 1872, a large portrait of mine, the only resembling one, that ever has been taken. Write to Mrs. Clausen, if they have not forwarded it to you.

If you could, without troubling yourself too much, send me all the pieces of Clemens Petersen, that come to your eyesight, I should be very glad. This singular man has a great charm to me, though I never liked him.

If my thoughts did not weaken and wither, when I try to give them expression in the English language, I should on some sheets give you a due description of our political and literary doings. Although the words of Hamlet: there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, still are true, I have the greatest belief of the vitality of my people and the other Scandinavian peoples. We have been lagging here in the outskirts of civilization; we have been endowed with its gifts, but we have not been poisoned with its venom. Ours is the future in Europe, small as we are.

In no European country, and most probably not in America, your personality, your mode of viewing the things shall be more sure to touch the chords of the native mind as here and in Norway. We are made of the true democratic stuff, we have not the venomous passions, but we have the high ideal aspiration. A peasant on Fijen (one of our fertile isles) wrote to me in the spring, for two years ago, to thank me for my article on you. Peasants are on the Sundays holding the numbers their hard fists and read every work though the matters often are very difficult.

But on the political arena our democratic leaders are dull and narrow-minded persons, to say nothing worse. None of them has named your book yet, most probably they won't name it at all. It is your (political) adversaries who write criticisms on you. But your adversaries are mostly your friends, they have themselves a democratic mind and grant you much more than the editors of the American magazines. But your best friends are the women. A young baroness has read your book with true enthusiasm. The women have understood, that the ordinary criticisms can as easily be applied on a nature like yours as the process of hair-cutting and shaving on a mountain forest. "It is nearly comical," writes a young married lady to me, "to see the critics cut the broad American till they have given him their own small figure."

Your early female friend Mrs. Rorle lies over in Rome—poor thing.

Prof. Rasmus Nielsen has read your book with the greatest satisfaction. He is the only man who could give you a true criticism on it, but he is an old man and not very willing to write in the papers.

Hoping a speedy amelioration of your health I remain, yours

Rudolf Schmidt.

There were some words I could not read at all. W. said: "Now, after fifteen years, I say the same thing: I have never really read the letter: I have had more of it from you than I was ever able to extract myself. Schmidt has an acid strain in him: it does not bite into everything but it stings considerably when it lands: but for that he gets into my gizzard: I feel his eminent sincerity—his great scholarship, too: I'm told he stands very high over there among the nabobs of learning: I don't know whether we should make anything of that or not—probably not: yet it is a fact, as his being a Leaves of Grasser is another fact. A man in an institution so famed for its cultural backgrounds must become something beyond the average before he ventures out on our field—declares himself for the new thing rather than the old."

Back to top