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Thursday, August 28, 1890

Thursday, August 28, 1890

5:10 P.M. Another good talk with W. Have this week had the best talks in months. He had finished dinner and was reading Symonds. He said, "I hit upon an essay here this afternoon, the best so far, to me, in the book—a comparison between the poetry of the Elizabethan period and the age of Victoria. It is noble—written by the latest light—in that respect differing from some other of the essays." And he said further, "Symonds is calm, here, judicial—poised—the whole manner attractive to me. He has come upon distinct conceptions. In qualities of adoration, veneration there are past examples great beyond equal by this modern age—Isaiah, Job—and for rapture, the Psalms. I doubt if there has been anything better—am sure can no longer be anything better. Our time is not remarked as critics are wont to remark it—our new men are not more glorious than others, perhaps long dead—but only more responsive to the time, the new conditions. We could not have Job, Isaiah, the Psalms, over again, because we could not have the conditions out of which they resulted—the childlike awe, wonder, not-knowingness. And I am sure that even to have them, the first-raters would not give up the acquisition of ages, the peculiar fruitages of the 19th century, say science, for example. I should very much doubt if Symonds could be called a first-rater, but this essay I am reading now entitles him to be called a great critic, which is a great work even in itself. I have a great charity for Symonds, who is a product of the schools—rich in all that schools can give, cognizant of all that art, letters, has contributed. Symonds is au fait with the literature of Southern Europe—Italy, Spain, Portugal. He has known what few of us do, about the great men there, the giants—has haunted the libraries, fallen in touch with books, scholarship. In this age which has no scholars, is a scholar of the first order. 'Leaves of Grass' is a buffer to all that—draws off, as it were, a very strong arm and gives it a blow between the eyes—though not with malice, but in deference to our time, its needs." This talk brought on Holmes' reference to W. in last Atlantic, extract from which I pointed out in Bulletin. I left paper with W., who said among other things of Holmes: "He could not be expected to accept us. He would rather have 'Walter' than 'Walt' for the same reason which moved Arthur Stedman to print me in his biographical index as 'Walt' and the 'er' in parenthesis. It is a parlor logic, yet characteristic of the literary man of our time. Oh! you can have no idea of the intensity of this feeling unless you come into direct contact, conflict, with it! It is the spirit which wants marble busts on ebony niches in corners—fine porcelains—the assumed necessities of luxuries, enervations—elegance. But of course, all our dissent must not make us forget they have an importance, too. Holmes has written some superb verses—yes, 'The Chambered Nautilus,' for one thing. They put him high: I should not be inclined to belittle that work—but the general principles of literariness are not for us. They are the same principles, for instance, as obtain in the Episcopal church—a communion service of silver—vast sound and beauty—but little of that finer symbolism which gave Chritianity its early value and lives in its best samples yet." And again—"It was always curious how the old man Emerson—the man of years—reached out for contact with the human—the mass of humanity. But that by rights belonged to Emerson. But I doubt if Holmes could ever touch even the rim of this aspiration. I am to him 'Walter,' not 'Walt,' because he does not recognize the primary color of character. Holmes knows me—would know me—as little as he would an old woman making her tea, a big Injun, a brawny stalwart nigger—say, one of those magnificent niggers I have seen on Mississippi steamboats—with a body of tremendous proportions, majesty like that of a born king or emperor of African dynasty. It opens a vast thought—marks the chasm between some of us."

W. much amused over someone who said to me, "You talk of Walt Whitman as a democratic poet—a friend of the masses: but God damn him, the masses do not read or understand him: what can you say to that?" And laughingly remarked, "That sounds like a squelcher, but it is about as if we said—this sculptor or painter has made us a counterpart of so and so—a nigger, maybe, or an Injun—and there's not a nigger or an Injun in America can appreciate it. But what of that? How does that settle the question?"

Morse had said to me that Holmes' life of Emerson was a better life of Holmes than of Emerson. W. took it up: "Did Sidney say that? It is beautiful—keen, yet gentle—a sweet, just criticism, its best point being, that it could be said to Holmes himself without insult." And when I added, "I think it important to know a big man from all points of view—the view of the literary man, business man, and any other—how he looks to these"—W. joined me to say—"I quite assent to that: it is a profound truth—and in that sense Holmes has given us a valuable book." I thought the best thing in the book was Holmes' remark that Emerson "took our idols from their shelves so gently it seemed like an act of worship." He asked me, "That is in the book? It seems new to me: yet I, too, should say it was very fine—very. O, the gentle Emerson!"

W. returned me the Harper's Weekly I left with him yesterday. Left with him this trip Current Literature. He said, "I want to read this from Holmes at my leisure." I put in—"You probably won't think so much of yourself after you have read it." To which, "Probably not"—with a laugh—"but Holmes has plenty to help him bring me down from my conceit!"

I wrote McKay last night to send sheets W. had sent over yesterday to Bank and I would number them tonight and return Friday morning. He did it. W. pleased. After these are done, I shall take all the sheets W. has and finish the numbering, once for all. It is more secure. Should any chance lose me my memorandum book, and the books not numbered, the case would be hopeless. He quite agreed on this.

At last I got him to the point of giving me the book for Bush, and he inscribed it with B.'s name, with the "from the author" and date.

Recurring to Symonds W. said, "These books are ready for you any time you want to take them. Since striking this last essay I am more anxious to have you read them—for this essay is no doubt Symonds' ripest thought—the supreme message of his acumen—the large statement of his voyage into the vast literary seas." I joked with W.—"If you keep on reading day to day, you will be literary yet," but he shook his head. "No, there are primary obstacles to it"—and he looked about the room—at his uncovered arms and open shirt—and laughed.

He said, "I have not only been cabled about Dr. Johnston (J. Johnston), but today there is a letter. And so he is neither murdered nor wrecked. He missed Dr. Bucke by having to make time—by a trip, in fact, to my old home at West Hills. He says he saw Andrew Rome, stayed over one night in the house in which I was born, met some old ferrymen I had known—who remembered me—and do you know he also met Sandford Brown. He says he also stayed with Herbert—then with John Burroughs—just a touch." Hereupon W. leaned forward towards the table. "But I don't know but you'd better take the letter itself and read it"—after some search handing me several letters, saying—"Here is Johnston's—also the last from Wallace, take that, too: you will enjoy to read them. I value them very highly. And here is Dr. Bucke's today's letter: you can take 'em along and return 'em all together. I want to have a further look at them myself. They are a group of good fellows—those Lancashire men: they put sweet hooks in on me."

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