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Whitman on Grant



The Tribute of the Poet Laureate of De- 
 mocracy to the Great Soldier.

Words of Honor from the Venerable Poet.

His Estimate of the Great Man in  
 Active Life and in His Influence Yet to Be Felt

Every car driver in the sleepy town of Camden knows Walt Whitman and loves to talk about him. All respect the man, yet all speak his name and sound his praise with a degree of familiarity that might, if misunderstood, be mistaken for discourtesy. Camden long since voted Walt Whitman the freedom of the town. Camden corporations, too, less soulless than many more pretentious monopolies, long since voted the silver-haired bard the freedom of street car and ferry-boat, and there is no recreation in which the democratic poet more frequently indulges than a long, aimless ride through the sleepy streets and a friendly chat with the prosy employee who works the brake and urges on the sleepy horse over the sun-baked stones of Stevens Street.

The veriest stranger in Philadelphia's Jersey suburb may find the poet's home by asking the first man he meets, and if that man chance to be a car-driver the stranger can have, along with his information, a varied fund of personal reminiscence and anecdote. Years ago the poet indulged his bent for social chat by riding beside the drivers of the oldtime Broadway busses as they steered their devious path toward the Battery. Today the Camden drivers answer the same purpose. As a PRESS reporter followed a driver's directions yesterday and turned into the unpretentious thoroughfare called Mickle Street, a freckle faced urchin playing in front of a gracery store greeted him with a stony glance of absolute ignorance when he inquired for the home of "Whitman, the poet." There was an embarrassing pause. Then the freckled face lit up with a gleam of intelligence. "Oh, I guess you mean Uncle Walt, don't you?" and a dirty finger pointed across the street as the urchin added: "Uncle Walt lives over there in that brown house."


The house is itself a type of the unassuming bard who can find poetry in omnibus drivers, and beauty in the "divine average" of life. A dingy two-story frame cottage, it nestles modestly between its more modern brick neighbors. A brass doorplate bearing the name of "W. Whitman," is the single external evidence that he who lives within is the student of nature whose inimitable verses are honored abroad even more highly than at home. The outer door stood open, as though to court a breeze from the sultry air. The old-fashioned inner lattice was opened before the bell had ceased its quiet tinkle, and a mellow, musical voice called from the inner room, "Come right in and sit down. Never mind your card."

"The good gray poet" sat, en dishabille, by the window of the second room of the two humble apartments where he passes the greater part of his bachelor life. Reclining in his easy chair, arrayed in loose-fitting trousers of some plain gray goods and a spotless white shirt with deep, rolling collar, that exposed the muscles of his sturdy neck, the Camden bard was striving, in common with all humanity, to keep cool. He was, to borrow an expression peculiarly his own, "loafing at his ease," though the loosely piled pages of penciled copy that littered the table beside him and the floor about his slippered feet, hinted that some sort of literary work was under way. The poet's sleeves were rolled above the elbows, exposing a pair of arms white as a woman's, but symmetrical and muscular as an athlete's. His head was thrown back toward the window and the gentle breeze sported lovingly with the silken wreath of hair and beard that framed the face in a halo of venerable beauty. He was still suffering slightly from his recent prostration by the heat and when the wanton breeze parted for a moment his silver hair there was a fresh scar visible where the poet's head had struck the pavement in his ugly fall.


He made light of it, however. "I have been somewhat subject to such attacks," he said, "ever since the war. I suffered a sort of sunstroke then while I was at work among the sick and wounded, but this doesn't amount to much, and I am feeling quite vigorous." The gray-blue eyes twinkled beneath the shaggy brows, but soon a change came over the poet's face. His reference to war times had called up a train of thought and in a moment the great-hearted old man lived over again the life of camp and field, the grim scenes he has pictured in his own peculiar way in "Specimen Days." The memory of those scenes doubtless recalled the form of the stricken hero who now lies dead at Mt. McGregor—the soldier who traversed camp and field as the conquering head of the army while the Camden poet was playing the good Samaritan on the field and in the hospital, equally ready with his word of cheer or his flask of cordial.

When his visitor spoke the name of Grant Walt Whitman bowed his head as the whole nation has bowed beneath a common grief. When at last the poet spoke it was in the tone of one who has lost a dear friend, yet he pondered his words and weighed each sentence carefully.


"Yes," said he, "I, too, am willing and anxious to bear testimony to the departed General. Now that Grant is dead it seems to me I may consider him as one of those examples or models for the people and character-formation of the future, age after age—always to me the most potent influence of a really distinguished character—greater than any personal deeds or life, however important they may have been. I think General Grant will stand the test perfectly through coming generations. True, he had no artistic or poetical element; but he furnished the concrete of those elements for imaginative use, perhaps beyond any man of the age. He was not the finely painted portrait itself, but the original of the portrait. What we most need in America are grand individual types, consistent with our own genius. The West has supplied two superb native illustrations in Lincoln and Grant. Incalculable as their deeds were for the practical good of the nation for all time, I think their absorption into the future as elements and standards will be the best part of them.


"Washington and all those noble early Virginians were, strictly speaking, English gentlemen of the royal era of Hampden, Pym and Milton, and such it was best that they were for their day and purposes. No breath of mine shall ever tarnish the bright, eternal gold of their fame. But Grant and Lincoln are entirely native on our own model, current and Western. The best of both is their practical, irrefragable proof of radical Democratic institutions—that it is possible for any good average American farmer or mechanic to be taken out of the ranks of the common millions and put in the position of severest military or civic responsibility and fully justify it all for years, through thick and thin. I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.

"Then," added the bard, his poetic appreciation of a heroic character asserting itself, "the incredible romance of Grant's actual career and life! In all Homer and Shakspeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast."

Warming to his subject, the poet had voiced his estimate of Grant with a spontaneous fervor none the less eloquent because it was thoughtfully and critically spoken. Then, with one of this benign smiles, he said: "Let me give you, in this connection, the little sonnet I wrote originally for Harper's:"

As one by one withdraw the lofty actors From that great play on history's stage eterne, That lurid, partial act of war and peace—of old and new contending, Fought out through wrath, fears, dark dismays, and many a long suspense; All past—and since, in countless graves reced- ing, mellowing, Victor's and vanquish'd—Lincoln's and Lee's —now thou with them, Man of the mighty days—and equal to the days! Thou from the prairies!—tangled and many- vein'd and hard has been thy part, To admiration has it been enacted!

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