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An Impression of Walt Whitman



An Impression of Walt Whitman.

One of the most familiar of figures in print and picture, everywhere well known or easily taken for granted, Walt Whitman was also personally most accessible; it was part of his conception of the high office of poet to be so; and there are many among us who have seen and spoken with him, many who have had far greater opportunities than I of knowing and estimating him. In writing these lines in the Club, I am conscious of having little in the way of fact or criticism to add to this knowledge, and no claim either of literary authority or of personal intimacy to pronounce his éloge. I saw him but twice or thrice; on one occasion spending a few hours in his company, in a conversation that was impressive and memorable to me. But alas for the lacunes of memory! I made no record of the talk, and much that he said has gone from me. The impression remains. Perhaps an at- med_sm.00517_large.jpgtempt to define it may fit in with some twilight talk of the dead poet; perhaps I may slip my pebble between the larger stones of his cairn.

It was a warm Sunday noon, late in the summer of 1883, when two of us went to dine at a suburban house where Walt Whitman was a frequent guest, and was then staying for a few days. Warmth and sunshine were outside, shadow and coolness within, with perfect Sabbath quiet. The table was set for four, and I, the youngest of the party and the sole representative of my sex, had for my vis-à-vis the ample figure of the poet clad in light gray linen, his wide rolling shirt collar and long white hair and beard framing the massive, kindly face. He gave the keynote of the conversation, bearing his full share therein, but never monopolizing it; talking with perfect courteousness, and with a simplicity and sincerity which set his listeners at ease, and made sincerity easy, and in fact the only attitude possible in reply. What struck me, in his conversation, was first his readiness to talk and to hear of everything, his wide curiosity and sympathy; and next, the flavor of it, the unity, which seemed to come, not from a stock of opinions, but out of a nature harmoniously adjusted to limitations which fitted it loosely and easily, as the ample linen suit fitted his large frame.

The conversation at first drifted back to war times, Whitman telling of some hospital experiences and interviews with Lincoln; the other gentlemen adding bits of reminiscence, and discussing with him various incidents and accompaniments of struggle. We talked, too, of the state of affairs in the South, and its regrettable but ever-lessening separation from the interests and life of the rest of the country. Of course we soon got upon the open-sea topic of human life, the puzzle and mystery of it, the question what should be made of it. The poet maintained that the physical life was nowadays too much neglected; that between an attention to material and extraneous interests, on the other, we were driving the physical to the wall; as if life, this wonderful, mysterious life, were not primarily a physical phenomenon. To my objection that a perfect physical life was denied to many, and that nature seemed to bring about a sort of balance or provide a compensation in the fact that many persons, physically defective or suffering, had developed deep mental or spiritual insight, gaining through their very loss, he replied: "Yes, that is beautiful, but it is only compensation for loss; and after all, is anything so beautiful as a whole, complete life, lived after natural laws, and preserving into old age its health and its power?" He went on to speak of the comparative rarity of a healthful, serene old age, such as ought to be the crown of every life, and asked, "How many examples do we see of it?" I mentioned a name that had more than once come to my mind, as we talked,—Victor Hugo. He said, "His is a fine old age," but spoke with little warmth, and added that it was a pity Victor Hugo was not truer and less bombastic.

The conversation turned on poetry. Walt Whitman said: "I envy Homer. I envy him that first strong impression of things. To him it was a new heaven and a new earth. Every poet since Homer has been at a disadvantage, has had to see and feel and describe what had been seen and felt and described before." Every poet, he went on to say, had to go back as nearly as possible to that position, to see things at first hand; that his greatness as a poet depended on his power of thus going back to the great elements of life, of seeing the world as a new world, and recreating it in words that were true, fresh, and direct. He spoke of Wordsworth as a poet who had dealt too much with the secondary aspects, with nature as viewed from the standpoint of a complicated human experience, and said, "Bryant is one of my favorites;" adding that Bryant was never great, and was often monotonous, but that his way of looking at nature was simple and healthful, and more direct than Wordsworth's. I could not help thinking that his application of the principal was defective in that the simplicity he cited was perhaps more or less of an imitative character, while the poet to whim he referred as subtle had struck deeper, through whatever indirection, to the heart of things. He spoke of the pleasure of finding in Bryant allusions to those common objects of American landscapes which we know and love.

After dinner I was alone with Walt Whitman for a few moments on the piazza. med_sm.00518_large.jpg He began to explain to me, kindly and carefully, as if fearful lest they should have been misunderstood, his remarks on the relation of the physical and mental life; saying in substance that the life of the soul was the highest end, but that to that end the most perfect equilibrium was essential, the physical having its great part in the development of the ideal. There had been no misunderstanding of his words on my part, and no contradiction, save of the accidental kind which occurs in the movement of conversation when we bring in facts or suggestions without measuring exactly their relation to what has preceded. It was not a point to contradict. If the physical is not with us in our higher aims, it is fearfully against us.

A drive was proposed for the late afternoon, and in the meantime Walt Whitman disappeared for an hour to take a nap. We sat on the piazza till he joined us again, when he recurred to some talk that we had had at dinner, apropos of optimism and pessimism. He had affirmed the former creed, and I had protested against too entire an optimism, because of the possibility it left open of sliding over things too easily, of ignoring the depths of human experience. He now remarked, in his wise, tranquil manner, "Optimism with a touch of pessimism,—that is the right creed." And is not that the optimism of Leaves of Grass, which makes its affirmation so strongly and ardently, without neglecting to take account of the contradictions and negations? Roaming in thought over the Universe, I saw the little that is Good steadily hastening to- 
  wards immortality,
And the vast all that is called Evil I saw hastening to 
  merge itself and become lost and dead."

Our host asked the poet to read to us before we took our drive, and he consented. We hoped for something of his own, but he suggested Bryant, wishing to show us what he liked in him, and read Thanatopsis. To a seasoned Wordsworthian Thanatopsis is an echo, but it is a stately, pleasing poem for all that, dealing with things that are true and dear to us, and, read as it was read on that quiet Sunday afternoon, it was impressive and beautiful. While the reading was going on we heard at intervals a distant thud,—the firing of a gun. Our host said, "It is a soldier's funeral." Whitman paused, sat silent a moment, then resumed the solemn lines on death.

We had a charming drive about the country, the poet now and then waving his hand, with a smile, to little children by the roadside; enjoying everything, interested in the crops growing or gathered, and admiring particularly some high stone walls built around large properties, for their evident strength, the gray color of the stone, and their honest workmanship. When we bade farewell to our host and Walt Whitman, who left us at our own door, the latter insisted upon alighting, though he was lame from paralysis, and handing me out. He said to us, "It has been a pleasant day, has it not?" My companion assented. I added with enthusiasm, "It has been a perfectly happy day to me, Mr. Whitman." His face lit up cordially, and he said, "Has it so? I am glad. If there had been anything the matter with it before, that would have made it all right."

The next time I saw him, passing him one day in the street, as he sat in a carriage beside the curbstone, he returned my salutation evidently without recognizing me, but with his hearty manner, as of one glad to salute any fragment of humanity. Later I heard him read, before a large assembly, his poem on the mocking-bird by the seashore,—"Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." His voice came across the crowded room as from some open, quiet space without, its harmonies large and loose like those of the verse. And what a suggestion of melody as well as harmony there is in that song of the mocking-bird! How it brings up those night-notes that seem to be thrown out upon the air and then recalled, gathered in for a pause and another outpouring! Walt Whitman's reading of his verse established its right to be. He was really not a modern writer of poems, but an ancient bard and reciter of them.

My last glimpse of him was in his house at Camden, when he was recovering from a long illness. He was in an upstairs room, sitting in an armchair, clad in a long blue dressing-gown, with the usual expanse of immaculate linen. In this costume he sat serene and Jove-like amid an indescribable blending of bareness and confusion; a room of the plainest sort, with an unmade bed, very little furniture besides, a fire in a stove, on the floor a pile of wood, some med_sm.00519_large.jpg stacks of books, and some huge baskets filled with manuscripts, which overflowed and lay round in little heaps. He was gracious, and cordial, talked of his illness and of the visits he had had, and showed us some French books that had been sent to him. He spoke of the fact that no new generation of poets stood ready to take the place of that which had grown old and would pass away with Tennyson, lamenting this result of the utilitarian tendency of the age.

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