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Walt Whitman: His Life, His Poetry, Himself





Poet of the Personal and the Present, Prophet of the Future—His New Volume of Prose and Verse—His Home and Health.

Correspondence of The Republican.  

"Walt Whitman! Walt Whitman! Who is Walt Whitman?" Thus wrote, eight years ago and six thousand miles from here, old Ferdinand Freiligrath, as opening sentence to a series of articles,—translations and criticisms,—in the Augsburger Alllgeimeinen Zeitung. I am going to suppose that such a question is not necessary, to-day, for your readers, though an answer to it may be interesting to them for all that. So having met often and seen and learned much of this same Walt Whitman here in Camden now for two years, I want to write you a letter all and several about him. But first let me explain part of my head-line. During the winter, the old man always dresses in gray, besides having a bushy beard and long hair of the same color; and thus it was that when James Harlan turned him out of the Interior Department, years ago, young William O'Connor of Washington wrote and printed the tract entitled, "The Good Gray Poet."


Then, before describing his present condition,—and, in fact, to understand it properly,—it is necessary to say that Whitman, considered from the point of view of his friends, is not only the especial "Poet of health and strength," but for quite a long life has himself been a signal exemplification of those blessings. John Burroughs, the ornithologist and litterateur, in his personal and literary "Notes," thus draws his portrait, transcribing verbatim a letter from an officer at Washington, under date of November 28, 1870:—

"You ask for some particulars of my friend Whitman. You know I first fell in with him years ago in the army; we then lived awhile in the same tent, and now I occupy the adjoining room to his. I can, therefore, gratify your curiosity. He is a large-looking man. While in the market, the other day, with a party of us, we were all weighed; his weight was 200 pounds. But I will just start with him like with the day. He is fond of the sun, and, at this season, soon as it is well up, shining in his room, he is out in its beams for a cold-water bath, with hand and sponge, after a brisk use of the flesh-brush. Then, blithely singing,—his singing often pleasantly wakes me,—he proceeds to finish his toilet, about which he is quite particular. Then forth for a walk in the open air, or, perhaps, some short exercise in the gymnasium. Then to breakfast—no sipping and nibbling—he demolishes meat, eggs, rolls, toast, roast potatoes, coffee, buckwheat cakes, at a terrible rate. Then walking moderately to his desk in the Attorney General's office—a pleasant desk, with large, south window at his left, looking away down the Potomac, and across to Virginia on one side. He is at present in first-rate bodily health. Of his mind you must judge from his writings, as I have sent them to you. He is not what is called ceremonious or polite, but I have noticed invariably kind and tolerant with children, servants, laborers, and the illiterate. He gives freely to the poor, according to his means. He can be freezing in manner, and knows how to fend off bores, though really the most affectionate of men. For instance, I saw him,—was with him, the other day, meeting, at the railroad depot, after a long separation, a family group, to all the members of whom he was attached through the tenderest former associations, and some he had known from childhood, interchanging great hearty kisses with each, the boys and men as well as the girls and women. Sometimes he and I only—sometimes a large party of us—go off on rambles of several miles out in the country, or over the hills; sometimes we go nights, when the moon is fine. On such occasions he contributes his part to the general fun. You might hear his voice, half in sport, declaiming some passage from a poem or play; and his song or laugh about as often as any, sounding in the open air."

This, remember, was some five years since.


In January, 1873, Mr Whitman had an attack of the nature of a paralytic stroke. He was in Washington at the time, in the occupation above alluded to. The attack does not seem to have been very severe at first. He was apparently recovering in May, and had resumed work at his desk in the Treasury building, when his mother died, somewhat suddenly. She was a remarkably noble character, and the attachment between mother and son was greater even than usual. He also lost a favorite sister about the same time by death. He was now prostrated, and had a relapse. He gave up his clerkship in the Attorney General's office, left Washington and came on here. The physicians pronounce his disease—a tediously baffling trouble of the brain and nervous power, with lately grave affections of the stomach and liver superinduced—to have had its foundation in a series of too long continued, overstrained labors and excitements, physical and emotional, in the army hospitals and on the field, among the wounded and sick during the last three years of the war. For over two years now he has been living here very plainly and simply, in seclusion. He is poor, but not in want. He is now in his 57th year, having been born May 31, 1819. He is a Long Islander (New Yorker) by birth, of English stock on the father's side and Holland Dutch on the mother's; though for at least five generations on both sides he comes of American nativity. That these represent farmers, sailors, soldiers ("rebels" of '76), Quakers, drivers, mechanics (his father was a carpenter by trade), may interest those who are curious in the study of heredity.


"Leaves of Grass,"—this yet furiously fought about book, (it seems not settled yet whether it is a craze or a creation,)— has passed through five or six stages of growth, otherwise editions. It first appeared just 20 years ago, as a sprawling, thin quarto, consisting of 12 "poems," in pica type. In a year and a half the 12 had increased to 30, and came out in a fat little 16mo. Next the very finely gotten up Boston edition of 1860, in ordinary 12mo., which size has been adhered to since. There have been two issues since, one in Washington and one in New York, and the pieces have grown to over 200, upon every conceivable topic. As to their form and style, let me quote old Freiligrath again:—

"Are these verses? The lines are arranged like verses, to be sure, but verses they are not. No meter, no rhyme, no stanzas. Rhythmical prose, ductile verses. At first sight rugged, inflexible, formless; but yet, for a more delicate ear, not devoid of euphony. The language homely, hearty, straightforward, naming everything by its true name, shrinking for nothing, sometimes obscure. The tone rhapsodical, like that of a seer, often unequal, the sublime mingled with the trivial even to the point of insipidity. He reminds us sometimes, with all the differences that exist besides, of our own Hamann, or of Carlyle's oracular wisdom, or of the 'Paroles d'un Croyant.' Through all there sounds out the Bible—its language, not its creed."


Under the title of "Two Rivulets," Whitman is preparing at the present date, or has prepared, a new volume of prose and verse, which will be out, probably, this fall. It takes its name, "Two Rivulets," from a small collection of alternated poems with prose essays, leading the volume. I believe, too, it is intended to be emblematical of the double influences of life and death, and of the real and ideal. It will be a thorough mélange, comprehending political and patriotic writing, not only peace papers but war papers; also the prose "Democratic Vistas" and the poems of "Passage to India," already published; with "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," and a number of altogether new poetical pieces. I have heard the poet say, half in fun, half in earnest, that, while "Leaves of Grass" is the physiology of his utterance, these "Rivulets" will be the pathology of it. The "Leaves" will remain intact in the edition of 1872, comprising 380 pages. The forthcoming volume will be about as large, and mote​ than one-third of it will be entirely new matter. This arrangement of two volumes is made, as I understand, principally to round and fill out the author's plan of expression, but partly for typographic and bibliophic reasons—as the first volume was getting too bulky.


Let me give an idea of Whitman from his own living talk. Some time since, I heard him, answering an inquiry, make the following remarks in conversation—remarks I took the liberty of writing down immediately afterward: "Well, I'll suggest to you what my poems have grown out of. I know as well as any one they are ambitious and egotistical. But I hope the foundations are far deeper. We have, to-day, no songs, no expression, from the highest poet's and artist's point, or from the eternal imagination point, of science and democracy, and of the modern. The war-like spirit of the antique world and its typical heroes and personages have been fully depicted and preserved in Homer. Rapt ecstasy and oriental veneration are in the Bible; the literature of those qualities will never, can never, ascend any higher. The ages of feudalism and European chivalry, through their results in personnel, are in Shakespeare. But where is the work, where the poem, in which the entirely different but fully equal glories and practice of our own democratic age, the modern, are held in solution—are fused in the human personality and emotions—and are fully expressed? If, for instance, by some vast convulsion, the great scientific, materialistic and political embodiments of to-day in America, and the animating spirit of them, were totally overwhelmed and lost, where is the poem, or first-class æsthetic work in any department, which, if saved from the wreck, could preserve those advanced characteristic memories of to-day to succeeding worlds of men?"

At another time I heard him say: "You speak of Shakespeare, and the relative poetical and historical demands and opportunities then and now—my own included. Shakespeare had his boundless, rich material, all his characters waiting to be woven in. The feudal world had been, had grown, had richly flourished for centuries—gave him the perfect king, the lord, the finished gentleman, all that is heroic and gallant, and graceful and proud, and beautiful and refined—gave him the exquisite and seductive transfiguration of caste—sifted and selected out of the huge masses, as if for him, choice specimens of noble gentlemen, and gave them to him—gave him all the varied and romantic incidents of the military, civil, political, and ecclesiastical history of a thousand years. All stood up, ready, as it were, to fall into the ranks for him. Then the time comes for the sunset of feudalism. A new power has appeared; and the flush, the pomp, the accumulated materials of those ages, have all the gorgeousness of sunset. At this time Shakespeare appears. By amazing opportuneness, his faculty, his power, his personal circumstances come—and he is their poet.

"But I, for my poems—What have I? I have all to make. The feudal poet, as I say, was the finder and user of materials, characters, all ready for him—but I have really to make all, except my own inspiration and intentions—have to map out, fashion, form and knit and sing the ideal American. Shakespeare, and all, sang the past. I project the future—depend on the future for my audience."

At another time: "I know perfectly well my road is different. Most of the great poets are impersonal; I am personal. They portray characters, events, passions, but never mention themselves. In my poems, all revolves around, concentrates in, radiates from myself. I have but one central figure, the general human personality typified in myself. But my book compels, absolutely necessitates every reader to transpose him or herself into that central position, and become the living fountain, actor, experiencer himself or herself, of every page, every aspiration, every line."


For some four or five years past there has been a very friendly personal correspondence between Tennyson and Whitman. It first commenced with a letter from the English laureate, full of courtesy to his American brother, and warmly inviting him to come to England and accept the hospitality of his roof. An English gentleman, a neighbor and friend of Tennyson's, traveling in the United States, had called on Whitman in Washington, and the latter took occasion to send Tennyson, by him, an autograph copy of "Leaves of Grass." The laureate's letter followed, as above. Other letters have since been sent from each. In fact, the two old fellows have become quite affectionate toward each other, not as poets, but as men and brethren, and have interchanged photographs as special mementoes. In a late letter, Tennyson cheers his American friend with good words, and mentions a case of cerebral disease within his own knowledge in England, similar to Whitman's, where the patient got over it, and has been restored to sound health. It is probable that the English poet, with all his admirers (it is indeed, singular, as one is Democracy and one is Aristocracy), has none who so thoroughly appreciates him, has as warm a personal attachment to him, and so discriminatingly, yet constantly, champions him, as Whitman. I met the latter, lately, all aglow from a perusal of "Queen Mary," which he pronounced one of the world's greatest dramas of emotion, character, and poetic beauty.


Quite a good deal of contradictory gossip has been going around the land, of late years, on Emerson's attitude toward these poems, and opinion of the author. The first and partial appearance of Whitman brought out the following letter to him, dated Concord, July 21, 1855:—

Dear Sir: I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of "Leaves of Grass." I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits; namely, of fortifying and encouraging. I did not know, until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay you my respects. R. W. Emerson

It is quite certain that, for some reason or other, Mr Emerson afterward cooled toward or took offense at him of "the barbaric yawp." But now again it is said that, for the last two years, Mr Emerson has not only resumed his original ground, but commends the poems more than ever. I leave this puzzle of compass-boxing to be explained by those who can solute better than myself. My own private opinion, however, is that Whitman is a hard nut to crack, is easily liable to be misunderstood, especially at first, has many points of offense against literary law and Boston decorum, and sometimes really passeth all understanding. It is well known among his friends that he does not at all pretend to be "good," at least in the usual sense, nor to aim after making his book so.


John Burroughs, before alluded to, says in the second edition of his "Notes": "Walt Whitman himself has warned me that my essay was seriously deficient in not containing this distinct admission [namely, of faults,] applied to him. 'My friends,' he said, 'are blind to the real devils that are in me. My enemies discover fancy ones. I perceive in clear moments that my work is not the accomplishment of perfections, but destined, I hope, always to arouse an unquenchable feeling and ardor for them. It is out of struggle and turmoil I have written.'" Burroughs further goes on to say: "It is mostly as a physical being, a practical citizen, and his combination of qualities as such in the nineteenth century and in the United States, that I find him, to use Carlyle's phrase, 'a man furnished for the highest of all enterprises—that of being the poet of his age.' And if that age, or if future ages, will not understand 'Leaves of Grass,' or will understand them with difficulty, my conviction is that it is mainly because there exists no true and complete, but either an entirely defective or incredibly false and vicious conception, or want of conception, in society, of the author personally. Indeed, I doubt whether Walt Whitman's writings can be realized, except through first knowing or getting a true notion of the corporeal man and his manners, and coming in rapport with them. His form, physiognomy, gait, vocalization—the very touch of him, and the glance of his eyes upon you—all have closely to do with the subtlest meaning of his verse. His manners exemplify his book. Even a knowledge of his ancestry, with the theory he entertains, and which is justified by his own case, of what he calls 'the best motherhood,' would light up many portions of his poems."


The Camden mechanics and young men have a flourishing literary society here, called the "Walt Whitman Club;" and, some weeks since, they gave a musical and other entertainment for the benefit of the poor fund, at which Whitman readily appeared as reader of one of his own poems. There was a crowded house, the report in the local paper saying: "Probably the best part of the audience drawn to the entertainment by a mixture of wonder and uncertainty what sort of a being Walt Whitman really was, and what sort of a thing one of his poems might prove to be." The report goes on to give the following account of his appearance and reading:—

"A large, lame old man, six feet tall, dressed in a complete suit of English gray, hobbled slowly out to view, with the assistance of a stout buckthorn staff. Though ill from paralysis, the clear blue eyes, complexion of transparent red, and fullness of figure so well known to the New Yorkers and Washingtonians of the past 15 years, and in Camden and Philadelphia of late, all remain about the same. With his snowy hair and fleecy beard, and in a manner which singularly combined strong emphasis with the very realization of self-composure, simplicity and ease, Mr Whitman, for it was he, (though he might be taken at first sight for 75 or 80, he is in fact not yet 57) proceeded to read, sitting, his poem of the 'Mystic Trumpeter.' His voice is firm, magnetic, and with a certain peculiar quality we heard an admiring auditor call unaffectedness. Its range is baritone, merging into bass. He reads very leisurely, makes frequent pauses or gaps, enunciates with distinctness, and uses few gestures, but those very significant. Is he eloquent and dramatic? No, not in the conventional sense, as illustrated by the best known stars of the pulpit, court-room, or the stage—for the bent of his reading, in fact, the whole idea of it, is evidently to first form an enormous mental fund, as it were, within the regions of the chest, and heart, and lungs—a sort of interior battery—out of which, charged to the full with such emotional impetus only, and without ranting or any of the usual accessories or clap-trap of the actor or singer, he launches what he has to say free of noise or strain, yet with a power that makes one almost tremble."


Besides very copious translations of Whitman in the German language, he has been translated and printed in Danish by Rudolf Schmidt, in Hungarian at Buda-Pesth, and in French in Paris, in a long article giving the highest praise to his war poetry, in the "Revue des Deux Mondes," by M Benzon. All are said to be spirited and faithful renderings. An English edition of his poems, or selections from them, has been published in London. The prose "Democratic Vistas" has been translated and printed in full in Denmark (Karl Schonberg's Forlag, Copenhagen, 1874.) The "Westminster Review" devoted much space, some time since, to a searching analysis of his book, its modernness and democracy. A leading Cambridge man, Prof Clifford, in a London lecture on "the Relation between Science and Modern Poetry," assigned a main part to Whitman, and pronounced him the only poet whose verse, based on modern scientific spirit, is vivified throughout with what he terms the "cosmic emotion." Swinburne and Robert Buchanan have apostrophized him in their published poems; and a late "Academy" concludes a long article on "Leaves of Grass" by pronouncing it "a book the most unquestionable in originality, if not the most unquestioned in excellence, that the United States have yet sent us."

But for the best foreign view of Whitman I am compelled again to return to Freiligrath, who is eminent as poet, linguist and critic. In the preface to the translations in the "Zeitung," he says of Whitman's advent: "A wonderful appearance. We confess that it moves us, disturbs us, will not loose its hold upon us. At the same time, however, we would remark that we are not yet ready with our judgment of it, that we are still biased by our first impression. Meanwhile we, probably the first in Germany to do so, will take at least a provisional view of the scope and tendency of this new energy. It is fitting that our poets and thinkers should have a closer look at this strange new comrade, who threatens to overturn our entire Ars Poetica and all our theories and canons on the subject of æsthetics. Indeed, when we have listened to all that is within these earnest pages, when we have grown familiar with the deep, resounding roar of those, as it were, surges of the sea in their unbroken sequence of rhapsodical verses breaking upon us, then will our ordinary verse-making, our system of forcing thought into all sorts of received forms, our playing with ring and sound, our syllable-counting and measure of quantity, our sonnet-writing and construction of strophes and stanzas, seem to us almost childish. Are we really come to the point, when life, even in poetry, calls imperatively for new forms of expression? Has the age so much and such serious matter to say, that the old vessels no longer suffice for the new contents? Are we standing before a poetry of the ages to come, just as some years ago a music of the ages to come was announced to us? And is Walt Whitman a greater than Richard Wagner?"


The candid truth needs it to go on record that the subject of these fine foreign praises and prophecies—still surrounded in his own country with coldness, neglect and frequent mockery—is eking out his last years in indigence and illness here in Camden, and has not, even to this day, found a publisher for his works, which (though the demand is steady and not inconsiderable), cannot be procured at all at the stores, and the small editions of which, so far, Whitman has printed himself.

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