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Walt Whitman: The Poet Chats on the Haps and Mishaps of Life






It was with some trepidation that I waited in the parlor of the modest and cosy home of Walt Whitman, at the corner of Stevens and West streets, in Camden, for I recalled the words of Rosetti​ , who, in his volume of criticism on the leading English poets of all time, closes his notice of Longfellow, the only American represented in the book, with the words: "But a far greater than he, far greater than all his American contemporaries, is Walt Whitman." And if Professor Clifford, Mr. Symonds, Professor Tyrrell, Freiligrath and the "Revue des Deux Mondes" are right; if English poets like Tennyson and Swinburne, and such American writers as Emerson and John Burroughs, have not hailed with too great haste Whitman as the poet they have long looked for, then he is to American literature what Homer is to the Greek, Dante to the Italian, and Shakspeare to the English. If they have MEASURED HIS GREATNESS aright it may come to pass that one shall be remembered simply because one "gave and took in common talk" with him, and one may well tremble inwardly a little before such an interview.

A heavy and irregular footfall overhead, telling of lameness, came along the hall, and slowly down the stairway, and the poet entered the room. I see he is above the average height, that his hair and beard are long and white as snow, and afterward, when he sits with his back to the light from the window there is perceptible in his ruddy face a deep, rich, almost maroon color. The face must have been very handsome once, and now, as he talks, the lines of age fade away, the face takes on the look of youth again, and the beauty of a portrait that hangs upon the wall. His eyes are blue-grey and his forehead prominent just above the eyes, but not high. Although he will not clothe his ideas in the old forms of poetry, he has not declined to dress his body in the style of garments which poets affect, and his expanse of shirt bosom, fastened with a white button the size and shape of a buttonwood ball, and his vast rolling collar are of spotless purity.

His health has been much improved by the leisurely jaunt of the last few months through Colorado, Kansas and Missouri, and he expressed pleasure at finding how truthfully he had represented in his poetry the vastness, the life, the soil and the rankness of the West. He had never been West but once before, on a hurried trip, and was not personally familiar with that section of the country. "Still, I have always," he said, "taken the greatest care to be accurate in what I have written. I have associated much with Western people—with boatmen, herders, men of the plains—and have got them to spin their yarns for me, something they were really always ready to do," he added, with a laugh, "and it pleases me to find that I have written of things as they really are. On the sea I have not always been so fortunate. In one of my descriptions of the vast spaces of the sea occurred the line, 'Where the she-whale swims with her calves and never forsakes them.' I submitted this to an old whaler, and, after hesitating a good deal, he told me that he had never seen a she-whale with more than one calf; that all whalers believed the whale had but one calf at a time. In the next edition of my volume I changed the line to * * * 'With her calf and never forsakes it.'"

Walt Whitman's voice is full and strong, and he talks with some hesitancy, after the manner of a man accustomed to express himself with the pen. He was born in 1819 on the western edge of Suffolk county, Long Island, within sound of the sea. He grew up there, roaming the whole island. It has been described as "a peculiar region—plenty of sea shore, sandy, stormy, uninviting, the horizon boundless, the air healthy but too strong for invalids, the bays a wonderful resort for aquatic birds—meadows covered with salt hay—and with numberless springs of the sweetest water in the world." He was educated in the common schools, and afterward worked in the printing offices, occasionally writing for magazines, and as a newspaper editor. In 1847-8 he started on a long jaunt over the Middle and Southern States, up the Mississippi to the great lakes, and along THE EDGES OF CANADA.

In 1855 he settled in Brooklyn and New York city as a business man, owned several houses and was worth some money. But suddenly he abandoned all, and commenced writing poems, possessessed​ by the notion that he must make epics or lyrics "fit for the New World," and that bee still buzzes in his head. "Leaves of Grass" was printed twenty-three years ago, partly by his own hand. Since then five or six new editions have been put forth by himself. When quite a youth he began to write in a style which he has made his own. He came to the conclusion that the old forms of poetry, which he says are well enough in their way, and whose beauties no one appreciates more than himself, were not suited for the expression of American democracy and American manhood. He made many experiments, and destroyed his manuscripts again and again; and as he rejected the old forms, so he threw overboard all the regular stock in trade of the poets. It is true of nearly all poets, he says, but particularly true of the minor poets, that they have selected only the delicate things, the mere prettinesses for poetic treatment. The noble Greek poets seemed to think only the gods and their works were worthy of celebration. Shakspeare wrote chiefly of kings, "but it has been my favorite idea," says Whitman, "to give expression to nature as we actually find it—the man, the American man, the laborer, boatman and mechanic. The great painters were as willing to paint a blacksmith as a lord. Why should the poets only confine themselves to mere sentiment? The theologians to a man teach humility and that the body is the sinful setting of the immortal soul. I wish men to be proud, to be proud of their bodies, to look upon the body as a thing of beauty, too holy to be abused by vice and debauchery.

"The fault I have to find with Tennyson, although he is a master of his art, with Longfellow, Whittier, and all the rest, is that they are too much like saints. The work of Heaven is not done on the earth by means of saints. Nature is strong and rank; this rankness is seen everywhere in man; and it is to this strength and rankness that I have endeavored to give voice. It pleases me to think, also, that if any of my work shall survive, it will be the fellowship in it; the comradeship—friendship is the good old word—the love of my fellow-men. As to the form of my poetry I have rejected the rhymed and blank verse. I have a particular abhorrence of blank verse, but I cling to rhythm; not the outward, regularly measured, short foot, long foot—short foot, long foot—like the walking of a lame man, that I care nothing for. The waves of the sea do not break on the beach, one wave every so many minutes; the wind does not go jerking through the pine trees, but nevertheless in the roll of the waves and in the soughing of the wind in the tree there is a beautiful rhythm. How monotonous it would become, how tired the ear would get of it, if it were regular! It is this under-melody and rhythm that I have attempted to catch, and years after I have written a line, when I read it to myself, or my friends read it aloud, I think I have found it. It has been quite a trial to myself to destroy some of my own pretty things, but I have rigidly excluded everything of the kind from my books." Walt Whitman regards Emerson as by far the greatest of all American authors, as worthy to hold his own with the great geniuses of other lands and other times. "Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, though I should not place the laston two​ a par with the first named," he said, "and Longfellow—I do not know why Longfellow's name should be omitted from the list—form a very BRIGHT AND HONORABLE CLUSTER in our literature. It will be hard to surpass their achievements." Whittier he does not think a great artist, and regards the motive of "Maud Muller" as particularly bad, and unworthy of poetic treatment. "That any American woman should say, 'Ah, me! if I could only marry a rich man,' is to me an intolerable thought. In Bryant's poetry there is a breath of the open air that, to me, is very sweet. About the man himself—I knew him well—there was the same odor of out of doors. Bayard Taylor was industrious, and meant well. He won for himself a very honorable place in the world."

The final cast and coloring of Whitman's poetry is taken from the Secession war (the Union war, he calls it), and he himself is fond of considering that poetry as mainly expressing the twenty or thirty years of which that contest was the centre and culmination. How he went down on the field in '61, and spent four years as a hard-working, unpaid army nurse, when were planted the seeds of the disease that now cripples him and makes him an old man at 61; how he was discharged from his clerkship in the Interior Department at Washington once for being the author of the "Leaves of Grass," and again for being sick, have been told before, but the facts cannot be dinned too often into the ears of the people of an ungrateful Republic.

Whitman himself dwells with more satisfaction on his own doings in those four years of the war than on his now world-renowned literary productions. At that period he had the perfection of health, strength and endurance. He was on the go night and day, disbursed immense sums of money, and from first to last had under his care 100,000 soldiers, a portion of whose cases he attended to with his own hands.

For seven years, half sick, half well, he has boarded with his brother, Colonel Whitman of Camden, and though in very narrow circumstances he is not in physical want, nor does he expect to be. He can walk very little, for he is permanently paralyzed.

During 1877, both as an occupation in his half-sick hours and to "keep the wolf from the door," Whitman finally brought out himself his revised and completed writings in two volumes, the "Leaves of Grass" and anewer​ one, "Two Rivulets," and he continues to act as his own publisher and salesman at Camden. In his poems this nineteenth century of ours, the "Union War" and the comradeship of humanity are the chief factors. In his new volume (1877) he has printed A CURIOUS LITTLE DIARY of the times from 1862 to the middle of 1865, when he steadily devoted himself to the wounded and sick of the army hospitals. The following is a specimen incident from the diary: This afternoon, July 22, 1863, I spent a long time with a young man I have been with a good deal from time to time, named Oscar F. Wilbur, Company G, 154th New York, low with chronic diarrhea, and a bad wound also. He asked me to read him a chapter in the New Testament. I complied, and asked him what I should read. He said, "Make your own choice." I opened at the close of one of the first books of the Evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man asked me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He asked me if I enjoyed religion. I said, "Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, maybe, it is the same thing." He said: "It is my chief reliance." He talked of death, and said he did not fear it. I said: "Why, Oscar, don't you think you will get well?" He said: "I may, but it is not probable." He spoke calmly of his condition. The wound was very bad: it discharged much. Then the diarrhea had prostrated him, and I felt that he was even then the same as dying. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he returned four-fold. He gave me his mother's address, Mrs. Sally D. Wilber, Allegheny post-office, Cattaraugus county, New York. I had several such interviews with him. He died a few days after the one just described.

After an hour's conversation, I left Walt Whitman, feeling that whatever may be said in the discussion, which every year grows louder and more diverse, over his poetry, that at least his method, however startling in its novelty, had not been adopted by him merely as a sail to catch the winds of England—to bear him into popularity there, where they have been looking anxiously for an American poet who should be new, striking, different, the production of her own soil and without a suggestion of the authors who had lived before—and, certainly, this single line of his: Vivas to those who have failed— is worth a good many pages of empty words of the much decorated verse so popular now; and there is rugged thought in this, from "Leaves of Grass:" I think I could turn and live with animals, they are 
 so placid andself-​ contained;
I stand and look at them sometimes an hour at a 
They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for 
 their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to 
No one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the 
 mania of owning things.
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived 
 thousands of years ago,
Not one that is respectable or industrious over the 
 whole earth.

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