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Walt Whitman: Visit to the Good Gray Poet at His Place of Abode



Visit to the Good Gray Poet at His Place of  

Camden is sought only as a place for cheap homes for those who do business or have employment in Philadelphia. Here lives Walt Whitman, whose contributions to the poetic world have about them such an absence of rhythm and so much of the supernatural that their readings suggest a Dakota cyclone or a steamboat afire on the Mississippi. I found the poet living in a two-story frame house, suggesting outwardly the comforts without the pretensions of life. It was built with the clapboards overlapping each other, and painted a modest, light brown. On the door was what at a glance I should say was a genuine silver plate, modestly inscribed, "W. Whitman." Here he lives with a housekeeper, a matronly, fairly good-looking woman. "Come in," she said, "Mr. Whitman is at home and will join you presently." I was ushered into the sanctum. It presented a Babel of confusion. On the floor were strewn, with the genuine abandon of carelessness books, magazines, newspaper clippings and most anything to add to its topsy turvy appearance. On the wall was a portrait in oil of Tennyson. To the right of it a picture of Wilson Barrett, the English actor, having upon it, inscribed in bold sign-manual: "I place my hand in thine. Wilson Barrett." To the left a small engraving of Charles Dickens. The room had about it the suggestions of comfort. There was in one corner a brass table, having upon it a lamp of parti-colors. There was bric-a-brac here and there, yet without effort for effect or harmony. Thrown here and there loosely were the skins of animals; one on the chair which is claimed as the "poet's own" was what looked like the skin of a polar bear. The approach of the poet was heralded by the entrance of a coach-dog with a kindly, intelligent face, spotted like the camelopard. Then I heard the measured shambling of footsteps, and as the sound grew nearer, so long was it before the bard loomed up, that it came as a threnody. Then a shadow, scarcely more in look, stalked slowly into the room and took a seat. Had I been in the wild woods the suggestion would have come unbidden that I was in the presence of a hermit. Strangely weird was he, outdoing even his erratic fancy as a poet. In build tall, angular and loose-jointed. A head large and covered with a frowsy, unkempt silver canopy. A face somewhat lightened by a mild gray eye, but made forbidding, with a suit of pure white hair which fringed every part of it, even to the heavily arched eyebrows. To add to his unique appearance his dress was in complete unison. On his feet a pair of carpet slippers worn almost to the warp. About his body wrapped a small shawl, drawn tightly over the shoulders, the colors of which gave neither light nor animation to his face. His pantaloons bagged at the knee, and came of a grayish stuff, suggesting the want of ventilation or the tub. The housekeeper gave the word of caution that Mr. Whitman was quite a sick man, and care must be taken not to excite him unduly.

In coversation Mr. Whitman is guarded and reticent, animated only when aroused upon subjects of his friendship. He speaks with much ease and with flexible intonation. His voice is clear, firm and rather inclined to be musical.

"Who of all the poets is your favorite?"

"Tennyson," was his reply.

The coal-black eyes of the housekeeper were cast upon him. He seemed to wilt. Placing his hand upon his forehead he said:

"The doctor has told me I must not answer questions—they confuse me."

Then he lapsed into a state of semi-languor.

"Which of all your own writings is your favorite?"

"I have no special favorite," he said. "I like them all. But," he replied with some petulance, "do not confuse me.".

I found that he had a weak spot for Wilson Barrett, the actor. To talk about him did not seem to invite the confusion which came with a talk about himself.

"What shall I say, Mr. Whitman," I ventured, "to the public which you think will interest them?"

"Tell them," he said, "that in my mind I feel quite vigorous; but that in body I am well used up with a paralytic shock which overtook me some months ago. The Doctor has enjoined upon me absolute quiet, and if I enter into any extended conversation with you I violate his command."

When in health he wanders as a familiar figure through the streets of Camden, where he is respected, wearing a gray or white flannel shirt with Byronic collar, cut low, exposing a goodly part of the neck. For some time he has completely intermitted literary work. He does not seem to be in want, and enjoys life as one might expect to at his years and physical decrepitude.—[Correspondence Mail and Express.

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