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Talks with Noted Men




The Poet's Friend, Prof. Cope, the Scientist—An Interesting Talk on Discoveries Affecting the Theory of Evolution—What Has Caused Changes in Forms—Poet and Philosopher at One in Religion, Believing in a Deity Only Through Evolution.

Walt Whitman has not written a line of poetry for over a year. "I am waiting for the muse," he said sadly when I spent the day with him recently. He lives in precisely the last spot on earth that a poet would naturally select. Philadelphia has an imitation of Brooklyn in the form of Camden, N. J., which is as dusty and unpleasant a place as one can imagine. The Delaware River, which must be crossed to get there, is invariably covered with oil which diffuses its fumes through the riparian air. After a ride across this stream one follows a railway up to Fourth street, turns to the right one block to Mickle street, where Whitman's little house stands, shaken by heavily-laden trains, clanging car-bells, and shrieking whistles. Around the house are smoking, noisy manufactories. On one side is a police and fire station and on the other a small grocery and a saloon. A single tree shades the little wooden structure in front, on which a flock of sparrows have established a claim and set the gray bard's poems to music.

description in caption Engraving of Whitman, based on an 1880 photograph taken by Frederick Gutekunst, with the poet's signature at bottom

"How kind of you to come," he always says, "and what is the news from the world? Is there any progress in science, religion, or art?" These questions must be discussed at length before he will talk about himself. He sits by the window opening into the street nearly all day. Over his lower parts a huge skin of an unfortunate polar bear is always present, which is strangely in keeping with his long-flowing, silky white hair and beard. His voice is clear and musical, his senses perfect, and even at the age of 67 his mind shows no approach of dotage.

"I wish you would say to the public," he remarked, "how thankful I am for the recent manifestations of esteem. My publisher has only sent me $80 as profits on my books for over a year. The profits on 'Leaves of Grass' were only $20 for the same time. But my friends everywhere are remembering me. A young man in England recently sent me a £50 note, with a letter stating that he had come into his inheritance and wanted to divide with me. You know by the papers what other English friends have done. It would not be the truth to say that my only friends are in England. When I read my poem on Lincoln in Philadelphia the other day, the profits were $700. Surely no one could be happier than I. The horse and carriage which was generously provided for me gives me daily recreation and pleasure. Suppose the muse never comes again and there remains but to sit, paralytic as I am, and live on sweet memories of the past and the final recognition of the present, is not my life a happy one? My spirits are buoyant and my health fair: I am indeed content."

"Do you intend to remain here the rest of your life?"

"Hardly; I have hopes of visiting New York in warm weather. I have friends there and boyhood associations to live over."

I cannot but recall Whitman's remarkable statements about the West. He regards the literary work of the East but the basis—the stimulus or nursery, as he calls it—of the great works that are to find their local origin in the West. He thinks that the priairies offer the grandest suggestions for the imaginaton. "I have spent," he said, "much of my life on the prairies and among hte Rocky Mountains, and some of the poems I wrote there if left out of my works would be like omission of an eye from the human face. I am compelled to admit that my Western experiences are behind all of my life work. There is a great poetic expression to come out of the soil conforming to the public and private life of the West. The primary materials of poetry are the same forever. It will never do to chew forever the poetry of the Old World, of which Shakspeare's is the most illustirous model. Poetry is a font of type, to be set up again consistently with American democratic institutions."

A day with Whitman is like passing one's time with some lofty being far above the present type of man, in another world, full of sunshine and the songs of birds within, but all black and despairing without. There is not a pessimistic drop of blood in his veins. "I am no materialist," he declared. "I endeavor to combine the materialistic with the spiritualistic in all of my thoughts, written and unwritten, spoken and unspoken. I believe in the doctrine of Darwin—in evolution from A to Z. What you have told me of the advances of the theory by Cope and the other great evolutionists of the age is food to my soul. I can only be satisfied with a combination of a loftier and deeper theology and science than has ever been furnished. Everything is progressing toward that end as it should. The movements of our time in politics, science, religion, and sociology are toward a loftier conception of the human thought and constant upward tendency. I am content with the grand, sweeping advance, stamping an optimism on the age."

description in caption Engraving of Edward Cope, signed "E D. Cope"

We have only to cross the Delaware to find Prof. Edward D. Cope, the great successor of Darwin, referred to by Whitman, and converse with him on those grand advances of evolution to which the culture of the age is now turning its earnest attention. On Pine street is a double brick house of huge proportions, solidly trimmed with marble. Here lives the descendant of the great family, who with Penn, formed the basis of civilization in Pennsylvania. One-half of the house contains the living apartments; the other is filled with thousands of species of fossil animals discovered and named by Cope. I think, next to Whitman, I have spent more time with Cope than with any other American, and can voice his principal thoughts with absolute accuracy and perhaps translate them to the understanding of all.

"Evolution," says Cope, "is exactly, perhaps, what its opponents think it is not. Evolution does not mean a convulsion by which the anthropoid (manlike) ape became a man or the anthropoid lemur an ape. It means a continuity in the successive sets of animals, etc., which have inhabited the earth in all ages from the lowest to the highest forms. A cow does not turn into a horse, for instance; but the ancestor of each was a similar and lower animal, and his ancestor still lower and similar. There are few instances where lower forms were the offshoot from the higher, none that I think of except the bear, which degenerated from one of the earlier dog families."

"What are the advances of the doctrine of evolution made since the time of Darwin?"

"Darwin explained why animals which have made advantageous changes of structure were preserved and those which have not were lost; the great advance is in the accumulation of evidence showing how such changes came about in the first place."

"How were these changes made?"

"Structures grew and were made by use and lost by disuse. Their beginnings may be said to be due to effort, for that which does not begin cannot be used. Nutrition, changes of climate, and other causes were operative in the beginnings of new structures."

"How have the genealogical lines of animals been traced?"

"Through the study of animals found in a fossil condition. Such study shows clearly how structures developed or were lost. Many structures were formed by conflict and contact outwardly and the exercise of energies inwardly."

You mean to say that the changes in animal structures are the result of actions?"

"Yes; that animals in flying, digging, climbing, etc., went through gradual changes in the length and shapes of their bones, which were developed and improved. Back of that, in still earlier and lower forms of life, sensation or consciousness played its part in the beginnings f​ structures. Consciousness was the first beginning of life. Many functions of our bodies, digestion, etc., are habits, formed without doubt from a conscious beginning and have now become unconscious and automatic through habit."

"How did consciousness have a beginning?"

"You are asking the great question of the age. We are only studying the problems on which there are discoveries and facts to help us along. I should not be surprised if it were ultimately discovered that all forms of energy are simply automatic and dead products of primitive life energy."

"How do such doctrines affect theology?"

"Some may condemn them as Godless, but for my own part, and I speak for the great advanced culture of the age, I must say that such opinions give me a better ground for a belief in the existence of Deity and immortality than I can derive from any other source."

Such, then, is the doctrine which satisfied Whitman and led him to hope for a loftier and deeper theology to combine with it.

W. H. B.
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