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Walt Whitman: The Grizzled Poet Talks about Mr. Childs in His Pleasant, Quaint Way



The Grizzled Poet Talks About Mr. Childs in  
 His Pleasant, Quaint Way.

A few lines in Edward King's Philadelphia correspondence to the Boston Journal, in which he mentioned meeting Walt Whitman leaving "the palatial office of Mr. Childs, of the Philadelphia Ledger," suggested the thought that the "good, gray poet," having been made the channel through which many of Mr. Childs' benefactions flowed, might be enabled to talk, as he can talk, concerning him who has been talked of for the Berlin Mission. In South Camden, at the corner of West and Stevens streets, in a very neat and a very cosy, if not a very pretentious dwelling, lives the poet who so many revere. Even yesterday, when the wind whistled its way and raced madly and blew keenly up from the river, the very front door of the poet's house breathed an air of hospitality and warmth out into the chill street. The front door stood ajar. Inside all was warmth and comfort. Among other paintings upon the parlor walls was a large portrait of a young man; ruddy-faced, bright-eyed and cheery-looking. Walt. Whitman came down stairs with firm tread but with a halt in his gait.

"Ah, I can only hobble along now," he said laughingly. I am spry no longer, but my spirits are as high-flown as ever. That attack of paralysis four years ago was a severe blow to me, and I have had several small shocks since then. I call myself half an invalid, but only half."

Standing beneath the portrait, the aged but broad figure made a striking picture; nor was the dissimilarity between that picture and the portrait at all great. The poet's face was just as ruddy as the bright face above him, and his eyes were as bright and his smile as genial but the face on the canvas was adorned with heavy brown locks. Time has touched him lightly. The "gray poet" aptly describes him. He could sit for a picture of good, merry Santa Claus—yes, and had he that monarch's sway, act the character to perfection. Gray hairs cover a massive head. Gray beard encircles a kind face. A complete suit of gray envelops what, but for the halting step, would be a sturdy form. Even the shoe-gaiters are of gray. Wristbands are turned down and a big Byronic linen collar, encircling a broad throat, falls in loose folds full to the middle of the shirt front, the long gray beard concealing the bared breast.

"Is Mr. Childs talked of for the Berlin Mission? I did not know that. I don't think he would accept such a position, but still I would like only too well to put a feather in his cap were I the proper person to do such a thing. But I don't think I am the proper person. I don't think it would be fit."

"Are you not intimately acquainted with Mr. Childs?"

"Bless you, no. I do know George W. Childs as a man whose hand is open as the day, but I never met him more than twice in all my life. Why, I only met him once, when I come to think of it. Henry W. Longfellow, the poet, wished to come over here to see me, and it being a bright, summer day, Mr. Childs accompanied him. They did not remain here more than fifteen minutes, I think. Letters have passed between Mr. Childs and myself, however, and he has done me the honor of intimating that whenever I knew of a really deserving case of charity he would be glad if I would inform him concerning it. In that way I have become the medium through which some of his generosity has found its way. I never knew him to fail to respond to an appeal that should have been heard."

"Then you did not visit him in his office?"

"Oh, that came about in this way: I know a number of printers and clerks in Mr. Childs' employ, and I dropped into the Ledger office to see a young man who had showed Lord Houghton the way over here when that nobleman came to see me. I was asked to step into Mr. Childs' private office, and as they appeared so anxious that I should do so I acquiesced. It is really magnificent. Well, I can't see how any man could work in such a place. I know I could not. I could do my work much better with ink-blotches about me and a litter around and with a few broken chairs in the room.

"But Mr. Childs is a character. You people across the river should be able to talk better of him than I can. I am not a Philadelphian and I am not even a Camdenian. I have only been kept here by sickness and I am liable to flit away at any moment. I am a fellow, a poet, not one knows anything about such things as foreign appointments, but I do say that Mr. Childs is really a character. He reminds me of some of the Greeks of the heroic age; not that he is a hero, but he fills a place, and an important place, in his period. He is a man like Ulysses, or, to come down to later times, a man like General Grant, in that he fills aptly a certain gap. Understand, he is not a hero, nor a genius, nor a poet, but he is a man of business, and, having amassed wealth, he throws his money around right and left.

"I am afraid you people in Philadelphia do not appreciate the worth you have among you in Mr. Childs. Certain papers, the New York Sun, or instance, attempt to be funny at his expense, and call him 'the obituary poet,' and I am even afraid that some of Mr. Childs' fellow-townsmen—I hope I am mistaken—look upon him as a goody-goody sort of man, and that's about all. I tell you they don't appreciate the man. He is a character. I am not the one to talk of him. My feeling towards him is something more than admiration—it partakes of reverence."

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