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Lingave's Temptation

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"Another day," uttered the poet Lingave, as he awoke in the morning, and turned him drowsily on his hard pallet, "another day comes out, burthened with its weight of woes.3 Of what use is existence to me? Crushed down beneath the merciless heel of Poverty, and no promise of hope to cheer me on, what have I in prospect but a life neglected, and a death of misery?

The youth paused; but receiving no answer to his questions, thought proper to continue the peevish soliloquy without waiting any further.4

"I am a genius, they say," and the speaker smiled bitterly, "but genius is not apparel and food. Why should I exist in the world, unknown, unloved, pressed with cares, while so many around me have all their souls can desire? I behold the splendid equipages roll by—I see the respectful bow at the presence of pride—and I curse the contrast between my own lot, and the fortune of the rich.5 The lofty air—the show of dress—the aristocratic demeanor—the glitter of jewels—dazzle my eyes; and sharp-toothed envy works within me. I hate these haughty and favored ones. Why: should my path be so much rougher than theirs? Pitiable, unfortunate man that I am! to be placed beneath those whom in my heart I despise—and to be constantly tantalized with the presence of that wealth I cannot enjoy!"

And the poet covered his eyes with his hands, and wept from very passion and fretfulness.

O, Lingave! be more of a man! Have you not the treasures of health and untainted propensities, which many of those you envy never enjoy? Are you not their superior in mental power, in liberal views of mankind, and in comprehensive intellect? And even allowing you the choice, how would you shudder at changing, in total, conditions with them? Besides, were you willing to devote all your time and energies, you could gain property too: squeeze, and toil, and worry, and twist everything into a matter of profit, and you can become a great man, as far as money goes to make greatness.

Retreat, then, Man of the Polished Soul, from those irritable complaints against your lot—those longings for wealth and puerile distinction, not worthy your class. Do justice, philosopher, to your own powers. While the world runs after its shadows and its bubbles, (thus commune in your own mind,) we will fold ourselves in our circle of understanding, and look with an eye of apathy on those things it considers so mighty and so enviable. Let the proud man pass with his pompous glance—let the gay flutter in finery—let the foolish enjoy his folly—and the beautiful move on in his perishing glory; we will gaze without desire on all their possessions and all their pleasures. Our destiny is different from theirs. Not for such as we, are the lowly flights of their crippled wings. We acknowledge no fellowship with them in ambition. We composedly look down on the paths where they walk, and pursue our own, without uttering a wish to descend, and be as they. What is it to us that the mass pay us not that deference which wealth commands? We desire no applause, save the applause of the good and the discriminating—the choice spirits among men. Our intellect would be sullied, were the vulgar to approximate to it, by professing to readily enter in, and praising it. Our pride is a towering, and a thrice refined pride.

When Lingave had given way to his temper some half hour, or thereabout, he grew more calm, and bethought himself that he was acting a very silly part. He listened a moment to the clatter of the carts, and the tramp of early passengers on the pave below, as they wended along to commence their daily toil. It was just ere sunrise, and the season was summer.

A little canary bird, the only pet poor Lingave could afford to keep, chirped merrily in its cage on the wall.6 How slight a circumstance will sometimes change the whole current of our thoughts! The music of that bird, abstracting the mind of the poet but a moment from his sorrows, gave a chance for his natural buoyancy to act again.

Lingave sprang lightly from his bed, performed his ablutions and his simple toilet in short order—then hanging the cage on a nail outside the window, and speaking an endearment to the songster, which brought a perfect flood of melody in return—he slowly passed through his door, descended the long narrow turnings of the stairs, and stood in the open street. Undetermined as to any particular destination, he folded his hands behind him, cast his glance upon the ground, and moved listlessly onward.

Hour after hour the poet walked along—up this street and down that—he recked not how or where. And as crowded thoroughfares are hardly the most fit places for a man to let his fancy soar in the clouds—many a push and shove and curse did the dreamer get bestowed upon him.

The booming of the city clock sounded forth the hour twelve—high noon.

"Ho! Lingave!" cried a voice from an open basement window as the poet passed.

He stopped, and then unwittingly would have walked on still, not fully awakened from his reverie.

"Lingave, I say!" cried the voice again, and the person to whom the voice attached, stretched his head quite out into the area in front, "stop, man. Have you forgotten your appointment?"

"Oh! ah!" said the poet, and he smiled unmeaningly, and descending the steps, went into the office of Ridman, whose call it was that had startled him in his walk.

Who was Ridman?—While the poet is waiting the convenience of that personage, it may be as well to explain.

Ridman was a money-maker. He had much penetration, considerable knowledge of the world, and a disposition to be constantly in the midst of enterprise, excitement, and stir. His schemes for gaining wealth were various; he had dipped into almost every branch and channel of business. A slight acquaintance of several years standing, subsisted between him and the poet. The day previous a boy had called with a note from Ridman to Lingave, desiring the presence of the latter at the money-maker's room. The poet returned for answer that he would be there. This was the engagement which he came near breaking.

Ridman had a smooth tongue. All his ingenuity was needed in the explanation to his companion of why and wherefore the latter had been sent for.

It is not requisite to state specifically the nature of the offer made by the man of wealth to the poet.7 Ridman, in one of his enterprises, found it necessary to procure the aid of such a person as Lingave—a writer of power, a master of elegant diction, of fine taste, in style passionate yet pure, and of the delicate imagery that belongs only to the Children of Song. The youth was absolutely startled at the magnificent and permanent remuneration which was held out to him for a moderate exercise of his talents.

But the nature of the services required! All the sophistry and art of Ridman could not veil its repulsiveness. The poet was to labor for the advancement of what he felt to be unholy—he was to inculcate what would lower the perfection of man. He promised to give an answer to the proposal the succeeding day, and left the place.

Now during the many hours there was a war going on in the heart of the poor poet. He was indeed poor; often, he had no certainty whether he should be able to procure the next day's meals. And the poet knew the beauty of truth, and adored, not in the abstract merely, but in practice, the excellence of upright principles.

Night came. Lingave, wearied, lay upon his pallet again and slept.8

The misty veil thrown over him, the Spirit of Poesy came to his visions, and stood beside him, and looked down pleasantly with her large eyes, which were bright and liquid like the reflection of stars in a lake.

Virtue, (such imagining, then, seemed conscious to the soul of the dreamer,) is ever the sinew of true genius. Together, the two in one, they are endowed with immortal strength, and approach loftily to Him from whom both spring.9

Yet there are those that having great powers, bend them to the slavery of Wrong. God forgive them! for they surely do it ignorantly or heedlessly! Oh, could he who lightly tosses around him the seeds of evil, in his writings, or his enduring thoughts, or his chance words—could he see how, haply, they are to spring up in distant time and poison the air, and putrify and cause to sicken—would he not shrink back in horror! A bad principle, jestingly spoken—a falsehood, but of a word—may taint a whole nation!

Let the man to whom the Great Master has given the might of mind, beware how he uses that might. If for the furtherance of bad ends, what can be expected but that, as the hour of the closing scene draws nigh, thoughts of harm done and capacities distorted from their proper aim, and strength so laid out that men must be worse instead of better through the exertion of that strength—will come and swarm like spectres around him?

Be and continue poor, young man," so taught one whose counsels should be graven on the heart of every youth, "while others around you grow rich by fraud and disloyalty. Be without place and power, while others beg their way upward. Bear the pain of disappointed hopes, while others gain the accomplishment of theirs by flattery. Forego the gracious pressure of a hand for which others cringe and crawl. Wrap yourself in your own virtue, and seek a friend and your daily bread. If you have, in such a course, grown gray with unblenched honor, bless God and die."10

When Lingave awoke the next morning, there was no vacillating in his mind about the answer he should make to Ridman. He despatched that answer, and then plodded on as in the days before.11


1. For the New-York Observer. [back]

2. The date and location of the first printing of "Lingave's Temptation" remains uncertain, but the story's publication in The New-York Observer is the earliest known printing of the tale. According to Thomas L. Brasher, the Charles E. Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress includes a clipping from an early periodical printing of "Lingave's Tempation" that is marked with Whitman's revisions for Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882). See Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 331 n1. Hereafter, EPF. Whitman included the tale in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Lingave's Temptation." For a complete list of revisions to the language of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in Collect, see Brasher, EPF, 331–334. For the publication history of the story, see "About 'Lingave's Temptation.'" [back]

3. "Lingave's Temptation" is unique among Whitman's short stories insofar as the title character is a young poet. See Patrick McGuire, "Lingave's Temptation," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 396. [back]

4. This paragraph and the two that follow have been combined into a single paragraph in Collect. [back]

5. An equipage is a carriage pulled by horses. [back]

6. This paragraph has been combined with the previous one in Collect. [back]

7. In Collect, the phrase "specifically the nature of the offer" has been replaced with "state specifically the offer." [back]

8. This paragraph is combined with the following one in Collect. [back]

9. This paragraph and the two that follow are combined into a single paragraph in Collect. [back]

10. "Unblenched honor" may describe a person whose beliefs and reputation remain uncompromised and unblemished. [back]

11. In Collect, the final sentence reads as follows: "when Lingave awoke the next morning, he despatch'd his answer to his wealthy friend, and then plodded on as in the days before." [back]

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