Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: A Chat With the "Good Gray Poet"

Creator: Anonymous

Date: June 5, 1880

Whitman Archive ID: med.00548

Source: London Advertiser 5 June 1880. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey

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A Chat With the "Good Gray Poet."

What He Has to Say About Himself and Things in General.

As previously announced in the Advertiser, Walt Whitman arrived in this city last evening, in company with Dr. Bucke, whose guest the "good gray poet" will be during his stay in London. The recent lecture of the Doctor and the newspaper discussion that took place subsequently, had excited a good deal of curiosity among the people, and quite a number were on the platform to catch a glimpse of Whitman as he alighted. it was seen that Walt Whitman is a man of about six feet one inch, moderately stout, and weighing probably between 220 and 230 pounds. He wears a full beard, quite gray, and has a very intellectual appearance. A high forehead, a large nose, and clear, bright eyes, and a mouth hidden almost from view by a luxuriant growth of beard and moustache, are the marked characteristics of the poet at first glance, and subsequent conversation fully bears out the idea formed that Walt Whitman, whatever may be the opinion of admirers or detractors, is at least a man more than ordinarily noticeable. A slight lameness is observed, but otherwise he carries well his sixty-one years and seems full of animation. As he stepped off the train he entered the carriage, and was soon conveyed to the residence of Dr. Bucke. An Advertiser representative was not long in the following, and it will interest the reader to learn some facts concerning the poet who sings the song of the Democrat as given in his own words.

"Yes," he said, "this is my first visit, properly speaking, to Canada, although I was at Niagara Falls some thirty years ago."He expressed himself as highly pleased with the country through which he had passed coming from the Bridge to London, and although necessarily somewhat fatigued by the journey from Philadelphia was in good spirits and spoke with vivacity.

He was told that his works had excited a good deal of interest in London, and that they had been severly animadverted upon by a clergyman of the city, Rev. Mr. Murray, and that gentleman was on the platform as he arrived.

"Ah," said Whitman, "I should have liked to have met him. I wish he had come and spoken to me," and the manner in which he spoke showed that he was plainly in earnest.

Whitman speaks freely and unaffectedly of his life and poetry. He told that he was born on the 31st of May, 1819, at West Hills, Long Island, where his father followed the occupation of a farmer. His father was of English descent and his mother sprung from Hollandic stock. His parents having removed to Brooklyn, he, at an early age, learned the trade of a compositor, and when not more than sixteen or seventeen began teaching school. Giving this up in a year or so, he travelled through all the Middle and Southern States, and finally returned to Brooklyn. Here, in 1855, commenced to put to press "Leaves of Grass," having set up the type of it by himself. He gave his work a great deal of revision, experiencing a difficulty in eliminating the stock poetical touches, if the idea may be conveyed in that way. In 1862 he went to the war, and it was while acting as nurse of the wounded soldiers that he gained the sobriquet of the "Good Gray Poet," that has since clung to him. At the close of the war he received a position as a clerk in the Attorney-General's office, which he retained till 1874, when he became paralysed and moved to Camden, N.J., where he at present resides with his brother, Col. Whitman.

Any reference to Walt Whitman would be incomplete indeed that did not have a reference to literature, and the interviewer cannot help but ask his views on the subject.

He reads but little comparatively, so he said, but his favorite works are those of Sir Walter Scott (some of which he has read five or six times), George Sand, Shakespeare, Homer, and "that best of all books, the Bible," the quoted words being spoken with a reverence that one would scarce expect in a man denounced for his immorality.

Whitman says that when quite a youth he began to write in the style which he has made his own. He came to the conclusion that the old forms of poetry, which are well enough in their way, and whose beauty no one appreciates more than himself, were not quite suited for the expression of American democracy and American manhood. He made many experiments and destroyed his MSS., 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 generally of all poets, he says, but particularly true of the minor poets, that they have selected only the delicate things, the mere prettiness, for poetic treatment. The noble Greek poets seemed to think the gods and their rulers were worthy of celebration. Shakespeare 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. Nature is strong and rank. This rankness is seen everywhere in a 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—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 trees, there is a beautiful rhythm. How monotonous it would become—how tired the ears would get of it—if it were regular. It is undermelody and rhythm that I have attempted to catch, and years after I have written a line, when I have 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."

Speaking of his contemporary poets, Whitman says that Emerson is by far the greatest of American authors, worthy to hold his own with the great geniuses of other lands and other times. Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, (though he does not place the last two on a par with Emerson,) and Longfellow form a very bright and honorable cluster in literature. Whittier he does not regard as great, and the motive of his "Maud Muller" he considers as unworthy of poetic treatment.

"Ah, me! if I could only marry a rich man!" (the expression placed in the mouth of the heroine,) he regards as unworthy of any American woman. (Query—Why only American?) Bryant he likes. There is about him an odor of out-of-doors, of freedom—the democracy that Whitmanings.

Considering the turn taken by the recent discussion in this city concerning the morality of Whitman's works, his religious views will be of interest. Perhaps we can best give a hint in this direction by transcribing an incident recorded in his diary.

"This afternoon, July 22, 1863, I spent a long time with a young man I have been with a great deal from time to time named Oscar F. Wilbur, company 6, 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 works 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, and 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.'"

The hour was late, and it was not well that the fatigue of the journey should be supplemented by too much conversation, yet it was learned that Walt Whiman is a man with whom any can converse with distinct convictions on literature and religion, and while it is not the province of the reporter to pronounce upon his orthodoxy, there can be no doubt that he is a reverent man, with no suggestion of irreverence or pruriency in his talk. It is probable that he will remain with Dr. Bucke the greater part of the summer, and possibly he may deliver a lecture in the course of his stay in London.


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