Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman and the Tennyson Visit

Creator: William H. Ballou

Date: July 3, 1885

Whitman Archive ID: med.00578

Source: Camden Post 3 July 1885. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. 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

image 1

Walt Whitman and the Tennyson Visit.

"It having been announced that Walt Whitman was about to go abroad to visit Lord Tennyson, I hastened (says W.H. Ballon in the Cleveland Leader) from New York to Camden, N.J., to solicit an interview. Camden is the alleged Brooklyn of Philadelphia. The corner groceryman pointed out a low two-story frame house. As I passed one of the parlor windows I saw a small photograph of Victor Hugo, framed and bordered with mourning, hanging in a pane of glass. Then I thought of the numerous obituary accounts of Hugo throughout the English speaking world which has interwoven the two names together as the exponents of the most advanced literature of the two hemispheres. A young woman not over thirty years of age came to the door. She ushered me into a little parlor, and without taking my name, went up stairs to announce to the poet the arrival of a guest.

"While waiting, I glanced around the room. The furniture was of the plainest old-fashioned type; there were the old wooden rocking chairs, with cane bottoms, a plain rag carpet, and a dreadfully antique fireplace. A canary sang with all his might, and a kitten played to and fro. Piles of papers and magazines were stacked in chairs, on the floors, and several oil paintings were pendant to the walls—one of the father and one of the mother of the poet.

"I was interrupted in my investigation by the sound of heavy footsteps descending the narrow stairs. A tall form appeared at the doorway, straight as an arrow, and my hand was cordially grasped. The poet's hair and beard were fleecy, shining, white, and long, his clothing was of the simplest type—a sack coat of tweed, and trousers of the same material, hand-knit hose, and low calf shoes of granger type.

"Sit there in the easy rocker, began Mr. Whitman, in a clear, musical voice. Yes, I am going to visit Tennyson soon, I hope. [Very doubtful. W.W. is ruddy, fat and gay hearted, but is permanently and badly crippled and cannot travel any distance.-ED'S POST.] When I was in Washington, during the war, he wrote to me, inviting me to visit him in England, and become his guest. A friendly correspondence ensued. In 1874 I was stricken with paralysis, and out correspondence was interrupted. Since then it has continued at intervals. I am an admirer of Tennyson, though I cannot say that he has ever put on record any critical or literary opinion of me.

"My health? Well, I am really what I call myself—a half paralytic, and adhere closely to my own home and rooms. I have numerous offers of assistance from abroad, but have no occasion for it, and in all such cases decline with thanks. My income is just sufficient to keep my head above water—and what more can a poet ask? As it is, I am sixty-six years old and still in the harness, writing from time to time. I will probably have a new volume out in the course of the year. One of the titles I have thought of for it is, 'Sands at Sixty-seven.' The book will comprise a number of poems not hitherto published, various prose articles, and will be of that melange character for which I am criticised.

"My opinion of other American poets? I am an admirer of Bryant, Emerson, Whittier, and Longfellow—in the order given. I would put Bryant first in many respects. For a long period I placed Emerson at the head of American poetic literature, but of late I consider Bryant worthy of leading place on account of a certain native vitality and patriotic character as well as an odor in his poetry as in the woods and by the sea shore. Emerson's great points are intellectual freedom, perfect style, and real manliness; but the tendency of his writings is to refine and sharpen off till the points are lost. Whittier is fervid, rather grim, expressing a Quaker Puritan element in New England history that is precious. I think in his old age he is inclined to get out of the narrow rut of Puritanic Quakerism. Longfellow as a poet of grace and sweetness and amiability will always be welcome. Don't know that I have anything to say concerning the great brood of poets springing up. They often seem to me like the echoes of an echo.

"About politics? I am an optimist. Although I always voted the Republican ticket until the last time, when I staid at home, I am satisfied with the administration. Cleveland seems to me like a huge wall, great on his impedimenta, as it were. His character is just what it wanted to bring a solid resistance against political corruption.

"I believe that America is going on her way in the best method that is fitting to her. The first requisite is to establish the perennial basis of a great materialistic civilization—products, machinery, intercommunication and all that practical modern improvements can achieve, equally spread over our vast domain. The things done during out existence as a people in the past century are just the best that could have been done. Upon these bases in the future and in good time will come an intellectual, literary and artistic development fitting for us. While I am satisfied with the absorption so far of foreign literary contributions as nutriment, yet I look forward to the time when poetry and other great imaginative results will be produced in the United States as becoming to them as were the æsthetic products of the classical ages of Greece appropriate to such ages.

"Also the secession war battlefields? yes, I derived much inspiration from such sources. A large part of "Leaves of Grass" consists of war poems on a variety of subjects, fierce tussels on the field at night, or in the woods, a pause, the retreat, the torpor of a hot day in a crowded hospital, a squad of cavalry crossing a ford—themes all jotted down at the time and on the spot. For three years I was among the sick and wounded, my health and strength being all the time perfect. The scenes and sights I met with form that section of my book called 'Drum Taps.' I find it curious how thoroughly these pages are read and accepted in the South and by Confederates as well as Union soldiers.

"My religion? I should refuse to be called a materialist. I think I combine the spiritualistic inseparably in my books and theory. I believe in Darwinism and evolution from A to izzard. Things in our time, politics, religious investigation, sociology are going on as well as possibility could be. Everything is progressing as it should. I don't think America and the age realize their own unparalleled conditions and virtues. These are as near perfect as they can be for the aggregate of people.

"Twelve years ago I came to Camden to die; but I went into the country, found a secluded Creek, and naked bathed in sunshine, lived with the birds and squirrels and played in the water with the fishes. I recovered what I call my second wind from nature. Strange how she carries us through periods of infirmity out into realms of freedom and health.

"I write three hours a day, haunt the Delaware river much of the time, am a good liver and not a teetotaler."


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