Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Beloved Walt Whitman: An Ambrosial Night with his Devoted Friends and Admirers

Creator: Anonymous

Date: October 26, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: med.00612

Source: The World 26 October 1890. 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

image 1



An Ambrosial Night with his Devoted
Friends and Admirers.




The Good, Gray Poet, a Devout Believer, Challenges the Doughty Colonel's Atheism—He Reads a Translation of Murger's Poem, "On Death," That Doesn't Please the Colonel.

Around the table in the dining-room of the Lafayette Hotel, Philadelphia, Walt Whitman, the aged poet, and Col. Robert G. Ingersoll discussed religion and death.

The clock struck midnight while they were talking.

It was Tuesday night, after Col. Ingersoll's address in Horticultural Hall for the benefit of Whitman.

With a deal of care and tenderness the crippled poet, who cannot stand upright and who must be handled as carefully as the daintiest glass, was removed from the platform of the hall back to the hotel.

He was put into his invalid-chair on descending at the hotel and rolled through the long corridor to the dining-room, where he was to partake of some light refreshment.

A dozen of the poet's friends, who heard that Col. Ingersoll was to chat with him while he ate, accompanied him to the dining-room. As the little procession followed the chair through the corridor it had a funeral look. The old poet, suffering from the reaction after the excitement of the ovation he had received at the hall, looked thirty years older than his seventy-one years. Some said he was the oldest-looking man they had ever seen. He realized one's ideal of the Old Man of the Seat—long, white beard, "breaking in venerable flood upon his breast," unkempt locks as white as snow tumbling over ear and temple, and half-dimmed, mild eyes looking out beneath frosty eaves, hands thin and trembling as they lay upon the arms of the chair.


In the dining-room Walt was drawn up to a table whereon was placed a glass of champagne. Into this, during the evening, the poet dipped pieces of bread, which he munched with difficulty.

Col. Ingersoll sat beside him in light overcoat, his high silk hat laid aside. Walt's broad-brimmed felt partially covered his long-hair. The Colonel had a glass of apollinaris before him.

The conversation was fragmentary for half an hour. The large dining-room was half dark except where, here and there, a late diner was seated.

Suddenly Walt's right hand fluttered feebly into his right pocket and he drew forth a crumpled, well-worn piece of paper. He opened the sheet and a look of surprise lighted up his pallid face.

"I found this in my coat," he said. "I don't often put on this coat. This poem is a translation of mine from the French of Henri Murger. I'll read it to you."

This he said with difficulty and with much hesitation. All through the evening he seemed to be making an effort to pull his great mental forces together. The sight was sad.

Raising his voice he began to read in a childish treble. The scattered diners left their seats and flocked about the long table at the head of which sat the two gray-haired men.

The room was dark save where one chandelier threw a patch of light upon the reader's yellow paper.

The writers in their white aprons flitted about on the edge of the listening group like semi-ghosts.

The words whistled through the poet's thick beard as they came in aspirate puffs from his thin lips. Several ladies looked around at the darkness, and, shivering, moved up closer to the patch of light. Here are the lines he read:

"Whose steps are those? Who comes so late?"
"Let me come in, the door unlock."
"'Tis midnight now; my lonely gate
"If I open to no stranger's knock.
"Who art though? Speak!"—"Men call me Fame;
To immortality I lead."
"Pass, idle phantom of a name."
"Listen again, and now take heed.
"'Twas false. My names are Song, Love, Art.
My poet, now unbar the door."
"Art's dead, Song cannot touch my hear,
My once love's name I chant no more."
"Open then now, for, see, I stand,
Riches my name, with endless gold,
Gold, and your wish in either hand."
Gold, and your wish in either hand."
"Then if it must be, since the door
Stands shut, my last true name to know,
Men call me Death. Delay no more;
I bring the cure of every woe."
The door flies wide. "Ah, guest so wan,
Forgive the poor place where I dwell;
An ice-cold hearth, a heart-sick man,
Stand here to welcome thee full well."

Not a sound had disturbed the reading. When he had finished Whitman looked up at Ingersoll, who had never taken his eyes off the old man, and said with a cracked inflection: "Isn't that funny?"

Ingersoll shrugged his shoulders, drew his head down and said slowly: "I don't think there is anything funny about death. It's so sort of cold, so white. I don't like it."

Walt nodded his head slowly. There was a pause, as if he were trying to make a connection between death and what he was about to say. At last he said: "I believe religion has done more good to the world than harm."

This unchained the dialogue that followed. Ingersoll, who addressed the group more than the poet, quickly replied:

"It might have done so had it only stuck to the good. It didn't; it taught what was mean and cruel. It puts me in mind of my visit to a church when I was a boy. It was a Presbyterian church and the preacher was in a high box above my head. I fell asleep and at last rolled off the seat, which awoke me. I awoke just in time to hear the preacher tell the story of Dives and Lazarus. He dwelt on every detail with vividness. I was filled with an awful fear as I heard him speak."

Ingersoll's facial play here was superb. Expressing his fear, his eye gradually widened, and he half rose, peering into the darkness.

"I can remember," he went on, "how I looked up at the pulpit with an ever-growing fear as the preacher told of how Dives suffered the tortures of hell and how he was mocked with the cry that he had his good things in this world and must suffer in the next. I hated that God then, and when I came to be a man and realized that in the 2,000 years God had never sent Lazarus out of Abraham's bosom to put a drop of water on Dives's tongue—bah! If religion had kept to the good for this life it might have done less harm."


Whitman—Sometimes it is better to soar.

Ingersoll—No, the reason why I like you, Walt, is that you have written for people here and now.

Whitman (raising his bony hand in air)—I think I have soared in the clouds a great deal, and—

Ingersoll (interrupting)—Yes, but you have taken lots of dirt up with you.

This sally brought a burst of laughter from the group.

Walt only raised his bushy brows and shook his head. He saw he could not make front against a man whose repartee came like flashes.

Ingersoll—My grandfather was the sort of man who believed all the world would be damned except himself. He was sorry for it, but couldn't help it. My grandmother thought all would be saved except herself, and—here Ingersoll half rose from his chair and extended his hand aloft—she was as much above the man as the stars are above a duck's tracks in the mud.

Whitman—Do you believe in all I have written?

Ingersoll—No; far from it. Much you have written I do not believe in, but you have made men and women stronger, and I like you for it. There is only one thing I have against you, Walt."

Ingersoll took hold of the old man's sleeve. Those who had heard Ingersoll say in the lecture that "the most indecent word in our language is celibacy," half expected what followed.

"I have only one thing against you, and that is that you didn't marry. You ought to have got a girl, Walt."

The old poet looked at him puzzled, as if he had long since forgotten the meaning of the word girl.

"The religion I bow to," went on Ingersoll, "is the one that teaches men to love their wives more tenderly, to hold their children on their knees a little tighter. As to worship and prayer, if I saw a savage kneel before a stuffed snake praying that wife or child might be given back to him, I would kneel and pray with him, but that cruel God in heaven I cannot pay to, I hate him."

The old poet's bread had absorbed all the champagne and he began to look fatigued. The party gathered around him to say good-by, probably the last one. Tears were in the eyes of some as they watched the poet utter his feeble good-by.

When Ingersoll's turn came to go he tapped Walt's hand and said, cheerily: "I hope you'll live many a year yet."

To this Walt replied: "You might wish me something better than that."


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