Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: A Visit to the Good Gray Poet

Creator: Frank Sanborn

Date: April 19, 1876

Whitman Archive ID: med.00616

Source: The Springfield Daily Republican 19 April 1876. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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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His Philosophy and Way of Life—His Home in New Jersey—His New Volumes.

From Our Special Correspondent.

PHILADELPHIA, April 19, 1876.

More than ten years ago, when that illustrious statesman and Christian, Secretary Harlan of Iowa, turned Walt Whitman out of his little clerkship in the department of the interior at Washington, one of his eager young friends, Mr O'Connor, printed a warm defense of Whitman in which he termed him "the good gray poet." Whitman was then but 46 years of age, or a little older than Thoreau was when he died in 1862, but he had already begun to wear the grizzled beard and silvering locks that have become almost the badge of American poets, since Dana and Bryant and Longfellow have worn them so many years. Emerson, almost alone among the elder poets, has avoided the medieval beard and the insignia of old age—but even he, then 73 years old, as he will be, next month, will have laid aside much of that youthful and alert air that so long have marked him among men and poets. The story of Tithonus is still a parable of the poet,—he is immortal in his love, but loses with years the freshness of his life, and, at last, implores the goddess who made him happy to discharge him from her service and grant him repose among the dead.—

"Thou seest all things—thou wilt see my grave,
Thou wilt renew thy beauty, morn by morn;
I, earth in earth, forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels."

Now that Whitman has come almost to his 57th birthday (he was born at West Hills, Long Island, May 31, 1819), and has for some time been a confirmed invalid, he has assumed more entirely the grayness that was ascribed to him, and were he inclined to complain, like Tithonus, he might sigh forth, in remembering his former free and joyous life, of which his verses are so full, and contrasting it with his present retirement,—

"Alas for this gray shadow, once a man,
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who maddest him thy chosen, that he seemed
To his great heart none other than a god.
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds.
* * * I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow, roaming like a dream
The ever silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists and gleaming halls of morn."
But, like Thoreau in his later months of illness and retirement, Whitman, though graver than formerly, is none the less cheerful, and has no complaints or reproaches against the Muse or against the power that rules the world. Certain statements made in his name about the neglect of critics and publishers, and the hardships of poverty, have come from him only as a mention of the simple fact, and not as reproaches or entreaties, and they ought not so to be interpreted.

"For never poor beseeching glance
Shamed that sculptured countenance."

Whitman has long been a standing text in the newspapers for such wit as Heaven has provided us with, who write, as he once did, for the daily or weekly reader. He provokes jests by his mode of expression and by the contrast he presents to the ordinary and accepted way of life among Americans. He provokes also something more serious than the transient animosity that culminates in a parody or a joke, by the resolute way in which he intrudes, among ideal things, the fleshly and generative forces out of which human life springs, but of which the human soul is reasonably a little shy. This part of his philosophy—for such it is—must not be confounded with the erotic paroxysms of Swinburne, or the cold obscurities of Martial and other elder poets. It is a more ideal phase than those, and, with a little more refinement and modesty in its presentation, would be hardly worse than Shakespeare's treatment of the same matters. It is, for all that, a very great stone of stumbling and ground of offense to the better portion of his readers, and especially to women, upon whom, of late years, and perhaps always, poets have much depended for their audience. It is by taking advantage of this blot that good Peter Bayne has been able to find so many readers for his dull abuse of Whitman in the Contemporary Review; and it is partly because some cheap and nasty poets in England rave a little too much about Whitman's genius (attracted by this very whim of his), that the virtuous people regard him with so much disgust. In sober fact, his verses are cleaner and his life incomparably more praiseworthy than Burns's,—whose praise is now in all the churches as well as among the people. But Burns had more romance and melody in his composition, and drew the other sex to read his poems by this attraction. Whitman has a broader range of thought than Burns, and touches upon many of the same chords of emotion, but for lack of the poetic form and melody can never, I suppose, be a popular writer, though very popular in his instincts and his topics. But as a moralist, or as a man of wholesome life and influence, no serious charge can be brought against Whitman, and when the balance is struck between him and certain idols of the people—say Beecher, for instance,—the judgment, even of his own time, will not be heavily against the poet, as compared with the preacher.

My first glimpse of Whitman was under such circumstances that I could not easily forget him. It was in April, 1860, when I had been seized at night by the Untied States marshal, under an unlawful warrant from Washington—as thousands have been since,—had then been taken from him by the sheriff and carried before the Massachusetts supreme court on a writ of habeas corpus. It was feared by some persons that, even if Judge Shaw discharged me (as he did), I might be again seized by the bailiffs of the slave-power, then in its last days of supremacy at Washington, and hurried away in defiance of the state authority. A large number of friends gathered in the court-room in Boston to prevent this by force, if necessary, and among them came Whitman, who was then in the city, publishing the second edition of his "Leaves of Grass." As I sat listening to the arguments of Andrew and Sewall in my behalf, and of Woodbury against them, and watched with admiration the dark, heavy judicial countenance of old Judge Shaw—as striking as the ugliest and wisest of the English chancellors,—I suddenly became aware of another face, no less remarkable, in the court-room. It was Whitman's,—he sat on a high seat near the door, wearing his loose jacket and open shirt-collar, over which poured the fullness of his beard, while above that the large and singular blue eyes, under heavy arching brows, wandered over the assembly, as some stately creature of the fields turns his eyes slowly about him in the presence of many men. I had heard that Whitman was present, and instantly conjectured him to be the magnificent stranger, as indeed he was. A few days afterward, I met him at his publisher's, and heard him expound his new philosophy, as he sat on the counter and listened to my compliments and objections. From that day—16 years ago—I had not seen him nor exchanged letters with him, until to-day. Hearing that he was brought to an anchor by his guardian genius, and owing him much good-will for the incident above-mentioned, as well as for his brave work in the world, I thought it a duty as well as a pleasure to go and see him. And a pleasure it certainly proved to be—for I found him, as one would wish to find such a person, master of himself and superior to his circumstances, which, also, are less painful than many have been supposed from the ejaculations of Mr. Robert Buchanan. Whitman could echo the proud words of his friend Tennyson:—

"Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel with smile or frown;
With that wild wheel we go not up or down;
Our hoard is little, but our hearts are great.
Turn, turn thy wheel above the starting crowd;
Thy wheel and thou are shadows in the cloud;
Thy wheel and thee we neither love nor hate."

Whitman lives comfortably and pleasantly, as an invalid can, with his brother, Col George W. Whitman, who is inspector of gas-pipes in the city of Camden. This is a populous but quiet place of twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants—in New Jersey, though a suburb of Philadelphia,—and the street where the Whitmans live (Stevens street, near Fifth) is a still, Philadelphia-looking quarter, of long rows of brick houses with white marble door-steps and white wooden shutters, in one of which, at a street corner, Whitman has taken up his abode. This house has a bay-window on the side street, by which I was directed to it from one of the neighboring houses; and through this bay-window the poet pointed out to me a magnolia-tree in a garden across the way, already in bloom at 11 o'clock, though at sunrise, as he said, not a bud upon it had unclosed. This was the second magnolia-tree I have noticed in blossom, yesterday and to-day, the season not being very forward. Eleven years ago, as Whitman says, when President Lincoln was assassinated (to-morrow is the anniversary), the lilac-bushes were in blossom in his mother's door-yard on Long Island; and ever since then the smell of the lilac brings to his mind the tragedy of Lincoln's death. You may have reached Whitman's home at Camden in half an hour from the Continental hotel in Philadelphia,—taking the street cars down Market street to the Camden ferry-boat (10 minutes), then crossing the Delaware, which takes 10 minutes more, and then driving up Fifth to Stevens street, and walking the short distance to the next corner where Whitman lives. The ferry-boat crosses every 15 minutes, and the street cars run all the time, so that it is easier and quicker to make the pilgrimage from Philadelphia than it is to visit the centennial grounds, where thousands daily throng. Whitman is not thronged with visitors, though many persons come to see him,—and I had a two hours' talk with him alone, to-day,—interrupted only by the coming of a man to bring him a few books, and by the visit of a neighbor's child, a little girl, who told us we could see the baby (Whitman's nephew and namesake, five months old), which we did accordingly.

In the room where I found Whitman, a few books were to be seen in a book-case, and two remarkable paintings hung on the wall. One was the portrait of Whitman himself, painted perhaps a dozen or fifteen years ago, before his hair and beard were gray and before his face had lost the colors of youth. The other is a good painting, perhaps 150 years old, of a Dutch ancestor of Whitman's whom he greatly resembles,—both having the ruddy, sensuous and thoughtful face, with strongly-marked eyebrows, and the ancestor, like the poet, wearing his coat open at the neck. The poet now dresses in gray clothes, matching well with his hair and beard, and wears a white scarf or handkerchief loosely tied about his neck above his blue waistcoat—altogether a picturesque and befitting attire, careless but effective. He was sitting by the window as I approached the house, and he opened the door to let me in—walking slowly and with a cane, but not painfully. He suffers much at times from his disorder, which he described as "a baffling kind of paralysis," that first attacked him three years ago, and from which he never expects fully to recover. It not only reduces his strength and affects his power of motion, but also attacks his digestive organs, and thus causes him many miserable hours—some of which he had experiences that morning, he said.But the expectation of my coming had toned him up, he thought, and he then felt well for an invalid, and cheerful, as he always seems to be. He talks gravely and with a melodious, manly voice, now and then affected by a slight hesitation, as if paralysis were giving him a hint not to move his tongue too much; and very simply, using words without affection, and choosing them for their fitness to express the idea or the picture in his mind. He talked no more about himself than most men do, and what he said on that score was interesting, which is not the case with most men. He is, certainly, a deeply interesting person, and it was easy to see what drew to him the admiration of Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau, who made his acquaintance in the years before the war—now so far remote. He is, indeed, a distinguished and superior person, apart from what he has written, and has an individuality as marked in its way as was that of Thoreau himself, who was but a year or two older than Whitman. Like Thoreau, Whitman spent much of his life with his mother and sister, between whom and himself the closet affection existed. Indeed, his attack of paralysis in Washington in 1873 was aggravated by the death, soon after, of his mother, his sister having died a little while before. His father, who was a farmer on Long Island, died in 1855, when Whitman was preparing to publish the first edition of "Leaves of Grass." Before this he had written sketches for the Democratic Review, and had helped edit several newspapers—among them the "Plebeian," the editor of which bore the appropriate name of Levi D. Slamm. Thoreau was also a writer for the Democratic Review in those days before the flood,—so were Hawthorne and, I believe, Bryant.

Whitman does not estimate American literature as most people do, but there is nothing mean or petty in the view he takes of it and of its chief authors. He thought it fortunate for American poetry that it has had for its sponsors four poets so manly, clean and strong as Emerson, Bryant, Longfellow and Whittier. Only one of these was his personal acquaintance, and Longfellow and Whittier I believe he never saw. Lowell he once saw for a few minutes, in the days when he wore his auburn hair long and sat for his portrait to Page, and wrote socialistic and anti-slavery poems for the newspapers. The Cambridge scholar, young, handsome and fat, as Whitman describes him, gave the Brooklyn mechanic-editor, who then saw him at the office of "The Plebeian," a high and pleasing conception of Yankee poets,—but he has not since set eyes on him. Emerson he came to know a few years later,—the Concord poet having sought him out in New York. Alcott and Thoreau called upon him at his mother's house in Brooklyn during a visit they were making in New York about 1858, and Alcott had since visited him, perhaps in Washington, where Miss Alcott, like Whitman, was a hospital nurse. He told me how he came to visit the camps,—his brother, the colonel, was badly wounded, and Whitman went down to Virginia to take care of him—perhaps to bring home his body. Though he found him better than was feared, yet other soldiers needed his care, and he never left that kind of hospital service during the war. To my mind the best poems that he has written were inspired by the war—and there are short passages, not so much poems as sentences, which are worthy to live, as perhaps they will, among those that Plutarch (and Homer before him) has handed down to immortality. Here are some such,—the first containing his advice to his countrymen in regard to state rights, in which Whitman firmly believes, though he was a strong antagonist of slavery and disunion. He calls it:—


"To The States or any one of them, or any city of
The States,—Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this
earth could ever afterward resumes its liberty."
Where could you find that doctrine more concisely taught, in spite of repetitions? Here is a portrait of Washington as good as any ever drawn,—Brooklyn Heights being the foreground:—
"And is this the ground Washington trod?
And these waters I listlessly daily cross, are these
the waters he crossed,
As resolute in defeat as other generals in their
proudest triumphs?"
Of a high officer in the civil war Whitman says:—

I saw old General at bay,
Old as he was, his gray eyes yet shone out in battle
like stars,
His small force was now completely hemmed in, on
his works."

And how could the whole connection of slavery with the civil war and its results be better summed up than in this strong poem?—


[A Reminiscence of 1864.]


Who are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly
With your wholly-white and turban'd head, and
bare, bony feet?
Why, rising by the road-side here, do you the colors


'Tis while our army lines Carolina's sand and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door, thou, Ethiopia, com'st
to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.


Me, master, years a hundred, since from my parents
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is
Then hither me, across the sea, the cruel slaver


No Further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban'd head she wags, and rolls
her darkling eye,
And curtseys to the regiments, the guidons mov-
ing by.


What is it, fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound—yellow, red
and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous, you see or
have seen?

To return for a moment to the comparison with Burns, here is a poem which cannot be sung like "Scots wha hae," but which is even more startling and moving than that. Whitman's lament for Lincoln also is as touching as most and more sublime than any of Burns's laments for earls and comrades. He, like Whitman, was a true and warm-hearted comrade, and his poetry speaks much of that. But Whitman considers it his mission to have celebrated comradeship in his poems, just as he idealized democracy in his philosophy. He wishes his works to be regarded (and so they are now published by himself) as a whole. So regarded, he believes that the objectionable passages will be found to have as natural a place in them, as the animal life of man has in his whole existence. He considers his philosophy a spiritual one—certainly an ideal one,—and by the maturer judgment of the world he is content to abide, as he must, in regard to his rank as a poet and philosopher. In these years of illness and enforced quiet, he has much considered and revised his books, and now he publishes them as he wishes them to stand and to be read. They make two volumes of about 700 pages in all, with three portraits of the author, and his autograph signature, finely bound, and sold for $5 a volume. The small edition he had prepared is selling fast, and he will print another. Perhaps even some publisher may come forward and offer to print for him, but he prefers now to be his own publisher.


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