bout six o'clock on a midsummer morning in 1877, a tall old man awoke, and was out of bed next moment,—but he moved with a certain slow leisureliness, as one who will not be hurried. The reason of this deliberate movement was obvious,—he had to drag a paralysed leg, which was only gradually recovering its ability and would always be slightly lame. Seen more closely, he was not by any means so old as at first sight one might imagine. His snow-white hair and almost-white grey beard indicated some eighty years: but he was vigorous, erect and rosy: his clear grey-blue eyes were bright with a "wild-hawk look,"—his face was firm and without a line. An air of splendid vital force, despite his infirmity, was diffused from his whole person, and defied the fact of his actual age, which was two years short of sixty.
Dressing with the same large, leisurely gestures as characterized him in everything, Walt Whitman was presently attired in his invariable suit of grey: and by the time the clock touched half-past seven, he was seated in the verandah, comfortably inhaling the sweet, fresh morning air, and quite ready for his simple breakfast.
In this old farmhouse, in the New Jersey hamlet of White Horse, Walt Whitman had been long an inmate. He was recovering by almost imperceptible degrees from the breakdown induced by over-strain, mental and physical, which had culminated in intermittent paralytic seizures for the last eight years, and had left his robust physique a mere wreck of its former magnificence. Here, in the absolute peace and seclusion of the little wooden house, with its few fields and fruit-trees, he lived in lovable companionship with the farmer-folk, man, wife and sons: and here, the level, faintly undulated country, "neither attractive nor unattractive," supplied all the needs of his strenuous nature and healed him with its calm, curative influences.
He steeped himself, month by month, season after season, in "primitive solitudes, winding stream, recluse and woody banks, sweet-feeding springs and all the charms that birds, grass, wild-flowers, rabbits and squirrels, old oaks, walnut-trees, etc., can bring." Simple fare, these charms might seem to a townsman: to the "good grey poet" they were not only sufficient but inexhaustible. Dearly as he loved the "swarming and tumultuous" life of cities, the tops of Broadway omnibuses, the Brooklyn ferry-boats, the eternal panorama of the multitude, his true delight was in the vast expanses, the illimitable spaces, the very earth from which, Antæus-like, he drew his vital strength. Out here, in the country solitudes, alone could he observe how—in a way undreamed of by the street-dweller,—
Ever upon this stage Is acted God's calm annual drama,It may be doubted whether any other poet who has been inspired by outdoor Nature, has approximated so closely as Whitman to the "shows of all variety," which nature presents,—from the infinite gradations of microscopic detail, to the enormous range and sweep of dim vastitudes. His poetry has a huge elemental quality, akin to that of winds and clouds and seas. "To speak with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals, and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside,"—this was the standard he had set himself: and, in pursuance of this ideal, he had given his first and most typically unconventional volume the title "Leaves of Grass." No name could better convey and sum up his meaning in art,—a commixture of the minute and the universal, the simple and the inexplicable, the particular and the all-pervading,—the commonplace which is also the miracle: for to Whitman leaves of grass were this and more. "To me," he declared, "as I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,"
Gorgeous processions, songs of birds,
Sunrise that fullest feeds and freshens most the soul,
The heaving sea, the waves upon the shore, the musical, strong waves,
The woods, the stalwart trees, the slender, tapering trees,
The lilliput countless armies of the grass.
(The Return of the Heroes.)
Every hour of the light and dark is a miracle—
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
the grass-blades no less so than the "gentle soft-born measureless light." And, avowedly, from these external expressions of nature he derived all power of song—
I hear you whispering there, O stars of heaven—
O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions,—
If you do not say anything, how can I say anything?
Thus he had arrived at declaring, with august arrogance: "Let others finish specimens—I never finish specimens: I shower them by exhaustless laws as Nature does, fresh and modern continually."
Nor are you to suppose that this was a late development of nature-worship in a man suddenly confronted with teeming glories and wonderments. All through his life he had been soaking himself in the mysterious loveliness of the world around. "Even as a boy," he wrote, "I had the fancy, the wish, to write a poem about the seashore—that suggesting dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid—that curious, lurking something (as doubtless every objective form finally becomes to the subjective spirit) which means far more than its mere first sight, grand as that is.... I felt that I must one day write a book expressing this liquid, mystic theme. Afterward ... it came to me that instead of any special lyrical or epical or literary attempt, the seashore should be an invisible influence, a pervading gauge and tally for me in my composition." Even as a child, upon the desolate beaches of Long Island, he had, "leaving his bed, wandered alone, bare-headed, barefoot," over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, and explored the secret sources of tragedy that are hidden at the roots of love.
When the snows had melted—
when the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama—two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Till of a sudden,But now the Stafford family were assembled at breakfast and Walt limped in to join them. Courteously and simply he greeted the various members of the household,—the dark, silent, diligent Methodist father,— the spiritually-minded yet busy-handed mother,—the two young fellows, the married daughter and her little ones. He was the most domesticated, least troublesome of inmates, and his "large sweet presence" imparted something to the homely breakfast-table, something of benignity and tranquillity, which it had lacked before his entrance. "The best man I ever knew," Mrs. Stafford called him. Her sons adored him; and her grandchildren were almost like his own, in the love and confidence with which they curled themselves upon his great grey knee when the meal was over. For his affection for children, his sense of fatherhood, was a predominant trait of Whitman's character. Lonely, since his mother's death, he had lived as regards the closer human relationships: lonely, in this sense, he was doomed to remain. A veil of secrecy hung over his past life, which none had ever ventured to lift. Rumours of a lost mate, as in the song of the Alabama bird upon the shore,—of children whom he never could claim,—hints of harsh fates and imperious destinies, occasionally penetrated that close-woven curtain of silence which covered his most intimate self. But only in his poems had he voiced his loneliness, and that with the tenderest poignancy of yearning for "better, loftier love's ideals, the divine wife, the sweet, eternal, perfect comrade"....
May-be kill'd, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch'd not on the nest,
Nor return'd that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear'd again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather....
Yes, when the stars glisten'd,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen'd long and long....
That woman who passionately clung to me.As breakfast passed, he spoke but little to his companions. His ordinary mood of "quiet yet cheerful serenity," lay gently on him, and he was content to sit almost silent, emanating that radiant power, that "effluence and inclusiveness as of the sun," which none could fail to note in him. When addressed, he only replied with the brief monosyllable "Ay? Ay?" (which he pronounced Oy? Oy?), and which, slightly inflected to answer various purposes, served him for all response.
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again she holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see her close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.
The meal was not yet over, for most of the family, when Whitman, rising abruptly with that startling brusquerie which occasionally offended his friends, observed "Ta-ta!" to everybody in general and departed—"as if he didn't care if he never saw us again!" remarked one of the young men. He left the house and strolled down the green lane, to a wide wooded hollow, where the stream called Timber Creek went winding among its lily-leaves beneath the trees. Here Whitman had found, a year before, "a particularly secluded little dell off one side by my creek ... filled with bushes, trees, grass, a group of willows, a straggling bank and a spring of delicious water running right through the middle of it, with two or three little cascades.
Here (he) retreated every hot day" (Specimen Days),—and here, while the summer sun drew sweet aromatic odours from the tangled water-mints and cresses, he proceeded slowly now, carrying a portable chair, and with his pockets filled with note-books; for, as he truly avowed, "Wherever I go, winter or summer, city or country, alone at home or travelling, I must take notes." He was about to make sure of a morning's unmitigated delight,—in the spot where he sought, "every day, seclusion—every day at least two or three hours of freedom, bathing, no talk, no bonds, no dress, no books, no manners."
And each step of the way was a pure joy to him. "What a day!" he murmured, "what an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me body and soul!" So rhapsodizing inwardly and drinking in the beauty of sight and sound, he proceeded, "still sauntering on, to the spring under the willows—musical as soft clinking glasses—pouring a sizeable stream, pure and clear, out from its vent where the bank arches over like a great brown shaggy eyebrow or mouth-roof—gurgling, gurgling ceaselessly; meaning, saying something, of course (if one could only translate it.)" (Specimen Days.)
Here he sat down awhile and revelled in sheer joy of summer opulence. He enumerated to himself,—laying a store of lovely recollections for future reference in darker days,—"The fervent heat, but so much more endurable in this pure air—the white and pink pond-blossoms, with great heart-shaped leaves, the glassy waters of the creek, the banks, with dense bushery and the picturesque beeches and shade and turf; the tremulous, reedy call of some bird from recesses, breaking the warm, indolent, half-voluptuous silence: the prevailing delicate, yet palpable, spicy, grassy, clovery perfume to my nostrils,—and over all, encircling all, to my sight and soul, the free space of the sky, transparent and blue," (Specimen Days,) and, "from old habit, pencilled down from time to time, almost automatically, moods, sights, hours, tints and outlines, on the spot." Minutes like these were the seed time of his art, if that can be called art which was almost one with Nature.
For Walt Whitman had, from the very outset, striven to obtain that fusion of identity with Natura Benigna, which, even if only momentary, bequeathes a lasting impression on the mind. He had always felt, with regard to his productions, that "There is a humiliating lesson one learns, in serene hours, of a fine day or night. Nature seems to look on all fixed-up poetry and art as something almost impertinent.... If I could indirectly show that we have met and fused, even if but only once, but enough—that we have really absorbed each other and understood each other,"—it sufficed him.
Nothing less did: for he recognised that "after you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains: to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, changes of seasons—the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night." And, while confessing, "I cannot divest my appetite of literature, yet I find myself eventually trying it all by Nature—first premises many call it, but really the crowning results of all, laws, tallies and proofs.... I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied soul giving its verdict." (Specimen Days.) He was "so afraid," as he phrased it, "of dropping what smack of outdoors or sun or starlight might cling to the lines—I dared not try to meddle with or smooth them." To be "made one with Nature," in a deeper sense than ever any man yet had known, was, in short, his ideal,—and, one may say, his achievement.
For the verdict of the average person, vacant of his glorious gains, he did not care. Regardless of ridicule, calumny, contumely, he had pursued his own way to his own goal: till he was able at last to realize his dream of—
Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all—aplomb in the midst of irrational things.
Now he passed back up the lane to the little farmstead, and, entering in, found the midday meal was served. Mr. Stafford was already seated and about to say grace. Whitman stopped as he passed behind the farmer's chair, and clasping Stafford's head in his large, well-formed hands, became an actual part, as it were, in the benediction. Then he took his seat in silence. But that irrepressible joyousness which sometimes, after working on a manuscript, seemed to shine from his face and pervade his whole body,—that "singular brightness and delight, as though he had partaken of some divine elixir"—was visible now upon his noble features.
He talked a little, in simple homely phrases,—giving little idea of the voluminous reserve force within him: telling little incidents of the War of Secession and anecdotes of his hospital experiences. He had been a volunteer nurse of exquisite patience and admirable efficiency throughout those terrible years 1862-64. His passionate tenderness and sympathy then found vent: and he gave his best and uttermost: believing that (in his own words) "these libations, extatic life-pourings, as it were, of precious wine or rose-water on vast desert-sands or great polluted rivers, taking chances of no return,—what are they but the theory and practice ... of Christ or of all divine personality?" For in the human, however defaced, he still could discern the divine and immortal. The worth of every individual soul was the pivot of all his arts and beliefs:
"Because, having looked at the objects of the Universe, I find there is no one, nor any particle of one, but has reference to the soul."
Usually, to his sensitive mind, able as it was to realise with the keenest sympathy every phase of human suffering, the memories of carnage were repulsive. By day he could shut them off: but by night, he said,
In clouds descending, in midnight sleep, of many a face in battle,
Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, of that indescribable look,
Of the dead on their backs, with arms extended wide—
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Dinner over, Whitman retired awhile to his own apartment: that fearful chaos of pell-mell untidiness which was the delight of its occupant and the despair of Mrs. Stafford. An indescribable confusion it was of letters, newspapers and books,—an inkbottle on one chair, a glass of lemonade on another, a pile of MSS. on a third, a hat on the floor.... Imperturbably composed, the poet surveyed his best-loved books,—Scott, Carlyle, Tennyson, Emerson,—translations of Homer, Dante, Hafiz, Saadi: renderings of Virgil, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius,—versions of Spanish and German poets: most well-worn of all, Shakespeare and the Bible. Finally, out of the heterogeneous collection he selected George Sand's Consuelo and seated himself at the window with it. On another afternoon he would have returned to the creek, but to-day he was expecting a friend.
And friends, with him, did not mean mere acquaintances: still less those visitors who were brought by vulgar curiosity. Although the best of comrades and one who found companionship most exhilarating, he had a bed-rock of deep reserve, and "to such as he did not like, he became as a precipice." But to those with whom he was truly en rapport,—whether by letter or in the flesh,—he was spendthrift of his personality. His English literary friends,—Tennyson, Rossetti, Buchanan, Browning and others, had supplied the financial aid which enabled him to recuperate at Timber Creek: compatriots such as Emerson, John Burroughs, and a host of old-time friends were welcome visitors.
But nothing in his life or in his literary fortunes, he declared, had brought him more comfort and support—nothing had more spiritually soothed him—than the "warm appreciation and friendship of that true full-grown woman," Anne Gilchrist, the sweet English widow who was now staying with her children in Philadelphia, to be within easy reach of Whitman. "Among the perfect women I have known (and it has been very unspeakable good fortune to have had the very best for mother, sisters and friends), I have known none more perfect," wrote the poet, "than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist." It was this warm-hearted, courageous Englishwoman, "alive with humour and vivacity," whose musical voice was shortly heard outside, enquiring for Walt. He hastened down to receive her.
Anne Gilchrist's opinion of Whitman was even more enthusiastic than his appreciation of her. She admired and revered the courage with which he expounded his theories of life, no less than the expression of them in words which, as she put it, ceased to be words and became electric streams. "What more can you ask of the words of a man's mouth," she exclaimed, "than that they should absorb into you as food and air, to reappear again in your strength, gait, face—that they should be fibre and filter to your blood, joy and gladness to your whole nature?" She alone, of all women, and almost alone among men, had stood forth to defend him for the "fearless and comprehensive dealing with reality" which had alienated the conventional and offended the prudish—and she alone was the recipient, now, of his most intimate thoughts and aspirations.