Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Walt Whitman

All seems beautiful to me.
I can repeat over to men and women, You have done
such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go.
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them.
—Song of the Open Road

Max Nordau wrote a book—wrote it with his tongue in his cheek, a dash of vitriol in the ink, and with a pen that scratched.

And the first critic who seemed to place a just estimate on the work was Mr. Zangwill (he who has no Christian name). Mr. Zangwill made an attempt to swear out a "writ de lunatico inquirendo" against his Jewish brother, on the ground that the first symptom of insanity is often the delusion that others are insane; and this being so, Doctor Nordau was not a safe subject to be at large. But the Assize of Public Opinion denied the petition, and the dear people bought the book at from three to five dollars a copy. Printed in several languages, its sales have mounted to a hundred thousand volumes, and the author's net profit is full forty thousand dollars. No wonder is it that, with pockets full to bursting, Doctor Nordau goes out behind the house and laughs uproariously whenever he thinks of how he has worked the world!

If Doctor Talmage is the Barnum of Theology, surely we may call Doctor Nordau the Barnum of Science. His agility in manipulating facts is equal to Hermann's now-you-see-it and now-you-don't, with pocket-handkerchiefs. Yet Hermann's exhibition is worth the admittance fee, and Nordau's book (seemingly written in collaboration with Jules Verne and Mark Twain) would be cheap for a dollar. But what I object to is Professor Hermann's disciples posing as Sure-Enough Materializing Mediums, and Professor Lombroso's followers calling themselves Scientists, when each goes forth without scrip or purse with no other purpose than to supply themselves with both.

Yet it was Barnum himself who said that the public delights in being humbugged, and strange it is that we will not allow ourselves to be thimblerigged without paying for the privilege.

Nordau's success hinged on his audacious assumption that the public knew nothing of the Law of Antithesis. Yet Plato explained that the opposites of things look alike, and sometimes are alike—and that was quite a while ago.

The multitude answered, "Thou hast a devil." Many of them said, "He hath a devil and is mad." Festus said with a loud voice, "Paul, thou art beside thyself." And Nordau shouts in a voice more heady than that of Pilate, more throaty than that of Festus, "Mad—Whitman was—mad beyond the cavil of a doubt!"

In Eighteen Hundred Sixty-two, Lincoln, looking out of a window (before lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed) on one of the streets of Washington, saw a workingman in shirt-sleeves go by. Turning to a friend, the President said, "There goes a MAN!" The exclamation sounds singularly like that of Napoleon on meeting Goethe. But the Corsican's remark was intended for the poet's ear, while Lincoln did not know who his man was, although he came to know him afterward.

Lincoln in his early days was a workingman and an athlete, and he never quite got the idea out of his head (and I am glad) that he was still a hewer of wood. He once told George William Curtis that he more than half expected yet to go back to the farm and earn his daily bread by the work that his hands found to do; he dreamed of it nights, and whenever he saw a splendid toiler, he felt like hailing the man as brother and striking hands with him. When Lincoln saw Whitman strolling majestically past, he took him for a stevedore or possibly the foreman of a construction gang.

Whitman was fifty-one years old then. His long, flowing beard was snow-white, and the shock that covered his Jove-like head was iron-gray. His form was that of an Apollo who had arrived at years of discretion. He weighed an even two hundred pounds and was just six feet high. His plain, check, cotton shirt was open at the throat to the breast; and he had an independence, a self-sufficiency, and withal a cleanliness, a sweetness and a gentleness, that told that, although he had a giant's strength, he did not use it like a giant. Whitman used no tobacco, neither did he apply hot and rebellious liquors to his blood and with unblushing forehead woo the means of debility and disease. Up to his fifty-third year he had never known a sick day, although at thirty his hair had begun to whiten. He had the look of age in his youth and the look of youth in his age that often marks the exceptional man.

But at fifty-three his splendid health was crowded to the breaking strain. How? Through caring for wounded, sick and dying men, hour after hour, day after day, through the long, silent watches of the night. From Eighteen Hundred Sixty-four to the day of his death in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-two, he was, physically, a man in ruins. But he did not wither at the top. Through it all he held the healthy optimism of boyhood, carrying with him the perfume of the morning and the lavish heart of youth.

Doctor Bucke, who was superintendent of a hospital for the insane for fifteen years, and the intimate friend of Whitman all the time, has said: "His build, his stature, his exceptional health of mind and body, the size and form of his features, his cleanliness of mind and body, the grace of his movements and gestures, the grandeur, and especially the magnetism, of his presence; the charm of his voice, his genial, kindly humor; the simplicity of his habits and tastes, his freedom from convention, the largeness and the beauty of his manner; his calmness and majesty; his charity and forbearance—his entire unresentfulness under whatever provocation; his liberality, his universal sympathy with humanity in all ages and lands, his broad tolerance, his catholic friendliness, and his unexampled faculty of attracting affection, all prove his perfectly proportioned manliness."

But Whitman differed from the disciple of Lombroso in two notable particulars: He had no quarrel with the world, and he did not wax rich. "One thing thou lackest, O Walt Whitman!" we might have said to the poet; "you are not a financier." He died poor. But this is no proof of degeneracy, save on 'Change. When the children of Count Tolstoy endeavored to have him adjudged insane, the Court denied the application and voiced the wisest decision that ever came out of Russia: A man who gives away his money is not necessarily more foolish than he who saves it.

And with Horace L. Traubel I assert that Whitman was the sanest man I ever saw.

Some men make themselves homes; and others there be who rent rooms. Walt Whitman was essentially a citizen of the world: the world was his home and mankind were his friends. There was a quality in the man peculiarly universal: a strong, virile poise that asked for nothing, but took what it needed.

He loved men as brothers, yet his brothers after the flesh understood him not; he loved children—they turned to him instinctively—but he had no children of his own; he loved women, and yet this strongly sexed and manly man never loved a woman. And I might here say as Philip Gilbert Hamerton said of Turner, "He was lamentably unfortunate in this: throughout his whole life he never came under the ennobling and refining influence of a good woman."

It requires two to make a home. The first home was made when a woman, cradling in her loving arms a baby, crooned a lullaby. All the tender sentimentality we throw around a place is the result of the sacred thought that we live there with some one else. It is "our" home. The home is a tryst—the place where we retire and shut the world out. Lovers make a home, just as birds make a nest, and unless a man knows the spell of the divine passion I hardly see how he can have a home at all. He only rents a room.

Camden is separated from the city of Philadelphia by the Delaware River. Camden lies low and flat—a great, sandy, monotonous waste of straggling buildings. Here and there are straight rows of cheap houses, evidently erected by staid, broad-brimmed speculators from across the river, with eyes on the main chance. But they reckoned ill, for the town did not boom. Some of these houses have marble steps and white, barn-like shutters, that might withstand a siege. When a funeral takes place in one of these houses, the shutters are tied with strips of mournful, black alpaca for a year and a day. Engineers, dockmen, express-drivers and mechanics largely make up the citizens of Camden. Of course, Camden has its smug corner where prosperous merchants most do congregate: where they play croquet in the front yards, and have window-boxes, and a piano and veranda-chairs and terra-cotta statuary; but for the most part the houses of Camden are rented, and rented cheap.

Many of the domiciles are frame and have the happy tumbledown look of the back streets in Charleston or Richmond—those streets where the white trash merges off into prosperous colored aristocracy. Old hats do duty in keeping out the fresh air where Providence has interfered and broken out a pane; blinds hang by a single hinge; bricks on the chimney-tops threaten the passersby; stringers and posts mark the place where proud picket fences once stood—the pickets having gone for kindling long ago. In the warm, Summer evenings, men in shirt-sleeves sit on the front steps and stolidly smoke, while children pile up sand in the streets and play in the gutters.

Parallel with Mickle Street, a block away, are railway-tracks. There noisy switch-engines that never keep Sabbath, puff back and forth, day and night, sending showers of soot and smoke when the wind is right (and it usually is) straight over Number 328, where, according to John Addington Symonds and William Michael Rossetti, lived the mightiest seer of the century—the man whom they rank with Socrates, Epictetus, Saint Paul, Michelangelo and Dante.

It was in August of Eighteen Hundred Eighty-three that I first walked up that little street—a hot, sultry Summer evening. There had been a shower that turned the dust of the unpaved roadway to mud. The air was close and muggy. The houses, built right up to the sidewalks, over which, in little gutters, the steaming sewage ran, seemed to have discharged their occupants into the street to enjoy the cool of the day. Barefooted children by the score paddled in the mud. All the steps were filled with loungers; some of the men had discarded not only coats but shirts as well, and now sat in flaming red underwear, holding babies.

They say that "woman's work is never done," but to the women of Mickle Street this does not apply—but stay! perhaps their work IS never done. Anyway, I remember that women sat on the curbs in calico dresses or leaned out of the windows, and all seemed supremely free from care.

"Can you tell me where Mr. Whitman lives?" I asked a portly dame who was resting her elbows on a windowsill.

"Who?"

"Mr. Whitman!"

"You mean Walt Whitman?"

"Yes."

"Show the gentleman, Molly; he'll give you a nickel, I'm sure!"

I had not seen Molly. She stood behind me, but as her mother spoke she seized tight hold of one of my fingers, claiming me as her lawful prey, and all the other children looked on with envious eyes as little Molly threw at them glances of scorn and marched me off. Molly was five, going on six, she told me. She had bright-red hair, a grimy face and little chapped feet that made not a sound as we walked. She got her nickel and carried it in her mouth, and this made conversation difficult. After going one block she suddenly stopped, squared me around and pointing said, "Them is he!" and disappeared.

In a wheeled rattan chair, in the hallway, a little back from the door of a plain, weather-beaten house, sat the coatless philosopher, his face and head wreathed in a tumult of snow-white hair.

I had a little speech, all prepared weeks before and committed to memory, that I intended to repeat, telling him how I had read his poems and admired them. And further I had stored away in my mind a few blades from "Leaves of Grass" that I purposed to bring out at the right time as a sort of certificate of character. But when that little girl jerked me right-about-face and heartlessly deserted me, I stared dumbly at the man whom I had come a hundred miles to see. I began angling for my little speech, but could not fetch it.

"Hello!" called the philosopher, out of the white aureole. "Hello! come here, boy!"

He held out his hand and as I took it there was a grasp with meaning in it.

"Don't go yet, Joe," he said to a man seated on the step smoking a cob-pipe.

"The old woman's calling me," said the swarthy Joe.

Joe evidently held truth lightly. "So long, Walt!"

"Good-by, Joe. Sit down, lad; sit down!"

I sat in the doorway at his feet.

"Now isn't it queer—that fellow is a regular philosopher and works out some great problems, but he's ashamed to express 'em. He could no more give you his best than he could fly. Ashamed, I s'pose, ashamed of the best that is in him. We are all a little that way—all but me—I try to write my best, regardless of whether the thing sounds ridiculous or not—regardless of what others think or say or have said. Ashamed of our holiest, truest and best! Is it not too bad?

"You are twenty-five now? Well, boy, you may grow until you are thirty and then you will be as wise as you ever will be. Haven't you noticed that men of sixty have no clearer vision than men of forty? One reason is that we have been taught that we know all about life and death and the mysteries of the grave. But the main reason is that we are ashamed to shove out and be ourselves. Jesus expressed His own individuality perhaps more than any other man we know of, and so He wields a wider influence than any other. And this though we only have a record of just twenty-seven days of His life. Now that fellow that just left is an engineer, and he dreams some beautiful dreams; but he never expresses them to any one—only hints them to me, and this only at twilight. He is like a weasel or a mink or a whippoorwill—he comes out only at night.

"'If the weather was like this all the time, people would never learn to read and write,' said Joe to me just as you arrived. And isn't that so? Here we can count a hundred people up and down this street, and not one is reading, not one but that is just lolling about, except the children—and they are happy only when playing in the dirt. Why, if this tropical weather should continue we would all slip back into South Sea Islanders! You can raise good men only in a little strip around the North Temperate Zone—when you get out of the track of a glacier, a tender-hearted, sympathetic man of brains is an accident."

Then the old man suddenly ceased and I imagined that he was following the thought out in his own mind. We sat silent for a space. The twilight fell, and a lamplighter lit the street lamp on the corner. He stopped an instant to salute the poet cheerily as he passed. The man sitting on the doorstep, across the street, smoking, knocked the ashes out of his pipe on his boot-heel and went indoors. Women called their children, who did not respond, but still played on. Then the creepers were carried in, to be fed their bread-and-milk and put to bed; and, shortly, shrill feminine voices ordered the other children indoors, and some obeyed.

The night crept slowly on.

I heard Old Walt chuckle behind me, talking incoherently to himself, and then he said, "You are wondering why I live in such a place as this?"

"Yes; that is exactly what I was thinking of!"

"You think I belong in the country, in some quiet, shady place. But all I have to do is to shut my eyes and go there. No man loves the woods more than I—I was born within sound of the sea—down on Long Island, and I know all the songs that the seashell sings. But this babble and babel of voices pleases me better, especially since my legs went on a strike, for although I can't walk, you see I can still mix with the throng, so I suffer no loss.

"In the woods, a man must be all hands and feet. I like the folks, the plain, ignorant, unpretentious folks; and the youngsters that come and slide on my cellar-door do not disturb me a bit. I'm different from Carlyle—you know he had a noise-proof room where he locked himself in. Now, when a huckster goes by, crying his wares, I open the blinds, and often wrangle with the fellow over the price of things. But the rogues have got into a way lately of leaving truck for me and refusing pay. Today an Irishman passed in three quarts of berries and walked off pretending to be mad because I offered to pay. When he was gone, I beckoned to the babies over the way—they came over and we had a feast.

"Yes, I like the folks around here; I like the women, and I like the men, and I like the babies, and I like the youngsters that play in the alley and make mud pies on my steps. I expect to stay here until I die."

"You speak of death as a matter of course—you are not afraid to die?"

"Oh, no, my boy; death is as natural as life, and a deal kinder. But it is all good—I accept it all and give thanks—you have not forgotten my chant to death?"

"Not I!"

I repeated a few lines from "Drum-Taps."

He followed me, rapping gently with his cane on the floor, and with little interjectory remarks of "That's so!" "Very true!" "Good, good!" And when I faltered and lost the lines he picked them up where "The voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird."

In a strong, clear voice, but a voice full of sublime feeling, he repeated those immortal lines, beginning, "Come, lovely and soothing Death."

"Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.
Praised be the fathomless universe
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise
For the sure enwinding arms of cool, enfolding Death.
Dark Mother, always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach, strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them
I joyously sing the death,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.
From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.
The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil'd Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-packed cities all, and the teeming wharves, and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death."

The last playing youngster had silently disappeared from the streets. The doorsteps were deserted—save where across the way a young man and maiden sat in the gloaming, conversing in low monotone.

The clouds had drifted away.

A great, yellow star shone out above the chimney-tops in the East.

I arose to go.

"I wish you'd come oftener—I see you so seldom, lad," said the old man, half-plaintively.

I did not explain that we had never met before—that I had come from New York purposely to see him. He thought he knew me. And so he did—as much as I could impart. The rest was irrelevant. As to my occupation or name, what booted it!—he had no curiosity concerning me. I grasped his outstretched hand in both of my own.

He said not a word; neither did I.

I turned and made my way to the ferry—past the whispering lovers on the doorsteps, and over the railway-tracks where the noisy engines puffed. As I walked on board the boat, the wind blew up cool and fresh from the West. The star in the East grew brighter, and other stars came out, reflecting themselves like gems in the dark blue of the Delaware.

There was a soft sublimity in the sound of the bells that came echoing over the waters. My heart was very full, for I had felt the thrill of being in the presence of a great and loving soul.

It was the first time and the last that I ever saw Walt Whitman.

A good many writers bear no message: they carry no torch. Sometimes they excite wonder, or they amuse and divert—divert us from our work. To be diverted to a certain degree may be well, but there is a point where earth ends and cloud-land begins, and even great poets occasionally befog the things they would reveal.

Homer was seemingly blind to much simple truth; Vergil carries you away from earth; Horace was undone without his Mæcenas; Dante makes you an exile; Shakespeare was singularly silent concerning the doubts, difficulties and common lives of common people; Byron's corsair life does not help you in your toil, and in his fight with English Bards and Scotch Reviewers we crave neutrality; to be caught in the meshes of Pope's "Dunciad" is not pleasant; and Lowell's "Fable for Critics" is only another "Dunciad." But above all other poets who have ever lived, the author of "Leaves of Grass" was the poet of humanity.

Milton knew all about Heaven, and Dante conducts us through Hell, but it was left for Whitman to show us Earth. His voice never goes so high that it breaks into an impotent falsetto, neither does it growl and snarl at things it does not understand and not understanding does not like. He was so great that he had no envy, and his insight was so sure that he had no prejudice. He never boasted that he was higher, nor claimed to be less than any of the other sons of men. He met all on terms of absolute equality, mixing with the poor, the lowly, the fallen, the oppressed, the cultured, the rich—simply as brother with brother. And when he said to an outcast, "Not till the sun excludes you will I exclude you," he voiced a sentiment worthy of a god.

He was brother to the elements, the mountains, the seas, the clouds, the sky. He loved them all and partook of them all in his large, free, unselfish, untrammeled nature. His heart knew no limits, and feeling his feet mortised in granite and his footsteps tenoned in infinity he knew the amplitude of time.

Only the great are generous; only the strong are forgiving. Like Lot's wife, most poets look back over their shoulders; and those who are not looking backward insist that we shall look into the future, and the vast majority of the whole scribbling rabble accept the precept, "Man never is, but always to be blest."

We grieve for childhood's happy days, and long for sweet rest in Heaven and sigh for mansions in the skies. And the people about us seem so indifferent, and our friends so lukewarm; and really no one understands us, and our environment queers our budding spirituality, and the frost of jealousy nips our aspirations: "O Paradise, O Paradise, the world is growing old; who would not be at rest and free where love is never cold." So sing the fearsome dyspeptics of the stylus. O anemic he, you bloodless she, nipping at crackers, sipping at tea, why not consider that, although evolutionists tell us where we came from, and theologians inform us where we are going to, yet the only thing we are really sure of is that we are here!

The present is the perpetually moving spot where history ends and prophecy begins. It is our only possession: the past we reach through lapsing memory, halting recollection, hearsay and belief; we pierce the future by wistful faith or anxious hope; but the present is beneath our feet.

Whitman sings the beauty and the glory of the present. He rebukes our groans and sighs—bids us look about on every side at the wonders of creation, and at the miracles within our grasp. He lifts us up, restores us to our own, introduces us to man and to Nature, and thus infuses into us courage, manly pride, self-reliance, and the strong faith that comes when we feel our kinship with God.

He was so mixed with the universe that his voice took on the sway of elemental integrity and candor. Absolutely honest, this man was unafraid and unashamed, for Nature has neither apprehension, shame nor vainglory. In "Leaves of Grass" Whitman speaks as all men have ever spoken who believe in God and in themselves—oracular, without apology or abasement—fearlessly. He tells of the powers and mysteries that pervade and guide all life, all death, all purpose. His work is masculine, as the sun is masculine; for the Prophetic Voice is as surely masculine as the lullaby and lyric cry are feminine.

Whitman brings the warmth of the sun to the buds of the heart, so that they open and bring forth form, color, perfume. He becomes for them aliment and dew; so these buds become blossoms, fruits, tall branches and stately trees that cast refreshing shadows.

There are men who are to other men as the shadow of a mighty rock in a weary land—such is Walt Whitman.

Elbert Hubbard

Sorry, no summary available yet.