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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Life of Walt Whitman » CHAPTER XV ILLNESS
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At the opening of 1873 Whitman had been just ten years in Washington, and was in the fifty-fourth of his age. Recent letters to his friends had told of more frequent spells of partially disabling sickness and lassitude.[528] On the evening of Thursday, January 23rd, he sat late over the fire in the Library of the Treasury Building, reading Lord Lytton’s What will he do with it?[529] As he left, the guard at the door remarked him looking ill.

His room was close by, just across the street; and he went to bed as usual. Between three and four in the morning, he awoke to find that he could move neither arm nor leg on the left side. Presently he fell asleep again; and later, as he could not rise, lay on quietly, till some friends coming in raised the alarm and fetched a doctor. After some six or seven years of preliminary symptoms,[530] Walt had now had a slight stroke of paralysis.

His first thought was of his mother, to whom he wrote as soon as he was able, reassuring her; for the newspapers had exaggerated his condition. Once before, he reminds her with grim humour, they had killed him off; but he is on the road to recovery; in a few days he will be back at his desk on the other side of the street.

Pete Doyle, Charles Eldridge and John Burroughs[Pg 248] came in to nurse and companion him: Mrs. Ashton would have carried him to her house; Mrs. O’Connor, who did not share in the estrangement of her husband, was often at his bedside. And at the bed-foot, his mother’s picture was always before him.

He had scarcely begun to move about a little in his room before a letter from St. Louis told of the death of Martha, Jefferson Whitman’s wife, to whom the whole family was much attached, and Walt especially. The blow fell heavily on him.

On the last day of March,[531] he crossed the street again to his work; and by the end of April he was having regular electrical treatment, and working for a couple of hours daily, with an occasional lapse. His leg was very clumsy, and he complained of frequent sensations of distress and weakness in his head, but he seemed to be progressing as well as was possible.

Early in May, however, the old mother in Camden fell ill. Walt was very anxious about her;[532] at her age she could hardly recover from a serious illness, and his letters to her are pathetically full of loving solicitude. She grew rapidly worse, and although he was still but feeble, he could not remain away from her. On the 20th he hurried home, and on the 23rd, while he was with her, she died.[533]

The shock to Walt was terrible; and when, dreading the heat, he attempted to reach the coast, he had a serious relapse at the outset, and was brought back to Colonel Whitman’s, to the melancholy little house. And here he too, so it would seem, was to end his life.

Only a year before, in the preface to the reprint of his Dartmouth College poem,[534] he had declared that now—the Four Years’ War being over, and he himself having rounded out the poem of the “Democratic Man or Woman”—he was prepared for a new enterprise. He would now set to work upon fulfilling the pro[Pg 249]gramme of his Democratic Vistas; and put the States of America hand-in-hand “in one unbroken circle in a chant”. He would sing the song for which America waited, the song of the Republic that is yet to be.

Again, a year earlier, he had told in his Passage to India how he was ready to set forth upon the Unknown Sea.

And now, with his labours unaccomplished, his heart stricken and heavy with bereavement, joylessly he seemed to hear the weighing of the anchor and to feel his ship already setting forth. Where now was the old exaltation of spirit; where the eager longing for Divine adventure with which hitherto he had always contemplated death?

Now sorrow claimed him, and for a season he lost hold of joy and faith. He was as one abandoned by the Giver of Life, and isolated from Love. Thus deserted, he became utterly exhausted of vitality. It is as though for a time his soul had parted from his bodily life, and yet the life in the body must go on. If death had come now he would not have refused it; but his hour was not yet. Neither living nor dying, through the sad, dark days of long protracted illness and solitude, of physical debility and mental bewilderment—as it were, through year-long dream-gropings—he waited.

The light of his life seemed suddenly to have gone out.[535] Near as he had dwelt to death, in the tragedy of the war-hospitals and in the habit of his thought, he was wholly unprepared for the death of his mother.

He was a man upon whose large harmonious and resonant nature every tragic experience struck out its fullest note. Philosophy and religion were his, if they were any man’s; but he was not one of those who escape experience in the byways of abstraction. He took each blow full in his breast.

His mother was dead; that was the physical wrench which crippled him body and soul. He could not[Pg 250] accustom himself to her death and departure.[536] He could not understand it, nor why he was so stricken by it. It seemed as though in her life his mother had given to her son something that was essential to that soul-consciousness in which he had lived, and that her death had broken his own life asunder, so that it was no longer harmonious and triumphant.

His mother was dead, and he was alone in Camden. Not perhaps actually alone, for his new sister, George’s wife, was always kindly; and so, indeed, was George himself. But spiritually he was alone. He had lost something, it seems, of the spiritual companionship which had made the world a home to him wherever he went. And now the human comrades who had come so close were far away. Washington and New York were equally out of reach; and he had lost O’Connor. Letters, indeed, he had; but they did not make up to him for the daily magnetic contact with the men and women whom he loved. Touch and presence meant more to him than to others, and these he had lost.

He was, then, very much alone; bereft at once, so it would seem, of the material and the spiritual consciousness of fellowship; standing wholly by himself, in the attitude of that live-oak he had once wondered at in Louisiana, because it uttered joyous leaves of dark green though it stood solitary.[537] He was like a tree blasted by lightning; yet he too continued to put forth his leaves one and one, letters of cheery brief words to his old comrades, and especially to Pete.[538] He was an old campaigner worsted at last, standing silently at bay; only determined, come what might, that he would not grumble or complain.

His circumstances were not all gloomy. Through the summer of 1873, Whitman remained with his brother, at number 322, Stevens Street, in the pleasant room his mother had occupied upon the first floor. Around him were the old familiar objects dear to him from childhood.

[Pg 251]

He was not wholly house-tied: two lines of street-cars ran near by,[539] and by means of one or other he contrived to reach the ferry, which he loved to cross and cross again, revelling in the swing of the tawny Delaware, and all the comings and goings of the river and ocean craft. Hale old captains still remember him well as he was in those days. Sometimes also he would extend his jaunt, taking the Market Street cars on the Philadelphia side of the river, and going as far as the reading-room of the Mercantile Library upon Tenth Street.[540]

But often he was too weak to go abroad for days together. His brain refused to undertake the task of leadership or co-ordination, and there was no friend to assist him. With his lame leg and his giddiness, he had at the best of times hard work to move about; but as he wrote to Pete, “I put a bold face on, and my best foot foremost”.[541]

During bad days he sat solitary at home, trying to maintain a good heart, his whole vitality too depressed to do more. “If I only felt just a little better,” he would say, “I should get acquainted with many of the [railroad] men,”[542] a class who affected this particular locality. But feeble as he was, it was long before he made any friends to replace the lost circle at Washington. Now and again some kindly soul, hearing that he was ill, would call upon him:[543] or Jeff would look in on his way to New York, or Eldridge or Burroughs, coming and going between Washington and New England.

Walt could not readily adjust himself to his new circumstances. His was not an elastic, pliable temper; but on the contrary, very stubborn, and apt to become set in ways; the qualities of adhesion and inertia increasing in prominence as his strong will and initiative ebbed. He kept telling himself between the blurs that disabled his brain, that he might be in a much more deplorable fix; that his folks were good to him; that his post was[Pg 252] kept open for his return, and that his friends were only waiting to welcome him back to Washington.

But he could not pass by or elude the ever-present consciousness and problem of his mother’s death. At the end of August he wrote to Pete: “I have the feeling of getting more strength and easier in the head—something like what I was before mother’s death. (I cannot be reconciled to that yet: it is the great cloud of my life—nothing that ever happened before has had such an effect on me.)”[544] When we remember his separation from the woman and the children of his love, and all the experiences of the war, we may a little understand the meaning of these soberly written words, and the strength of the tie which bound together mother and son. Who knows or can estimate the full meaning of that relationship which begins before birth, and which all the changes and separations of life and death only deepen?

It is difficult to look calmly at this period of Whitman’s life. One resents, perhaps childishly, the fate which overtook this sane and noble soul. Surely he, of all men, had been faithful to the inner vision, and generous to all. He had fulfilled the Divine precept; he had loved the Lord his God with all the might of soul and body, and his neighbour as himself. From childhood up he had been clean and affectionate, independent and loyal, whole-heartedly obedient to the law as it was written in his heart, undaunted by any fear or convention.

He had prized health, and held it sacred, as the essential basis of freedom and sanity of spirit. And he had hazarded it without reserve and without fear, in the infectious and malarial wards of the hospitals.

He had opened his heart to learn the full chords and meanings of all the emotions that came to him; and when he had become a scholar in these, he became an interpreter of the soul unto itself, both in the printed page and in the relations of his life. In Leaves of Grass[Pg 253] he gave, to whosoever would accept the gift, his own attitude towards life, and the results of his study of living. In the wards he gave himself in whatever ways he could contrive to the needy.

And he gave all. Twenty years at least of his own health he sacrificed, and gave freely, out of the overflow of his love, to the wounded in their cots. As I have before suggested,[545] he gave more than, physically speaking, he could afford. But he gave with joy, knowing that he was born to give, and that in giving himself irretrievably, he was fulfilling the highest law of his being, and fully and finally realising himself. It was the crowning proof not only of “Calamus,” but of his gospel of self-realisation.

Deliberate though his service was, not even Whitman himself could fully estimate the cost of his charity. But he accepted the consequences of all his acts as proper and due, being, indeed, implicit in the acts themselves. And now, when his very joy in life was called in to meet the mortgage he had given; when he was, as it were, stripped naked and left in the dark; he accepted his condition without declaiming against the Divine justice, or calling insanely upon God.

Year after year, he was patient, expecting the light to break again, the daylight beyond death. He had never professed to understand the ways of God, but he had always trusted Him. And when faith itself seemed for awhile to forsake him, his blind soul did but sit silently awaiting its return.

It was out of such a mood, lighted at times by moments of vision, that during 1874 and 1875 he wrote some of the noblest of his verses, notably the “Prayer of Columbus,” the “Song of the Universal,” and the “Song of the Redwood Tree”.

There are those who have suggested that Whitman’s illness was brought on by a life of dissipation; one supposes that such persons find in these poems the[Pg 254] death-bed repentance of a maudlin old roué. But to the unprejudiced reader such a view must appear worse than absurd. Whitman never claimed to have lived a blameless life, but he did claim to have lived a sane and loving one; the evidence of all his writings, and of these poems especially, supports that claim.

Simple and direct, the “Prayer of Columbus” breathes the religious spirit in which it was conceived. Lonely, poor and paralysed, battered and old, upon the margin of the great ocean of Death, he pours out his heart and tells the secret of his life; for, as Whitman himself confessed, it is he who speaks under a thin historical disguise.[546]
I am too full of woe!
Haply I may not live another day;
I cannot rest, O God, I cannot eat or drink or sleep,
Till I put forth myself, my prayer, once more to Thee,
Breathe, bathe myself once more in Thee, commune with Thee,
Report myself once more to Thee.
Thou knowest my years entire, my life,
My long and crowded life of active work, not adoration merely;
Thou knowest the prayers and vigils of my youth,
Thou knowest my manhood’s solemn and visionary meditations,
Thou knowest how before I commenced I devoted all to come to Thee,
Thou knowest I have in age ratified all those vows and strictly kept them,
Thou knowest I have not once lost nor faith nor ecstasy in Thee....
All my emprises have been fill’d with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.
O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardour, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on....

What the end and result of all, he cannot tell—that is God’s business; but he has felt the promise of freedom, religious joy and peace. The way itself has always been plain to him, lit by an ineffable, steady illumination, “lighting the very light”. And now, lost in the un[Pg 255]known seas, he will again set forth, relinquishing the helm of choice; and though the vessel break asunder and his mind itself should fail, yet will his soul cling fast to the one sure thing; for though the waves of the unknown buffet his soul, “Thee, Thee, at least I know”.

In the “Song of the Universal”—apparently delivered by proxy at the Commencement Exercises of Tuft’s College, Massachusetts, midsummer, 1874[547]—Whitman reiterates his conviction that the Divine is at the heart of all and every life. The soul will at last emerge from evil and disease to justify its own history, to bring health out of disease, and joy out of sorrow and sin. Blessed are they who perceive and pursue this truth! It is to forward this wondrous discovery of the soul that America has, in the ripeness of time, arrived.
The measured faiths of other lands, the grandeurs of the past,
Are not for thee, but grandeurs of thine own,
Deific faiths and amplitudes, absorbing, comprehending all,
All eligible to all.
All, all for immortality,
Love like the light silently wrapping all,
Nature’s amelioration blessing all,
The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain,
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.
Give me, O God, to sing that thought,
Give me, give him or her I love this quenchless faith,
In Thy ensemble, whatever else withheld withhold not from us,
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space,
Health, peace, salvation universal.

Without this faith the world and life are but a dream.

The “Song of the Californian Redwood”[548] still harps upon American destiny and upon the mystery of death. The giant of the dense forest, falling before the axes of the pioneers, declares the conscious soul that lives in all natural things. He complains not at death, but rejoices that his huge, calm joy will hereafter be incarnate in more kingly beings—the men that are yet to dwell in[Pg 256] this new land of the West—and, above all, in the Godlike genius of America. The “Song of the Redwood Tree” is the voice of a great past, prophetic of a greater, all-continuing, all-embracing future, and, therefore, undismayed at its own passing.

Such were the weapons with which Whitman fought against despair; such the heroic heart which, amid confusion, restlessness and perplexity, still held its own.
Picture of Col. Whitman's corner house at 431 Stevens Street, Camden, 1904.


At the end of September, 1873, the Whitmans had moved into a fine new brick house[549] which George, who was now a prosperous inspector of pipes, had built upon a corner lot on Stevens Street. It faced south and west, and Walt chose a sunny room on the second floor, as we should say, or, according to the American and more accurate enumeration, on the third. Here he remained for ten years.

The house still stands, well-built and comfortable; and though the neighbourhood is shabby and the district does not improve with time, the trees that stand before it give it a pleasant air upon a summer’s day. Walt was to have had a commodious room upon the floor below, specially designed for his comfort and convenience, but he preferred the other as sunnier and more quiet.

The family now consisted of three only, for Edward, the imbecile brother, was boarding somewhere near by in the country. Jeff was in St. Louis, the two sisters were married, Andrew had died. About Jesse we have no information; he may still have been living in Long Island or New York.

More than once Whitman wrote very seriously to Pete, gently preparing him for the worst;[550] but though confinement, loneliness and debility of brain and body made the days and nights dreary, there continued to be gleams of comfort. John Burroughs had begun to build his delightful home upon the Hudson, and called at Camden on his way north, after winding up his affairs in the capital. Among occasional callers was[Pg 257] Mr. W. J. Linton, who afterwards drew the portrait for the Centennial edition of the Leaves. And Walt made the acquaintance of a jovial Colonel Johnston, at whose house he would often drink a cup of tea on Sunday afternoons.[551]

Then, too, the young men at the ferry, and the drivers and conductors on the cars, came to know and like him, helping him as he hobbled to and fro.[552] He was often refreshed by the sunsets on the river, and by the winter crossings through the floating ice;[553] while the sound and sight of the railroad cars crossing West Street, less than a quarter of a mile away, reminded him constantly of Pete Doyle, now a baggage-master on the “Baltimore and Potomac”.

He had a companion, too, in his little dog,[554] which came and went with him, and all these pleasant, homely little matters go to make his letters as cheerful as may be. If only he could be in his own quarters, and among his friends, he would be comparatively happy. It is the home-feeling and affection that he craves all the time; even a wood-fire would help towards that, but alas, brother George has installed an improved heater!

About midsummer, 1874, a new Solicitor-General discharged Whitman from his post at Washington.[555] Hitherto Walt had employed a substitute to carry on his work. But he had now been ill some eighteen months, and the prospect of his return was becoming so remote that he could not feel he had been treated unjustly.

From this time forward his financial position became precarious. The amount of his savings grew less and less, and his earnings were not large. Besides beginning to edit his hospital memoranda for publication, he wrote for the papers and magazines whenever his head allowed him to do so; and in England, as well as at home, there was still some demand for his book. But even the scanty sales-money did not always reach him, being retained by more than one agent who regarded the author’s life as practically at an end.


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