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CHAPTER XVI CONVALESCENCE
All through 1875 the weakness continued; but in November he was well enough to pay a visit to Washington, accompanied by John Burroughs; and, the public re-burial of Poe taking place about that time in Baltimore, Doyle appears to have convoyed him thither.[557] There, sitting silently on the platform at the public function, he seems once again to have been cordially greeted by Emerson, but O’Connor, who was also present, made no sign.[558]

It was not till the following summer that Whitman’s old spirits began to return. Since his mother died he had passed three years in the valley of the shadow, and he was still lonely, sick and poor when his English friends came to his rescue.

He and his writings had been pulverised between the heavy millstones of Mr. Peter Bayne’s adjectives in the Contemporary Review for the month of December. In England, as well as in America, he had literary enemies in high places. But on the 13th of March the Daily News[559] published a long and characteristically fervid letter, full of generous feeling, from Mr. Robert Buchanan, who dilated upon the old poet’s isolation, neglect and poverty. It aroused wide comment, and some indignation on both sides of the Atlantic, among Whitman’s friends as well as among his enemies.

[Pg 259]

That he was never deserted by his faithful American friends a series of articles upon his condition, published in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, bears witness.[560] But Buchanan’s letter evoked new and widespread sympathy, which was the means of saving Whitman from his melancholy plight. A fortnight later the Athen?um printed his short sonnet-like poem, “The Man-o’-War Bird”.

In the meantime, Mr. Rossetti, always faithful to his friend, had learned of his condition, and had written asking how best his English admirers might offer him assistance. Walt wrote in reply, stating that his savings were exhausted, that he had been cheated by his New York agents, and that in consequence he was now, for the new Centennial edition, which had just appeared, his own sole publisher.[561] If any of his English friends desired to help him, they could best do so by the purchase of the book. He wrote with affectionate gratitude, and quiet dignity. He was poor, but he was not in want.

There came, through Mr. Rossetti, an immediate, generous and most cordial response, and in the list of English and Irish subscribers appear many illustrious names. The invalid revived; “both the cash and the emotional cheer,” he wrote at a later time, “were deep medicine”.[562] He could now afford to overlook the bitter and contemptuous attacks which were being made upon him by an old acquaintance in the editorials of the New York Tribune.[563] And, which was at least equally important, he could contrive to take a country holiday.
Picture of the Timber Creek pool in 1904.

TIMBER CREEK: THE POOL, 1904

About the end of April, or early in May, he drove out through the gently undulating dairy lands and the fields of young corn to the New Jersey hamlet of Whitehorse, some ten miles down the turnpike which leads to Atlantic City and Cape May.[564] A little beyond the[Pg 260] village, and close to the Reading Railroad, there still stands an old farmhouse, then tenanted by Mr. George Stafford, and to-day the centre of a group of pleasant villas known as Laurel Springs.

It was here that Whitman lodged, establishing cordial relations with the whole Stafford family, relations which added greatly to the happiness of his remaining years. He became especially attached to Mrs. Stafford, who intuitively read his moods,[565] and to her son Harry.

A short stroll down the green lane, which is now being rapidly civilised out of that delightful category, brings one to a wide woody hollow, where amid the trees a long creek or stream winds down to a large mill-pool with boats and lily leaves floating upon it. Save for the boats and the people from the villas, the place has been but little changed by the quarter of a century which has elapsed since Whitman first visited it.[566] The walnut and the oak under which he used to sit among the meadow-grass are older trees, of course, and the former is now circled with a wooden seat; but the kecks and crickets, the shady nooks by the pool, the jewel-weed and the great-winged tawny butterflies are there as of old. And with them much of the old, sweet, communicative quiet.

At the creek-head, among the willows, is a swampy tangle of mint and calamus, reeds and cresses, white boneset and orange fragile jewel-weed, and above, from its mouth in the steep bank, gushes the “crystal spring” whose soft, clinking murmur soothed the old man many a summer’s day.

Here, early and late, he would sit or saunter through the glinting glimmering lights, and here Mother-Nature took him, an orphan, to her breast. The baby and boyhood days in the lanes and fields at West Hills, and among the woods and orchards came back to him and blessed him with significant memories. To outward[Pg 261] seeming an old man, and near sixty as years go, in heart he was still and always a child. And for the last three years a broken-hearted, motherless child. He had been starving to death for lack of the daily ministry of Love.
Picture of the Timber Creek 'Crystal Spring' and the old marl-pit, 1904.

TIMBER CREEK: “CRYSTAL SPRING” AND THE OLD MARL-PIT, 1904

At Timber Creek, by the pool and in the lanes, the touch of that all-embracing Love which pervades the universe was upon him. Without any effort on his part the caressing air and sunshine re-established the ancient relationship of love, in which of old he had been united to Nature. He would sit silent for hours, wrapt in a sort of trance, realising the mystery of the Whole, through which, as through a body, the currents of life flow and pulse. Woe to any one, however dear, who broke suddenly in upon his solitude![567]

His heart went out to the tall poplars and the upright cedars with their tasselled fruit, and he felt virtue flow from them to him in return. He believed the old dryad stories, and became himself truly nympholeptic, and aware of presences in the woods. In August, 1877, he writes: “I have been almost two years, off and on, without drugs and medicines, and daily in the open air. Last summer I found a particularly secluded little dell off one side by my creek, originally a large dug-out marl-pit, now abandoned, 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 I retreated every hot day, and follow it up this summer. Here I realise the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I come so close to Nature, never before did she come so close to me. By old habit I pencilled down from time to time almost automatically, moods, sights, hours, tints and outlines on the spot.”[568]

Unlike the ordinary naturalist he regarded the birds and trees, the dragon-flies and grey squirrels, the oak-trees and the breeze that sang among their leaves, as[Pg 262] spirits; strange, but kindred with his own, members together with his of a transcendental life; and he communed with them. Something, he felt sure, they interchanged; something passed between them.

Their mystical fellowship had its ritual, as have all religions. The place was sacred, and he did off, not only his shoes, but all his raiment, giving back himself to naked Mother-Nature, naked as he was born of her. In the solitude, among the bare-limbed gracious trees and the clear-flowing water, he enjoyed many a sun-bath, and on hot summer days, in his bird-haunted nook, many a bathing in the spring; many a wrestle, too, with strong young hickory sapling or beech bough, conscious, as they wrestled together, of new life flowing into his veins.[569]

Whatever ignorance of names his Washington acquaintance may have discovered,[570] his diary at this time is full of nature-lore. It enumerates some forty kinds of birds, and he was evidently familiar with nearly as many sorts of trees and shrubs; while differentiating accurately enough between the sundry trilling insects, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and katydids which populate the district, vibrant by day and night. Doubtless he had learnt much from the companionship of John Burroughs, but he was himself an accurate observer.

The story of his visits to Timber Creek and its vicinity from 1876 to 1882 is told in Specimen Days, with much else beside—a book to carry with one on any holiday, or to make a holiday in the midst of city work. It is, for the rest, an admirable illustration of the saying of the philosopher-emperor, that virtue is a living and enthusiastic sympathy with Nature.[571]

Three years of gradual convalescence were divided not only between the Stafford’s farm and the house on Stevens Street, but also with the homes of other friends whose love now began to enrich his life.[572] Of three of the most notable among his new comrades we must speak[Pg 263] in passing. In the autumn of 1876 Anne Gilchrist took a house in Philadelphia, while in the following summer Dr. Bucke and Mr. Edward Carpenter came to Camden on pilgrimage.

Whitman often said in his later years that his best friends had been women, and that of his women friends Mrs. Gilchrist was the nearest. She was an Essex girl of good family, nine years younger than Whitman.[573] At school she had loved Emerson, Rousseau, Comte and Ruskin, and a little later she added to them the writings of Carlyle, Guyot and Herbert Spencer. Music and science, with the philosophical suggestions which spring from the discoveries of science, were her chief interests.

At twenty-three she married Alexander Gilchrist, an art-critic and interpreter. It was a wholly happy marriage; Anne became the mother of four children, and, beside being deeply interested in her husband’s work, contrived to contribute scientific articles to the magazines.

While compiling his well-known Life of Blake, Mr. Gilchrist fell a victim to scarlet fever. His widow, with her four young children and the uncompleted book, removed to a cottage in the country, and there, with the encouragement and help of the Rossetti brothers, she finished her husband’s task. Her life was now, as she said, “up hill all the way,” but the book helped her. And her close study of Blake, added to her scientific interests and her love of music, formed the finest possible introduction to her subsequent reading of Whitman.

Her task was concluded in 1863; it had tided her over the first two years of her bereavement; but her letters of sympathy to Dante Rossetti, heart-broken at the loss of his young wife, discover her gnawing sorrow yet undulled by time. Like Whitman, she had the capacity for great suffering. And like Whitman, too, she was helped in her sorrow by the companionship of Nature. And, again, she was a good comrade.

[Pg 264]

Unlike her grandmother, who was one of Romney’s beauties, Anne Gilchrist was not a handsome woman; but her personality was both vivid and profound, and increasingly attractive as the years passed. She was so serious and eager in temperament that, even in London, she lived in comparative retirement.

The letters which she exchanged with the Rossettis during a long period are evidence both of her common-sense and her capacity for passionate sympathy. They are often as frank as they are noble; revealing a nature too profound to be continually considerate of criticism. This gives to some of her utterances a half na?ve and wholly charming quality, which cannot have been absent from her personality, and must have endeared her to the comrades whom she honoured with her confidence.

This high seriousness of hers made her the readier to appreciate a poet who, almost alone among Americans, has bared his man’s heart to his readers, careless of the cheap ridicule of those smart-witted cynics whom modern education and modern morality have multiplied till they are almost as numerous as the sands of the sea. She was a little more than forty when she first read Leaves of Grass and wrote those letters to W. M. Rossetti in which she attested her appreciation of their purpose and power.[574]

It was no light thing for a woman to publish such a declaration of faith; and in her own phrase,[575] she felt herself a second Lady Godiva, going in the daylight down the public way, naked, not in body but in soul, for the good cause. She was convinced that her ride was necessary; for men would remain blind to the glory of Whitman’s message until a woman dared the shame and held its glory up to them. And what she did, she did less for men than for their wives and mothers, upon whom the shadow of their shame-in-themselves had fallen.

Mr. Rossetti has described[576] her as a woman of good port, in fullest possession of herself, never fidgetty, and[Pg 265] never taken unawares; warm-hearted and courageous, with full, dark, liquid eyes, which were at the same time alive with humour and vivacity, quick to detect every kind of humbug, but wholly free from cynicism. Her face was not only expressive of her character, but “full charged with some message” which her lips seemed ever about to utter. Her considerable intellectual force was in happy harmony with her domestic qualities, and filled her home-life with interest.

Such was the woman who, in November, 1876, at the age of forty-eight, brought her family to Philadelphia, in order that one of the daughters might study medicine at Girard College; and in whose home, near the college grounds, Whitman henceforward, for two or three years,[577] spent a considerable part of his time. The relationship of these two noble souls seems to have been comparable with that which united Michael Angelo and Vittoria Colonna, and they were at a similar time of life.

This, the Centennial year, was filled with thoughts and celebrations of American independence; among which we may recall the Exposition in Philadelphia—where throughout the summer, Whitman had been a frequent visitor—and the Centennial edition of his works. He had also celebrated the occasion by sitting for his bust to a young sculptor, in an improvised studio on Chestnut Street. The weather was too hot for a coat; and in his white shirt sleeves he would, at the artist’s request, read his poems aloud with na?ve delight, which rose to a climax when the sound of applause from a group of young fellows on the stairs without, crowned his efforts. “So you like it, do you?” he cried to them; “well, I rather enjoyed that myself.”[578]

The old sad and solitary inertia was broken. Ill though he often was, the lonely little upper room held him no longer; nor was he any more shut up within the sense of bereavement. Jeff had come over from St. Louis, and his two daughters spent the autumn with[Pg 266] their aunt and uncles in Stevens Street. All through the winter Walt was moving back and forward between George’s house, the Staffords farm, and Mrs. Gilchrist’s. He was cheerfully busy with the orders for his pair of handsome books, which were selling briskly at a guinea a volume.

Leaves of Grass had been reprinted from the plates of the fifth edition. Its companion, Two Rivulets, was a “mélange” compounded of additional poems, including “Passage to India,” and the prose writings of which we have already spoken, printed at various times during the last five years. “Specimen Days” was not among them, and did not appear till 1882. The title Two Rivulets suggests the double thread of its theme, the destiny of the nation and of the individual, American politics and that mystery of immortal life which we call death. They were not far asunder in Whitman’s thought.[579]

At the end of February, Mr. Burroughs met Walt at Mrs. Gilchrist’s, and thence they set out together for New York. Here, Whitman stayed with his new and dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Johnston;[580] and presented himself in his own becoming garb at the grand full-dress receptions which were held in his honour; the applause which greeted him, and the atmosphere of real affection by which he was surrounded, compensating him for the always distasteful attentions of a lionising public, eager for any sensation.

He renewed also, and with perhaps more unmitigated satisfaction, his acquaintance with the men on the East River ferries, and the Broadway stages; and, finally, he ascended the Hudson to stay awhile with John Burroughs. This pleasant holiday jaunt was not without its tragic element; his friend, Mrs. Johnston, dying suddenly on his last evening in New York.

It was in May that Mr. Edward Carpenter visited him in Camden. After a brilliant Cambridge career, he was now a pioneer University Extension lecturer in[Pg 267] natural sciences. But besides, or rather beyond this, a poet, in whom the sense of fellowship and unity was already becoming dominant.
Picture of Edward Carpenter at forty-three.

EDWARD CARPENTER AT FORTY-THREE

In a note to his just-published preface, Whitman had spoken of the “terrible, irrepressible yearning”[581] for sympathy which underlay his work, and by which he claimed the personal affection of such readers as he could truly call his own. This also was the aim which underlay Mr. Carpenter’s first book of verses, Narcissus and Other Poems, published in 1873.[582]

Their author was already familiar with Leaves of Grass, which he had first read at about the age of twenty-five, and which he had since been absorbing, much as he absorbed the sonatas of Beethoven. They fed within him the life of something which was still but dimly conscious; something dumb, blind and irrational, but of titanic power to disturb the even tenor of an academic life. One remarks that both Mrs. Gilchrist and he shared to the full the modern feeling for science and its philosophy, and for music.

When he visited Whitman, Edward Carpenter was thirty-three; it was not till four years after this that he gave himself up to the writing of his own “Leaves,” coming into his spiritual kingdom a little later in life than did Walt. In many respects his nature, and consequently his work which is the outcome and true expression of his personality, was in striking contrast with that of his great old friend. Lithe and slender in figure, he was subtle also and fine in the whole temper of his mind; sharing with Addington Symonds that tendency to over-fineness, that touch of morbid subtilty which demands for its balance a very sweet and strenuous soul, such indeed, as is revealed in the pages of Towards Democracy.

He found Whitman’s mind clear and unclouded after the suffering of the last four years, his perception keen[Pg 268] as ever.[583] Courteous, and possessed of great personal charm, he was yet elemental and “Adamic” in character. He impressed his visitor with a threefold personality: first, the magnetic, effluent, radiant spirit of the man going out to greet and embrace all; then, the spacious breadth of his soul, and the remoteness of those further portions in which his consciousness seemed often to be dwelling; and afterwards, the terrible majesty, as of judgment unveiled in him, a Jove-like presence full of thunder.

This last element in his nature was naked, ominous, immovable as a granite rock. When once you perceived it, there was, as Miss Gilchrist has remarked,[584] no shelter from the terrible blaze of his personality. But this rocky masculine Ego was wedded in him with a gentle almost motherly affection, which found expression in certain caressing tones of his widely modulated voice. While, to complete alike the masculine and feminine, was the child—the attitude of reverent wonder toward the world.

By turns then, a wistful child, a charming loving woman, an untamed terrible truth-compelling man, Whitman seems to have both bewitched and baffled his young English visitor.

Mr. Carpenter saw him at Stevens Street and Timber Creek, and again under Mrs. Gilchrist’s hospitable roof. They sat out together in the pleasant Philadelphia fashion through the warm June evenings upon the porch steps; and Walt would talk in his deliberate way of Japan and China, or of the Eastern literatures. He liked to join hands while he talked, communicating more, perhaps, of himself, and understanding his companion better, by touch than by words. His mere presence was sufficient to redeem the commonplace.

His visitor had also an opportunity of noting the efficiency of Whitman’s defences against the globe-trotting interview-hunting type of American woman. His silence became aggressive, and her words rebounded[Pg 269] from it; he had disappeared into his rock-faced solitude where nothing could reach him. And a very few moments of this treatment sufficed, even for the brazen-armoured amazon.

During Mr. Carpenter’s visit, Mrs. George Whitman, whom Dr. Bucke has described as an attractive, sweet woman, was out of health, and her brother-in-law made a daily excursion down town and across the ferry to see her, and to transact his own affairs. In the heat of the following July she first opened the door to Dr. Bucke.[585]

He, too, had long been a student of Leaves of Grass, a student at first against his own judgment, and with little result beyond an annoying bewilderment to his sense of fitness, and of exasperation to his intelligence. But from the first, he felt a singular interior compulsion to read the book, which he could not at all understand. Its lack of all definite statement was the head and front of its offending to a keen scientific mind. But now after many years, he had come to recognise the extraordinary power of suggestion which was embodied in every page.

Dr. R. Maurice Bucke’s personality was strongly marked and striking; he had as much determination as had Whitman himself, and his whole face is full of resolute purpose.

Born in Norfolk, in 1837, but immediately transplanted to Canada, he was thoroughly educated by his father, who was a man of considerable scholarship and a minister in the Church of England.

In 1857, he crowned an adventurous youth passed in the mining regions of the Western States, by a daring winter expedition over the Sierras, in which he was so badly frozen that he afterwards lost both feet, but his tall and vigorous figure showed hardly a trace of this misfortune.

Returning to Canada, he studied medicine; and[Pg 270] eventually, in 1877, became the head of a large insane asylum at London, Ontario. Here he introduced several notable reforms in the treatment of the patients, which were widely imitated throughout America.

He was a keen student of mental pathology, and for some time before his death was reckoned among the leading alienists of the continent. Certain interesting and suggestive studies of the relation which appears to exist between the so-called sympathetic nervous system and the moral and emotional nature, but especially his magnum opus, Cosmic Consciousness, published the year before his death (1901), reveal the direction of his dominant interest. From 1877, he was one of Whitman’s closest friends, and became subsequently his principal biographer.[586]

In the printed recollections of his first interview with Whitman,[587] Dr. Bucke recalls the exaltation of his mind produced by it; describing it as a “sort of spiritual intoxication,” which remained with him for months, transfiguring his new friend into more than mortal stature. It is another instance of the almost incredible power of the invalid’s personality.
Picture of Richard Maurice Bucke.

RICHARD MAURICE BUCKE

Whitman’s own jottings and records of the period testify to his increasing physical vigour. He goes, for instance, to the Walnut Street Theatre, to a performance of Joaquin Miller’s The Danites, accompanied by his friend the author.[588] In the summer of 1878, and in the succeeding year, he is again a guest both of John Burroughs and of J. H. Johnston.[589] On the second occasion, he had delivered his lecture on the “Death of Lincoln” in the Steck Hall, New York; promising himself anew, that if health permitted, he would even now set forth on the lecture tour which he had so long contemplated.[590] But though, in the autumn, he made, with several friends, an extended tour of some sixteen weeks[Pg 271] beyond the Mississippi, he did not accomplish this cherished scheme.

At night on the 10th of September, Whitman and his party left Philadelphia, westward bound. Walt delighted in the magic speed and comfort of the Pullman;[591] in which, lying awake among the sleepers, he was whirled all through the first night up the broad pastoral valley of the Susquehanna, curving with its thousand reedy aits about thick-wooded steeps; and on, over ridge and ridge of the Alleghanies, till morning found them at smoking Pittsburg.

Crossing the Ohio, almost at the point whence he had descended it thirty years before on that fateful southern journey, the good engine, the Baldwin, hurried them all that day through rich and populous Ohio and Indiana. Whitman was not disinclined to acknowledge a personality in the fierce and beautiful locomotive which he had already celebrated in a poem full of fire and of the modern spirit.[592]

They were due next morning at St. Louis, but about nightfall their headlong flight through the broad lands was arrested. The Baldwin ran foul of some obstacle, and suffered serious damage and consequent delay. Spending the third night in the city, they continued through a beautiful autumn day, across the rolling prairies of Missouri, feasting their eyes upon the wide farmlands full of the promise of bread for millions of men.

Nor material bread only. There is something in the vast aerial spaces of these prairie states, their great skies and lonely stretches, which exalts and feeds the soul; something oceanic, Whitman thought, “and beautiful as dreams”.[593] Central in the continent, this country had always seemed to him to correspond with certain central qualities in his ideal America, and to supply the background for the two men whose figures stood out supremely above the struggle for the union, Lincoln[Pg 272] and Grant—men of unplumbed and inarticulate depths of character, and of native freedom of spirit and elemental originality of thought.

Whitman stayed for a while with friends upon the road, at Lawrence and Topeka. Many of the boys he had tended in the wards were now hale men out West, and they were always eager for sight of him; so that there were few places in America where he would not have found a hearty welcome.

He proceeded along the yellow Kansas River, through the Golden Belt, and over the Colorado table-lands, bare and vast as some immense Salisbury Plain, to Denver. In that young city he spent several days, dreaming his great dreams of a Western town that should be full of friends and strong for and against the whole world, breathing her fine air, sparkling as champagne and clear as cold spring water; falling in love with her people and her horses, and the little mountain streams which ran along the channel ways of her broad streets.

Thence, he made short trips into the Rockies; where the railroad winds among fantastic yellow buttes with steep sloping screes, and towering battlements; and the trains swing eagerly round a thousand curves to follow the bronze and amber path-finder, brawling in its sinuous ravine between the pinnacled, red, cloud-topped crags which it has carved and sundered.

Every break in the walls disclosed Olympian companies of august peaks against the high blue. Gradually the way would climb to the summit, its straightness widening, here and there, into sedgy mountain meadows closed about by keen-cut granite heights, the perfect record of laborious ages; and as the day advanced, the broad and restful light broadened and grew more serene as it shone afar on chains of snowy peaks.

Here in this tremendous mountain fellowship, with its shapes at once fantastic and sublime, its solemn joy and wild imagination, its infinite complex of form and colour suggesting vast emotions to the soul, Walt breathed his proper air and recognised the landscape of his deepest life. “I have found the law of my own[Pg 273] poems,” he kept saying to himself with increasing conviction, hour after hour.[594] Like the lonely mountain eagle which he watched wheeling leisurely among the peaks, he was at home in this sternly beautiful, untamed, unmeasured land.

Towards the end of September, he turned East again from the mining town of Pueblo; leaving the Far West unseen[595]—Utah with its Canaanitish glories of intense lake and naked, ruddy, wrinkled mountains; the great grey desert of Nevada; and the forest-clad Sierras looking out across their Californian garden towards the Pacific. Stopping here and there with his former friends, he found his way to Jefferson Whitman’s home in St. Louis, and there remained over the year’s end.

This cosmopolitan Western city,[596] planted in the centre of that vast valley which the Mississippi drains and waters, and at the heart of the American continent, was intensely interesting to Whitman. He had an almost superstitious love for “the Father of Waters”; and many a moonlit autumn night he haunted its banks, its wharves and bridges, fascinated by the sound of the moving water as the river flowed through the luminous silence under the eternal stars.

Physically, St. Louis did not suit him: he was ill there for weeks together; but even so, he was happy in his own simple, human way. He went twice a week to the kindergartens, and there, for an hour together, he entertained the younger pupils with his funny children’s tales.[597] After the first moments of strangeness, and alarm at his size and the whiteness of his hair, nearly all the children quickly came to love old “Kris Kringle” or “Father Christmas” as they would call him;[598] and for his part, he was as happy among little children as a young mother.

Early in January, 1880, he returned home. All his delight in the West, gathered on his first journey up the Mississippi thirty years before, and since accumulating[Pg 274] from many sources, notably from the young Western soldiers he had nursed, had been confirmed by this visit.

In only one thing was he disappointed. The men had seemed, to his searching gaze, fit sons of that new land of possibility; but in the women he had failed to find the qualifications he was seeking.[599] Physically and mentally, he saw them still in bondage to old-world traditions; instead of originating nobler and more generous manners, they were imitating the foolish gentility of the East. Whitman was very exacting in his ideal of womanhood; and perhaps it was mainly upon the ladies of the shops and streets that his strictures were passed; for there are others in that Western world, who are not far from her whom he has described in the “Song of the Broad-axe”—the best-beloved, possessed of herself, who is strong in her beauty as are the laws of nature.[600]

After six months at home among his books and his friends—to whom at this time he added, at least by correspondence, Colonel Robert Ingersoll, afterwards a member of the inner circle—Whitman set out upon another journey, in length almost equal to that of the preceding autumn. Early in June,[601] he crossed the bridge over Niagara on his way to London, Ontario; and now at his second sight, the significance of that majestic scene, which thirty years before he would seem to have missed, was discovered to him.

Staying with Dr. Bucke, he made frequent visits to the great asylum, with its thousand patients, under the wise doctor’s care. Walt’s own family life, with the tragedy of his youngest brother’s incapacity, had made the melancholy brotherhood of those whom he has beautifully described as the “sacred idiots”[602] especially interesting to him. He attended the religious services[Pg 275] held in the asylum; joining with those wrecked minds in a common worship, and seeing the storms of their lives strangely quieted, as though a Divine love, brooding over all, had hushed them.[603] With many of the patients he became personally acquainted, and years afterwards recalled them by name, inquiring affectionately after their welfare.

Whitman was in better health than usual, and in excellent spirits. He loved the doctor, was happy and at home in his household, and on the best of terms with its younger members. Among the latter, his presence never checked the natural flow of high spirits, as does the presence of most grown-up persons: he was always one of themselves.

This, indeed, was a characteristic of Whitman in whatever company he was found, from a kindergarten to a company of “publicans and sinners”. The spirit of comradeship identified him with the others, and he was so profoundly himself that such identification took nothing away from his own identity. Among the young people of Dr. Bucke’s household his fun and humour had free and natural expression; as when, for example, one moonlit evening, he undertook the burial of an empty wine-bottle, addressing a magniloquent oration over its last resting-place to the goddess Semele.

He loved to linger at the table, telling stories after tea; and to recite or read aloud, when the family sat together in the dusk on the verandah; and sometimes, too, he would take his turn in singing some well-known song. For reading aloud, he would often choose some poem of Tennyson’s—“Ulysses” seems to have been his favourite.

At this time also, in a secluded nook in the grounds, he read leisurely over to himself, with the satisfaction which Tennyson’s work nearly always gave him, the newly published De Profundis.[604] His diary of these pleasant, refreshing weeks contains many notes of the thick-starred heavens and the merry birds, and the[Pg 276] multitudinous swallows, which would recall to his well-stored mind the story of Athene and Ulysses’ return.[605]

His vital force seemed to be almost unimpaired. The noble calm of his presence, indeed, made him appear even older than he was; his fine hair was snowy white, and the high-domed crown which rose through it and grew higher and nobler with every year, gave him all claims to reverence.[606]

But, though at first sight he seemed to be nearer eighty than sixty years old, and though he was lame from paralysis, a second glance showed him erect and without a line of care or of senility upon his face. His complexion was rosy as a winter pippin, and his cheeks were full and smooth, for his heart was always young.

His host wished to show him Canada; in which country he was the more deeply interested through his settled conviction that it would presently become a part of the United States. The St. Lawrence and the Lakes, he always said, cannot remain a frontier-line; they are and should be recognised as a magnificent inland water-way, comparable with the Mississippi.

Towards the end of July[607] he set out upon this great road with his friend. Taking boat at Toronto, they descended by easy stages, stopping a night or two at Kingston, Montreal and Quebec, Whitman thoroughly enjoying all the new scenes and making friends everywhere on the way. He sat on the fore-deck in the August sunshine, wrapped in his grey overcoat, wondering at the grim pagan wildness of the lower St. Lawrence, nightly watching the Northern Lights, and appearing on deck before sunrise.
Picture of Walt Whitman at sixty-one, July 1880.

WHITMAN AT SIXTY-ONE, JULY, 1880

As they turned up the deep dark Saguenay and reached the mountain pillars of Eternity and Trinity, the mystery of northern river and height, with all they hold of stillness and of storm, communed with him. He saw infinite power wedded with an ageless peace; and all, however awful in its sublimity, yet far from[Pg 277] inhospitable to an heroic race of men; nay, by its very awfulness, inviting and proclaiming the men who shall dare to dwell therein.

With the people of Canada, as a whole, he was well pleased. He liked their benevolent care for the weak and infirm in body and mind; and thought them in every respect worthy of the destiny which he believed that he foresaw—the destiny of citizenship in the Republic.


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