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CHAPTER XXI “GOOD-BYE, MY FANCY”
During the first years of his sojourn among them, some of the young men of Camden had founded a Walt Whitman Club;[705] and year by year a group of intimate friends was springing up about his own door.

Chief of these was Mr. Horace Traubel, whose life became so inextricably interwoven with Whitman’s last years that he has rightly been called the old poet’s spiritual son. He was one of the first of Walt’s Camden acquaintances. How or when they met, neither could remember; looking back to the summer evenings when the lame, white-haired man and the fair lad sat together on the steps of the Stevens Street house, it seemed as though they had always been friends.[706]

Another of the group was Mr. T. B. Harned,[707] Traubel’s brother-in-law, an able lawyer and lover of books, whose house became a second home for Whitman after the removal from Philadelphia of his friends the Pearsall Smiths. These two gentlemen, with Dr. Bucke, eventually became Whitman’s executors; better than anything else, this shows the confidence which their old friend reposed in them.

On his sixty-ninth birthday—Friday, 31st May, 1888—his Camden friends and others met him at dinner at Mr. Harned’s.[708] Two days later he was there again, and Dr. Bucke, arriving unexpectedly, was of the party.

[Pg 326]

Walt had come in his carriage, and afterwards drove the doctor to the ferry. Thence he made his way to a point where, urging his horse into the river, he had nothing but water and sky before him, all filled with the sunset glory. He sat for an hour absorbing it in a sort of ecstasy.[709]

Returning home, he felt that he had been chilled, and recognised intimations of a paralytic attack—the seventh—[710] as he went to bed. He quietly resisted this alone. In the morning he had two more slight strokes, and for the first time temporarily lost the power of speech.

This was Monday, and all through the week he lay close to death. Dr. Bucke had returned, his friends entertaining no hopes of his recovery. But the end was not yet.

Even in the midst of the uncertainty he was determined to complete the work he had in hand. Every day he contrived to get downstairs, and every evening he turned over the proof-sheets of a new volume, which Horace Traubel brought with him from the printer’s on his way back from the city. From this time on, Traubel was his daily visitor, his faithful and assiduous aid.[711]

Slowly the old man began again to improve, but he never regained the lost ground. His friends found him paler than of old, with new lines on his face, and a heavier expression of weariness.[712] The horse and carriage were no longer of service, and had to be sold; in the autumn a nurse and wheel-chair took their place. The increased confinement troubled him most of all, so that he became jealous of the tramp with his outdoor life.
Hand written text from two postcards which Whitman sent to Mrs. Berenson, 1887-1888.

FAC-SIMILES OF POST-CARDS FROM WHITMAN TO MRS. BERENSON, 1887-8

Altogether, as he wrote to his friends, though holding the fort—“sort o’”—he was “a pretty complete physical wreck”.[713] O’Connor, too, was now paralysed[Pg 327] and near his end; the two old friends, similarly stricken, were once again exchanging greetings, though separated now by a whole continent. In O’Connor’s case, however, the brain itself was also giving way. Walt followed all the illness of him who had been in some respects his best comrade with pathetic interest, until, returning from California to Washington, the broken flesh gave freedom at last to the man’s fiery spirit.[714]

Whitman grew somewhat more querulous in these later days, with the increase of pain and discomfort;[715] for from this time on one may almost say that he was slowly dying. Not that he complained or was inconsiderate, but little things caused him greater irritation, though only for a moment.

Nothing is more notable in Whitman’s nature than the short duration of his fits of quick-flaming wrath.[716] They flashed out from him in a sudden word, and passed, leaving no trace of bitterness or resentment behind.

An example of this is afforded by his behaviour toward the unexpected and vehement assault upon him by a former admirer, Mr. Swinburne. Having once acclaimed Whitman as the cor cordium of the singers of freedom,[717] he now consigned him to the category of the Tuppers; opining that, with a better education, he might perhaps have attained to a rank above Elliott the Corn-Law rhymer, but below the laureate Southey. According to Mr. Swinburne’s revised estimate, Whitman was in short no true poet; and as for his ideal of beauty, it was not only vulgar but immoral. The attack roused Whitman to snap out, “Isn’t he the damnedest simulacrum?” but that was all.[718] The affair was dismissed, and he only regretted that, for his own sake, Swinburne had not risen higher.

[Pg 328]

The rather contemptuous reference to Whitman’s deficient education recalls the first criticism passed upon the Leaves. Their author was gravely commended to the study of Addison,[719] and to tell the truth, this has been about the last word of a large number of academic persons from that day to this. Their advice, when acted upon, nearly ruined Robert Burns; it had little effect upon Whitman, though it was not neglected.

But Mr. Swinburne’s attack reminds one also of something more important even than “Addison”; the antithesis and opposition which exists between two great orders of poets, of which his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Whitman himself may be taken as the types. The Blessed Damozel is in another world from any page of the Leaves; and there is almost nothing which the two poets seem to share. Mr. Swinburne did good service, in so far as he pointed the contrast; but he confused it by declaiming against the prophet, and extolling the sonneteer.

The field may not so be limited; the exile of Byron, Emerson and Carlyle from the brotherhood of poets, though proclaimed by Mr. Swinburne, can hardly be enforced. For as Whitman has suggested,[720] there are, inevitably, two kinds of great poetry: one corresponding, as it were, to the song of the Nightingale, and another to the flight of the Eagle. He himself has nothing of the infinitely allusive grace of the former, the sonnet-twining interpreters of the romantic past, the painters of subtle dream-beauties and fair women whose faces are the faces of unearthly flowers wrought purely of the passions of dead men.

But they again have nothing of his appeal to the heroic and kingly spirit that confronts the equally romantic future, grappling with world-tragedies and creating the new beauty of passions hitherto unborn. Doubtless the greatest poets unite these two orders, reconciling them in their own persons; but such are the very greatest of all time. I do not think that Whitman[Pg 329] himself would have admitted a claim on his behalf to be counted among them.[721]

The sheets he had been correcting with Traubel’s aid, in the crisis of his illness, were those of November Boughs, a volume composed, like Two Rivulets, of prose and verse. It appeared in November, 1888. Among its prose papers are sympathetic studies of Burns and of Elias Hicks, with an appreciation of George Fox.[722] There are also many reminiscences, notably of the Old Bowery Theatre, and of New Orleans; and most interesting of all, a biographical study of the origins and purpose of the Leaves themselves.

This Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads[723] has far more of modesty in it than his earlier writings, which were necessarily occupied with self-assertion. In his old age he shows himself a little alarmed at his more youthful readiness to take up the challenge which he had seen Democracy and Science throwing down to Poetry. He recognises with clearer vision than many of his friends, his own weakness in poetic technique, and the experimental nature of his work in poetry. But he does not pretend to doubt its importance; for, as he avers, it is the projection of a new and American attitude of mind.[Pg 330] He is not without confidence also, that his book will prove a comfort to others, since it has been the main comfort of his own solitary life—and he believes it will be found a stimulus to the American nation of his love.

The poems of the new collection are all brief and many of them are descriptive. For the rest, they are mainly the assertions of a jocund heart defying the ice-cold, frost-bound winter of old-age, and waiting for the sure-following spring. Meanwhile, he enjoys the inner mysteries, and the enforced quiet of these later days, these starry nights; living, as he quaintly says, in “the early candlelight of old-age”.[724] To him they sometimes seem to be the best, the halcyon days of all.
Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor’d middle age, nor victories of politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs really finish’d and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days![725]

He often reviews his past, so seemingly purposeless and incoherent, and yet so profoundly urged from its source within toward the unseen goal. Still before him, he sees endless vistas of the eternal purpose. The secret souls of things speak to him; the restless sea betrays the unsatisfied passion of the Earth’s great heart;[726] the rain bears love back with it to the mountains whence it came.[727] Everything instructs him, for he remains eager to learn—criticism and rejection at least as much as acceptance.

Sometimes the long process of dying—the painfully prolonged separating of a Body and Soul which were more intimately wedded than are others—leaves its mark upon the page; as in a brief note where he states simply that his solemn experiences at this period are unlikely to occur in any other human life.[728] He felt[Pg 331] himself solitary even in his pain. But this was a solitude hallowed and supported by the Everlasting Arms.

Though often sleepless and suffering, he kept, upon the whole, a cheery business about him, working to the end. But silence now predominated in his days, and his craving for it increased. In the evening, Traubel would come in and sit beside him, watching his face profiled against the evening light. He had grown to feel the old man’s mood, and had learnt to say nothing. After an hour or two he had his reward; Walt would bid him good-bye with a smile, saying, “What a good talk we’ve had”. For neither of them wanted words.

Through the winter and spring of 1888 to 1889 he remained house-tied, anchored in his big chair by the fire; “every month letting the pegs lower,” he wrote to his friends.[729] But in June he got out and about in his wheel-chair, and in August crossed the ferry to be photographed, immensely delighted at the evidences of gaiety and prosperity which met him everywhere. America, he would say, is laying great material foundations; the sky-climbing towers will arise in good time.
Picture of Whitman at seventy.

WHITMAN AT SEVENTY

The birthday dinner, which he did not altogether approve,[730] became this year a public function, and was held in the largest of the Camden halls.[731] He was seventy, and the day was but doubtfully propitious. However, he would not disappoint his friends, and arrived when the meal was over.

He looked weary, as well he might, but the human contact and the atmosphere of love and fellowship warmed and refreshed him. The messages of congratulation came from far and from many, from William Morris among the rest. Walt wore a black coat, which was almost unprecedented, and hid himself behind a great bowl of flowers, enjoying their colour and scent, sipping at his champagne, and tapping applause with the bottle whenever he approved a sentiment. One[Pg 332] remembers how he used to detest and escape from all lionising, and to-night, after the praises and the enthusiasm were concluded, he said laughingly to his nurse that it was very well, but there was too much “gush and taffy”.[732]

That spring he had been too ill to celebrate the Lincoln anniversary, but in the following, after a struggle with influenza, he delivered it for the last—the thirteenth—time.

Hoarse and half-blind, he crossed the river,[733] assisted everywhere by willing hands, and with great difficulty climbed the long stairs to the room on South Broad Street, where Horace Traubel’s Contemporary Club held its meetings. Refusing introduction, he took his seat on the platform, put on his glasses, and got immediately to business, reading with a melodious voice and easy manner.

He was over in the city again for his next birthday celebration, and after the dinner, Colonel Ingersoll made a long, impassioned tribute to his friend.[734] The comradeship between them was strong and satisfying to both; Whitman was always in better spirits after a call from the colonel. “He is full of faults and mistakes,” he said once to an English friend, “but he is an example in literature of natural growth as a tree”; adding, “he gives out always from himself.”[735]

Their attitude toward questions of religion was often antagonistic, and on this occasion, after the speech, Whitman made a sort of rejoinder. While gratefully acknowledging his friend’s appreciation of Leaves of Grass, he pointed out that Ingersoll had stopped short of the main matter, for the book was crammed with allusions to immortality, and was bound together by the idea of purpose, resident in the heart of all and realising itself in the material universe. He turned to Ingersoll, demanding, “Unless there is a definite object for it all, what, in God’s name, is it all for?” And Ingersoll, shaking[Pg 333] his head, replied, “I can’t tell. And if there is a purpose, and if there is a God, what is it all for? I can’t tell. It looks like nonsense to me, either way.”

From this intellectual agnosticism no argument could dislodge a mind like Ingersoll’s, for noble as it was, it was limited by its own logic, and to logic alone, working with the material of merely intellectual knowledge, the universe must inevitably remain a riddle. Whitman, recognising a more perfect faculty of reason, and cognisant of a field of transcendent knowledge which Ingersoll had never known, was able to realise a purpose in this, which to Ingersoll seemed only nonsense.

For the divinely creative imagination, when it is awakened, discovers in all things the meanings of creative thought. And personality, when in its supreme hours it transcends the limitations of human knowledge, and enters the consciousness of the Whole, discovers the meaning of immortality, and the indestructibility of the soul. Such flights are naturally impossible to the pedestrian faculties of the mind.

Ingersoll spoke again in Philadelphia, in the same vein and on the same subject, in October.[736] He had a large audience of perhaps two thousand persons in the Horticultural Hall, and Whitman was present on the platform.

Taking up his subject somewhat in the manner of O’Connor in the Good Gray Poet, the orator denounced the hypocrisy and parochialism of American opinion, and proclaimed the Divine right of the liberator, genius. He justified “Children of Adam,” and gave in his adherence to the theory of free rhythm which is exemplified in the Leaves.

Alluding to the subject of their discussion after the recent dinner at Reisser’s, he declared it impossible for him to make any assertion of immortality; but admitted that Hope, replying to the question of Love over the grave, might proclaim that “before all life is death, and after death is life”.

[Pg 334]

After the fine, but, in cold type at least, the over-florid peroration descriptive of the atmosphere of Whitman’s work, the applause was dying away, and the people rising to go, when the old poet signalled for them to be detained, and saying that he was there himself to offer the final testimony to and explanation of his writings, if they would look at him and understand, he gave thanks to them and to the orator, and bade them all farewell.
Picture of Robert G. Ingersoll.

ROBERT G. INGERSOLL, FROM A PRINT

The whole scene presents a curiously suggestive picture. And Whitman’s situation was a most singular one. His friends had arranged a benefit lecture on the Leaves by the most eloquent eulogist in America. It is true the book is not identical with Whitman, but it would be difficult to separate the Leaves from the man. And here was the man, apparently of his own free will, receiving the eulogy and applause in person and the gate-money by deputy.

The pious Philadelphians had expressed their disapproval of the lecturer,[737] his iconoclastic fervour and agnosticism, by refusing him the use of the most commodious hall, and their opposition had encouraged Walt to stand at his friend’s side. But apart from this, his presence illustrates some of the characteristics of his nature, his child-like and sometimes terrible love of directness in the relations of life, and his frank eagerness for appreciation.

We have seen already that he could learn from criticism, and there is a story of Dr. Bucke’s which is too good to omit, though it entails a slight digression. It was against the awkwardness, not the severity, of his literary surgeons that he would protest with a quiet humour. After one of their operations, more painful than usual, in his slow, slightly nasal drawl, he related how a Quaker was once set on by a robber in a wood. The fellow knocked his passive victim to the ground, rifled him thoroughly, and “pulling out a long knife proceeded to cut his throat. The knife was dull, the[Pg 335] patience of the poor Quaker almost exhausted. ‘Friend,’ said he to the robber, ‘I do not object to thee cutting my throat, but thee haggles.’”[738]

But while accepting blame with serenity, he yet preferred praise; understanding praise above all, though even ignorant praise was hardly unwelcome. Praise not directly of himself, be it understood—that often made him uncomfortable;[739] but of the book, his alter ego, his child. For the book was, besides, a Cause, and that the noblest; and even vain applauding of it sounded, in the old man’s ears, like the tramp of the hosts of progress; in whose ranks there must needs follow, let us admit, a number of enthusiastic fools.

Of such, certainly, Ingersoll was not one. He saw in the book much of what Whitman had put there; and especially he understood how it had been written under the stress of an emotion which finds its symbol in that banner of the blue and stars, which he so happily described as “the flag of Nature”.[740]

Other men have given themselves out to be a Christ, or a John the Baptist, or an Elijah; Whitman, without their fanaticism, but with a profound knowledge of himself, recognised in a peasant-born son of Mannahatta, an average American artisan, the incarnation of America herself. “He is Democracy,” quoth Thoreau;[741] and when he sat with a pleased indifference under the eloquent stream of Ingersoll’s panegyric, he was only testifying anew to his whole-hearted, glad willingness to give himself, body and mind, for the interpretation of America to her children. But none the less, it was a singular situation; and, doubtless, Whitman, who was not by any means obtuse, felt it to be such.

His last birthday dinner was held in the lower room at Mickle Street after a winter of illness—“the main abutments and dykes shattered and threatening to give out”[742]—broken by an occasional saunter in his wheel[Pg 336]chair with the welcome sight of some four-masted schooner on the river, and by the visits of his friends.

He was still himself, however. An English admirer had recently been astounded to find the irrepressible attractive power of the old man.[743] He was brought downstairs, weak, after a bad day, to meet some thirty of his friends.

Walt himself started the proceedings with a toast to the memory of Bryant, Emerson and Longfellow, and to Tennyson and Whittier, living yet;[744] for the fact that Whittier strongly disapproved of the Leaves in no way separated him from Whitman’s affectionate esteem. Rejoicing over his big family gathering, he wistfully remembered the absent. Doyle had not been to the house for many months.[745] Perhaps he was a little jealous of new friends, and resented even being thought of as a stranger by Mrs. Davis. O’Connor was dead, and so was Mrs. Gilchrist, and there were many others not less dear. Some who were far away sent their greetings, Tennyson and Symonds among the rest; and there were the usual warm congratulatory speeches.

The host was sometimes absent-minded, and sometimes, according to the record, oddly garrulous. But the talk about the table was often of the deepest interest. Dr. Bucke was present, and Whitman and he had a friendly bout over Leaves of Grass. The poet would not accept the doctor’s interpretation, or indeed, any other’s, saying that the book must have its own way with its readers. It was simply the revelation of the man himself, “the personal critter,” as he would phrase it.

Dr. Bucke made some interesting reference to the elements of evil passion which he detected in his old friend’s make-up; “the elements of a Cenci or an Attila”. And Whitman quite simply admitted that he was not sure that he understood himself.

A touch of humour was never long absent where Whitman was found. Some audacious devotee asked him why he had never married; and Walt rambled[Pg 337] off into an explanation, which, after alluding to the “Nibelungen—or somebody—’s cat with an immensely long, long, long tail to it,” and again to the obscurities that confront the biographer of Burns, concluded that the matter in question was probably by no means discreditable, though inexplicable enough, except in the light of his whole life.

The questioner remained standing—he was very enthusiastic—and had more to follow. But as he began to recite “Captain! my Captain!” a stray dog which had entered at the open door provided a melancholy and irresistible accompaniment, convulsing those present in their own despite until the tears ran down their cheeks.[746]

Finally, Whitman made an interesting political statement. He condemned as false the protectionist idea of “America for the Americans”; and asserted as the basic political principle, the interdependence of all peoples, and their openness to one another for purposes of exchange. The common people of all races are embarked together like fellows on a ship, he said; what wrecks one, wrecks all. The ultimate truth about the human race is its solidarity of interest. Then he was tired, and calling for his stick and his nurse, he blessed them all and went slowly upstairs.

It was the last of his birthday dinners. He was seventy-two, very old in body, and very weary. But he was still bright and affectionate toward the friends who continued to come great distances to greet him. A group at Bolton sent two representatives in the years 1890 and 1891, whose records of their visits are suffused with wonder at the old poet’s courtesy and loving consideration and comradely demonstrations of personal feeling.[747] He was a little anxious lest his English friends should misapprehend his character: “Don’t let them think of me as a saint or a finished anything,” was the burden of his messages to them, always accompanied by his love.

[Pg 338]

He spoke warmly of the English, comparing them favourably at times with their cousins across the sea, and saying that they represented the deeper and more lasting qualities of the Anglo-Saxon race; they were like the artillery of its army.[748] The welcome from English readers had astonished and delighted him. In 1887 he contemplated a visit to Great Britain;[749] and he sometimes seems even to have toyed with the idea of an English home. One can be more Democratic there than in America, he had once declared.[750]

Of his own later years, he said to Mr. J. W. Wallace, who called frequently during the late autumn of 1891, “I used to feel ... that I was to irradiate or emanate buoyancy and health. But it came to me in time, that I was not to attempt to live to the reputation I had, or to my own idea of what my programme should be; but to give out and express what I really was; and, if I felt like the devil, to say so; and I have become more and more confirmed in this.”[751] Whitman has so often been accused of a self-conscious pose, that this partial acknowledgment that such a pose had existed is full of interest; an interest accentuated by the statement that he deliberately abandoned it in his later years.

Talking was at this time often an effort; the heavy feeling in his head, which had become more and more frequent since his first illness, increased till he compared his brain to “sad dough,” or “an apple dumpling”. At times, when he was really prostrated, his head was “like ten devils”.[752]

The portrait prefixed to his last little book, is that of some patriarch, bent under a world-weight of experience. The volume, Good-bye, my Fancy, appeared in the winter—sixty pages of fragmentary notes and rhythms of pathetic interest. He called them his “last chirps”.[753] It opens on a rather deprecatory note, but is touched here and there with wistful humour.
Picture of Whitman at seventy-two.

WHITMAN AT SEVENTY-TWO

[Pg 339]

The preface,[754] written two summers before, describes him as moved by the sunshine to the playfulness of a kid, a kitten or a frolicsome wave. He finds a grim satisfaction even in his present state, counting it as a part of his offering to the cause of the union and America, for he has no doubt of its origin in the strain of the war-years. Of the war, and of his part in it, he now sees all his Leaves as reminiscent.

The prose memoranda are principally memorial of old friends, and familiar books and places, and are full of those generous appreciations which were a delightful feature of his later life. Among others, are tributes to Queen Victoria, to his friend Tennyson, and to the great American poets.[755]

He returns again to his gospel of health,[756] as the message most needed in the world to-day; a message which would contrast with the cry of Carlyle or of Heine, or of almost any of the dwellers in that Europe which he sees afar off, as a sort of vast hospital or asylum ward. It has been his own single purpose to arouse the soul, the essential giver of Divine health, in his readers. His aim has always been religious; he foresees the coming of a new religion which shall embrace both the feminine beauty of Christianity and the masculine splendour of Paganism.[757]

The poems are still in the vein of November Boughs. They are the utterance of certain belated elements in his life-experience, without which his book would be incomplete. Some review his past; others anticipate his future.

The most important is the poem “To the Sunset Breeze,”[758] which is perhaps the highest expression of his mystical attitude toward nature. The breeze brings to this lonely, sick man, incapable of movement, the infinite message of God and of the world; it comes to him as a loving and holy companion, the distillation and essence of all material things, the most godly of spirits:—

[Pg 340]
Thou, messenger-magical strange bringer to body and spirit of me,
(Distances balk’d—occult medicines penetrating me from head to foot),
I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern lakes,
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-swimming in space;
Thou blown from lips so loved, now gone—haply from endless store, God-sent,
(For thou art spiritual, Godly, most of all known to my sense),
Minister to speak to me, here and now, what word has never told, and cannot tell,
Art thou not universal concrete’s distillation? Law’s, all Astronomy’s last refinement?
Hast thou no soul? Can I not know, identify thee?

One cannot doubt the feeling behind these passionate lines, or question the soul-contact which the old poet felt with the things we are complacently and ignorantly contented to regard as mere automata, moved by mechanical force. For Whitman, Nature was a soul; a soul, though strange and often seeming-hostile, yet beloved and really loving; a soul, whose infinite life is, without exception, seeking and groping after its divine source. He deliberately enumerates a catalogue of things evil to make the significance of his meaning clear.

The title of the book is related, on the last page, to a curious thought which occupied his mind at this period. While the imagination which has prompted all his poems has not been exactly himself, it has become so intimately related to him that he cannot now conceive of himself existing after death unaccompanied by it; hence his Good-bye, my Fancy is but a new welcome, a vale atque ave.[759]

There are two more poems, not included in this volume, which seem to close his work. One, the last thing that he composed, was a final greeting to Columbus, who had become in his mind a type of the poet of the future.[760]

The other, the last that I can note of these “concluding chirps,”[761] as he would call them, is a beautiful correction of the popular picture of death’s valley. Before Whitman—and he of all men had a right to speak upon[Pg 341] the subject, because he knew Death, as it were, personally—there spread out a very different landscape:—
Of the broad blessed light and perfect air, with meadows, rippling tides, and trees and flowers and grass,
And the low hum of living breeze—and in the midst God’s beautiful eternal right hand,
Thee, holiest minister of Heaven—thee, envoy, usherer, guide at last of all,
Rich, florid, loosener of the stricture-knot call’d life,
Sweet, peaceful, welcome Death.

As his book-making thus drew to a finish, he occupied himself with his own tomb. This was being erected through the autumn of 1891 among the young beeches and hickories of a new cemetery, a few miles out of Camden. It was built of grey granite into the bank, and framed after a well-known design of Blake’s.[762]

At once plain but impressive, it is strikingly different from the poor little cottage in which he died. And the fact illustrates again Whitman’s simple acceptance of realities. He knew that his grave must be a place of pilgrimage; and having brought the bones of his father and mother to lie beside his own, he gave all possible dignity, for the sake of the book and the cause, to this his last resting-place.

While he was thus spending a considerable sum upon his tomb, the extra expenses entailed by his prolonged illness were being met, unknown to him, by the generosity of his Camden friends. After his death, his executors were surprised to find that there was in the bank a considerable reserve,[763] amounting to several hundred pounds, available for distribution between his sisters and his brother Edward, according to the terms of his will.

In mid-December, 1891, Whitman’s right lung became congested, and when Dr. Bucke arrived on the 22nd the death-rattle had already been heard, and his immediate passing was anticipated.[764]

[Pg 342]

At Christmas, John Burroughs came over, and found such an unconquered look upon the sufferer’s face that the thought of death’s nearness seemed impossible.[765] From St. Louis came Jessie Whitman, her father, Jefferson, having died a year earlier; and the colonel brother, who seems now to have removed from Camden, spent at least one anxious night in the little house. Mr. Johnston also came over from New York for a last sight of his old friend. But even with those nearest to him, interviews became more and more difficult. He longed for the solitude and silence which their love found it hardest to give.

The wintry days at the junction of the years went by in suffering and patience. Walt was affectionately grateful for the intimate services of his nurse and of Horace Traubel; writing of the latter as “unspeakably faithful”.[766] Though he was generally calm he was longing for death. He had dreadful hiccoughs, and grew colder and more emaciated. The suffering had become terrible, and the anticipation of its long continuance brought fear for the first time to his strong heart.
Picture of Horace Traubel at forty-five.

HORACE TRAUBEL AT FORTY-FIVE

In mid-January, however, he rallied. The Fritzinger baby was born and called after him, and Walt had it brought in to be fondled upon his breast.[767] Colonel Ingersoll called, and his magnetic spontaneous presence and words of profound affection comforted and sustained his friend. Then, to his great satisfaction, the tenth edition of his works appeared,[768] and special copies were forwarded to his friends. He contrived to write brief notes to Dr. Bucke and to his favourite sister, telling them of the publication and of his condition.

On the 6th and 7th of February he wrote a last pathetic letter, which was lithographed and sent out to many correspondents. The “little spark of soul” which, according to his own quaint version of a favourite saying of Epictetus, had during all these months been “dragging a great lummux of corpse-body clumsily to[Pg 343] and fro around,” was still glimmering. His friends were ever faithful, he says, and for his bodily state, “it is not so bad as you might suppose, only my sufferings much of the time are fearful”. And he added, as a last dictum, the substance of his latest public thoughts—for he read the newspapers constantly to the last—“more and more it comes to the fore, that the only theory worthy our modern times, for great literature, politics and sociology, must combine all the best people of all lands, the women not forgetting”.[769]

His friend over-sea, Addington Symonds, was ill and depressed,[770] and George Stafford passed away at Glendale. He became yet more silent; looked over his letters and the journals; took and relished his brandy-punch and slept. Almost daily his pain increased, and the choking mucus. He was often in terrible exhaustion, and the long nights were almost unbearable. “Dear Walt,” said his faithful friend, as he bent down and kissed him, “you do not realise what you have been to us”; and Walt rejoined feebly, “nor you, what you have been to me”.[771]

All through March the restlessness and agony increased. There seemed to be no parcel of his emaciated body which was not the lurking place of pain. The stubborn determination of his nature suffered the last throes of human agony before it would surrender. Thus he learnt the lesson of death as few have ever learnt it.

Those who watched could do little but love him, and for that his dim eyes repaid them a thousandfold to the end. Without, the days were dismally bleak; snow lay heavily upon the earth, but in the big three-windowed room winter seemed still more fierce and dread.

On the night of the 24th he was moved on to a water bed, which eased him. He tried to laugh when, as he turned him upon it and the water splashed around, Warry, the sailor-nurse, said it sounded like the waves upon a ship’s flanks. The thought was full of sugges[Pg 344]tions and chimed with his own; but the mucus choked him into silence.

Next day he was terribly weak, but restful, and that night he slept and seemed easier. On the following afternoon they saw that at last he was surrendering. He smiled and felt no longer any pain.[772] Warry moved him for the last time about six o’clock, and Walt acknowledged the change with gratitude. Half an hour later, holding Traubel’s hand in his, he lapsed silently into the Unknown.

It was growing dark, and the rain fell softly bearing its burden of love to the earth, and dripping from the eaves upon the side-walk. The noble ship had slipt its cable and gone forth upon “the never-returning tide”.

Whitman died on a Saturday night. On the Wednesday following, from eleven to two, the Mickle Street house was invaded by thousands of people of every age and class, who had come to take a last look at the familiar face. “It was the face of an aged, loving child,” said one of them.[773]

Among the rest came an old Washington comrade,[774] who was unrecognised by the policeman keeping order at the little door. No, said he, it is late, and the house is full already. With a bitter and broken heart, he was turning away bewildered from the place, when one of the others saw him and, heartily calling his name, led him in.

How many, many thoughts surged through his brain, as he looked on that dear face, and poignantly remembered again the old days! How he reproached himself for the long lapses that had crept of late, half-observed, into their intimacy! Why had he not been here these months past, nursing and caring for one who had been dearer to him than his father? Why had he left him in his last agonies to hired helpers, however kind, and to[Pg 345] new friends. Surely, he thought, the old are dearer—if they be true.

He went out with the crowd to Harleigh, saw the strange ceremony, and heard, without understanding them, the fine words spoken. And then, refusing to be comforted, he escaped, walking home alone along the dusty roads—alone forever now—the tears coursing down his cheeks.

But come! he would no longer waste the hours in vain reproaches. Walt, after all, understood. He had always understood, and felt the depth of love that sometimes seeks so false an expression in jealousy. Come now, he will live henceforward by the thought and in the unclouded love of his old Walt, once his and his now forever.

Of course, he had not understood Walt, not as these scholars, these writers and poets understood him. But he had been “awful near to him, nights and days”. And those letters of his! Sometimes he thought that in the passion of his young plain manhood, he had come nearer, yes, nearer than any other, to that great loving soul. And for my part, I am not sure that he was mistaken.

Meanwhile, in the new cemetery, out along Haddon Avenue beyond the Dominican Convent where dwell the Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary, they had buried the remains of Walt Whitman’s body. The hillside above the pool had been covered with folk; and up on the beech-spray over the tomb, the first blue-bird had sung its plaintive-sweet promise of the breaking spring.[775]

In the palm-decked white pavilion, with its open sides, the words of the old poet’s Chant of Death had mingled with those of the Christ and of the Buddha, and with the half-choked sentences of living lovers and friends. “I felt as if I had been at the entombment of Christ,” writes one; and another murmured, “We are at the summit”.

[Pg 346]

But the last words had been spoken by Ingersoll—“I loved him living, and I love him still”.[776]
Picture of Whitman's tomb at Harleigh Cemetery, 1904.

THE TOMB AT HARLEIGH CEMETERY, 1904

“To tell you the truth,” writes one who knew him intimately, “I have never had the feeling that Walt Whitman was dead. I think of him as still there, capable of writing to me at any time, and my thoughts often turn to him for his friendly sympathy.”[777]

It is incredible that any being who has consciously entered upon that life of love which approves itself to the soul as God’s own life, can be fundamentally affected by death. What our life is we know not, nor may we speak with any confidence of the nature of the change which we call death; but love we know, and in it, as Ingersoll rightly guessed, is the key to the riddle of mortality.


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