“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
By Maria Popova
“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.
As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:
The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.
No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”
But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.”
By Maria Popova
“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.
Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.
“Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity… that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me.”
By Maria Popova
“No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind,” Hermann Melville wrote as he began falling under Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spell. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning exulted in the first of his love letters to Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too.” To be a passionate reader is indeed to live with the risk of becoming besotted with the author of a beloved book. No author has cast a wider or deeper enchantment on more varied human hearts than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).
At the age of twenty-three, after a two-year engagement, Anne had married a talented art and literary critic of humble means, whose writing would soon earn the friendship of some of Great Britain’s most celebrated authors: Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer, Christina Rossetti. The couple would eventually settle next door to Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Ten years into the marriage, scarlet fever suddenly widowed Anne and left her to raise her four children as a single mother at thirty-three. Lettered, brilliant, intensely interested in science and philosophy, and enchanted by the channeling of beauty, be it in poetry or in painting, she endeavored to finish the biography of William Blake that her husband had begun, which she published in 1863 to great acclaim with the help of William and Gabriel Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brothers.
That is how Walt Whitman came to animate Anne Gilchrist’s life. At the time, William Rossetti was readying to publish the long-belated English edition of Leaves of Grass. Intuiting a kindred sensibility, he gave Gilchrist some of Whitman’s poems. She was instantly besotted. In June of 1869, she exulted in a letter to Rossetti:
Your edition of Walt Whitman’s poems… holds me entirely spellbound, and I go through it again and again with deepening delight and wonder.
On those pages began what would become a rich and unclassifiable bond. “Among the perfect women I have met,” Whitman would later reflect, “I have known none more perfect in every relation, than my dear, dear friend, Anne Gilchrist.” In a conversation with his biographer, he would liken her to Lincoln, whom he considered “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” in America:
Have you noticed that the time to look for the best things in best people is the moment of their greatest need? Look at Lincoln: he is our proudest example: he proved to be big as, bigger than, any emergency — his grasp was a giant’s grasp — made dark things light, made hard things easy…. [Anne] belonged to the same noble breed: seized the reins, was competent; her head was clear, her hand was firm.
Gilchrist’s first love letter to Whitman was not private but public — an essay titled “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” published anonymously in Boston’s Radical a year after she first became enamored of his verses. Whitman was 51 and Gilchrist 42. Lauding the poems’ “penetrating sweetness, set in the midst of rugged grandeur,” she enthused:
For me the reading of his poems is truly a new birth of the soul.
I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these… I am as one hurried through stormy seas, over high mountains, dazed with sunlight, stunned with a crowd and tumult of faces and voices, till I am breathless, bewildered, half dead. Then come parts and whole poems in which there is such calm wisdom and strength of thought, such a cheerful breadth of sunshine, that the soul bathes in them renewed and strengthened. Living impulses flow out of these that make me exult in life, yet look longingly towards “the superb vistas of Death.” … Not, of course, that all the pieces are equal in power and beauty, but that all are vital; they grew — they were not made. We criticise a palace or a cathedral; but what is the good of criticising a forest? … Seeds brought by the winds from north, south, east, and west, lying long in the earth, not resting on it like the stately building, but hid in and assimilating it, shooting upwards to be nourished by the air and the sunshine and the rain which beat idly against that, — each bough and twig and leaf growing in strength and beauty its own way, a law to itself, yet, with all this freedom of spontaneous growth, the result inevitable, unalterable (therefore setting criticism at naught), above all things, vital, — that is, a source of ever-generating vitality: such are these poems.
Whitman, who cherished trees with a love approaching the divine, was in turn vitalized by this uncommon generosity of sentiment. Decades later, he would affectionately remember Gilchrist as “strangely different from the average; entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”
After reading her review, not yet knowing the author’s identity, he wrote to Rossetti: “I had hitherto received no eulogium so magnificent.” Having spent a decade learning how not to let criticism sink his confidence — something no artist ever fully learns but we spend a lifetime practicing — Whitman would later reflect on how much Gilchrist’s plaudit meant to him:
Almost everybody was against me — the papers, the preachers, the literary gentlemen — nearly everybody with only here and there a dissenting voice — when it looked on the surface as if my enterprise was bound to fail… then this wonderful woman. Such things stagger a man… I had got so used to being ignored or denounced that the appearance of a friend was always accompanied with a sort of shock… There are shocks that knock you up, shocks that knock you down.
It would be more than two years before Gilchrist summoned the courage to reach out to Whitman directly and reveal her identity as the reviewer whose praise had so salved him. In early September 1871, months before Bram Stoker composed his own exhilarated love letter to the poet, she wrote to him:
The time will come when man will understand that a woman’s soul is as dear and needful to his and as different from his as her body to his body. This was what happened to me when I had read for a few days, nay, hours, in your books. It was the divine soul embracing mine. I never before dreamed what love meant: not what life meant. Never was alive before — no words but those of “new birth” can hint the meaning of what then happened to me.
After recounting to Whitman the shock of bereavement she had experienced with her husband’s sudden death a decade earlier, she writes as a woman already in love with a stranger whose words have reached to her across time, space, and reason to cast the thickest spell:
In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me — O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so — my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait — any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes — I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!” It is not happiness I plead with God for — it is the very life of my Soul, my love is its life. Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love; it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred; it yearns with such passion to soothe and comfort & fill thee with sweet tender joy; it aspires as grandly as gloriously as thy own soul. Strong to soar—soft & tender to nestle and caress. If God were to say to me, “See — he that you love you shall not be given to in this life — he is going to set sail on the unknown sea — will you go with him?” never yet has bride sprung into her husband’s arms with the joy with which I would take thy hand & spring from the shore.
Addressing as “dear love” and “my darling” this enchanting stranger whose poems felt as intimate and personal as love letters, Gilchrist writes with an unguarded heart:
O dear Walt, did you not feel in every word the breath of a woman’s love? did you not see as through a transparent veil a soul all radiant and trembling with love stretching out its arms towards you? I was so sure you would speak, would send me some sign: that I was to wait — wait. So I fed my heart with sweet hopes: strengthened it with looking into the eyes of thy picture. O surely in the ineffable tenderness of thy look speaks the yearning of thy man-soul towards my woman-soul? But now I will wait no longer. A higher instinct dominates that other, the instinct for perfect truth. I would if I could lay every thought and action and feeling of my whole life open to thee as it lies to the eye of God. But that cannot be all at once. O come. Come, my darling: look into these eyes and see the loving ardent aspiring soul in them. Easily, easily will you learn to love all the rest of me for the sake of that and take me to your breasts for ever and ever. Out of its great anguish my love has risen stronger, more triumphant than ever: it cannot doubt, cannot fear, is strong, divine, immortal, sure of its fruition this side the grave or the other.
Six weeks later, not having received a response — a stretch of silence unfathomable to the modern reader, in an age when a two-hour text response lag can induce nothing less than heartbreak — Gilchrist writes again with explosive candor, beseeching for an acknowledgement of her letter and her love:
Spare me the needless suffering of uncertainty on this point & let me have one line, one word, of assurance that I am no longer hidden from you by a thick cloud — I from thee — not thou from me: for I that have never set eyes upon thee, all the Atlantic flowing between us, yet cleave closer than those that stand nearest & dearest around thee — love thee day & night: — last thoughts, first thoughts, my soul’s passionate yearning toward thy divine Soul, every hour, every deed and thought — my love for my children, my hopes, aspirations for them, all taking new shape, new height through this great love. My Soul has staked all upon it. In dull dark moods when I cannot, as it were, see thee, still, still always a dumb, blind yearning towards thee — still it comforts me to touch, to press to me the beloved books — like a child holding some hand in the dark — it knows not whose — but knows it is enough — knows it is a dear, strong, comforting hand. Do not say I am forward, or that I lack pride because I tell this love to thee who have never sought or made sign of desiring to seek me. Oh, for all that, this love is my pride my glory. Source of sufferings and joys that cannot put themselves into words. Besides, it is not true thou hast not sought or loved me. For when I read the divine poems I feel all folded round in thy love… I know not how to bear the yearning answering tenderness that fills my breast.
At this point, one is tempted to regard Gilchrist with the peculiar fusion of admiration and pity that such unbridled self-prostration inspires in an impartial observer; or, less charitably, to dismiss her as an infatuated fan who has constructed the elaborate scaffolding of a fantasy love around a distant public figure. But just as her despair — and that of any reader of these rending letters — approaches the unbearable, Whitman writes back. Two weeks later — practically instantaneously, given the pace of transatlantic mail — he sends her a short, largehearted letter, emotionally generous yet deliberately reserved by comparison to her effusive outpourings of love:
I have been waiting quite a while for time and the right mood, to answer your letter in a spirit as serious as its own, and in the same unmitigated trust and affection. But more daily work than ever has fallen to me to do the present season, and though I am well and contented, my best moods seem to shun me. I wish to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath, or holy day, apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences, confident that I could then write you a letter which would do you good, and me too. But I must at least show without further delay that I am not insensible to your love. I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write so briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body and spirit. You understand this better and fuller and clearer than any one else. And I too fully and clearly understand the loving letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists so beautiful and a delicate relation, accepted by both of us with joy.
Willfully unwitting of Whitman’s gentle message that his art is his love, which is not the personal love she craves, Gilchrist responds with the insistence that she only knew what the word “love” meant after she read his poems. Envisioning “the sweetest, noblest, closest, tenderest companionship ever yet tasted by man & woman” as available to them, weaving Whitman’s own words into her plea for requital, she writes:
Your book does indeed say all — book that is not a book, for the first time a man complete, godlike, august, standing revealed the only way possible, through the garment of speech… quickened into life through such love, such sympathy, such resistless attraction.
I know how hard to attain to this greatness, the grandest lot ever aspired to by woman. I know too my own shortcomings, faults, flaws. You might not be able to give me your great love yet — to take me to your breast with joy. But I can wait. I can grow great & beautiful through sorrow & suffering, working, struggling, yearning, loving so, all alone, as I have done now nearly three years… Love & Hope are so strong in me, my soul’s high aspirations are of such tenacious, passionate intensity, are so conscious of their own deathless reality, that what would starve them out of any other woman only makes them strike out deeper roots, grow more resolute & sturdy, in me. I know that “greatness will not ripen for me like a pear.” But I could face, I could joyfully accept, the fiercest anguish, the hardest toil, the longest, sternest probation, to make me fit to be your mate — so that at the last you should say, “This is the woman I have waited for, the woman prepared for me: this is my dear eternal comrade, wife — the one I so much want.” Life has no other meaning for me than that — all things have led up to help prepare me for that. Death is more welcome to me than life if it means that — if thou, dear sailor, thou sailing upon thy endless cruise, takest me on board — me, daring, all with thee, steering for the deep waters, bound where mariner has not yet dared to go: hand in hand with thee, nestled close — one with thee.
Whitman, too, seems willfully unwitting of the discomfiting truth at the heart of her letters — that she loves him with a self-generated ardor he could never return, so vast and all-demanding and uncalibrated to his nature as a queer man. When he responds by saying that he dreams of going to “Old England” one day, and thus seeing her and her children — “but it is a dream only” — he seems not to realize that “only” is so infinite a landscape for fantasy in the mind of the hopelessly infatuated. And yet he does warn her, in his gentle poetic way, that the love she experiences may be a misplaced projection at his private person on the basis of his public art. Gilchrist responds with an impassioned, almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking counter-insistence, reasoning against reason:
If it seems to you there must needs be something unreal, illusive, in a love that has grown up entirely without the basis of personal intercourse, dear Friend, then you do not yourself realize your own power nor understand the full meaning of your own words, “whoso touches this, touches a man” — “I have put my Soul & Body into these Poems.” Real effects imply real causes. Do you suppose that an ideal figure conjured up by her own fancy could, in a perfectly sound, healthy woman of my age, so happy in her children, so busy & content, practical, earnest, produce such real & tremendous effect — saturating her whole life, colouring every waking moment — filling her with such joys, such pains that the strain of them has been well nigh too much even for a strong frame, coming as it does, after twenty years of hard work?
Therefore please, dear Friend, do not “warn” me any more — it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. Time only can show how needlessly. My love, flowing ever fresh & fresh out of my heart, will go with you in all your wanderings, dear Friend, enfolding you day and night, soul & body, with tenderness that tries so vainly to utter itself in these poor, helpless words, that clings closer than any man’s love can cling.
And yet despite the all-consuming cloud of her infatuation, Gilchrist manages — as we all manage, even in our most enchanted states — to maintain some lucid part of herself, some clear awareness of the asymmetrical intensity of feeling. Eight months into the correspondence, in between effusions, she gives that part a share of voice:
Perhaps the letters that I have sent you since that first, have given you a feeling of constraint towards me because you cannot respond to them. I will not write any more such letters; or, if I write them because my heart is so full it cannot bear it, they shall not find their way to the Post. But do not, because I give you more than friendship, think that it would not be a very dear & happy thing to me to have friendship only from you.
Anyone who has vowed not to text a crush, then watched the resolve melt into permissive rationalizations of why texting is a good idea, knows the polarized place of resignation and electric desire from which Gilchrist is composing these futile words — for, in the very next breath, she uncorks the longing she has just resolved to keep bottled up, imploring him to write and insisting that her love, though it had begun in his poems, is irrepressibly aimed at his person:
I am sure dear friend, if you realize the joy it is to me to receive a few words from you — about anything that is passing in your thoughts & around — how beaming bright & happy the day a letter comes & many days after — how light hearted & alert I set about my daily tasks, it would not seem irksome to you to write. And if you say, “Read my books, & be content — you have me in them,” I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content. It is an effort to me to turn to any other reading… I want nothing else — am fully fed & satisfied there. I sit alone many hours… brooding over the poems, sunning myself in them, pondering the vistas — all the experience of my past life & all its aspirations corroborating them — all my future & so far as in me lies the future of my children to be shaped modified vitalized by & through these — outwardly & inwardly. How can I be content to live wholly isolated from you? I am sure it is not possible for any one, — man or woman, it does not matter which, to receive these books, not merely with the intellect critically admiring their power & beauty, but with an understanding responsive heart, without feeling it drawn out of their breasts so that they must leave all & come to be with you sometimes without a resistless yearning for personal intercourse that will take no denial.
Although the correspondence continued to be staggeringly asymmetrical, with a ten-month silence from Whitman, Gilchrist’s “resistless yearning for personal intercourse” remained undeterred indeed. Whitman was never cool to her. But he met her boundless passion with contained warmth — a tragic asymmetry of affection evocative of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong ardor for Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Governed by her devotion and willfully blind to the asymmetry, Gilchrist began dreaming of moving to America to be near her “darling Walt” — dreams that fermented into plans after Whitman’s paralytic stroke in 1873, followed closely by the death of his beloved sister and mother. He wrote to her from the thick fog of these losses:
Since I last wrote, clouds have darkened over me, and still remain.
Do not think hard of me for not writing in reply. If you could look into my spirit & emotion you would be entirely satisfied & at peace… I am at present temporarily here at Camden, on the Delaware river, opposite Philadelphia, at the house of my brother, and I am occupying, as I write, the rooms wherein my mother died… You must not be unhappy about me, as I am as comfortably situated as can be — & many things — indeed every thing — in my case might be so much worse. Though my plans are not definite, my intention as far as anything is on getting stronger.
He then did something astounding — something the effect of which on a lovestruck heart he must not have realized:
The enclosed ring I have just taken from my finger, & send to you, with my love.
How the besotted Gilchrist interpreted the gesture is hardly surprising. Addressing him as “my Beloved,” she gushes:
O the precious letter, bearing to me the living touch of your hand, vibrating through & through me as I feel the pressure of the ring that pressed your flesh — & now will press mine so long as I draw breath. My Darling! take comfort & strength & joy from me that you have made so rich & strong.
When my eyes first open in the morning, often such tender thoughts, yearning ineffably, pitying, sorrowful, sweet thoughts flow into my breast that longs & longs to pillow on itself the suffering head (with white hair more beautiful to me than the silvery clouds which always make me think of it.)
The ring only amplified her longing to be near him, to care for him as part-wife, part-mother, part-comrade — she decided to move to America. Whitman immediately discouraged the plan, perhaps sensing that he could never meet her love in kind. Even if he were not the poet laureate of same-sex love, he must have intuited that she loved a version of him so idealized, so exalted to the point of worship, that his mortal reality could only ever disappoint her to the point of devastation — the pedestal would topple, crushing a tender heart he cared to protect. Nowhere is the collision between the ideal and the real more violent, nor more mutually wounding, than in an asymmetrical love warped by one-sided idealization.
Gilchrist did not heed his deterrence. She had seen her migration to America as her “settled, steady purpose (resting on a deep, strong faith) ever since 1869,” when she first devoured Leaves of Grass. Now she began actively imagining their life together in a mutually enriching partnership:
I turn my face to the westward sky before I lie down to sleep, deep & steadfast within me the silent aspiration that every year, every month & week, may help something to prepare and make fitter me and mine to be your comfort and joy. We are full of imperfections, short-comings but half developed, but half “possessing our own souls.” But we grow, we learn, we strive — that is the best of us. I think in the sunshine of your presence we shall grow fast — I too, my years notwithstanding.
Under this blinding vision, she once again returns to the seedbed of her love for him — his art:
No one hundreds of years hence will find deeper joy in these poems than I — breathe the fresh, sweet, exhilarating air of them, bathe in it, drink in what nourishes & delights the whole being, body, intellect & soul, more than I. Nor could you, when writing them, have desired to come nearer to a human being & be more to them forever & forever than you are & will be to me. O I take the hand you stretch out each day — I put mine into it with a sense of utter fulfilment: I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all.
Her physical presence in his life, she insists, would be nothing less than medicinal. It would be a love that meets every need — the most treacherous promise of our romantic mythology, for no one person could ever meet the tessellated needs of another fully. She writes:
I believe if I could only make you conscious of the love, the enfolding love, my heart breathes out toward you it would do you physical good; many-sided love — Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights so in personal service, that sees in sickness & suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness — wife’s love — ah, you draw that from me too, resistlessly — I have no choice — comrade’s love, so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs, aspirations. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly.
On August 30, 1876, after a seven-year longing, Gilchrist set sail for America with three of her children. To the reluctant Whitman, who had tried to dissuade her by stressing the perilousness of transatlantic travel and cautioning her that the “crudeness” of Americans might offend her sensibility, she cited her eldest daughter’s future as a primary motivation — Beatrice was determined to become a doctor, but proper medical education was not yet available to women in England, for they were not permitted to enter any hospital for the clinical portion of their studies. A quarter century earlier, Gilchrist’s compatriot Elizabeth Blackwell had traversed the Atlantic to set precedent as the first woman to receive a medical degree in America.
The family settled in Concord, where Gilchrist soon made the acquaintance of Emerson — by that point, America’s most esteemed literary tastemaker, whose extraordinary letter to the young Whitman had pivoted the fate of Leaves of Grass from a derided and dismissed creative experiment to a literary masterpiece on the lips, minds, and shelves of every book-lover in America. In Concord, in “the companionship of very lovable men and women,” Gilchrist began enjoying outdoor pleasures, so dear to Whitman himself and so central to his makeshift physical therapy while recovering from the stroke. She reported to him:
They lead an easy-going life here — seem to spend half their time floating about on the river — or meeting in the evening to talk & read aloud.
We shall never know what was exchanged, thought, felt when Gilchrist and Whitman first met. (The loss of letters, Margaret Fuller had lamented, “makes irreparable gaps in the history of feeling,” and an even vaster abyss gapes across the unrecorded moments that take place in the intimacy of physical proximity and presence — letters, after all, presuppose distance and absence.) What we do know is that, under the hard light of reality, Gilchrist’s idealized romantic love soon melted into a warm and largehearted affection that would bind the two for the remainder of their lives. Whitman dined at her house frequently and her children came to call him “Uncle Walt.” Her artist son painted a portrait of him. The poet would later write of his uncommon and label-defying regard for her:
I have that sort of feeling about her which cannot easily be spoken of — …: love (strong personal love, too), reverence, respect — you see, it won’t go into words: all the words are weak and formal.
Despite being nearly a decade her elder, Whitman would go on to outlive Gilchrist. Upon received word of her death from her son, he could only summon these spare, sundering words:
I have received your letter. Nothing now remains but a sweet and rich memory — none more beautiful all time, all life all the earth — I cannot write anything of a letter to-day. I must sit alone and think.
He would remember her as “a sort of human miracle,” “a supreme character of whom the world knows too little for its own good,” one whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come.” He would commemorate her in one of his most beautiful poems:
My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend
(Now buried in an English grave — and this a memory — leaf for her dear sake),
Ended our talk — “The sum, concluding all we know of old or modern learning, intuitions deep,
Of all Geologies — Histories — of all Astronomy — of Evolution, Metaphysics all,
Is, that we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering,
Life, life an endless march, an endless army (no halt, but, it is duly over),
The world, the race, the soul — in space and time the universes,
All bound as is befitting each — all surely going somewhere.”
“How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul.”
By Maria Popova
A quarter century before his now-classic epistolary novel Dracula catapulted Abraham “Bram” Stoker (November 8, 1847–April 20, 1912) into literary celebrity, the twenty-four-year-old aspiring author used the epistolary form for a masterpiece of a different order. Still months away from his first published short story, he composed a stunning letter of admiration and adoration to his great literary idol: Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892).
Long before William James coined the notion of stream of consciousness, Stoker poured forth a long stream of sentiment cascading through various emotions — surging confidence bordering on hubris, delicate self-doubt, absolute artist-to-artist adoration — channeled with the breathless intensity of a love letter, without interruption. He had fallen under Whitman’s spell when Leaves of Grass made its belated debut in England in 1868, with Whitman’s stunning preface to the 1855 edition. Stoker would later recount that ever since that initial enchantment, he had been wishing to pour out his heart in such a way “but was, somehow, ashamed or diffident — the qualities are much alike.” In February of 1872, the time for this effusion of enchantment seemed to have come.
But it was a fleeting moment of courage — Stoker couldn’t bring himself to mail his extraordinary letter. For four years, it haunted his desk, part muse and part goblin.
Stoker — now twenty-eight and finally a published author of three short stories that had appeared in a couple of English and Irish magazines — writes:
My dear Mr. Whitman.
I hope you will not consider this letter from an utter stranger a liberty. Indeed, I hardly feel a stranger to you, nor is this the first letter that I have written to you. My friend Edward Dowden has told me often that you like new acquaintances or I should rather say friends. And as an old friend I send you an enclosure which may interest you. Four years ago I wrote the enclosed draft of a letter which I intended to copy out and send to you — it has lain in my desk since then — when I heard that you were addressed as Mr. Whitman. It speaks for itself and needs no comment. It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light. The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first. The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation — and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress. I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views — I think with success. Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write. Dowden promised to get me a copy of your new edition and I hope that for any other work which you may have you will let me always be an early subscriber. I am sorry that you’re not strong. Many of us are hoping to see you in Ireland. We had arranged to have a meeting for you. I do not know if you like getting letters. If you do I shall only be too happy to send you news of how thought goes among the men I know. With truest wishes for your health and happiness believe me
Enclosed is Stoker’s passionate previously unsent effusion, which opens with an abrupt directness unguarded even by a form of address:
If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask that you put it into the fire without reading any farther. But I believe you will like it. I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world — a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose — is that you will in some manner let me know that my words have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like — but if you do you will miss the pleasure of the next sentence which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is certain of his own strength might try to encourage himself a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man — a man to whose candor Rousseau’s Confessions is reticence — can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call YOU Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still — but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to “give up all else” so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet. I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all — and I have chosen the latter course. I do not know whether it is unusual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you — for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life … The way I came to you was this. A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among friends. I say it to my own shame but not to regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out — without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti’s edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer’s day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti’s edition (for Rossetti is all I have got till I get the complete set of your works which I have ordered from America). One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours — “the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman — that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to quote an instances of what thoughts of yours I like best — for I like them all and you must feel you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you — have said more about myself to you than I have said to anyone before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you would ever care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.
It is hard not to wonder what Stoker meant by “my kind.” Surely, those besotted with the poetic and governed by the profoundest truths of nature and the human heart. But, possibly, also those cast out and made invisible by their time and their society for possessing a heart too defiant of convention. Stoker was then working in theater, still single — an old bachelor by the era’s standards. When he did marry in his thirtieth year, he entered into a celibate union with a beauty previously courted by Oscar Wilde, with whom he strongly identified. The rich homoerotic overtones of Leaves of Grass could not have escaped Stoker, whose Dracula reverberates with echoes of such themes. Perhaps the gift of Whitman’s poems for him, beyond the enchantment of beauty and poetic truth, was the supreme gift a work of art can confer upon its beholder — the gift of being seen.
Three weeks later — which means immediately, by the transatlantic mail standards of 1876 — Whitman responded from the woods of New Jersey while recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled three years earlier. In a letter from March 6, he writes to his young admirer:
BRAM STOKER, —
My dear young man, — Your letters have been most welcome to me — welcome to me as a Person and then as Author — I don’t know which most. You did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and affectionately too. I, too, hope (though it is not probable) that we will some day personally meet each other. Meantime, I send my friendship and thanks.
Edward Dowden’s letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been recd. I shall send the book very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written to E.D.
My physique is entirely shatter’d — doubtless permanently — from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits. — Write to me again.
How moving it must have been for the young Stoker to hear back from his literary hero — perhaps nearly as moving as it had been for the young Whitman to receive that transformative, career-charging letter from Emerson, his own greatest idol, while struggling with the disheartening initial reception of his self-published Leaves of Grass. But it may be that the correspondence was existential tonic for both. Within a year, Whitman would summon his strength to engage in the singular outdoor workout that would help him unshatter his physique and regain near-complete function of his body as his mind and spirit continued soaring to poetic heights. In a lovely symmetry, Stoker’s letter mirrors Whitman’s own conviction, acquired while working as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War more than a decade earlier that “there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world.”