The bonnet I can see it today was of white satin, patterned with a pink and green plaid in raised velvet. It was all drawn into close gathers, with a bavolet in the neck to keep out the cold, and thick ruffles of silky blonde lace under the brim in front.
As the air was very cold a gossamer veil of the finest white Shetland wool was drawn about the bonnet and hung down over the wearer's round red cheeks like the white paper filigree over a Valentine; and her hands were encased in white woollen mittens. It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particu- larly so today, because she had on her new winter bon- net, which was so beautiful and so becoming that for the first time she woke to the importance of dress, and of herself as a subject for adornment so that I may date from that hour the birth of the conscious and feminine me in the little girl's vague soul.
The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Ave- nue: the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken onlyand surprisingly by two equally unex- pected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys' cows were pastured, and the trun- cated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York's water supply. The Fifth Ave- nue of that day was a placid and uneventful thorough- fare, along which genteel landaus, broughams and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the "carry- all" and "surrey" type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.
The little girl was so very little that she never got much higher than the knees in her survey of grown-up people, and would not have known, if her father had not told her, that the approaching legs belonged to his cousin Henry. The news was very interesting, because in attendance on Cousin Henry was a small person, no bigger than herself, who must obviously be Cousin Henry's little boy Daniel, and therefore somehow belong to the little girl.
So when the tall legs and the stocky ones halted for a talk, which took place somewhere high up in the air, and the small Daniel and Edith found themselves face to face close to the pavement, the little girl peered with interest at the little boy through the white woollen mist over her face. The little boy, who was very round and rosy, looked back with equal interest; and sud- denly he put out a chubby hand, lifted the little girl's veil, and boldly planted a kiss on her cheek.
It was the first time and the little girl found it very pleasant. This is my earliest definite memory of anything hap- pening to me; aiid it will be seen that I was wakened to conscious life by the two tremendous forces of love and vanity. It may have been just after this memorable day at any rate it was nearly at the same time that a snowy- headed old gentleman with a red face and a spun-sugar moustache and imperial gave me a white Spitz puppy which looked as if its coat had been woven out of the donor's luxuriant locks.
Lydig Suydam, and I should like his name to survive till this page has crumbled, for with his gift a new life began for me. The owning of my first dog made me into a conscious sentient person, fiercely possessive, anxiously watchful, and woke in me that long ache of pity for animals, and for all inarticu- late beings, which nothing has ever stilled. How I loved that first "Foxy" of mine, how I cherished and yearned over and understood him!
And how quickly he rele- gated all dolls and other inanimate toys to the region of my everlasting indifference! I never cared much in my little-childhood for fairy tales, or any appeals to my fancy through the fabulous or legendary. My imagination lay there, coiled and sleeping, a mute hibernating creature, and at the least touch of common things flowers, animals, words, espe- cially the sound of words, apart from their meaning- it already stirred in its sleep, and then sank back into its own rich dream, which needed so little feeding from the outside that it instinctively rejected whatever an- other imagination had already adorned and completed.
There was, however, one fairy tale at which I always thrilled the story of the boy who could talk with the birds and hear what the grasses said. Very early, earlier than my conscious memory can reach, I must have felt myself to be of kin to that happy child. The value of duration is slowly asserting it- self against the welter of change, and sociologists with- out a drop of American blood in them have been the first to recognize what the traditions of three centuries have contributed to the moral wealth of our country.
Even negatively, these traditions have acquired, with the passing of time, an unsuspected value. When I was young it used to seem to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into which no new wine would ever again be poured. Now I see that one of its uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be savoured by a youthful palate; and I should like to atone for my unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance.
Indeed, I had never even thought of recording it for my own amusement, and the fact that until I never kept even the briefest of diaries has greatly ham- pered this tardy reconstruction. Not until the succes- sive upheavals which culminated in the catastrophe of had "cut all likeness from the name" of my old New York, did I begin to see its pathetic picturesque- ness.
The first change came in the 'eighties, with the earliest detachment of big money-makers from the West, soon to be followed by the lords of Pittsburgh. But their infiltration did not greatly affect old man- ners and customs, since the dearest ambition of the new- comers was to assimilate existing traditions. Social life, with us as in the rest of the world, went on with hardly perceptible changes till the war abruptly tore down the old frame-work, and what had seemed unalterable rules of conduct became of a sudden observances as quaintly arbitrary as the domestic rites of the Pharaohs.
Between the point of view of my Huguenot great-great- grandfather, who came from the French Palatinate to participate in the founding of New Rochelle, and my own father, who died in , there were fewer dif- ferences than between my father and the post-war gen- eration of Americans.
This rejection which Mr. Walter Lippmann regards as the chief cause of the country's present moral impoverishment has opened a gulf between those days and these. The compact world of my youth has receded into a past from which it can only be dug up in bits by the assiduous relic-hunter; and its smallest fragments begin to be worth collecting and putting together before the last of those who knew the live structure are swept away with it. My little-girl life, safe, guarded, monotonous, was cradled in the only world about which, according to Goethe, it is impossible to write poetry.
The small so- ciety into which I was born was "good" in the most prosaic sense of the term, and its only interest, for the generality of readers, lies in the fact of its sudden and total extinction, and for the imaginative few in the recognition of the moral treasures that went with it. Let me try to call it back. Once, when I was about fifteen, my parents took me to Annapolis for the graduating ceremonies of the Naval Academy. I recall with delight the charming old Academic buildings grouped about turf and trees, and the smart- ness of the cadets among whom were some of my young friends in their dress uniforms; and thrilling memories of speeches, marchings, military music and strawberry ice, flutter pleasingly about the scene.
On the way back we stopped in Baltimore and Washington; but neither city offered much to youthful eyes formed by the spectacle of Rome and Paris. Washington, in the days before Charles McKim had seen its possibilities, arid resolved to develop them on Major L'Enf ant's lines, was in truth a doleful desert; and it was a weary and bored little girl who trailed after her parents through the echoing emptiness of the Capitol, and at last into the famous Rotunda with its paintings of Revolutionary victories.
Trumbull was little thought of as a painter in those days Munkacsky would doubtless have been preferred to him , and when one great panel after an- other was pointed out to me, and I was led up first to the "Surrender of Burgoyne" and then to the "Sur- render of Cornwallis", and told: "There's your great- grandfather," the tall thin young man in the sober uniform of a general of artillery, leaning against a can- non in the foreground of one picture, in the other galloping across the battlefield, impressed me much less than the beautiful youths to whom I had just said good- bye at Annapolis.
I remember feeling no curiosity about my great-grandfather, and my parents said nothing to rouse my interest in him. The New Yorker of that day was singularly, inexpli- cably indifferent to his descent, and my father and mother were no exception to the rule. It was many years later that I began to suspect that Trumbull was very nearly a great painter, and my great-grandfather Stevens very nearly a great man; but by that time all who had known him, and could have spoken of him familiarly, had long been dead, and he was no more than a museum-piece to me.
It is a pity, for he must have been worth knowing, even at second hand. On both sides our colonial ancestry goes back for nearly three hundred years, and on both sides the colonists in question seem to have been identified since early days with New York, though my earliest Stevens forbears went first to Massachusetts. Some of the first Stevens's grandsons, however, probably not being of the stripe of religious fanatic or political reformer to breathe easily in that passionate province, transferred their activities to the easier-going New York, where people seem from the outset to have been more inter- ested in making money and acquiring property than in Predestination and witch-burning.
I have always won- dered if those old New Yorkers did not owe their greater suavity and tolerance to the fact that the Church of England so little changed under its later name of Episcopal Church of America provided from the first their prevalent form of worship. May not the matchless 10 A BACKWARD GLANCE beauty of an ancient rite have protected our ancestors from what Huxley called the "fissiparous tendency of the Protestant sects", sparing them sanguinary wrangles over uncomprehended points of doctrine, and all those extravagances of self-constituted prophets and evan- gelists which rent and harrowed New England?
Milder manners, a greater love of ease, and a franker interest in money-making and good food, certainly distinguished the colonial New Yorkers from the conscience-search- ing children of the "Mayflower". Apart from some of the old Dutch colonial families, who continued to follow the "Dutch Reformed" rite, the New York of my youth was distinctively Episcopalian; and to this happy chance I owe my early saturation with the noble cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, and my reverence for an or- dered ritual in which the officiant's personality is strictly subordinated to the rite he performs.
Colonial New York was mostly composed of mer- chants and bankers; my own ancestors were mainly merchant ship-owners, and my great-grandmother Ste- vens's wedding-dress, a gauzy Directoire web of em- broidered "India mull", was made for her in India and brought to New York on one of her father's merchant- men. My mother, who had a hearty contempt for the tardy discovery of aristocratic genealogies, always said that old New York was composed of Dutch and British middle-class families, and that only four or five could show a pedigree leading back to the aristocracy of their ancestral country.
I name here only families settled in colonial New York; others, from the southern states, but well known in New York such as the Fairfaxes, Carys, Calverts and Whartons should be added if the list included the other colonies. My own ancestry, as far as I know, was purely middle- class; though my family belonged to the same group as this little aristocratic nucleus I do not think there was any blood-relationship with it. The Schermerhorns, Joneses, Pendletons, on my father's side, the Stevenses, Ledyards, Rhinelanders on my mother's, the Gallatins on both, seem all to have belonged to the same pros- perous class of merchants, bankers and lawyers.
It was a society from which all dealers in retail business were excluded as a matter of course. The man who "kept a shop" was more rigorously shut out of polite society in die original Thirteen States than in post-revolutionary France witness the surprise and amusement of the Paris solicitor, Moreau de St M6ry, who, fleeing from the Terror, earned his living by keeping a bookshop in Philadelphia, and tor this reason, though his shop was the meeting-place.
So little did the Revolution revolutionize a society at once middle-class and provincial that no retail dealer, no matter how palatial his shop-front or how tempting his millions, was received in New York society until long after I was grown up. He was born in Boston in and, having a pronounced tendency to mechanical pursuits, was naturally drafted into the ar- tillery at the Revolution.
He served in Lieutenant Adino Paddock's artillery company, and took part in the "Boston tea-party", where, as he told one of his sons, "none of the party was painted as Indians, nor, that I know of, disguised; though," he adds a trifle casuistically "some of them stopped at a paint-shop on the way and daubed their faces with paint. He was a first lieu- tenant in the Rhode Island artillery, then in that of Massachusetts, and in was transferred as captain to the regiment besieging Quebec.
At Ticonderoga, Still- water and Saratoga he commanded a division of artil- lery, and it was he who directed the operations leading to General Burgoyne's surrender. For these feats he was specially commended by Generals Knox, Gates and Schuyler, and in he was in command of the entire artillery service of the northern department. Under Lafayette he took part in the expedition which ended in the defeat of Lord Cornwallis; his skilful manoeuvres are said to have broken the English blockade at An- napolis, and when the English evacuated New York he was among the first to enter the city.
The war over, he declined further military advance- ment and returned to civil life. My great-grandfather next became an East-India merchant, and carried on a large and successful trade with foreign ports. The United States War Department still entrusted him with important private missions; he was a confidential agent of both the French and English governments, and at the same time took a leading part in the municipal business of New York, and served on numerous commissions dealing with public affairs.
He divided his year between his New York house in Warren Street, and Mount Buonaparte, the country place on Long Island created by the fortune he had made as a merchant; but when his hero dropped the u from his name and became Emperor, my scandalized great-grandfather, irrevocably committed to the Re- publican idea, indignantly re-named his place "The Mount". It stood, as its name suggests, on a terraced height in what is now the dreary waste of Astoria, and my mother could remember the stately colonnaded orangery, and the big orange-trees in tubs that were set out every summer on the upper terrace.
But in her day the classical mantelpieces imported from Italy, with designs in white marble relieved against red or green, had already been torn out and replaced by black marble 14 A BACKWARD GLANCE arches and ugly grates, and she recalled seeing the old mantelpieces stacked away in the stables. In his Bona- partist days General Stevens must have imported a good deal of Empire furniture from Paris, and one relic, a pair of fine gilt andirons crowned with Napoleonic eagles, has descended to his distant great-grand-daugh- ter; but much was doubtless discarded when the man- telpieces went, and the stuffy day of Regency upholstery set in.
If I have dwelt too long on the career of this model citizen it is because of a secret partiality for him for his stern high-nosed good looks, his gallantry in war, his love of luxury, his tireless commercial activities. I like above all the abounding energy, the swift adapt- ability and the joie de vivre which hurried him from one adventure to another, with war, commerce and domesticity he had two wives and fourteen children all carried on to the same heroic tune.
But perhaps I feel nearest to him when I look at my eagle andirons, and think of the exquisite polychrome mantels that he found the time to bring all the way from Italy, to keep company with the orange-trees on his terrace. In his delightful book on Walter Scott Mr. John Buchan, excusing Scott's inability to create a lifelike woman of his own class, says that, after all, to the men of his generation, gentlewomen were "a toast" and little else. Nothing could be truer. Child-bearing was their task, fine needlework their recreation, being respected their privilege.
Only in aristocratic society, and in the most sophisticated capitals of Europe, had they added to this repertory a good many private distractions. And so it happens that I know less than nothing of the particular virtues, gifts and modest accomplish- ments of the young women with pearls in their looped hair or cambric ruffs round their slim necks, who pre- pared the way for my generation.
A few shreds of anec- dote, no more than the faded flowers between the leaves of a great-grandmother's Bible, are all that remain to me. Of my lovely great-grandmother Rhinelander Mary Robart I know only that she was of French descent, as her spirited profile declares, and properly jealous of her rights; for if she chanced to drive to New York in her yellow coach with its fringed hammer-cloth at the same hour when her daughter-in-law, from lower down the East River, was following the same road, the latter's carriage had to take the old lady's dust all the way, even though her horses were faster and her errand might be more urgent.
I may add that once, several years after my marriage, a new coachman, who did not know my mother's carriage by sight, accidentally drove me past it on the fashionable Ocean Drive at Newport, and that I had to hasten the next morning to apologize to my mother, whose only comment was, when I ex- plained that the coachman could not have known the offence he was committing: "You might have told him". My maternal grandfather Rhine- lander, son of the proud dame of the yellow coach, married Mary Stevens, daughter of the General and his dusky handsome Ledyard wife.
The young pair had four children, and then my grandfather died, when he was little more than thirty. He too was handsome, with frank blue eyes and a wide intelligent brow. My mother said he "loved reading", and that particular drop of his blood must have descended to my veins, for I know of no other bookworm in the family.
His young widow and her children continued to live at the country place at Hell Gate, lived there, in fact, from motives of economy, in winter as well as summer while the chil- dren were young; for my grandmother, whose property was left to the management of her husband's eldest brother, remained poor though her brother-in-law grew rich. The children, however, were carefully educated by English governesses and tutors; and to one of the latter is owing the charming study of the view across Hell Gate to Long Island, taken from my grandmother's lawn, which is here reproduced.
The little girls were taught needle-work, music, draw- ing and "the languages" their Italian teacher was Pro- fessor Foresti, a distinguished fugitive from the Austrian political prisons. When they walked in the snow hand-knitted woollen stockings were drawn over this frail footgear, and woollen shawls wrapped about their poor bare shoulders. They suffered, like all young ladies of their day, from chilblains and excruciating sick-headaches, yet all lived to a vigorous old age. When the eldest my mother "came out", she wore a home-made gown of white tarlatan, looped up with red and white camellias from the greenhouse, and her mother's old white satin slippers; and her feet being of a different shape from grandmamma's, she suffered martyrdom, and never ceased to resent the indignity inflicted on her, and the impediment to her dancing, the more so as her younger sisters, who were prettier and probably more indulged, were given new slippers when their turn came.
The girls appear to have had their horses in that almost road- less day Americans still went everywhere in the saddle , and my mother, whose memory for the details of dress was inexhaustible, told me that she wore a beaver hat with a drooping ostrich plume, and a green veil to pro- tect her complexion, and that from motives of modesty riding-habits were cut to trail on the ground, so that it was almost impossible to mount unassisted.
A little lower down the Sound on the actual site of East Eighty-first Street stood my grandfather Jones's pretty country house with classic pilasters and balus- traded roof. In this pleasant house lived a young man of twenty, handsome, simple and kind, who was madly in love with Lucretia, the eldest of the "poor Rhinelander" girls. George Frederic's parents thought him too young to marry; perhaps they had other ambitions for him; they bade him break off his attentions to Miss Rhinelander of Hell Gate.
But George Frederic was the owner of a rowing-boat. His stern papa, perhaps on account of the proximity of the beloved, refused to give him a sailing-craft, though every youth of the day had his "cat-boat", and the smiling expanse of the Sound was flecked with the coming and going of white wings.
But George was not to be thwarted. He contrived to turn an oar into a mast; he stole down before dawn, his bed-quilt under his arm, rigged it to the oar in guise of a sail, and flying over the waters of the Sound hurried to his lady's feet across the lawn depicted in the tutor's painting. His devotion at last overcame the paternal opposition, and George and "Lou" were married when they were respectively twenty-one and nineteen.
My grandfather was rich, and must have made his sons a generous allowance; for the young couple, after an adventurous honeymoon in Cuba of which my father kept a conscientious record, full of drives in volantes and visits to fashionable planta- tions set up a house of their own in Gramercy Park, then just within the built-on limits of New York, and Mrs.
George Frederic took her place among the most elegant young married women of her day. My father, as a boy, had been to Europe with his father on one of the last of the great sailing passenger-ships; and he often told me of the delights of that crossing, on a yacht-like vessel with few passengers and spacious airy cabins, as compared with subsequent voyages on the cramped foul-smelling steamers that superseded the sailing ships.
A year or so after the birth of my eldest brother my parents went abroad on a long tour. The new railways were begin- ning to transform continental travel, and after driving by diligence from Calais to Amiens my family jour- neyed thence by rail to Paris. Later they took train from Paris to Brussels, a day or two after the inauguration of this line; and my father notes in his diary: "We were told to be at the station at one o'clock, and by four we were actually off.
They met other young New Yorkers of fashion, also on their travels, and would have had a merry time of it had not little Freddy's youthful ailments so frequently altered their plans sometimes to a degree so disturbing that the patient young father of twenty-three confides to his diary how "awful a thing it is to travel in Europe with an infant of twenty months". In spite of Freddy they saw many cities and coun- tries, and on February 24, , toward the hour of noon, incidentally witnessed, from the balcony of their hotel in the rue de Rivoli, the flight of Louis Philippe and Queen Marie Amelie across the Tuileries gardens.
The humiliation of the pea-green merino and the ma- ternal slippers led to a good many extravagances; among them there is the white satin bonnet trimmed with white marabout and crystal drops in which the bride made her wedding visits, and a "capeline" of gorge de pigeon taffetas with a wreath of flowers in shiny brown kid, which was one of the triumphs of her Paris shop- ping.
She had a beautiful carriage, and her sloping shoulders and slim waist were becomingly set off by the wonderful gowns brought home from that first visit to the capital of fashion. Once, when I was a small child, my mother's younger sister, my beautiful and serious-minded Aunt Mary Newbold, asked me, with edifying interest: "What would you like to be when you grow up?
The Walt Whitman Archive
There were no clubs as yet in New York, and my mother, whose view of life was incurably prosaic, always said that this accounted for the early marriages, as the young men of that day "had nowhere else to go". The amusing diary of Mr. Philip Hone gives a good idea of the simple but incessant exchange of hospitality between the young people who ruled New York society before the Civil War. My readers, by this time, may be wondering what were the particular merits, private or civic, of these amiable persons.
Their lives, as one looks back, cer- tainly seem lacking in relief; but I believe their value lay in upholding two standards of importance in any community, that of education and good manners, and of scrupulous probity in business and private affairs. New York has always been a commercial community, and in my infancy the merits and defects of its citizens were those of a mercantile middle class.
The first duty of such a class was to maintain a strict standard of up- rightness in affairs; and the gentlemen of my father's day did maintain it, whether in the law, in banking, ship- ping or wholesale commercial enterprises. In one case, where two or three men of high social standing were involved in a discreditable bank failure, their families were made to suffer to a degree that would seem merciless to our modern judgment.
But perhaps the New Yorkers of that day were uncon- sciously trying to atone for their culpable neglect of state and national politics, from which they had long disdainfully held aloof, by upholding the sternest prin- ciples of business probity, and inflicting the severest social penalties on whoever lapsed from them.
At any rate I should say that the qualities justifying the ex- istence of our old society were social amenity and finan- cial incorruptibility; and we have travelled far enough from both to begin to estimate their value. The weakness of the social structure of my parents' day was a blind dread of innovation, an instinctive shrinking from responsibility.
In or thereabouts a group of New York gentlemen who were appointed to examine various plans for the proposed laying-out of the city, and whose private sympathies were notoriously anti-Jeffersonian and undemocratic, decided against reproducing the beautiful system of squares, circles and radiating avenues which Major L'Enfant, the brilliant French engineer, had designed for Washington, because it was thought "undemocratic" for citizens of the new republic to own building-plots which were not all of exactly the same shape, sizeand value! A little world so well-ordered and well-to-do does not often produce either eagles or fanatics, and both seem to have been conspicuously absent from the circle in which my forbears moved.
In old-established and power- ful societies originality of character is smiled at, and even encouraged to assert itself; but conformity is the bane of middle-class communities, and as far as I can recall, only two of my relations stepped out of the strait path of the usual.
One was a mild and inoffensive old bachelor cousin, very small and frail, and reputed of immense wealth and morbid miserliness, who built him- self a fine house in his youth, and lived in it for fifty or sixty years, in a state of negativeness and insignificance which made him proverbial even in our conforming class and then, in his last years so we children were told sat on a marble shelf, and thought he was a bust of Napoleon. Cousin Edmund's final illusion was not without pathos, but as a source of inspiration to my childish fancy he was a poor thing compared with George Alfred.
George Alfred was another cousin, but one whom I had never seen, and could never hope to see, because years before he had vanished. Vanished, that is, out of soci- ety, out of respectability, out of the safe daylight world of "nice people" and reputable doings. Before naming George Alfred my mother altered her expression and lowered her voice. Thank heaven she was not respon- sible for himhe belonged to my father's side of the family! If my mother pronounced his name it was solely, I believe, out of malice, out of the child's naughty desire to evoke some nursery hobgoblin by muttering a dark incantation like Eena Meena Mina Mo, and then darting away with affrighted backward looks to see if there is anything there.
My mother always darted away from George Alfred's name after pronouncing it, and it was not until I was grown up, and had acquired greater courage and per- sistency, that one day I drove her to the wall by sud- denly asking: "But, Mamma, what did he do? George Alfred and some woman! Who was she? From what heights had she fallen with him, to what depths dragged him down? For in those simple days it was always a case of "the woman tempted me". To her respectable sisters her culpability was as certain in ad vance as Predestination to the Calvinist.
But I was not fated to know more thank heaven I was not! For our shadowy Paolo and Francesca, circling together on the "accursed air", somewhere outside the safe boundaries of our old New York, gave me, I verily believe, my earliest glimpse of the poetry that Goethe missed in the respectable world of the Hirschgraben, and that my ancestors assuredly failed to find, or to create, between the Battery and Union Square.
II KNEE-HIGH PEOPLING the background of these earliest scenes there were the tall splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lifted one so high, and held one so safely; and my mother, who wore such beautiful flounced dresses, and had painted and carved fans in sandalwood boxes, and ermine scarves, and per- fumed yellowish laces pinned up in blue paper, and kept in a marquetry chiffonier, and all the other dim impersonal attributes of a Mother, without, as yet, any- thing much more definite; and two big brothers who were mostly away the eldest already at college ; but in the foreground with Foxy there was one rich all- permeating presence: Doyley.
How I pity all children who have not had a Doyley a nurse who has always been there, who is as established as the sky and as warm as the sun, who understands everything, feels every- thing, can arrange everything, and combines all the powers of the Divinity with the compassion of a mortal heart like one's own! Doyley's presence was the warm cocoon in which my infancy lived safe and sheltered; the atmosphere without which I could not have breathed.
It is thanks to Doyley that not one bitter memory, one uncomprehended injustice, darkened the days when the soul's flesh is so tender, and the remem- brance of wrongs so acute. But no memories of those years survive, save those I have mentioned, and one other, a good deal dimmer, of going to stay one sum- mer with my Aunt Elizabeth, my father's unmarried sister, who had a house at Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson. This aunt, whom I remember as a ramrod-backed old lady compounded of steel and granite, had been threat- ened in her youth wilh the "consumption" which had already carried off a brother and sister.
Few families in that day escaped the scourge of tuberculosis, and the Protestant cemeteries of Pisa and Rome are full of die graves of wretched exiles sent to end their days by the supposedly mild shores of Arno or Tiber. My poor Aunt Margaret, my poor Uncle Joshua, both snatched in their early flower, already slept beside the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, where my grandmother was later to join them; and when Elizabeth in her turn began to pine, her parents, no doubt discouraged by the Italian experiment, decided to try curing her at home.
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They therefore shut her up one October in her bedroom in the New York house in Mercer Street, lit the fire, sealed up the windows, and did not let her out again till the following June, when she emerged in perfect health, to live till seventy. This business of the Wolf was the first of other similar terri- fying experiences, and since most imaginative children know these hauntings by tribal animals, I mention it only because from the moment of that adventure it be- came necessary, whenever I "read" the story of Red Riding Hood that is, looked at the pictures , to carry my little nursery stool from one room to another, in pursuit of Doyley or my mother, so that I should never again be exposed to meeting the family Totem when I sat down alone to my book.
The effect of terror produced by the house of Rhine- cliff was no doubt partly due to what seemed to me its intolerable ugliness. My visual sensibility must always have been too keen for middling pleasures; my photo- graphic memory of rooms and houses even those seen but briefly, or at long intervals was from my earliest years a source of inarticulate misery, for I was always vaguely frightened by ugliness.
I can still remember hating everything at Rhinecliff, which, as I saw, on re- discovering it some years later, was an expensive but dour specimen of Hudson River Gothic; and from the first I was obscurely conscious of a queer resemblance between the granitic exterior of Aunt Elizabeth and her grimly comfortable home, between her battlemented caps and the turrets of Rhinecliff. But all this is merged in a blur, for by the time I was four years old I was playing in the Roman Forum instead of on the lawns of Rhinecliff.
KNEE-HIGH 29 The transition woke no surprise, for almost every- thing that constituted my world was still about me: my handsome father, my beautifully dressed mother, and the warmth and sunshine that were Doyley. The chief difference was that the things about me were now not ugly but incredibly beautiful. That old Rome of the mid-nineteenth century was still the city of romantic ruins in which Clive Newcome's "J.
I remember, through the trailing clouds of infancy, the steps of the Piazza di Spagna thronged with Thackerayan artists' models, and heaped with early violets, daffodils and tulips; I remember long sun- lit wanderings on the springy turf of great Roman villas; heavy coaches of Cardinals flashing in scarlet and gold through the twilight of narrow streets; the flowery bombardment of the Carnival procession watched with shrieks of infant ecstasy from a balcony of the Corso. But the liveliest hours were those spent with my nurse on the Monte Pincio, where I played with Marion Craw- ford's little half-sister, Daisy Terry, and her brother Arthur.
Other children, long since dim and nameless, flit by as supernumeraries of the band; but only Daisy and her brother have remained alive to me. There we played, dodging in and out among old stone benches, racing, rolling hoops, whirling through skipping ropes, or pausing out of breath to watch the toy procession of stately barouches and glossy saddle-horses which, on every fine afternoon of winter, carried the flower of 3 o A BACKWARD GLANCE Roman beauty and nobility round and round and round the restricted meanderings of the hill-top. Those hours were the jolliest; yet deeper impressions were gathered in walks with my mother on the daisy- strewn lawns of the Villa Doria-Pamphili, among the statues and stone-pines of the Villa Borghese, or hunting on the slopes of the Palatine for the mys- terious bits of blue and green and rosy stone which cropped up through the turf as violets and anemones did in other places, and turned out to be precious frag- ments of porphyry, lapis lazuli, verde antico, and all the mineral flora of the Palace of the Caesars.
In those days every traveller of artistic sensibility gathered bas- kets-full of these marble blossoms, and had them trans- formed into the paper-weights, inkstands and circular "sofa-tables" without which no gentleman's home was complete. All the glory seemed to forsake my treasures when they were forced into these lapidary combina- tions; but the hunt was thrilling, and it occurred to no one that these exquisite relics of ruined opus alex- andrinum, and of Imperial vases and statues, should have been treated with more reverence.
The buffaloes of Piranesi had vanished from the Forum and the Pala- tine, but the ruins of Imperial Rome were still a free stamping ground for the human herd. There were other days when we drove out on the Campagna, and wandered over the short grass between the tombs of the Appian way; still others among the fountains of Frascati; and some, particularly vivid, when, in the million-tapered blaze of St Peter's, the Pope floated ethereally above a long train of ecclesiastics seen KNEE-HIGH 31 through an incense haze so golden that it seemed to pour from the blinding luminary behind the High Altar.
What clung closest in after years, when I thought of the lost Rome of my infancy? It is hard to say; perhaps simply the warm scent of the box hedges on the Pincian, and the texture of weather-worn sun-gilt stone. Those, at least, are the two impressions which, for many years after, the mightiest of names instantly conjured up for me. My Roman impressions are followed by others, im- probably picturesque, of a journey to Spain. It must have taken place just before or after the Roman year; I remember that the Spanish tour was still considered an arduous adventure, and to attempt it with a young child the merest folly.
But my father had been reading Prescott and Washington Irving; the Alhambra was more of a novelty than the Colosseum; and as the off- spring of born travellers I was expected, even in infancy, to know how to travel. I suppose I acquitted myself better than the unhappy Freddy; for from that wild early pilgrimage I brought back an incurable passion for the road. What a journey it must have been!
Pre- sumably there was already a railway from the frontier to Madrid; but I recall only the incessant jingle of dili- gence bells, the cracking of whips, the yells of gaunt muleteers hurling stones at their gaunter mules to urge them up interminable and almost unscaleable hills. It is all a jumble of excited impressions: breaking down 3 2 A BACKWARD GLANCE on wind-swept sierras; arriving late and hungry at squalid posadas; flea-hunting, chocolate-drinking I be- lieve there was nothing but chocolate and olives to feed me on , being pursued wherever we went by touts, guides, deformed beggars, and all sorts of jabbering and confusing people; and, through the chaos and fatigue, a fantastic vision of the columns of Cordova, the tower of the Giralda, the pools and fountains of the Alhambra, the orange groves of Seville, the awful icy penumbra of the Escorial, and everywhere shadowy aisles undulat- ing with incense and processions.
Perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one's travels at four. In the course of time we exchanged the Piazza di Spagna for the Champs Elysees. It probably happened the very next winter; but life in Paris must have seemed colourless after the sunny violet-scented Italian days, for I remember far less of it than of Rome.
Two episodes, however, stand out vividly. One was the coming to dine every Sunday evening of a kindly gentleman with curly gray hair and a long moustache, an old friend and Rhode Island neighbour of the family. This was Mr. Henry Bedlow, whose chief title to fame seems to have been that he lived in an old house "up the island" called Malbone, which he had inherited from his grandfather or great-uncle, the celebrated miniature painter of that name.
When Mr. Bedlow dined with us I was always led in with the dessert, my red hair rolled into sausages, and the sleeves of my best KNEE-HIGH 33 frock looped up with pink coral, and was allowed to perch on his knee while he "told me mythology". What blessings I have since called down on the teller!
Fairy stories, even Mother Goose, even Andersen's tales and the Contes de Perrault, still left me inattentive and in- different, but the domestic dramas of the Olympians roused all my creative energy. Perhaps I scented an in- definable condescension and often a great lack of dis- cernment in the stories which big people have invented about little ones; and besides, the doings of children were always intrinsically less interesting to me than those of grown-ups, and I felt more at home with the gods and goddesses of Olympus, who behaved so much like the ladies and gentlemen who came to dine, whom I saw riding and driving in the Bois de Boulogne, and about whom I was forever weaving stories of my own.
The other Parisian event concerns this story-telling. The imagining of tales about grown-up people, "real people", I called them children always seemed to me incompletely realized had gone on in me since my first conscious moments; I cannot remember the time when I did not want to "make up" stories. But it was in Paris that I found the necessary formula. Oddly enough, I had no desire to write my stories down even had I known how to write, and I couldn't yet form a letter ; but from the first I had to have a book in my hand to "make up" with, and from the first it had to be a cer- tain sort of book.
The page had to be closely printed, with rather heavy black type, and not much margin. These shaggy volumes, printed in close black characters on rough-edged yellowish pages, and bound in coarse dark-blue paper covers probably a production of the old Galignani Press in Paris must have been a relic of our Spanish adventure. Washington Irving was an old friend of my family's, and his col- lected works, in comely type and handsome binding, adorned our library shelves at home.
But these would not have been of much use to me as a source of inspira- tion. The rude companion of our travels was the book I needed; I had only to open it for the Pierian fount to flow. There was richness and mystery in the thick black type, a hint of bursting overflowing material in the serried lines and scant margin. To this day I am bored by the sight of widely spaced type, and a little islet of text in a sailless sea of white paper.
Well the "Alhambra" once in hand, making up was ecstasy. At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose.
Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors I always had to be alone to "make up" , noticed that I often held the book up- side down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a KNEE-HIGH 35 person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit. There was something almost ritualistic in the per- formance. The call came regularly and imperiously; and though, when it caught me at inconvenient mo- ments, I would struggle against it conscientiouslyfor I was beginning to be a very conscientious little girl the struggle was always a losing one.
I had to obey the furious Muse; and there are deplorable tales of my abandoning the "nice" playmates who had been invited to "spend the day", and rushing to my mother with the desperate cry: "Mamma, you must go and entertain that little girl for me. I've got to make up. What I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream.
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The peculiar purpose for which books served me probably made me indifferent to what was in them. At any rate, I can remember feeling no curiosity about it. But my father, by dint of patience, managed to drum the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table, absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for improvisation. This was received with incredu- lity; but on being called upon to read a few lines aloud I appear to have responded to the challenge, and it was then discovered that the work over which I was poring was a play by Ludovic Halevy, called "Fanny Lear", which was having a succes de scandale in Paris owing to the fact that the heroine was what ladies of my mother's day called "one of those women".
Thereafter the books I used for "making up" were carefully in- spected before being entrusted to me; and an arduous business it must have been, for no book ever came my way without being instantly pounced on, and now that I could read I divided my time between my own im- provisations and the printed inventions of others.
It was in Paris that I took my first dancing-lessons. I was no Isadora, and these beginnings would not be worth a word but for die light they throw on the manners and customs of my infancy. I used to go, with a group of little friends, children English and Ameri- can, to the private cours of an ex-ballerina of the Grand Opera, Mademoiselle Michelet, a large stern woman with a heavy black moustache, in whom it would have been hard for the most imaginative to detect even a trace of her early calling.
To us she was the severest of instructresses. The waltz and mazurka had long since been introduced into the ball-room, without even a lingering remembrance of Byron's reprobation; but they were not thought difficult enough to train the young, and we were persistently exercised in the menuet, the shawl dance with a lace scarf and the KNEE-HIGH 37 cachuchaof course with castanets.
Mademoiselle Mich- elet's quarters were very small; and I can still see myself, an isolated figure in the centre of her shining parquet, helplessly waving my scarf or uncertainly clacking my castanets, while my fellow pupils hedged me about as rather bored spectators, and Mademoiselle Michelet's wizened little old mother, in a cap turreted with loops of purple ribbon, tinkled out the tunes at a piano squeezed into a corner of the room.
During one of our Paris winters I think there were two or three my dear old grandmother, my mother's mother, paid us a long visit. I call her "old", though it is probably that at the time she was under sixty; but I had never seen her except in lace cap and lappets, a bunch of gold charms dangling from her massive watch- chain, among the folds of a rich black silk dress, and a black japanned ear-trumpet at her ear the abstract type of an ancestress as the function was then under- stood. I always recall her seated in an arm-chair, her un- dimmed eyes bent over some exquisitely fine needle- work.
I hope she sometimes went for a walk or a drive, and enjoyed a few glimpses of grown-up society; but for me she exists only as a motionless and gently smiling figure, whose one gesture was to lay aside her stitching for her ear-trumpet at my approach. When she was with us I was constantly in her room; and my way of returning her affection was to read aloud to her.
Not being more than six or seven years old I understood hardly any- thing of what I was reading, or rather I understood it in my own way, which was most often not the poet's; as in the line from "The Lord of Burleigh", "and he made a loving consort", where I read concert for con- sort, and concluded being already addicted to rash generalizations that a gentleman's first act after mar- riage was to give his spouse a conceit, in gratitude for which "a faithful wife was she". But I enjoyed all the sonorities as much as if I had known what they meant, and perhaps even more, since my own interpretations so often enriched the text; and probably such shrill scraps as travelled through the windings of my grandmother's trumpet troubled her no more than they did me.
To one whose preferred poetic reading was "The Christian Year", the "Idyls of the King" must have been almost as full of mystery and obscurity as Browning was to the next generation, and the rhythmic raptures tingling through me probably woke no echo in the dear old head bent to mine. I suspect that no one else in the house could bear to be read aloud to by me, for I do not remember at- tempting it on any one but my grandmother; and in- deed poetry did not play much part in our lives.
The new Tennysonian rhythms also moved my father greatly; and I imagine there was a time when his rather rudimentary love of verse might have been developed had he had any one with whom to share it. But my mother's matter-of-factness must have shrivelled up any such buds of fancy; and in later years I remem- ber his reading only Macaulay, Prescott, Washington Irving, and every book of travel he could find.
Arctic explorations especially absorbed him, and I have won- dered since what stifled cravings had once germinated in him, and what manner of man he was really meant to be. That he was a lonely one, haunted by something always unexpressed and unattained, I am sure. I remember nothing else of my Paris life except one vision over which after-events shed a tragic glare.
It was the sight, one autumn afternoon, of a beautiful lady driving down the Champs Elyses in a beautiful open carriage, a little, boy in uniform beside her on a pony, and a glittering escort of officers. The carriage, of the kind called a daumont, was preceded by outriders, and swayed gracefully on its big C-springs to the rhythm of four high-stepping and highly-groomed horses, a postil- ion on one of the leaders, and two tremendous footmen perched high at the back.
But all I had eyes for was the lady herself, leaning back as ladies of those days leaned in their indolently-hung carriages, flounces of feuille-morte taffetas billowing out about her, and on 40 A BACKWARD GLANCE her rich auburn hair a tiny black lace bonnet with a tea-rose above one ear. I still see her serene elegance of attitude and expression, her conscious air of being, with her little boy, and the shining horses, and the flashing officers and outriders, the centre of the sumptuous spec- tacle.
The next year she and her procession had vanished in a crimson hurricane; and the whole setting of swaying carriages and outstretched ladies, of young men cara- coling on thorough-breds past stately houses glimpsed through clustering horse-chestnut foliage, has long since been rolled up in the lumber-room of discarded pag- eants. We must have remained in Paris till the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, at which fateful moment we chanced to be at Bad Wildbad, in the Black Forest, a primitive watering-place just coming into fashion, where my mother had been sent for a cure.
With a young German nursery governess who had been added to our party I took happy rambles in the pine-forests, and learned from her to make wild-flower garlands, to knit and to tat, and to practise for the only time in my life other Gretchenish arts. She also taught me out of the New Testament how to read German; and in our Bible reading I came across a phrase which has always delighted me because of the quaint contrast between its impulsive German Gemuthlichkeit and the majestic phraseology of our Authorized Version.
But one morning, climbing a woodland path with my governess and some other children, I was seized by an agony of pain and after that for many long weeks life was a confused and feverish misery.
I was desperately ill with typhoid fever, and I mention the fact only because of one incredible circumstance. All the doctors of Wild- bad they were doubtless few had already been mobil- ized, save one super-annuated practitioner; and he had never before seen a case of typhoid! His son, also a doc- tor, was with the army; and all that his father could do was to despatch bulletins to him, asking how I was to be treated.
The replies, one may suppose, were long in arriving; and in the interval death came near. But at the same time a celebrated Russian physician arrived at Wildbad for a day, at the call of a princely patient. My parents persuaded him to see me, and he prescribed the new treatment: plunging the patient in baths of ice-cold water. At the suggestion my mother's courage failed her; but she wrapped me in wet sheets, and I was saved. My childish world, though so well filled, lacked com- pleteness, for my dog Foxy had not come to Europe with us.
His absence left such a void that my parents finally gave me a Florentine lupetto, as white as Foxy, but much smaller. He was the joyous companion of a com- paratively dull winter; for the return to Italy did not bring back the joys of Rome.
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Florence was much colder and less sunny; there were no children to replace the jolly Pincianites, and the Cascine Gardens are asso- ciated only with sedate walks with my elders, monoto- nous enough if I had not had Foxy to race with, and violets to gather. The other high lights of those gray months were the increased enchantment of "making up", and the fainter glow of the hours spent with a charming young lady who taught me Italian.
My lessons amused me, and the new language came to me as naturally as breathing, as French and German had already. Or rather, to be quite exact, a desire that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, mostly indefinite hitherto, had steadily advanced to the front, defined itself, and finally dominated everything else. Perhaps this is in brief, or suggests, all I have sought to do. Given the Nineteenth Century, with the United States, and what they furnish as area and points of view, "Leaves of Grass" is, or seeks to be, simply a faithful and doubtless self-will'd record.
In the midst of all, it gives one man's—the author's—identity, ardors, observations, faiths, and thoughts, color'd hardly at all with any decided coloring from other faiths or other identities. Plenty of songs had been sung—beautiful, matchless songs—adjusted to other lands than these—another spirit and stage of evolution; but I would sing, and leave out or put in, quite solely with reference to America and to-day. Modern science and democracy seem'd to be throwing out their challenge to poetry to put them in its statements in contradistinction to the songs and myths of the past.
As I see it now perhaps too late, I have unwittingly taken up that challenge and made an attempt at such statements—which I certainly would not assume to do now, knowing more clearly what it means. For grounds for "Leaves of Grass," as a poem, I abandon'd the conventional themes, which do not appear in it: none of the stock ornamentation, or choice plots of love or war, or high, exceptional personages of Old-World song; nothing, as I may say, for beauty's sake—no legend, or myth, or romance, nor euphemism, nor rhyme.
But the broadest average of humanity and its identities in the now ripening Nineteenth Century, and especially in each of their countless examples and practical occupations in the United States to-day. It is certainly time for America, above all, to begin this readjustment in the scope and basic point of view of verse; for everything else has changed. As I write, I see in an article on Wordsworth, in one of the current English magazines, the lines. Only a firmer, vastly broader, new area begins to exist—nay, is already form'd—to which the poetic genius must emigrate.
Without that ultimate vivification—which the poet or other artist alone can give—reality would seem incomplete, and science, democracy, and life itself, finally in vain.
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Few appreciate the moral revolutions, our age, which have been profounder far than the material or inventive or war-produced ones. For all these new and evolutionary facts, meanings, purposes, new poetic messages, new forms and expressions, are inevitable. My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! Proud, proud indeed may we be, if we have cull'd enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future! Let me not dare, here or anywhere, for my own purposes, or any purposes, to attempt the definition of Poetry, nor answer the question what it is.
Like Religion, Love, Nature, while those terms are indispensable, and we all give a sufficiently accurate meaning to them, in my opinion no definition that has ever been made sufficiently encloses the name Poetry; nor can any rule or convention ever so absolutely obtain but some great exception may arise and disregard and overturn it. Also it must be carefully remember'd that first-class literature does not shine by any luminosity of its own; nor do its poems. They grow of circumstances, and arc evolutionary. The actual living light is always curiously from elsewhere—follows unaccountable sources, and is lunar and relative at the best.
There are, I know, certain controling themes that seem endlessly appropriated to the poets—as war, in the past—in the Bible, religious rapture and adoration—always love, beauty, some fine plot,. Indeed, when we pursue it, what growth or advent is there that does not date back, back, until lost—perhaps its most tantalizing clues lost—in the receded horizons of the past? But, strange as it may sound at first, I will say there is something striking far deeper and towering far higher than those themes for the best elements of modern song. Just as all the old imaginative works rest, after their kind, on long trains of presuppositions, often entirely unmention'd by themselves, yet supplying the most important bases of them, and without which they could have had no reason for being, so "Leaves of Grass," before a line was written, presupposed something different from any other, and, as it stands, is the result of such presupposition.
I should say, indeed, it were useless to attempt reading the book without first carefully tallying that preparatory background and quality in the mind. Think of the United States to-day—the facts of these thirty-eight or forty empires solder'd in one—sixty or seventy millions of equals, with their lives, their passions, their future—these incalculable, modern, American, seething multitudes around us, of which we are inseparable parts! Think, in comparison, of the petty environage and limited area of the poets of past or present Europe, no matter how great their genius.
Think of the absence and ignorance, in all cases hitherto, of the multitudinousness, vitality, and the unprecedented stimulants of to-day and here. It almost seems as if a poetry with cosmic and dynamic features of magnitude and limitlessness suitable to the human soul, were never possible before. It is certain that a poetry of absolute faith and equality for the use of the democratic masses never was.
In estimating first-class song, a sufficient Nationality, or, on the other hand, what may be call'd the negative and lack of it, as in Goethe's case, it sometimes seems to me, is often, it not always, the first element. One needs only a little penetration to see, at more or less removes, the material facts of their country and radius, with the coloring of the moods of humanity at the time, and its gloomy or hopeful prospects, behind all poets and each poet, and forming their birth-marks.
I know very well that my "Leaves" could not possibly have emerged or been fashion'd or completed, from any other era than the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, nor any other land than democratic America, and from the absolute triumph of the National Union arms. And whether my friends claim it for me or not, I know well enough, too, that in respect to pictorial talent, dramatic situations, and especially in verbal melody and all the conventional technique of poetry, not only the divine works that to-day stand ahead in the world's reading, but dozens more transcend some of them immeasurably transcend all I have done, or could do.
Indeed, and anyhow, to put it specifically, has not the time arrived when, if it must be plainly said, for democratic America's sake, if for no other there must imperatively come a readjustment of the whole theory and nature of Poetry? The question is important, and I may turn the argument over and repeat it: Does not the best thought of our day and Republic conceive of a birth and spirit of song superior to anything past or present? To the effectual and moral consolidation of our lands already, as materially establish'd, the greatest factors in known history, and far, far greater through what they prelude and necessitate, and are to be in future —to conform with and build on the concrete realities and theories of the universe furnish'd by science, and henceforth the only irrefragable basis for anything, verse included—to root both influences in the emotional and imaginative action of the modern time, and dominate all that precedes or opposes them is not either a radical advance and step forward, or a new verteber of the best song indispensable?
The New World receives with joy the poems of the antique, with European feudalism's rich fund of epics, plays, ballads—seeks not in the least to deaden or displace those voices from our ear and area—holds them indeed as indispensable studies, influences, records, comparisons. But though the dawn-dazzle of the sun of literature is in those poems for us of to-day—though perhaps the best parts of current character in nations, social groups, or any man's or woman's individuality, Old World or New, are from them—and though if I were ask'd to name the most precious bequest to current American civilization from all the hitherto ages, I am not sure but I would name those old and less old songs ferried hither from east and west—some serious words and debits remain; some acrid considerations demand a hearing.
Of the great poems receiv'd from abroad and from the ages, and to-day enveloping and penetrating America, is there one that is consistent with these United States, or essentially applicable to them as they are and are to be? Is there one whose underlying basis is not a denial and insult to democracy? What a comment it forms, anyhow, on this era of literary fulfilment, with the splendid day-rise of science and resuscitation of history, that our chief religious and poetical works are not our own nor adapted to our light, but have been furnish'd by far-back ages out of their arriere and darkness, or, at most, twilight dimness!
What is there in those works that so imperiously and scornfully dominates all our advanced civilization, and culture? Even Shakspere, who so suffuses current letters and art which indeed have in most degrees grown out of him, belongs essentially to the buried past. Only he holds the proud distinction for certain important phases of that past, of being the loftiest of the singers life has yet given voice to.
All, however, relate to and rest upon conditions, standards, politics, sociologies, ranges of belief, that have been quite eliminated from the Eastern hemisphere, and never existed at all in the Western. As authoritative types of song they belong in America just about as much as the persons and institutes they depict. I willingly make those admissions, and to their fullest extent; then advance the points herewith as of serious, even paramount importance. I have indeed put on record elsewhere my reverence and eulogy for those never-to-be-excell'd poetic bequests, and their indescribable preciousness as heirlooms for America.
Another and separate point must now be candidly stated. As America fully and fairly construed is the legitimate result and evolutionary outcome of the past, so I would dare to claim for my verse. Without stopping to qualify the averment, the Old World has had the poems of myths, fictions, feudalism, conquest, caste, dynastic wars, and splendid exceptional characters and affairs, which have been great; but the New World needs the poems of realities and science and of the democratic average and basic equality, which shall be greater.
In the centre of all, and object of all, stands the Human Being, towards whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything directly or indirectly tend, Old World or New. Continuing the subject, my friends have more than once suggested—or may be the garrulity of advancing age is possessing me—some further embryonic facts of "Leaves of Grass," and especially how I enter'd upon them.
Bucke has, in his volume, already fully and fairly described the preparation of my poetic field, with the particular and general plowing, planting, seeding, and occupation of the ground, till everything was fertilized, rooted, and ready to start its own way for good or bad. Not till after all this, did I attempt any serious acquaintance with poetic literature. Along in my sixteenth year I had become possessor of a stout, well-cramm'd one thousand page octavo volume I have it yet, containing Walter Scott's poetry entire—an inexhaustible mine and treasury of poetic forage especially the endless forests and jungles of notes —has been so to me for fifty years, and remains so to this day.
Later, at intervals, summers and falls, I used to go off, sometimes for a week at a stretch, down in the country, or to Long Island's seashores—there, in the presence of outdoor influences,. I went over thoroughly the Old and New Testaments, and absorb'd probably to better advantage for me than in any library or indoor room—it makes such difference where you read, Shakspere, Ossian, the best translated versions I could get of Homer, Eschylus, Sophocles, the old German Nibelungen, the ancient Hindoo poems, and one or two other masterpieces, Dante's among them.
As it happen'd, I read the latter mostly in an old wood. The Iliad Buckley's prose version, I read first thoroughly on the peninsula of Orient, northeast end of Long Island, in a shelter'd hollow of rocks and sand, with the sea on each side. I have wonder'd since why I was not overwhelm'd by those mighty masters. Likely because I read them, as described, in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in.
Toward the last I had among much else look'd over Edgar Poe's poems—of which I was not an admirer, tho' I always saw that beyond their limited range of melody like perpetual chimes of music bells, ringing from lower b flat up to g they were melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell'd ones, of certain pronounc'd phases of human morbidity.
The Poetic area is very spacious—has room for all—has so many mansions! But I was repaid in Poe's prose by the idea that at any rate for our occasions, our day there can be no such thing as a long poem. The same thought had been haunting my mind before, but Poe's argument, though short, work'd the sum out and proved it to me.
Another point had an early settlement, clearing the ground greatly. I saw, from the time my enterprise and questionings positively shaped themselves how best can I express my own distinctive era and surroundings, America, Democracy? I also felt strongly whether I have shown it or not that to the true and full estimate of the Present both the Past and the Future are main considerations.
These, however, and much more might have gone on and come to naught almost positively would have come to naught, if a sudden, vast, terrible, direct and indirect stimulus for new and national declamatory expression had not been given to me. I went down to the war fields in Virginia end of , lived thenceforward in camp—saw great battles and the days and nights afterward—partook of all the fluctuations, gloom, despair, hopes again arous'd, courage evoked—death readily risk'd— the cause , too—along and filling those agonistic and lurid following years, ''65—the real parturition years more than '83 of this henceforth homogeneous Union.
Without those three or four years and the experiences they gave, "Leaves of Grass" would not now be existing. But I set out with the intention also of indicating or hinting some point-characteristics which I since see though I did not then, at least not definitely were bases and object-urgings toward those "Leaves" from the first. The word I myself put primarily for the description of them as they stand at last, is the word Suggestiveness.