February 23, 2018

Walt Whitman on Marriage

On this day in 1871 Walt Whitman wrote to the British essayist, Mrs. Anne Gilchrist to delicately decline her offer of marriage. Gilchrist was a forty-three-year-old widow, one who knew Tennyson and Carlyle, and knew enough about literature to have completed her husband's biography of William Blake. In "An Englishwoman's Defense of Walt Whitman" she had championed the poet as "one that is free of the universe, and can tell its secrets as none before." Conventional poetry (and the moralizing critics) might better stand aside, for "there is something come into the world nobler, diviner than herself" and though we might criticize a palace or cathedral, "what is the good of criticizing a forest?"

When Whitman received notice of this literary support for his controversial verse he responded thankfully, through an intermediary. When he received Mrs. Gilchrist's first personal letter, expressing her discovery in his poetry of his "passionate love" for her soul, he did not answer. When he received a second and third letter, containing Mrs. Gilchrist's belief that in Leaves of Grass she had heard at last "the voice of my mate," that she awaited the "day I shall hear that voice say to me, 'My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!'," and that "I am young enough to bear thee children, my darling," Whitman thought he'd better say something. In his letter of Nov. 3 he explained that his delay in writing had been for want of the right day, for he "wished to give to it a day, a sort of Sabbath or holy day apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences." Although such a day had not come, he hoped now to at least show "that I am not insensible to your love":
    ... I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write but briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body & spirit. You understand this better & fuller & clearer than any one else. And I too fully & clearly understand the loving & womanly letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists between us so beautiful & delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy.
This response was more than many women received -- a decade earlier, in the margin of another's declaration of love, Whitman had penciled "insane asylum" -- but it was not enough for Mrs. Gilchrist. Nor was Whitman's attempt five months later to "let me warn you somewhat about myself -- & yourself also." Nor, four years after that, was his alarm at Mrs. Gilchrist's plan for "American trans-settlement": "Don't do any thing toward such a move, nor resolve on it, nor indeed make any move at all in it, without further notice from me...." Mrs. Gilchrist arrived, observed the object of her passion, and returned home, the two still friends and soulmates. Years later, Whitman could be philosophical about such rewards of the writing life: "It's better than getting medals from a king or pensions from Congress...."

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