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WALT WHITMAN

WALT WHITMAN

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Written by Hunter   
Sunday, 26 October 2008 16:53



I first heard of him among the sufferers on the Peninsula [Footnote:
Peninsula: that part of Virginia between the York and James rivers.]
after a battle there. Subsequently I saw him, time and again, in the
Washington hospitals, or wending his way there, with basket or haversack
[Footnote: Haversack: a bag in which a soldier carried his rations when
on a march.] on his arm, and the strength of beneficence suffusing his
face. His devotion surpassed the devotion of woman. It would take a
volume to tell of his kindness, tenderness, and thoughtfulness.

Never shall I forget one night when I accompanied him on his rounds
through a hospital filled with those wounded young Americans whose
heroism he has sung in deathless numbers. There were three rows of cots,
and each cot bore its man. When he appeared, in passing along, there was
a smile of affection and welcome on every face, however wan, and his
presence seemed to light up the place as it might be lighted by the
presence of the God of Love. From cot to cot they called him, often in
tremulous tones or in whispers; they embraced him; they touched his
hand; they gazed at him. To one he gave a few words of cheer; for
another he wrote a letter home; to others he gave an orange, a few
comfits, [Footnote: Comfits: sweetmeats.] a cigar, a pipe and tobacco, a
sheet of paper or a postage-stamp, all of which and many other things
were in his capacious haversack. From another he would receive a dying
message for mother, wife, or sweetheart; for another he would promise to
go an errand; [Footnote: To go an errand. What is the usual form?] to
another, some special friend very low, he would give a manly farewell
kiss. He did things for them no nurse or doctor could do, and he seemed
to leave a benediction [Footnote: Benediction: blessing.] at every cot
as he passed along. The lights had gleamed for hours in the hospital
that night before he left it, and, as he took his way towards the door,
you could hear the voices of many a stricken hero calling, "Walt, Walt,
Walt! come again! come again!"

He carried among them no sentimentalism nor moralizing; spoke not to any
man of his "sins," but gave something good to eat, a buoying [Footnote:
Buoying: enlivening, cheering.] word, or trifling gift and a look. He
appeared with ruddy face, clean dress, with a flower or a green sprig in
the lapel of his coat. Crossing the fields in summer, he would gather a
great bunch of dandelion blossoms, and red and while clover, to bring
and scatter on the cots, as reminders of out-door air and sunshine.

When practicable, he came to the long and crowded wards of the maimed,
the feeble, and the dying, only after preparations as for a
festival--strengthened by a good meal, rest, the bath and fresh
under-clothes. He entered with a huge haversack slung over his shoulder
full of appropriate articles, with parcels under his arms, and
protuberant [Footnote: Protuberant: bulging.] pockets. He would
sometimes come in summer with a good-sized basket filled with oranges,
and would go round for hours paring and dividing them among the feverish
and thirsty.

Walt Whitman was of the people, the common people, and always gave out
their quality and atmosphere. His commonness, his nearness, as of the
things you have always known,--the day, the sky, the soil, your own
parents,--were in no way veiled, or kept in abeyance, by his culture or
poetic gifts. He was redolent of the human and the familiar. Though
capable, on occasions, of great pride and hauteur, yet his habitual mood
and presence was that of simple, average, healthful humanity,--the
virtue and flavor of sailors, soldiers, laborers, travelers, or people
who live with real things in the open air. His commonness rose into the
uncommon, the extraordinary, but without any hint of the exclusive or
specially favored. He was indeed "no sentimentalist, no stander above
men and women or apart from them."

The spirit that animates every page of his book, and that it always
effuses, [Footnote: Effuses: sheds, pours out.] is the spirit of common,
universal humanity,--humanity apart from creed, schools, conventions,
from all special privileges and refinements, as it is in and of itself
in its relations to the whole system of things, in contradistinction to
the literature of culture which effuses the spirit of the select and
exclusive.

His life was the same. Walt Whitman never stood apart from or above any
human being. The common people--workingmen, the poor, the illiterate,
the outcast--saw themselves in him, and he saw himself in them: the
attraction was mutual. He was always content with common, unadorned
humanity.

--JOHN BURROUGHS (adapted).

[Footnote: What picture do you get of Whitman in this account? What
qualities of Whitman's do you think most endeared him to the soldiers?
Was Whitman's carefulness about his personal appearance an evidence of
egotism or altruism? Compare this estimate of Whitman with the
"Appreciation of Lincoln." Are there any points of likeness?]
 
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