Walt Whitman, by John Burroughs

from Whitman—A Study (adapted)

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?]

Louise de la Ramee