Walt Whitman & Mrs. Gilchrist

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.” In Whitman, she told his moralizing critics, “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, he responded thankfully through an intermediary. When he received Mrs. Gilchrist’s first personal letter, expressing her discovery in Leaves of Grass of his “passionate love” for her soul, he did not answer. When he received a second and third letter, expressing her belief that she had heard at last “the voice of my mate,” that she awaited hearing that voice say in return, “My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife…,” and that she was yet “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 had only been for want of the right moment, for he wished to give her letter “a sort of Sabbath or holy day apart to itself, under serene and propitious influences.” Such a day had not come, but he wished now to say “that I am not insensible to your love,” and that “I too send you my love.” However, she must understand that “My book is my best letter,” just as “I too fully & clearly understand the loving & womanly letter it has evoked.” In short: “Enough that there surely exists between us so beautiful & delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy.”

This 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 the widow Gilchrist. Nor was Whitman’s attempt five months later to “let me warn you somewhat about myself.” Nor, four years after that, in response to her plan for “American trans-settlement,” was this alarmed response: “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….” And so Mrs. Gilchrist arrived, whereupon she observed the object of her passion and returned home, the two still friends and soul-mates. 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….”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.