To Colonel T. W. Higginson
Dear Friend, A letter always feels to me like Immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone. I would like to thank you for your great kindness, but never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
A word left careless on a page May consecrate an eye, When folded in perpetual seam The wrinkled author lie.
To the same
Mr. Higginson, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?
The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.
Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.
If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.
I enclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.
To the same
Mr. Higginson, Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write today from my pillow,
Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.
You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.
I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid.
You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the `Revelations.’ I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.
You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings, because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.
I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their `Father.’
But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?
You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.
I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.
Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them `why’ they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.
I could not weight myself, myself. My size felt small to me. I read your chapters in the Atlantic, and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.
Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you?
To the same
Dear Friend, Your letter gave no drunkenness, because I tasted rum before. Domingo comes but once; yet I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you my tears would block my tongue.
My dying tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of mob as I could master, then. And when, far afterward, a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve.
Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung. I had not supposed it. Your first gave no dishonor, because the true are not ashamed. I thanked you for your justice, but could not drop the bells whose jingling cooled my tramp. Perhaps the balm seemed better, because you bled me first. I smile when you suggest that I delay to publish,’ that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin.
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.
You think my gait `spasmodic.’ I am in danger, sir. You think me `uncontrolled.’ I have no tribunal.
Would you have time to be the `friend’ you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.
If I might bring you what I do not so frequent to trouble you and ask you if I told it clear, ‘twould be control to me. The sailor cannot see the north, but knows the needle can. The `hand you stretch me in the dark’ I put mine in, and turn away. I have no Saxon now:
As if I asked a common alms, And in my wondering hand A stranger pressed a kingdom, And I, bewildered, stand; As if I asked the Orient Had it for me a morn, And it should lift its purple dikes And shatter me with dawn!
But, will you be my preceptor, Mr. Higginson?