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the “naturally free, cool, luxuriant” Whitman

WHITMAN, WALT. “By the Pond” autograph manuscript

No place, August 22, 1877

One page. Mounted. Browning, edge wear. The final two lines are on a separate leaf affixed at the bottom in Whitman’s characteristic way. Numerous manuscript revisions by the author.

Whitman reflects rapturously on his time alone by a remote pond. Dipping his pen in the brook, he looks around and marvels, “nothing could be more primitive, secluded, naturally free, cool, luxuriant than the scene I am in the midst of.”

Whitman observes, “After my semi-daily bath, I sit here for a bit, the brook musically gurgling brawling, to the chromatic tones of a fretful cat-bird somewhere off in the bushes.” The contrast with city life is striking for the poet: “On my walk hither two hours since, through fields and the old lane, I stopt to view now the sky, now the mile-off woods on the hill, and now the apple-orchards. What a contrast from the New York’s or Philadelphia’s streets!”

At this time Whitman was making one of his periodic extended visits to the Stafford farm east of Camden. The farm adjoined Timber Creek, “Whitman’s Walden.” “Whitman’s days at Timber Creek are memorably recorded in Specimen Days in some of his best nature writing and freshest prose” (Routledge Whitman).

Whitman’s stays at the Stafford Farm at Timber Creek were rejuvenating to the poet, who reveled there in nature, outdoor exercise and bathing. There, with Harry Stafford, Whitman began “one of the most intense relationships of the poet’s life. … Whitman’s friend John Burroughs complained that they ‘cut up like two boys’ and he found their frolicsome behavior annoying. The Stafford family, however, were pleased to see the well-known man act as mentor to their son and gladly forgave any bad manners, chalking them up to artistic temperament. They hung a picture of the poet on their sitting room wall. Despite the frolicking, the relationship was a stormy one. They quarreled frequently, and several times Stafford returned a friendship ring given to him by Whitman. … The nature of their bond remains mysterious, and critics have interpreted it as everything from asexual and paternal to erotic and promiscuous. Whitman seems to have been less ambivalent. He wrote in his notebooks of their peaceful times together and of his dismay at Stafford’s mercurial anxiety. At one point, he wrote of his gratitude for Stafford’s help in his medical recovery, declaring, ‘you, my darling boy, are the central figure of them all’” (Kantrowitz in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia).

This is a wonderful Whitman manuscript from one of the happiest times in the poet’s life.