Victorian Poetry 43.2 (2005) 249-261
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Audience Terminable and Interminable:
Anne Gilchrist, Walt Whitman, and the Achievement of Disinhibited Reading
Anne Burrows Gilchrist Was Introduced To Walt Whitman's Poetry In 1869 by her friend William Michael Rossetti, and the effect was galvanic. She read him first in Rossetti's own expurgated Poems of Walt Whitman (1868) and subsequently in the complete 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, which Rossetti gave her. Her letters to Rossetti on Whitman so impressed him with their fervorous insight that he urged her to publish them as a counteractive to the squeamishness, outrage, and plain misunderstanding that so widely characterized the poet's early reception. Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" appeared in the Boston Radical in 1870, and in 1871, with Rossetti's help, she initiated a correspondence with the poet himself. Widowed with four children, Gilchrist had discovered in Whitman's poetry the object of her desire, and she not only wanted him to know it, she wanted him. After five years of intimations, Gilchrist took action in 1876, announcing her imminent move across the Atlantic to be near him. Whitman, of course, balked at first ("I do not approve your American trans-settlement").1 But, upon finding her behavior less than predatory, he warmed to her presence just as she quickly adjusted her comportment to his sexual unavailability, and their friendship lasted until her death, back in England, in 1885. Whitman was fond of being fond of her, measuring out heaps of preposthumous and posthumous praise to Traubel and others. At times his praise rings with some of the sad falsity of his later years (the rebuff of John Addington Symonds, the claims of illegitimate children, etc.), a falsity ravened by later biographers and critics bent on retrospectively constructing for him a fundamentally heterosexual, if unfulfilled, life. But there is no doubting the genuineness of Whitman's affection for Gilchrist, or his appreciation of her critical acumen, especially with reference to his own poetry. Indeed, her disinhibited reading of the poems, and of the poet in the poems, called the serious bluff of addressivity central to the poet's own eroticism. In Gilchrist, Whitman had precisely not found [End Page 249] his "match." Instead, he found a reader willing and able to take seriously his ambivalent offers to rescind the fictionality of address.
"A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" still reads as a marvelously unencumbered appreciation of Whitman at his best: his conviction of the debt poetry owes to the dignity of the common; the rhythmic sophistication of poetry that rewards, not the counting of syllables, but the ear willing to turn to new music; and especially his frank and fearless language of instinctual and bodily life in both men and women. Gilchrist's essay was a love letter, and—just in case Whitman had not noticed—she followed it up with more private avowals of the transformation wrought upon her by Leaves of Grass: "I never before dreamed what love meant," she writes in her first letter to Whitman in 1871 (L, p. 59). She tells him the story of her happy but erotically unsatisfying marriage to Alexander Gilchrist, and his death in 1861. Since then, she explains, she has had "much sweet tranquil happiness, much strenuous work and endeavour raising my darlings" (L,p. 60), without much sense of the loss of sexual love. But then:
In May, 1869, came the voice over the Atlantic to me—O, the voice of my Mate: it must be so—my love rises up out of the very depths of the grief & tramples upon despair. I can wait—any time, a lifetime, many lifetimes—I can suffer, I can dare, I can learn, grow, toil, but nothing in life or death can tear out of my heart the passionate belief that one day I shall hear that voice say to me, "My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!" It is not happiness I plead with God...