If you're ever, gentle reader, in Bolton, I strongly recommed a visit to the Bolton Museum, which houses, along with many other interesting local artifacts, the archive of and ardent group known as the Bolton Whitmanians. The Bolton Whitmanians formed in 1885, and used to meet in a house on Eagle Street owned by their leader, James Wallace, an architectural draughtsman, to celebrate the life and writings of the great Walt. They liked to commemorate his birthday with a suitably en plein air tea-party, in the course of which they'd sing a hymn especially composed in his honour, and drink communally from an ingeniously designed loving-cup, embellished with Whitmanian scenes - and which is now on permanent display in the museum's collection. The archive is a treasure trove of photographs and correspondence. Whitman never, alas, visited Bolton in person, but he was delighted to learn he was the object of veneration in this northern English town, and responded earnestly to their enquiries and adulation. Two of the band (its leader, Wallace and Doctor John Johnston) actually made the pilgrimage to Camden, New Jersey to visit their now ageing idol, and were graciously received. Indeed Whitman was so touched by their devotion, that when his pet canary died he had it stuffed and asked his close friend Dr Bucke to make a present of it to the Bolton Whitmanians, which he did on his next trip to England in 1891. This canary bird was the very one that had inspired the short poem Whitman published in the New York Herald on March 2nd, 1888: 'Did we count great, O soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books, / Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays, speculations? / But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble, / Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon, / Is it not just as great, O soul?' It too, perched on some life-like foliage, mid-warble, is on view in the Bolton Museum, and the sight of it when I visited a couple of years back brought tears to my eyes.
A couple of years before Whitman's death in 1892, another British admirer, John Addington Symonds, wrote to the master in some 'perplexity' about the doctrine of 'manly love' the poems espouse, and asked if in his 'conception of Comradeship' Whitman included 'those semi-sexual emotions and actions which no doubt do occur between men'. Whitman was outraged, and wrote back a fierce letter in which he complained the very 'possibility of such construction as mentioned is terrible'. His own impulses, he informed Symonds, were strictly heterosexual - indeed he had not only in his youth been 'jolly bodily', but had fathered six children, though fortune had since separated him from 'intimate relations' with any of them. None of these offspring have ever been traced, and it seems unlikely Whitman was quite the Johnny Appleseed his letter suggests. It occurred to me, however, that it might be amusing to imagine the great gray poet's begetting of his mythical descendants:
‘Though unmarried I have had six children’
The first woman I ever got with child wore calico
In Carolina. She was hoeing beans; as a languorous breeze
I caressed her loins, until her hoe lay abandoned in the furrow.
The second was braving the tumultuous seas that encircle
This fish-shaped isle; by the time a sudden rip-tide tore
Her from my grasp, she had known the full power of Paumanok.
One matron I waylaid - or was it she who waylaid
Me? - on a tram that shook and rattled and
Rang from Battery Park to Washington Heights and back.
O Pocahontas! You died as Rebecca Rolfe, and are buried
In Gravesend. Your distant descendant, her swollen belly
Taut as a drum, avoids my eye, and that of other men-folk.
While my glorious diva hurls her enraptured soul to the gods,
I sit, dove-like, brooding in the stalls: what in me is vast,
Dark and abysmal, her voice illumines and makes pregnant.
Some day, all together, we will stride the open road, wheeling
In an outsized pram my sixth, this broken, mustachioed
Soldier whose wounds I bind up nightly. His mother I forget.