A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-NINE TO EIGHTEEN NINETY-TWO
In 1889, the Rationalists of Europe and America having conjointly provided for the erection of a life-size statue of Bruno, in the Campo dei fiori at Rome, on the spot where he was burned at the stake, February 17, 1600, by order of the papal Inquisition, Ingersoll was invited by the international committee to deliver the oration unveiling the memorial mentioned.
We can imagine with what wealth of feeling, — what triumphant inspiration, — the orator of universal liberty would have risen in the shadow of the Vatican to pay to the memory of him whom he had already styled “the first real martyr” that debt of gratitude and historic justice which had so long been overdue; and we can imagine also, but with regret, how much the world of art and letters was the loser because of his inability to accept an invitation which, coming from a source so truly representative of emancipated thought, was to him especially pleasing.
Of the sublime heights which he would have attained had he accepted, we catch a glimpse from the critical viewpoint of the eminent English Rationalist George Jacob Holyoake, who, in commenting on the great orator’s loftiness and originality, said:–
“When his subject was Bruno, upon whom many pens had exhausted all the terms they knew, Ingersoll’s first words were: ‘The night of the Middle Ages lasted for a thousand years. The first star that enriched the horizon of this universal gloom was Giordano Bruno. He was the herald of the dawn.'”
But although the orator of the better age which Bruno so clearly foresaw, and for which he so nobly gave his life, was unable to pay in Rome the tribute of his gratitude, he rendered substantial aid at home, not only as the head of the committee representing the United States on the international committee, but as indicated in the following characteristic letter opening the American subscription: —
Law Office, Robert G. Ingersoll,
40 Wall Street.
Feb. 8, 1889.
T.B. Wakeman, Esq.
Treasurer of the Bruno Monument Committee.
“My dear Sir:
It gives me great pleasure to include my check for one hundred dollars ($100).
“I shall never be quite satisfied until there is a monument to Bruno higher than the dome of St. Peter’s.
“Yours very truly,
In 1891 he first delivered his lecture on Shakespeare. The several mental steps leading to this marvelous contribution to Shakespearean criticism are of keen interest. They are also of first importance, because they afford an intimate, if only a partial, view of the artistic and intellectual evolution of a great personality.
The circumstances of Ingersoll’s introduction to Shakespeare’s “book and volume of the brain,’ and the impression which the latter made on the prose-poet whom the future will rank as second only to its author, were as unusual as those of Ingersoll’s introduction to the poetry of Burns. It should here be recalled, that, in the late forties or very early fifties, the works of Burns and Shakespeare were not to be found in every American home, — certainly not in the home of every orthodox clergyman in the Prairie State. The works of real genius were considered hardly “safe for the young.” “It was admitted, on all hands,” says Ingersoll himself, in reference to the literary standards and ideals which prevailed as late even as 1855, “that Burns was a child of nature of whom his mother was ashamed and proud.” “A few, not quite of orthodox, delighted in the mechanical monotony of Pope, and the really wicked — those lost to all religious shame — were worshipers of Shakespeare.” Reading “between the lines,” the story of Ingersoll’s growing impatience with Pope, whom he once termed a “word-carpenter,” and, reading the lines themselves, the story of Ingersoll’s becoming one of the “worshipers” just mentioned, are best told in the following paragraph: —
“* * * one night I stopped at a little hotel in Illinois, many years ago, when we were not quite civilized, when the footsteps of the red man were still on the prairies. While I was waiting for supper an old man was reading from a book, and among others who were listening was myself. I was filled with wonder. I had never heard anything like it. I was ashamed to ask him what he was reading: I supposed that an intelligent boy ought to know. So I waited, and when the little bell rang for supper I hung back and they went out. I picked up the book; it was Sam Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare. The next day I bought a copy for four dollars. My God! more than the national debt. You talk about the present straits of the Treasury !  For days, for nights, for months, for years, I read those books, two volumes, and I commenced with the introduction. I haven’t read that introduction for nearly fifty years, certainly forty-five, but I remember it still. Other writers are like a garden diligently planted and watered, but Shakespeare a forest where the oaks and elms toss their branches to the storm, where the pine towers, where the vine bursts into blossom at the foot. That book opened to me a new world, another nature. While Burns was the valley, here was a range of mountains with thousands of such valleys; while Burns was as sweet a star as ever rose into the horizon, here was a heaven filled with constellations. That book has been a source of perpetual joy to me from that day to this; and whenever I read Shakespeare — if it ever happens that I fail to find some new beauty, some new presentation of some wonderful truth, or another word that bursts into blossom, I shall make up my mind that my mental faculties are failing, that it is not the fault of the book.”
A gentleman who enjoyed the intimate acquaintance of many of Ingersoll’s foremost contemporaries once told the author, among other things concerning Ingersoll: “He could quote more ‘Shakespeare’ than any other person whom I have ever known.” Actors like Edwin Booth, Laurence Barrett, and Joseph Jefferson went far beyond this, they having repeatedly remarked, for instance, that Ingersoll would have made ‘a wonderful Hamlet or Lear.’ And it was because of the truths expressed in such comments — it was because the “myriad-minded” had penetrated to, and wakened a response in, the innermost depths of Ingersoll’s heart and soul — that, for many years, the latter felt an almost unconquerable reluctance to attempt to do justice, in a single lecture, to a theme sympathetically so exacting, and intellectually so magnificent. Just how much of its debt of gratitude for Shakespeare the great republic of English letters owes to the little republic which consisted of wife, daughters and other relatives and friends, and of which Ingersoll was the central figure, for the latter’s final success tn overcoming, in a measure, this reluctance, we cannot say. But it is known to have been at least in accord with their suggestion, — the suggestion of his immediate family, in particular, — that he made written notes of his casual thoughts observations, and impressions of the subject concerned, with a view of elaborating them as a lecture. And when, after many years of contemplation, the possessor of the most eloquent and felicitous tongue that has expressed thoughts in English since April 23, 1616, stepped upon the platform, the same reluctance, if less intense, still rose in his consciousness of the unattainable grandeur of his subject; and he was impelled to say: —
“Shakespeare is too great a theme. I feel as though endeavoring to grasp a globe so large that the hand obtains no hold. He who would worthily speak of the great dramatist should be inspired by ‘a muse of fire that should ascend the brightest heaven of invention’ — he should have ‘a kingdom for a stage, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene.'”
Concerning the production of which this extract is a part, and from which I shall quote in a later chapter, it can only he added here that Ingersoll scornfully rejected the Baconian theory and placed Shakespeare at the artistic and intellectual summit of the human race.
During this year, the Davis will case, in which Ingersoll had been retained as counsel for the contestants, and which came to a final trial at Butte, Mont., in September, received a considerable share of his attention. This fact, however, despite the financial importance of the case, and its intense interest, would have no special claim to attention here did it not afford further evidence of his versatility and his oratorical genius.
The opposing counsel, Senator Sanders, begged the jury, in effect, to beware of Ingersoll, whose oratory fittingly transcended that of Greece in the time of Alexander, and who was famed for his eloquence over two continents and in the islands of the sea. “The matchless eloquence of Ingersoll! “was the graphic exclamation of one of the members of the press who had heard the former’s address to the Jury; and he continued: “Where will one look for the like of it? What other man living has the faculty of blending wit and humor, pathos and fact and logic with such exquisite grace, or with such impressive force? * * * To a modern audience, at least, Demosthenes on the Crown would seem a pretty poor sort of affair by the side of Ingersoll on the Davis will.”
But the address is even more remarkable, it seems to me, as evidence of Ingersoll’s versatility. Indeed, those who read it will be slow in believing that its author was the same Ingersoll who has thus far appeared in these pages. Its frigid deductions; its astute, sleuth-like discovery and analysis of motive, and corresponding synthesis of conduct; its confutations and confoundings of chemical and chirographical experts; its majestic rise on the ladder of logic, from the foundation of fact to the dome of conclusion, using cause and effect for rounds — these will hang heavy on our credulity if we are to believe that they are of the same soul that pictured on a sightless canvas the grandeur and glory, the heroism, the cruelty, the despairing love, and the pathos of war — the same soul that burst into song at the birthplace of Burns, and arched with a radiance that can never fail nor fade the grave of a little child.
In this case, which involved the disposition of many millions of dollars, it was sought by the counsel for the proponent, John A. Davis, to show, among other things, that a certain will was genuine; that it was written by Job Davis, who was known and acknowledged to have been a good penman, a correct speller, an excellent scholar. Ingersoll, counsel for the contestants, believed and sought to show, on the other hand, that the will in question was not genuine, was not written by Job Davis, but was forged by James R. Eddy, who was known and acknowledged to be a poor penman, an incorrect speller, an ignorant man.
Referring to the proponent’s testimony that the will was written by Job Davis, Ingersoll said: —
“There is this beautiful peculiarity in nature — a lie never fits a fact, never. You only fit a lie with another lie, made for the express purpose, because you can change a lie but you can’t change a fact, and after a while the time comes when the last lie you tell has to be fitted to a fact, and right there is a bad joint; consequently you must test the statements of people who say they saw, not by what they say but by other facts, by the surroundings, by what are called probabilities; by the naturalness of the statement.”
As we read the following, we are apt to forget that we are listening to one of the profoundest of logicians, and to fancy ourselves back at one of the old-time “spelling-bees”: —
“Now, the next question is, was Job Davis a good speller? Let us be honest about it. How delighted they would have been to show that he was an ignorant booby. But their witnesses and our witnesses both swear that he was the best speller in the neighborhood; and when they brought men from other communities to a spelling match, after all had fallen on the field, after the floor was covered with dead and wounded, Job Davis stood proudly up, not having missed a word.”
After making many other telling references to the fact that the will contained every evidence of ignorant authorship, he continued: —
“There are twenty words misspelled in this short will, and the most common words, some of them, in the English language. Now, I say that these misspelled words are twenty witnesses — twenty witnesses that tell the truth without being on their oath, and that you cannot mix by cross-examination. Twenty witnesses! Every misspelled word holds up its maimed and mutilated hand and swears that Job Davis did not write that will — every one. Suppose witnesses had sworn that Judge Woolworth wrote this will. How many Salt Creekers do you think it would take to convince you that he went around spelling sheet ‘sheat’?”
Here Judge Woolworth, seeking to mitigate the orthographic crime, interrupted with: —
“I have done worse than that a great many times.”
Whereupon Ingersoll, as quick as light, retorted: —
“You have acted worse than that, but you have never spelled worse than that.”
No further witty interruptions of his address were attempted.
Among the numerous misspellings and chirographic mistakes, mistakes in punctuation, peculiarities and oddities, which tended to show that the will was not written by Job Davis, but by James R. Eddy, Ingersoll found the word “give” spelled “guive,” and he said:
“We have shown that Eddy was the poorest speller in the business. Whenever they went to a spelling-match, at the first fire he dropped; never outlived, I think, the first volley. And one man by the name of Sharp distinctly recollects that they gave out a sentence to be spelled: ‘Give alms to the poor,’ and Eddy had to spell the first word, give; and he lugged in his ‘u’ with both ears — ‘guive,’ and he dropped dead the first fire. The man remembers it because it is such a curious spelling of give; and if I had heard anybody spell it with a ‘u’ when I was six years old it would linger in my memory still.”
There is in the address another excellent example of Ingersoll’s acuteness, and of his method of reasoning from cause to effect. Endeavoring to show that a Mr. Sconce signed the will after some pinholes had been made in it, Ingersoll said: —
“There is a thing about this will which, to my mind, is a demonstration. * * * I find, and so do you find it in the second initial of Sconce, in the letter ‘C.’ There are two punctures, and you will find that exactly where the punctures are there is a little spatter in the ink — a disturbance of the line, in the capital first; in the small ‘c’ there is another puncture and another disturbance of the line. Professor Elwell says that those holes were made afterwards. Let’s see. There is a hole, and there is a splatter and a change of the line. There is another hole and there is another change. There is another hole and there is yet another change. What is natural? What is reasonable? What is probable? Is it that the hole, being there, interrupted the pen, and accounts for the diversion of the line, and for the splatter. That is natural, isn’t it? but they take the unnatural side. They say that these holes were made after the writing. Would it not be a miracle that just three holes should happen to strike just the three places where there had been a division of the line and a little spatter of the ink? Take up your table of logarithms and figure away until you are blind, and such an accident could not happen in as many thousand, billion, trillion, quintillion years as you can express by figures.”
And again the same qualities, tinctured with wit: —
“Professor Elwell accounts for all the dirt on this will by perspiration, all on one side and made by the thumb, and although there were four fingers under it at the same time, the fingers were so contrary they wouldn’t perspire. This left the thumb to do all the sweating. I need not call him a professor of perspiration, for that throws no light on the subject * * *.”
The last sentence is typical of Ingersoll in forensic procedure. He excluded all “that throws no light on the subject.” He could afford to do this. Ingersoll the lawyer believed that it was a lawyer’s duty, whether prosecuting or defending, not to abuse another lawyer, but to enlighten both the court and the jury upon the testimony, just as Ingersoll the rationalistic reformer believed that it was his duty to enlighten the great jury of the public upon the testimony presented by theology and science. In this very case, he had said: —
“Now, let us be honest about this matter — let us be fair. It is not a personal quarrel between lawyers. I never quarrel with anybody; my philosophy being that everybody does as he must, and if he is in bad luck and does wrong, why, let us pity him, and if we happen to have good luck, and take the path where roses bloom, why, let us be joyful. That is my doctrine; no need of fighting about these little things. They are all over in a little while anyway.”
And they were, even with the great soul who had thus spoken; for this was on September 5, 1891.
Although the jury failed to agree, thus compromising the case, Ingersoll left the scene of forensic battle with the verdict of the people in his favor, and without compromising with his conscience; and this was worth more to him than complete victory in the Davis will case, with the Davis millions added.
He was in Helena during the early part of the preceding February, when a committee of the state legislature waited upon and informed him that Hon. Aaron C. Witter, the recently elected speaker of the House, and a representative from Beaverhead County, had died, leaving penniless two little girls, who would have been in good circumstances but for their parents’ charity to others. The committee requested Ingersoll to lecture for the benefit of the two orphans. He responded with that heartiness which had already passed into tradition.’ The repetition of Shakespeare netted $1,165, Ingersoll purchasing a number of tickets for his own lecture.
The Helena Harold of February 7, 1891, contained this editorial comment: “‘The greatest of the human race,’ says Colonel Ingersoll of the immortal Shakespeare. ‘A greater than Shakespeare is his panegyrist,’ says a citizen who heard the Ingersoll lecture last night.”
During an interview which was published in The Sunday Union, of New Haven. Conn., on April 10, 1881, Ingersoll was asked this question: —
“Is it a fact that there are thousands of clergymen in the country whom you would fear to meet in fair debate?”
He replied, among other things: —
“No; the fact is I would like to meet them all in one.”
A Christian Sermon by Ingersoll, attacking, in writing, the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment. and indorsing the human, natural, joyful side of Christmas, which he declared was borrowed from the pagan world, was published in the New York Evening Telegram of December 19, 1891. This Sermon of less than five hundred words seemed to have fully as great effect upon the opposite rank and file of the church militant as The Crisis, by Thomas Paine, had had upon the latter’s own side among the disheartened patriots of Washington’s army. While The Crisis was read, under the orders of Washington, at many a patriot campfire, there is no record of its having been so read at the camp-fires of the enemy. Not so with A Christmas Sermon. This was attacked with great violence by the New York Christian Advocate, the editor of which called upon the public to boycott the Evening Telegram. In doing this, it was necessary for the Advocate to republish at least the substance of the Sermon which, consequently, was read beside thousands of Christian hearth-fires that it never would have reached through the medium of the Telegram. The latter, stung by such effrontery, — by such a travesty of the freedom of the press, — promptly dared the Advocate to do its worst, and published, at the same time, an answer from Ingersoll — an answer which, again like Paine’s Crisis, “echoed throughout America.”
“The excitement produced by the resulting battle between the brilliant orator and the distinguished champions of Christianity who undertook to silence him has not been equalled in the history of modern religious controversy. Thousands of newspapers, hundreds of pulpits, and scores of societies have taken up the challenge to Christianity thrown down by Colonel Ingersoll.” Thus wrote one who had followed the controversy from day to day. The clashing of theological arms continued until after the middle of February, venturesome knights of all the principal Christian creeds, and even Buddhists, entering the arena. Before the close of this conflict, five papers were called forth from the Great Agnostic, some of them though lengthy, being remarkable for cogency and conciseness, as he was obliged to conjoin in a single paper his replies to many participants. At last, Ingersoll was indebted to the clergy. They had helped him to realize his ideal of a debate as expressed ten years before. He had met them “all in one”; and he was content to have public intelligence determine the result.
Although Ingersoll was far from inactive, in either a literary or an oratorical way, during the remainder of 1892, and although he expressed many profound, lofty, and beautiful thoughts a single production of the period mentioned, and that an oratorical production, arrests our attention here. It does so, not because it chances to be withal the supreme creation of the year, nor yet because it contains passages that are, perhaps, equal to those of his finer utterances of any other year, but because the nature of its subject-matter demands for it a place in an adequate biographical sketch.
And here let me bring into the already crowed vista of these pages another colossus in whom, it seems to me, every truly appreciative Ingersollian, at least, should find much to admire and love. Walt Whitman, unfathomable and unclassifiable mystic though he was, possessed in generous measure many of the qualities that have rendered the name of Ingersoll an inspiration and a precious memory to millions of his fellows. Certainly none of the wide dissimilarities often existing between the great could account for the inseverable bond that united the hearts of the “Great Agnostic” and the “Good Grey Poet.” Nor could their mutual affection scarcely be explained on the ground of intellectual or logical similitude. The truth is, that each admired and loved the other, not so much for his genius, however highly that was prized, but primarily — chiefly — for his manhood. Their affinity, although undoubtedly both artistic and intellectual, was yet far more ethical in character — humanitarian, in the widest, noblest sense.
To Whitman, Ingersoll was not only the ideal orator, but (to quote Whitman’s own words) “a man whose importance to the time could not be over-figured: not literal importance, not argumentative importance, not anti-theological-Republican-party importance: but spiritual importance — importance as a force, as consuming energy — a fiery blast for the new virtues, which are only the old virtues done over for honest use again.” And in reference to the several great men who had manifested their loyalty to him in his unique position as a poet, Whitman spoke of Ingersoll as one of his best victories, since he was “one of the most magnetically spontaneous men on the planet.” “He is far, far deeper than he is supposed to be, even by radicals,” remarked the poet, elsewhere; and he continued: “We get lots of deep-sea fruit out of him.” And again: “America don’t know to-day how proud she ought to be of Ingersoll.”
To the latter, likewise, Whitman was not merely an iconoclast in art and intellect, but a real radical, — a genuine man, — the embodiment of a great ethical force. He was not simply a great poet: he was the poet of individuality, of liberty, of democracy — the master-singer of the Great Republic. His astronomic scope; his dynamic power and limitless passion; his boundless charity, sympathy and brotherly love; his emotion-born rhythms never measured, but charged with mighty harmonies that lave the human soul as do the murmurous and inconstant billows the lone rocks of some desolate shore; his majestic poise and bearing; his scorn for the “literary Lilliputians “; and even his iconoclastic forms and methods in poetic art, Ingersoll lovingly praised and ardently championed.
But, unreservedly loyal as was the latter in all this, he was even more steadfast in the far less intellectually exacting office of “counselor and friend.” During those many years when Whitman and death “were near neighbors,” Ingersoll, still buoyant with health and life, was to the venerable poet as an attentive and affectionate son. If in any hour of need the orator could not be near to sustain and reassure with his magnetic presence the aged poet, some inimitable word of love and cheer would come in stead. When, for example, on May 31, 1889, Camden paid its “compliment” to him who was known and loved of all, — however high, however low, — Ingersoll telegraphed from New York: “Am confined to my house by illness, and regret that I can’t be with you to-day. Give my more than regards to Walt Whitman, who has won such a splendid victory over the ‘granitic pudding-heads’ of the world. He is a genuine continental American.” Not only the poet himself, but his friends, fared far better on the corresponding date of the next year, — his seventy-first birthday; for “Ingersoll got over” and, at a dinner at Reisser’s, in Philadelphia, “impromptued across the table to Whitman for fifty-five minutes in a speech which Whitman thought the most consummate piece of oratory he had ever enjoyed.”
[NOTE: “Afterwards, sitting opposite Whitman, he (Ingersoll) held a long discussion with him on immortality, the orator finding no evidence for it, and the poet asserting it with a tenacious instinct. Reporters scribbling shorthand notes while the two celebrities debated.”]
But this oratorical standard of the “Good Grey Poet” was not long to endure; for, on October 21st, less than five months later, he was to hear the same orator with a far wider scope, and under more inspiring conditions, — conditions which, moreover, would again make him, of all the eager listeners, the most deeply concerned.
For, although imbued with respect, and even the tenderest reverence, for the hope of recompense and recognition for all in another world, Ingersoll believed that the individual’s qualities and achievements, and especially those of genius, should be recognized in this. “Let us put wreaths on the brows of the living,” he would say. This he resolved to do in the case of Whitman. He would lecture in Philadelphia, and, incidentally applying the principle of mercenary benevolence, which he had found to be so admirably practical elsewhere, he would, with the inevitably generous proceeds, help to smooth the remaining way for him who had wiped the death-damp from the unknown soldier’s brow, and breathed a threnody worthy of the martyred Lincoln. But when the Great Agnostic applied, in the City of Brotherly Love, for the use of the most commodious (and therefore most suitable) place for the purpose, the Broad Street Academy-Hall, the theological prejudice of its management was matched with their pity for the poet who had long since reached the stage “where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs”; and Ingersoll was scornfully refused.
[NOTE: “Ingersoll never did anything but good-naturedly refer to this event. Several years later I mentioned to him the story current here, to the effect that Alfred Baker had had some superstition in connection with a terrific storm which arose during the evening of Ingersoll’s last lecture in the academy. In writing me, Ingersoll handled the matter humorously, as was his practice: ‘I am not surprised at the reason Baker had for shutting me out of the Academy. Superstition has nothing to do with common sense. Even Sencea, the philosopher, talked of several kinds of thunder — among others the thunder of warning. So you see that Rome and Philadelphia are on a par.’ And concluding the letter, he said: ‘May you live long and prosper, and may you at last civilize the directors of the Academy of Music.'”]
The use of Horticultural Hall was permitted, however; and Ingersoll’s “Testimonial to Walt Whitman” enabled the latter to realize nearly nine hundred dollars.
[NOTE: “The poet had been wheeled on the stage in an invalid’s chair, and at the conclusion of Ingersoll’s fervid oratory the bard said a few words of thanks to the audience. Then he was wheeled back to a half-lighted hotel dining-room, where he sat late with Ingersoll, munching a little bread dipped in champagne and talking about Death. He had never been more picturesque.” — Walt Whitman: His Life and Work. By Bliss Perry.]
But the insignificance of this or any other sum, in comparison with the rest that the testimonial enabled him to realize, was probably never known to any one else than Whitman. For, to be appreciated by even the unlettered would have been a pleasure; to be appreciated by the literary mediocrities would have been satisfaction; but to be analyzed, understood, accepted, interpreted, justified, and finally canonized, by genius itself, must have been paradise. And all this, in his lengthy address entitled Liberty in Literature, Ingersoll surely did with consummate mastery. He touched the secret, not only of Whitman’s poetry, but of all poetry. Indeed, those will do but meager justice to Ingersoll’s aesthetic knowledge and critical power who fail to examine with care the laurel-wreath of eloquence which he so lovingly placed upon the brow of the aged author of Leaves of Grass.”
The evening of the last meeting between Ingersoll and Whitman,” write the latter’s biographers, “was a sad one. * * * While Ingersoll was outwardly cheerful he realized that Whitman’s stream of life ran low. But the two big men had their talk out and parted like lovers who were resigned to events.”
Some important affairs of Ingersoll’s ever-crowded life required his presence, near the end of March, far away in Toronto, Canada; and it was there that the electric current, which has done so much to consummate the living death of modern poets, brought to him the news of the actual death of Walt Whitman.
So when the former reached the little cottage in Mickle Street, Camden, on March 30th, he found that the hour was growing late; that the “common folk” whom Whitman had loved, and who loved in turn, — now even more than in life, — the soldier-nurse and singer of “Chants Democratic,” had already been and departed: there were cheap flowers, moist with dearer tears, and tears alone that were dearer still, on the plain oak casket. But thousands of the more cultured had gathered out in Harleigh Cemetery, where Whitman, in life, had wished to rest in death; and there, in the presence of those who would perhaps more clearly understand, if they did not more keenly mourn and sympathize, the great orator might fulfil the last sad office, — the last sad promise, — of a deep and sacred friendship. For it was the expressed wish of Whitman, that Ingersoll, who, as we have seen, had already placed a wreath’ on the brow of the living,’ should place the wreath on the brow of the dead.
How gracefully did the orator’s first words blend the candor of his lifelong philosophy with his admiration for the silent poet!
“My Friends: Again we, in the mystery of life, are brought face to face with the mystery of Death. A great man, a great American, the most eminent citizen of this Republic, lies dead before us, and we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and his worth.”
It would be obviously inexpedient to present here the whole of this memorable tribute. We can only examine particular passages as we proceed. In so doing, let us see if any reader will fail to pause in silent awe and admiration, as before a painting by Angelo, at this portrait of the author of Leaves of Grass: —
“He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnished and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.”
He was the poet of life and love, — the poet of the natural. “He was not only the poet of democracy, not only the poet of the Great Republic, but he was the poet of the human race.” And, finally, “he was the poet of Death.” But “he was, above all things, a man; and above genius, above all the snow-capped peaks of intelligence, above all art, rises the true man.”
Conscious of Whitman’s imperfections and limitations, acknowledging the artistic and intellectual defects and deficiencies of the “Good Grey Poet,” Ingersoll yet had the poetic instinct, insight, and understanding, — the mental amplitude, — to declare of him: —
“He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our century, possibly of almost any other”
“He wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity — the greatest gospel that can be preached.”
Of the poet’s serenity at the approach of death, he said: —
“He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.
“In his brain were the blessed memories of the day, and in his heart were mingled the dawn and dusk of life.
“He was not afraid; he was cheerful every moment. The laughing nymphs of day did not desert him. They remained that they might clasp the hands and greet with smiles the veiled and silent sisters of the night. And when they did come. Walt Whitman stretched his hand to them. On one side were the nymphs of the day, and on the other the silent sisters of the night, and so, hand in hand, between smiles and tears, he reached his journey’s end.
“From the frontier of life, from the western wave-kissed shore, he sent us messages of content and hope, and these messages seem now like strains of music blown by the ‘Mystic Trumpter’ from Death’s pale realm.”
After listening to this deep and soulful melody, this almost lyrical sweetness, how can we but declare, as did Keats in the summer moonlight, — the fragrant air tremulous with the song of the nightingale: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”?
And yet Ingersoll, adding still further from the depths of affection, of pathos, — of beauty, — terms his tribute a “little wreath”: —
“And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I loved him living, and I love him still.”
It may be a little wreath. Surely Ingersoll must have known. But who, I ask, shall garland the tomb of him who wove it?