I want to share a stirring and brilliant passage I read today in With Walt Whitman in Camden. The passage below is a portion of a letter written by Edward Carpenter to Walt in 1874. Carpenter was an English poet, an early gay activist and a close friend of Walt’s. There’s a photo in the book of Carpenter from 1874, and wow! I have to say, he was quite a looker! But to Walt, he writes:
It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day. Between the splendid dawn of Greek civilization and the high universal noon of Democracy there is a strange horror of darkness on us. We look face to face upon each other, but we do know. At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible – will be, has been, is even now somewhere – even though we find it not. The pain of disappointment is, somewhere, the joy of fruition. Perhaps it will be, in time, with you in the New as with us in the Old world. Slowly – I think – the fetters are falling from men’s feet, the cramps and crazes of the old superstitions are relaxing, the idiotic ignorance of class contempt is dissipating. If men shall learn to accept one another simply and without complaint, if they shall cease to regard themselves because the emptiness of vanity is filled up with love, and yet shall honor the free, immeasurable gift of their own personality, delight in it and bask in it without false shames and affections – then your work will be accomplished: and men for the first time will know of what happiness thy are capable.
Of this resplendent letter, Walt says:
It is beautiful like a confession: it was one of Carpenter’s first letters. I seem to get very near to his heart and he to mine in that letter: it has a place in our personal history – an important place. Carpenter was never more thoroughly Carpenter than just there, in that tender mood of self-examination. Introspection! I am afraid of it, generally: just enough of it is good, too much of it is a disease: most people don’t stop with just enough. Carpenter is a thoroughly wholesome man – alive, clean, from head to foot.
I find Carpenter’s conviction for the longing of a man to be able to openly love another man and express his love without inhibition, compunction or repercussion; to be as perfect and meaningful today as it was when first written in July of 1874. Carpenter was a brave and bold man to express this sentiment in 1874; when it was most certainly illegal for two men to be in homosexual contact.
Today’s society has greatly advanced, in some regards, since 1874, but I feel that “strange horror of darkness” as Carpenter writes, does still exist in the 21st Century nearly as it did in the 19th Century. The World today continues to struggle with the subject of homosexuality and Carpenter may be disappointed to know that we have yet – 137 years later – learned “to accept one another simply and without complaint.”
Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 158-161.