Wife of Alexander Gilchrist, who wrote the pioneering biography of William Blake, Anne Gilchrist (1828-1885) moved in English literary circles both during her marriage and after her early widowhood. She numbered among her friends Thomas and Jane Carlyle and the Rossetti Brothers. She helped Alexander research his Blake work, and when he succumbed to scarlet fever in 1861, after just one year of marriage, she completed the biography and saw it through to publication (1863).
In 1870 William Rossetti introduced Anne Gilchrist to the poetry of Walt Whitman. It struck her like a thunderclap. She was moved by the freedom of the verse and the frankness of its sentiments, and drawn to the generosity of spirit and intellect of the poet who had described his art by saying “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Seeking an outlet for the flood of emotion and ideas the poetry inspired, Mrs. Gilchrist set about to write one of the most perceptive and complete analyses of Whitman’s writing to appear in the poet’s lifetime: An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman. Rossetti sent it to the poet and arranged for its publication in the Boston Radical in 1871, and he introduced Whitman and Gilchrist to an epistolary friendship.
Love for Whitman
The distance of transatlantic letters seemed too great for Mrs. Gilchrist, who had fallen passionately in love with Whitman’s soul. In 1876, after her mother’s death, she sailed for Philadelphia with her two children, settling near the poet to pursue her emotional and intellectual attachment. Though to her evident disappointment their friendship would remain platonic, it became, nonetheless, one of the most important and cherished bonds of her own and of Whitman’s life. Even after Mrs. Gilchrist returned to England in 1879, they corresponded faithfully, and at the news of her death the poet exclaimed: “She was a miracle… my great and best woman friend!”
In the years after Mrs. Gilchrist’s American sojourn, she took up residence near Keats Corner at Hampstead Heath and continued her literary output. In 1883 she published a life of Mary Lamb, and she saw through the press the second edition of the Blake biography. At her death in 1885, her literary legacy as collected by her son Herbert included these as well as a considerable body of essays, criticism, and letters–all of which reveal her astute analytical mind; her elegant, yet passionate expression; and her feminist independence of spirit.
Despite this catalogue, Anne Gilchrist is probably best remembered for her significance in Walt Whitman’s life. Not only did she demonstrate an appreciation and understanding of his work that embraced Whitman’s full range of thought, from “Song of Myself” to Children of Adam and the Calamus poems–which she read unexpurgated; she also had the courage as a Victorian woman to champion what so many others found “vulgar” in Whitman’s verse. As Whitman recalled to his confidant Horace Traubel: “to the last Mrs. Gilchrist insisted that Leaves of Grass was not the mouthpiece of the parlours, no, but the language of strength, power, passion, intensity, absorption, sincerity.”
A remarkable intellectual and a generous-hearted human being, Anne Gilchrist came to understand–perhaps in the mysterious circumstances which surround the poetic fragment “To What You Said”–that a poet’s love takes many forms, and that a Bard can never belong to one because he must belong to all.
Selected Passages from Anne Gilchrist’s Writings
From An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman
“I had not dreamed that words could cease to be words, and become electric streams like these…
…the poet, this mighty poet, bequeaths himself….he has taught them, in words which breathe out his very heart and soul into theirs that ‘love of comrades’ which like the ‘soft-born measureless light,’ makes wholesome and fertile every spot it penetrates to, lighting up dark social and political problems, and kindling into a genial glow that great heart of justice which is the life-source of Democracy….Happy America, that he should be her son! One sees, indeed, that only a young giant of a nation could produce this kind of greatness, so full of ardour, the elasticity, the inexhaustible vigor and freshness, the joyousness, the audacity of youth.”
Letter to Walt Whitman, July 4, 1874
“I ask nothing more of time and of eternity but to live and grow up to that companionship that includes all. [My love is] Mother’s love that cherishes, that delights in personal service, that sees in sickness and suffering such dear appeals to an answering, limitless tenderness, wife’s love–ah, you draw that from me, too, resistlessly. I have no choice, comrade’s love so happy in sharing all, pain, sorrow, toil, effort, enjoyments, thoughts, hopes, aims, struggles, disappointment, beliefs and aspiration. Child’s love, too, that trusts utterly, confides unquestioningly…”
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Image: Anne (Burrows) Gilchrist, half-length portrait, seated, facing front / Created between 1860 and 1880, Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division