On November 3, 1871, the American poet Walt Whitman replied for the first time to his British admirer, Anne Gilchrist, tactfully declining her offer of marriage.
Gilchrist was the widow of a British literary critic. She had completed her late husband’s biography of William Blake and was friends with Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh and with Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The long correspondence between the poet and his “great friend” is collected in the book The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman, published in 1918 and re-issued in 2015.
Gilchrist had written a spirited defence of Whitman’s earthy poetry, which was often considered scandalous at the time, in a pamphlet called An Englishwoman’s Defense of Walt Whitman. She began sending letters to Whitman through their mutual friend the Pre-Raphaelite critic William Rossetti (brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti.)
In her third letter she told Whitman that in Leaves of Grass she had heard at last “the voice of my mate,” and that she longed for the “day I shall hear that voice say to me, ‘My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!'”
She also added that “I am young enough to bear thee children, my darling.”
Whitman, who was gay, decided he should respond, which he did on November 3, 1871, beginning a long correspondence, lasting until Gilchrist’s death in 1885.
In his first letter Whitman says:
“I am not insensible to your love… I too send you my love. And do you feel no disappointment because I now write but briefly. My book is my best letter, my response, my truest explanation of all. In it I have put my body & spirit. You understand this better & fuller & clearer than any one else. And I too fully & clearly understand the loving & womanly letter it has evoked. Enough that there surely exists between us so beautiful & delicate a relation, accepted by both of us with joy.”
It was not until Gilchrist came to America five years later (despite Whitman’s objections) — still harbouring her plans for marriage –that she realized that it was a romantic fantasy. Whitman had tried to tell her of his homosexuality in letters, but it was only after they met that she grasped the truth.
Still, she remained his “soulmate” if not his actually mate. They remained close friends and passionate lovers of literature, art and philosophy. At her death Whitman called Gilchrist “my noblest woman friend.”