Inspiration for the Day: Walt Whitman’s Eulogy

Before he died in 1892, the great American poet Walt Whitman asked his friend and fellow secularist Robert Green Ingersoll to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.

Ingersoll was a political leader and orator known as “The Great Agnostic,” and the pair had been friends for a long time. Whitman once said of Ingersoll: “It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass… He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen — American-flavored — pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.” After reading a bit about Ingersoll and Whitman last night in Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” I decided to find the eulogy online. It didn’t disappoint.

In my experience, the best eulogies do two things. First, they sum up the essence of a dead person both accurately and artfully. And, second, they inspire the living.

Ingersoll’s eulogy, which I’ve included in full below, did that. After reading it, I had half a mind to CafePress a What Would Walt Whitman Do? sticker for my car. Although the whole thing is worth reading, the most (nonreligiously) relevant paragraph is this one:

You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed — and as I believe — than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.

Beautiful, right? It reminded me a lot of a quote by revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason.

“My own mind,” Paine wrote, “is my own church.”



                    A TRIBUTE TO WALT WHITMAN 

                    by Robert Green Ingersoll

                  Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892

     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.

     I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid

the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was,

above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was

so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without

arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without

conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater

than any of the sons of men.

     He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with

sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He

sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow

of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

     One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the

line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has

ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: "Not till the sun

excludes you do I exclude you."

     His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was

human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent

above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

     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 varnishers

and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the

unconscious majesty of an antique god.

     He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal

rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great

American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man

ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real

democracy, of real justice. He neither scorned nor cringed, was

neither tyrant nor slave. He asked only to stand the equal of his

fellows beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and stars.

     He was the poet of Life. It was a joy simply to breathe. He

loved the clouds; he enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight,

the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the

waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the

hills; he was acquainted with the trees, with birds, with all the

beautiful objects of the earth. He not only saw these objects, but

understood their meaning, and he used them that he might exhibit

his heart to his fellow-men.

     He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine

passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion

that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art;

that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has

given some value to human life.

     He was the poet of the natural, and taught men not to be

ashamed of that which is 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. He was not confined to the limits of this

country, but his sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations

of the earth.

     He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all

kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how

high, no matter how low.

     He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our

century, possibly of almost any other. 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, Greater than all

is the true man, and he walked among his fellow-men as such.

     He was the poet of Death. He accepted all life and all death,

and he justified all. He had the courage to meet all, and was great

enough and splendid enough to harmonize all and to accept all there

is of life as a divine melody.

     You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say

one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they

cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all

religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that

embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a

philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed --

and as I believe -- than others. He accepted all, he understood

all, and he was above all.

     He was absolutely true to himself. He had frankness and

courage, and he was as candid as light. He was willing that all the

sons of men should be absolutely acquainted with his heart and

brain. He had nothing to conceal. Frank, candid, pure, serene,

noble, and yet for years he was maligned and slandered, simply

because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and

that for which he was condemned -- his frankness, his candor --

will add to the glory and greatness of his fame.

     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.

     He was not afraid to live, not afraid to die. For many years

he and death were near neighbors. He was always willing and ready

to meet and greet this king called death, and for many months he

sat in the deepening twilight waiting for the night, waiting for

the light.

     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 Trumpeter" from

Death's pale realm.

     To-day we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss,

one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.

     Charitable as the air and generous as Nature, he was negligent

of all except to do and say what he believed he should do and

should say.

     And I to-day thank him, not only for you but for myself, --

for all the brave words he has uttered. I thank him for all the

great and splendid words he has said in favor of liberty, in favor

of man and woman, in favor of motherhood, in favor of fathers, in

favor of children, and I thank him for the brave words that he has

said of death.

     He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it

was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the "dark

valley of the shadow" holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after

we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets

to the dying.

     And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man's tomb. I

loved him living, and I love him still.


                         Bank of Wisdom

                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201


Print Friendly

About Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is a journalist, author and blogger. Her book, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is due out in January 2015.

  • Beau

    “After reading a bit about Ingersoll and Whitman last night in Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” I decided to find the eulogy online.”

    Interesting. I just got this book from a library sale for a dollar a few weeks ago. Guess I better crack it open, eh?

    I’ve always admired the “seculars” of old. How brave it must have been for them to be on the cutting edge of thought and expression in an environment of such diverse religions. I’ve always felt that they, like famous scientists like Galileo, had to carefully word their writings so as not to enrage the religions of the time.

    Thanks for posting the entire eulogy.

  • Scott

    Thanks for posting this. Ingersoll has had more of an influence on me than anyone else in history. Many of his speeches have literally brought tears to my eyes.

    • Wendy Thomas Russell

      Very welcome! Thanks for the comment.