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
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