Lingave's Temptation by Walt Whitman
"Another day," utter'd the poet Lingave, as he awoke in the
morning, and turn'd him drowsily on his hard pallet, "another day
comes out, burthen'd with its weight of woes. Of what use is existence
to me? Crush'd down beneath the merciless heel of poverty, and no
promise of hope to cheer me on, what have I in prospect but a life
neglected, and a death of misery?"
The youth paused; but receiving no answer to his questions, thought
proper to continue the peevish soliloquy. "I am a genius, they say,"
and the speaker smiled bitterly, "but genius is not apparel and food.
Why should I exist in the world, unknown, unloved, press'd with cares,
while so many around me have all their souls can desire? I behold the
splendid equipages roll by — I see the respectful bow at the presence
of pride — and I curse the contrast between my own lot, and the
fortune of the rich. The lofty air — the show of dress — the
aristocratic demeanor — the glitter of jewels — dazzle my eyes; and
sharp-tooth'd envy works within me. I hate these haughty and favor'd
ones. Why should my path be so much rougher than theirs? Pitiable,
unfortunate man that I am! to be placed beneath those whom in my heart
I despise — and to be constantly tantalized with the presence of that
wealth I cannot enjoy!" And the poet cover'd his eyes with his hands,
and wept from very passion and fretfulness.
O, Lingave! be more of a man! Have you not the treasures of health
and untainted propensities, which many of those you envy never enjoy?
Are you not their superior in mental power, in liberal views of
mankind, and in comprehensive intellect? And even allowing you the
choice, how would you shudder at changing, in total, conditions with
them! Besides, were you willing to devote all your time and energies,
you could gain property too: squeeze, and toil, and worry, and twist
everything into a matter of profit, and you can become a great man, as
far as money goes to make greatness.
Retreat, then, man of the polish'd soul, from those irritable
complaints against your lot — those longings for wealth and puerile
distinction, not worthy your class. Do justice, philosopher, to your
own powers. While the world runs after its shadows and its bubbles,
(thus commune in your own mind,) we will fold ourselves in our circle
of understanding, and look with an eye of apathy on those things it
considers so mighty and so enviable. Let the proud man pass with his
pompous glance — let the gay flutter in finery — let the foolish
enjoy his folly, and the beautiful move on in his perishing glory; we
will gaze without desire on all their possessions, and all their
pleasures. Our destiny is different from theirs. Not for such as we,
the lowly flights of their crippled wings. We acknowledge no fellowship
with them in ambition. We composedly look down on the paths where they
walk, and pursue our own, without uttering a wish to descend, and be as
they. What is it to us that the mass pay us not that deference which
wealth commands? We desire no applause, save the applause of the good
and discriminating — the choice spirits among men. Our intellect would
be sullied, were the vulgar to approximate to it, by professing to
readily enter in, and praising it. Our pride is a towering, and thrice
When Lingave had given way to his temper some half hour, or
thereabout, he grew more calm, and bethought himself that he was acting
a very silly part. He listen'd a moment to the clatter of the carts,
and the tramp of early passengers on the pave below, as they wended
along to commence their daily toil. It was just sunrise, and the season
was summer. A little canary bird, the only pet poor Lingave could
afford to keep, chirp'd merrily in its cage on the wall. How slight a
circumstance will sometimes change the whole current of our thoughts!
The music of that bird abstracting the mind of the poet but a moment
from his sorrows, gave a chance for his natural buoyancy to act again.
Lingave sprang lightly from his bed, and perform'd his ablutions
and his simple toilet — then hanging the cage on a nail outside the
window, and speaking an endearment to the songster, which brought a
perfect flood of melody in return — he slowly passed through his door,
descended the long narrow turnings of the stairs, and stood in the open
street. Undetermin'd as to any particular destination, he folded his
hands behind him, cast his glance upon the ground, and moved listlessly
Hour after hour the poet walk'd along — up this street and down
that — he reck'd not how or where. And as crowded thoroughfares are
hardly the most fit places for a man to let his fancy soar in the
clouds — many a push and shove and curse did the dreamer get bestow'd
upon him. The booming of the city clock sounded forth the hour twelve
— high noon.
"Ho! Lingave!" cried a voice from an open basement window as the
He stopp'd, and then unwittingly would have walked on still, not
fully awaken'd from his reverie.
"Lingave, I say!" cried the voice again, and the person to whom the
voice belong'd stretch'd his head quite out into the area in front,
"Stop man. Have you forgotten your appointment?"
"Oh! ah!" said the poet, and he smiled unmeaningly, and descending
the steps, went into the office of Ridman, whose call it was that had
startled him in his walk.
Who was Ridman? While the poet is waiting the convenience of that
personage, it may be as well to describe him.
Ridman was a money-maker. He had much penetration, considerable
knowledge of the world, and a disposition to be constantly in the midst
of enterprise, excitement, and stir. His schemes for gaining wealth
were various; he had dipp'd into almost every branch and channel of
business. A slight acquaintance of several years' standing subsisted
between him and the poet. The day previous a boy had call'd with a note
from Ridman to Lingave, desiring the presence of the latter at the
money-maker's room. The poet return'd for answer that he would be
there. This was the engagement which he came near breaking.
Ridman had a smooth tongue. All his ingenuity was needed in the
explanation to his companion of why and wherefore the latter had been
It is not requisite to state specifically the offer made by the man
of wealth to the poet. Ridman, in one of his enterprises, found it
necessary to procure the aid of such a person as Lingave — a writer of
power, a master of elegant diction, of fine taste, in style passionate
yet pure, and of the delicate imagery that belongs to the children of
song. The youth was absolutely startled at the magnificent and
permanent remuneration which was held out to him for a moderate
exercise of his talents.
But the nature of the service required! All the sophistry and art
of Ridman could not veil its repulsiveness. The poet was to labor for
the advancement of what he felt to be unholy — he was to inculcate
what would lower the perfection of man. He promised to give an answer
to the proposal the succeeding day, and left the place.
Now during the many hours there was a war going on in the heart of
the poor poet. He was indeed poor; often, he had no certainty whether
he should be able to procure the next day's meals. And the poet knew
the beauty of truth, and adored, not in the abstract merely, but in
practice, the excellence of upright principles.
Night came. Lingave, wearied, lay upon his pallet again and slept.
The misty veil thrown over him, the spirit of poesy came to his
visions, and stood beside him, and look'd down pleasantly with her
large eyes, which were bright and liquid like the reflection of stars
in a lake.
Virtue, (such imagining, then, seem'd conscious to the soul of the
dreamer,) is ever the sinew of true genius. Together, the two in one,
they are endow'd with immortal strength, and approach loftily to Him
from whom both spring. Yet there are those that having great powers,
bend them to the slavery of wrong. God forgive them! for they surely do
it ignorantly or heedlessly. Oh, could he who lightly tosses around him
the seeds of evil in his writings, or his enduring thoughts, or his
chance words — could he see how, haply, they are to spring up in
distant time and poison the air, and putrefy, and cause to sicken —
would he not shrink back in horror? A bad principle, jestingly spoken
— a falsehood, but of a word — may taint a whole nation! Let the man
to whom the great Master has given the might of mind, beware how he
uses that might. If for the furtherance of bad ends, what can be
expected but that, as the hour of the closing scene draws nigh,
thoughts of harm done, and capacities distorted from their proper aim,
and strength so laid out that men must be worse instead of better,
through the exertion of that strength — will come and swarm like
spectres around him?
"Be and continue poor, young man," so taught one whose counsels
should be graven on the heart of every youth, "while others around you
grow rich by fraud and disloyalty. Be without place and power, while
others beg their way upward. Bear the pain of disappointed hopes, while
others gain the accomplishment of their flattery. Forego the gracious
pressure of a hand, for which others cringe and crawl. Wrap yourself in
your own virtue, and seek a friend and your daily bread. If you have,
in such a course, grown gray with unblench'd honor, bless God and die."
When Lingave awoke the next morning, he despatch'd his answer to
his wealthy friend, and then plodded on as in the days before.