The Boy Lover by Walt Whitman
Listen, and the old will speak a chronicle for the young. Ah,
youth! thou art one day coming to be old, too. And let me tell thee
how thou mayest get a useful lesson. For an hour, dream thyself old.
Realize, in thy thoughts and consciousness, that vigor and strength are
subdued in thy sinews — that the color of the shroud is liken'd in thy
very hairs — that all those leaping desires, luxurious hopes,
beautiful aspirations, and proud confidences, of thy younger life, have
long been buried (a funeral for the better part of thee) in that grave
which must soon close over thy tottering limbs. Look back, then,
through the long track of the past years. How has it been with thee?
Are there bright beacons of happiness enjoy'd, and of good done by the
way? Glimmer gentle rays of what was scatter'd from a holy heart? Have
benevolence, and love, and undeviating honesty left tokens on which thy
eyes can rest sweetly? Is it well with thee, thus? Answerest thou, it
is? Or answerest thou, I see nothing but gloom and shatter'd hours, and
the wreck of good resolves, and a broken heart, filled with sickness,
and troubled among its ruined chambers with the phantoms of many
O, youth! youth! this dream will one day be a reality — a reality,
either of heavenly peace or agonizing sorrow.
And yet not for all is it decreed to attain the neighborhood of the
three-score and ten years — the span of life. I am to speak of one who
died young. Very awkward was his childhood — but most fragile and
sensitive! So delicate a nature may exist in a rough, unnoticed plant!
Let the boy rest; — he was not beautiful, and dropp'd away betimes.
But for the cause — it is a singular story, to which let crusted
worldings pay the tribute of a light laugh — light and empty as their
own hollow hearts.
Love! which with its cankerseed of decay within, has sent young men
and maidens to a long'd-for, but too premature burial. Love! the
child-monarch that Death itself cannot conquer; that has its tokens on
slabs at the head of grass-cover'd tombs — tokens more visible to the
eye of the stranger, yet not so deeply graven as the face and the
remembrances cut upon the heart of the living. Love! the sweet, the
pure, the innocent; yet the causer of fierce hate, of wishes for deadly
revenge, of bloody deeds, and madness, and the horrors of hell. Love!
that wanders over battlefields, turning up mangled human trunks, and
parting back the hair from gory faces, and daring the points of swords
and the thunder of artillery, without a fear or a thought of danger.
Words! words! I begin to see I am, indeed, an old man, and
garrulous! Let me go back — yes, I see it must be many years!
It was at the close of the last century. I was at that time
studying law, the profession my father follow'd. One of his clients was
an elderly widow, a foreigner, who kept a little ale-house, on the
banks of the North River, at about two miles from what is now the
centre of the city. Then the spot was quite out of town and surrounded
by fields and green trees. The widow often invited me to come and pay
her a visit, when I had a leisure afternoon — including also in the
invitation my brother and two other students who were in my father's
office. Matthew, the brother I mention, was a boy of sixteen; he was
troubled with an inward illness — though it had no power over his
temper, which ever retain'd the most admirable placidity and
gentleness. He was cheerful, but never boisterous, and everybody loved
him; his mind seem'd more develop'd than is usual for his age, though
his personal appearance was exceedingly plain. Wheaton and Brown, the
names of the other students, were spirited, clever young fellows, with
most of the traits that those in their position of life generally
possess. The first was as generous and brave as any man I ever knew. He
was very passionate, too, but the whirlwind soon blew over, and left
everything quiet again. Frank Brown was slim, graceful, and handsome.
He profess'd to be fond of sentiment, and used to fall regularly in
love once a month.
The half of every Wednesday we four youths had to ourselves, and
were in the habit of taking a sail, a ride, or a walk together. One of
these afternoons, of a pleasant day in April, the sun shining, and the
air clear, I bethought myself of the widow and her beer — about which
latter article I had made inquiries, and heard it spoken of in terms of
high commendation. I mention'd the matter to Matthew and to my
fellow-students, and we agreed to fill up our holiday by a jaunt to the
ale-house. Accordingly, we set forth, and, after a fine walk, arrived
in glorious spirits at our destination. Ah! how shall I describe the
quiet beauties of the spot, with its long, low piazza looking out upon
the river, and its clean homely tables, and the tankards of real silver
in which the ale was given us, and the flavor of that excellent liquor
itself. There was the widow; and there was a sober, stately old woman,
half companion, half servant, Margery by name; and there was (good God!
my fingers quiver yet as I write the word!) young Ninon, the daughter
of the widow.
O, through the years that live no more, my memory strays back, and
that whole scene comes up before me once again — and the brightest
part of the picture is the strange ethereal beauty of that young girl!
She was apparently about the age of my brother Matthew, and the most
fascinating, artless creature I had ever beheld. She had blue eyes and
light hair, and an expression of childish simplicity which was charming
indeed. I have no doubt that ere half an hour had elapsed from the time
we enter'd the tavern and saw Ninon, every one of the four of us loved
the girl to the very depth of passion.
We neither spent so much money, nor drank as much beer, as we had
intended before starting from home. The widow was very civil, being
pleased to see us, and Margery served our wants with a deal of
politeness — but it was to Ninon that the afternoon's pleasure was
attributable; for though we were strangers, we became acquainted at
once — the manners of the girl, merry as she was, putting entirely out
of view the most distant imputation of indecorum — and the presence of
the widow and Margery, (for we were all in the common room together,
there being no other company,) serving to make us all disembarass'd and
It was not until quite a while after sunset that we started on our
return to the city. We made several attempts to revive the mirth and
lively talk that usually signalized our rambles, but they seem'd forced
and discordant, like laughter in a sick-room. My brother was the only
one who preserved his usual tenor of temper and conduct.
I need hardly say that thenceforward every Wednesday afternoon was
spent at the widow's tavern. Strangely, neither Matthew or my two
friends, or myself, spoke to each other of the sentiment that filled us
in reference to Ninon. Yet we all knew the thoughts and feelings of the
others; and each, perhaps, felt confident that his love alone was
unsuspected by his companions.
The story of the widow was a touching yet simple one. She was by
birth a Swiss. In one of the cantons of her native land, she had grown
up, and married, and lived for a time in happy comfort. A son was born
to her, and a daughter, the beautiful Ninon. By some reverse of
fortune, the father and head of the family had the greater portion of
his possessions swept from him. He struggled for a time against the
evil influence, but it press'd upon him harder and harder. He had heard
of a people in the western world — a new and swarming land — where
the stranger was welcom'd, and peace and the protection of the strong
arm thrown around him. He had not heart to stay and struggle amid the
scenes of his former prosperity, and he determin'd to go and make his
home in that distant republic of the west. So with his wife and
children, and the proceeds of what little property was left, he took
passage for New York. He was never to reach his journey's end. Either
the cares that weigh'd upon his mind, or some other cause, consign'd
him to a sick hammock, from which he only found relief through the
Great Dismisser. He was buried in the sea, and in due time his family
arrived at the American emporium. But there, the son too sicken'd —
died, ere long, and was buried likewise. They would not bury him in the
city, but away — by the solitary banks of the Hudson; on which the
widow soon afterwards took up her abode.
Ninon was too young to feel much grief at these sad occurrences;
and the mother, whatever she might have suffer'd inwardly, had a good
deal of phlegm and patience, and set about making herself and her
remaining child as comfortable as might be. They had still a
respectable sum in cash, and after due deliberation, the widow
purchas'd the little quiet tavern, not far from the grave of her boy;
and of Sundays and holidays she took in considerable money — enough to
make a decent support for them in their humble way of living. French
and Germans visited the house frequently, and quite a number of young
Americans too. Probably the greatest attraction to the latter was the
sweet face of Ninon.
Spring passed, and summer crept in and wasted away, and autumn had
arrived. Every New Yorker knows what delicious weather we have, in
these regions, of the early October days; how calm, clear, and divested
of sultriness, is the air, and how decently nature seems preparing for
her winter sleep.
Thus it was the last Wednesday we started on our accustomed
excursion. Six months had elapsed since our first visit, and, as then,
we were full of the exuberance of young and joyful hearts. Frequent and
hearty were our jokes, by no means particular about the theme or the
method, and long and loud the peals of laughter that rang over the
fields or along the shore.
We took our seats round the same clean, white table, and received
our favorite beverage in the same bright tankards. They were set before
us by the sober Margery, no one else being visible. As frequently
happen'd, we were the only company. Walking and breathing the keen,
fine air had made us dry, and we soon drain'd the foaming vessels, and
call'd for more. I remember well an animated chat we had about some
poems that had just made their appearance from a great British author,
and were creating quite a public stir. There was one, a tale of passion
and despair, which Wheaton had read, and of which he gave us a
transcript. Wild, startling, and dreamy, perhaps it threw over our
minds its peculiar cast.
An hour moved off, and we began to think it strange that neither
Ninon or the widow came into the room. One of us gave a hint to that
effect to Margery; but she made no answer, and went on in her usual way
"The grim old thing," said Wheaton, "if she were in Spain, they'd
make her a premier duenna!"
I ask'd the woman about Ninon and the widow. She seemed disturb'd,
I thought; but, making no reply to the first part of my question, said
that her mistress was in another part of the house, and did not wish to
be with company.
"Then be kind enough, Mrs. Vinegar," resumed Wheaton,
good-naturedly, "be kind enough to go and ask the widow if we can see
Our attendant's face turn'd as pale as ashes, and she precipitately
left the apartment. We laugh'd at her agitation, which Frank Brown
assigned to our merry ridicule.
Quite a quarter of an hour elaps'd before Margery's return. When
she appear'd she told us briefly that the widow had bidden her obey
our behest, and now, if we desired, she would conduct us to the
daughter's presence. There was a singular expression in the woman's
eyes, and the whole affair began to strike us as somewhat odd; but we
arose, and taking our caps, follow'd her as she stepp'd through the
door. Back of the house were some fields, and a path leading into
clumps of trees. At some thirty rods distant from the tavern, nigh one
of those clumps, the larger tree whereof was a willow, Margery stopp'd,
and pausing a minute, while we came up, spoke in tones calm and low:
"Ninon is there!"
She pointed downward with her finger. Great God! There was a grave,
new made, and with the sods loosely join'd, and a rough brown stone at
each extremity! Some earth yet lay upon the grass near by. If we had
look'd, we might have seen the resting-place of the widow's son,
Ninon's brother — for it was close at hand. But amid the whole scene
our eyes took in nothing except that horrible covering of death — the
oven-shaped mound. My sight seemed to waver, my head felt dizzy, and a
feeling of deadly sickness came over me. I heard a stifled exclamation,
and looking round, saw Frank Brown leaning against the nearest tree,
great sweat upon his forehead, and his cheeks bloodless as chalk.
Wheaton gave way to his agony more fully than ever I had known a man
before; he had fallen — sobbing like a child, and wringing his hands.
It is impossible to describe the suddenness and fearfulness of the
sickening truth that came upon us like a stroke of thunder.
Of all of us, my brother Matthew neither shed tears, or turned
pale, or fainted, or exposed any other evidence of inward depth of
pain. His quiet, pleasant voice was indeed a tone lower, but it was
that which recall'd us, after the lapse of many long minutes, to
So the girl had died and been buried. We were told of an illness
that had seized her the very day after our last preceding visit; but we
inquired not into the particulars.
And now come I to the conclusion of my story, and to the most
singular part of it. The evening of the third day afterward, Wheaton,
who had wept scalding tears, and Brown, whose cheeks had recover'd
their color, and myself, that for an hour thought my heart would never
rebound again from the fearful shock — that evening, I say, we three
were seated around a table in another tavern, drinking other beer, and
laughing but a little less cheerfully, and as though we had never known
the widow or her daughter — neither of whom, I venture to affirm, came
into our minds once the whole night, or but to be dismiss'd again,
carelessly, like the remembrance of faces seen in a crowd.
Strange are the contradictions of the things of life! The seventh
day after that dreadful visit saw my brother Matthew — the delicate
one, who, while bold men writhed in torture, had kept the same placid
face, and the same untrembling fingers — him that seventh day saw a
clay-cold corpse, carried to the repose of the churchyard. The shaft,
rankling far down and within, wrought a poison too great for show, and
the youth died.