In a 1907 letter to Walt Whitman’s biographer Bliss Perry, Edmund Gosse wrote:

I came across your really delightful volume on Walt Whitman,† and read it with such pleasure that I had to review it also, to try and share my pleasure with others. But I don’t believe in those “children”! For reasons, of course, precisely opposite to those put forward by the servers of pillows to all armholes. The real psychology of W W would be enormously interesting. I think the keynote to it would be found to be a staggering ignorance, a perhaps wilful non-perception, of the real physical conditions of his nature. But the truth about him (the innermost truth) escapes from almost every page for those who can read.

Edmund Gosse (6th March 1907). Letter to Professor Bliss Perry. In Evan Charteris, ed. (1931). The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, p. 302. London: Heinemann.

Walt Whitman (1906).

The “children” in which Gosse did not believe are the “six children” that Whitman claimed to have fathered, in an 1890 letter to John Addington Symonds quoted by Bliss. Gosse presumably did not believe in them because he knew, or suspected, that Whitman was gay. But what did Gosse mean by “precisely opposite to those put forward by the servers of pillows to all armholes”? This is an allusion to Ezekiel 13:18:

Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and make kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls!

(I suspect that Gosse actually wrote “sewers” and whoever transcribed the letter mis-read the word as “servers”.) But what is the connection between Gosse’s belief in Whitman’s homosexuality and Ezekiel’s criticism of fashionable clothing?

1 Answer 1


The criticism in Ezekiel isn’t of fashionable clothing. Looking at a more modern translation we get:

Woe to the women who sew magic bands on the wrist of every hand and who make veils for the heads of people of every size in order to ensnare lives.

So ‘reasons precisely opposite to those put forward by the sewers of magic bands’ would be… I’ll confess I have difficulty in making sense of it even with a more explanatory translation.

Going back to Ezekiel, if we look at the verses immediately preceding the quoted ones however, we read:

And you, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people, who prophesy out of their own hearts. Prophesy against them and say, Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls!

‘Prophesying from their own hearts’ may be the key. The verse us talking about people claiming to make Divine prophesy, when in fact their words only come from themselves. This finds a parallel in the ‘staggering ignorance’.

Gosse may be saying that he isn’t just writing of the top of his head about Walt Whitman, like those who attribute children to him, but that he has knowledge that comes, in some way from a higher source. That he is a ‘true prophet’ who can read the scriptures of Whitman and see in them that ‘innermost truth’.

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