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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

I. Specimen Days

212. Sunday with the Insane

June 6.—WENT over to the religious services (Episcopal) main Insane asylum, held in a lofty, good-sized hall, third story. Plain boards, whitewash, plenty of cheap chairs, no ornament or color, yet all scrupulously clean and sweet. Some three hundred persons present, mostly patients. Everything, the prayers, a short sermon, the firm, orotund voice of the minister, and most of all, beyond any portraying or suggesting, that audience, deeply impress’d me. I was furnish’d with an arm-chair near the pulpit, and sat facing the motley, yet perfectly well-behaved and orderly congregation. The quaint dresses and bonnets of some of the women, several very old and gray, here and there like the heads in old pictures. O the looks that came from those faces! There were two or three I shall probably never forget. Nothing at all markedly repulsive or hideous—strange enough I did not see one such. Our common humanity, mine and yours, everywhere:

  • “The same old blood—the same red, running blood;”
  • yet behind most, an inferr’d arriere of such storms, such wrecks, such mysteries, fires, love, wrong, greed for wealth, religious problems, crosses—mirror’d from those crazed faces (yet now temporarily so calm, like still waters,) all the woes and sad happenings of life and death—now from every one the devotional element radiating—was it not, indeed, the peace of God that passeth all understanding, strange as it may sound? I can only say that I took long and searching eye-sweeps as I sat there, and it seem’d so, rousing unprecedented thoughts, problems unanswerable. A very fair choir, and melodeon accompaniment. They sang “Lead, kindly light,” after the sermon. Many join’d in the beautiful hymn, to which the minister read the introductory text, “In the daytime also He led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire.” Then the words:
  • Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
  • Lead thou me on.
  • The night is dark, and I am far from home;
  • Lead thou me on.
  • Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
  • The distant scene; one step enough for me.
  • I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that thou
  • Should’st lead me on;
  • I lov’d to choose and see my path; but now
  • Lead thou me on.
  • I loved the garish day, and spite of fears
  • Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.
  • A couple of days after, I went to the “Refractory building, under special charge of Dr. Beemer, and through the wards pretty thoroughly, both the men’s and women’s. I have since made many other visits of the kind through the asylum, and around among the detach’d cottages. As far as I could see, this is among the most advanced, perfected, and kindly and rationally carried on, of all its kind in America. It is a town in itself, with many buildings and a thousand inhabitants.

    I learn that Canada, and especially this ample and populous province, Ontario, has the very best and plentiest benevolent institutions in all departments.