Title: Ernest Rhys to Walt Whitman, 7 July 1885
Date: July 7, 1885
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977).
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.03311
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray
59 Cheyne Walk.
7th July, 1885.
Dear Walt Whitman,
More than a month back I addressed a letter to you, which misfortune of one kind or another may have overtaken, or which you may not yet have had time or inclination to answer.1 It was referring to the scheme of a new edition of your Poems in England here, but I'm afraid was not clear enough as to the rights & reasons of such an edition, or the way it would be carried out. In the letter I explained something of this, but not enough; and it was careless of me to do this & then expect you to reply to an insufficient proposal, when you must have already more to do in this way than can be easily compassed. For fear too that the letter never reached you at all, it will be better to state the whole matter afresh.
A series of poets was last year begun by Walter Scott2 the publisher under the occasional editorship of my friend, Joseph Skipsey, poet & former coal-miner;3 (I have been a coal-miner—a mining engineer that is—myself; hence the connection!) and in their list a month or two after my arrival in London as a student of life & letters this year, I saw rather to my astonishment your name amid the rest, & feeling that in some ways I had a special right & knowledge I ventured to write in, offering to prepare the vol. Skipsey's influence did the rest.
At first it seemed rather out of place to have your work in a series of this kind called, rather stupidly, "The Canterbury Poets," and got up in a cheap & prettified fashion, with red lines, &c. But afterwards it struck me that there might be gain in the end through it. Now I have succeeded in one hope: the publishers will give up the red lines & trivial design of cover. Next will be to have your Poems issued in a different shape—quite square I should like to have it—so as to give your long lines full play! And the very including of Leaves of Grass in a series like this gives them a chance of reaching people who would otherwise never see them. What I—& many young men like me, ardent believers in your poetic initiative—chiefly feel about this is however, that an edition at a price which will put it in the reach of the poorest member of the great social democracy is a thing of imperative requirement. You know what a fervid stir & impulse forward of Humanity there is to-day in certain quarters, and I am sure you will be tremendously glad to help us here, in the very camp of the enemy, the stronghold of caste & aristocracy & all selfishness between rich & poor!
Some people want to claim you as the property of a certain literary clique,—a rara avis, to be carefully kept out of sight of the uneducated mob as not able to understand & appreciate the peculiar qualities of your work. This does harm in many ways, & it would be a very good thing to make a fair trial of the despised mob. The price of Wilson & McCormick's edition4 —half-a-guinea—practically damns the popular circulation of the book, & gives colour to the notion of its being a luxury only for the rich. What we want then is an edition for the poor, & this proposed one at only a shilling would be within reach of every man willing & caring to read.
I did not know until a week or so back that Wilson & McCormick had any direct authorisation for their Edn, or should certainly have advised Walter Scott to communicate his intention to them. Now someone has written on their behalf resenting—very naturally—his appearance in the field. But this difficulty might be easily settled by Scott paying, say ten guineas outright or a certain royalty per copy, to them on your account, if W. & McC. would not like a new contract with you by Scott. The fact of the new proposed edn being one of smaller scope [the vol. would not hold more than ⅔rds of the poetry;] would no doubt weigh with them too, reference being clearly made to the complete works to which this would serve as a pilot for the time being, & increase the sale in the end.
As for my own share, all I really care about is to procure a serviceable popular edition, giving all the help an earnest & enthusiastic sympathy can devise. On mere literary grounds I have very little claim, but I have a great love & desire to help the struggling mass of men, to be a true soldier in "The War of liberation of Humanity." I should strive to just say what would best bring your Ideal to the hearts of such as the coal-miners & shepherds of the North—dear friends of mine many of them, many consciously, all unconsciously—and being a young man myself to make Leaves of Grass potent for comradeship and chivalry & manliness all through in the young men who are in the forefront to-day. I feel very much inclined to say a great deal more about my hopes and ideals, but to-night perhaps it is better not. One thing though I must say a word about,—how much in noblest knowledge & inspiration I have to thank you for, in life & religion & poetry & manhood, a debt it will not suffice to pay in words at all, but which someday you will see, I hope, may be fairly written off the score. Meanwhile, receive the greeting of one more follower on this side the Atlantic,—
Any suggestions or directions as to the scheme & scope of the book I will thank you for most heartily, and will furnish fuller details as they are arranged.
Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
1. See the letter from Rhys to Whitman of May 31, 1885. [back]
2. Leaves of Grass: The Poems of Walt Whitman [Selected], with an introduction by Rhys, was printed in 1886 in The Canterbury Poet Series, published by Walter Scott. Though aimed at the British working class, and despite Rhys's hopes, the volume did retain its ornate decorations and red borders. A presentation copy in the Feinberg Collection reads: "Walt Whitman with Ernest Rhys's apologies & high regards. 1st March 1886." On May 22 Rhys informed the poet that about 8,000 copies of the edition were sold, and that the publisher expected to print a second edition. In the same letter Rhys requested permission to include Specimen Days in a prose series called The Camelot Classics. [back]
3. Joseph Skipsey (1832–1903) was a poet and songwriter from England's north-east. He was also known as "The Pitman Poet." [back]