Title: Ernest Rhys to Walt Whitman, 19 January 1887
Date: January 19, 1887
Editorial note: The annotation, "a wonderful letter," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.
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.
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.03316
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock
19th Jany. 1887
Dear Walt Whitman,
I have been staying here, at home again, for the last three or four weeks, & before returning to London tomorrow I should like to tell you something of my doings, which you will be interested in perhaps although quite ordinary.
Before beginning about myself, though,— many thanks for the Lippincott's article.—My Book & I, which is full of highest import. The par. at foot of p. 122, stating the metier of Leaves of Grass is specially significant. The whole shows unanswerably the tremendous significance, indeed, of your poetic standpoint, and I wish I could prevail upon you to embody the essential parts of the manifesto, with a touch of redirection for our English readers, in a preface in Specimen Days? I may say here that Walter Scott (which means David Gordon really)1 will send you ten guineas for the right of including the book in the Camelot series, as soon as the book arrives.
This brings us to Kennedy's book, about whose adventures over here he has no doubt kept you informed. At present it is in the hand of Fred. W. Wilson of Glasgow,2 who has had it for some time. It is needless to say much therefore until Wilson makes some farther move. I must send him another reminder.
If I had not had special news about you from different of your friends, I should have been alarmed at the bad reports circulated here of late. It was as well to let them go, seems that they were leading to certain friendly tributes, although they seemed to cast a certain imputation on your friends. I was sorry to hear from W.S.K.3 afterwards that your having been out-of-sorts & without appetite had probably been the cause of the rumour in the first instance. May sun & seawind move to bring you respite from all further ills of body & soul!
Sun & sea-wind occur peculiarly to me just at present, for in spite of winter & storm, these have meant more in the story of my days lately, since coming up north here, than perhaps ever before. This is what I wanted to especially tell you about. For some time before, I had been working at a sea subject,—"A North Sea Interlude," and so it was natural that I should go down to the sea-shore a good deal during my stay in this part. Sometimes in these recent rambles, the sense of sun & wind, sea & land, has lifted me into a state of physical & spiritual exaltation, that some of the L. of Grass alone in all poetry could at all come near expressing. One morning in particular, ten days back, everything seemed to move in subtlest harmony with my own pulses. When I set off a wild rain-storm was driving in from the south-east, but lo! as I reached the sea sands the sun shone out as if consciously, & the movement then of the waves, & the hurrying, superb clouds above, formed a symphony, as it were, grandest ever known; a symphony not for ears alone, but for all the senses. The fresh salt sea smell, the lances of sunlight through the cloud-rack, the steady presence of the sands & rocks & the outreaching bastions of a pier; then far away again, the ships passing:— how little of it one makes actual in writing!— As a last touch of this music, below a densely black mass of cloud that came up threateningly appeared, right on the sea, the end of a rainbow, which seemed so preordained, so organic, so much at once with imagination & will, that it was almost as if I had willed it there. So, bathing hands & face in one of the waves, I came away, with a sense of something new having come into life & thought. In attempting to tell this, all the intimate spirit of that hour has eluded my words, but you will read into them what they lack, I know! Many other like excursion have made these days memorable for ever. How I wish I could shew you some of these North sea scenes, so stormy & turbulent, but so touched with the great peace & harmonising advent of the divine sun!—then, two or three days ago, I went over to Browney Valley, to see my old friends the coal-miners & farmers there. The dominant feeling of the years spent in that quiet countryside came back to me then very strangely. One evening (last Saturday) I talked over Leaves of Grass with a few of the younger fellows, & this gave a keynote to all my doings more or less.
I'm afraid it is not made very clear after all about all these things, & why I should trouble you with them. But I want you to feel that as I go on I am getting more into harmony with the universe & with men moving in its environment, & so may help more & more to carry out the great idea of Leaves of Grass. Believe this, of yours most affectionately
After to-day my address is again Sq. Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, S.W.——————————
I wish you would send me a postcard or a pencil scribble, anything to say how your are, &c. now & again.
Could you4 spare me a couple of portraits similar to that prefixed to Kennedy's book?—
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. David Gordon was a bookbinder who was appointed the managing editor of The Walter Scott Publishing Company based in London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Although he had little education, the Scottish editor soon became a driving force in the company's success, creating some of its most well-known editions, such as the Canterbury Poets Series, the Camelot Classics Series, the Great Writers Series, and the Contemporary Science Series. Whitman's 1886 English edition of Leaves of Grass was published by Scott and advertised by Rhys as Whitman's entry into the "Canterbury Poets" series. [back]
2. Frederick W. Wilson was a member of the Glasgow firm of Wilson & McCormick that published the 1883 British edition of Specimen Days and Collect. [back]
3. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and later published biographies of Longfellow and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman , 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
4. Rhys has inserted this postscript on the first page of the letter. [back]