Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 16 October 1880

Date: October 16, 1880

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 Whitman and Rolleston: A Correspondence, ed. Horst Frenz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1951). The material appears here courtesy of Indiana University Press.

Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03539

Contributors to digital file: Alicia Bones, Eder Jaramillo, Grace Thomas, Nicole Gray, and Stefan Schöberlein

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October 16.
Lange Strasse 29. II.

I was very glad to hear that you had been so well this summer1—so comparatively well. Paralysis, even partial, must be a terrible enemy to fight against. I should think it would put a man's faith in the sources of spiritual joy to a very severe test. Yet I have sometimes felt as if I wished that some such calamity would overtake me—it seems so easy to be free and happy when one has perfect health and strength—and how can one say to a suffering friend: 'Be strong,' without seeming to speak impertinently? But for myself I do not feel that I could be overwhelmed by any misfortune that left my mind untouched. Insanity however is sometimes a terrible problem to me. To think that

"However we have writ the style of Gods
And made a push at chance and sufferance,"2

our impregnable fortress, the mind, can be attacked at its very centre: that accident, heredity, a little meddling with the cortex of the brain, can reduce the proudest stoic that ever lived to a helpless, soulless idiot—! there is a cynical irony in it, as if man seeking to assert himself in the universe, saying "Here at least, in the spirit, I have freedom and empire inalienable," were to find that there most of all he is enslaved—the sport of the blind forces of materialism. Yet sometimes when I seem to see that there is no such thing as "materialism," your passage about the insane in 'Faces' seems sun-clear to me—one must live in the faith of one's hours of brightest insight.

I am sending you herewith a translation of the Encheiridion of Epictetus which I have been working at for some time.3 I came across the book this last summer, and it laid hold of my mind so that I could not put it away till I had finished as good a translation as I can make of it. I have had a dozen copies printed here as I want to ask the opinion of one or two friends about publishing it as a little book, a "handbook" as the Greek name describes it. Read with sympathy and understanding I think it is very valuable—at least it has given me some solid nutriment, and might to others. The copies only came home this day. I had for some time intended to write to you when that should happen.

I saw in the 'Academy' a paragraph saying that you were going to write something about the English poets of the XIX Century in one of the London magazines. I shall look out with great interest for that. I hope you mean English-writing poets for I should greatly like to hear some of your definite ideas about the Americans. To say the truth, I never could quite accept your utter condemnation of all American authors, expressed both in prose & poetry. I certainly see that tried by a right Democratic standard they fail. Longfellow, Whittier, &c. are just as much poets of Europe as poets of America, if not more. But then you do not condemn the non-Democratic European poets in that wholesale manner—for so far forth as they are poets, so far forth as they help to put ideas of beauty, nobleness, love, into our minds they help mankind, Democracy even included. And do not the Americans do this also, to a certain extent? I am not by any means a worshipper of Emerson, but can it really be said of him that he "expresses nothing characteristic, suffices only the lowest level of vacant minds."4 And Thoreau, surely he is something, very much. Shall we not thank these men for what they are? (though emphatically demanding something more).

Do you ever hear of what passes in Ireland? Things are at a lamentable pass there now, and the House of Lords stands like a block in the way of deliverance. I venture to say their late action has made England take a great stride in the direction of Republicanism. Indeed I sometimes think that time is very close now; people are beginning at last to find out that our 'constitutional sovereigns' are a little ridiculous, & that £500000 is rather a large annuity to pay a monarch for having the goodness to do nothing! If the scattered Republicans in England could unite their forces and (say) found a paper in which politics, literature &c would all be treated from the highest Republican standpoint, it might do much. I have the idea at some time of trying to found some such thing. But at 23 years one has not experience enough for carrying out such schemes! Besides, I don't know whether I won't give up any idea of a literary life entirely, & take to farming in the backwoods. Anyway, I shall be here for 6 months longer, and I will not forbear to say how much I should like now & then to write to you, & sometimes to hear of you.

Yours always,
T. W. Rolleston


1. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

2. These lines are adapted from the following, in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "However they have writ the style of gods | And made a push at chance and sufferance" (5.1). [back]

3. Rolleston's translation of the Encheiridion of Epictetus was published in 1881. [back]

4. Rolleston quotes from Whitman's Democratic Vistas (1888) here (see Whitman's Complete Prose Works, 245). Whitman himself did not specifically refer to Emerson in this passage. [back]


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