Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 4 June [1881]

Date: June 4, 1881

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.05112

Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Nicole Gray, and Elizabeth Lorang



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Sunday evg. June 4.
Wettiner Hof.
Bad-Elster
Saxony

At last I find myself able to write to you, having got myself moored in a quiet nook after much hurried journeying. When I received your letter with the poems, I was staying with a married sister1 in the county Wicklow. Then my father got very ill & I had to go down & see him (he is all right now.) Then business in London, tedious travelling half across Europe, & now my wife and I are fixed in a little German valley for the summer. There are mineral springs and baths here; she was ordered to come for her health, which has not been very good lately—but there is every likelihood of its mending now. This is a very pleasant place—a long, rather narrow valley with low hills, covered with pinewood, at each side—at one end of it stands the village of Elster, bowered in dense foliage, oak and chestnut; with highroofed houses, a few large hotels, a rather grand looking building,—the Bath House—surrounding the mineral springs. When you climb to the top of a hill you see leagues on leagues of grass country, no mountains, but low undulations with quaintly built villages set in their folds, and covered often with dark tracts of pine forest. There are few visitors here, for this is not one of the fashionable watering places; our countrymen & women have not found it out and vulgarized it yet. These Germans I admire more and more—if they keep their present characteristics, what a nation they will be sometime! Their life is simple, friendly, humane, unembarrassed; the poor have leisure and use it well, the rich do not strive, (as periodically in England) to "do their duty to the lower classes" by subscribing to benevolent schemes & inventing elaborate machinery for the reclamation of criminals,—they meet their labourers, servants, &c in a perfectly natural manner, as man with man and other bonds are established than those which unite the payer and the payee. As a nation, high and low, they have intelligence, and what is more, spirituality—life is not measured by its value in £.s.d.

There is much democracy among them, socially speaking—politically, none whatever. They endure a really oppressive despotism—how oppressive foreigners, even aristocratic Germans, can little know—without complaint, or resent it only in a petty, spiteful way. And they have an innate dread and respect for an official—anyone in a uniform—they surround him with something of the divinity that used to hedge kings when Shakespeare wrote. They are a people whom I love to mix with. I mean the common folk, the others I rarely meet with, for I scarcely see anyone, being buried a good deal in Greek and metaphysics, except when I take long walks in the country, which I do pretty often; sometimes with a knapsack for a fortnight, wandering without definite aim, finding friends, 'eating and sleeping with the earth.'

In Dublin I came across a man I had heard much of but never seen before, one Standish O'Grady, a barrister who drifted into authorship, has written part of a History of Ireland, collecting, translating, piecing together, Homeric fashion, old bardic lays preserved from pagan times, of Irish heroes and gods. He is going to bring the history down to the present day.2 I met him at Dowden's first, often afterwards, & we arranged for a walk on the Wicklow mountains, Dowden, O'Grady, two others & myself. When the day came only O'Grady and I appeared at the rendezvous, & we had a splendid day of it. I never met anyone, I think, whose mind answered so well to mine. We had been travelling on parallel roads of thought for some time—now we travelled together. Each had help to give and each needed help; above all we helped each other to realize. I love many persons, but him with that nearest, most contented love—him and one other. That other is now a schoolmaster in South Africa.3 O'Grady in Ireland, I in Saxonland—if we three were together we would tread the clouds! I send you some stanzas about my day's walk with O'Grady (I found out shortly that he was a lover and disciple of yours, and we talked much of you).

Thank you very much for the two poems.4 I have put them in the Passage to India. It was very kind of you to try to get 'Calvin Harlowe' published, but I fear it is too rough. I could mend it a good deal. It was written quickly, the subject filled me and I hammered out the verses & left them without a touch of the file. So too with those I send you—but I don't think I ever shall arrive at successful filing.

Yours sincerely
W. Rolleston.

This address will find me till October—that of 'Glasshouse, Shinrone, Ireland,' always. I hope you are well.

I think much might be well done in altering the arrangement of your poems & prose, but I like the two vols. [&?] mainly, as they are.


March 24th 1881.

1. These to embalm a day to keep fresh its memory forever.

2. Out of the eddying town, out of the bustle and gloom,
Relaxing the hardset grasp, dismissing knowledge and gain,
Tossing the world to the winds, wooers of sun and mountain-air,
Forth we went—thou, bard of Oscar and of the friend of outcasts, the divine Cuculain,
Thou, nourisher of this land with the stalwart life, the blood of her heroes dead,
I, dreamer of dreams, dilletante poet and scholar.

3. Keen and clear, a flood of light, the March-wind blows upon the Wicklow hills;
Blows from over the blue Channel, making the white waves leap at the sand bank,
Sings aloft by the granite crags, the tossing heather, the miles of moor.

4. On thee we soared upborne, on paths the eagles never knew.
Far and wide the horizon fled before our gaze.
Clearly, one instant, the Real World sprang into view, and vanished like a dream again—
And again the same hills and rocks, again the Sky, again the blue Channel with white waves leaping;
But now, O Sea and Sky and impassive Earth, your secret is told, you can mock us no longer;
Silent and mystic Nature! for once you have unmask'd to us.

5. —And ever as we went, there hover'd near us another spirit, sometimes unseen, oftener between us, holding a hand of each,
For the power of the mountains was on us that day, and the power of the Sea, and of Walt Whitman, poet of comrades.

6. Farewell, bright Day, our way through thee is ended.
Other suns shall shine for us and other skies be fair,
But thy sun and thy sky our eyes shall see no more.

7. Yet do we not hold thee in our souls, and shall we not eternally?
All that thou gavest us, assuredly we shall keep for ever,
Day, that poured on us the power of the mountains, and the power of the Sea, and of Walt Whitman, poet of comrades.

———

Notes:

1. Rolleston's only sister—to whom he was very devoted—was married to Henry Truell of Clonmannon, County Wicklow. [back]

2. The historical writings of Standish O'Grady (1846–1928) were an inspiration to the great Irish Literary Revival. He has often been referred to as the father of this movement. Between 1878 and 1880, he published the two volumes of History of Ireland: Heroic Period[back]

3. In a letter to Horst Frenz of August 13, 1950, Captain C. H. Rolleston wrote: "I do not think there can be any doubt that my Father's schoolmaster friend was H. B. Cotterill, M.A., who was later in Germany and was the author of a version of Homer's Odyssey in English hexameters." [back]

4. One of the poems is probably "To the Man-of-War-Bird" referred to in the letter from Rolleston to Whitman, February-May 1881[back]


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