Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 17 September 1881
Date: September 17, 1881
Editorial notes: The annotations, "The first mention of the proposed German translation.," and "? 81," are 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.
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 Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.05122
Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Nicole Gray, and Elizabeth Lorang
September 17 '81
29 Lange Strasse
I have been trying, since my return to Germany,1 to find out that essay you allude to in the N.A. Review article you sent me2—on the question 'Has America produced any great poet?' But as yet I have had no success. I fancy the thing fell through. There are very few ideas in Germany about American literature, past, present, or future. I got a few days ago a book called 'Aus dem Amerikanischen Dichterwald', by Dr Rudolph Doehn. It has about 300 pages, & professes, with justice, to be the first comprehensive properly historical and philosophical account of American literature, which it treats in 3 periods—the Colonial, Revolutionary and Literary epochs. It was greatly praised in an excellent German weekly paper, the Gegenwart.3 I was much disappointed with it. There seemed to be a great lack of intelligence about it—no recognition at all that anything particularly American was to be expected of American literature; just the conventional praise and blame—plenty of the former, for such qualities as melody, elegance, fine sentiment, &c. Doehn is rather celebrated in Germany & has lived 12 years in America. He must be a rather wide-minded man, for he is not very greatly offended at you. But that's just it—he is so appreciative that a shock scarcely affects him and a vacuity affects him not at all. And his tone of mind is just that of his countrymen in general towards things American. He treats of you in a page, together with Stedman, Holland, Halpine, Winter.4 Here is what he says (I translate, as you mayn't be familiar with German).
"Not to be forgotten here is Walt Whitman, born on May 31st 1819 in a farm village on Long Island, N. York—of whom the saying holds "He bears Eagles in his head, and buries his feet in the mire" (Er trägt Adler im Haupte und steckt mit seinen Füssen tief im Kothe.) His father was of English descent, his mother (Louisa van Belsor, of Dutch origin.5 His brother, George M. Whitman served during the Civil War as officer in a New York Regiment. Sprung from a low social position (aus niedrigem Stande) W.W. was now farmer, now carpenter, now printer. Shortly before the outbreak of the civil war he composed, and set up with his own hands, his Leaves of Grass, a set of mystic-democratic poems which are rough and wholly without art, but not without strength and content (Inhalt, substance). W.W. often pays no regard whatever to the ordinary rules of morality and propriety (Anstand), but he does this, not from attenuated deficient moral sense (sittliche Verkommenheit), but because he regards the traditional observances of morals and propriety as contemptible and hypocritical formalities. During the civil war he was active for some time in the Sanitary Corps & in the hospitals; and also received a post in the Home Department;—but his opponents, who saw in him a defender of "Free Love" were soon able to have him removed therefrom. His "Drum Taps" appeared in 1865—are poetical monologues on the war, suffer however, like almost all his compositions, from over-monotony (übergroßer Monotonie). Of decided poetic worth is his monody on Lincoln's death, beginning "When Lilacs" (&c). The same may be said of the poem "Come up from the Fields, father"—in which a deep and warm feeling expresses itself in a manner which lays hold of the reader (in ergreifender Weise)."
So Herr Doehn. You see he does not even mention that in your works, for the first time on a large scale, English poetry is written without rhyme & metre—a notable fact surely. (I forgot your predecessor Blake). This gives one an idea of his want of critical intelligence—of a large view of linked facts & tendencies.—He touches on all American authors in this way, taking them one by one, giving life, and some brief criticisms; Emerson & Thoreau get little mention. But the last division of the book consists of longer & more detailed accounts of 6 authors, viz—R. H. Dana, Whittier, Miller (Joaquin), Bryant, Longfellow, Bayard Taylor. Many poems are quoted in the original, and translated—but none of yours. This I am surprized at, for they would go well in German. A project I contemplate & would carry out as soon as I could find a proper German collaborateur, is a full German translation of the Leaves of Grass & Passage to India. I fancy it would be most successful here, & be largely understood. I believe Freiligrath has done some?6
I always ask Americans about you here. Sometimes they say 'Oh yes, I heard of him from an Englishman some time ago.' But mostly it is blank ignorance, & in neither case, interest.
I suppose 'Calvin Harlowe' was never published? I have amended it, in accordance with a friend's advice, & sent it to Kottabos, a magazine belonging to Trinity College Dublin, & supported by (unpaid) present & past students.7 I write little poetry now but am trying to do a little in writing about German affairs for an Irish paper, & give spare time to Greek & Gaelic. My 'Encheiridion' ought to be out very soon as I have sent in the last proof sheets.8 I want to try & get it reviewed in America. Should I send a copy to the 'Herald' & other papers? I should be much obliged if you would mention the names of two or three papers to which I might send such a work for reviewal. And another thing I should like to hear from you, is the name of the author of the best yet-written history of the American Civil War. I have read no history of it as yet—would you recommend Draper's?9
The address over this letter will find me for some months now.
I hope you are well. I heard you were coming to England this year—I suppose that's not true.
T W H Rolleston.
If I hear of the prize essay I'll let you have it at once.
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. The reference is to a footnote on p. 200 of the article "Poetry of the Future" in the February 1881 issue of the North American Review (185–210): "A few years ago I saw the question, 'Has America produced any great poet?' announced as prize-subject for the competition of some university in Northern Europe. I saw the item in a foreign paper, and made a note of it; but being taken with the paralysis, and prostrated for a long season, the matter slipped away, and I have never been able since to get hold of any essay presented for the prize, or report of the discussion, nor to learn for certain whether there was any essay or discussion, nor can I now remember the place. It may have been Upsala, or possibly Heidelberg. Perhaps some German or Scandinavian can give particulars. I think it was in 1872." [back]
3. The review of Dr. Rudolph Doehn's Aus dem Amerikanischen Dichterwald (Leipzig, 1881) is to be found in Die Gegenwart of July 1881 (47). Although it praises the author for independent and impartial judgment, it recognizes that the work is not exhaustive and suggests changes in a second edition, with particular reference to the material on Bret Harte and Edgar Allan Poe. [back]
4. These were prominent literary figures of the time. J. G. Holland was editor of Scribner's Monthly; Charles G. Halpine, a journalist and author of poetical and humorous writings; and William Winter, dramatic critic and poet. [back]
5. This is Rolleston's error. Doehn's book contains the correct spelling, Louisa Van Velsor. [back]
6. Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was an early German Whitman enthusiast. He read the Rossetti edition of the poems while a political exile in Great Britain and published an enthusiastic account of them in the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, 24 April 1868. He followed this article with some undistinguished and inaccurate translations from the Rossetti edition. Freiligrath's importance in discovering Whitman for Germany is to be attributed more to his critical appreciation of his work than to his translations. [back]
7. Kottabos, first issued in 1874, is a miscellany of verse and prose including translations from Greek and Latin. The editor was R. Y. Tyrrell, Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and many of the contributors were present and former Trinity men. Rolleston frequently contributed translations and original poems to Kottabos. The second volume contains a poem by Rolleston, "On Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'" (284–295), and a series of poems by John Todhunter written in "discipleship" of the "school of Walt Whitman" (14–16). [back]
8. Rolleston's translation of the Encheiridion of Epictetus was published in 1881. [back]
9. John William Draper's History of the American Civil War (3 vols., New York, 1867–70; London, 1871). [back]