Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 1 January 1884

Date: January 1, 1884

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: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.05536

Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schöberlein, Elizabeth Lorang, Nicole Gray, and Kyle Barton

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New Year's Day—
28 Terrassen Ufer, Dresden.

I return herewith the printed slips with Dr. Knortz's translations.1 That of the 'Out of the Cradle endlessly Rocking' is of really splendid power, & would be perfect but for some curious failures to understand the English—e.g. 'that low and delicious word'—low is translated 'gemein' (= vulgar) instead of 'leise' (low in sound, tone). 'Absorbing' is rendered 'absorbed in thought'—the word stronger and sweeter than any' he has read as 'world'! &c. I have translated the said poem, and was just writing the last two or three lines, when the cannons boomed and bells rang announcing the New Year last night. I got your postcard, & sent copies to Dr. K. and Schmidt. The latter has kindly sent me something of his in return, which unfortunately I can't read, not knowing Danish.2 But it has such a tantalising resemblance to German that I mean to learn it—enough for reading purposes. Many thanks for the copy of the Critic, recd yesterday.3 Matt. Arnold himself said that he feared he should see little or nothing of the real America, & he is right.4 The misery of the poorer classes in England is fast reaching the intolerable point & friends there say there is certainly a tremendous catastrophe & overturn impending. Fortunately such a thing is not likely to prove fruitless, if it does happen, for people know now pretty well what they want—that is—State guarantee that as long as there is food in a community, no person willing to work, shall want. That is to say, society to be organized on the human, not on the wild-beast principle. "The Age of Feudalism" says Carlyle "perished—having produced the still more indomitable Age of Hunger." And the Age of Hunger will prove more indomitable than that of 'Competition' too. I wonder do you know a man called Carpenter (Edward),5 lives in England, has written a book called 'Towards Democracy' of which he will surely have sent you a copy?6 He is doing much good work there—issues pamphlets, lectures, &c. against the Tyranny of capitalism—Is it not certain that you in America will have all this to go through some day when you get more densely populated & the squeeze begins? And wouldn't it be well to put things on a right footing now, instead of waiting till vested interests, &c. accumulate & force justice & charity to appear in the guise of avenging angels?

T W Rolleston.

Now our winter weather [illegible]

Will you send a line to say if these reach you safely?

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).


1. On June 19, 1883, Whitman wrote to Karl Knortz acknowledging a copy of the translation of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and other poems. Apparently Whitman forwarded Knortz's translations to Rolleston, who is now, on January 1, 1884, returning them with comments. Karl Knortz (1841–1915), the German-American scholar and admirer of Whitman, became Rolleston's collaborator on the German translation of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. See Horst Frenz, "Karl Knortz, Interpreter of American Literature and Culture," American-German Review, 13 (December 1946), 27–30 and Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 20–31. [back]

2. This may have been Buster og Masker (Copenhagen, 1882) by the Danish critic and editor Rudolph Schmidt (1836–1899). One chapter in the book is devoted to Whitman. See Carl Roos, "Walt Whitman's Letters to a Danish Friend," Orbis Litterarum, 7 (1949), 31–60. [back]

3. Probably the November 17, 1883, issue of the Critic, which contains Whitman's "Our Eminent Visitors (Past present and future)." The article concludes: "O that our own country—that every land in the world—could annually, continually, receive the poets, thinkers, scientists, even the official magnates of other lands, as honored guests." [back]

4. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) first came to America on a lecture tour in October, 1883, and remained until March, 1884. He "returned to England confirmed by experience in his conception of the average American as a hard uninteresting type of Philistine." After a second trip to the United States in the summer of 1886, Arnold commented on American life being "uninteresting, so without savour and without depth" (Stuart P. Sherman, Matthew Arnold [Indianapolis, 1917], 46–49). [back]

5. Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 1:160). For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).  [back]

6. First published in 1883, the book went through several editions during Carpenter's lifetime (1844–1929). In an introductory note to the 1912 edition, he states that he first came across William Michael Rossetti's selections from Leaves of Grass while still at Cambridge, in 1868 or 1869, and that he read Rossetti's volume and the complete American editions continuously for ten years. He acknowledges Whitman's influence in the following statements: "I find it difficult to imagine what my life would have been without it. 'Leaves of Grass' 'filtered and filtered' my blood; but I do not think I ever tried to imitate it or its style.... I did not adopt it because it was an approximation to the form of 'Leaves of Grass.' Whatever resemblance there may be between the rhythm, style, thoughts, construction, etc., of the two books, must I think be set down to a deeper similarity of emotional atmosphere and intension in the two authors—even though that similarity may have sprung and no doubt largely did spring out of the personal influence of one upon the other. Anyhow our temperaments, standpoints, antecedents, etc., are so entirely diverse and opposite that, except for a few points, I can hardly imagine that there is much real resemblance to be traced. Whitman's full-blooded, copious, rank, masculine style must always make him one of the world's great originals..." (xviii). Rolleston reviewed the second edition of Carpenter's book in the Dublin University Review, 2 (April 1886), 319–328. After some prefatory remarks on Whitman and his place in literature "as reputable and assured as that of any of his contemporaries," he analyzes the principal poem, "Towards Democracy." He calls Carpenter a "disciple" of Whitman who "is ready to follow his master's feet in their strangest and most difficult wanderings." [back]


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