Title: Walt Whitman to William Michael Rossetti, 30 January 1872
Date: January 30, 1872
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 2:159–162. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: The Oscar Lion Papers, 1914–1955, New York Public Library, New York, N.Y.
Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00300
Contributors to digital file: Kenneth M. Price, Kathryn Kruger, Elizabeth Lorang, Zachary King, and Eric Conrad
January 30, 1872.
My dear Mr. Rossetti,
I send you my newest piece, (in a magazine lately started away off in Kansas, fifteen or eighteen hundred miles inland)—And also improve the occasion to write you a too-long-delayed letter.1 Your letters of July 9 last, & Oct. 8,2 were welcomed—since which last nothing from you has reached me.
John Burroughs returned with glowing accounts of England, & heartiest satisfaction from his visits to you, & talks, &c.3 I saw him day before yesterday. He is well & flourishing.
I still remain here as clerk in a government department—find it not unpleasant—find it allows quite a free margin—working hours from 9 to 3—work at present easy—my pay $1600 a year (paper)—
Washington is a broad, magnificent place in its natural features—avenues, spaces, vistas, environing hills, rivers, &c. all so ample, plenteous—& then, as you go on, fine, hard wide roads, (made by military engineers, in the war) leading far away down dale & over hill, many & many a mile—Often of full-moonlight nights I have a habit of going on long jaunts with some companion six, eight miles away into Virginia or Maryland over these roads. It is wonderfully inspiriting, with such new presentations. We have spells here, night or day, of the finest weather & atmosphere in the world. The nights especially are at times miracles of clearness & purity—the air dry, exhilarating. In fact, night or day, this whole District affords an inexhaustible mine of explorations, walks—soothing, sane, open air hours. To these mostly my habits are adjusted. I have good sturdy health—am fortunate enough to almost always get out of bed in the morning with a light heart & a good appetite—I read or study very little—spend two or three hours every day on the streets, or in frequented public places—come sufficiently in contact with all sorts of people—go not at all in "society" so-called—have however the blessing of some first-rate women friends—My life, upon the whole, toned down, flowing calm enough, democratic, on a cheap scale, popular, suitable, occupied sufficiently, enjoying a good deal—flecked, of course, with some clouds & shadows. I still keep in good flesh & weight. The photos I sent you last fall are faithful physiognomical likenesses. (I still have yours, carte, among a little special cluster before me on my desk door.)
My poetry remains yet, in substance, quite unrecognized here in the land for which it was written. The best established magazines & literary authorities (eminencies) quite ignore me & it. It has to this day failed to find an American publisher (as you perhaps know, I have myself printed the successive editions). And though there is a small minority of approval & discipleship, the great majority result continues to bring sneers, contempt & official coolness. My dismissal from moderate employment in 1865 by the Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Harlan,4 avowedly for the sole reason of my being the author of Leaves of Grass, still affords an indication of the high conventional feeling. The journals are often inveterately spiteful. For example, in a letter in the correspondence of a leading New York paper (Tribune) from a lady tourist,5 an authoress of repute, an allusion in the letter to mountain scenery was illustrated by an innocent quotation from, & passing complimentary allusion to me. The letter was all & conspicuously published, except that the editors carefully cut out the lines quoting from & alluding to me, mutilating the text & stultifying the authoress to her great vexation. This to give you a clearer notion—(and I distinctly wish my friends in England writing about my book for print, to describe this state of things here.)6
Of general matters here, I will only say that the country seems to have entirely recuperated from the war. Except in a part of the Southern States, every thing is teeming & busy—more so than ever. Productiveness, wealth, population, improvements, material activity, success, results—beyond all measure, all precedent—& then spreading over such an area—three to four millions square miles—Great debits & offsets, of course—but how grand this oceanic plenitude & ceaselessness of domestic comfort—universal supplies of eating & drinking, houses to live in, farms to till, copious traveling, migratory habits, plenty of money, extravagance even—true there is something meteoric about it, and yet from an overarching view it is Kosmic & real enough—It gives glow & enjoyment to me, being & moving amid the whirl & din, intensity, material success here—as I am myself sufficiently sluggish & ballasted to stand it—though the best is with reference to its foundation for & bearing on the future—(as you doubtless see in my book7 how this thought prevails with me.)
But I will turn to more special, personal topics.
Prof. Dowden's Westminster Review article last fall made us all feel pleased & proud. He and I have since had some correspondence, & I have come to consider him (like yourself) fully as near to me in personal as literary relations. I have just written to him at some length.
I have received word direct from Mrs. Gilchrist.8 Nothing in my life, nor result of my book, has brought me more comfort & support every way—nothing has more spiritually soothed me—than the warm appreciation & friendship of that true, full-grown woman—(for I still use the old Saxon word, for highest need.)
I have twice received letters from Tennyson—& most cordial & hearty letters. He sends me an invitation to visit him.
I deeply appreciate Swinburne's courtesy & approbation. I ought to have written him to acknowledge the very high compliment of his poem addressed to me in Songs Before Sunrise9—but I am just the most wretched & procrastinating letter-writer alive. I have sent him my last edition,10 to care of Ellis & Green. If I should indeed come to England, I will call upon him among the first, & personally thank him.
I received, some while since, a generous, impulsive, affectionate letter from Joaquin Miller11—but have not yet met him personally. I hear he is now in far-off Oregon, amid the grand scenery there, studying & writing. I saw in a newspaper that he was writing a play.
Wm O'Connor, wife & daughter have just gone on a month's pleasure trip to Cuba.
I received some time since a most frank & kind letter, and brief printed poem, from John Addington Symonds, of Bristol, England. The poem Love and Death I read & re-read with admiration. I have just written to Mr. Symonds.12
I received Roden Noel's "Study" in Dark Blue13 for Oct. & Nov. last, & appreciate it—& also a letter from himself. I have sent him a copy of my last edition, & intend to write to him.
I proposed by letter to Mr. Ellis (Ellis & Green) of London to publish my poems complete, verbatim. Mr. Ellis has written me a good friendly letter, but declined the proposition.14
I shall be happy to receive a copy of your Selections from American Poets,15 when ready—& always, always, glad, my friend, to hear from you—hope, indeed, you will not punish me for my own delay—but write me fully & freely.
Solicitor's office Treasury,
Washington, D. C.
U. S. America
P.S. Will send the magazine by next mail.
1. Whitman refers to his poem "The Mystic Trumpeter," which was published in the February 1872 issue of the Kansas Magazine. [back]
2. See William Michael Rossetti's letters of July 9 and October 8, 1871 to Whitman. [back]
3. Burroughs had gone to London and Dublin in the fall of 1871; Whitman suggested in his September 19, 1871 letter to Edward Dowden that Burroughs might visit Dowden. Writing to Whitman on October 30, 1871, Burroughs said: "Rossetti I am drawn toward, and though my first impression of him was that he was a high flown literary cockney, yet I soon saw that…he was a genuine good fellow" (Syracuse University). [back]
4. James Harlan was the Secretary of Interior who had peremptorily fired Walt Whitman; see the notes to Whitman's June 9, 1865 letter. Harlan had resigned in 1866 and had returned to the Senate in the following year. [back]
6. Since, with the exception of the Tribune incident, all this material was familiar to William Michael Rossetti, Whitman was writing for his English friends. Rossetti, however, commented at length on this passage on March 31, 1872: "But certainly it does seem that in degree & duration the obduracy of Americans against your work is something abnormal & unworthy." [back]
7. Democratic Vistas. [back]
9. "To Walt Whitman in America" appeared in this volume. [back]
10. This copy, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard, is inscribed: "To | Alg. Chs. Swinburne | from | Walt Whitman, | Washington, U.S. | November, 1871." [back]
11. On September 30, 1871, Joaquin Miller (1839–1913) had concluded his letter: "I am tired of books too and take but one with me; one Rossetti gave me, a 'Walt Whitman'—Grand old man! The greatest, and truest American I know, with the love of your son. Joaquin Miller." In an entry in his journal dated August 1, 1871, Burroughs recorded Whitman's fondness for Miller's poetry; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931), 60. Whitman met Miller for the first time later in 1872; he wrote of a visit with Miller in a July 19, 1872 letter to Charles W. Eldridge. [back]
12. Symonds (1840–1893) was the author of Renaissance in Italy (1875–1886) and of Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), translator of Michelangelo's sonnets, and a minor poet. Whitman wrote to Symonds on January 27, 1872. [back]
13. On September 13, 1871, Moncure Conway wrote that "the Hon Roden Noel (one of the Lord Byron blood, and author of a pleasing volume of Poems) submitted to me recently a very long and careful review of your work." "A Study of Walt Whitman, The Poet of Modern Democracy" appeared in Dark Blue, 1 (1871), 241–253, 336–349; reprinted in Essays on Poetry and Poets (1886), 304–341. Burroughs, who did not "think the article amounts to shucks," sent it to Walt Whitman on October 30, 1871 (Syracuse University). On November 3, 1871, Noel (1834–1894) sent Walt Whitman an inscribed copy of his essay: "The proclamation of comradeship seems to me the grandest & most tremendous fact in your work & I heartily thank you for it." Symonds dedicated to Noel Many Moods—A Volume of Verse (1878). Walt Whitman sent Noel a copy of the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
14. Whitman made this proposal in his August 12 (?), 1871 letter to Ellis. Ellis replied on August 23, 1871: since there were poems in Leaves of Grass which "would not go down in England," he believed that it would "not be worth while to publish it again in a mutilated form." [back]
15. Rossetti informed Walt Whitman on October 8, 1871 that he was preparing "a vol. of Selections from American Poets," which appeared in 1872 as American Poems with a dedication to Walt Whitman, "the greatest of American poets." [back]