Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Gosse, Sir Edmund (1849–1928)
Author:
King, Jerry F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A popular British poet, critic, and literary biographer, Sir Edmund Gosse wrote more than sixty books between 1873 and 1928. He is best remembered for his personal memoir, Father and Son (1908).

In 1873 Gosse had sent Walt Whitman a copy of his own first book of poems, On Viol and Flute (1873), together with an effusive letter in which he declared himself to be "the new person drawn toward you . . . I draw only closer and closer to you" (Traubel 245). It was signed, "your sincere disciple" (246). Some years later, in the 1880s, Gosse was on a lecture tour in the United States and was able to visit with Whitman for several hours in his Camden home. By the time of the interview Gosse had apparently become much less enthusiastic about Whitman's poetry. In his essay about their interview, however, Gosse presented a clear and favorable picture of Whitman. He said that he had gone to see him as a "stiff necked unbeliever" but that he left with "a heart full of affection for the beautiful old man" (Critical 100, 106).

Gosse chose not to reveal much about their conversation. He devoted much of the essay to his theory that Whitman's poetry is "[l]iterature in the condition of protoplasm, an intellectual organism so simple that it takes the instant impression of whatever mood approaches it" (97). Gosse saw this as explaining why some readers liked Whitman while they were young but became less enthusiastic as they aged. The essay was not published during Whitman's lifetime. It first appeared in April of 1894 and was included by Gosse in his Critical Kit-Kats (1896). In a conversation with Horace Traubel in 1888 Whitman included Gosse in a list of several British critics who "seem to understand me" (Traubel 245), but in a letter to Richard Bucke in 1889 he characterized Gosse as "one of the amiable conventional wall-flowers of literature" (Whitman 392).

Gosse's last word on Whitman was not until 1927. In the last of his books, he concluded a review of John Bailey's new Walt Whitman by saying, "that is really the one subject of Walt Whitman, the masculinity of other men. . . . It is best not to inquire too closely about all this, but to accept Walt Whitman for what he gives . . . the undeniable beauty and originality of his strange unshackled rhapsody" (Leaves and Fruit 211).

Bibliography

Bailey, John. Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Gosse, Sir Edmund. Critical Kit-Kats. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1896.

———. Leaves and Fruit. London: Heinemann, 1927.

Thwaite, Ann. Edmund Gosse, A Literary Landscape, 1849–1928. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1984.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 4. New York: New York UP, 1969.

Woolf, James D. Edmund Gosse. New York: Twayne, 1972.


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