Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Michael Rossetti to Walt Whitman, 14 April [1875]

Date: [April 14, 1875]

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01884

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "W. M. Rossetti. April 14, '75," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Marie Ernster, Noelle Bates, Amanda J. Axley, Jeff Hill, and Stephanie Blalock

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56 Euston Sq.
London, N.W.
14 April.1

Dear Mr. Whitman,

I am always proud to receive any scrap of your handwriting, & pleased as well: tho' the pleasure was a somewhat melancholy one yesterday, owing to the far from favourable account wh. you give of yourself. It seems a singularly perverse arrangement of nature (but you are not the man to complain of her) that you, with your exceptionally vigorous mould, & still hardly beginning to be an elderly man, sh.d be subject to so lingering as well as severe an attack.2 Believe that you have in this country some most sincere sympathizers, to whom news of your complete recovery wd be among the very best news that they cd hear.

I look forward with great interest to your proposed volume of prose & verse. The last thing I saw of yours was that temperate & discriminating but yet hearty (or it wd not be yours) estimate of Burns.3 I put something about it into a literary weekly review I write in, The Academy.4 This was copied into some (I dare say numerous) English papers; & one Editor wrote asking what was the American paper in wh. your remarks had been printed, as he wished to look them up, & reprint them in full—wh. has probably been done ere now. I shall now put into the Academy the substance of your last note, & of the article in the New Republic.5 Symonds6 therein mentioned (at least I suppose it is the same Symonds) entered years ago into a correspondence with me, on the sole basis of his great admiration of your poems. Clifford7 is regarded as a shining light among our younger men of science, very bold in his tone of thought.

I forget what the date may have been when I last wrote to you: more shame to me perhaps, as showing that it must at any rate have been a long while ago. Perhaps it may even have been before May 1873. In that month I went to Italy on a short trip with some friends, one of them being the daughter,8 whom I had known from childhood, of one of my oldest intimates Ford Madox Brown9 (a distinguished historical painter—she herself being also a painter of no small attainment). Before we came back from the trip, we had resolved that we had better part no more, & in March 1874 we married. My wife is greatly interested in you & what concerns you, & bids me not fail to say that she "admires you as much as I do". I remember that her sister,10 then perhaps barely 17 years of age, seemed more fascinated with your poems, when my selection of them came out towards 1868, than with any other poetical work she had ever seen. She also is an able painter—now married to Dr. Hueffer,11 a German learned in musical & other matters, who has of late contributed some musical articles to the N.Y. Tribune. There was also a brother, Oliver Madox Brown,12 who showed a singular extent of genius, both as painter & as writer: a romance of his, Gabriel Denver, was published in 1873, & his other remaining writings will probably soon be issued. Unfortunately he died in Novr. last of pyæmia, aged less than 20. Many a time have I heard him refer to your writings in an enthusiastic spirit.

Last month I for the first time in my life faced a public audience (in Birmingham) to deliver a lecture—on Shelley:13 & I found myself less unfitted for the task than I had apprehended. It was a written lecture. There must be a great satisfaction in addressing a large audience, for one who can speak wholly or almost extempore, & who feels the magnetic personal thrill between his hearers & himself. You, I think, have on various occasions experienced this pleasure.

This afternoon I shall be seeing one of the interesting old men surviving from a past generation—Trelawny14, the friend of Shelley & Byron.15 He has always been a wonderfully strong man, in all senses of the word: & now, well past 80, he wears no under-clothing & no great coat, bathes constantly in cold water & in the sea, prefers to dispense with stockings as he sits at home slippered—&c. He has been in all parts of the world—N. & S. America included: always markedly temperate—even in his youth, when the contrary habit was universally prevalent here.

I hope I have not wearied you with this talk. At all events believe me to be always

Yours with affection,
W. M. Rossetti

Have you wholly relinquished the idea of visiting Europe?

William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868, Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to Frederick S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: London | 3 | AP14 | 75. NEW YORK | [illegible] [back]

2. Whitman suffered a stroke in 1873 that left him partially paralyzed and recovering for several years. [back]

3. Robert Burns (1759–1796) was widely regarded as Scotland's national poet. An early Romantic poet who wrote in both Scots and English (often though not exclusively inflected by Scottish dialect), Burns is perhaps best known for his poems "Auld Lang Syne," "Tam o' Shanter" and "To a Mouse" (from which the title of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is derived). Of Burns, Whitman wrote in November Boughs: "Though so much is to be said in the way of fault-finding, drawing black marks, and doubtless severe literary criticism . . . after full retrospect of his works and life, the aforesaid 'odd-kind chiel' remains to my heart and brain as almost the tenderest, manliest, and (even if contradictory) dearest flesh-and-blood figure in all the streams and clusters of by-gone poets." For Whitman's full opinion of Burns as it appeared in November Boughs, see "Robert Burns as Poet and Person," November Boughs (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1888), 57–64. [back]

4. Founded by the scholar and entrepreneur Charles Appleton (1841–1879), The Academy was a literature review published monthly in London at its inception in 1869 and, later, published as a weekly until 1902, when it merged with another periodical, entitled Literature[back]

5. As yet we have no information about this publication. [back]

6. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

8. Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti (1843–1894) was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, model and intellectual. She was the daughter of painter Ford Madox Brown (of whom she wrote an unpublished biography) and his first wife, Elisabeth Bromley. She married critic and writer William Michael Rossetti in 1874. An active feminist, she was a signatory of the national petition for women's suffrage and wrote a biography of Mary Shelley, published in 1890. She started suffering from tubercolosis in 1885 and died in San Remo, Italy, in 1894. [back]

9. Born in France, Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) was a British painter and designer. He was also the father-in-law of the English editor William Michael Rossetti. [back]

10. Catherine Madox Brown Hueffer (1850–1927) was an artist and model. She married music critic Francis Hueffer. [back]

11. Francis Hueffer (1845–1889) was a German-English librettist and music critic. He was married to Catherine Madox Brown. After the death of Oliver Madox Brown (1855–1874), the son of Ford Madox Brown, William M. Rossetti and Hueffer edited a posthumous collection of young Brown's stories. [back]

12. Oliver Madox Brown (1855–1874) was the son of the English painter Ford Madox Brown. Oliver was a painter as well as a writer. He died at the age of nineteen as a result of blood poisoning, leaving several of his works unpublished. William M. Rossetti and Francis Hueffer edited a posthumous collection of Brown's stories including "The Dwale Bluth" and "The Black Swan." [back]

13. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was an English lyric poet and central figure of the Romantic movement. [back]

14. Edward John Trelawny (1792–1881) was a British writer and adventurer. He published Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron in 1858. [back]

15. George Gordon Byron (1788–1824), often referred to simply as "Lord Byron," was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement. He is famous for his poems, including "She Walks in Beauty," "When We Two Parted," and "So, we'll go no more a-roving," and infamous for his scandalous affairs and celebrity status. [back]


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