Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Michael Rossetti to Walt Whitman, 31 March [1872]

Date: March 31, [1872]

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01889

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.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, Ashley Lawson, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Amanda J. Axley, Erel Michaelis, and Stephanie Blalock

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56 Euston Sq.
London, N.W.
31 March.

My dear Mr. Whitman,

Your very interesting & valued letter of 30 Jan.y 1 ought to have been answered before now. As you are willing to confess in it, however, to being an irregular correspondent, I gladly avail myself of so tempting an opening for saying that I am the same—& shall feel confident that my delay is pardoned.

I read with much zeal the poem2 you kindly sent me, with its deep sonata–like alternations of emotion.

It was a peculiar pleasure to me to get acquainted with Mr. Burroughs,3 to whom w.d you please remember me with great cordiality whenever the chance occurs. He may have told you—& indeed it cannot have needed telling—that you were a very principal subject of our discourse, & of my reiterated enquiries.

It interests me to see in your letter that you have a habit of taking moonlight walks out of Washington: I used to find walks of this kind highly enjoyable, & have frequently indulged in them years ago. In my youth I was living in habits of daily & brotherly intimacy with various painters (Millais,4 Holman Hunt,5 &c); & from time to time we w.d all sally out, 6 or 7, say towards 11 at night, & pass the whole night, & sometimes the succeeding day as well, tramping about, & enjoying the varying effects of night, dawn, &c—studied of course with peculiar interest, & directness of observation & purpose, by the painters: sometimes, instead of walking, we w.d row up the river from nightfall to day. There is a goodish deal of agreeable country round London: but, unless one lives quite out in the suburbs, it takes miles of walking to get even to the beginning of anything green or rural. I can easily imagine that to walk out of Washington at night "into Virginia or Maryland"6 is an experience of a very different sort, in point of grandeur & impressiveness. Tho' indeed, from some points of view wh. you of all men realize most intensely, nothing surely can be more impressive than the unmeasured size & colossal agglomeration of life in London—none the less felt thro the interminable streets when all are asleep, & scarcely a passenger met athwart one's path. The interval when the streets are really deserted to this extent is but brief: I suppose from about 2¾ to 4 a.m. is the most vacant time.

What you say about the insulting & in fact ungrateful treatment wh. your poems continue to receive in America is deeply interesting, tho' painful. I suppose it is a very general if not universal experience that anything that is at once great & extremely novel encounters for some considerable time much more hostility than acceptance, & so far your experience is not surprising—rather indeed a testimonial, when properly considered, to the great intrinsic value of your writings. But certainly it does seem that in degree & duration the obduracy of Americans agst. your work is something abnormal & unworthy—especially considering the spirit of intense patriotic love & national insight wh. pervades your book thro & thro. That America sh.d be so wanting (in this matter at least) in large receptiveness & quick intuition is distressing to those who love her—among whom I may humbly but truly profess myself. It seems as if she were even less capable than others of appreciating great work vital with the very marrow of her bones & corpuscles of her blood: perhaps this very affinity is partly the reason—but at any rate a bad & perverse reason. In this country there are of course very diverse knots of opinion, & schools of thinking & criticism, & to several of these your works are still an exasperation & an offence: but others accept & exalt you with all readiness of love & delight, & I think I may safely say that it is these wh have in their holding the future of English opinion on such matters for some years to come.—But I will say no more on this tack. For myself (with others) who believe in you with the certainty of full conviction, all these considerations are poor & slight: the one thing is the work itself, & the maker of the work, which has a destiny as assured & as limitless as that of any other great product of the soul or of nature.

I have not met Prof.r Dowden7 since last summer (or spring perhaps): he is seldom, I think, out of Ireland. What I saw of him I liked particularly. He seems an uncommonly young man to be a Professor—less than 30 to look at; & is in no common degree good–looking, pleasant, open, & sound–minded. There are few men, I sh.d say, more likely to have their sympathies in literary matters sane & right—guided also by the fullest measure of lettered cultivation. Mrs. Gilchrist8 I dined with not many weeks ago. She seems to have fairly recovered from a very exhaustive & indeed dangerous illness that oppressed her of late (say from the early autumn of 1870 to the late summer of 1871)—only that she is not so capable as she used to be of continuous mental or bodily strain. It was a pleasure to see her surrounded by her family, the type of a true mother, guiding & nurturing all aright in her children, mind & body. The eldest son9 bids fair to have a distinguished & prosperous career as a mining engineer: a younger son10 is greatly set on being a painter. One of the daughters11 is just about grown up, the other,12 I suppose, 10 or 11 years of age.—Mr. J. A. Symonds13 I don't know personally; but, about the time when my selection from your Poems14 came out, he wrote to me (2 or 3 letters) showing himself to have been for some while past one of your very ardent admirers. Tennyson15 I have known for years, & like much: I think him deep–hearted & high–minded, tho it may be true (as has often been said, & sometimes not in a kindly spirit) that he is somewhat too self–centred, & morbidly sensitive. He hates all the vulgarizing aspects of fame, & some people find him present a very obtuse exterior to their advances or approaches: for myself, I can truly say my experience is the direct contrary. I think you & he w.d understand each other, & feel on a very friendly footing. Tennyson (as I dare say you know) is a remarkably fine manly person to look at, with a noble mould of face, & very powerful frame. He must be 6 foot 1 in height, I sh.d suppose—but not now so erect as in his prime.—If you do at any time come to England, to see Tennyson or others, I need not say what a delight it w.d be to me to know you personally—& several of my friends w.d amply share my feeling.

My vol. of Selections from American Poets16 doesn't seem likely to be published yet awhile. It has been completed for mo.s past: but, as it is one vol. of a series, & others of the vol.s are in course of printing, the printer may probably leave it over for a few mo.s to come. I have in the briefest terms dedicated it to you (& hope you won't object). Any other dedication—at least, if to any one on your side of the Atlantic—wd be a fatuity.

Believe me honoured to be called your friend,
W. M. Rossetti

I have no doubt you will have felt sorrow as I did—tho indeed sorrow is not fully the right word, nor the right emotion—at reading lately of the death of Mazzini.17 I, who am ¾ Italian in blood, have naturally a strong feeling on these subjects: & I regard Mazzini as the noblest of patriots, & the man to whom more than any other single person not even excepting Garibaldi,18 the lovers of Italian unity are beholden. It is often a pleasure to me to reflect that, with all the miserable oppression & depression under wh. she has so long been labouring Italy has after all produced the 3 greatest public men (to my thinking such) of the last 100 years in Europe—

1. Napoleon I,19 the greatest genius as a conqueror & ruler (I suppose any one is to be allowed to admire him enormously, whether one approves him or not—& to call him a Frenchman, or anything save an Italian, is meaningless)

2. Mazzini, the greatest of ideal statesmen—patriots—

3. Garibaldi, the greatest & most flawless personal hero.

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. See Whitman's letter to Rossetti of January 30, 1872. Whitman's letter substantiates the date-year of this letter as 1872, as Rossetti quotes from and references Whitman's January 30 letter. [back]

2. "The Mystic Trumpeter" appeared in the Kansas Magazine on February 1, 1872, and was reprinted in the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle on February 7, 1872. [back]

3. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. John Everett Millais (1829–1896) was an English realist painter who helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, known for his landscapes and his controversial Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), which depicted the Holy Family in an unswept carpenter's workshop; perhaps the most scathing critique came from Charles Dickens, who suggested that Millais had painted the Virgin Mary as a "hopeless" alcoholic, "so horrible in her ugliness . . . a snuffy old woman" (see Dickens, "Old Lamps for New Ones," Household Words 12 [15 June 1850], 12–14). [back]

5. William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) was an English realist painter who helped found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and whose work was noted for its attention to detail and its depiction of scenes from literature and history. [back]

6. See Whitman's letter to Rossetti of January 30, 1872. Whitman writes: "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." [back]

7. Edward Dowden (1843–1913), professor of English literature at the University of Dublin, was one of the first to critically appreciate Whitman's poetry, particularly abroad, and was primarily responsible for Whitman's popularity among students in Dublin. In July 1871, Dowden penned a glowing review of Whitman's work in the Westminster Review entitled "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman," in which Dowden described Whitman as "a man unlike any of his predecessors. . . . Bard of America, and Bard of democracy." In 1888, Whitman observed to Traubel: "Dowden is a book-man: but he is also and more particularly a man-man: I guess that is where we connect" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, June 10, 1888, 299). For more, see Philip W. Leon, "Dowden, Edward (1843–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. Anne Burrows Gilchrist (1828–1885) was the author of one of the first significant pieces of criticism on Leaves of Grass, titled "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman (From Late Letters by an English Lady to W. M. Rossetti)," The Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–59. Gilchrist's long correspondence with Whitman indicates that she had fallen in love with the poet after reading his work; when the pair met in 1876 when she moved to Philadelphia, Whitman never fully returned her affection, although their friendship deepened after that meeting. For more information on their relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. Percy Carlyle Gilchrist (1851–1935) was a British chemist and metallurgist, and the son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. Along with his cousin, Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, he developed the Thomas-Gilchrist process of producing steel from phosphoric pig iron during the late 1870s. See Marion Walker Alcaro, Walt Whitman's Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1991), 252n28. [back]

10. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. Beatrice Carwardine Gilchrist (1854–1881) was the second child (and first daughter) of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. An aspiring physician, Beatrice took the needed preparatory classes but was barred (as were all women) from becoming a medical student in England. As a result, she attended the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. She held positions as a physician in Berne, Switzerland, and later Edinburgh before committing suicide by fatally ingesting hydrocyanic acid in 1881. [back]

12. Grace "Giddy" Gilchrist (1859–1947) was the youngest child of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. An aspiring singer, Grace trained as a contralto and married architect Albert Henry Frend in 1897, though the couple divorced twelve years later. Before her marriage to Frend, Grace became involved with playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950); an 1888 letter from Shaw to Grace's brother Herbert Gilchrist suggests that the Gilchrists may have disapproved of Shaw's relationship with Grace. [back]

13. 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]

14. William Michael Rossetti prepared a British edition of Whitman's writings called Poems by Walt Whitman that John Camden Hotten published in 1868. About half of the poems from the 1867 American edition of Leaves of Grass were removed for the British edition. In his twenty-seven page "Prefatory Notice," Rossetti justified his editorial decisions, which included editing potentially objectionable content and removing entire poems: "My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest." For more information on this book, see Edward Whitley, "Introduction to the British Editions of Leaves of Grass." [back]

15. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Whitman wrote to Tennyson in 1871 or late 1870, probably shortly after the visit of Cyril Flower in December, 1870, but the letter is not extant (see Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man [New York: F. P. Harper, 1896], 223). Tennyson's first letter to Whitman is dated July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

16. William Michael Rossetti edited the series Moxon's Popular Poets from 1870 to 1875. The volume of American poems to which he refers was to be the seventeenth volume in the series and was dedicated to Walt Whitman; it was published in 1872. [back]

17. Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) argued for the unification of an independent Italian republic in the 1840s, a political vision achieved when King Victor Emanuel II (1820–1878) established the capital of the newly-unified Italy at Rome on July 2, 1871. [back]

18. Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882) was one of the heroes of Italian unification, who formed the red-shirted Italian Legion in 1843. On October 3, 1867 Henry Clapp sent Walt Whitman a clipping from the New York Times about Garibaldi: "I wonder why it made me think of you!" In the account (reprinted in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, June 5, 1888, 1:268–269), Garibaldi is characterized as "a rowdy," an opponent stylistically of "the small flute of the Academies," "the expression of the land and the age that gave him birth," and "a mixture of the prophet and the child." When Traubel in 1888 asked how Walt Whitman reacted to the newspaper article, Whitman replied: "I can see some of the features—yes. ... As to being any way associated with Garibaldi—that is the crowning tribute. Garibaldi belongs to the divine eleven!" (270). [back]

19. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1825) was the military leader who, after the French Revolution, became the first Emperor of France—Napoleon I—from 1804 to 1815. As Emperor, Napoleon led the Napoleonic Wars in an attempt to conquer Europe but was defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. [back]


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