Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Lionel Johnson to Walt Whitman, 20 October 1885

Date: October 20, 1885

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02367

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, "see notes Aug 22 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Nicole Gray, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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The College

Dear Walt Whitman:

I write to you, though personally unknown, as writing to a dear friend: because, though happy to call many about me by the name of friends, I have no truer friend than yourself: if friendship means the receiving of light and delight and strength from the spirit of a brother man. I have lived as yet but eighteen years: yet in all the constant thoughts and acts of my last few years, your words have been my guides and true oracles. I cannot hope to see you face to face, and tell you this: but you will at least believe it and feel that I am not writing from an unworthy spirit of self-assertion: but that I should feel shame for myself, were I not to show the reality of my gratitude to you, even through the weakness of words—you, whom I thankfully acknowledge for my veritable master and dear brother.

You, in your age and glorious approach to the sure future of death—you will know that I am speaking neither empty adulation nor shallow shams.

I am proud of belonging to the oldest school of any in England—to the great foundation of the strong priest and ruler, William of Wykeham: and it was under the shadows of the ancient walls of his college, still flourishing through the influence of his powerful personality, that I first received "Leaves of Grass" from the hands of a most dear friend. And the help and exaltation that I won from it have been won by many another boy and young man, of those in whose hands rests the immediate history of the coming years—to make it splendid with strong actions and strong asserted truths. It is in your works, as in the great powers of earth and sea, that the inspiring force of no school is to be found: certain to dare all things by the strength of body and soul inseparable.

Whether I am right or not in writing to you, I neither know nor care: I do know that I cannot keep silence.

I am, in love and reverence,
Lionel Johnson

Oct 20th 1885

Lionel Johnson (1867–1902) was an English poet and critic. With William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, and close Whitman associates Thomas W. H. Rolleston and Ernest Rhys, he was a member of the Rhymers' Club, a well-known group of writers who met in London in the 1890s, and whose members also included Lord Alfred Douglas and, briefly, Douglas's friend and lover Oscar Wilde, who were introduced to each other by Johnson. Discussing Johnson's letter with Horace Traubel, Whitman exclaimed: "it was a very remarkable letter . . . Keep a weather eye open for that boy: he will appear again" (With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, August 22, 1888).


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