Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Ernest Rhys to Walt Whitman, 12 December 1888

Date: December 12, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03335

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.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Stefan Schöberlein, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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11, Cowley St., Westminster, S.W.
12th Decr. 1888.

Dear Walt Whitman,

I have been in London this fortnight & more now, & have completely settled at last in this quiet, old-fashioned little street behind Westminster Abbey. From Wales I went to Somersetshire—to King Arthur's Vale of Avallon, for a week; then to Liverpool, to lecture on "The Modern Novel,"—on the whole I think the best lecture I have given yet. The practice I had in America, & the vocal exercises that I used to indulge in during my mountain rambles in Wales this fall, seemed to have given me greater power & ease of locution. &c. Ten days ago another chance to lecture cropped up unexpectedly, in the place of a sick man, before a large audience of working men,—chiefly socialists; so I gave them as good an account of Leaves of Grass in connection with my visits to you & to America generally as I could at an hour or two's notice. To my great delight, there proved to be several men there who knew L. of G. & who were able to join with good effect in the discussion afterwards. Again last night I was asked to go to a society's meeting where a paper on L. of G. would be read, by William Clarke,1 a young lecturer & journalist, & a very able paper it proved to be. During its delivery who should come in but Mrs. Costelloe,2 with Evelyn Nordhoff,3 & after the paper, Mrs. C. joined in the discussion, speaking with wonderful ease & grace, & in fact rather casting into the shade the efforts of the rest of us. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. C & Miss N. had to go, & I saw them into a hansom, not expecting of course to see them again; but when an hour later or so I was sauntering home, red glare in the sky in the direction of Grosvenor Road, but on the opposite side of the river, & the sound of fire-bells & galloping horses in the distance, drew me out of my way. On reaching Lambeth Bridge, I found Doulton's great pottery had caught fire in one of its buildings & was making a fine blaze, right opposite Costelloe's; & I went along then, expecting to find some of them on the balcony watching the spectacle. They had not seen it however, & were glad to come out to Lambeth Bridge where we stood till the fire was got under. The effect of the red glare on the water, with the black barges shooting by, & the river fire-engine's steaming up, was singularly striking, especially in contrast with the pale, cold moon which shone on the other side. Altogether a wonderful scene!

After being so long in the quiet of the mountains, you can imagine how these excitements of town affect one. Here in Westminster, I am in a capital situation for making the most of what London can give one of a healthy & helpful kind. Charing Cross is only a short walk distant, with the Strand & its theatres & crowded pavements. The river is almost at the back-door, or at any rate only a short street away; so that I have the ferries close at hand, & trains & busses are equally handy. My American trip seems to have given me a new energy of assimilation too. Never before were all the sights & sounds of London so full of suggestion; I think you must have unwittingly given me some of your power of co-ordinating imaginatively the everyday experiences of the crowd & the life of the streets. (By the way, have you seen 'The Century' for Decr.? There's a vivid account of London by Hy. James,4 with clever sketches by Jo. Pennell,5 which gives a very true impression of the whole thing.) And now I must stop for to-day, for I have a great deal of work to get through. Don't forget about the promised Novr. Boughs6 & the collected complete works,7 which I want to review immediately!

with much love,
Ernest Rhys

I hear8 great account of Gilchrist as Art professor! Tell him the Hobby-Horsemen are so much struck by his success, that they think of following him en-masse to Philadelphia.

Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. William Clarke (1852–1901) was a British socialist and journalist. After Whitman's death, he published an "appreciation" of the poet (Walt Whitman, London: Sonnenschein, 1892). [back]

2. Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff (1865–1898) was the first female bookbinder in the US. She had learned her trade in London and became aquainted with Costelloe there. [back]

4. Henry James (1843–1916) was an American-born writer and the author of such notable works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903). James spent most of his adult life in Europe, becoming a British subject in 1915. [back]

5. Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was an American author and etcher. He and his wife Elizabeth Robins were friends of Whitman in Camden. [back]

6. Whitman's November Boughs was published in October 1888 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. For more information on the book, see James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Whitman often referred to Complete Poems & Prose (1888) as his "big book." The volume was published by the poet himself in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]

8. Rhys wrote this postscript in the left margin of the first page of the letter. [back]


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