Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Ernest Rhys to Walt Whitman, 22–24 April 1889

Date: April 22–24, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03337

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: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Breanna Himschoot, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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London, S.W.1
22d April 1889.

Dear Walt Whitman,

This letter was to have been written five days ago; but, like many other things that I project, it had to be put off a while. Lately there have been many small events to break through the usual run of things, &, as you know, I have not a genius for despatch at any time. So letters & other writings have gone to the wall.

Last week my brother, Percy, who is an actor, came up to town with the news that he was going off to South Africa on a six-months' tour. He sails to-morrow afternoon by the "Norham Castle" from Blackwall, & to-day my Father & Mother, anxious to see the last of their boy, have arrived to bid him farewell. With them came also two old friends of mine,—Will Dircks,2 who is now Walter Scotts' right-hand man in the literary part of the publishing, and Joseph Skipsey,3 poet of north-country mining life, typical in rugged personal strength & general appearance of the Northumbrian coal-fields. It was a striking sight to see the crowds of holiday-makers who poured out of the excursion & other trains, when my brother & I went to meet these travellers early this morning. Easter Monday is a great day with both the Londoners, who go off into the country, and the country-folk, who come to London, to spend a holiday. Fortunately too, the sun is shining in a way to remind me of New York & Washington, & the Spring is making great progress in park & garden. If this sunshine lasts, the trees will soon be in full leaf, & then—Hey, for the life of the fields. Already—feeling somewhat pent up here in town—I think of a jaunt to North Wales, there to climb mountains and make friends with sun & wind & rain! Before that, however, there is Paris & the Exhibition to tempt one over the Channel. It is absurd that I have never yet found my way to France. One feels that over there one should have plenty of money to spend, and failing this I have waited & waited. But now there is little excuse for waiting longer, as excursions are being run at such low rates. So possibly the next letter you have from me will be dated Paris. In America I became infected somewhat with the itch for travel, & suppose I shall not rest now till I have wandered all over the globe.

24th April I take up the thread of this rough and ready scribble again, after two days' interval. Yesterday I went down to Blackwall to see my brother stowed safely on board the "Norham Castle." She is a fine, large boat, comfortably fitted, & well officered; & there was an interesting lot of passengers—including the actors & actresses of the Corp. which my brother has joined: I felt quite inclined to go off too. There is a great rush to South Africa at present—owing to the contagion of the gold & diamond mining fever. Several fine young fellows of my acquaintance—engineers &c. have gone out to Kimberley within the past year.

This morning I have been visiting various studios with Joseph Skipsey. This afternoon he has gone to see Oscar Wilde.4 It is good fun going about town with an outsider, a north-countryman like Skipsey, for he sees everything with such original eyes,—going into raptures over the flowers in Covent Garden Market, or the gleaming fish on the fish stalls. It is surely a great thing to have that fresh & poetic sense of these everyday details—that the over-cultured London man takes no interest in.

In the same way, it was pleasant to hear Alys Smith5 a few days back, when she had just returned from Italy & the Riviera, talking about London with as much enthusiasm as ever. She called the other afternoon, greatly to my sister Edith's delight, & gave us a characteristic account of her adventures. Logan6 often comes in too. The other day he & his father drove round here, & in my absence carried off Edith, who had never seen them before, for a long drive in the park. I have not seen Mrs. Costelloe7 of late. She has been rather unwell, ever since the baby's birth, & now she & her husband8 are staying down in Surrey.

I hear by the House of Parliament clock that is nearly post-time, so I must bring my gossip to an end. Next letter I must try & send you a more solid kind of writing,—but one cannot always be solid.

Logan Smith said that his sister had had a card from you lately. I hope that this means you are getting stronger & easier with the incoming of the Spring. Remembrances to Mrs. Davis,9 Gilchrist10 & all other friends

with love, yours
Ernest Rhys

24th11 General Boulanger12 arrived in London this afternoon,—another note in the Cosmopolitan symphony. London will get some fun out of him—if nothing else. He seems somewhat doubtfully heroic.

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. Rhys added a note dated the 24th in the left margin of this page. Because the letter is dated the 22nd, it has been placed at the end of this transcription as a postscript. [back]

2. Will Dircks of Newcastle upon Tyne had been friends with Rhys since the two attended school together. Dircks worked as a reader for Walter Scott Publishing. When Rhys, who held an editorial position at Walter Scott, created the Camelot Series and published Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1886), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1889), and Thoreau's Essays and Other Writings, Dircks wrote the introductions for these books. [back]

3. Joseph Skipsey (1832–1903) was a poet and songwriter from England's north-east. Skipsey is best known for "The Hartley Calamity," a poem lamenting a mining disaster in Hartley, Northumberland, in which 204 miners died. He was also known as "The Pitman Poet." Skipsey, a former miner himself, may have met Ernest Rhys during the latter's time as an engineer. See Rhys's July 7, 1885, letter to Whitman. [back]

4. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was an Irish poet and one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is known for such works as his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest[back]

5. Alyssa ("Alys") Whitall Pearsall Smith (1867–1951) was born in Philadelphia and became a Quaker relief organizer. She attended Bryn Mawr College and was a graduate of the class of 1890. She and her family lived in Britain for two years during her childhood and again beginning in 1888. She married the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1894; the couple later separated, and they divorced in 1921. Smith also served as the chair of a society committee that set up the "Mothers and Babies Welcome" (the St Pancras School for Mothers) in London in 1907; this health center, dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate, provided a range of medical and educational services for women. Smith was the daughter of Robert Pearsall and Hannah Whitall Smith, and she was the sister of Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945), the political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." [back]

6. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was an essayist and literary critic. He was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith, a minister and writer who befriended Whitman, and he was the brother of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, one of Whitman's most avid followers. For more information on Logan, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. 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]

8. Benjamin Francis Conn ("Frank") Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary Costelloe's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]

9. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [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. Rhys wrote this postscript on the left side of the first page of the letter. [back]

12. Georges Ernest Boulanger (1837–1891) was a French General and Politician who served as the Minister of War and a Member of the French Assembly. He fled to Brussels and London after a warrant was issued in Paris for his arrest for conspiracy and treasonable activities in April 1889. His supporters lost the general election later that year in July 1889, and he committed suicide two years later. [back]


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