Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Harrison Riley to Walt Whitman, 5 March 1879

Date: March 5, 1879

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03351

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: Natalie O'Neal, Alex Kinnaman, and Nicole Gray

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St. George's Farm, Totley, near Sheffield

My dear Friend and Master,

About twelve years since, I was in Boston and looking at the books of an old book-stall in a passage of Washington St. when I saw your "Leaves of Grass", opened the book, and saw a Revelation. I was 'poor', the book was 'expensive', but I felt that whatever the 'cost' I must posses it. No words will serve to indicate the value your living words have been to me. In all my troubles and successes I have been strengthened by your divine teachings. You are not only inspired yourself, but you inspire others. Though most of the people I have read extracts, or lent your book, to have utterly failed to appreciate you, I have never faltered in my faith and love, and have always esteemed you as the Messenger of this age. (My words seem utterly paltry and drivelling, and I am thoroughly ashamed of them. But you know what I desire to utter.)

A few years since, I met a lady, named Miss Bernard, in London. She was from Washington, and was personally acquainted with you, and she promised to send me your photograph. I have never received it, and wish you to send it, and also to send me, if you can, a copy of your original edition of 'Leaves of Grass'. (I lent mine, and it was lost, and the copy I now have is dated 1872—and includes additional poems)

You will know of John Ruskin,—'Professor Ruskin'. He is indeed a Master, and a Man eminently Just and Brave. He is an inspired Man, and his utterances are always classical, and mostly divine. A few days ago I sent a few extracts of your poems to him, and—though he was ill—he at once answered as follows:—

'Dear Riley

These are quite glorious things you have sent me.1 Who is Walt (Walter?) Whitman, and is much of him like this!

Ever gratefully yours
J Ruskin'

Please know that Ruskin is esteemed as the greatest critic of scripture, sculpture, and painting that we have any knowledge of, and that he is extremely careful not to use adjectives unsuitably. He writes 'glorious', and, by that, means really the utmost degree of excellence. I never knew him use the word before, except as describing some scenery or valorous action. It is very seldom indeed that he has used the word—though his 'works' are so many that a complete set costs about £120. The book and photograph I wish to forward to Ruskin. The money cost shall be remitted—by or for him. He will be greatly pleased to receive (and thank you for) your kind acquiescence to this request.

As for myself—since I read your book I have been striving to work as a good Pupil and Companion. You have sent me through poverty and many cruel tribulations, but I have never whined over my work. I joined the 'International' and published and edited the only paper it has had in England. I stuck to it, while I had 'a shot in the locker' and never once was tempted to utter a cowardly, sneaking, or treacherous word. Out of the strife, through the poverty, and despite the offers of bribes, and attempts to intimidate I came out clean handed and clean hearted—always supported by your great teachings.

My dear Master—do write to me—your faithful pupil and lover. My words will not prove my love, but could you have seen my work since I first read your divine Message—you would know I loved you, and that you had gained one more loving soldier for your campaign.

William Harrison Riley


1. This transcription of Ruskin's letter has been marked with red ink by an unknown hand, and the word "glorious" has been underlined. [back]


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