Selected Criticism

"To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire" (1856)
Oates, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire" appeared in the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856) as "Liberty Poem for Asia, Africa, Europe, America, Australia, Cuba, and The Archipelagoes of the Sea." It contains a number of lines from the 1855 Preface. Succeeding editions presented many changes of title, cluster position, and wording. It became "To a Foiled Revolter or Revoltress" in 1860 and 1867, and took its familiar title thereafter.

In 1860, "Foil'd" was included in the "Messenger Leaves" cluster; it was in no cluster in 1867; then in 1871 and 1876 it appeared as one of six poems in "Songs of Insurrection." Finally Whitman placed it in "Autumn Rivulets."

"Foil'd" is a speech of encouragement in the midst of political failure. Its apparent addressee is the European "revolter" or "revoltress," who is exhorted not to give up hope—for the personified "Liberty" is an inexpungable element in the very nature of life. The poem concludes by turning defeat on its head, claiming that not only victory but also "death and dismay are great."

That final word hints at pregnancy ("great with child"), particularly when read in context of the "latent" figure of Liberty, "patiently waiting." It expresses the theme of natural cycle and regeneration implicit in Whitman's master metaphor of the grass. Here the cycle is both political and spiritual, but its earthy roots are suggested in the poem's positioning after "The City Dead-House" and "This Compost" and before "Unnamed Lands." All proclaim Whitman's faith in a moral and natural economy in which nothing is ever lost. The 1850 poem "Resurgemus"—included in Leaves of Grass as "Europe"—also voices it: "Not a grave of the murder'd for freedom but grows seed for freedom, in its turn to bear seed."

Like "Resurgemus," "Foil'd" is a product of the politically turbulent decade preceding 1855, during which the activist Whitman speechified for his Democratic party and edited partisan newspapers. It embodies both the heady hopes of 1848, the "year of revolutions," and the dismal aftermath of the 1850s, when the cause of democracy abroad and antislavery at home became mired in setback and compromise. The original poem's several references to slavery, later removed—like the excoriating political letter Whitman appended to the 1856 edition—indicate a domestic dimension.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Reynolds, Larry J. "1848 and the Origins of Leaves of Grass." ATQ 1 (1987): 291–299.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.