Skip to main content

Edward Dowden to Walt Whitman, 12 April 1873

 loc.01493.001_large.jpg see notes July 6 & 9 1888 My dear Mr Whitman,

Thank you for the kind thought which sent me the newspaper containing good news of your health.1 It concerns me & others here very much. A few days before the paper came I had heard for the first time—through a friend in Italy—a report unauthenticated that you were very seriously ill. The paragraph in the newspaper was therefore a relief as well as a sorrow. One's feeling about such apparent evil I find is very much controlled by the nature of the person to whom it befalls. Over & under all feeling which the fact of your illness produces lies the one feeling (which the growth of my own way of thinking together with your poems, & other causes have made very real & strong)—that for some persons, & for you among such persons, casual misfortune or calamity is not a supreme affair. We give our grief to you with the reserve that after all Walt Whitman has not been  loc.01493.002_large.jpg really laid hold of by chance & change—that after all he eludes them & remains altogether untouched. And if I should happen to live longer than you I believe I should have the same conviction about what death could do to you. (Other persons seem like pathetic little flowers who have no title to permanance of being—but such an aristocratic theory of the ownership of a future life ought rather to be addressed to Goethe,2 than to you, whose faith is larger & more charitable)—

The best piece of the news about you is that you are likely to be strong again, & to continue your work. I trust that may be so, & rely a good deal on your previous health & vigour, & on the fact that you are  loc.01493.003_large.jpg not of an age which ought to discourage hope of full recovery. We had been looking forward with very strong satisfaction towards seeing you over among us this year. That I suppose cannot now be expected: but it may come to be a fact at some later time. One thing I will ask—that occasionally some friend, if not yourself, would let me hear of your health—a line of writing would be enough. I think Mr. Burroughs3 would be willing to take the trouble; (& he would add to my gain if he would mention to me the name of anything you may have published since "Democratic Vistas."4 I think I saw some small collection of poems mentioned as having appeared at New York).


My wife joins with mine her love & both go to you together. We are well. I have taken to an attempt at the making of poems since twelve months. It has always seemed to me more my proper work than prose, but if a sufficient experiment proves the reverse I shall return in a business-like fashion to prose—I mean to go on quietly, & not print any poems for three or four years at soonest. I have just written an article on Victor Hugo's poetry;5 &, when it is printed, I will send it to you. There is much in common between Victor Hugo & you, but if I had to choose between "Leaves of Grass" & "La Légende des Siècles,"6 I should have not a moment's hesitation in throwing away "La Légende." There is a certain air of self-conscious beauty or sublimity in the attitude which Victor Hugo's  loc.01493.005_large.jpg soul assumes, that greatly impairs their effect with me. The poems, or many of them, are not thoroughly simple—there is something manufactured in them—they do not adhere & cling quite close, & become an invisible part of the reader. (But I must stop this).

I think within twelve months of publishing a volume of essays, & intend to include the Westminster one on your poems—(I shall remove from it one or two expressions which may have done you wrong with some readers, & which on that account I regret). It happens that several of the essays will be concerned with democratic or republican leaders—V. Hugo—Edgar Quinet7—Lamennais8—Landor9—Milton10—Whitman,


Please before very long, if it is convenient, let me somehow hear of your health.

And dear friend believe me Always affectionately yours, Edward Dowden.

Edward Dowden (1843–1913), professor of English literature at the University of Dublin, was one of the first to critically appreciate Whitman's poetry, particularly abroad, and was primarily responsible for Whitman's popularity among students in Dublin. In July 1871, Dowden penned a glowing review of Whitman's work in the Westminster Review entitled "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman," in which Dowden described Whitman as "a man unlike any of his predecessors. . . . Bard of America, and Bard of democracy." In 1888, Whitman observed to Traubel: "Dowden is a book-man: but he is also and more particularly a man-man: I guess that is where we connect" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, June 10, 1888, 299). For more, see Philip W. Leon, "Dowden, Edward (1843–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. In January 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke that made walking difficult. He first reported it in his January 26, 1873, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873), and continued to provide regular notes on his condition. By mid-March Whitman was taking brief walks out to the street and began to hope that he could resume work in the office. See also his March 21, 1873, letter to his mother. [back]
  • 2. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was famous for The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Faust (1808), in which Faust sells his soul to the devil. [back]
  • 3. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Whitman's Democratic Vistas was first published in 1871 in New York by J.S. Redfield. The volume was an eighty-four-page pamphlet based on three essays, "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Orbic Literature," all of which Whitman intended to publish in the Galaxy magazine. Only "Democracy" and "Personalism" appeared in the magazine. For more information on Democratic Vistas, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist best known for Les Misérables (1862) and Notre-Dame de Paris (1833). [back]
  • 6. La Légende des Siècles ("The Legend of the Ages") is a series of poems by Victor Hugo (1802–1885) published intermittently in 1859, 1877, and 1883. The poetic sequence is designed to retell all of human history beginning with the Garden of Eden and concluding with a Biblical apocalypse. [back]
  • 7. Edgar Quinet (1803–1875) was a French historian who participated in the 1848 Revolution but fled France in 1851 after Napoleon III (1808–1873) staged a coup d'état. In 1865, Quinet published the two-volume La Révolution, which criticized the atrocities of the French Revolution. [back]
  • 8. Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854) was a French priest and philosopher who attempted to unite the teachings of Roman Catholicism with political liberalism after the French Revolution. His Words of a Believer, published in 1834, declared his break with Catholicism after the church refused to support the democratic ideals put forth by the French Revolution of 1830. [back]
  • 9. Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) was an English writer whose best-known work Imaginary Conversations was published in five volumes from 1824–1829 and presented fictional dialogues between Landor and significant historical figures, including Queen Elizabeth, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Lady Godiva. [back]
  • 10. John Milton (1608–1674) was an English poet best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a tract against censorship titled Areopagitica, and his political investment in the English Civil War. [back]
Back to top