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William Michael Rossetti to Walt Whitman, 8 December 1867

 loc.01877.001_large.jpg My dear Sir,

Your letter of 22 Novr.2 reached me the other day thro' Mr. Conway3. You no doubt will by this time have received the one I addressed to you 2 or 3 weeks ago; but perhaps it may occur to me to repeat here some things said in that letter. I think the most convenient course may be for me first to state the facts about my Selection.

Some while back—I suppose  loc.01877.002_large.jpg before the middle of Septr.—Mr. Hotten4 the publisher told me that he projected bringing out a selection from your poems, & (in consequence of my review5 in the Chronicle) he asked whether I wd. undertake to make the selection, & write any such prefatory matter6 as I mt. think desirable. Proud to associate myself in any way with your writings, or to subserve their diffusion & appreciation here, I gladly consented.

I at once re-read thro' your last complete edition, & made the selection. In doing this I was guided by two rules—1, to omit entirely every poem wh. contains  loc.01877.003_large.jpg passages or words wh. modern squeamishness can raise an objection to—& 2, to include, from among the remaining poems, those wh. I most entirely & intensely admire. The bulk of poems thus selected is rather less than half the bulk of your complete edition; &, before my selection went to the printer's hands, I had the advantage of revising it by the corrected copy you sent some while ago to Mr. Conway. I also added the prose Preface to Leaves of Grass—obtaining thro' Mr. Conway your permission to alter (or rather, as I have done, simply to omit) 2 or 3 phrases in that Preface (only). Thus my selection is a verbatim  loc.01877.004_large.jpg reproduction of a good number of your poems, unaccompanied by the remainder. There is no curtailment or alteration whatever—& no modification at all except in these 3 particulars—

1. I have given a note here & there:

2. I have thought it better, considering the difference of a selection from the sum-total, to re-distribute the poems into 5 classes, which I have termed—Chants Democratic—Drum Taps7—Walt Whitman—Leaves of Grass—Songs of Parting:8

3. I have given titles to many poems wh. in your editions are merely headed with the words of the opening line.


The selection being thus made, I wrote a Prefatory Notice & Dedicatory Letter; & then consigned the whole affair to the publisher & printer, somewhere in the earlier days of October. My prefatory matter, & something like a third (I suppose) of the poems, were in print before your letter of 1 Novr.,9 addressed to Mr. Conway, reached me; & now the Preface to Leaves of Grass is also in print, & I fancy the whole thing ought to be completed & out by Xmas, or very soon after.

The letter wh. I wrote you10 on receipt of yours of 1 Novr. said that I was about to consult the  loc.01877.006_large.jpg publisher as to dropping the mere selection, & substituting a complete edition, only with slight verbal modifications. This however the publisher proved unwilling to do, the selection being so far advanced, advertised, &c. Therefore the selection will come out exactly as first put together; & on reflection this pleased me decidedly better.

I now proceed to reply to the details of your letter of 22 Novr.

If any blockhead chooses to call my selection "an expurgated edition," that lie shall be on his own head, not mine. My Prefatory Notice explains my principle of selection to exactly the same effect as given in this present letter; &  loc.01877.007_large.jpg contains moreover a longish passage affirming that, if such freedom of speech as you adopt were denied to others, all the great literature of the whole world wd. be castrated or condemned.

The form of title–page wh. you propose wd. of course be adopted by me with thanks & without a moment's debate, were it not that my own title–page was previously in print: I enclose a copy.11 I trust you may see nothing in it to disapprove—as indeed in essentials it comes to much the same as your own model. However, I have already written to the publisher, suggesting that he shd. decide, according to the conveniences  loc.01877.008_large.jpg of the printing arrangements, which of the two shall eventually appear.

In making my selection, I preserved all (I believe all) "the larger figures dividing the pieces into separate passages or sections," but did not preserve the numbers of the stanzas,—the separation of stanzas, however, continuing as in your edition. I am sorry now that I did not meet your preference in this respect, & that the printing has already proceeded too far for me to revert to the small numbers now. My wish was to get rid of anything of a merely external kind wh. ordinary readers wd. call peculiar or eccentric. Parrot–like repetitions  loc.01877.009_large.jpg of that charge have been too numerous already.

I need scarcely assure you that that most glorious poem on Lincoln is included in my Selection. It shall appear with your title "President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn."12 I had previously given it a title of my own, "Nocturn for the Death of Lincoln"; & in my Prefatory Notice it is alluded to under that title. A note of explanation shall be given.

I await with impatience the receipt of your paper on Democracy.13 It will find in me no reluctant hearer, as I have always been a democratic republican, & hope to live & die faithful to the  loc.01877.010_large.jpg meanings of that glorious creed. The other printed matter you have so kindly sent me14 I received two evenings back from Mr. Conway. The newspaper articles are new to me: with the publications of Mr. O'Connor15 & Mr. Burroughs16 I was already familiar, & I entertain a real respect for those publications & their writers.

Believe me, I am grateful to you for your kindness in these matters, & for the indulgent eye with which you look upon a project which perhaps, after all, you wd. rather had never been entered upon. I am in some hopes that your indulgence will not  loc.01877.011_large.jpg be diminished when you see what the selection itself actually looks like. In consequence of the correspondence wh. has passed since the selection was made, I may possibly find occasion to add a brief P.S.: it shall contain nothing you cd. object to. If the selection aids the general body of English poetical readers to understand that there really is a great poet across the Atlantic, & to demand a complete & unmutilated edition, my desires connected with the selection will be accomplished.

Believe me, dear Sir, with the deepest respect, Yours, W. M. Rossetti.  loc.01877.012_large.jpg  loc.01877.013_large.jpg  loc.01877.014_large.jpg

William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868, Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to Frederick S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Washington | U.S.A. It is postmarked: LONDON W [illegible] | 12 | DE 9 | 67; [illegible] | DEC | 22; CARRIER | DEC | 23 | 7 P.M. [back]
  • 2. See Whitman's letter to Rossetti from November 22, 1867. [back]
  • 3. Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907) was an American abolitionist, minister, and frequent correspondent with Walt Whitman. Conway often acted as Whitman's agent and occasional public relations man in England. For more on Conway, see Philip W. Leon, "Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. John Camden Hotten (1832–1873) re-issued Algernon Charles Swinburne's first Poems and Ballads in 1866 after the public outcry caused Swinburne's previous publisher to withdraw. Perhaps because he had lived in the United States from 1848 to 1856, Hotten introduced such writers as James Russell Lowell, Artemus Ward, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bret Harte to an English audience. After his death, his business was purchased by Chatto & Windus. In his letter to Conway on December 5, 1866, William Douglas O'Connor had suggested Hotten as the English publisher of Whitman: "Seems to me the courage that prints Laus Veneris might dare this." Whitman was dissatisfied with Hotten's work, referring to the publisher as "the English pirate-publisher" and the edition as "bad & defective" in a January 16, 1872, letter to Rudolf Schmidt. For Whitman's relationship with Hotten, see Whitman's November 1, 1867, letter to Moncure D. Conway. [back]
  • 5. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had spotted an unsigned New York Times reprint of William Michael Rossetti's influential review ("Walt Whitman's Poems," London Chronicle, July 6, 1867, 362–363). Though Walt Whitman was already aware that Rossetti was preparing a London edition of his poems, he may not have yet known the exact nature of Rossetti's commentary on him in the London Chronicle review because in his July 27, 1867, letter to Abby H. Price he had requested her assistance in acquiring "two or three copies" of the New York Times reprint of Rossetti's review. In the review, Rossetti described Leaves of Grass as "incomparably the largest poetic work of our period" (see "Current Literature," New York Times, July 28, 1867, 2). Walt Whitman had forwarded a copy of Leaves of Grass for "republication in England" (see his July 24, 1867, letter to Moncure D. Conway). In his November 1, 1867, letter to Conway, Whitman stated, "I have no objection to [Rossetti's] substituting words." Whitman hesitated but ultimately accepted the compromise necessary to bring his work to a British public, but he later regretted acquiescing. Rossetti's expurgated edition appeared as Poems by Walt Whitman. Selected and Edited by William Michael Rossetti (London: Hotten, 1868). [back]
  • 6. In his twenty-seven page "Prefatory Notice" to the 1868 British Poems by Walt Whitman, William Michael Rossetti justified his editorial decisions, which included editing potentially objectionable content and removing entire poems: "My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest." For more information on Rossetti's book, see "Introduction to the British Editions of Leaves of Grass." [back]
  • 7. Whitman's Drum-Taps, a volume that consisted of fifty-three Civil War poems, was published in 1865. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln occurred while Drum-Taps was being printed, and Whitman promptly added the short poem "Hush'd be the Camps To-day," with a note about Lincoln's death to the final signature of the book. Whitman then decided to stop the printing and add a sequel to the book that would more fully take into account Lincoln's death. Copies of the volume were withdrawn so that the sequel could be added. Whitman hastily composed several poems, adding eighteen new poems to those that appeared in Drum-Taps, and all of these poems were published in a second edition Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866). Later, these poems were folded into Leaves of Grass, and by the time the final arrangement of Leaves of Grass was printed in 1881, the "Drum-Taps" cluster that Whitman included in that volume contained forty-three poems. For more information on the printing of Drum-Taps (1865), see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, University of Iowa, 2005). For more on the poems of Drum-Taps and their arrangement in Leaves of Grass, see Huck Gutman, "Drum-Taps," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 8. The "Songs of Parting" is a cluster of poems that appeared first in the 1871–1872 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 9. See Whitman's letter to Moncure D. Conway from November 1, 1867. [back]
  • 10. See Rossetti's letter to Whitman from November 17, 1867. [back]
  • 11. This enclosure has not been located. [back]
  • 12. Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," an elegy expressing both personal and national loss, was composed only weeks after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. William Michael Rossetti approved of the title change to "President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn" for his Poems by Walt Whitman on December 8, 1867. [back]
  • 13. Whitman's essay "Democracy" was first publishied in The Galaxy 4 (December 1867), 919–933. It was later incorporated into Democratic Vistas (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1871). [back]
  • 14. This enclosure has not been located. [back]
  • 15. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 16. 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]
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