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Henry Holmes to Walt Whitman, 4 April 1889

 loc.02250.001.jpg Honoured & dear Sir

Now that "enthusiastic cherishing from the few, gradually growing less few"2 has come to mean cherishing thousands growing to tens of thousands, most likely, your correspondents are overwhelmingly numerous.

This sense forbids my taking up the pen carelessly to intrude upon your attention.

I. Mr. H.H. Gilchrist3 has kindly given me particulars enabling me to apply to you, a great privilege, for some of your works—indeed I would like to possess most of them & these in their sacred unmutilated loc.02250.002.jpg entirety. 'Leaves of Grass,' Authors' Edition (1876)—'Two Rivulets' (1876),4 'Specimen Days & Collect,'5 are those mentioned to me by Mr. Gilchrist. Will you have the kindness to send me these works, informing me at the same time of their cost, the amount of which I will not delay in sending.

II. A request in another direction: I must begin by a détour. All men & women of generous soul who read you in your writings feel a brother's, the Poet's hand extended to them.

I came to grasp it; my humility to God, my esteem to you.

Tho' unknown to you I shall make no attempt to establish my fitness to ask your aid in loc.02250.003.jpg a matter belonging to my work as a composer. Intention must befriend me or my chance must fall.

I have already treated in choral & orchestral setting three great heads of human absorption—the theological, the humanitarian & the erotic—the first, upon Keble's6 "Christmas Day" (Christian Year)—the second, upon George Eliot's7 "O May I Join the Choir Invisible"; the third, upon W. Morris'8 lyrical piece in "The Hill of Venus." In the first, I send you a copy of this work, I have perforce of my religious perception, vested the subject, 'The Nativity' with human belongings, human throbs:—the Christ as founder, as a man, is solemn fact—the super natural story of him, to me, is but a grand Myth, the grandest perhaps of all time.


Of my "Song of Humanity" I endeavour to convey the spirituality in these words— "A celebration of man's high destiny— truth above the Faiths, the Religion of moral goodness, Fraternal sonship, responsive and responsible—Hope illimitable, beautiful, strong, unvanquishable "Through sorrow & the inscrutable—the experience of Omnipotent order & love."

To the third production "Hymn to Venus" to which I allude I have written as 'Argument'—"That which annihilates man's capacity as a moral being, is the presumption of his need of a regeneration that  loc.02250.005.jpg he may be acceptable to man or God.

Were he, at his coming, hailed as a creative 'form, virtuous but capable of sin'9—had he the responsibility, placed upon him of an innate pure & noble moral nature, the relations of man to man would be radically, & absolutely altered.

Between woman & man there would be gentle ministering to holy yearnings where now is sullen unrest, physical & mental misery; and worse loc.02250.006.jpg corruption the direst man can suffer—his fallen sister.'

Man would find edification in what now is his shame—the human God—imaged form, which lasts not beyond this fair earth.

The sculptor's highest inspiration could be no man's lust: alas! the word ever conveyed a meaning.

In this lyric the poet sings of life as it was without Venus, & without the bond of fraternity. Indeed, he tells of life as it is with us today "'mid weary thoughts of man & God"10 go we our daily round; loc.02250.007.jpg with faiths for our salvation which have their base & rising of other elements than those of the eternal laws of human love (which is the divine), & that Christly religion, moral goodness, which alone gives proof to see feel & know an Almighty God—a Father of all benevolence, tho' peace & joy, throes & heaviness hold the present of the high heart.

Such, be it affirmed, was the composers' conception of the lot of man while contemplating the subject before him."

I would next treat as a subject some loc.02250.008.jpg view of life & incident of America's heroic Democracy—the 4 years war, or the war of Independence.

And now I return to my request—merely, that you may indicate to me where & how I might find a text for such a work as I have in mind—an Opera or a Dramatic Oratorio. For both purposes alike the literary expression should pass briefly on in lucid meaning, never involved.

The verse interwoven in blank & lyric structure.

I should more than value your meagrest​ suggestion & indeed, would not willingly put you to the trouble of more than this.

Yours in sincerity Henry Holmes To Walt Whitman  loc.02250.009.jpg  loc.02250.010.jpg

Henry Holmes (1839–1905) was a well-known English violinist; he also composed violin concertos, cantatas, and symphonies, and he taught at the Royal College of Music.


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Mickle St | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: Padding[cut away] | Y 2 [cut away] | AP [cut away] | 8[cut away]; New York | 15; Camden N.J. | Apr 1[illegible] | 6 AM | 1889 | Rec'd; [illegible] | G | ALL. Embossed on the envelope and the following pages is: Bristol Lodge, | Warrington Gardens, | Warwick Road. W. [back]
  • 2. Holmes is quoting William Michael Rossetti's introduction to the section of American Poems devoted to Whitman. See W. M. Rossetti, ed., American Poems (London, 1872), 247. [back]
  • 3. 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]
  • 4. Published as a "companion volume" to the 1876 Author's edition of Leaves of Grass, Two Rivulets consisted of an "intertwining of the author's characteristic verse, alternated throughout with prose," as one critic from the The New York Daily Tribune wrote on February 19, 1876 (4). For more information on Two Rivulets, see Frances E. Keuling-Stout, "Two Rivulets, Author's Edition [1876]" and "Preface to Two Rivulets [1876]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. John Keble (1792–1866) was an English churchman and poet, after whom Keble College, Oxford was named. His The Christian Year was published in 1827, quickly became popular and serves as the source of several hymns (Kirstie Blair, "Introduction," John Keble in Context [London: Anthem Press, 2004], 1–18; Marion Shaw, "In Memoriam and The Christian Year," John Keble in Context [London: Anthem Press, 2004], 159–174). [back]
  • 7. "George Eliot" was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819–1880), one of the most influential British writers of the nineteenth century. Her works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Whitman was especially enamored by Eliot's essay writing: "She is profound, masterful: her analysis is perfect: she chases her game without tremor to the very limit of its endurance" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 31, 1888). [back]
  • 8. William Morris (1834–1896) was a British poet, architect, and designer famous for his floral patterns and influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement. He founded a Socialist League in 1884 and the Kelmscott Press in 1891. His poem, "The Hill of Venus," is part of a larger epic poem titled The Earthly Paradise that was published between 1868 and 1870 (E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary [Oakland: PM Press, 2011]). [back]
  • 9. The source of this specific quotation is unknown. [back]
  • 10. Holmes is quoting from William Morris's "Song," as it appears in "The Hill of Venus," a late section of William Morris's The Earthly Paradise: A Poem. [back]
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