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Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 11 November [1880]

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Forgive the rhymes!2 I have tried, but cannot wield your weapons. I have sent this to 'Scribner' but I don't suppose they'll take it. I have just been reading an essay on 'Walt Whitman' in Scribner,3 which, beautifully written as it is, rather reminds me of that proverbial representation of Hamlet, with the part of Hamlet left out. The supreme value of your works, to me, is that they have given me unspeakable religious certitude and confidence, have opened my eyes to the realities within and around me, and made me see in them something far grander and more assuring than any traditional dogmas. And this work I think no poet has hitherto approached, though the great metaphysicians have opened the path.—I rather suspect from the essay that Stedman is an orthodox Christian? His paragraph on the "Children of Adam" seems to me to show either animus or a real want of perception, for obviously the method of Nature which he praises so well is just that which is followed in those poems—poems for which I, for one, am unreservedly thankful.4

T W H R. Nov. '80 Splendid letter from Rolleston, Dresden—answer to Stedman—can be used | the fine ballad of 'Calvin Harlowe' enclosed  loc_af.00984_large.jpg


  • 1. The envelope for this letter bears the address: Walt Whitman | 431 Steevens Street | Camden | New Jersey | United States. Rolleston misspelled Stevens Street here and on the envelopes of several of his other letters to Whitman. [back]
  • 2. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. Edmund C. Stedman (1833–1908), the American poet and critic, wrote "Walt Whitman" for Scribner's Monthly, 21 (November 1880), 47–64. Stedman differs with some of Whitman's theories and objects to his "over-bodiness." On the other hand, he calls him a man of genius, of striking physical and mental qualities, excelling most writers in personal magnetism, tact, and adroitness as a man of the world, the avowed champion of democracy. He states that Whitman represents, first of all, his own personality; secondly, the conflict with aristocracy and formalism, and remarks that against the latter he early took the position of an iconoclast, avowing that the time had come in which to create an American art by rejection of all forms, irrespective of their natural basis, which had descended from the past. For the reactions of Whitman's friends to Stedman's article, see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 192–195, and the letter from Whitman to John Burroughs of November 26, 1880. For Whitman's own response to Stedman's article, see "My Tribute to Four Poets" in Specimen Days and the discussion in Kenneth M. Price, Whitman and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 79–95. [back]
  • 4. The "Children of Adam" section of Leaves of Grass, because of its treatment of sex, provoked much controversy. In the Scribner's article Stedman protests the "blunt and open manner" in which Whitman makes the "consummate processes of nature, the acts of procreation and reproduction with all that pertain to them" the theme or illustration of various poems, notably "Children of Adam." Doing so "mistakes the aim of the radical artist or poet." [back]
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