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Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 29 January [1881]

 loc_af.00987_large.jpg Dear Friend and Master

You see I am now back in my own country.1 I had no idea that I would be so soon. I am staying, with my wife (I have been married about 18 months) at my father's house. We shall be here for some months now. There is great excitement in the country, but I think no likelihood of any serious disturbances. The people know the strength of England too well. I think the Land League2 is slowly losing its influence here, and it deserves to. There never was an agitation conducted towards a more useful end or by worse means than this. From the very beginning the leaders of the people encouraged them to maintain  loc_af.00988_large.jpg their organization by secret outrage and personal intimidation. There is not the slightest doubt that this was so. Their words may not have been arraignable by law, (though in many cases they were so) but they were such as their hearers could give but one interpretation to. "If a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted" says Mr. Dillon, "I don't think his cattle will prosper very much."3 And they don't, for in hundreds of cases these cattle have had wooden balls struck over with nails administered to them, have been driven over precipices, hamstrung, their eyes picked out. There is little violence just now, because the Land League is so all-powerful, and murder or violence is so certain to follow a breach of its rules, that no one ventures to transgress them. The speakers have in general terms condemned assassination in the sort of language which one would use to reprove excessive zeal, but they have never interfered  loc_af.00989_large.jpg by word or deed to prevent any individual crime which was known to be intended, or condemned with energy any individual murder. There are 150 persons now whose lives would not be safe for one hour but for police protection, and no Land Leaguer will say one word to save them. I entirely agree with them in thinking that it is allowable of the tenants to repudiate unjust rents, and I would have thrown myself heart and soul into this movement if it were not founded upon crime of the most degrading and brutal kind. But as it is, I must say I think the Government are quite justified in bringing in their Protection Bill,4 & the League has itself to blame for making that Bill necessary. I think too that once it receives a straight and severe blow its tyranny will be utterly broken, for it has largely ruled by terror and I do not believe that it has endeared itself to the people.

Scribner has not taken 'Calvin Harlowe.'5 They might have done so if they had read it, but I suppose they don't read all the poetry they receive. Well for them, no doubt. You did  loc_af.00990_large.jpgnot say anything about my translation of Epictetus which I sent you. I should like to know how you liked it. I am writing a preface for it now & will try then & find a publisher. I read news of the States with great interest. General Garfield seems a very good sort of man. What a puzzling question that is about the Chinese.6 I don't think it will get solved by any laws or treaties. I see your expected essay on the English poets of this century has never appeared.7 Was the announcement a mistake?

Will you kindly send me a copy of the last edition of the "Leaves of Grass." I want it as a present for a friend, so don't write my name in the beginning.8 Indeed the friend is my wife—so on second thoughts I would be glad, & so would she, if you would write 'Edith Rolleston' in it. I'll send the 5 dollars as soon as I can get into some town. Please send to this address.

Yours always T W H Rolleston


  • 1. 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]
  • 2. An Irish agrarian movement, organized in 1879 by Michael Davitt and led by Charles Parnell, the Land League agitated for land tenure reform and for the transferal of land ownership from British landholders to Irish tenants. The fight for fixity of tenure, fair rent, and free sale was accompanied by boycotting and violence, until the League was declared illegal. However, the group did carry the land question into the realm of practical politics and was an active force in bringing about the great land reform bills which culminated in the Land Purchase Act of 1903. See Michael Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland: or The Story of the Land League Revolution (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1904). [back]
  • 3. In the fall of 1880, the Land League discovered its most powerful weapon of attack—the boycott. The phrase Rolleston quotes here is commonly associated with a September 1880 speech by Land League President Charles Stewart Parnell (see, for instance, James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008], 251–252), but Norman D. Palmer writes: "Apparently the subject was first referred to during the land campaign by John Dillon, who, speaking at Maryborough, Queen's County, on October 5, 1879, advised that if a tenant took a farm from which another had been evicted, no man should 'speak to him or have any business transaction with him.' And Dillon's words were repeated and elaborated on numerous occasions prior to September, 1880, by other spokesmen of the league" (The Irish Land League Crisis [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940], 196). John Dillon (1851–1927), an Irish nationalist politician, was a very active member of the Land League and advocated a fighting policy for the organization. His tempestuous career—he was arrested several times and traveled extensively in his campaigns, even to America and Australia—was spent participating in various Irish nationalist groups: the Land League, the Irish National Federation, and the Nationalist Party. [back]
  • 4. The Protection of Life and Property (Ireland) Bill was passed by the British Government in 1881 to cope with the agitation of the Land League. With this "Coercion Act," the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended and authorities were given the power to imprison any "reasonably suspected" person. [back]
  • 5. Whitman had recieved the poem "Calvin Harlowe," attached to the letter Rolleston sent him on November 11, 1880. Apparently, Whitman liked the poem, noting the receipt with the words "fine ballad" on the envelope of the letter. The poem was eventually published in Kottabos, 4.1 (1882), 1–2. See the letter from Rolleston to Whitman of February 14, 1882. [back]
  • 6. Probably an allusion to the "Morey letter," a document allegedly written by James A. Garfield that surfaced during the 1880 election. It was first called "Garfield's Death Warrant" because the letter's author advocated extended Chinese immigration. Garfield denied authorship and, since in 1879 Garfield had opposed a Chinese exclusion law, his position on the subject was known, and the piece was quickly believed to be a forgery (John I. Davenport, History of the Forged "Morey letter" [New York: John I. Davenport, 1884]). The episode, however, does indicate the contemporary disturbance over Chinese immigration. In 1880, a treaty was signed providing for regulation or suspension of immigration but not its absolute prohibition, and two years later, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. [back]
  • 7. See the Academy 18 (1880), 238: "Walt Whitman will shortly give in one of the London magazines his estimate of the leading English poets of the nineteeth century." Rolleston noted the announcement in his letter to Whitman of October 16, 1880. [back]
  • 8. Above this word, Whitman wrote: "sent." [back]
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