Skip to main content

Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 28 November [1881]

My dear Whitman

Yesterday I received all your dispatches—viz, a postcard—a letter—a circular (with scraps)—a copy of L of G​ —and a set of proofsheets of ditto. Shall find them very useful. For all of which things, many thanks—I am delighted to see your new edn​ in such grand form, and spent all yesterday reading it.2 Sometimes I missed regretfully a familiar rhythm and was sorry to see 'Respondez' cut up and scattered about the book—most of it summarily suppressed. It was, of course, rather a gritty poem to read straight through. Still I am very glad that I have it complete in my old edn​ .3 Nearly always I have come to think your many alterations, improvements. This volume, with its new poems, etc. offered a field of "pleasant exploration" and renewed my sense of wonder and delight at your works. It is a splendid thing to have given them final form in this way—resumed them all in this noble volume. I like many of your new poems immensely, especially perhaps 'Spirit that form'd this scene'—a Riddle Song, and the Dalliance of the Eagles. The Riddle Song puzzled me—I could only think of (for the 'two words')4 the end of a sonnet of W. B. Scott

For we know nought of that dark sun, the True, Whose latent heats create our spiritual year.5 Yet I don't feel as if this could be it.—

I am very glad you like the idea of a German translation. I have had a reported admirer of yours, as collaborateur in my eye for some time, but I find now he is only a rather pedantic old savan, and that his knowledge of and admiration for you are both of a very limited character. However I will go on by myself at present and have a good mass of work ready for revision when I find the right man. The work shall certainly be done, and done as well as my pains and the best German help can do it. From attempts I have made I am convinced that a very impressive, quite satisfactory translation of your L of G.​ might be made in German. It is a language, which, as Germans well know, offers extraordinary facilities for translation especially poetic, from foreign tongues, e.g. a Greek play, which is a bald affair in the best English, can be put into German with all the choral metres, etc. accurately preserved, and lose little of its freshness and energy. Of course the transl.​ would be complete—a reproduction of your new vol.​ just as it is.

I think a Russian translation is also probable (and certainly at least as desirable as the German). A friend and countryman of mine named Lee,6 living here, is an ardent Russian scholar and intimate with many men of that nation, living here and in Servia, etc. They are mostly exiles, which means, speaking generally, men of unusual ability and thoughtfulness. I have made Lee acquainted with the L of G.​ which he appreciates, and he has just written for your new edn​ . And I think (though I have not broached the subject yet) that he would be likely to undertake a Russian translation, and that he could get the best possible help for it. I shall get him to lend his book to some of his Russian friends, and work on this as much as I can. The book would doubtless be prohibited by Government but that would not hinder its spread much, rather the contrary.7 I shall have one or two things to ask you about with reference to the German transl​ . Can now only think of the word 'equals' in To him that was Crucified. I take this (contrary to the general opinion as far as I know) not to imply that the little band of teachers are equal among themselves (there seems little significance in saying this) but rather that they are the equals of all other men—able to put themselves on common footing with all they meet, and establish free, healthy relations with them—as the Answerer—"the mechanics take him for a mechanic"—etc. etc. In this sense I should be inclined to translate the word.—Indeed though, as far as the translation goes, the word could be literally rendered in German and have both meanings open, as in English, and this of course would be the right thing to do.

Are you sure about the double text of English and German? It seems to me as if it would give the book a formidably scientific appearance. Did anyone ever get much comfort out of one of those polyglot bibles with the Greek, Hebrew, Latin, English, Objibbeway​ etc., all arranged in parallel columns? And would people buy largely a book of poems of which half was in an unknown tongue? I see the advantages of the plan—but, at present at least, it appears to me that the disadvantages preponderate, especially as your works could be rendered, I think, with full accuracy in German—really reproducing both form and matter.—I believe the work would strike root deeply in Germany and might be of vast importance.

Did you see that the Fortschritt8 ( = more or less Girondist) party have had great successes at the last elections here?

I have ordered my book to be sent to the American papers you mentioned. I shall be here for a year certainly. Will always let you know my movements and about the translation, etc.

Yours sincerely W. Rolleston.

You should have recd.​ a copy of my Encheiridion by this.


  • 1. This letter is endorsed (by Whitman): "answered Dec 12 '81." It is addressed: 29 Lange Strasse | Dresden. It is postmarked: Dresden Altstadt | 3. | 28/11 | 81 | 3-4N. | New York | Dec | 16 | Paid | K | All | Camden, N. J. | Dec | 17 | 7 am | Recd. [back]
  • 2. This was the edition published in November 1881, by James R. Osgood and Company, Boston publishers. See Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Handbook (Chicago: Packard and Company, 1946), 211–220. [back]
  • 3. Rolleston's edition could be either the 1867 edition (fourth), the 1871 edition (fifth), or the 1876 printing, in all three of which "Respondez" appears as a complete poem under that title. It was printed as a complete poem in earlier editions but under different titles: in the second edition (1856) as "Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness" and in the third edition (1860) as "Chants Democratic, No. 5." In the 1881 edition, it was broken up into several poems, some appearing under the title "Respondez," some under "Reversals," and some under "Transpositions." [back]
  • 4. One of the hints of the "riddle" were the "two words": "Two little breaths of words comprising it, / Two words, yet all from first to last comprised in it." [back]
  • 5. These are the last two lines of a sonnet by William Bell Scott, "Spiritual Longings Unanswered," Part XII of Outside the Temple. See W. B. Scott, Poems (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1875), 85. [back]
  • 6. See the letter from John Fitzgerald Lee to Whitman of November 28, 1881. [back]
  • 7. This part of the letter was included on page 251 of Clifton Joseph Furness's Walt Whitman's Workshop (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928) as a note in connection with Whitman's preface "To the Foreign Reader." [back]
  • 8. "Fortschritt" was a German liberal political party founded in 1861 in Prussia. [back]
Back to top