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Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 14 February 1882

 loc_af.01021_large.jpg '82
My dear Whitman

So you have had a visit from the Aesthete!1 I was interested in the report you sent me. I know O.W. slightly—met him once or twice when I was in Trinity College.2 His presence and talk exercised an extraordinary fascination on me. I felt as if I would have done anything for him. But his poetry, then and now, seems to me to be entirely worthless—dead and artificial—not even good singing. You may have come across the poems of another Trinity man, and also a lover of yours—William Wilkins.3 Wilkins is has only a limited range and he's not always sincere & is often affected—but I think there is real dash and life about him and that a page of him is worth  loc_af.01022_large.jpg all Oscar Wilde's poetry put together. How absurd too, to say that Tennyson has cut himself off from the spirit of his time and that not he, but the Aesthetes are at the "heart of the nation"! Tennyson with his glorious battle-ballads, history, humor, is read in every household in England. The world of the Aesthetes is only, after all, London fashionable "society"—a large and important world no doubt, but not the heart of England, by any manner of means.

I sent you a 'Kottabos' yesterday with 'Calvin Harlowe' in it—a slightly amended version.4 I enclose herewith a page of my translation of the Leaves of Grass—you needn't  loc_af.01023_large.jpg save it as I don't want it again. I am studying Luther's translation of the Bible a good deal with reference to this translation. It is grand strong idiomatic German, not the milk-and-water, romantified stuff they put into books nowadays. Germany at present is suffering under an unprecedented plague of mediocrity—in all branches of imaginative art. Dry bones everywhere—everything scientific, psychological, faultless, barren—and they are delighted with it all, and firmly believe themselves to be leading an active spiritual existence. Wagner is the only man that is really alive among them. It is difficult to understand how they can admire him as they do and then  loc_af.01024_large.jpgsit down with such perfect complacency to their anatomical philosophy and pedagogic novels and the studies of historical costume which they call paintings. Well, if I was to unburden all my mind on this weary subject I should go on till—till things got better, I suppose; and there are no signs of that as yet.

I have come across two charming American girls, with their mother, who are living here now. They are studying, one to be a professional singer, the other a player—have real genius I think. My wife knows them well too. They are the first Americans I have met who seemed to me at all native growths, and not spoiled Europeans.

I see the 'Critic' of N. York has given very high praise to my Encheiridion.5 It is selling pretty well I hear, better then I had expected. I see Jeff Davis has written a history of the war.6 Ought to be valuable for a student. I will try and get hold of it.

Hope you keep well.

Yours always T W Rolleston.


Wie für sie auf der Erde gesorgt wird, die von Zeit zu Zeit erschienen, Wie lieb und furchtbar sie der Erde sind, Wie sie für sich ebensowohl als für irgend einen Andern sich gelten lassen,—welch' ein Paradoxon ihr Zeitalter scheint, Wie ihnen die Leute gegenstimmen, doch sie nicht kennen, Wie zu allen Zeiten in ihrem Schicksal etwas Unerbittliches liegt, Wie alle Zeiten die Gegenstände ihres Schmeichelns und ihres Lohns übel wählen, Und wie derselbe unerbittliche Preis noch immer für dieselbe große Erwerbung bezahlt werden muß.


An die Staaten, oder an irgend einen Staat, oder an irgend eine Stadt derselben— Widersteht viel, gehorcht wenig. Einmal blinder Gehorsam, einmal völlig unterjocht, Einmal völlig unterjocht, gewinnt kein Volk, kein Staat, keine Stadt der Erde seine Freiheit wieder.


Zu Reisen durch die Staaten brechen wir auf, (Ja, durch die Welt, von diesen Liedern getrieben, Fortan nach jedem Lande, jedem Meer hinsegelnd) Wir, bereitwillig Alle zu lehren, von Allen zu lernen, Alle zu lieben. Wir haben die Jahreszeiten beobachtet, wie sie sich spenden, und weiterziehen, Und wir haben gesagt,—Warum sollte nicht ein Mann oder ein Weib so viel als die Jahreszeiten wirken, so viel als sie aus sich hervorströmen lassen? Wir wohnen eine Weile in jeder Stadt, Durch Kanada ziehen wir, und durch das Nordost,8 das ungeheure Thal des Mississippi und die südlichen Staaten, Mit jedem Staat auf gleiche Weise unterreden wir, Wir stellen uns selbst auf die Jrobe, and forden Männer u. Weiber zu' Hören auf, Wir sagen uns, Gedenke, erschrecke nicht, sei, offen, verkünde den Körper und die Seele, Wohne eine Weile und zieh' dann weiter, reich/frei sei Dein Wesen, und maßvoll, sei keusch, sei magnetisch, Und dann kann das was Du aus Dir hervorströmen läßest wie die Jahreszeiten wiederkehren, Und sein was die Jahreszeiten sind.


  • 1. Oscar Wilde and Whitman met on January 18, 1882, at Whitman's home in Camden; the meeting is described in Lloyd Lewis and Henry J. Smith's Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), 73–77. [back]
  • 2. Wilde was at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. From there he transferred to Oxford. [back]
  • 3. William Wilkins was a fellow student of Rolleston and a frequent contributor to Kottabos. He entered Trinity College in 1873 at the age of twenty-one and received the B.A. degree in 1878 and the M.A. in 1881. [back]
  • 4. Rolleston's poem "Calvin Harlowe" appeared in Kottabos, 4.1 (1882), 1–2. [back]
  • 5.

    The following review of The Encheiridion of Epictetus (London, 1881) appeared in the January 14, 1882 issue of the Critic (2.6):

    "This is an admirable, scholarly translation of the calm old Stoic who still has something to say to the world—something, in particular, to those who would dwell on the serene heights of philosophy. The translator has preserved the fresh, crisp, compact spirit of the original, and gives us the true tones of the Greek. It is presented in a handsome pocket volume of exquisite taste and workmanship, and at the time of the year when we are forming good resolutions. Though we might go astray if we accepted all that the old heathen philosopher offers, yet we shall find in him ideas of great pith and moment, many of which have already become worthily imbedded in Christian doctrine."

  • 6. Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881). [back]
  • 7. "p. 15" appears in the upper left-hand corner of a single-page enclosure on which Rolleston copied the three poems. Their English titles are "Beginners," "Walt Whitman's Caution," and "On Journeys Through the States." Only "Zu Reisen durch die Staaten" was published in Grashalme, where it appears with some improvements under the title of "Zur Reise durch die Staaten" (171–172). The reader familiar with German will detect a number of unusual words and spellings in the other two poems. [back]
  • 8. Although Whitman's poem has "north-east," Rolleston changes "Nordost" to "Nordwesten" in the published version appearing in Grashalme. [back]
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