Skip to main content

Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 10 February [1881]

 loc_af.00991_large.jpg '81

Thank you very much1 for the article in the N.A.​ Review, received this morning.2 I was delighted with it. I agree entirely with all you say there about the American poets—

γόνιμον δὲ ποιητὴν ἂν οὐχ εὕροις ἔτι3

And while I was staying in Dresden lately I heard a great deal of Wagner's music, and was greatly struck with the resemblance of the artistic impression he leaves, to yours. There is another great artist in whom I am sure you would have noticed the spirit of the new influence if you could stand for an hour in a roomful of his paintings in the London gallery—I mean Turner. Nature with him is something quite different from what passes for Nature in most landscape painters—alive and free, and full of divinity and mystery—no ind[damage]  loc_af.00992_large.jpgwork—his immense audacity all the more striking because not in the least theatric, (as, e.g. Victor Hugo's).

The Land League has taken the first step towards destruction. It has declared open war against honest dealing. I send you a letter of mine to the "Freeman's Journal" (the Home Rule and Catholic newspaper of Ireland)4—which by a strange coincidence appeared on the very day in which a report was published of the meeting of the Central Committee of the League in which the previous principle of the League—fair rents—was abandoned. I send you a bit of Mr. Dillon's5 speech on the occasion. I believe this new manifesto of the League a most unwise as well as immoral step—it will instantly sift out the good men. What a monstrous thing it is to say that if a landlord differs from his tenant on the rightness of a political act like Davitt's arrest,6 the tenant is absolved from his duty of paying his debts! Michael Davitt is a man whom nearly every one honours & many love. He is incapable of doing anything  loc_af.00993_large.jpg unworthy, but he is very capable of doing something for which the Government would be compelled to arrest him. He is well-known to be a rebel; and though his arrest would be a hateful & shameful act, if only done on grounds which everyone is aware of, yet I believe the Government is in possession of information which cannot yet be revealed, but which will show their action to have been a sad political necessity. I hope he will soon be released again.

I have sent an order for £1-7-0. for the Leaves of Grass—on 'Camden Post Office.' Please acknowledge by postcard when you are paid. I have the receipt.

T W H Rolleston.  loc_af.00994_large.jpg  loc_af.00996_large.jpg



SIR—At more than one late meeting of the Land League it has been put before the peasantry as a possible, or even probable, contingency that they shall be called upon by their leaders to combine in a universal strike against all rent whatsoever. This course, as a return blow for the expected evictions, has actually been suggested and defended not long ago by a Catholic priest at a public meeting. Surely it behoves the leaders of the agitation to see that no ground is given to the tenantry for supposing that such a proposal could ever be authoritatively endorsed by the central committee of the League. For it would be, indeed, a lamentable thing if the League should allow itself to be exasperated by anything the Government or the landlords may do into justifying the accusations of dishonest teaching which are at present so freely and so falsely showered upon it. A tenant has undoubtedly a perfect right to refuse to pay an unjust rent—to allow himself to be taxed for the improvements, extending often to reclamation of waste soil, which his own energy and labour have effected. The law of contract does not touch that question at all, for the contracts were made upon the false assumption that landlords have an absolute proprietorial right in the soil which they are said to own;— and it seems ridiculous to say that the tenantry of a district have not a right to unite in refusing to hold social intercourse with persons who, by taking farms from which others have been unjustly evicted, prevent the landlords from suffering the natural consequences of powers wrongfully held and tyrannously used. But, sir, although the principles of property in land cannot be the same as those of property of a movable and unlimited description, still it is certain that if any man has any right to anything, the landlords of Ireland have a right to a just profit out of their acres, or a just compensation if they are to be handed over to a peasant proprietary. And if the tenants should, as is proposed, universally refuse to pay any rent to any landlord, it would be nothing less than an act of national dishonesty such as might well make every honourable Irishman ashamed of his country. Let no one try to persuade himself that the act would not be dishonest at all. If not dishonest, then in Heaven's name let it be done at once! Let not a single tenant be kept for a day out of a penny of what is rightly his. Why, indeed, should he not go to his landlord's house and take back by force, or by lawful stealth, the money of which he has been unjustly defrauded? But this has never been proposed; and the fact that total repudiation has always been kept in reserve has a stroke of revenge for a Coercion Bill, or a week Land Bill, shows that its proposers have some consciousness of its essentially unprincipled nature.

And even as a stroke of revenge how futile it would be, and how futile if regarded as a step towards a solution of the land question! Does anyone seriously think that the Government would be moved to do justice to Ireland because the Irish do injustice to their landlords? The Government does not care one straw for the Irish landlords as landlords. It cares a great deal more for the tenantry as tenantry. Undoubtedly, many landlords would be ruined; but the Government would not find that fact in the least intolerable. They would simply wait unitl the dishonest combination had broken up, as it inevitably would, by internal disagreements; and then assert, with irresistible force, the supremacy of the moral law. And then the last state of the Irish tenantry, in spite of the short-lived prosperity which they might enjoy, would be many times worse than the first. They would have alienated their warmest and most powerful sympathisers, and brought into action against their cause a force which no political or social combination has ever successfully resisted, [cut away] aversion of all righteous men.—I am, sir,

[cut away] William Rolleston.

thrown into a panic of such proceedings. Now, when speaking here last Friday I advised the people belonging to any branch of the League to strike entirely against the payment of rent when an attempt was made to break up the organisation in their neighbourhood (hear, hear). I wish to have that point distinctly understood. I conceive it to be a very important point in the carrying out of our policy. I don't mean that the arrest of any individual in a neighbourhood should be taken as a challenge, and the cause of a strike against rent. But I do mean that the anticipation of the Coercion Act to cause arrest of the leading Land Leaguers of the neighbourhood, the officers of the executive, the secretaries or presidents of a branch, in that case I do say that all the members of the branches are bound by their loyalty to the organisation; and if they don't mean to prove themselves to be cowards, and to give up the battle entirely, to accept that as a challenge of war, and to resist by every means in their power short of physical force, which they are not in a position to use with success (hear, hear), but every other means (and I don't go into all the means, I leave that to their ingenuity to devise) to resist and obstruct the levying of rent in that neighbourhood, until the Leaguers in their constitutional action are set at liberty again, when they can revert to the original policy of the League—that is, fair rents. Now, I would wish to note here that I am thoroughly convinced if the members of the local branches of the League adopt that policy that their position is absolutely impregnable. It don't matter if our central office be broken up—if we all be arrested—if all our organisers are arrested—if the people stand by that one advice—or rather two pieces of advice—to maintain over the country, in the local leagues, the the​ policy which we have taught during the past year, and bring the organisation to bear in their neighbourhood, to adopt it in all proper cases by declaring war on the landlords and obstructing by every means in their power the payment of any rent at all (applause) — these two methods, or plans of action, coupled with the determination not to be driven into acts of violence, personal violence of any kind (hear, hear) which would give the Government an excuse; if this is acted on the result will place the people in a perfectly impregnable position (hear, hear). I would also say—and I think this is a matter of the greatest importance in the view of the proceedings of certain gentlemen who call themselves justice of the peace—that wherever a landlord makes himself prominent in persecuting the Land Leaguers, or makes himself prominent, in rejoicing at the arrest of Mr. Davitt, or any other unconstitutional proceedings of the Government, that it is the duty of the League in his neighbourhood to accept such proceedings—such prosecution on his part—or such obvious insults to the people, as a declaration of war; and they should organise on his estate a thorough strike againstrent​ , so as to bring him to reason. You see that our policy always has been to act in a way consistent with the strongest dictates of morality, even of those who hold that landlords are entitled to a fair rent, on which there is some difference of opinion. We accept that distinction of morality up to the present. We have said to the people as long as the landlords have acted with some show of fairness to act towards them with fairness and justice; but where the landlords approve openly of the present coercion—of the Government, or make themselves the instruments of persecuting men who have committed no breach of the law, and availing themselves of monstrous powers, treat those men as criminals, we must declare war upon them by whatever means lie to our hand. If we had greater power we would declare war upon them in a very short, effectual, and swift way (hear, hear). But we must recognise the situation as practical men, and must not play into their hands, but must simply use the [cut away] lie to our bands; and remember [cut away] perfectly justified morally [cut away] when they adopt the [cut away] have [cut away] Now.[cut away]


  • 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. Probably "The Poetry of the Future," North American Review, 32 (1881), 195–210. [back]
  • 3. Aristophanes, The Frogs, l. 96. In Studies of Greek Poets (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880), a copy of which Whitman owned, John Addington Symonds translated this line, which appears as part of an exchange between Dionysus and Heracles, as follows: "there's not a sound male poet capable of procreation left." [back]
  • 4. The clipping referred to by Rolleston is his letter to the editor of the Freeman's Journal, dated February 6, 1881, the text of which is included above. One sentence from the letter is very interesting in relation to the Dillon speech which he mentions: "For it would be, indeed, a lamentable thing if the League should allow itself to be exasperated, by anything the Government or the landlords may do, into justifying the accusations of dishonest teaching which are at present so freely and so falsely showered upon it." "Falsely" has been underscored in the clipping enclosed for Whitman, with a marginal notation: "no longer, alas." This can be explained by the second clipping, part of the Dillon speech, in which the fair-rent policy of the League was abandoned and the rent-strike measure (still unofficial and unsupported by League leaders at the time of Rolleston's letter) was advocated. In fact, Dillon emphasized the strike procedure as an important part of the League policy, stating openly that "whenever a landlord makes himself prominent in persecuting the Land Leaguers, or makes himself prominent, in rejoicing at the arrest of Mr. Davitt, or any other unconstitutional proceedings of the Government, that it is the duty of the League in his neighbourhood to accept such proceedings—such persecution on his part—or such obvious insults to the people, as a declaration of war; and they should organize on his estate a thorough strike against rents, so as to bring him to his reason." [back]
  • 5. John Dillon (1851-1927) was a Member of Parliament in Ireland and supporter of the Irish National Land League. [back]
  • 6. Throughout his life, Michael Davitt (1846–1906) participated actively in Irish nationalist groups such as the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Land League, and the United Irish League. In his book The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland (London and New York, 1904), he set forth the history and position of the Land League. [back]
Back to top