Skip to main content

Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, March 1884


Translation of Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus (about 260 B.C.)1

Most glorious of the immortals! many-named! all-powerful forever, Zeus! ruler of nature, steering all things according to law, Hail!—for it is the right and duty of all mortals to address thee, For we are the offspring out of thee, taking the one image of thy word, as many mortal creatures as live and creep upon the earth. Wherefore I will hymn thee and sing thy power forever; For thee this whole universe that whirls about the earth obeys, wherever thou dost lead it, and is willingly ruled by thee. Such a servant hast thou—the two-edged, fire-breathing, ever-living thunderbolt in thy invincible hands, Under whose stroke all Nature shudders, and through which thou orderest (keepest straight—in the right path) the universal Reason (λόγοs​ ) which moves through all things, and mixes itself with the greater and with the lesser lights— Nor does anything take place upon the earth without thee, O Spirit, nor in the divine ethereal sky, nor in the sea, Save only such things as the base & wicked do in their folly— Yet thou knowest how to make superfluous things fit where they should go, and thou orderest what is without order (lit. makest cosmic what is uncosmic), and things that are not dear are dear to thee. For thus thou dost harmonize into one good things with evil; so that there should be one Eternal Reason, common to all, And this such of mortals as are evil fly from and neglect—miserables, desiring ever posession of goods & chattels, Nor do they behold the universal law of God, nor hear it, which if they would obey, they should have a fair and good life; But they rush headlong, forgetful of the beautiful, some after one thing, some another,— Some having an unholy thirst for fame, some turned to gain with a base unrestrained lust, Some to vice and the sweet works of the body; —Hastening, verily, altogether, to become the contrary of these things.  loc_bb.00059.jpg But O Zeus! All-giver! Veiled in dark cloud! Lord of thunder! Do thou save men from their miserable foolishness (lit. orig. want of experience) Which do thou, Father, scatter from their souls; and give them to find the wisdom by which thou securely steerest all things, according to justice, So that, being made honourable, they may repay thee with honour, Hymning thy works perpetually, as is seemly for a mortal: for verily there is no greater glory for mortal men or for the gods than this—to hymn forever in a just heart the universal Law.

I thought you might care to see a full translation of this fine piece of ancient Greek religious poetry, especially as it doesn't lie much in the beaten way of readers of the classics, wherefore it may be new to you. I don't think it has ever been translated in print. I have received the paper with the description of the Indian deputation, & also the proofs of your 'Critic' essay on Leaves of Grass, which interested me profoundly—there are materials for a big volume in it.2 I got too the paper with translation from my essay, for which I owe the editor & translator deep thanks.3 The translation is very good, though free—but one mistake I should like to correct. I didn't say that the "beauty in L. of G. worked all the deeper," &c. "because it never seemed intended for any aim or purpose"—but "because it (i.e. beauty) was never made an end & object in itself."4

I have received a long & interesting letter from Dr. Bucke5 about my lecture. He is a man I should greatly like to know personally—which perhaps may come about as he talks of visiting Dresden. The translation of L. of G. is progressing well, though the necessity of taking pupils which I am under now costs a good deal of my time.

I hope all is going well with you and yours. I was very sorry to hear of the death of Wendell Philips​ , a good friend of Ireland.6

Dynamite attempts making a great stir in England now7—utterly barbarous & unjustifiable—but if people will sow the wind—!

Yours always William Rolleston.
 loc_bb.00060.jpg  loc_bb.00061.jpg early in March '84 | Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus

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).


  • 1. Cleanthes' "Hymn to Zeus" translated by Rolleston appears in his The Teaching of Epictetus: being the "Encheiridion of Epictetus," with Selections from the "Dissertations" and "Fragments" (London, 1888). The translation he sent Whitman is obviously an earlier, much rougher version. [back]
  • 2. The essay alluded to is probably Whitman's "A Backward Glance on My Own Road" in the January 5, 1884 issue of the Critic. [back]
  • 3. The Camden Post, January 13, 1883. [back]
  • 4. The sentence in Ueber Wordsworth und Walt Whitman (p. 60) reads: "Zweitens haben wir einen Reichthum der Poesie, deren Schönheit nur umso tiefer und dauernder wirkt, weil sie niemals zu einem Ziel und Zweck gemacht worden ist." [back]
  • 5. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. The American orator, Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), with his active interest in antislavery and other questions of reform, was sympathetic to the Irish cause. Among his famous addresses on behalf of the Irish are his Boston speech at the occasion of the centennial celebration in 1870 of the birth of the Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell, and his refutation of the charges against Ireland made by the pamphleteer and lecturer James A. Froude in 1873. [back]
  • 7. The Fenian dynamite campaign, orchestrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenians), took place during the first half of the 1880s. In late February 1884, a bomb went off at London's Victoria Station, and other bombs were defused at several other London railway stations. [back]
Back to top