Skip to main content

Ernest Rhys to Walt Whitman, 5 January 1889

Walt Whitman.

Your card of the 24th came two days ago,2 not a little to my relief. I was beginning to fear lest you were not so well again. This year ought to treat you well, and give you the wind and weather and everything that you love, seeing that in it you attain three score and ten. If good wishes of friends were of any direct use, physically, I mean, as well as in other ways, it would be the happiest year of your life. It seems very right and fit that in it you should publish the edition definitive in this vol. of your "complete works,"3 which we all so eagerly expect.

The last few weeks have brought nothing perhaps that is very remarkable to the surface here. I have been jogging along quietly enough,—but absorbing always a great deal humanly from the endlessly wonderful life of this great London. One of the most striking episodes I have lately had any share in was the midnight meeting of the unemployed of London on Christmas eve. It was held at the foot of Cleopatra's Needle, round the base of which the various speakers were grouped, faced by the motley throng of men, who cheered hoarsely with hungry throats as the speechifying went on. Through the day it had been wet and foggy in turn, but now the sky was of an American clearness, the half moon shining bright behind the shaft of Cleopatra's Needle, contrasting strangely with the red torches held to light the orators. Altogether an impressive scene; and when the Christmas bells rang out, and one of the speakers called out—"Peace on earth, good will towards men! If Jesus were in London today would he be in those churches?"—and the crowd shouted back, "No! he'd be here!—here with us!"—the effect was dramatic in the extreme.

When I had been standing in the crowd for some time, I discovered Jo Pennell,4 the artist, standing near me, and we presently went home together. He lives in the next street to Cowley Street, from which, by the way, I may have to move shortly, as a sister (whom you know) is coming up to town to study music at the Academy.

I am writing this at the reading room of the British Museum. I must end it rather hurriedly. Don't let me forget to tell you that last night I saw Edward Carpenter5—the first time in three years—at a meeting of the Fabian Society,6 where he lectured. He looks older than he did—more nervous lines in his face. As he is staying in town we shall probably meet again.

The Scottish Art Review wants me to write an article on The Portraits of Walt Whitman,7 with portrait reproductions. Can you send any new pictures of yourself? For the present time, so long!

Ernest Rhys

Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. Traubel and Rhys misdate this letter as "1888." The correct date is January 5, 1889. [back]
  • 2. See Whitman's letter to Rhys of December 24, 1888. [back]
  • 3. Whitman wanted to publish a "big book" that included all of his writings, and, with the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. The book was published in December 1888. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]
  • 4. Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was an American lithographer, illustrator, and etcher whose work often depicted historic buildings and landmarks in Philadelphia and New York. Following his education in Philadelphia, he reclocated to London, where he taught at the Slade School of Fine Art. [back]
  • 5. Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart . . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. The Fabian Society emerged in 1884 and was at the center of an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain in the 1880s. Fabians played a key role in founding the Labour party in 1990 and have a commitment to non-violent political change and social justice that continues today ("Our History," Retrieved from: [back]
  • 7. This article was published on pages 17–24 of the Scottish Art Review Volume II for June-December of 1889. [back]
Back to top