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Walt Whitman to the editors of the New York Critic, [?] November 1888

Briefly to answer impromptu your request of Oct: 191—the question whether I think any American poet not now living deserves a place among the thirteen "English inheritors of unassail'd renown" (Chaucer,2 Spenser,3 Shakspere,4 Milton,5 Dryden,6 Pope,7 Gray,8 Burns,9 Wordsworth,10 Coleridge,11 Byron,12 Shelley13 and Keats,14)—and which American poets would be truly worthy, &c. Though to me the deep of the matter goes down, down beneath. I remember the London Times at the time, in opportune, profound and friendly articles on Bryant's15 and Longfellow's16 deaths, spoke of the embarrassment, warping effect, and confusion on America (her poets and poetic students) "coming in possession of a great estate they had never lifted a hand to form or earn"; and the further contingency of "the English language ever having annex'd to it a lot of first-class Poetry that would be American, not European"—proving then something precious over all, and beyond valuation. But perhaps that is venturing outside the question. Of the thirteen British immortals mention'd—after placing Shakspere on a sort of pre-eminence of fame not to be invaded yet—the names of Bryant, Emerson,17 Whittier18 and Longfellow (with even added names, sometimes Southerners, sometimes Western or other writers of only one or two pieces,) deserve in my opinion an equally high niche of renown as belongs to any on the dozen of that glorious list.

Walt Whitman

The editor of the Critic from 1881 to 1906 was Jeannette Leonard Gilder (1849–1916), who wrote that "one of the things of which I am most proud is that the Critic was the first publication of its class to invite Walt Whitman to contribute to its pages" (Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Friend [Boston: Richard G. Badger, The Gorham Press, 1915], 97). She was assisted in her editorial work by her brother Joseph Benson Gilder (1858–1936). For more information, see Susan L. Roberson, "Gilder, Jeannette L. (1849–1916)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. In response to E.C. Stedman's Poets of America, Edmund Gosse wrote an article, published in the Forum, entitled "Has America Produced a Poet?" On October 19, 1888, The Critic wrote to several well-known writers asking for their opinions in reply. Whitman's letter above is prefaced with the statement: "Walt Whitman's views [as follows] are, naturally, more radical than those of any other contributor to the discussion." See The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press), 675. [back]
  • 2. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) was an English poet and author, who is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of 24 tales in Middle English, primarily written in verse, presented as stories that are told by pilgrims traveling together form London to Canterbury to visit Saint Thomas Becket's shrine. Chaucer was the author of numerous other works, including The Book of the Duchess and Troilus & Criseyde. [back]
  • 3. Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) was an English poet and the author of the epic poem The Faerie Queene. [back]
  • 4. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet and playwright and is widely considered the world's greatest dramatist. He was the author of numerous plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. [back]
  • 5. John Milton (1608–1674) was an English poet and civil servant best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. [back]
  • 6. John Dryden (1631–1700) was an English poet, dramatist, and literary critic who was named poet laureate of England in 1668 and inspired a so–called "Age of Dryden" in Restoration England. [back]
  • 7. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was an English poet best known for his satirical verse and his translation of Homer. [back]
  • 8. Thomas Gray (1716–1771) was an English poet best known for his poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). [back]
  • 9. Robbert Burns (1759–1796) is best remembered as the national bard of Scotland and for his use of the Scots dialect in his poetry. Some of his well-known works include "Auld Lang Syne" (1788) and "A Red, Red Rose" (1794). [back]
  • 10. William Wordsworth (1770–1850) was an English poet who published Lyrical Ballads, including the well-known poem "Lines Composed A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is credited with starting the Romantic age in English Literature. [back]
  • 11. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was an English poet who worked with William Wordsworth to found the Romantic Movement in England and is notable for his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. [back]
  • 12. Lord Byron (1788–1824), born George Gordon Byron, was a British poet, politician, and leader of the Romantic Movement. He is best known for his poems Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage [back]
  • 13. The English Romantic poet and playwright Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was the author of the well-known poems "Ozymandias" and "Ode to the West Wind." He was married first to Harriet Westbrook Shelley (1795–1816) and later to Mary Godwin Shelley (1797–1895), the author of the novel Frankenstein (1818). [back]
  • 14. John Keats (1795–1821) was an English Romantic poet known for his poems "To Autumn," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." [back]
  • 15. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) was an American nature poet and journalist who served as the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Evening Post from 1828 to 1878. He is known for his poem "Thanatopsis," and his influence helped establish Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. [back]
  • 16. In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was both a highly popular and highly respected American poet. His The Song of Hiawatha, published the same year as Leaves of Grass, enjoyed sales never reached by Whitman's poetry. When Whitman met Longfellow in June 1876, he was unimpressed: "His manners were stately, conventional—all right but all careful . . . he did not branch out or attract" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, May 10, 1888, 130). [back]
  • 17. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. Having read Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote a letter to Whitman, famously pronouncing him to be "at the beginning of a great career." In his response, Whitman eagerly addressed the Concord philosopher as "Master." Whitman published both Emerson's letter and his response in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 18. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) was an American poet who is remembered as one of the most popular of the Fireside Poets and for his anti-slavery writings. He was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Maud Muller (1860) and Snow-Bound (1866). [back]
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