Skip to main content

Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 7 August 1884

 syr_kc.00053_large.jpg see notes Feb 8 1889 My Dear Walt—

I write to tell you how things are going now about the translation, &c. It is nearly through its last stage. Our way of working is this. First I translated all I am going to give as well as I could out of my own unassisted resources and handed over the M.S.​ to my colleague. He then read it over carefully with the English text & made such notes & corrections as occurred to him. Then he handed the notes & M.S.​ back to me. All this is now done, & at present I spend the evening in reading a portion of the transl.​ with his notes, & considering all carefully—next morning I visit my colleague & we go over what I prepared the previous night, weighing every sentence; and give final shape to the translation. In the afternoon I write out for the printer what we have done in the morning. I have now ready for print the Song of Myself, Starting from Paumanok, I Sing the Body Electric, Song of the Open Road, Brooklyn Ferry, and a dozen or so of the shorter poems. We were at work this morning on 'Salut au Monde.'

As to publishing, I am trying to get a Dresden  syr_kc.00054_large.jpg man, Heinrich Minden, to take it upon commission. He is now away in Moskow, on business, but returns in a few days. I have written to broach the matter. Curious fact illustrative of rule in Russia—I wanted to send Minden my transl.​ of 'Starting from Paumanok,' with my preface to the work and Freiligrath's1 article from the Allg. Zeitung. But they told me at his office that if I ever wished to see these things again I had better not despatch them—as this highly revolutionary or explosive literature would assuredly be confiscated on the frontier by the Russian police! So I left them in the office, where I suppose they will label them 'dangerous,' and put them on an upper shelf till Minden comes back.

The German colleague I alluded to is not a partner in the strict sense & takes no part in the publication of the work, nor has legal responsibility for it. His name is Gustav Adolf Israel2—he is master for German literature in a school here—I have known him for long, & knowing his capacities engaged him for a fixed sum of money to revise my M.S.S.​ . You must not let his name be known—it would have serious consequences for him if he were known to have taken any part in the production  syr_kc.00055_large.jpg of the L. of G​ . No one supposes that the book will be much of a success, financially speaking. A bookseller told me the other day that no one reads poetry now in Germany, or buys it, except to give pretty books as presents to young ladies on their confirmation. But then as a leading critical organ here, anent my lecture, asserted that the L. of G.​ are not poetry, perhaps there is a chance for them! I have not gone into detailed criticism in my preface—said that if anyone didn't see his way to calling the book 'poetry,' he might call it by any other earthly name he liked, if he would only begin to listen to it. Gave a sketch of your life, in which I have corrected some mistakes I made in my lecture, & gave your letter, i.e. the portion you wrote for this purpose. I mean to give the English text, but not on alternate pages—underneath, in smaller type, on the bottom ⅓rd of the page, so as to give the idea that it is there for reference, making the German rendering the main thing, as it should be for German readers. But this is a good deal dependent on the publisher & his opinion. We are thinking of leaving Germany about the middle of September. My address then will be Glasshouse, Shinrone, Ireland. This  syr_kc.00056_large.jpg indeed is always sure to find me.

I shall be glad to get among my own people again, & to have a bit of a holiday too, for I have been working pretty hard all this summer. I hope you are well and prospering.

As soon as there is further definite news about the L. of G.​ translation I'll let you know—meantime goodbye.

T. W. Rolleston.

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. Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was a German poet and translator and friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his January 16, 1872 letter to Rudolf Schmidt, Whitman wrote that Freiligrath "translates & commends my poems." Freiligrath's review in the Augsburg Allgemeinen Zeitung on April 24, 1868 (reprinted in his Gesammelte Dichtungen [Stuttgart: G. J. Göschen, 1871], 4:86–89), was among the first notices of Whitman's poetry on the continent. A translation of the article appeared in the New Eclectic Magazine, 2 (July 1868), 325–329; see also Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Abroad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1955), 3–7. A digital version is available in Walter Grünzweig's "Whitman in the German-Speaking Countries," which collects numerous examples of German reception of Whitman's poetry. Freiligrath had promised his readers "some translated specimens of the poet's productions," not a complete translation. A sympathetic article on Whitman in the New York Sonntagsblatt of November 1, 1868, mentioned Freiligrath's admiration for the American poet. A translation of this article, which Whitman had a Washington friend prepare, is now in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. [back]
  • 2. Gustav Adolf Israel (1848–1919) lived in Dresden, Germany, and was married to Friederike Auguste Emma Israel. He apparently trained beginning teachers in protestant theology and pedagogy at Schneeberg seminary in Saxony. [back]
Back to top