William Rossetti: The Brit Who (Basically) Saved Walt Whitman from Obscurity

Copy of "Poems of Walt Whitman"

One of the primary attractions to Whitman for critics and readers on both sides of the Atlantic was his essential other-ness, his status as an outsider representing an image of America that promoted England’s former colonies as a land of untrammeled freedom, a natural wilderness replete with opportunities to ignore the established conventions of decorum and revel in ignorance and nakedness. For Americans, Whitman presented a primitive, sexualized image of themselves that they would rather not have seen; for this, he received “the opprobrium of many readers, including the influential writer who had begun by lavishly praising the Leaves, Ralph Waldo Emerson” (James E. Miller). To Britons, however, this coarse brand of Americanness seemed worthy of further consideration, if only to position it in contrast with the civility and culture it appeared to lack—for better of for worse. As Harold Blodgett explains:

Seen from the still feudal shores of England, Whitman’s Americanism took on a romantic glow, and democracy appeared to sanguine minds not merely as an experiment in suffrage but as an ideal for an inspired brotherhood. In transatlantic perspective the bard became colossal and fascinating, an Adamic figure with a thrilling message from a young country.

For Whitman to capitalize on the cautious curiosity that existed in England after the Civil War, then, he needed an editor who could transform Leaves of Grass into something the British could take more seriously, someone who could provide readers a clear entryway into Whitman’s American wilderness. And as fate would have it, the man who engaged in every possible means of promotion to increase his readership in America found such an inspired soul through no special effort of his own.

William Michael Rossetti’s initial introduction to Whitman’s poetry was the result of a gift from his friend William Bell Scott. In a brief letter dated December 25, 1856, Rossetti thanks Scott for the book and, in a nice bit of foreshadowing, sets his own perception of Whitman against those of his contemporaries:

Many thanks for the Leaves of Grass, which I have not yet received from Woolner, but shall be eager to read as soon as I get it. Woolner and others denounce the book in the savagest of terms; but I suspect I shall find a great deal to like, a great deal to be surprised and amused at, and not a little to approve—all mingled of course with a lot of worse than worthless eccentricity.

The following February, Rossetti followed up with a fuller response to the book, in which he found “far less to censure or scout, and far more to hail with some genuine enthusiasm, than I had expected.” Though the work contained “an utter recklessness of conventional glozes of expression,” Rossetti stated that he “should much hesitate to deny a strong man the privilege of putting strong meat into the first words that come.” In these early responses to Whitman’s poems, one can already see emerging in Rossetti’s mind a critical approach to Leaves of Grass that combines a strong affinity for the best parts of Whitman with a method for dealing with the worst parts without equivocation, mockery, or censure. Rossetti locates a quality that resonates throughout the poems—in this case, the powerful force of Whitman’s expression—and professes an admiration for that quality even when it appears to lead to “recklessness” and unconventionality. Rossetti attempts to reconcile the bad with the good, choosing to view Whitman’s corpus in its entirety rather than performing some synecdochical sleight-of-hand in which one line damns the entire effort; as he explains to Scott, “One must not read the book in scraps: after sitting down to it for an hour or so, one gets into the swing of it, and it rolls one along with a power.” And although he would not begin pursuing an English edition of Leaves until a decade later, the “power” of Whitman’s verse convinced Rossetti that he needed to get the book into the hands of as many of his friends as possible.

Excerpt from “The Transatlantic Whitman: William Rossetti’s Poems by Walt Whitman (1868).”

(Image via Univ. of South Carolina Rare Books & Special Collections)

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