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Walt Whitman at the Lilly

Whitman to Edward Dowden, 2 May 1875

In this important letter to the prominent Irish critic Edward Dowden (1843-1913), Whitman characterizes Two Rivulets as his contribution to the National Centennial and explains that he thought of his prose and poetry as complementary. Dowden was Professor of English at Trinity College in Dublin from 1867 until his death and is now mostly remembered for his opposition to the Irish Renaissance but not for his poetry or his fine books about Shakespeare (1875) and Shelley (1886).

Whitman's letter is remarkable for his unsentimental description of his illness, but it also shows how broadly interested he was in all things literary (he was reading Dowden's brand-new Shakespeare bookand how far his network of correspondents extended (even Tennyson would write a friendly letter to Whitman!)...  and how much he wanted everyone to know about all this.  It mattered little now that William Michael Rossetti had bowdlerized his preface to Leaves in the first British edition of his work, published in 1868.  What mattered was that Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was sending him "capital" letters!

At the time, Whitman was living with his brother George in the corner-house at 431 Stevens Street in Camden--without a job and limited by his disability, he needed to be appreciated by his fans.  And John Burroughs (1837-1921), Whitman's first biographer, certainly did appreciate him.  Burroughs had recently moved to his farm in Ulster County, New York--apparently not too far away for him to come and visit his mentor in New Jersey.  But Whitman needed more, and Dowden, the 32-year-old Irish college professor, provided him with a window onto the world.  In a long article about American poetry published in 1871 in the Westminster Review, Dowden had praised Whitman as the "poet of democracy" who loved to consort with "uneducated persons."  Whitman's letter was meant to show him yet another side of that poet--the literary savant and cosmopolite.

"Dear friend,

You kind letter of April 16 reach'd me yesterday--I find it full of animation & cheer, with items if news, &c. interesting to me, & only hope to get letters from you oftener.   In my condition they are trebly welcome.  My tedious prostration continues--prinarily and mainly--an obstinate & baffling cerebral affection, on which there has been superinduced grave lesions of the stomoach & liver, (from the enforced physical inaction of the last twenty-eight monhts)--

--Still, I am up & dressed & around every day, go out, walk a very little, (as I am crippled, left leg, quite badly)--but eke out a jaunt with the horse cars, & the ferry boats on the noble river here, the Delaware--all quite handy--the solution of the problem of recovery, (even partial) is more or less uncertain but of course I like to proceed on the supposition [verso] or assumption that I shall get better.--

Yes, I shall, unless prevented, brng out a volume this summer partly as my contribution to out National Centennial.  It is to be called"Two Rivulets"--(i.e.  two flowing chains of prose and verse, amanting the real and ideal) it will embody much that I had previously written & that you know, but about one third, as I guess, that is fresh.  "Leaves of Grass" proper will remain as it is identically--The new Vol. will have nearly or quite as much matter as L of G. (It is part of an omnibus, in which  I have packed all the belated ones, since the outset of the Leaves.)--As I was writing to John Burroughs today, I have enclosed to him your letter of 16th.  His address is, Esopus, Ulster Co.  New York.  He is there peremanently, having built himself a stone cottage in a beautiful sport on the banks of the Hudson, 60 miles north of New York City.  He comes to see me--was here, well, about three weeks ago.  I heard from Tennyson last summer had a good friendly letter from him.  I have just had a long capital & most kind letter from W. M. Rossetti.  Thanks for the Shakespere--the first & second chapters I had read thoroughly--they are very live--I shall read it all & write you--the Contemporary Review is rec'd--Thanks--Walt Whitman

Thanks for Mr Clifton's letter--best remembrances to Mrs. Dowden--not forgetting the dear little daughter & baby--"

Whitman to Dowden 2

Walt Whitman to Edward Dowden, 12 May 1875. American Literature Mss.