Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Rossetti, William Michael [1829-1915]
Author:
Smith, Sherwood
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

One of Whitman's most important European editors, critics, and supporters, William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was the editor of The Germ (1850), journal and manifesto of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti received a copy of Leaves of Grass (1855) soon after its publication, as a gift from William Bell Scott, who had been introduced to it by Thomas Dixon of Sunderland. Rossetti responded enthusiastically and discussed it with many other British writers, among them Swinburne. An article by Rossetti in the London Chronicle (6 July 1867) created great interest in Whitman in Britain and America and was much appreciated by John Burroughs, William D. O'Connor, and Whitman himself. It was reprinted in several publications in the United States. At the suggestion of Moncure D. Conway, who gained Whitman's permission for the publication of a selection of his poems, with a few changes in text, and at the invitation of London publisher John Camden Hotten, Rossetti agreed to edit a selection of Leaves of Grass from the 1867 edition, omitting any poem he thought likely to offend English readers (and censors). His editing of Whitman's Poems (1868), including the 1855 Preface (which Whitman doubted was worth republishing), was a major event in the growth of Whitman's reputation and readership in America and Europe. Rossetti's prefatory notice admitted that Whitman had what Rossetti considered many faults of diction and subject matter, but asserted that Whitman was among the greatest poets of the English language. Rossetti's edition contained about one half of the 1867 text; the poems included were printed without omissions or emendations, though a few changes were made in the text of the Preface. Rossetti insisted that his edition was unexpurgated and only preliminary to an English publication of the complete Leaves of Grass, but O'Connor and Whitman had strong reservations about it, and Whitman later referred to it as "the horrible dismemberment of my book" (Correspondence 2:133). 

Throughout the rest of his life Rossetti championed Whitman, praising him even in his 1870 edition of Longfellow as by far the greatest American poet. In 1872 Rossetti published American Poems, "dedicated with homage and love to Walt Whitman," including 32 poems by Whitman. He included one poem ("A Boston Ballad (1854)") by Whitman in his anthology Humourous Poems (1872). He brought out a new edition of Whitman's Poems in 1886. Rossetti's letters and diaries contain many references to Whitman and show his deep affection for Whitman as poet and correspondent, as well as his sympathy with Whitman's social and political ideals. 

Rossetti was important in the editing and publishing of Anne Gilchrist's "An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" (Boston Radical, 1870), and suggested the beginning of the correspondence between Whitman and Mrs. Gilchrist which led to her visit to Philadelphia in 1876. 

In 1876, after an article appeared in the West Jersey Press (Camden) about Whitman's poverty and neglect in the United States, and subsequent heated discussions of this in English and American journals, Rossetti offered Whitman the assistance of his English admirers, and Whitman agreed to accept it. Rossetti's efforts led to many generous subscriptions to the 1876 Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman said "pluck'd me like a brand from the burning, and gave me life again" (Prose Works 2:699-700). Famous personages among the subscribers were John Ruskin, Edmund Gosse, George Saintsbury, Alfred Tennyson, and Edward Dowden. In 1886, Rossetti directed the collection and distribution of the equivalent of almost two thousand dollars in cash gifts from British friends. Tireless in his efforts, he even wrote a letter to President Grover Cleveland proposing that the United States grant Whitman a government pension. 

Bibliography 

Blodgett, Harold. Walt Whitman in England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1934. 

Rossetti, William Michael. The Diary of W.M. Rossetti, 1870-1873. Ed. Odette Bornand. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. 

____. Letters . . . Concerning Whitman, Blake, and Shelley. Ed. Clarence Gohdes and Paull Franklin Baum. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1934. 

____. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti. Ed. Roger W. Peattie. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990. 

____, comp. Rossetti Papers, 1862 to 1870. 1903. New York: AMS, 1970. 

____, ed. American Poems. London: E. Moxon, 1872. 

____, ed. Humorous Poems. London: E. Moxon, 1872. 

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961-1977. 

____. Poems. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868. 

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964. 


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