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Whitman made palatable to British sensibilities

WHITMAN, WALT. Poems … selected and edited by William Michael Rossetti

London: John Camden Hotten, 1868

Frontispiece portrait of Whitman, a vignette from the Hollyer engraving. Original blue cloth. Near fine.

FIRST ENGLISH EDITION of Whitman’s poems.

“William Michael Rossetti’s Poems by Walt Whitman was published in 1868 by John Camden Hotten, a controversial publisher who specialized in Americana, erotica, and avant-garde poetry. Hotten wanted to publish the first British edition of Whitman’s poetry, but the close scrutiny he was under due to recent anti-pornography laws made a complete Leaves of Grass seem almost impossible. Whitman, confronted with a willing but cautious publisher, was forced to compromise if he wanted his poems to have a wider distribution in England. It was here that William Michael Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite and member of the prominent family of poets Dante Gabriel and Christina whose name recognition alone would secure Whitman several high-profile readers, was a key player in turning Leaves of Grass into Poems by Walt Whitman. The belief was that a Rossetti edition would be the best means of paving the way for later publication of a complete Leaves of Grass. … [T]he Saturday Review responded favorably to the Rossetti edition of Leaves of Grass, saying that the previous American editions which had made their way into England had been ‘indescribably filthy’ while the new Poems was presented ‘to the British public in a comely form’” (qtd. in Paley 28).

“The ‘comely form’ in which Leaves of Grass was presented to British readers required removing about one-half of the poems from the American 1867 edition it was based on (including ‘Song of Myself’), attaching explanatory footnotes to various poems, and deleting objectionable phrases from the original 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass which Rossetti included. In a twenty-seven page ‘Prefatory Notice,’ Rossetti explains, among other things, his criteria for the inclusion and exclusion of Whitman’s poems: ‘My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest’” (Whitley, Walt Whitman Archive).

A very handsome copy and scarce thus.

Provenance: bookplate of American collector Emerson Chamberlin whose library was sold by Anderson Galleries in 1920.