American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Romany Girl

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George Fuller, The Romany Girl, 1877-79 (click for link to a color image)

Although it is not an anthologized poem today, “The Romany Girl” by Ralph Waldo Emerson was highly regarded in the nineteenth century, and often included in short lists of Emerson’s best work. It appeared in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), alongside “The Chartist’s Complaint,” “Days,” and “Brahma.” All four of these poems later appeared in May Day and Other Pieces (1867), Emerson’s second collection. In the 1870s, George Fuller took the poem’s title for a painting, and this too was highly regarded in the nineteenth century. The idea for the title came from William Dean Howells, who later produced a Gypsy image of his own for his last novel, The Vacation of the Kelwyns (1920).

Emerson’s poem was written in the first person, with Emerson-as-Gypsy defending the outdoors life of a social outcast, and doing so with a grand self-possession. The impersonation stands out from his other work in verse, which pays little heed to social types and rarely takes shape in dramatic monologues. The approach may have been more common among his contemporaries — this was, after all, the age of the minstrel show — but comparable poems by John Greenleaf Whittier focus on facts and actions, not self-understanding; their interest does not lie in characterization. [1] Nor is characterization a strength of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy,” though here at least self-understanding was at issue. This may be why one nineteenth-century critic (W. S. Kennedy) invoked Blake when citing “The Romany Girl.”

A comparison of the Blake and Emerson poems is revealing. Blake’s speaker, born in the “southern wild,” looks forward to a day when his racial difference will disappear — when he and the “little English boy” can embrace in heaven. Emerson’s speaker insists on her difference. She finds nothing worth embracing in the “Pale Northern girls” who scorn her. She sports with their men, but has no intention of leaving her own kind. That would mean accepting captivity in a city and she has nothing but disdain for that prospect, an attitude that Emerson clearly finds attractive:

The Romany Girl

The sun goes down, and with him takes
The coarseness of my poor attire;
The fair moon mounts, and aye the flame
Of Gypsy beauty blazes higher.

Pale Northern girls! you scorn our race;
You captives of your air-tight halls,
Wear out in-doors your sickly days,
But leave us the horizon walls.

And if I take you, dames, to task,
And say it frankly without guile,
Then you are Gypsies in a mask,
And I the lady all the while.

If on the heath, below the moon,
I court and play with paler blood,
Me false to mine dare whisper none, —
One sallow horseman knows me good.

Go, keep your cheek’s rose from the rain,
For teeth and hair with shopmen deal;
My swarthy tint is in the grain,
The rocks and forest know it real.

The wild air bloweth in our lungs,
The keen stars twinkle in our eyes,
The birds gave us our wily tongues,
The panther in our dances flies.

You doubt we read the stars on high,
Nathless we read your fortunes true;
The stars may hide in the upper sky,
But without glass we fathom you.

Romany, now generally spelled Romani, is the name of the Gypsy language, really a group of languages, though it sometimes doubles as a name for the people, as in Emerson’s title. “Gypsy” is an outsider’s word, near-neighbor to a slur (think of gyp, a synonym for swindle), embraced by some members of the group and still in active use, even by social scientists. Slurs aside, the name is also flawed in its implied genealogy: a corruption of “Egyptian,” it speaks to an old legend about the people’s origins, which are actually Indian. One reason it persists, however, is that no equivalent term exists in the Romani dialects. The people know themselves by different names in different regions: Sinti in Germany, Manouches in France, Calé in Spain, Roma in eastern Europe. Pan-Gypsy consciousness is largely a post-Holocaust phenomenon, a response to the murder of a quarter-million Roma and Sinti in the camps. No group name is ever a simple matter, but the issue is especially vexed with the Gypsies.

I sense that Emerson was aware of these intricacies. He reserves the more polite term “Romany” for his title (which is presumably intended as an expression of his own sensibility), while letting the speaker use the coarser word, which she accepts in the first stanza, only to fling it back at her enemies in the third. [2] That third stanza is really wonderful, with the Romany girl being both outspoken and crafty, showing how intertwined the characteristics of Gypsy and townsgirl are, even as she uses the stereotypes (Gypsies full of guile, ladies frank and judgmental) to prove herself the more ladylike. How? By judging the girls frankly, unmasking their superiority as a swindle.

It takes no deep grasp of Emerson to imagine that his Romany girl might be a version of himself, and Howells, reviewing Emerson’s May Day for Atlantic Monthly, was quick to assert this:

It is, of course, a somewhat Emersonian Gypsy that speaks in “The Romany Girl,” but still she speaks with the passionate, sudden energy of a woman, and flashes upon the mind with intense vividness the conception of a wild nature’s gleeful consciousness of freedom, and exultant scorn of restraint and convention. (“Emerson’s Poetry” 104)

Because there is more than one Emerson, however, it is necessary to note that the poet of “The Romany Girl” is Whitman’s inspiration, the elemental Emerson, not the Platonist who declared, “The world is filled with the proverbs and acts and winkings of a base prudence, which is a devotion to matter, as if we possessed no other faculties than the palate, the nose, the touch, the eye and ear” (P 216). Emerson, when he is most Whitmanian, is more forgiving of matter. Consider the key passage in which the Romany girl makes reference to her dark skin. She associates it with nature, upholding it with the same word that Whitman uses when he celebrates “materialism, first and last imbueing”: she calls it real. [3]

Emerson, though worshipful of nature, would never grant matter the status of “first and last.” He was not even willing to grant that status to the real: “Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness, — these are threads on the loom of time, these are the lords of life. I dare not assume to give their order, but I name them as I find them in my way” (E 325).

Even when Emerson does turns his attention to the real, it is not always matter that he has in mind. We get an inkling of this in the poem, in the distinction he makes between “the flame / Of Gypsy beauty” and the store-bought teeth and hair of the northern girls. The latter are materialist in the worst sense of the word; the former has the character of spirit. Of course, a flame is only spirit by analogy. Emerson’s philosophy is more rigorous than his poetry about distinguishing the two:

We fetch fire and water, run about all day among the shops and markets, and get our clothes and shoes made and mended, and are the victims of these details; and once in a fortnight we arrive perhaps at a rational moment. If we were not thus infatuated, if we saw the real from hour to hour, we should not be here to write and to read, but should have been burned or frozen long ago. (N&R 396)

In the poem, the flame and shop are set at odds. In the essay, they are aligned, with the real defined in Hegelian terms as the rational. The infatuation that distracts us from this real is nature, personified by Emerson as a woman who has little patience for philosophers. She may sport with them, but like the Romany girl Nature remains true to her own kind, preferring “a wheelwright who dreams all night of wheels, and a groom who is part of his horse; for she is full of work, and these are her hands” (N&R 396). [4]

It would be missing the point, however, to focus too much on Emerson, the impersonator. The impersonation is what draws us to the poem: not simply the characterization Emerson creates, but also the life of romance it conjures. This conjuring is one of the great pleasures of nineteenth-century verse, a body of work as rich in characterization and romance as the more abstract poetries of modernism are in language.

Like many others in the nineteenth century, Emerson acquired much of what he knew about the Gypsies from George Borrow, a British author who learned to speak Romany and later wrote two novels about the people, Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857). Before these novels, Borrow also produced an ethnographic study, based on his travels through Spain, called The Zincali (1841), and Emerson read that book, writing to his brother William:

When we are all rich we shall cry for poverty dear poverty again. All the romance of life will centre there. And this reminds me that Delf of Wiley & Putnam has sent me lately “Borrow’s Gipsies” which is a book containing some passages of great interest about the strange vagrants. You must borrow it at the Society Library and carry it home. (L 41-42)

And later that year Emerson reviewed the book for the Dial.

Emerson’s review is pulled in two different directions, giving expression to a frank curiosity that exoticizes the Gypsies, and an equally frank suspicion of those who would treat the Gypsies as a separate species, as wholly alien and wanting to remain so. In the first case, to evoke the “fascinating romantic attraction … of this singular people,” Emerson adopts a botanical metaphor (Z 127). His first sentence reads, “Our list of tribes in America indigenous and imported wants the Gypsies, as the Flora of the western hemisphere wants the race of heaths” (Z 127). This heath (which also appears in “The Romany Girl”) returns toward the end of the review, when Emerson writes, “If we take Mr. Borrow’s story as final, here is a great people subsisting for centuries unmixed with the surrounding population, like a bare and blasted heath in the midst of smiling plenty” (Z 127-28). But the if in this sentence is a sign marking the path of Emerson’s suspicion. For Emerson does not take Borrow’s story as final:

This book is very entertaining, and yet, out of mere love and respect to human nature, we must add that this account of the Gypsy race must be imperfect and very partial, and that the author never sees his object quite near enough. For, on the whole, the impression made by the book is dismal; the poverty, the employments, conversations, mutual behavior of the Gypsies, are dismal; the poetry is dismal. Men do not love to be dismal, and always have their own reliefs. … If Gypsies are pricked, we believe they will bleed; if wretched, they will jump at the first opportunity of bettering their condition. … [W]e think that a traveller of another way of thinking would not find the Gypsy so void of conscience as Mr. Borrow paints him…. [W]e suspect the walls of separation between the Gypsy and the surrounding population are less firm than we are here given to understand. (Z 127-28)

Emerson, then, wants the Gypsies “wild and wonderful,” but will not have their commonality with other persons doubted (Z 127).

Click on the image for a larger view

T. Cole, engraving of "The Romany Girl"

“The Romany Girl” reiterates these two impulses, with the speaker taking pride in her difference while asserting that the unsavory characteristics of Romany life are a mask that anyone might wear; or better, a coarse attire that the sunset of prejudice might take away. This is not exactly a contradiction, especially since the difference insisted on owes more to nature than to Romany culture. But Emerson, like Whitman, could be attracted to things that others found unsavory, and there are hints of the unsavory — very vague hints — in the poem’s fourth stanza, in the girl’s unembarrassed declaration that she will have her fun with any man she chooses. This is pretty tame stuff, even for the 1850s, but Emerson goes further in his journals. The year after his review of Borrow, he wrote, “Are you not scared by seeing that the Gypsies are more attractive to us than the Apostles? For though we love goodness & not stealing, yet we also love freedom & not preaching” (JMN 8:223). Thirty years later he wrote much the same thing, softening his remark by taking away the charge of theft: “Why are gypsies more attractive to us than bishops? Because we like those who affect vices which they have not, & we hate the claim of sanctity” (JMN 16:307). Emerson’s poem was written between these two entries and it is not clear whether his Romany girl was meant to fit either scenario. Does she have vices, or merely affect them? Or should she be absolved of both charges?

There is no direct connection between Emerson’s conception of the Gypsy and Fuller’s — Howells proposed the title after the painting was finished — but Fuller’s painting and Emerson’s poem were obviously close enough in spirit for Howells to make a correlation, and reactions to the painting do identify an additional issue pertinent to the poem: its setting.


"A Romany Girl. From a Painting by George Fuller"

George Fuller made his first Gypsy sketches in 1858, after reading George Borrow’s second Gypsy novel, The Romany Rye, but he did not begin serious work on the theme until the end of the 1870s, when he created the image that came to be called The Romany Girl. After its initial exhibition at the National Academy of Design, the image further circulated through engraved copies; a painted study also exists, which apparently varies from the finished work. This, in any case, is how I make sense of inconsistencies in descriptions of the painting. Mentioned in all descriptions: the vivid look on the girl’s face. An 1883 article on Fuller speaks of her expression as “wild-eyed, half bold, passionate, yet tender” (Van Rensselaer 229), while a brief review of the original exhibition noted that the girl’s face was what legitimated the painting’s title:

Mr. George Fuller’s “Romany Girl” may, or may not, be typical of the gypsy; but the spirit of the painting is gypsy-like. Face and background harmonize in the best manner — unconsciously; and the face is wild enough and shrewd enough to suit the name, while the surroundings are not without a good share of the mysterious. (“The Art Season” 313)

The face is also important because Fuller did not rely on Gypsy iconography to establish his subject. As Frederic Fairchild Sherman noted in 1919, “Of the vivid scarfs and kerchiefs we associate with the wandering tribes the artist has made no use … there is nothing other than her look to indicate who or what she is” (23).

Sherman’s comment identifies another aspect of the painting important to its success: the blurring of “who” and “what.” This blurring in turn identifies a potential problem — one that would also hold true for the poem: the more particular the characterization of the girl, the more untenable the generalizations it invites about her people — an invitation also tendered by the definite article of the title.

Half a decade after completing The Romany Girl, Fuller made a second important Gypsy painting, Fedalma, but this one adopted a very different characterization. As explained by Sarah Burns, the foremost scholar of Fuller’s work:

The subject was directly inspired by a literary source: George Eliot’s long dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy, first published in 1868. The plot concerns the maiden Fedalma, who despite mysterious origins has been brought up by the mother of the Duke, Don Silva. Having matured to sultry, statuesque beauty and grace, she is betrothed to marry this young nobleman. The happiness of the engagement is destroyed by the military campaign which the Duke is pressing against the infidel Moors and their feral allies the gypsies. A band of the latter has recently been captured by the Duke’s forces and brought to his stronghold.

George Fuller, Fedalma, 1883-84 (click for link)

George Fuller, Fedalma, 1883-84

Fuller chose to depict the quiet, introspective, yet pivotal episode in which the truth of her ancestry begins to dawn upon Fedalma. The necklace that droops from her hand is part of a glittering treasure trove bestowed by her lover. On picking up his heavy rope of gold, Fedalma has fallen into a mysterious trance. The glowing strand has induced strange, subconscious thoughts that tease and tantalize her. Nebulous impressions of dim, forgotten dreams and emotions begin to stir at the bottom of her mind, which she feels is like “an eye that stares / into the darkness painfully.” The necklace is indeed her fate: it is booty from the captured gypsy chief, who somehow contrives to steal into Fedalma’s presence to reveal that he is her father, and to appeal to her to renounce her false affiliations, abandon her Duke and join with her father to become leader and savior of the Spanish gypsies. The rest of the poem follows Fedalma as she bows to the imperatives of blood and becomes a splendid dagger-bearing gypsy queen, raven hair in plaits and hung about with golden ornaments. (“Black-Quadroon-Gypsy” 421-22)

Because of the source material we know that Fedalma is European. But what of the Romany girl? The 1883 article cited above calls her American, “a wild creature of our own woods and not of any other” (Van Rensselaer 234), and Burns apparently concurs: “With her tilted, black eyes and brows, and her tangle of dark hair waving down to her shoulders, Fuller’s Romany Girl, like Emerson’s, is meant to appear as savage and wild as the shadowed forest primeval from which she peers out at the beholder” (“Black-Quadroon-Gypsy” 420). The allusion to Evangeline, if taken literally, would fix the location in northern New England, and Gypsy immigration to the United States was steady enough in the nineteenth century for this to be possible, though Fuller gives no evidence that this was his intention. Emerson does give evidence, but of a confused intention. The heath of his fourth stanza harks back to the Borrow review, which associated the Gypsies with “the race of heaths” and spoke of both as absent from “the western hemisphere.” Yet the panther of stanza six is decidedly a creature of the western hemisphere. So where do we find ourselves?

There is no doubt about place in The Vacation of the Kelwyns, Howells’s last novel, set in New Hampshire and subtitled An Idyl of the Middle Eighteen-Seventies. The Gypsies in the book are immigrants from England; they have lived in Canada for twenty years and are making their first trip to the United States, working their way south by van, their conveyance looking “like a circus-wagon strayed or stolen,” pulled by two colts and accompanied by dogs (127).

From what I have read of the novel, its touch is light, or lightened by droll moments. When Mr. Kelwyn buys a gun to protect his family from tramps, Howells writes, “His sense of the sacredness of property rights was strong, as it should be in a lecturer on Historical Sociology, and the pistol was as much to save their belongings as their lives.” The Gypsies appear somewhat later, in chapter 16, one more loop of the tramp thread that highlights the dominant theme: the encounter between a vacationing middle-class family and the poorer country folk who tend to their needs.

When the Gypsies arrive on this scene, Howells focuses on the two women: one large and elderly, “very dark, with coal-black eyes and coal-black hair turning ashen,” who spreads out an array of cheap goods; the other her granddaughter, “a lazy-eyed little maid” who tells fortunes (127-28). The fortuneteller is Emerson’s Romany girl, but drained of energy. She sizes up her marks quickly, answering their questions “in indifferent but not unamiable composure,” extracting fifty cents for a prediction that manages to be both welcome and impudent (128).

Setting his novel in the very decade in which he suggested Emerson’s title for Fuller’s painting, Howells could be seen as offering a revisionist characterization, stripping away the romance of the earlier Gypsies ― but also their anger, which is sorely missed. The difference may also be a matter of perspective: Howells wanted to examine a Gypsy’s effect upon others; Fuller wanted to look his Gypsy in the eye; Emerson wanted to look from behind Gypsy eyes.

Emerson and Howells were also interested in rendering a judgment on their own society. Gypsies offered them a means of doing so. There the similarities end; but focusing on judgment in this way allows me to see that Emerson’s last stanza would serve very well as a defense of Howells’s particular talent — or the talent of any novelist who quickly sizes up a social milieu. And since it was Howells who first to call Emerson’s Romany girl Emersonian, it seems only right to say that she is also Howellsian, at least in this final stanza:

You doubt we read the stars on high,
Nathless we read your fortunes true;
The stars may hide in the upper sky,
But without glass we fathom you. [5]

Henry Friedlander

Henry Friedlander

I let my notes get out of hand here; they become an essay. The subject matter was what impelled me: my father, an historian, has written about the Gypsies, and I typed these notes on his computer, in between visits to see him in a nursing home, where he’s recovering from a stroke. Since conversation is impossible right now, I thought of this essay as a kind of placeholder for conversations to come.

More than family feeling is involved: in my father’s book about the Nazi euthanasia program, there is a long discussion of the German scientist Robert Ritter, and it relates to my account. The passage was brought to mind by Emerson’s review of George Borrow, which associates Gypsies with Native Americans and Jews. The first association comes in Emerson’s opening reference to the indigenous and imported tribes of America, the second in his later allusion to Shylock. Ritter seems to have shared this twofold association. With Emerson, the two associations are indications of different directions in his thinking: the Gypsies are natural for Emerson, yet he sees their social condition as degenerate. This was Ritter’s understanding also, but he was able to synthesize the two directions in a single theory by appealing to genetics. Writes my father:

Considering [his] eugenic research approach, race-conscious outlook, and anti-Gypsy prejudice, it is not surprising that Ritter and his team concluded that Gypsies as a group were degenerate, criminal, and asozial and that this condition was hereditary. They also believed that the Gypsy urge to travel was inherited, just as the American eugenicist Charles Benedict Davenport had believed in a Mendelian gene for “nomadism.” At first, Ritter considered his study of Gypsies part of his investigation of degenerate, criminal, and anti-social elements and thus created a distinction between hybrids, who intermingled with the general population, and “pure” Gypsies, who continued to follow their undiluted traditions. Although Ritter characterized Gypsy hybrids (Zigeunermischlinge) as antisocial, he viewed pure Gypsies not as antisocial but as a people following their traditional ways in a changed environment. Ritter used the popular romantic image of Gypsies to describe these pure Gypsies, a concept similar to that of the “noble savage.” Obviously, this idea logically led to the notion of establishing a Gypsy reservation. At any rate, Ritter classified about 90 percent of all Gypsies as hybrids. (Friedlander 251-52)

In citing this passage I do not mean to accuse Emerson of a prejudice he was clearly struggling against. I would rather say his thinking was tied in ideological knots. Historians, philosophers, and social scientists work to untie such knots, or at least to loosen them, and Emerson was also trying to do this. But the work of untying is much more difficult when the knot is in your own head.

Trying to think free of ideology Houdini-style is a work of magic, hence entirely appropriate to poetry, though very few poets are equal to the task.

A Note on Figures

I believe the black and white image at the top of the page (which links to a color copy from the website of the Addison Gallery of Phillips Academy) represents Fuller’s study for the final painting. The first of the two engravings was made for Scribner’s Monthly in 1880, though the page shown here comes from an 1883 reprint in The Century, which continued Scribner’s. Note that the tepid representation of the girl’s face hardly supports the comments made about it in the accompanying article. The second engraving illustrates G. W. Sheldon, American Painters (1881), and was probably executed by Frederick Juengling; note the indefinite article in the caption. Fedalma is part of the Smithsonian collection; the image links to a catalog entry on the museum website.

[Abbreviations where used are given in brackets.]

“The Art Season of 1878-79.” Scribner’s Monthly (1879): 310-13.

Billitteri, Carla. Language and the Renewal of Society in Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson: The American Cratylus. Palgrave, 2009.

Blake, William. “The Little Black Boy.” In The Complete Poetry and Prose. Ed. David V. Erdman. University of California Press, 1982. 9.

Borrow, George. The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. Wiley and Putnam, 1842.

Brownell, William C. “The Younger Painters of America.” Scribner’s Monthly 20 (1880): 321-36.

Burns, Sarah. “Black-Quadroon-Gypsy Women in the Art of George Fuller.” Massachusetts Review 26 (1985): 405-24.

Burns, Sarah. “A Study of the Life and Poetic Vision of George Fuller (1822-1884).” American Art Journal 13.4 (1981): 11-37.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Experience.” In The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. Modern Library, 2000. 307-26. [E]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 16 vols. Ed. William H. Gilman et al. Harvard University Press, 1960-1982. [JMN]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 3. Ed. Ralph L. Rusk. Columbia University Press, 1939. [L]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nominalist and Realist.” In The Essential Writings. 390-401. [N&R]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Ralph H. Orth. University of Missouri Press, 1986. [PN]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Prudence.” In The Essential Writings. 215-24. [P]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Review of The Zincali. The Dial 3.1 (July 1842): 127-28. The review is unsigned in the Dial but was later included in Emerson’s collected works. [Z]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Romany Girl.” In Collected Poems and Translations, ed. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane. Library of America, 1994. 177-78.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Rommany Girl.” Atlantic Monthly 1 (1857-58): 46-47. Note the spelling of the title on this first printing.

Angus Fraser, The Gypsies, 2d ed. (Blackwell, 1995).

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Howells, William Dean. “Emerson’s Poetry.” In Selected Literary Criticism, Volume 1: 1859-1885. Ed. Ulrich Halfmann et al. Indiana University Press, 1993. 100-05. A review of May-Day and Other Pieces from Atlantic Monthly 20 (1867): 376-78.

Howells, William Dean. The Vacation of the Kelwyns: An Idyl of the Middle Eighteen-Seventies. Harper & Brothers, 1920.

Kennedy, W. S. “Mr. Joel Benton on Emerson’s Poetry.” The Modern Review 4 (1883): 855-56.

Sheldon, G. W. American Painters. D. Appleton, 1881.

Sherman, Frederic Fairchild. American Painters Yesterday and Today. New York, 1919.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. The Century, 1906.

Van Rensselaer, Mariana Griswold. “George Fuller.” The Century, 27 (1883): 226-37.

Whitman, Walt.  Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, 1855.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Anti-Slavery Poems: Songs of Labor and Reform. The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier: Riverside Edition. Vol. 3 Houghton, Mifflin, 1888.


1 [Back to text] See, e.g., from Anti-Slavery Poems, “The Farewell,” a Virginia slave mother to her daughters; “At Port Royal,” which includes a dialect “Song of the Negro Boatman”; “Hymn, Sung by the Scholars of St. Helena’s Island, S.C.”; and the six “Songs of Labor” sung by Whittier’s shoemaker, fisherman, lumberman, shipbuilder, and drover. These nine poems represent a small portion of the 125 in the book.

2 [Back to text] In Emerson’s index for his poetry notebooks he referred to the poem as “Gypsy” and “Gypsy Song” (see, e.g., PN 981); the decision to use the word “Romany” came late.

3 [Back to text] The line appears on page 28 of the 1855 edition; a copy of the original is viewable at the Walt Whitman Archive. For a full analysis of  the line as a key to Whitman’s poetics, see Carla Billitteri’s new study of American poetry and Cratylism.

4 [Back to text] To clarify the difference between poem and essay, here is how the four key terms line up in each instance (I’ve put the two other key terms in brackets because they have to be inferred; Emerson does not explicitly mention them):


5 [Back to text] Emerson worked hard to express a sentiment that any reader might embrace. An earlier version was more recalcitrantly particular to Romany circumstance. Written on a slip of paper, inserted into one of Emerson’s account books, the draft reads:

We bide by market & moors
Fortunes we can spae & spell
We know life’s taste tho’ not indoors
Pale men’s fortunes reading well (PN 904)

There is no rebuke in this version. Emerson, perhaps, had to imagine the scene in order to discover the Romany girl’s confidence in judgment; he was then able to shape that confidence into a rebuke, leaving the scene behind.


2 Responses

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  1. terrific Ben


    June 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

  2. Remarkable post.

    rodney k.

    June 29, 2009 at 7:51 pm

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