At the time of his death in 1892, the paradigmatic American poet Walt Whitman was more widely celebrated in Britain than in his own country, having received the vocal support of the likes of Tennyson, William Michael Rossetti, John Addington Symonds, Swinburne (for a time) and Edward Carpenter. For these writers, Whitman’s political egalitarianism – expressed through notions of ‘manly love’ and comradeship – presented a powerful alternative to prevailing Victorian forms of political and social relations. Whitman also provided significant inspiration for British composers at the turn of the twentieth century, with settings by Holst, Delius, Grainger, Scott, Gurney, Bridge, Stanford, Wood, Vaughan Williams and others. Yet while Whitman’s transatlantic literary reception has come to be seen as a moment of crystallization in the formation of contemporary notions of homosexuality, his reception among British composers is viewed as having been highly circumscribed, focusing more on the democratic and mystical implications of Whitman’s poetry.
This article suggests a different account of Vaughan Williams’s reading of Whitman, and explores the implications of this reading for our broader understanding of the relationship between several notions of nationalism, masculinity and modernism. This examination aims to complicate, inter alia, the narrative of rupture associated with the transition to modernism, by demonstrating how the continuity of intellectual concerns across aesthetic, national, and sexual spheres has been obscured by strategies of displacement.