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Oscar Meets Walt

When Oscar Wilde arrived at the Aldine Hotel in Philadelphia on January 16, 1882, during his American lecture tour, he was asked by a batch of reporters which American poet he most admired. He replied without hesitation, “I think that Walt Whitman and Emerson have given the world more than anyone else.” Longfellow, admirable as he was, was too close to European sources to have much effect in Europe. Wilde actually valued Poe, “this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression,” above the others, but Poe was dead. “I do so hope to meet Mr. Whitman,” Wilde confided. “Perhaps he is not widely read in England, but England never appreciates a poet until he is dead. There is something so Greek and sane about his poetry, it is so universal, so comprehensive. It has all the pantheism of Goethe and Schiller.”1 Two of his friends, J.M. Stoddart and George E. Childs, both publishers, were planning parties in Philadelphia for Wilde, and both invited Whitman to come from Camden, New Jersey, and attend them. Whitman declined both invitations, but asked Mrs. Childs to give Wilde “my hearty salutations and American welcome.” On January 18, however, perhaps after reading Wilde’s encomium in the press, he sent Stoddart a card, “Walt Whitman will be in from 2 till 31/2 this afternoon, and will be most happy to see Mr. Wilde and Mr. Stoddart.” 2

Stoddart, the publisher of the Savoyard operas, had become acquainted with Wilde in New York and had gone to the theater there with him one evening. Now they drove companionably to Camden (Wilde Londonized it later to Camden Town). At this time Whitman was living with his brother and sister-in-law. The room they entered was one that Wilde praised for its fresh air and sunlight as the most impressive room he had entered in America. On the table stood an austere pitcher (“cruse” was Wilde’s term) of water. How the two worthies addressed each other rapidly became the subject of comic speculation. A parody by Helen Gray Cone in the Century magazine for November 1882 was close enough to the mark:

PAUMANOKIDES:

Who may this be?
This young man clad unusually with loose locks, languorous, glidingly toward me advancing,
Toward the ceiling of my chamber his orbic and expressive eye-balls uprolling?

NARCISSUS:

O clarion, from whose brazen throat, Strange sounds across the seas are blown,
Where England, girl as with a moat, A strong sea-lion, sits alone!

In humbler prose, Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, “I came as a poet to call upon a poet.” Whitman replied, “Go ahead.” Wilde went on, “I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.” He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass that Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. “I will call you Oscar,” said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, “I like that so much.” To Whitman Wilde was “a fine handsome youngster.” Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled. 3

The bottle emptied, Whitman proposed that they go to his den where they could be on what he called “thee and thou terms.” The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Robert Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. They had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute, “To Walt Whitman Across the Sea.” Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. Whitman presented Wilde with two photographs, one for himself and one for Swinburne, and Wilde promised to send him in return a copy of a photograph he had just had taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York. (There had been some twenty poses.)

Wilde spoke of the young writers and artists who were forming a new renaissance. Whitman uneasily asked after Tennyson, whose “verbal melody almost always perfumed, like the tuberose, to an extreme of sweetness,” he greatly admired. “Are not you young fellows going to shove the established idols aside, Tennyson and the rest?” Wilde would later deride Tennyson as “the Homer of the Isle of Wight”; he tried to reassure Whitman now: “Not at all. Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.”4

Whitman could nod his approval of that last sounding phrase.

Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, “I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.” With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and composition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, “Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.” He went on unabashed, “I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.” To illustrate he outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and reenacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later.5 But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, “These are problems I am always seeking to solve.”

So far all had been good cheer and substantial agreement. Wilde risked more dangerous ground when he declared, “I can’t listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme.” At this the older poet remonstrated, “Why, Oscar, it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.” This time Wilde took his turn in being concessive: “Yes, I remember you have said, ‘All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain,’ and after all, I think so too.”

He shifted to a subject certain to be congenial, Whitman’s courage in flouting convention and resisting hostile criticism. The parallel with the hostile reception his own poems had received was apposite. For the moment Whitman’s example seemed to prove that America was freer than England, though only five months later a sixth edition of Leaves of Grass would be unexpectedly withdrawn because of a threat of prosecution for two of its poems. Wilde said, “You cannot conceive how doubly and trebly bound literature and art are in England. The poet or artist who goes beyond is pretty sure of a hard time. And yet there is a most determined class of the best people in England, not only among the young but of all ages, both men and women, who are ready and eager for anything in art, science or politics that will break up the stagnation.” He pleased Whitman by praising the American masses as superior to the masses in England and Europe. The sentiment was not original, Whitman commented later, but it showed that Wilde had his wits about him.

After two hours of talk Whitman said, “Oscar, you must be thirsty. I’ll make you some punch.” “Yes, I am thirsty.” Whitman made him a “big glass of milk punch.” Wilde “tossed it off and away he went,” as Whitman recalled afterward. But as he departed the old poet called out after him, “Goodbye, Oscar, God bless you.” On the ride back to Philadelphia with Stoddart, who had played silent partner in these eager confabulations, Wilde unwontedly kept still, full of emotion at what he called “the grand old man.” Stoddart, to lighten his mood, remarked that the elderberry wine must have been hard to get down. Wilde brooked no such criticism: “If it had been vinegar I should have drunk it all the same, for I have an admiration for that man which I can hardly express.” The next time he was interviewed by a reporter, he said of Whitman,

He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

It was like an eighteenth-century city poet praising a homespun shepherd. To Wilde, who shared Poe’s concern with “the fabric and cut of the garment,” the verse of Whitman was all subject and no form. As he said of Whitman later, “If not a poet, he is a man who strikes a strong note, perhaps neither prose nor poetry but something of his own that is grand, original and unique.” To Whitman Wilde had the supreme virtue of being young, and “so frank and outspoken and manly.” With him Wilde had discarded his affectations: “I saw behind the scenes,” Whitman said. He defended Wilde against criticism: “I don’t see why such mocking things are written of him. He has the English society drawl, but his enunciation is better than I ever heard in a young Englishman or Irishman before.” To one of his young friends, Henry Stafford, Whitman bragged, perhaps to make Stafford a little jealous, that “Wilde had the good sense to take a great fancy to me.” 6 He particularly liked and quoted a remark Wilde made later in some Boston drawing room: “If I may presume to speak for them—to include myself among them—I should say, it is not your praise, your laudations, that we, the poets seek, but your comprehension—your recognition of what we stand for and what we effect.”

True to his promise, Wilde wrote off at once to Swinburne to convey Whitman’s friendly respect. A reply dated February 2 by Swinburne must have been composed and sent at once:

Dear Mr. Wilde,

I am sincerely interested and gratified by your account of Walt Whitman and the assurance of his kindly and friendly feeling towards me: and I thank you, no less sincerely, for your kindness in sending me word of it.

As sincerely as I can say, that I shall be freshly obliged to you if you will—should occasion arise—assure him in my name, that I have by no manner of means either forgotten him or relaxed my admiration of his noblest work—such parts, above all, of his writings, as treat of the noblest subjects, material and spiritual, with which poetry can deal. I have always thought it, and I believe it will hereafter be generally thought, his highest and surely most enviable distinction that he never speaks so well as when he speaks of great matters—liberty, for instance, and death. This of course does not imply that I do—rather it implies that I do not—agree with all his theories or admire all his work in anything like equal measure—a form of admiration which I should by no means desire for myself and am as little prepared to bestow on another: considering it a form of scarcely indirect insult.7

Wilde copied out Swinburne’s letter, omitting only a few words that slightly lowered its effect, and sent it on to “My dear dear Walt” on March 1. He promised to see Whitman again, and did so early in May. This time Stoddart was not present, and the two could talk more freely. Their conversation has not survived, but their parting has. Wilde would later tell George Ives, a proselytizer for sexual deviation in the Nineties, that Whitman had made no effort to conceal his homosexuality from him, as he would do with John Addington Symonds. “The kiss of Walt Whitman,” Wilde said, “is still on my lips.”8 He would expand upon this theme a little later when signing John Boyle O’Reilly’s autograph book in Boston. Under an inscription by Whitman Wilde wrote of him, “That Spirit which living blamelessly yet dared to kiss the smitten mouth of his own century.” (He was quoting lines he had applied to Wordsworth in his poem “Humanitad.”)9

Now that Swinburne, Wilde, and Whitman had all testified to their mutual respect, they felt compelled to reconsider. Swinburne in particular soon denounced Whitman, whom he had once so highly praised, for formless rant. For good measure, he derided “the cult of the calamus, as expounded by Mr. John Addington Symonds to his fellow-calamites.” Swinburne preferred the whip to the yawp. Whitman dissociated himself from Wilde’s movement in November Boughs (1888): “No one will get at my verses who insists upon viewing them as a literary performance…or as aiming mainly towards art and aestheticism.” When Wilde reviewed this book, recognizing that this sentence was aimed at him, he suggested that the value of Whitman’s verse lay “in its prophecy not in its performance…. As a man he is the precursor of a fresh type. He is a factor in the heroic and spiritual evolution of the human being. If Poetry has passed him by, Philosophy will take note of him.” Some of the rapture had cooled. Whitman took account of the slight ambivalence when he said to his disciples of Wilde’s allegiance, “He has never been a flarer, but he has been a steady light.”10

  1. 1

    Lord Ronald Gower, My Reminiscences (1883), Vol. II, p. 153.

  2. 2

    [Jean Paul Raymond and] Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde: Recollections (Folcroft, 1932), p. 29.

  3. 3

    André Raffalovich, “Oscar Wilde,” Blackfriars VIII, no. 92 (1927).

  4. 4

    Vincent O’Sullivan, Aspects of Wilde (Folcroft, 1936), pp. 175–176; and see Some Letters of Vincent O’Sullivan to A.J.A. Symons (Edinburgh, 1973).

  5. 5

    Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew (AMS Press, 1925), p. 97.

  6. 6

    Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew, p. 97.

  7. 7

    The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Rupert Hart-Davis, ed. (1962), p. 66n.

  8. 8

    [Walford] Graham Robertson, Time Was: Rossetti, Oscar Widle, Ellen Terry (R. West, 1931), p. 70.

  9. 9

    Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew, p. 96.

  10. 10

    Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew, p. 143.

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