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.”
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:
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?
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 …
Copyright © 1987 by Richard Ellmann