Sunday, January 18, 2009

Young Oscar Wilde visits old Walt Whitman

Today according to Australian Eastern Standard Time when this item was posted
1882 On a successful speaking tour of America, the young Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, newly famous at home and abroad, visited 62-year-old Walt Whitman.

Wilde had gained much notice in newspapers across England, the USA and Canada with articles about his talent and flamboyant ways, adding to his international popularity. Now, the gifted and ambitious 27-year-old had ventured on a North American tour with 125 lectures booked in more than 100 locations, speaking on such topics as 'The English Renaissance,' 'The Decorative Arts' and 'The House Beautiful'.

Despite some hostility from some more puritanical parts of America, Wilde had been not only been well received in New York, he was actually lionised in that cosmopolitan city. While in Philadelphia, his second stop on the lecture tour, the Irish playwright and poet had mentioned that he did "so hope to meet Mr Whitman. 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."

Although initially Whitman declined an invitation for a meeting, perhaps he read Wilde's encomium in the press and a card soon arrived at Wilde's hotel: "Walt Whitman will be in from 2 till 3½ this afternoon and will be most happy to see Mr. Wilde and Mr. Stoddart" (referring also to Wilde's friend, JM Stoddart.

"I come as a poet to call upon a poet"
The dandy Wilde found the roughly attired Whitman at the American poet's simple abode in nearby Camden, New Jersey where he lived with his brother and sister-in-law. "I come as a poet to call upon a poet," announced Oscar Wilde, who then explained to Whitman how, as a boy, his mother had read Leaves of Grass aloud to him. This pleased the aging poet, and the two geniuses, so different in many ways, consumed a bottle of Walt's sister-in-law's elderberry wine.

That done, they adjourned to Whitman's den "to be on thee and thou terms" as Whitman expressed it. They discussed aesthetics for an hour – Whitman explaining that he tried to make his verse "look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone". However, the aging man would not go as far as Wilde in the extolling literary beauty for its own sake.

"Why, Oscar," he remonstrated, "it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way."

The two got on very well, however, and Oscar's famed barbs were well sheathed throughout what to him was an important and honoured encounter ...

Wilde and Whitman meet, sort of (a poem by your almanackist)

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