Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Wilde and Whitman

Creator: Anonymous

Date: January 19, 1882

Publication information: The Philadelphia Press 19 January 1882: 8.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00534

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

WILDE AND WHITMAN.

———

THE ÆSTHETIC SINGER VISITS THE
GOOD GRAY POET.


———

He Asks the Advice of the Latter, and is Told
to Go Ahead in His Mission
to Shatter the An-
cient Idols.


———

Oscar Wilde yesterday called upon Walt Whitman, at his home in Camden, where he has lived for the past nine years, and the two poets discussed men and letters for nearly the entire afternoon. Remembering the value it would have been to the world now, had a record been made of Emerson's celebrated visit to Carlyle, a PRESS reporter last evening obtained Whitman's fresh impressions of the afternoon. The author of "Leaves of Grass," although partly an invalid, makes long jaunts, and has returned from his recent trip to New England in more vigorous physical health than since his paralysis of 1873. "Yes, Mr. Wilde came to see me early this afternoon," said Walt, "and I took him up to my den, where we had a jolly good time. I think he was glad to get away from lecturing, and fashionable society, and spend a time with an 'old rough.' We had a very happy time together. I think him genuine, honest and manly. I was glad to have him with me, for his youthful health, enthusiasm and buoyancy are refreshing. He was in his best mood, and I imagine that he laid aside any affectation he is said to have, and that I saw behind the scenes. He talked freely about the London literati, and gave me many inside glimpses into the life and doings of Swinburne, Dante, Gabriel Rossetti, Morris, Tennyson and Browning."

Thus talking, Walt Whitman led the way to his "den," as he calls it, on the third floor. "Wilde and I drank a bottle of wine down stairs," he continued, "and when we came up here, where we could be on 'thee and thou' terms, one of the first things I said was that I should call him 'Oscar;' 'I like that so much,' he answered, laying his hand on my knee. He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy," said Whitman, stroking his silvery beard. "He is so frank and outspoken, and manly. 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. We talked here for two hours. I said to him: 'Oscar, you must be thirsty. I'll make you some punch.' 'Yes, I am thirsty,' he acknowledged, and I did make him a big glass of milk punch, and he tossed it off, and away he went."

ADVISED TO GO AHEAD.

During this communion the representative of the æsthetes expounded freely the theories and the intentions of his school, occasionally asking the old gray poet's opinions and views. The old man, however, evaded these inquiries with a smile. He said: "I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the æsthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, I say 'go ahead.'" Mr. Wilde made friendly inquiries about Whitman's own theories, and the mode and origin of his peculiar work. While answering freely, Walt wound up this part of the conversation by saying that those were problems he himself was always seeking to solve. Wilde described himself as having absorbed the Whitmanesque poetry from boyhood. He said that Lady Wilde bought one of the earliest copies of the poems some sixteen years ago, and was accustomed to read passages from it to him. He also spoke of the Oxford boys taking the book with them and reading it in their rambles. Thus he declared to Whitman: "I have come to you as to one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle."

Wilde was very frank in his criticisms of British Philistinism, saying in substance: "One can hardly conceive how doubly and trebly bound literature and art and manners yet remain, even in the best society, in Great Britiain. The poet or artist in any department who goes beyond beaten ruts and lines 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 makes a great mistake who supposes that old England is abandoned entirely to conservatism. Young blood is pulsing yet in the veins of your old mother country."

THE ESTABLISHED IDOLS.

Wilde brought many cordial messages from the poets of England to Whitman, and received many to take back. Not the least part of his visit, it may be noted, is the intertwining, which is becoming closer and closer every year through sympathy and personal knowlede, of representative citizens in each country. At one time, in their two hours' talk, Wilde broke out, "I can't listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme.""Why, Oscar," replied Whitman, "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.""Yes," was the quick response, "I remember you have said 'all beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain;' and, after all, I think so, too." Later on Whitman asked: "Are not you young felllows," scanning stalwart Oscar's big proportions, "going to shove the established idols aside, Tennyson and the rest?""Not at all," said Wilde, emphatically. "His rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But as for Tennyson, 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. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of to-day." As for American poets, Mr. Whitman modestly acknowledged that Wilde had said many gushing things of himself, and had repeated the opinion he has more publicly expressed—"We in England think there are only two—Walt Whitman and Emerson." Longfellow, he said, poet as he was, had contributed little to literature that might not have come just as well from European sources. Wilde also told Whitman that he was much impressed with the active life, the intelligence and the evident superiority of the masses of people in America, so far as he had seem them, over the common ranks in foreign countries. "That's nothing new," said Whitman, patriotically; "but it shows that the young man has his eyes open." As the æsthete departed, Mr. Whitman's farewell was: "Good bye, Oscar, God bless you."

During the ride over from Camden, in company with J. M. Stoddart, the publisher, Oscar Wilde was very silent, and seemed deeply affected by the interview. He spoke admiringly of "the grand old man," and of his struggles and triumphs.

Mr. Wilde was given a breakfast yesterday morning by Professor S. H. Gross. The others present were Mrs. Orwitz, of Baltimore, Professor Gross's daughter, William Henry Rawle, F. Carroll Brewster, Daniel Dougherty, Dr. Henson and J. G. Rosengarten. The poet wore his usual morning dress of brown velvet coat, and brown trousers of the ordinary cut. From the breakfast he went to Walt Whitman's, and in the evening he dined with George W. Childs.


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