Walt Whitman is one of America’s greatest poets. He was profoundly affected by his time spent visiting and caring for the wounded during the American Civil War, an experience that influenced much of his subsequent writing. In the decades following the conflict, one of Whitman’s biggest fans was a young Irish poet and playwright who was himself destined for greatness- Oscar Wilde. On 18th January 1882 the 27-year-old Wilde met the 62-year-old Whitman at the latter’s home in Camden, New Jersey, while the Irishman was on a lecture tour in North America. (1)
The American Civil War had been the defining moment of Walt Whitman’s life, and led him to create acclaimed poems such as O Captain! My Captain! and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, both of which deal with the death of Abraham Lincoln. Oscar Wilde certainly viewed Walt Whitman as America’s greatest poet. The Dubliner’s mother had purchased a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1866 and had read passages to Oscar while he was a child. It was therefore unsurprising that Wilde should seek out Whitman when he had the opportunity to visit the United States. The meeting of the two wordsmiths was initially reported in the Philadelphia Press, and later syndicated to many other newspapers, such as the Portland Daily Express. Here Walt Whitman gave his thoughts on the occasion:
‘”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”…”Wilde and I drank a bottle of wine downstairs,” he continued “and when we came up here, where we could be on ‘thee and thon’ 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.” (2)
Oscar Wilde also gave his record of the meeting:
‘There was big chair for him [Whitman] and a little stool for me, a pine table on which was a copy of Shakespeare, a translation of Dante, and a cruse of water. Sunlight filled the room, and over the roofs of the houses opposite were the masts of the ships that lay in the river. But then the poet needs no rose to blossom on his walls for him, because he carries nature always in his heart. This room contains all the simple conditions for art- sunlight, good air, pure water, a sight of ships, and the poet’s works.’ (3)
Aside from physically describing the meeting, Oscar Wilde gave his impressions of Whitman to the Boston Herald later that month. While on a general discussion regarding poets and their work, he revealed his deep admiration for Whitman:
‘”Do you know,” said Mr. Wilde, “that the greatest fault I have to find with you Americans is that you are not American enough. You are all to cosmopolitan. What I am wishing to meet is a true American. I mean a man of whom it can be said, He is entirely the product of American conditions.” “You will find that in Walt Whitman,” was suggested; “have you met Walt Whitman?” “Indeed I have,” said Mr. Wilde, his face kindling with enthusiasm. “I spent the most charming day I have spent in America with him. 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 one people. Strong, true and perfectly sane; the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times. Probably he is dreadfully misunderstood. If people would only know that no artist lives for praise; he only wants one thing, to be understood. I hope that America will not treat its great poets as England too often has. Now, in France, it is different; they are proud that they have poets and artists there, but in England they not only expect them to look to posterity for their fame, but also for their bread and butter.” (4)
The meeting between the two great writers excited public attention and commentary at the time. Wilde and Whitman met again in May 1882, although there is little record of what they discussed on that occasion. They clearly admired each other, and they would remain friends for many years to come. Oscar Wilde would go on to write works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salomé and The Importance of Being Earnest before he was arrested and imprisoned in 1895 on charges of ‘sodomy’ and ‘gross indecency’- a result of his homo-sexuality, which was illegal in England at the time. Oscar was released in 1897 and would die on 30 November 1900. Walt Whitman, almost 35 years his senior, had predeceased him away on 26th March 1892.
*With thanks to John Cooper for identifying some factual inaccuracies in the piece, allowing their correction.
(1) Scharnhorst 2008: 116; (2) Portland Daily Express 1882; (3) Scharnhorst 2008: 116; (4) Boston Herald 1882;
References & Further Reading
Portland Daily Express 23rd January 1882. Wilde and Whitman
Boston Herald 29th January 1882. Oscar Wilde
Scharnhorst, Gary 2008. ‘Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde: A Biographical Note’ in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review Volume 25, Number 3, pp. 116-118