MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

A Meeting of Holy Men... From Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann.

I was Richard Ellmann’s assistant at Yale. I actually remember reading this years after, and I adore Oscar Wilde. He it is who said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth learning can be taught.” I put that on the top of every syllabus I created in my 17 years of teaching. 


When young Oscar Wilde, the controversial Irish poet, playwright and novelist, visited Philadelphia in 1882 to lecture, he made a special point of visiting the much older poet Walt Whitman at his simple residence in nearby Camden, New Jersey. It was on this American lecture tour that Wilde first gained a wide degree of fame:

"Wilde's next lecture was scheduled for the Horticultural Hall in Phila­delphia on 17 January. But he had another errand to carry out first. When he arrived at the Aldine Hotel in that city on the 16th, he was asked by a new 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.' Two of his friends, J. M. Stoddart and George W. 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 18 January, how­ever, perhaps after reading Wilde's encomium in the press, he sent Stoddart a card, 'Walt Whitman will be in from 2 till 3 1/2 this afternoon, and will be most happy to see Mr. Wilde and Mr. Stoddart.' ...

"They drove companionably (across the Delaware River) to Camden (Wilde Londonized it later to Camden Town). At this time Whitman was living with his brother and sister-in-law.  ... Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, 'I come 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....

"[After they drank a bottle of home made elderberry wine], Whitman proposed that they go to his den, where they could be on what he called 'thee and thou terms.' ...

"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 afterwards. 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.' "

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