Poetry News

Whitman & Wilde's Romantic Encounter

By Harriet Staff

Literary Hub shares Michèle Mendelssohn's story about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde's fateful encounter. "The 19th century was fixated on manhood. Much has been written about the constraints on Victorian women but gender expectations for men were no less real, although less pronounced. The debates swarming around Wilde were personal, but they also touched on fundamental questions about what made a man a man. Poetry was a battleground for masculinity, and Wilde had entered the fray," Mendelssohn writes. From there: 

“What is a man anyhow?” a then little-known poet called Walt Whitman asked at mid-century. His reply came in the form of Leaves of Grass, an 1855 poetry collection that sought to establish the nobility of the American working man. Whitman’s inclusive spirit and comprehensive range made his poetry nothing short of revolutionary. When he pictured seamen and horsedrivers, gunners and fishermen, he praised their blend of “manly form” with “the poetic in outdoor people.” Likewise, he assured readers that the ripple of “masculine muscle” definitely had its place in poetry. In Whitman’s book, a working poet could be as manly as marching firemen, and wrestling wrestlers could be just as poetic. Every working man could represent what he triumphantly called “manhood balanced and florid and full!” He redefined who counted as a real man.

It wasn’t long before the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was writing to congratulate Whitman. Emerson had given much thought to these matters. Decades earlier, in his celebrated 1837 “American Scholar” speech, he had observed that society rarely regarded a man as a whole person, but reduced him to less than the sum of his parts. Now Whitman’s poetry had restored men to their whole potential. Leaves of Grass “meets the demand I am always making,” Emerson told Whitman in 1855, praising his exceptionally brave handling of his materials. Here, finally, was an American poet who embraced the totality of man, and celebrated him as a fully embodied individual. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote him.

For a long time, sexuality had been excluded from literature. No more. “I say that the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but that the body is to be expressed, and sex is,” Whitman replied to Emerson. The place to do it, he said, was in American literature. And the way to do it was by writing the truth about men’s appetites, and rejecting the fiction known as “chivalry.” At one time, chivalry designated medieval men-at-arms, but in Wilde’s lifetime, it meant idealized gallantry, especially towards women, and a willingness to defend one’s country. To Whitman, the notion felt clankingly old-fashioned.” Diluted deferential love, as in songs, fictions, and so forth, is enough to make a man vomit,” he thought. Replace it with a truer picture of love and human nature, Whitman said, and “this empty dish, gallantry, will then be filled with something.”

Read on at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: July 17th, 2018