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This report is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

Whitman and Wilde in Camden Paul Oppenheimer

On 18 January 1882, Oscar Wilde interrupted his exhausting lecture tour of America, donned his favourite brown felt suit, and visited Walt Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey. There the future author of The Importance of Being Ernest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, who was at the time known chiefly for his pink buttonholes and his odd philosophy that every house should be made beautiful through the installation of imitation Renaissance statuary, managed a splendid self-abasement. He drank a milk punch prepared by Whitman's sister, quivered for a pleasant hour at the poet's feet, and rested the hand that was to pen The Ballad of Reading Gaol on the elderly American's withered knee. It is apparently the case that Wilde spent most of his one-hour attendance in Whitman's hushed study listening with vibrant awe. On the other hand, what he heard is unknown, as no trace of Whitman's monologue has survived. He was sixty-three, and busy adding suitably touching details to his reputation as the grand old prophet, complete with tangly, biblical beard, of a new world-poetry. As for himself, the ex-journalist-turned-poet reported that he had experienced a 'happy time' with England's 'genuine, manly, honest' aesthete. Wilde seemed tohim a 'splendid boy', and made a flattering impression by announcing that 'We in England think there are only two [American poets] -Walt Whitman and Emerson.'

Puffery though it was, Wilde's remark did not quite hit home. It may have lacked sufficient reverence. The mention of ...

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