Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

During the course of this imaginary conversation between two poets, there is much talk of the meaning of their craft. Wilde espouses the aesthetic approach of art for art’s sake, and he cites the verse of Baudelaire as part of his contention that literature need not serve a moral or didactic purpose. Whitman, on the other hand, sees himself as a teacher of young men, as the proponent of such concepts as wise passivity, physical and spiritual nakedness, and the primacy of sex and manly love; all of these values he advocates through natural rhythmic cadences. In response to Wilde’s recitation of one of Baudelaire’s poems, Whitman recoils. To him, it is sickly self-pity organized according to “mathematical principles.” This proponent of free thinking and free verse asks, “Is it not a machine,/ a kind of enslavement?”

As he would not be a slave to meter, Whitman chafes at the restraints of illness and old age. For him, his partially paralyzed body confined to a chair by the window is a kind of prison. This central image is part of a larger theme of incarceration. Wilde, for example, speaks of confronting a novel-reading inmate at a “model” prison in Idaho; Whitman terms his age and infirmity “another kind/ of model prison.” For one who exalts the life of the senses and the transforming power of touch, it is a tragedy to have to admit that one’s “fingers are dead.”

This theme of imprisonment is naturally linked to the...

(The entire section is 497 words.)