Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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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 issue of identity. According to Whitman, one finds oneself through sacrificing or surrendering oneself to others. For Whitman, the working-class boys he nursed in military hospitals during the Civil War were the principal audience he had in mind for Leaves of Grass. For his self-expression he was censured by the reading public: “I expected hell./ I got it.” In the context of the poem, however, Whitman’s scandal is a matter of the past; old age has brought him a modicum of respectability as the “Good Gray Poet.” For Wilde, scandal is still to come. His great sacrifice will be his loyalty to his lover, the unworthy Lord Alfred Douglas, and his subsequent public trials and his years at hard labor for acting on his physical affection for other men. In prison, Wilde will drop the mask of art that he donned under the tutelage of Baudelaire and discover for himself “how a desire becomes a destiny.

In a very basic way, Howard is the third part of his Two-Part Inventions. Because of his own homosexuality, he understands the position of the gay artist as outsider. In this regard, both Whitman and Wilde reach a shared recognition of their status as sexual outlaws whose desires diverge from the norm. They also realize that to give expression to these desires in the nineteenth century means scandal and censure. Yet pain can be a bridge to insight and suffering can be transcended by transforming life into art.