Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
With the publication of Untitled Subjects (1969) and Findings (1971), Richard Howard was acknowledged as a master of the dramatic monologue, a one-sided verse conversation during which the reader gains insight into the character of the speaker. With “Wildflowers” and the other five lengthy poems in Two-Part Inventions, however, he explores the possibilities of a new form: the dramatic dialogue. “Wildflowers,” for example, attempts to render a conversation between two great figures of nineteenth century literature: the American poet Walt Whitman, author of Leaves of Grass (1855), and the Irish-born poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde.
Subtitled “Camden, 1882,” the poem purports to re-create what was said when Wilde first visited Whitman in the latter’s residence in New Jersey. However, Howard takes certain liberties with historical fact. Although he did seek out Whitman during his 1882 tour of the United States, Wilde actually visited the American poet twice, the first time with his friend, the Philadelphia publisher J. M. Stoddart, and the second time alone. Howard makes Wilde’s second visit his first and sets the confrontation in Whitman’s Mickle Street residence, a home that he did not purchase until two years later in 1884. Wilde actually visited Whitman in the Stevens Street home of Whitman’s brother George. Probably, for dramatic purposes, it suited Howard better that Wilde meet Whitman in the home he lived in by himself except for his housekeeper Mary Davis, a sailor’s widow who worked for the poet in exchange for a rear apartment. Over the course of his long literary career, Whitman was the center of a considerable circle of discipleship, and many of his readers made pilgrimage to Camden after he retired from a series of federal government positions in 1874.
As the poem begins, the sixty-three-year-old Whitman is preparing to meet his twenty-eight-year-old admirer from across the ocean. He puts on a red tie and rereads the letter from his Canadian follower Dr. Richard Bucke that first brought Wilde to his attention. Fresh from his tour of the American West, “dashing between/ coyotes and cañons,” Wilde has come to pay homage to a man whom he sees as “America’s great voice.” They talk in Whitman’s “ruin” of a room, made infamous by his biographers for its disorder. The far-ranging conversation between these two poets is the substance of the poem.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648
The title of the collection Two-Part Inventions is a reference to the fifteen keyboard pieces written by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach in two-part counterpoint, a technique of combining two individual melodies to make a harmonious texture. Similarly, the poem “Wildflowers” takes two very different perspectives and weaves them into a unified dialogue. On one hand is the young, Old World poet who speaks of “form” and artifice in poetry and in life; on the other hand is the elderly New World poet whose gospel is natural freedom. Yet during the course of their exchange of ideas, they reach a level of mutual understanding. Whitman realizes that Wilde really needs an answer to the question of his place in the scheme of things, and Wilde believes that Whitman has provided that guidance in his assertion that a person finds himself by giving himself away. Thus real poetry is deemed sacrificial. In this regard, Whitman’s self-confessions in Leaves of Grass prefigure Wilde’s in De Profundis, the latter’s 1905 letter from prison.
As the title indicates, one of the poem’s unifying image patterns involves flowers. In addition to the pun on Wilde’s surname, there is the tributary visit that provides the basic situation of the poem and the floral offering that Wilde makes to Whitman at the end. Known for holding a flower in his hands while lecturing, Wilde presents the older poet with a heliotrope, a small, fragrant, purple flower that turns toward the sunlight. In this case, it is Wilde himself who turns toward Whitman as his guide and prophet.
There is also the comparison that Wilde makes between Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857; The Flowers of Evil, 1931). He calls both works his “sacred botany,” the sacred texts of his time. Baudelaire has taught Wilde the lesson of the artist who suffers for his art; Whitman will teach him the lesson of the artist whose art transcends suffering. Also providing a subtext for the conversation between these two poets is the story of the fisher king. In medieval legend, a desert land is ruled by the fisher king, made sterile by a curse. The king will be cured and his land made fertile only by the sacrifices of a hero who is brave and pure of heart. Prior to Wilde’s arrival, Whitman thinks he hears “something like rain, off in the distance.” Wilde tells Whitman that he comes to him as one who consults a man “whose twig bends near water.” Both Wilde and Whitman look to each other for redemption of a sort. Identifying with Wilde’s quote from Baudelaire (“I am even as the king of a rainy country, rich but impotent”), Whitman laments the defection of some of his young disciples who grow “old and cold” and looks to Wilde, “a great boy,” as a promising acolyte. For his part, Wilde hopes to find in the older poet a key to his destiny.
The poem is also marked by a wealth of historical detail. Howard is noted for his ability to make the nineteenth century come alive through his engagement with the principal artists of the period. One good example is Whitman’s reference to the dismissal from his job at the U.S. Department of the Interior after Secretary James Harlan, a Methodist layman and former professor of mental and moral sciences, found a proof copy of some of the poet’s work. This rifling of Whitman’s desk by his supervisor underscores Whitman’s warning to Wilde that “It will not do to fly in the face/ of courts and conformity.” To this admonition Wilde, with some of his characteristic wit, replies, “I shall cross that bridge/ after I have burned it before me.” This well-turned epigram foreshadows his three public trials for homosexuality and his eventual imprisonment.
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