Everything I Have to Say About Oscar Wilde


Everything I Have Left to Say About Oscar Wilde

Ok, this won’t be everything I have yet to say about Oscar Wilde. His writing, his approach to life, his own tragic personal dramas, pierce the center of my being in a way that I cannot package into words and ship to the cold void of the internet. The Marianas Trench of my feelings for Wilde will not be plumbed, but we will break the surface. Piece by piece.

Poe and Hemmingway have their adherents, but Oscar Wilde has always been the literary icon for me. He is a tragic, flawed hero in the Greek style. Far from perfect, but exquisitely inspiring. I have been fascinated by him ever since I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager. His wit, humor, defiance, and fashion choices move me.

Fairy Stories

His tales for children, including “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant” are so beautiful, poignant, and sad. Give them a read.

Lady Windermere’s Fan

How could he have become so good at play writing so quickly? This is only his third play. Lady Windermere’s Fan is a saucy takedown of the Angel in the House idea of Victorian femininity. Through a series of misunderstandings, a vociferously upright young wife must be rescued from ruin by a woman she scorned as immoral. Wilde skewers late Victorian prudishness by presenting a fallen woman who, while not entirely selfless, is capable of great sacrifice. She had good reasons for leaving her husband and becoming ruined in the first place, too.

The plot is a bit contrived. I am absolutely not a fan of testing a character’s morals by placing them in artificially complex situations that no one could be expected to navigate. However, I can overlook it in this case, because the ideas and style of the play are just lovely. I love that Mrs. Erlynne is a brazen courtesan who represents everything that good society cannot tolerate, yet she insinuates herself into good society with grace, cleverness and a healthy dose of self-interest.

Enjoy some quotes:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

I can resist anything except temptation.

Life is far too important a thing to ever talk seriously about.

There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely-or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.

“How long could you love a woman who didn’t love you, Cecil?
A woman who didn’t love me? Oh, all my life!”

On now to the next play.


A Woman of No Importance

Yikes, this one is kind of bad. Sorry, Oscar. I’m shocked that he actually got it published and performed, considering the very obvious subtext of the plot. Lord Illingworth wants to give a handsome young man, Gerald, a position that he’s under-qualified for. Gerald’s mother is adamant that Gerald not go with Illingworth, because *dramatic music* Gerald is Illingworth’s son. So, you might be thinking that she wants to keep her son away from the immoral man who seduced her and abandoned her. That would be true. But. Also. She doesn’t want Illingworth to seduce his own son. Gross, Oscar. Why even write that?

I appreciate that Wilde stands up for the moral character of unwed mothers, but he doesn’t do it particularly well. His wit does not sparkle. The play is a continuous string of epigrams and paradoxes that become quite tedious.

Here’s a quote:

When good Americans die they go to Paris. And when bad Americans die they go to America.


An Ideal Husband

This play and The Importance of Being Earnest are Oscar Wilde’s best work. So clever and funny. An Ideal Husband centers on two couples and the scheming intriguer who would ruin them. Sir Robert Chiltern is a politician whose wife Gertrude, unaware of a sordid trick he pulled to launch his career, adores him as an ideal of honesty and rectitude. This pair takes themselves very seriously. Meanwhile, Chiltern’s sister, Mabel, and her beau, Lord Goring, are models of frivolity and facetiousness. Of course, dear Oscar shows that the seemingly foolish and superficial pair are much more forthright and realistic in their behavior and expectations than the couple that would like to be models of correct Victorian behavior.

I love this play. You should read it or watch one of the versions on youtube or maybe even pay to watch the 1999 film with Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett and some guy I don’t remember.

A quote:

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. 


The Importance of Being Earnest

Absolutely the most delightful, whimsical play ever written. The wittiest banter of all time. It is silly, satirical and somewhat romantic. I love this play so much. I don’t think I have read anything funnier. The interview between Lady Bracknell and Jack/Ernest Worthing is a particular highlight. I won’t say anything about the plot, because you should just read it. Or at the very least watch the charming 2002 film with Rupert Everett again, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Dame Judy Dench at her absolute finest. I adore this movie. It really plays up the silliness and faux romanticism of the source material.

If you read only one thing by Oscar Wilde in your life, it should be Earnest. It is a sparkling, unique masterpiece. He was a genius.


I never travel without my diary, one should always have something sensational to read on the train.

Oh! I don’t think I would like to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.

The Canterville Ghost

I highly recommend this funny story about a brazen, new-money, American family who move into a musty old British manor house and fail to be impressed by the resident ghost. They trample on tradition in a delightful way. You should definitely, definitely, definitely read it.

The Fall of the House of Wilde

I wanted to know more about Oscar Wilde’s life story, but I never can find the time to read non-fiction. The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan was the only biography of Wilde available on Audible, so I listened to it. I learned a lot. I think this would be a very engaging read or listen for anyone interested in Irish History, LGBT history or any fan of biographies.

I came for Oscar Wilde’s life story, but O’Sullivan set out to place Oscar in the context of his revolutionary, intellectual, fiercely individualistic, self-destructive, Irish family. It is true that Oscar was not a green carnation blooming in a desert. His father, William, was a noted doctor and archeologist. His mother was a poet. Both were known for their wit as well as their interest in Irish history, folklore and politics. O’Sullivan’s thesis seems to be first that Oscar is a logical outgrowth of his sparkling family and upbringing, not an natural wonder, and secondly he laments that the Wilde family was wiped out of Irish history when Oscar’s trial for homosexuality made the Wilde name unmentionable. Yes, they deserve restoration in their place in Irish history, but must we be so hard on Oscar?

I do think he is a wonder. A green carnation that bloomed from fertile soil, true. But a unique flower, nonetheless.

Final Thoughts: I love Oscar Wilde with my whole heart, but with some reservation. The biographical details of his life would not stand up to modern scrutiny. I have both condemnation and forgiveness in my heart. Read or listen to The Fall of the House of Wilde if you want to know what I am referring to. I think it’s best to hear the entire story than my one paragraph summary.

When I contemplate Oscar Wilde’s life, I am filled with profound sadness for the moral failure of the culture that I inherited. This brilliant man was condemned for loving who he loved and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. He died of illness he contracted in prison. It horrifies me to think of everyone who has suffered like Oscar suffered, for not being straight, for having the audacity to be themselves. It makes me sick and sad. The only consolation is that his art remains to lift us up, to remind us of the beauty and silliness in this life.

True Crime Poetry: Murder of a Child Bride


The Ring and the Book, Robert Browning, 1869

Forgive me, ghost of Robert Browning, for what I am about to say.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do sometimes pretend that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, are watching me from beyond the grave. Just for fun. Because I love them and want them to be my guardian angels. Even though I don’t believe in angels or in any concept not supported by good data. Sometimes it’s comforting to let go of logic and just pretend.

I cannot, however, pretend that I enjoyed Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book. It was a chore to read. Quite frankly, I skimmed parts of it.

Once upon a time, Robert Browning bought a Yellow Book, as he called it, from a street vendor in Italy. The book contained records of the 1698 trial of Guido Franceschini for three murders. The tale captivated Browning. After his wife’s death he set to writing a verse novel about the trial. Browning is famous for writing dramatic monologues: poems comprised entirely of a speech by the narrator. He sometimes chose figures from history and wrote speeches for them that revealed intimate psychological quirks and motivations. So, he naturally composed The Ring and the Book in a set of dramatic monologues in the voices of the characters involved in the trial.

This is a true crime verse novel, so I must tell you the sordid details of the crime. Guido Franceschini was an aristocratic Italian nobleman whose family was out of money (which is what happens when you don’t work, dummies). The age old answer to this problem is to marry someone rich, but far beneath your station. In his search for someone stupid enough to marry a broke, evil, 50-year-old Count, he found Pompilia who is twelve. Twelve. He married a twelve-year-old girl. 1698 not 698. Post-Enlightenment. Not the Dark Ages. Twelve. Here is a link to a charity dedicated to ending child marriage.

Pompilia and her parents move in with Count Guido. They discover that he is poor and cruel. He abuses them. Pompilia’s parents run away back to Rome. In an attempt to rescue their daughter or their money from Guido, they reveal that Pompilia is not their daughter by birth, but the adopted daughter of a prostitute. Theoretically, this will nullify the part of the contract that entitles Count Guido to all their money. Optimistically, perhaps they hoped that this information would cause Guido to annul the marriage and give them their daughter back. Instead, he took them to court on the grounds that they were lying and still owed him their money. Meanwhile, he tortured Pompilia to avenge himself on her unforthcoming parents.

Pregnant Pompilia convinces a priest, Giuseppe Capponsacchi, to help her escape her abusive husband by taking her back to Rome and her parents. Guido catches them enroute. Husband and wife plead their case to local authorities. They decide to send Pompilia away from her husband to a convent. They send Capponsacchi away as well.

Months later the nuns at the monastery decide to send Pompilia back to her parents “for her health,” meaning to give birth. Guido hears of this. A clause in his inheritance mumbo jumbo and his marriage contract entitles Guido to a rack of money if he has an heir and if Pompilia and her parents are dead. So, Guido enlists some friends to find the three of them and stab them to death. They are caught and arrested, tried and convicted. They appeal to the Pope. The Pope refuses to save Guido. He is executed.

This is a horrible story. It is true and it is sad. This might seem like quite a lot of plot. Trust me, it isn’t. Browning rehashes the entire story ten times. Ten. He tells the story in the intro, then we hear it again from the perspective of eight different people, twice from Guido makes ten. Ten times over the same details. We hear from the half of Rome that sides with Guido. Yes, half of Rome sided with him because…well because a husband has a right to murder his wife, if she’s unfaithful. (I am snarling at my computer screen as I type this.) Then we hear it from the half of Rome that sides with Pompilia, then a neutral third party, Guido, Capponsacchi, Pompilia on her death bed, two lawyers, the Pope, and Guido again on the verge of his execution.

This is hard stuff to read. Not just because reading 21,000 lines of poetry is arduous. I read Bryon’s verse poem, Don Juan, and loved it. It’s hard to read people justify murdering women because of adultery. Men can’t be legally murdered for this reason. Not that they should be. Just an example of the violent forms sexism can take. It’s hard to read that the only reason some people did not consider the murders justified is that they didn’t believe that Pompilia slept with Capponsacchi. They believed her when she claimed that he only helped her escape an abusive husband. It’s hard to read about domestic violence and spousal rape perpetrated against a teenager. It’s hard to read about a teenager treated as a pawn in a game for money. It’s hard to see her appeal to the religious authorities around her to rescue her from her abuser and have them reject her appeals, because she is not noble and he is. It’s a truly wretched story to read ten times over.

Browning, being the poetic genius that his is, of course reveals in each book psychological elements unconsidered in the previous books. It is chilling to hear Guido state that he could have mutilated his wife for her faults against him, but he was too kind. Pompilia’s testimony is sympathetic. Capponsacchi, under interrogation by church elders, correctly points out that the church knew Pompilia was in danger and did nothing to help her, so he did. And why should he be blamed? Browning’s poems are complex and deep. I prefer them in smaller more digestible chunks. There is a limit to the amount of philosophizing on one murder trial that I can personally stand. That limit lies somewhere between a Jack McCoy closing argument and The Ring and the Book. Much closer to Jack McCoy.

You might like The Ring and the Book if:

  • you’re a rare combination of Italian history expert, verse novel adorer, and true crime addict.

You might not like The Ring and the Book if:

  • your attention span has been shortened by television. Is that a real thing? Show me the data.

Final thoughts: I so often pretend the Brownings can hear me that I now must convince myself they cannot. If what Robert Browning wanted to do was bury himself so completely in a complex project that he lost sight somewhat of his grief over his wife’s death, I think he may have succeeded. This is a complex and profound book, if you find legal and religious waffling to be profound. I do not. To give him his due credit, I assume that Browning’s criticism of religion seemed cogent and relevant at the time. I don’t need to be convinced that religious men of power are hypocrites. I didn’t get much out of this text, except sadness for all the child brides who have lived, are living and will live in this world.

Christina Rossetti: Men Are Goblins


Christina Rossetti, Poetry

Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet. That’s all I know about her, so perhaps she didn’t have a dramatic life. Her most famous poem is Goblin’s Market, a fairy tale treatise on the tiresome theme of female sexual purity.

The poem is a longish ballad that commences with a list of fruit, which is good fun. Goblin men call out to maidens, entreating them to taste their many varieties of succulent fruit. If that sounds sexual, you are interpreting it correctly. Lizzie and Laura are two sisters who live in the woods near this band of fruit-bearing goblins. Laura really wants to try that luscious fruit, but Lizzie says “Maids should not look at goblin men.” We are so far in advance of the Sexual Revolution, that unmarried women should not even look at men. Laura listens not. Having no money, she trades a lock of her golden hair for the goblin’s wares. And she loves the wares.

When the sisters get back to their cabin, Laura pines away with desire for . . . fruit. Lizzie had a friend who died of sadness after eating the goblin fruit and she worries so much for Laura that she enters the forest with a piece of silver, determined to buy Laura a peach. But those nasty, bestial goblins with their squirrel-tails and snail-faces laugh at Lizzie and implore her to taste their plump grapes herself. Pure, chaste Lizzie refuses. The goblins kick her and pinch her and smear fruit on her face and neck, which is truly horrifying if you think about what this behavior symbolizes. Lizzie does not let a drop of goblin fruit juice pass her lips. After her ordeal, she exultantly returns to Laura, covered in fruit juice that she knows will satisfy her sister’s longings. Laura kisses Lizzie, but the delicious flavor of the fruit has changed to a fiery antidote that cures the pangs Laura has been suffering. She is redeemed. They both get married and have babies.


The poem is well-written and the descriptions of succulent fruit and misshapen goblins are delightful.

“One  had a cat’s face

one whisked a tail,

One tramped at a rat’s pace,

One crawled like a snail,

One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,

One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.”

Even though I have spent the last few years reading literature that primarily concerns itself with female sexual purity, I still feel too far removed from that culture to truly understand this poem.

I see a “why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free” message in the goblin’s rejection of Laura after she taste’s their fruit. Rossetti warns young women that if they give in to a man’s seductive words, they will crave more—sex? attention? affection?—but will be discarded. Perhaps that was prudent advice during a time when female virginity was still a prerequisite for marriage. The double standard here is still repugnant.

What I can’t fathom is how Lizzie is able to rescue her sister. Is this some sort of Jesus-like sacrifice? Does her suffering erase her sister’s sin? I don’t understand how this worked for Jesus or for Lizzie. Why would one person’s suffering transmogrify another person’s wrongdoing? It makes no sense to me. Why would God feel more charitable towards humans after they tortured his son to death? How can anyone restore another person’s virginity?

The theme of female sexual purity reoccurs throughout Rossetti’s poems. Women sneer at other women for their sexual indiscretion. I’m against it.

A friend of mine suggested an interpretation of Goblin’s Market as a metaphor for addiction. I like that interpretation, but I think the sexual undertones are undeniable. Fruit generally alludes to sex in poetry, and prose for that matter. Christina Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, famously painted Proserpine. We all know what that pomegranate in her hand symbolizes. In the myth, when Proserpine/Persephone cannot return to her mother, because she already took a bite of fruit in Hades. We’re not talking about fruit. Hades raped her and now she has to stay married to him. A pomegranate is not always just a pomegranate. Also, culture is horrible and I would like to take a vacation from it, please.

I must mention my favorite poem by Rossetti, No, Thank You, John, a poem repelling some obnoxious friend-zoner named John. Here are a few stanzas to give you an impression of the poem:


You know I never loved you, John;

No fault of mine made me your toast:

Why will you haunt me with a face as wan

As shows an hour-old ghost?

I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;

But then you’re made to take offense

That I don’t give you what I have not got:

Use your own common sense.


Girl, you tell him! I love this as a rebuttal to Cavalier poems attempting to seduce women. Shove off, John. I don’t owe you a thing, much less my heart or body. Stop mooning around like an idiot and trying to guilt me into courting you. The first line is “I never said I loved you, John.” I don’t know that I prefer any other first line to this one. It’s magnificent. Proof that mi’ladying is an age-old tradition.

You might like Christina Rossetti if:

  • your favorite things are fruit and goblins

You might not like Christina Rossetti if:

  • you’re not interested in shaming women for their sexuality

Final thoughts: I love No, Thank You, John, but overall, Rossetti is not one of my favorite poets. I like her poems, but they don’t thrill me.

Epic Aurora Leigh

aurora leigh 1

Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1856

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is part novel, part poem and part manifesto on the magnificence of ordinary human lives. Browning chose to tell the story of a female poet in the form of a blank verse epic poem, a medium usually reserved for stories of gods and heroes. Why? Let’s let EBB explain it in her own words:

elizabeth barrett browning


So much to love in that stanza. First of all, yes, please do write me a poem about the toad in the moat over which passed King Arthur. Toad poem please. Secondly, “half chattel and half queen.” I do love the fantasy genre, but EBB has a point. Medieval times were not more glorious, they were rife with human rights violations and dung. What EBB really wanted was for poets to write about the lives of contemporary people. She wanted them to see beauty in the struggles, the failures and the triumphs of the people around them.

To that end, she wrote a poem about Aurora Leigh and her cousin Romney Leigh and formatted it like a Greek epic. Like Greek heroes, Aurora and Romney are flawed, they take on great tasks, they struggle; succeed; experience hubris; fall, and marry people who are a bit too closely related. Browning presents the struggle to become a happy, productive, moral human being as a heroic act. Which it is. Don’t you think?

aurora leigh 2

Her verse is lovely, dense with meaning, poignant and insightful. I am so glad I started this reading project, because without it Aurora Leigh would have remained on my “I should really read that someday” list until I died. And then I would never have paused to think about the toad in the medieval ditch. I love that toad and I love Elizabeth Barret Browning for adding it to my imagination.

I could write forever about Aurora Leigh. In fact, I have rewritten this post three times, because it is quite difficult to put my sentiments about this book into words. Instead of rambling on, I give you these lines, they are the first lines of the poem. You can see for yourself how gripping her metaphors are.



So good. I can’t stand it.

icicle wall

You might like Aurora Leigh if:

  • you can handle blank verse epics such as The Odyssey and Paradise Lost.
  • you love Jane Eyre. There are a lot of parallels in the story, which I assume were meant as an homage.
  • you are interested in the plight of early women authors.

You might not like Aurora Leigh if:

  • you’re more into fantasy than realism.
  • you don’t want to read 325 pages of unrhymed iambic pentameter.


Final thoughts: My thoughts on Aurora Leigh will never actually be final. I will pick it up again and again. It’s one of those rare and wonderful books that transcends mere entertainment and becomes a friend to the reader. I think I have more annotations per page for this text than any other I have read for this project. It stimulates my thoughts. I love it. Also, I hang out with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert Browning, a few times a week in my imagination. Party with the Brownings.

How I Learned to Kind of Like Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855
walt whitman

This post has a companion quiz that wordpress will not allow me to embed. It’s “Can You Tell the Difference Between Walt Whitman and a Doc Bronner’s Bottle” Click the link below to take the quiz.


In the spirit of complete honesty, I was not excited to read Walt Whitman. I have never liked his poetry very much. I never understood why people name schools after him or engrave marble walls of DC metro stations with quotes from his poetry. I don’t like it, and part of me didn’t believe that anyone else really likes it.

However, one of my greatest sources of satisfaction in life is learning to love someone else’s interests. Not into comic books? Talk to a passionate fan and, by seeing things through their eyes, you may just find a new source of pleasure in this world. For example, I was a cynical teen who would rather draw the curtains and watch a zombie movie than attend anything so gauche and extroverted as a parade. But, I dated a guy who loved parades and attended a few for his sake. Listening to him comment on the craft of a costume or the humor of a performer made me start to appreciate what he appreciated. Now I will not only attend, but participate in parades. Hell yeah, let’s get dressed up and walk somewhere! Together. With a muddled and abstract sense of purpose.

I went into Leaves of Grass with a mixed attitude. I partially wanted to prove myself right by discovering that no one actually likes Walt Whitman, but I expected to learn to see him through the eyes of his fans. One evening, I grumbled to a few friends that Whitman was next up on my reading list. They immediately started talking over each other, exuberantly praising Whitman.

“Oh, I love Walt Whitman.”

“Really, you don’t like him?”

“He’s so great.”

“I sing the body electric.”

“Hell, yeah. That shit is badass.”

I thought, ok, I was wrong; people do like him; let’s get ready to learn to love Whitman.

It didn’t go so well. I found Leaves of Grass plodding, repetitive, rambling. I love line breaks, economy of word, cynicism. Whitman has none of these. Try William Carlos Williams, if you also love those elements of in poetry.

I also like to read poetry aloud. I do it all the time. My roommate, not one of the professed Whitman lovers, begged me to stop reading Leaves of Grass. She’s also crazy about literature, so it was the poet that annoyed her, not poetry itself. I had to press on through what seems like a massive tome, but actually consists of only twelve poems. So, I kept reading snippets within the range of her hearing and she continued begging me to stop. I was beginning to think that my original hypothesis was correct, no one actually likes Whitman.

To further test this theory, I read “I sing the body electric” to my two friends who professed to love it. Rather, I tried to read it to them. I made it about a stanza and a half before they, too, begged me to stop. It turns out they just liked the sound and idea of that first line. The second line is “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them.” My supposed Whitman adherents did not like that line as much. Nor do I. “Engirth” is an awkward word, typical of Whitman’s sense of sound.

I won’t claim that no one anywhere likes Walt Whitman. Given his place in the cannon, there has to be at least one true admirer out there.

I almost published this post with not one word in Whitman’s favor, but the pangs of my conscience spoke. I reached out to one of my college professors, Desales Harrison. I took a poetry course with him (11 freakin’ years ago) and I unshakably trust his response to poetry. I am going to embarrass myself by quoting him here. He’s much more eloquent than me….I.

“Alas, I fear I must confirm your worst suspicions that I do love Whitman. A lot. He’s an immensity in my heaven of writers, every bit as immense as Emily Dickinson, even though Dickinson manages to be immense and minuscule at the same time, which is quite a feat. I wonder whether in the general astronomical progression of things if the Whitmanian comet (resplendently bearded as it may be) isn’t at the dark and remote extreme of his orbit. He burned so terribly brightly from about 1947 to 1970, when for many people he was the home-grown answer and antidote to a Europhoric High Modernism, a kind of magical gay grandfather from New Jersey who preferred sex to Anglo-catholicism or Fascism and really wanted to give everyone living or dead a gigantic, hirsute, unwashed hug. But now maybe he smells a little of old patchouli, and is the nineteenth century equivalent of the doddering baby-boomer. As for the poems, take another look at Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Both are, in my opinion, immeasurably great, in their intricate and inimitable music, and in their conceptual complexity. Whitman is I think the greatest poet of intimate address since John Donne; there is an urgent pressure animating all the work to get through something to a beloved you. And by you, he means you, literally, irreplaceably you, not just whoever is holding the book but you, Sydney. And me DeSales.”

Did that not lift your spirits? He kindly wrote much more to me, but that’s the most important part. This post is long already. Thanks for sticking with us.

Two grand takeaways from what Desales wrote:

  1. Yes, Whitman’s message and philosophy are wonderful, inspiring, refreshing. In the midst of Victorian prudery, he enthusiastically embraced the physical. (I thought of making a video of myself reading lines from Leaves of Grass about every part of the body being equally great while zooming in on a butthole. I didn’t, though. You’re welcome, family members.)
  2. For the purposes of this review I only read the original 1855 Leaves of Grass. It’s hardly fair judge Whitman based entirely on juvenilia that he revised continually throughout his life. I do love “When Liliacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. I do. I do. What I don’t love is long lists of all the types of tradespeople Whitman admired.

It took almost one hundred years for another poet to write as openly about sexuality, including homosexuality. Whitman preached a doctrine of love for all elements of existence. Which is wonderful. Doc Bronner preached the same message. But with rhyme, and vim and vigor, and honestly more concisely than Whitman. That’s not a dig at Whitman. It is praise for the Doc Bronner’s bottle and the Moral ABCs.

You might like Walt Whitman if:

  • you are Desales Harrison.
  • you’re kind of a hippie.
  • Well, I was going to write “if you like Ginsberg and Kerouac,” but the two gentleman who claimed to like Whitman do genuinely like Ginsberg and Kerouac. So, I don’t know. Whitman’s a mystery to me.
  • you’re more of a philosopher than me.

You might not like Walt Whitman if:

  • you, like Polonius, believe that “brevity is the soul of wit.”
  • you’re not currently in between acid trips.

Final thoughts: Fundamentally, my problem with Whitman is style. I prefer a different style of poetry. I will read a William Carlos Williams poem over and over, pausing to consider possible interpretations of each line break. I will read an Edgar Allan Poem over and over, relishing “the tintinnabulation that so musically wells.” I will read Coleridge again and again, exalting over the cacophony of “throats unslaked with black lips baked.” I will read Elizabeth Barret Browning, no slob when it comes to intimate address, for the story and for her earnest emotion. If I read Whitman again, it will be one of poems Desales recommended. I’d be happy if I never heard another word of “Song of Myself.”

*Whoa, whoa. Wait! I almost forgot that his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” changed my life! I tell this story to my students all the time. In the poem, the speaker goes to listen to a renowned astronomer. He rejects numbers and figures as a way of understanding the world and walks out into the night to admire the stars. From this poem, I, the daughter of multiple generations of biologists learned to accept that dedication to a career in science is not the only way to express respect for the majesty of the natural world. I dropped my biology major in favor of creative writing and English. I became an English teacher. It’s not an easy job, but every time I think “oh no, I left a staggeringly beautiful work of classic literature at home and I can’t do my job without it” I feel lucky. And I owe that in part to Walt Whitman. He owes me a career in science, though.

The Poetry of Robert Browning

my last duchess

I wish I had ordered two sets of Robert Browning’s poetry so I could rip the pages out of one set and roll around in them like a villain in a pile of money.

Mmm, Robert Browning. He wrote poetry for the prose lover. His best poems are puzzles with intricate settings, characters and plot twists. In his most famous poem, My Last Duchess, an Italian nobleman talks to a marriage broker. While contemplating a painting of his last wife, he inadvertently reveals his possessive and controlling nature. Or does he do it on purpose to ensure that the marriage broker advises the new wife to never arouse any slight feeling of jealousy in the Duke? I dunno, but I sure enjoy speculating.

I see Browning’s poems as precursors to Modern stream of consciousness novels. He takes readers on brief journeys into the minds of medieval monks, Renaissance painters, and mad lovers. He uses psychological intimacy to tell stories and I love it. Yes, please, I would like to read a monologue by a monk who has been arrested for drunkenness, and all the other dramatic monologues you have for me, Robert. I’ll read them all.

Browning is a unique poet. His wife, Elizabeth Barret Browning, asked him to write from his own point of view. She valued “true” expressions of a poet’s thoughts and personal reactions to the world. But, Robert wasn’t into that. He wrote characters with complex personalities. He envisioned dramatic events and romantic scenery. He imagined psychological responses to places and events he never experienced. You will find no Romantic odes to daffodils among his poems. Instead, he offers twisted love stories; brilliant lives stifled by outward circumstances; humorous and exotic anecdotes.

I really don’t have that much else to tell you about Robert Browning. He’s one of my absolute favorite poets, if not my very favorite. His poetry isn’t exactly easy, but it’s definitely fun. You should read some, you won’t regret it. I feel a little bad that I’m not writing more about him, but my feelings are simple. He’s wonderful! One of the greatest. There’s no one like him.

Here is a partial list of my favorite Robert Browning poems:

  1. Fra Lippo Lippi
  2. My Last Duchess
  3. Andrea del Sarto
  4. Soliloquy of a Spanish Cloister
  5. Porphyria’s Lover
  6. In a Gondola
  7. The Statue and the Bust

You might like Robert Browning’s poetry if:

  • you understand what things are good in this world
  • you’re a history nerd
  • you like puzzles

You might not like Robert Browning’s poetry if:

  • you’re foolish

Final Thoughts: All of those poems fill my heart with joy and make me glad to be alive on this earth. Don’t get me wrong, they are mostly tragedies, but tragedies so beautifully executed they make you exult in your existence.

Congratulations! You are a literate human living after Robert Browning wrote poems. You can read them. You can read them right now! Go forth, appreciate the glory of his words! I’m excited for you.

If You Read this Post, Benicio del Toro Will Make-out with You

the angel in the house

The Angel in the House, Coventry Patmore, 1851

When I was in middle school my guiding principle was become someone Benicio del Toro will fall in love with. Preteens have free time. Whenever I found myself with time to kill, I thought “What can I do today that will make me more fascinating so that when I meet Benicio he will think I’m the coolest, smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever encountered.” I was pretty sure I’d meet him one day, but if not, anyone from the cast of Newsies would do. I guided myself by constantly considering how to hypothetically impress a future lover.

The concept of the wife as the moral center of the household existed long before the publication of Coventry Patmore’s long, narrative poem, from which the concept got its name. Basically, Victorians and those who went before them considered the world an evil place. The world of man, that is. Men had to contend with such corrupting stimuli as drink and gambling and commerce. To cleanse your male soul of corruption and save it from damnation required a pure and moral wife. She had to be innocent, which literally meant keeping her in the house, away from the terrible, debasing influence of . . . education, political power and business decisions. This concept is central to The Angel in the House, a very popular poem in its day and fodder for contemporary social scientists and historians and whatever you call a historical social scientists.

The narrator of The Angel in the House, is about as self-actualized as an 11 year-old. He decides to live a moral life in order to be deserving of his future wife. When you think about it, it’s pretty dumb to conceptualize moral behavior as that which earns you the love of a person you don’t even know. I’ve never met Benicio del Toro. I have no idea how to go about being the kind of person he’d want to marry. When I tried to become someone he’d find interesting, I had to determine for myself what he’d probably like. Really, I was trying to become the kind of adult that I would admire. I was striving for my own approval, but when you’re 11 “do this so you can be self-actualized” is not as motivating as “do this so you can make-out with Benicio del Toro one day.”

My middle school aspiration to please Benicio was silly, but a victimless crime. As of yet, I have not encountered Mr. del Toro and expected him to live up to my childhood fantasies of his worthiness. However, the Angel in the House concept did have victims: women who were expected to be angels, who couldn’t participate in society, because society was inherently corrupting and the whole damn thing would fall apart if women didn’t stay at home being childlike, but you know, childlike in a way that you can still have sex with.

The whole thing makes me want to barf. The poem is trash. Weak verse, nauseating theme. I refuse to dignify it with a full post. Here are some quotes with my annotations as I wrote them while reading. Unedited.

“she grows/more infantine, auroral, mild”   ewwww

“her simplicity” ugh

“there grew/More form and stateliness/Than heretofore between us two” 30 percent in and he’s gone on forever about how loving her makes him feel, but I don’t know anything about her, because she’s not a person, just an ideal for him to chase.

“Man must be pleased; but him to/please is woman’s pleasure;” gross

“With such a bright cheek’d chastity;” Stop. Not sleeping with people is not an accomplishment.

“Buried [her] face within my breast, Like a/pet fawn by hunters hurt.” So gross.

At one point he considers what would happen to him if she died and says “Small household troubles fall’n to me,/As, ‘What time would I dine to-day?” My annotations: Fantasy about wife dying, whining about how he’ll have to figure out when to eat.

You might like The Angel in the House if:

  • you are a Men’s Rights Activist

You might not like The Angel in the House if:

  • even a small part of your brain is capable of logical thought

Penultimate thoughts: Pure trash. This is a concept I think about and talk about and encounter in novels, so I figured I should read the poem. It’s just as insipid as I expected it to be.

Final thoughts: Benicio del Toro has some of the most lovable cheekbones. Mmhm, he sure does. But he’s just a dude, another human who deserves the chance to be fallible. Just as women deserved the chance to encounter the world and be fallible. I’ll probably never know if Benicio would like the woman I’ve become, but I think my preteen self would like her. Shit, I’ve got two cats and two X-Files posters. I get paid to talk to other humans about literature. Tweenage me would love adult me!

Edward Lear, Koala and I Add Whimsy to Your Life.

The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear

Edward Lear, 1812-1888

I am afraid that I am about to dishonor my creative writing degree by inadequately expressing the extent of my love for Edward Lear. Wait, wait, I shall write a limerick in the style of Edward Lear.

There once was a girl two ears.

She used them to hear Edward Lear.

She read his poems all aloud and never once frowned.

That delighted young girl with two ears.

Slant rhyme in the third line, but I think the ghost of Edward Lear will forgive me.


If you need more whimsy in your life, and you do, I highly recommend Lear’s poetry and artwork. He titled his volumes of poetry Book of Nonsense I, II and III. And his illustrations looked like this:

That’s how silly this man was.


I first encountered Edward Lear in a survey of British Literature class freshman year of college. Of course, the Lear poem most commonly reprinted in lit anthologies is “Cold Are the Crabs,” one of his only poems with a melancholy mood. Because serious, canonical literature must be sad, right? Blerf. Nevertheless, more than any other poem from that course, the first two lines stuck in my head. They’re still mucking about in there. “Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hill/Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath” Silly, yes, and beautiful and evocative. I wanted more of that.

Tne Complete Verse and Other Nonsense by Edward Lear

Thanks to this 450 page volume of Lear’s complete verse, I got all the Lear I need. It took me an entire year to read it, but that was a fun and whimsy filled year. Now I’m reading The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore, which fills my brain with boredom and my heart with feminist frustration. I long for Lear.

Not everyone knows of Edward Lear, but everyone has felt his influence. He popularized the limerick. If you’ve ever heard a limerick you can thank him for that. His were not licentious or crude, by the way. He wrote the “Owl and the Pussycat.” He coined the term “runcible spoon.” Here’s a runcible spoon, if you’re wondering what one looks like.

Lear is the clear predecessor to Lewis Carroll. I just don’t think there’d be a Jabberwocky without the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

He was a multitalented man. He made his living doing scientific illustrations.

That’s a capercaillie, by the way.

Painting landscapes.

Writing music and, of course, writing poetry.

Most of his poems have accompanying illustrations. Here’s a limerick for you.

You might like Edward Lear if:

  • You like silliness, animals and whimsy.
  • You like anything that is good in this world.

You might not like Edward Lear if:

  • You are a broken, messed up person with a void where your soul should be.

Final thoughts: Look, Edward Lear is exactly what you need in your life. Well, he’s exactly what I need in my life. His poems will make you smile and chuckle. He’s entirely unique. Anyone who likes smiling and chuckling will like Edward Lear. You should get the book of his complete verse. It will make you happy, I guarantee.


Evangeline, the Cajun Trail of Tears


Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1847

Evangeline is a lengthy, but not quite epic, poem by Longfellow about the Expulsion of the Acadians. During the French and Indian War, the British forcibly exported French colonists from Nova Scotia, Maine and a few other maritime settlements in Canada. Longfellow’s poem follows the story of a pure, young Acadian lady named Evangeline.

Evangeline and her beloved, Gabriel, are separated during the Expulsion. When they arrive somewhere in the 13 colonies, Evangeline starts searching for Gabriel. She spends her life seeking after him, roaming far across the colonies.

The poem is written in the meter of classical Greek poetry, dactylic hexameter. I am not fond of this choice of Longfellow’s. The awkward syntax and lack of rhyme made me hanker after Percy Bysshe Shelley, who could tell story in lovely poetry. Longfellow tells a story, but the poetry is unlovely.

Evangeline is a sentimental poem. It evokes emotions, but it’s a bit saccharine and oversimplified. Longfellow depicts the Acadians as perfect peasants. He supports that classic Victorian idea that the city is vile and corrupting while the country is basically Eden before the Fall. What a whacky idea. There is darkness in human hearts, regardless of the location of the hearts.

Longfellow ignores the complicity of the American colonists in the Expulsion, letting the blame fall entirely on the British.

I also take issue with the idea that Evangeline is made more divine by her self-sacrificing quest to find Gabriel. She gives up her entire life to this search. I don’t think this concept of complete, all-consuming female devotion serves women very well.

That being said, Evangeline is an important poem. It became Longfellow’s most famous work. It also engendered sympathy for the Acadians among the general public, which is quite a feat given the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment at this time. The Acadians don’t appear often in literature. The rarity of the subject matter lends interest.

Evangeline is beloved in Acadia and in Louisiana. There are sculptures of Evangeline and places named after the poem.


“Talk not of wasted affection, affection never was wasted;

If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters, returning

Back to their springs, like the rain, shall fill them full of refreshment;

That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain,

Patience; accomplish thy labor; accomplish thy work of affection!

Sorrow and silence are strong, and patient endurance is godlike.

Therefore accomplish thy labor of love, till the heart is made godlike,

Purified, strengthened, perfected, and rendered more worthy of heaven!”

Cheered by the good man’s words, Evangeline labored and waited.

Still in her heart she heard the funeral dirge of the ocean,

But with its sound there was mingled a voice that whispered “Despair not!”

Thus did the poor soul wander in want and cheerless discomfort,

Bleeding barefooted, over the shards and thorns of existence.


You might like Evangeline if:

  • Gambit is your favorite X-man.

You might not like Evangeline if:

  • you didn’t enjoy reading the Illiad or Odyssey in high school.


Final thoughts:

I feel for Evangeline as a victim of patriarchal need for women to suffer for love. Her story is compelling. However, Longfellow’s treatment of his historical subject matter lacks nuance and so does his poetic style.

Byron’s Don Juan: Origin of the Rap Battle?

Haidee finding Don Juan

Don Juan, Lord Byron, 1820

In his long poem “Don Juan” Byron reimagines the legendary Latin Lover as a luckless young man, tossed about by circumstance in 1820s Europe. Highly susceptible to feminine charms, he falls in love over and over again. We tend to think of Don Juan as a scheming seducer. Byron turns him into a well-intentioned, affectionate chap who inspires consuming passions in the opposite sex. Those passionate females create a lot of trouble for Juan.

As you might imagine, Don Juan has a number of lovers. Byron describes intimate scenes with more detail than previous poets dared to use. The poem was declared immoral by many critics. Byron’s publisher often hesitated to publish new installments and some of Byron’s friends begged him to stop writing it. However, many of his fellow poets declared it a work of genius and it was popular with the public.

I agree that it has elements of genius. When Byron manages to stay focused on his plot, the poem is amazing. His passages about falling in love are breathtaking. I read from one of them during my brother’s wedding ceremony:

     They look'd up to the sky, whose floating glow
       Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
     They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
       Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
     They heard the wave's splash, and the wind so low,
       And saw each other's dark eyes darting light
     Into each other—and, beholding this,
     Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;

     A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
       And beauty, all concentrating like rays
     Into one focus, kindled from above;
       Such kisses as belong to early days,
     Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
       And the blood 's lava, and the pulse a blaze,
     Each kiss a heart-quake,—for a kiss's strength,
     I think, it must be reckon'd by its length.

He really captures the gigantic, encompassing feelings born of little, intimate moments between two people. No?

Byron very successfully describes these things too:

  • The bittersweet feeling of leaving your home behind to go on an adventure.
  • The charms of Middle Eastern women.
  • Don Juan’s courage in battle or when sparring with a lover’s huband/father.
  • Petty jealousies.
  • Scenery.
  • Unhappy marriages.

Haidee finding Don Juan


Unfortunately, he grants an enormous number of lines to insulting other poets, insulting social institutions and rambling on about his personal philosophy. I think satire is most effective, not to mention entertaining, when contained within the plot. When Byron directly attacks society, the quality of his poetry diminishes. Fact: philosophy is boring. Don Juan is over 16,000 lines long, but to me it only drags when Byron goes off on philosophical tangents.

Bryon dedicated Don Juan to Robert Southey. Sounds nice, right? I like Southey. Byron didn’t. The caustic, ironic dedication sets the tone for Byron’s other acerbic digressions. Byron’s good friend Shelley escapes his harsh pen, but the Lake Poets take a beating, in verse of course. He tears into Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. As far as I’m concerned, he can have at Wordsworth, but Coleridge? Keats? Back off Byron; those guys are paragons. At first, the idea of viciously attacking other artists in your genre seemed really odd to me. Also, it’s a precarious perch for Byron, who was far from perfect. Then I thought of rap battles. We certainly have a contemporary equivalent of abusing your artistic competition in rhyme. Let’s pretend that Byron originated the rap battle, shall we?

You might like Don Juan if:

  • you want to read beautiful verse about the misadventures of a dashing young man as he’s tossed across Europe by Lady Fortune.

You might not like Don Juan if:

  • you don’t want to dig through Byron’s philosophy, social commentary and bile to get to the adventure story.

Final thoughts: I loved/hated Don Juan, but mostly I loved it. When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is boring. The story is gripping and told so incredibly well, that I got really annoyed with Byron for all his digressions. I am very glad I read it. To me it was worth the long slog. However, I hesitate to recommend it. Realistically, most readers will not have the requisite patience