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Title: Oscar Wilde, Volume 2 (of 2) - His Life and Confessions
Author: Harris, Frank, 1856-1931
Language: English
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[Illustration: Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas About 1893]




Imprime en Allemagne
Printed in Germany

    For he who sins a second time
      Wakes a dead soul to pain,
    And draws it from its spotted shroud,
      And makes it bleed again,
    And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
      And makes it bleed in vain.

               --_The Ballad of Reading Gaol._

Copyright, 1916,



Prison for Oscar Wilde, an English prison with its insufficient bad
food[1] and soul-degrading routine for that amiable, joyous, eloquent,
pampered Sybarite. Here was a test indeed; an ordeal as by fire. What
would he make of two years' hard labour in a lonely cell?

There are two ways of taking prison, as of taking most things, and all
the myriad ways between these two extremes; would Oscar be conquered by
it and allow remorse and hatred to corrupt his very heart, or would he
conquer the prison and possess and use it? Hammer or anvil--which?

Victory has its virtue and is justified of itself like sunshine; defeat
carries its own condemnation. Yet we have all tasted its bitter waters:
only "infinite virtue" can pass through life victorious, Shakespeare
tells us, and we mortals are not of infinite virtue. The myriad
vicissitudes of the struggle search out all our weaknesses; test all
our powers. Every victory shows a more difficult height to scale, a
steeper pinnacle of god-like hardship--that's the reward of victory: it
provides the hero with ever-new battle-fields: no rest for him this side
the grave.

But what of defeat? What sweet is there in its bitter? This may be said
for it; it is our great school: punishment teaches pity, just as
suffering teaches sympathy. In defeat the brave soul learns kinship with
other men, takes the rub to heart; seeks out the reason for the fall in
his own weakness, and ever afterwards finds it impossible to judge, much
less condemn his fellow. But after all no one can hurt us but ourselves;
prison, hard labour, and the hate of men; what are these if they make
you truer, wiser, kinder?

Have you come to grief through self-indulgence and good-living? Here are
months in which men will take care that you shall eat badly and lie
hard. Did you lack respect for others? Here are men who will show you no
consideration. Were you careless of others' sufferings? Here now you
shall agonize unheeded: gaolers and governors as well as black cells
just to teach you. Thank your stars then for every day's experience,
for, when you have learned the lesson of it and turned its discipline
into service, the prison shall transform itself into a hermitage, the
dungeon into a home; the burnt skilly shall be sweet in your mouth; and
your rest on the plank-bed the dreamless slumber of a little child.

And if you are an artist, prison will be more to you than this; an
astonishing vital and novel experience, accorded only to the chosen.
What will you make of it? That's the question for you. It is a wonderful
opportunity. Seen truly, a prison's more spacious than a palace; nay,
richer, and for a loving soul, a far rarer experience. Thank then the
spirit which steers men for the divine chance which has come to you;
henceforth the prison shall be your domain; in future men will not think
of it without thinking of you. Others may show them what the good things
of life do for one; you will show them what suffering can do, cold and
regretful sleepless hours and solitude, misery and distress. Others will
teach the lessons of joy. The whole vast underworld of pity and pain,
fear and horror and injustice is your kingdom. Men have drawn darkness
about you as a curtain, shrouded you in blackest night; the light in you
will shine the brighter. Always provided of course that the light is not
put out altogether.

Hammer or anvil? How would Oscar Wilde take punishment?

       *       *       *       *       *

We could not know for months. Yet he was an artist by nature--that gave
one a glimmer of hope. We needed it. For outside at first there was an
icy atmosphere of hatred and contempt. The mere mention of his name was
met with expressions of disgust, or frozen silence.

One bare incident will paint the general feeling more clearly than pages
of invective or description. The day after Oscar's sentence Mr. Charles
Brookfield, who, it will be remembered, had raked together the witnesses
that enabled Lord Queensberry to "justify" his accusation; assisted by
Mr. Charles Hawtrey, the actor, gave a dinner to Lord Queensberry to
celebrate their triumph. Some forty Englishmen of good position were
present at the banquet--a feast to celebrate the ruin and degradation of
a man of genius.

Yet there are true souls in England, noble, generous hearts. I remember
a lunch at Mrs. Jeune's, where one declared that Wilde was at length
enjoying his deserts; another regretted that his punishment was so
slight, a third with precise knowledge intimated delicately and with
quiet complacence that two years' imprisonment with hard labour usually
resulted in idiocy or death: fifty per cent., it appeared, failed to win
through. It was more to be dreaded on all accounts than five years'
penal servitude. "You see it begins with starvation and solitary
confinement, and that breaks up the strongest. I think it will be
enough for our vainglorious talker." Miss Madeleine Stanley (now Lady
Middleton) was sitting beside me, her fine, sensitive face clouded: I
could not contain myself, I was being whipped on a sore.

"This must have been the way they talked in Jerusalem," I remarked,
"after the world-tragedy."

"You were an intimate friend of his, were you not?" insinuated the
delicate one gently.

"A friend and admirer," I replied, "and always shall be."

A glacial silence spread round the table, while the delicate one smiled
with deprecating contempt, and offered some grapes to his neighbour; but
help came. Lady Dorothy Nevill was a little further down the table: she
had not heard all that was said, but had caught the tone of the
conversation and divined the rest.

"Are you talking of Oscar Wilde?" she exclaimed. "I'm glad to hear you
say you are a friend. I am, too, and shall always be proud of having
known him, a most brilliant, charming man."

"I think of giving a dinner to him when he comes out, Lady Dorothy," I

"I hope you'll ask me," she answered bravely. "I should be glad to come.
I always admired and liked him; I feel dreadfully sorry for him."

The delicate one adroitly changed the conversation and coffee came in,
but Miss Stanley said to me:

"I wish I had known him, there must have been great good in him to win
such friendship."

"Great charm in any case," I replied, "and that's rarer among men than
even goodness."

The first news that came to us from prison was not altogether bad. He
had broken down and was in the infirmary, but was getting better. The
brave Stewart Headlam, who had gone bail for him, had visited him, the
Stewart Headlam who was an English clergyman, and yet, wonder of
wonders, a Christian. A little later one heard that Sherard had seen
him, and brought about a reconciliation with his wife. Mrs. Wilde had
been very good and had gone to the prison and had no doubt comforted
him. Much to be hoped from all this....

For months and months the situation in South Africa took all my heart
and mind.

In the first days of January, 1896, came the Jameson Raid, and I sailed
for South Africa. I had work to do for _The Saturday Review_, absorbing
work by day and night. In the summer I was back in England, but the task
of defending the Boer farmers grew more and more arduous, and I only
heard that Oscar was going on as well as could be expected.

Some time later, after he had been transferred to Reading Gaol, bad news
leaked out, news that he was breaking up, was being punished,
persecuted. His friends came to me, asking: could anything be done? As
usual my only hope was in the supreme authority. Sir Evelyn Ruggles
Brise was the head of the Prison Commission; after the Home Secretary,
the most powerful person, the permanent official behind the
Parliamentary figure-head; the man who knew and acted behind the man who
talked. I sat down and wrote to him for an interview: by return came a
courteous note giving me an appointment.

I told him what I had heard about Oscar, that his health was breaking
down and his reason going, pointed out how monstrous it was to turn
prison into a torture-chamber. To my utter astonishment he agreed with
me, admitted, even, that an exceptional man ought to have exceptional
treatment; showed not a trace of pedantry; good brains, good heart. He
went so far as to say that Oscar Wilde should be treated with all
possible consideration, that certain prison rules which pressed very
hardly upon him should be interpreted as mildly as possible. He admitted
that the punishment was much more severe to him than it would be to an
ordinary criminal, and had nothing but admiration for his brilliant

"It was a great pity," he said, "that Wilde ever got into prison, a
great pity."

I was pushing at an open door; besides the year or so which had elapsed
since the condemnation had given time for reflection. Still, Sir Ruggles
Brise's attitude was extraordinary, sympathetic at once and high-minded:
another true Englishman at the head of affairs: infinite hope in that
fact, and solace.

I had stuck to my text that something should be done at once to give
Oscar courage and hope; he must not be murdered or left to despair.

Sir Ruggles Brise asked me finally if I would go to Reading and report
on Oscar Wilde's condition and make any suggestion that might occur to
me. He did not know if this could be arranged; but he would see the Home
Secretary and would recommend it, if I were willing. Of course I was
willing, more than willing. Two or three days later, I got another
letter from him with another appointment, and again I went to see him.
He received me with charming kindness. The Home Secretary would be glad
if I would go down to Reading and report on Oscar Wilde's state.

"Everyone," said Sir Ruggles Brise, "speaks with admiration and delight
of his wonderful talents. The Home Secretary thinks it would be a great
loss to English literature if he were really injured by the prison
discipline. Here is your order to see him alone, and a word of
introduction to the Governor, and a request to give you all

I could not speak. I could only shake hands with him in silence.

What a country of anomalies England is! A judge of the High Court a hard
self-satisfied pernicious bigot, while the official in charge of the
prisons is a man of wide culture and humane views, who has the courage
of a noble humanity.

I went to Reading Gaol and sent in my letter. I was met by the Governor,
who gave orders that Oscar Wilde should be conducted to a room where we
could talk alone. I cannot give an account of my interviews with the
Governor or the doctor; it would smack of a breach of confidence;
besides all such conversations are peculiarly personal: some people call
forth the best in us, others the worst. Without wishing to, I may have
stirred up the lees. I can only say here that I then learned for the
first time the full, incredible meaning of "Man's inhumanity to man."

In a quarter of an hour I was led into a bare room where Oscar Wilde was
already standing by a plain deal table. The warder who had come with
him then left us. We shook hands and sat down opposite to each other. He
had changed greatly. He appeared much older; his dark brown hair was
streaked with grey, particularly in front and over the ears. He was much
thinner, had lost at least thirty-five pounds, probably forty or more.
On the whole, however, he looked better physically than he had looked
for years before his imprisonment: his eyes were clear and bright; the
outlines of the face were no longer swamped in fat; the voice even was
ringing and musical; he had improved bodily, I thought; though in repose
his face wore a nervous, depressed and harassed air.

"You know how glad I am to see you, heart-glad to find you looking so
well," I began, "but tell me quickly, for I may be able to help you,
what have you to complain of; what do you want?"

For a long time he was too hopeless, too frightened to talk. "The list
of my grievances," he said, "would be without end. The worst of it is I
am perpetually being punished for nothing; this governor loves to
punish, and he punishes by taking my books from me. It is perfectly
awful to let the mind grind itself away between the upper and nether
millstones of regret and remorse without respite; with books my life
would be livable--any life," he added sadly.

"The life, then, is hard. Tell me about it."

"I don't like to," he said, "it is all so dreadful--and ugly and
painful, I would rather not think of it," and he turned away

"You must tell me, or I shall not be able to help you." Bit by bit I won
the confession from him.

"At first it was a fiendish nightmare; more horrible than anything I had
ever dreamt of; from the first evening when they made me undress before
them and get into some filthy water they called a bath and dry myself
with a damp, brown rag and put on this livery of shame. The cell was
appalling: I could hardly breathe in it, and the food turned my stomach;
the smell and sight of it were enough: I did not eat anything for days
and days, I could not even swallow the bread; and the rest of the food
was uneatable; I lay on the so-called bed and shivered all night
long.... Don't ask me to speak of it, please. Words cannot convey the
cumulative effect of a myriad discomforts, brutal handling and slow
starvation. Surely like Dante I have written on my face the fact that I
have been in hell. Only Dante never imagined any hell like an English
prison; in his lowest circle people could move about; could see each
other, and hear each other groan: there was some change, some human
companionship in misery...."

"When did you begin to eat the food?" I asked.

"I can't tell, Frank," he replied. "After some days I got so hungry I
had to eat a little, nibble at the outside of the bread, and drink some
of the liquid; whether it was tea, coffee or gruel, I could not tell. As
soon as I really ate anything it produced violent diarrhoea and I was
ill all day and all night. From the beginning I could not sleep. I grew
weak and had wild delusions.... You must not ask me to describe it. It
is like asking a man who has gone through fever to describe one of the
terrifying dreams. At Wandsworth I thought I should go mad; Wandsworth
is the worst: no dungeon in hell can be worse; why is the food so bad?
It even smelt bad. It was not fit for dogs."

"Was the food the worst of it?" I asked.

"The hunger made you weak, Frank; but the inhumanity was the worst of
it; what devilish creatures men are. I had never known anything about
them. I had never dreamt of such cruelties. A man spoke to me at
exercise. You know you are not allowed to speak. He was in front of me,
and he whispered, so that he could not be seen, how sorry he was for me,
and how he hoped I would bear up. I stretched out my hands to him and
cried, 'Oh, thank you, thank you.' The kindness of his voice brought
tears into my eyes. Of course I was punished at once for speaking; a
dreadful punishment. I won't think of it: I dare not. They are
infinitely cunning in malice here, Frank; infinitely cunning in
punishment.... Don't let us talk of it, it is too painful, too horrible
that men should be so brutal."

"Give me an instance," I said, "of something less painful; something
which may be bettered."

He smiled wanly. "All of it, Frank, all of it should be altered. There
is no spirit in a prison but hate, hate masked in degrading formalism.
They first break the will and rob you of hope, and then rule by fear.
One day a warder came into my cell.

"'Take off your boots,' he said.

"Of course I began to obey him; then I asked:

"'What is it? Why must I take off my boots?'

"He would not answer me. As soon as he had my boots, he said:

"'Come out of your cell.'

"'Why?' I asked again. I was frightened, Frank. What had I done? I could
not guess; but then I was often punished for nothing: what was it? No
answer. As soon as we were in the corridor he ordered me to stand with
my face to the wall, and went away. There I stood in my stocking feet
waiting. The cold chilled me through; I began standing first on one
foot and then on the other, racking my brains as to what they were going
to do to me, wondering why I was being punished like this, and how long
it would last; you know the thoughts fear-born that plague the mind....
After what seemed an eternity I heard him coming back. I did not dare to
move or even look. He came up to me; stopped by me for a moment; my
heart stopped; he threw down a pair of boots beside me, and said:

"'Go to your cell and put those on,' and I went into my cell shaking.
That's the way they give you a new pair of boots in prison, Frank;
that's the way they are kind to you."

"The first period was the worst?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, infinitely the worst! One gets accustomed to everything in
time, to the food and the bed and the silence: one learns the rules, and
knows what to expect and what to fear...."

"How did you win through the first period?" I asked.

"I died," he said quietly, "and came to life again, as a patient." I
stared at him. "Quite true, Frank. What with the purgings and the
semi-starvation and sleeplessness and, worst of all, the regret gnawing
at my soul and the incessant torturing self-reproaches, I got weaker and
weaker; my clothes hung on me; I could scarcely move. One Sunday
morning after a very bad night I could not get out of bed. The warder
came in and I told him I was ill."

"'You had better get up,' he said; but I couldn't take the good advice.

"'I can't,' I replied, 'you must do what you like with me.'

"Half an hour later the doctor came and looked in at the door. He never
came near me; he simply called out:

"'Get up; no malingering; you're all right. You'll be punished if you
don't get up,' and he went away.

"I had to get up. I was very weak; I fell off my bed while dressing, and
bruised myself; but I got dressed somehow or other, and then I had to go
with the rest to chapel, where they sing hymns, dreadful hymns all out
of tune in praise of their pitiless God.

"I could hardly stand up; everything kept disappearing and coming back
faintly: and suddenly I must have fallen...." He put his hand to his
head. "I woke up feeling a pain in this ear. I was in the infirmary with
a warder by me. My hand rested on a clean white sheet; it was like
heaven. I could not help pushing my toes against the sheet to feel it,
it was so smooth and cool and clean. The nurse with kind eyes said to

"'Do eat something,' and gave me some thin white bread and butter.
Frank, I shall never forget it. The water came into my mouth in streams;
I was so desperately hungry, and it was so delicious; I was so weak I
cried," and he put his hands before his eyes and gulped down his tears.

"I shall never forget it: the warder was so kind. I did not like to tell
him I was famished; but when he went away I picked the crumbs off the
sheet and ate them, and when I could find no more I pulled myself to the
edge of the bed, and picked up the crumbs from the floor and ate those
as well; the white bread was so good and I was so hungry."

"And now?" I asked, not able to stand more.

"Oh, now," he said, with an attempt to be cheerful, "of course it would
be all right if they did not take my books away from me. If they would
let me write. If only they would let me write as I wish, I should be
quite content, but they punish me on every pretext. Why do they do it,
Frank? Why do they want to make my life here one long misery?"

"Aren't you a little deaf still?" I asked, to ease the passion I felt of
intolerable pity.

"Yes," he replied, "on this side, where I fell in the chapel. I fell on
my ear, you know, and I must have burst the drum of it, or injured it
in some way, for all through the winter it has ached and it often bleeds
a little."

"But they could give you some cotton wool or something to put in it?" I

He smiled a poor wan smile:

"If you think one dare disturb a doctor or a warder for an earache, you
don't know much about a prison; you would pay for it. Why, Frank,
however ill I was now," and he lowered his voice to a whisper and
glanced about him as if fearing to be overheard, "however ill I was I
would not think of sending for the doctor. Not think of it," he said in
an awestruck voice. "I have learned prison ways."

"I should rebel," I cried; "why do you let it break the spirit?"

"You would soon be broken, if you rebelled, here. Besides it is all
incidental to the _System_. The _System_! No one outside knows what that
means. It is an old story, I'm afraid, the story of man's cruelty to

"I think I can promise you," I said, "that the _System_ will be altered
a little. You shall have books and things to write with, and you shall
not be harassed every moment by punishment."

"Take care," he cried in a spasm of dread, putting his hand on mine,
"take care, they may punish me much worse. You don't know what they can
do." I grew hot with indignation.

"Don't say anything, please, of what I have said to you. Promise me, you
won't say anything. Promise me. I never complained, I didn't." His
excitement was a revelation.

"All right," I replied, to soothe him.

"No, but promise me, seriously," he repeated. "You must promise me.
Think, you have my confidence, it is private what I have said." He was
evidently frightened out of self-control.

"All right," I said, "I will not tell; but I'll get the facts from the
others and not from you."

"Oh, Frank," he said, "you don't know what they do. There is a
punishment here more terrible than the rack." And he whispered to me
with white sidelong eyes: "They can drive you mad in a week, Frank."[2]

"Mad!" I exclaimed, thinking I must have misunderstood him; though he
was white and trembling.

"What about the warders?" I asked again, to change the subject, for I
began to feel that I had supped full on horrors.

"Some of them are kind," he sighed. "The one that brought me in here is
so kind to me. I should like to do something for him, when I get out.
He's quite human. He does not mind talking to me and explaining things;
but some of them at Wandsworth were brutes.... I will not think of them
again. I have sewn those pages up and you must never ask me to open them
again: I dare not open them," he cried pitifully.

"But you ought to tell it all," I said, "that's perhaps the purpose you
are here for: the ultimate reason."

"Oh, no, Frank, never. It would need a man of infinite strength to come
here and give a truthful record of all that happened to him. I don't
believe you could do it; I don't believe anybody would be strong enough.
Starvation and purging alone would break down anyone's strength.
Everybody knows that you are purged and starved to the edge of death.
That's what two years' hard labour means. It's not the labour that's
hard. It's the conditions of life that make it impossibly hard: they
break you down body and soul. And if you resist, they drive you
crazy.... But, please! don't say I said anything; you've promised, you
know you have: you'll remember: won't you!"

I felt guilty: his insistence, his gasping fear showed me how terribly
he must have suffered. He was beside himself with dread. I ought to have
visited him sooner. I changed the subject.

"You shall have writing materials and your books, Oscar. Force yourself
to write. You are looking better than you used to look; your eyes are
brighter, your face clearer." The old smile came back into his eyes, the
deathless humour.

"I've had a rest cure, Frank," he said, and smiled feebly.

"You should give record of this life as far as you can, and of all its
influences on you. You have conquered, you know. Write the names of the
inhuman brutes on their foreheads in vitriol, as Dante did for all

"No, no, I cannot: I will not: I want to live and forget. I could not, I
dare not, I have not Dante's strength, nor his bitterness; I am a Greek
born out of due time." He had said the true word at last.

"I will come again and see you," I replied. "Is there nothing else I can
do? I hear your wife has seen you. I hope you have made it up with her?"

"She tried to be kind to me, Frank," he said in a dull voice, "she was
kind, I suppose. She must have suffered; I'm sorry...." One felt he had
no sorrow to spare for others.

"Is there nothing I can do?" I asked.

"Nothing, Frank, only if you could get me books and writing materials,
if I could be allowed to use them really! But you won't say anything I
have said to you, you promise me you won't?"

"I promise," I replied, "and I shall come back in a short time to see
you again. I think you will be better then....

"Don't dread the coming out; you have friends who will work for you,
great allies--" and I told him about Lady Dorothy Nevill at Mrs. Jeune's

"Isn't she a dear old lady?" he cried, "charming, brilliant, human
creature! She might have stepped out of a page of Thackeray, only
Thackeray never wrote a page quite dainty and charming enough. He came
near it in his 'Esmond.' Oh, I remember you don't like the book, but it
is beautifully written, Frank, in beautiful simple rhythmic English. It
sings itself to the ear. Lady Dorothy" (how he loved the title!) "was
always kind to me, but London is horrible. I could not live in London
again. I must go away out of England. Do you remember talking to me,
Frank, of France?" and he put both his hands on my shoulders, while
tears ran down his face, and sighs broke from him. "Beautiful France,
the one country in the world where they care for humane ideals and the
humane life. Ah! if only I had gone with you to France," and the tears
poured down his cheeks and our hands met convulsively.

"I'm glad to see you looking so well," I began again. "Books you shall
have; for God's sake keep your heart up, and I will come back and see
you, and don't forget you have good friends outside; lots of us!"

"Thank you, Frank; but take care, won't you, and remember your promise
not to tell."

I nodded in assent and went to the door. The warder came in.

"The interview is over," I said; "will you take me downstairs?"

"If you will not mind sitting here, sir," he said, "for a minute. I must
take him back first."

"I have been telling my friend," said Oscar to the warder, "how good you
have been to me," and he turned and went, leaving with me the memory of
his eyes and unforgettable smile; but I noticed as he disappeared that
he was thin, and looked hunched up and bowed, in the ugly ill-fitting
prison livery. I took out a bank note and put it under the blotting
paper that had been placed on the table for me. In two or three minutes
the warder came back, and as I left the room I thanked him for being
kind to my friend, and told him how kindly Oscar had spoken of him.

"He has no business here, sir," the warder said. "He's no more like one
of our reg'lars than a canary is like one of them cocky little spadgers.
Prison ain't meant for such as him, and he ain't meant for prison. He's
that soft, sir, you see, and affeckshunate. He's more like a woman, he
is; you hurt 'em without meaning to. I don't care what they say, I likes
him; and he do talk beautiful, sir, don't he?"

"Indeed he does," I said, "the best talker in the world. I want you to
look in the pad on the table. I have left a note there for you."

"Not for me, sir, I could not take it; no, sir, please not," he cried in
a hurried, fear-struck voice. "You've forgotten something, sir, come
back and get it, sir, do, please. I daren't."

In spite of my remonstrance he took me back and I had to put the note in
my pocket.

"I could not, you know, sir, I was not kind to him for that." His manner
changed; he seemed hurt.

I told him I was sure of it, sure, and begged him to believe, that if I
were able to do anything for him, at any time, I'd be glad, and gave him
my address. He was not even listening--an honest, good man, full of the
milk of human kindness. How kind deeds shine starlike in this prison of
a world. That warder and Sir Ruggles Brise each in his own place: such
men are the salt of the English world; better are not to be found on


[1] Some years ago _The Daily Chronicle_ proved that though the general
standard of living is lower in Germany and in France than in England;
yet the prison food in France and especially in Germany is far better
than in England and the treatment of the prisoners far more humane.

[2] He was referring, I suppose, to the solitary confinement in a dark
cell, which English ingenuity has invented and according to all accounts
is as terrible as any of the tortures of the past. For those tortures
were all physical, whereas the modern Englishman addresses himself to
the brain and nerves, and finds the fear of madness more terrifying than
the fear of pain. What a pity it is that Mr. Justice Wills did not know
twenty-four hours of it, just twenty-four hours to teach him what
"adequate punishment" for sensual self-indulgence means, and adequate
punishment, too, for inhuman cruelty.


On my return to London I saw Sir Ruggles Brise. No one could have shown
me warmer sympathy, or more discriminating comprehension. I made my
report to him and left the matter in his hands with perfect confidence.
I took care to describe Oscar's condition to his friends while assuring
them that his circumstances would soon be bettered. A little later I
heard that the governor of the prison had been changed, that Oscar had
got books and writing materials, and was allowed to have the gas burning
in his cell to a late hour when it was turned down but not out. In fact,
from that time on he was treated with all the kindness possible, and
soon we heard that he was bearing the confinement and discipline better
than could have been expected. Sir Evelyn Ruggles Brise had evidently
settled the difficulty in the most humane spirit.

Later still I was told that Oscar had begun to write "De Profundis" in
prison, and I was very hopeful about that too: no news could have given
me greater pleasure. It seemed to me certain that he would justify
himself to men by turning the punishment into a stepping-stone. And in
this belief when the time came I ventured to call on Sir Ruggles Brise
with another petition.

"Surely," I said, "Oscar will not be imprisoned for the full term;
surely four or five months for good conduct will be remitted?"

Sir Ruggles Brise listened sympathetically, but warned me at once that
any remission was exceptional; however, he would let me know what could
be done, if I would call again in a week. Much to my surprise, he did
not seem certain even about the good conduct.

I returned at the end of the week, and had another long talk with him.
He told me that good conduct meant, in prison parlance, absence of
punishment, and Oscar had been punished pretty often. Of course his
offenses were minor offenses; nothing serious; childish faults indeed
for the most part: he was often talking, and he was often late in the
morning; his cell was not kept so well as it might be, and so forth;
peccadilloes, all; yet a certificate of "good conduct" depended on such
trifling observances. In face of Oscar's record Sir Ruggles Brise did
not think that the sentence would be easily lessened. I was
thunder-struck. But then no rules to me are sacrosanct; indeed, they are
only tolerable because of the exceptions. I had such a high opinion of
Ruggles Brise--his kindness and sense of fair play--that I ventured to
show him my whole mind on the matter.

"Oscar Wilde," I said to him, "is just about to face life again: he is
more than half reconciled to his wife; he has begun a book, is
shouldering the burden. A little encouragement now and I believe he will
do better things than he has ever done. I am convinced that he has far
bigger things in him than we have seen yet. But he is extraordinarily
sensitive and extraordinarily vain. The danger is that he may be
frightened and blighted by the harshness and hatred of the world. He may
shrink into himself and do nothing if the wind be not tempered a little
for him. A hint of encouragement now, the feeling that men like yourself
think him worthful and deserving of special kindly treatment, and I feel
certain he will do great things. I really believe it is in your hands to
save a man of extraordinary talent, and get the best out of him, if you
care to do it."

"Of course I care to do it," he cried. "You cannot doubt that, and I see
exactly what you mean; but it will not be easy."

"Won't you see what can be done?" I persisted. "Put your mind to
discover how it should be done, how the Home Secretary may be induced to
remit the last few months of Wilde's sentence."

After a little while he replied:

"You must believe that the authorities are quite willing to help in any
good work, more than willing, and I am sure I speak for the Home
Secretary as well as for myself; but it is for you to give us some
reason for acting--a reason that could be avowed and defended."

I did not at first catch his drift; so I persevered:

"You admit that the reason exists, that it would be a good thing to
favour Wilde, then why not do it?"

"We live," he said, "under parliamentary rule. Suppose the question were
asked in the House, and I think it very likely in the present state of
public opinion that the question would be asked: what should we answer?
It would not be an avowable reason that we hoped Wilde would write new
plays and books, would it? That reason ought to be sufficient, I grant
you; but, you see yourself, it would not be so regarded."

"You are right, I suppose," I had to admit. "But if I got you a petition
from men of letters, asking you to release Wilde for his health's sake:
would that do?"

Sir Ruggles Brise jumped at the suggestion.

"Certainly," he exclaimed, "if some men of letters, men of position,
wrote asking that Wilde's sentence should be diminished by three or
four months on account of his health, I think it would have the best

"I will see Meredith at once," I said, "and some others. How many names
should I get?"

"If you have Meredith," he replied, "you don't need many others. A dozen
would do, or fewer if you find a dozen too many."

"I don't think I shall meet with any difficulty," I replied, "but I will
let you know."

"You will find it harder than you think," he concluded, "but if you get
one or two great names the rest may follow. In any case one or two good
names will make it easier for you."

Naturally I thanked him for his kindness and went away absolutely
content. I had never set myself a task which seemed simpler. Meredith
could not be more merciless than a Royal Commission. I returned to my
office in _The Saturday Review_ and got the Royal Commission report on
this sentence of two years' imprisonment with hard labour. The
Commission recommended that it should be wiped off the Statute Book as
too severe. I drafted a little petition as colourless as possible:

"In view of the fact that the punishment of two years' imprisonment with
hard labour has been condemned by a Royal Commission as too severe, and
inasmuch as Mr. Wilde has been distinguished by his work in letters and
is now, we hear, suffering in health, we, your petitioners, pray--and
so forth and so on."

I got this printed, and then sat down to write to Meredith asking when I
could see him on the matter. I wanted his signature first to be printed
underneath the petition, and then issue it. To my astonishment Meredith
did not answer at once, and when I pressed him and set forth the facts
he wrote to me that he could not do what I wished. I wrote again,
begging him to let me see him on the matter. For the first time in my
life he refused to see me: he wrote to me to say that nothing I could
urge would move him, and it would therefore only be painful to both of
us to find ourselves in conflict.

Nothing ever surprised me more than this attitude of Meredith's. I knew
his poetry pretty well, and knew how severe he was on every sensual
weakness perhaps because it was his own pitfall. I knew too what a
fighter he was at heart and how he loved the virile virtues; but I
thought I knew the man, knew his tender kindliness of heart, the founts
of pity in him, and I felt certain I could count on him for any office
of human charity or generosity. But no, he was impenetrable, hard. He
told me long afterwards that he had rather a low opinion of Wilde's
capacities, instinctive, deep-rooted contempt, too, for the showman in
him, and an absolute abhorrence of his vice.

"That vile, sensual self-indulgence puts back the hands of the clock,"
he said, "and should not be forgiven."

For the life of me I could never forgive Meredith; never afterwards was
he of any importance to me. He had always been to me a standard bearer
in the eternal conflict, a leader in the Liberation War of Humanity, and
here I found him pitiless to another who had been wounded on the same
side in the great struggle: it seemed to me appalling. True, Wilde had
not been wounded in fighting for us; true, he had fallen out and come to
grief, as a drunkard might. But after all he had been fighting on the
right side: had been a quickening intellectual influence: it was
dreadful to pass him on the wayside and allow him callously to bleed to
death. It was revoltingly cruel! The foremost Englishman of his time
unable even to understand Christ's example, much less reach his height!

This refusal of Meredith's not only hurt me, but almost destroyed my
hope, though it did not alter my purpose. I wanted a figurehead for my
petition, and the figurehead I had chosen I could not get. I began to
wonder and doubt. I next approached a very different man, the late
Professor Churton Collins, a great friend of mine, who, in spite of an
almost pedantic rigour of mind and character, had in him at bottom a
curious spring of sympathy--a little pool of pure love for the poets and
writers whom he admired. I got him to dinner and asked him to sign the
petition; he refused, but on grounds other than those taken by Meredith.

"Of course Wilde ought to get out," he said, "the sentence was a savage
one and showed bitter prejudice; but I have children, and my own way to
make in the world, and if I did this I should be tarred with the Wilde
brush. I cannot afford to do it. If he were really a great man I hope I
should do it, but I don't agree with your estimate of him. I cannot
think I am called upon to bell the British cat in his defence: it has
many claws and all sharp."

As soon as he saw the position was unworthy of him, he shifted to new

"If you were justified in coming to me, I should do it; but I am no one;
why don't you go to Meredith, Swinburne or Hardy?"

I had to give up the Professor, as well as the poet. I knocked in turn
at a great many doors, but all in vain. No one wished to take the odium
on himself. One man, since become celebrated, said he had no position,
his name was not good enough for the purpose. Others left my letters
unanswered. Yet another sent a bare acknowledgment saying how sorry he
was, but that public opinion was against Mr. Wilde; with one accord
they all made excuses....

One day Professor Tyrrell of Trinity College, Dublin, happened to be in
my office, while I was setting forth the difference between men of
letters in France and England as exemplified by this conduct. In France
among authors there is a recognised "_esprit de corps_," which
constrains them to hold together. For instance when Zola was threatened
with prosecution for "Nana," a dozen men like Cherbuliez, Feuillet,
Dumas _fils_, who hated his work and regarded it as sensational, tawdry,
immoral even, took up the cudgels for him at once; declared that the
police were not judges of art, and should not interfere with a serious
workman. All these Frenchmen, though they disliked Zola's work, and
believed that his popularity was won by a low appeal, still admitted
that he was a force in letters, and stood by him resolutely in spite of
their own prepossessions and prejudices. But in England the feeling is
altogether more selfish. Everyone consults his own sordid self-interest
and is rather glad to see a social favourite come to grief: not a hand
is stretched out to help him. Suddenly, Tyrrell broke in upon my

"I don't know whether my name is of any good to you," he said, "but I
agree with all you have said, and my name might be classed with that of
Churton Collins, though, of course, I've no right to speak for
literature," and without more ado he signed the petition, adding,
"Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin."

"When you next see Oscar," he continued, "please tell him that my wife
and I asked after him. We both hold him in grateful memory as a most
brilliant talker and writer, and a charming fellow to boot. Confusion
take all their English Puritanism."

Merely living in Ireland tends to make an Englishman more humane; but
one name was not enough, and Tyrrell's was the only one I could get. In
despair, and knowing that George Wyndham had had a great liking for
Oscar, and admiration for his high talent, I asked him to lunch at the
Savoy; laid the matter before him, and begged him to give me his name.
He refused, and in face of my astonishment he excused himself by saying
that, as soon as the rumour had reached him of Oscar's intimacy with
Bosie Douglas, he had asked Oscar whether there was any truth in the
scandalous report.

"You see," he went on, "Bosie is by way of being a relation of mine, and
so I had the right to ask. Oscar gave me his word of honour that there
was nothing but friendship between them. He lied to me, and that I can
never forgive."

A politician unable to forgive a lie--surely one can hear the mocking
laughter of the gods! I could say nothing to such paltry affected
nonsense. Politician-like Wyndham showed me how the wind of popular
feeling blew, and I recognised that my efforts were in vain.

There is no fellow-feeling among English men of letters; in fact they
hold together less than any other class and, by himself, none of them
wished to help a wounded member of the flock. I had to tell Sir Ruggles
Brise that I had failed.

I have been informed since that if I had begun by asking Thomas Hardy, I
might have succeeded. I knew Hardy; but never cared greatly for his
talent. I daresay if I had had nothing else to do I might have succeeded
in some half degree. But all these two years I was extremely busy and
anxious; the storm clouds in South Africa were growing steadily darker
and my attitude to South African affairs was exceedingly unpopular in
London. It seemed to me vitally important to prevent England from making
war on the Boers. I had to abandon the attempt to get Oscar's sentence
shortened, and comfort myself with Sir Ruggles Brise's assurance that he
would be treated with the greatest possible consideration.

Still, my advocacy had had a good effect.

Oscar himself has told us what the kindness shown to him in the last
six months of his prison life really did for him. He writes in _De
Profundis_ that for the first part of his sentence he could only wring
his hands in impotent despair and cry, "What an ending, what an
appalling ending!" But when the new spirit of kindness came to him, he
could say with sincerity: "What a beginning, what a wonderful
beginning!" He sums it all up in these words:

"Had I been released after eighteen months, as I hoped to be, I would
have left my prison loathing it and every official in it with a
bitterness of hatred that would have poisoned my life. I have had six
months more of imprisonment, but humanity has been in the prison with us
all the time, and now when I go out I shall always remember great
kindnesses that I have received here from almost everybody, and on the
day of my release I shall give many thanks to many people, and ask to be
remembered by them in turn."

This is the man whom Mr. Justice Wills addressed as insensible to any
high appeal.

Some time passed before I visited Oscar again. The change in him was
extraordinary. He was light-hearted, gay, and looked better than I had
ever seen him: clearly the austerity of prison life suited him. He met
me with a jest:

"It is you, Frank!" he cried as if astonished, "always original! You
come back to prison of your own free-will!"

He declared that the new governor--Major Nelson[3] was his name--had
been as kind as possible to him. He had not had a punishment for months,
and "Oh, Frank, the joy of reading when you like and writing as you
please--the delight of living again!" He was so infinitely improved that
his talk delighted me.

"What books have you?" I asked.

"I thought I should like the 'Oedipus Rex,'" he replied gravely; "but
I could not read it. It all seemed unreal to me. Then I thought of St.
Augustine, but he was worse still. The fathers of the Church were still
further away from me; they all found it so easy to repent and change
their lives: it does not seem to me easy. At last I got hold of Dante.
Dante was what I wanted. I read the 'Purgatorio' all through, forced
myself to read it in Italian to get the full savour and significance of
it. Dante, too, had been in the depths and drunk the bitter lees of
despair. I shall want a little library when I come out, a library of a
score of books. I wonder if you will help me to get it. I want Flaubert,
Stevenson, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, Dumas _père_, Keats, Marlowe,
Chatterton, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, Dante, Goethe,
Meredith's poems, and his 'Egoist,' the Song of Solomon, too, Job, and,
of course, the Gospels."

"I shall be delighted to get them for you," I said, "if you will send me
the list. By the by, I hear that you have been reconciled to your wife;
is that true? I should be glad to know it's true."

"I hope it will be all right," he said gravely, "she is very good and
kind. I suppose you have heard," he went on, "that my mother died since
I came here, and that leaves a great gap in my life.... I always had the
greatest admiration and love for my mother. She was a great woman,
Frank, a perfect idealist. My father got into trouble once in Dublin,
perhaps you have heard about it?"

"Oh, yes," I said, "I have read the case." (It is narrated in the first
chapter of this book.)

"Well, Frank, she stood up in court and bore witness for him with
perfect serenity, with perfect trust and without a shadow of common
womanly jealousy. She could not believe that the man she loved could be
unworthy, and her conviction was so complete that it communicated itself
to the jury: her trust was so noble that they became infected by it, and
brought him in guiltless.[4] Extraordinary, was it not? She was quite
sure too of the verdict. It is only noble souls who have that assurance
and serenity....

[Illustration: "Speranza": Lady Wilde as a Young Woman]

"When my father was dying it was the same thing. I always see her
sitting there by his bedside with a sort of dark veil over her head:
quite silent, quite calm. Nothing ever troubled her optimism. She
believed that only good can happen to us. When death came to the man she
loved, she accepted it with the same serenity and when my sister died
she bore it in the same high way. My sister was a wonderful creature, so
gay and high-spirited, 'embodied sunshine,' I used to call her.

"When we lost her, my mother simply took it that it was best for the
child. Women have infinitely more courage than men, don't you think? I
have never known anyone with such perfect faith as my mother. She was
one of the great figures of the world. What she must have suffered over
my sentence I don't dare to think: I'm sure she endured agonies. She had
great hopes of me. When she was told that she was going to die, and that
she could not see me, for I was not allowed to go to her,[5] she said,
'May the prison help him,' and turned her face to the wall.

"She felt about the prison as you do, Frank, and really I think you are
both right; it has helped me. There are things I see now that I never
saw before. I see what pity means. I thought a work of art should be
beautiful and joyous. But now I see that that ideal is insufficient,
even shallow; a work of art must be founded on pity; a book or poem
which has no pity in it, had better not be written....

"I shall be very lonely when I come out, and I can't stand loneliness
and solitude; it is intolerable to me, hateful, I have had too much of

"You see, Frank, I am breaking with the past altogether. I am going to
write the history of it. I am going to tell how I was tempted and fell,
how I was pushed by the man I loved into that dreadful quarrel of his,
driven forward to the fight with his father and then left to suffer

"That is the story I am now going to tell. That is the book[6] of pity
and of love which I am writing now--a terrible book....

"I wonder would you publish it, Frank? I should like it to appear in
_The Saturday_."

"I'd be delighted to publish anything of yours," I replied, "and happier
still to publish something to show that you have at length chosen the
better part and are beginning a new life. I'd pay you, too, whatever the
work turns out to be worth to me; in any case much more than I pay
Bernard Shaw or anyone else." I said this to encourage him.

"I'm sure of that," he answered. "I'll send you the book as soon as I've
finished it. I think you'll like it"--and there for the moment the
matter ended.

At length I felt sure that all would be well with him. How could I help
feeling sure? His mind was richer and stronger than it had ever been;
and he had broken with all the dark past. I was overjoyed to believe
that he would yet do greater things than he had ever done, and this
belief and determination were in him too, as anyone can see on reading
what he wrote at this time in prison:

"There is before me so much to do that I would regard it as a terrible
tragedy if I died before I was allowed to complete at any rate a little
of it. I see new developments in art and life, each one of which is a
fresh mode of perfection. I long to live so that I can explore what is
no less than a new world to me. Do you want to know what this new world
is? I think you can guess what it is. It is the world in which I have
been living. Sorrow, then, and all that it teaches one, is my new

"I used to live entirely for pleasure. I shunned suffering and sorrow of
every kind. I hated both...."

Through the prison bars Oscar had begun to see how mistaken he had been,
how much greater, and more salutary to the soul, suffering is than

"Out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child
or a star there is pain."


[3] Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."

[4] I give Oscar's view of the trial just to show how his romantic
imagination turned disagreeable facts into pleasant fiction. Oscar could
only have heard of the trial, and perhaps his mother was his
informant--which adds to the interest of the story.

[5] Permission to visit a dying mother is accorded in France, even to
murderers. The English pretend to be more religious than the French; but
are assuredly less humane.

[6] "De Profundis." What Oscar called "the terrible part" of the
book--the indictment of Lord Alfred Douglas--has since been read out in
Court and will be found in the Appendix to this volume.


Shortly before he came out of prison, one of Oscar's intimates told me
he was destitute, and begged me to get him some clothes. I took the name
of his tailor and ordered two suits. The tailor refused to take the
order: he was not going to make clothes for Oscar Wilde. I could not
trust myself to talk to the man and therefore sent my assistant editor
and friend, Mr. Blanchamp, to have it out with him. The tradesman soul
yielded to the persuasiveness of cash in advance. I sent Oscar the
clothes and a cheque, and shortly after his release got a letter[7]
thanking me.

A little later I heard on good authority a story which Oscar afterwards
confirmed, that when he left Reading Gaol the correspondent of an
American paper offered him £1,000 for an interview dealing with his
prison life and experiences, but he felt it beneath his dignity to take
his sufferings to market. He thought it better to borrow than to earn.
He is partly to be excused, perhaps, when one remembers that he had
still some pounds left of the large sums given him before his
condemnation, by Miss S----, Ross, More Adey, and others. Still his
refusal of such a sum as that offered by the New York paper shows how
utterly contemptuous he was of money, even at a moment when one would
have thought money would have been his chief preoccupation. He always
lived in the day and rather heedlessly.

As soon as he left prison he crossed with some friends to France, and
went to stay at the Hotel de la Plage at Berneval, a quiet little
village near Dieppe. M. André Gide, who called on him there almost as
soon as he arrived, gives a fair mental picture of him at this time. He
tells how delighted he was to find in him the "Oscar Wilde of old," no
longer the sensualist puffed out with pride and good living, but "the
sweet Wilde" of the days before 1891. "I found myself taken back, not
two years," he says, "but four or five. There was the same dreamy look,
the same amused smile, the same voice."

He told M. Gide that prison had completely changed him, had taught him
the meaning of pity. "You know," he went on, "how fond I used to be of
'Madame Bovary,' but Flaubert would not admit pity into his work, and
that is why it has a petty and restrained character about it. It is the
sense of pity by means of which a work gains in expanse, and by which
it opens up a boundless horizon. Do you know, my dear fellow, it was
pity which prevented my killing myself? During the first six months in
prison I was dreadfully unhappy, so utterly miserable that I wanted to
kill myself; but what kept me from doing so was looking at the others,
and seeing that they were as unhappy as I was, and feeling sorry for
them. Oh dear! what a wonderful thing pity is, and I never knew it."

He was speaking in a low voice without any excitement.

"Have you ever learned how wonderful a thing pity is? For my part I
thank God every night, yes, on my knees I thank God for having taught it
to me. I went into prison with a heart of stone, thinking only of my own
pleasure; but now my heart is utterly broken--pity has entered into my
heart. I have learned now that pity is the greatest and the most
beautiful thing in the world. And that is why I cannot bear ill-will
towards those who caused my suffering and those who condemned me; no,
nor to anyone, because without them I should not have known all that.
Alfred Douglas writes me terrible letters. He says he does not
understand me, that he does not understand that I do not wish everyone
ill, and that everyone has been horrid to me. No, he does not understand
me. He cannot understand me any more. But I keep on telling him that in
every letter: we cannot follow the same road. He has his and it is
beautiful--I have mine. His is that of Alcibiades; mine is now that of
St. Francis of Assisi."

How much of this is sincere and how much merely imagined and stated in
order to incarnate the new ideal to perfection would be hard to say. The
truth is not so saintly simple as the christianised Oscar would have us
believe. The unpublished portions of "De Profundis" which were read out
in the Douglas-Ransome trial prove, what all his friends know, that
Oscar Wilde found it impossible to forgive or forget what seemed to him
personal ill-treatment. There are beautiful pages in "De Profundis,"
pages of sweetest Christlike resignation and charity and no doubt in a
certain mood Oscar was sincere in writing them. But there was another
mood in him, more vital and more enduring, if not so engaging, a mood in
which he saw himself as one betrayed and sacrificed and abandoned, and
then he attributed his ruin wholly to his friend and did not hesitate to
speak of him as the "Judas" whose shallow selfishness and imperious
ill-temper and unfulfilled promises of monetary help had driven a great
man to disaster.

That unpublished portion of "De Profundis" is in essence, from
beginning to end, one long curse of Lord Alfred Douglas, an indictment
apparently impartial, particularly at first; but in reality a bitter and
merciless accusation, showing in Oscar Wilde a curious want of sympathy
even with the man he said he loved. Those who would know Oscar Wilde as
he really was will read that piece of rhetoric with care enough to
notice that he reiterates the charge of shallow selfishness with such
venom, that he discovers his own colossal egotism and essential hardness
of heart. "Love," we are told, "suffereth long and is kind ... beareth
all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all
things"--that sweet, generous, all-forgiving tenderness of love was not
in the pagan, Oscar Wilde, and therefore even his deepest passion never
won to complete reconciliation and ultimate redemption.

In this same talk with M. Gide, Oscar is reported to have said that he
had known beforehand that a catastrophe was unavoidable; "there was but
one end possible.... That state of things could not last; there had to
be some end to it."

This view I believe is Gide's and not Oscar's. In any case I am sure
that my description of him before the trials as full of insolent
self-assurance is the truer truth. Of course he must have had
forebodings; he was warned as I've related, again and again; but he
took character-colour from his associates and he met Queensberry's first
attempts at attack with utter disdain. He did not realise his danger at
all. Gide reports him more correctly as adding:

"Prison has completely changed me. I was relying on it for that--Douglas
is terrible. He cannot understand that--cannot understand that I am not
taking up the same existence again. He accuses the others of having
changed me."

I may publish here part of a letter of a prison warder which Mr. Stuart
Mason reproduced in his excellent little book on Oscar Wilde. He says:

"No more beautiful life had any man lived, no more beautiful life could
any man live than Oscar Wilde lived during the short period I knew him
in prison. He wore upon his face an eternal smile; sunshine was on his
face, sunshine of some sort must have been in his heart. People say he
was not sincere: he was the very soul of sincerity when I knew him. If
he did not continue that life after he left prison, then the forces of
evil must have been too strong for him. But he tried, he honestly tried,
and in prison he succeeded."

All this seems to me in the main, true. Oscar's gay vivacity would have
astonished any stranger. Besides, the regular hours and scant plain food
of prison had improved his health and the solitude and suffering had
lent him a deeper emotional life. But there was an intense bitterness in
him, a profound underlying sense of injury which came continually to
passionate expression. Yet as soon as the miserable petty persecution of
the prison was lifted from him, all the joyous gaiety and fun of his
nature bubbled up irresistibly. There was no contradiction in this
complexity. A man can hold in himself a hundred conflicting passions and
impulses without confusion. At this time the dominant chord in Oscar was
pity for others.

To my delight the world had evidence of this changed Oscar Wilde in a
very short time. On May 28th, a few days after he left prison, there
appeared in _The Daily Chronicle_ a letter more than two columns in
length, pleading for the kindlier treatment of little children in
English prisons. The letter was written because Warder Martin[8] of
Reading prison had been dismissed by the Commissioners for the dreadful
crime of "having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child."...

I must quote a few paragraphs of this letter; because it shows how
prison had deepened Oscar Wilde, how his own suffering had made him, as
Shakespeare says, "pregnant to good pity," and also because it tells us
what life was like in an English prison in our time. Oscar wrote:

"I saw the three children myself on the Monday preceding my release.
They had just been convicted, and were standing in a row in the central
hall in their prison dress carrying their sheets under their arms,
previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them.... They were
quite small children, the youngest--the one to whom the warder gave the
biscuits--being a tiny chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to
find clothes small enough to fit. I had, of course, seen many children
in prison during the two years during which I was myself confined.
Wandsworth prison, especially, contained always a large number of
children. But the little child I saw on the afternoon of Monday, the
17th, at Reading, was tinier than any one of them. I need not say how
utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew
the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day
and night on children in English prisons is incredible except to those
that have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.

"People nowadays do not understand what cruelty is.... Ordinary cruelty
is simply stupidity.

"The prison treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not
understanding the peculiar psychology of the child's nature. A child can
understand a punishment inflicted by an individual, such as a parent, or
guardian, and bear it with a certain amount of acquiescence. What it
cannot understand is a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot
realise what society is....

"The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless. I remember once in
Reading, as I was going out to exercise, seeing in the dimly lit cell
opposite mine a small boy. Two warders--not unkindly men--were talking
to him, with some sternness apparently, or perhaps giving him some
useful advice about his conduct. One was in the cell with him, the other
was standing outside. The child's face was like a white wedge of sheer
terror. There was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal. The next
morning I heard him at breakfast time crying, and calling to be let out.
His cry was for his parents. From time to time I could hear the deep
voice of the warder on duty telling him to keep quiet. Yet he was not
even convicted of whatever little offence he had been charged with. He
was simply on remand. That I knew by his wearing his own clothes, which
seemed neat enough. He was, however, wearing prison socks and shoes.
This showed that he was a very poor boy, whose own shoes, if he had any,
were in a bad state. Justices and magistrates, an entirely ignorant
class as a rule, often remand children for a week, and then perhaps
remit whatever sentence they are entitled to pass. They call this 'not
sending a child to prison.' It is of course a stupid view on their part.
To a little child, whether he is in prison on remand or after conviction
is not a subtlety of position he can comprehend. To him the horrible
thing is to be there at all. In the eyes of humanity it should be a
horrible thing for him to be there at all.

"This terror that seizes and dominates the child, as it seizes the grown
man also, is of course intensified beyond power of expression by the
solitary cellular system of our prisons. Every child is confined to its
cell for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four. This is the
appalling thing. To shut up a child in a dimly lit cell for twenty-three
hours out of the twenty-four is an example of the cruelty of stupidity.
If an individual, parent or guardian, did this to a child, he would be
severely punished....

"The second thing from which a child suffers in prison is hunger. The
food that is given to it consists of a piece of usually badly baked
prison bread and a tin of water for breakfast at half past seven. At
twelve o'clock it gets dinner, composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal
stirabout, and at half past five it gets a piece of dry bread and a tin
of water for its supper. This diet in the case of a strong man is always
productive of illness of some kind, chiefly, of course, diarrhoea,
with its attendant weakness. In fact, in a big prison, astringent
medicines are served out regularly by the warders as a matter of course.
A child is as a rule incapable of eating the food at all. Anyone who
knows anything about children knows how easily a child's digestion is
upset by a fit of crying, or trouble and mental distress of any kind. A
child who has been crying all day long and perhaps half the night, in a
lonely, dimly lit cell, and is preyed upon by terror, simply cannot eat
food of this coarse, horrible kind. In the case of the little child to
whom Warder Martin gave the biscuits, the child was crying with hunger
on Tuesday morning, and utterly unable to eat the bread and water served
to it for breakfast.

"Martin went out after the breakfast had been served, and bought the few
sweet biscuits for the child rather than see it starving. It was a
beautiful action on his part, and was so recognised by the child, who,
utterly unconscious of the regulation of the Prison Board, told one of
the senior warders how kind this junior warder had been to him. The
result was, of course, a report and a dismissal.[9]

"I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last
seven weeks of my imprisonment.... I was struck by the singular kindness
and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other
prisoners. Kind words are much in prison, and a pleasant 'good-morning'
or 'good-evening' will make one as happy as one can be in prison. He was
always gentle and considerate....

"A great deal has been talked and written lately about the contaminating
influence of prison on young children. What is said is quite true. A
child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But this contaminating
influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison
system--of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the solitary cell,
the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison
Commissioners, the mode of discipline, as it is termed, of the life.

"Of course no child under fourteen years of age should be sent to prison
at all. It is an absurdity, and, like many absurdities, of absolutely
tragical results...."

This letter, I am informed, brought about some improvement in the
treatment of young children in British prisons. But in regard to adults
the British prison is still the torture chamber it was in Wilde's time;
prisoners are still treated more brutally there than anywhere else in
the civilised world; the food is the worst in Europe, insufficient
indeed to maintain health; in many cases men are only saved from death
by starvation through being sent to the infirmary. Though these facts
are well known, _Punch_, the pet organ of the British middle-class, was
not ashamed a little while ago to make a mock of some suggested reform,
by publishing a picture of a British convict, with the villainous face
of a Bill Sykes, lying on a sofa in his cell smoking a cigar with
champagne at hand. This is not altogether due to stupidity, as Oscar
tried to believe, but to reasoned selfishness. _Punch_ and the class for
which it caters would like to believe that many convicts are unfit to
live, whereas the truth is that a good many of them are superior in
humanity to the people who punish and slander them.

While waiting for his wife to join him, Oscar rented a little house, the
Châlet Bourgeat, about two hundred yards away from the hotel at
Berneval, and furnished it. Here he spent the whole of the summer
writing, bathing, and talking to the few devoted friends who visited
him from time to time. Never had he been so happy: never in such perfect
health. He was full of literary projects; indeed, no period of his whole
life was so fruitful in good work. He was going to write some Biblical
plays; one entitled "Pharaoh" first, and then one called "Ahab and
Jezebel," which he pronounced Isabelle. Deeper problems, too, were much
in his mind: he was already at work on "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," but
before coming to that let me first show how happy the song-bird was and
how divinely he sang when the dreadful cage was opened and he was
allowed to use his wings in the heavenly sunshine.

Here is a letter from him shortly after his release which is one of the
most delightful things he ever wrote. Fitly enough it was addressed to
his friend of friends, Robert Ross, and I can only say that I am
extremely obliged to Ross for allowing me to publish it:

Hotel de la Plage. Berneval, near Dieppe,
Monday night, May 31st (1897).

My dearest Robbie,

I have decided that the only way in which to get boots properly is to go
to France to receive them. The Douane charged 3 francs. How could you
frighten me as you did? The next time you order boots please come to
Dieppe to get them sent to you. It is the only way and it will be an
excuse for seeing you.

I am going to-morrow on a pilgrimage. I always wanted to be a pilgrim,
and I have decided to start early to-morrow to the shrine of Notre Dame
de Liesse. Do you know what Liesse is? It is an old word for joy. I
suppose the same as Letizia, Lætitia. I just heard to-night of the
shrine or chapel, by chance, as you would say, from the sweet woman of
the auberge, who wants me to live always at Berneval. She says Notre
Dame de Liesse is wonderful, and helps everyone to the secret of joy--I
do not know how long it will take me to get to the shrine, as I must
walk. But, from what she tells me, it will take at least six or seven
minutes to get there, and as many to come back. In fact the chapel of
Notre Dame de Liesse is just fifty yards from the Hotel. Isn't it
extraordinary? I intend to start after I have had my coffee, and then to
bathe. Need I say that this is a miracle? I wanted to go on a
pilgrimage, and I find the little grey stone chapel of Our Lady of Joy
is brought to me. It has probably been waiting for me all these purple
years of pleasure, and now it comes to meet me with Liesse as its
message. I simply don't know what to say. I wish you were not so hard to
poor heretics,[10] and would admit that even for the sheep who has no
shepherd there is a Stella Maris to guide it home. But you and More,
especially More, treat me as a Dissenter. It is very painful and quite

Yesterday I attended Mass at 10 o'clock and afterwards bathed. So I went
into the water without being a pagan. The consequence was that I was not
tempted by either sirens or mermaidens, or any of the green-haired
following of Glaucus. I really think that this is a remarkable thing. In
my Pagan days the sea was always full of Tritons blowing conchs, and
other unpleasant things. Now it is quite different. And yet you treat me
as the President of Mansfield College; and after I had canonised you

Dear boy, I wish you would tell me if your religion makes you happy. You
conceal your religion from me in a monstrous way. You treat it like
writing in the _Saturday Review_ for Pollock, or dining in Wardour
Street off the fascinating dish that is served with tomatoes and makes
men mad.[11] I know it is useless asking you, so don't tell me.

I felt an outcast in Chapel yesterday--not really, but a little in
exile. I met a dear farmer in a corn field and he gave me a seat on his
banc in church: so I was quite comfortable. He now visits me twice a
day, and as he has no children, and is rich, I have made him promise to
adopt _three_--two boys and a girl. I told him that if he wanted them,
he would find them. He said he was afraid that they would turn out
badly. I told him everyone did that. He really has promised to adopt
three orphans. He is now filled with enthusiasm at the idea. He is to go
to the _Curé_ and talk to him. He told me that his own father had fallen
down in a fit one day as they were talking together, and that he had
caught him in his arms, and put him to bed, where he died, and that he
himself had often thought how dreadful it was that if he had a fit there
was no one to catch him in his arms. It is quite clear that he must
adopt orphans, is it not?

I feel that Berneval is to be my home. I really do. Notre Dame de Liesse
will be sweet to me, if I go on my knees to her, and she will advise me.
It is extraordinary being brought here by a white horse that was a
native of the place, and knew the road, and wanted to see its parents,
now of advanced years. It is also extraordinary that I knew Berneval
existed and was arranged for me.

M. Bonnet[12] wants to build me a Châlet, 1,000 metres of ground (I
don't know how much that is--but I suppose about 100 miles) and a Châlet
with a studio, a balcony, a salle-à-manger, a huge kitchen, and three
bedrooms--a view of the sea, and trees--all for 12,000 francs--£480. If
I can write a play I am going to have it begun. Fancy one's own lovely
house and grounds in France for £480. No rent of any kind. Pray consider
this, and approve, if you think well. Of course, not till I have done my

An old gentleman lives here in the hotel. He dines alone in his room,
and then sits in the sun. He came here for two days and has stayed two
years. His sole sorrow is that there is no theatre. Monsieur Bonnet is a
little heartless about this, and says that as the old gentleman goes to
bed at 8 o'clock a theatre would be of no use to him. The old gentleman
says he only goes to bed at 8 o'clock because there is no theatre. They
argued the point yesterday for an hour. I sided with the old gentleman,
but Logic sides with Monsieur Bonnet, I believe.

I had a sweet letter from the Sphinx.[13] She gives me a delightful
account of Ernest[14] subscribing to Romeike while his divorce suit was
running, and not being pleased with some of the notices. Considering the
growing appreciation of Ibsen I must say that I am surprised the notices
were not better, but nowadays everybody is jealous of everyone else,
except, of course, husband and wife. I think I shall keep this last
remark of mine for my play.

Have you got my silver spoon[15] from Reggie? You got my silver brushes
out of Humphreys,[16] who is bald, so you might easily get my spoon out
of Reggie, who has so many, or used to have. You know my crest is on it.
It is a bit of Irish silver, and I don't want to lose it. There is an
excellent substitute called Britannia metal, very much liked at the
Adelphi and elsewhere. Wilson Barrett writes, "I prefer it to silver."
It would suit dear Reggie admirably. Walter Besant writes, "I use none
other." Mr. Beerbohm Tree also writes, "Since I have tried it I am a
different actor; my friends hardly recognise me." So there is obviously
a demand for it.

I am going to write a Political Economy in my heavier moments. The first
law I lay down is, "Whenever there exists a demand, there is _no_
supply." This is the only law that explains the extraordinary contrast
between the soul of man and man's surroundings. Civilisations continue
because people hate them. A modern city is the exact opposite of what
everyone wants. Nineteenth-century dress is the result of our horror of
the style. The tall hat will last as long as people dislike it.

Dear Robbie, I wish you would be a little more considerate, and not keep
me up so late talking to you. It is very flattering to me and all that,
but you should remember that I need rest. Good-night. You will find some
cigarettes and some flowers by your bedside. Coffee is served below at 8
o'clock. Do you mind? If it is too early for you I don't at all mind
lying in bed an extra hour. I hope you will sleep well. You should as
Lloyd is not on the Verandah.[17]


The sea and sky are opal--no horrid drawing master's line between
them--just one fishing boat, going slowly, and drawing the wind after
it. I am going to bathe.


Bathed and have seen a Châlet here which I wish to take for the
season--quite charming--a splendid view: a large writing room, a dining
room, and three lovely bedrooms--besides servants' rooms and also a huge

[In this blank space he had     I don't know the scale
roughly drawn a ground plan     of the drawing, but the
of the imagined Châlet.]        rooms are larger than
                                the plan is.

1. Salle-à-manger.              All on ground floor
2. Salon.                       with steps from balcony
3. Balcony.                     to ground.

The rent for the season or year is, what do you think?--£32.

Of course I must have it: I will take my meals here--separate and
reserved table: it is within two minutes walk. Do tell me to take it.
When you come again your room will be waiting for you. All I need is a
domestique. The people here are most kind.

I made my pilgrimage--the interior of the Chapel is of course a modern
horror--but there is a black image of Notre Dame de Liesse--the chapel
is as tiny as an undergraduate's room at Oxford. I hope to get the Curé
to celebrate Mass in it soon; as a rule the service is only held there
in July and August; but I want to see a Mass quite close.

There is also another thing I must write to you about.

I adore this place. The whole country is lovely, and full of forest and
deep meadow. It is simple and healthy. If I live in Paris I may be
doomed to things I don't desire. I am afraid of big towns. Here I get up
at 7.30. I am happy all day. I go to bed at 10. I am frightened of
Paris. I want to live here.

I have seen the "terrain." It is the best here, and the only one left. I
must build a house. If I could build a châlet for 12,000
francs--£500--and live in a home of my own, how happy I would be. I must
raise the money somehow. It would give me a home, quiet, retired,
healthy, and near England. If I live in Egypt I know what my life would
be. If I live in the south of Italy I know I should be idle and worse. I
want to live here. Do think over this and send me over the
architect.[18] M. Bonnet is excellent and is ready to carry out any
idea. I want a little châlet of wood and plaster walls, the wooden beams
showing and the white square of plaster diapering the framework--like, I
regret to say--Shakespeare's house--like old English sixteenth-century
farmers' houses. So your architect has me waiting for him, as he is
waiting for me.

Do you think the idea absurd?

I got the _Chronicle_, many thanks. I see the writer on
Prince--A.2.11.--does not mention my name--foolish of her--it is a

I, as you, the poem of my days, are away, am forced to write. I have
begun something that I think will be very good.

I breakfast to-morrow with the Stannards: what a great passionate,
splendid writer John Strange Winter is! How little people understand her
work! _Bootle's Baby_ is an "oeuvre symboliste"--it is really only the
style and the subject that are wrong. Pray never speak lightly of
_Bootle's Baby_--Indeed pray never speak of it at all--I never do.



Please send a _Chronicle_ to my wife.

     Maison Benguerel,
     Pres de Neuchatel,

just marking it--and if my second letter appears, mark that.

Also cut out the letter[19] and enclose it in an envelope to:

     Poste Restante, G.P.O., Reading,

with just these lines:

    Dear friend,

    The enclosed will interest you. There is also another letter
    waiting in the post office for you from me with a little money.
    Ask for it if you have not got it.

    Yours sincerely,


I have no one but you, dear Robbie, to do anything. Of course the letter
to Reading must go at once, as my friends come out on Wednesday morning

This letter displays almost every quality of Oscar Wilde's genius in
perfect efflorescence--his gaiety, joyous merriment and exquisite
sensibility. Who can read of the little Chapel to Notre Dame de Liesse
without emotion quickly to be changed to mirth by the sunny humour of
those delicious specimens of self-advertisement: "Mr. Beerbohm Tree also
writes: 'Since I have tried it, I am a different actor, my friends
hardly recognise me.'"

This letter is the most characteristic thing Oscar Wilde ever wrote, a
thing produced in perfect health at the topmost height of happy hours,
more characteristic even than "The Importance of Being Earnest," for it
has not only the humour of that delightful farce-comedy, but also more
than a hint of the deeper feeling which was even then forming itself
into a master-work that will form part of the inheritance of men

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" belongs to this summer of 1897. A fortunate
conjuncture of circumstances--the prison discipline excluding all
sense-indulgence, the kindness shown him towards the end of his
imprisonment and of course the delight of freedom--gave him perfect
physical health and hope and joy in work, and so Oscar was enabled for a
few brief months to do better than his best. He assured me and I believe
that the conception of "The Ballad" came to him in prison and was due to
the alleviation of his punishment and the permission accorded to him to
write and read freely--a divine fruit born directly of his pity for
others and the pity others felt for him.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol"[20] was published in January, 1898, over
the signature of C.3.3., Oscar's number in prison. In a few weeks it ran
through dozens of editions in England and America and translations
appeared in almost every European language, which is proof not so much
of the excellence of the poem as the great place the author held in the
curiosity of men. The enthusiasm with which it was accepted in England
was astounding. One reviewer compared it with the best of Sophocles;
another said that "nothing like it has appeared in our time." No word of
criticism was heard: the most cautious called it a "simple poignant
ballad, ... one of the greatest in the English language." This praise is
assuredly not too generous. Yet even this was due to a revulsion of
feeling in regard to Oscar himself rather than to any understanding of
the greatness of his work. The best public felt that he had been
dreadfully over-punished, and made a scapegoat for worse offenders and
was glad to have the opportunity of repairing its own fault by
over-emphasising Oscar's repentance and over-praising, as it imagined,
the first fruits of the converted sinner.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is far and away the best poem Oscar Wilde
ever wrote; we should try to appreciate it as the future will appreciate
it. We need not be afraid to trace it to its source and note what is
borrowed in it and what is original. After all necessary qualifications
are made, it will stand as a great and splendid achievement.

Shortly before "The Ballad" was written, a little book of poetry called
"A Shropshire Lad" was published by A.E. Housman, now I believe
professor of Latin at Cambridge. There are only a hundred odd pages in
the booklet; but it is full of high poetry--sincere and passionate
feeling set to varied music. His friend, Reginald Turner, sent Oscar a
copy of the book and one poem in particular made a deep impression on
him. It is said that "his actual model for 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'
was 'The Dream of Eugene Aram' with 'The Ancient Mariner' thrown in on
technical grounds"; but I believe that Wilde owed most of his
inspiration to "A Shropshire Lad."

Here are some verses from Housman's poem and some verses from "The

    On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
      The sheep beside me graze;
    And yon the gallows used to clank
      Fast by the four cross ways.

    A careless shepherd once would keep
      The flocks by moonlight there,[21]
    And high amongst the glimmering sheep
      The dead men stood on air.

    They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
      The whistles blow forlorn,
    And trains all night groan on the rail
      To men that die at morn.

    There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
      Or wakes, as may betide,
    A better lad, if things went right,
      Than most that sleep outside.

    And naked to the hangman's noose
      The morning clocks will ring
    A neck God made for other use
      Than strangling in a string.

    And sharp the link of life will snap,
      And dead on air will stand
    Heels that held up as straight a chap
      As treads upon the land.

    So here I'll watch the night and wait
      To see the morning shine
    When he will hear the stroke of eight
      And not the stroke of nine;

    And wish my friend as sound a sleep
      As lads I did not know,
    That shepherded the moonlit sheep
      A hundred years ago.


    It is sweet to dance to violins
      When Love and Life are fair:
    To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes,
      Is delicate and rare:
    But it is not sweet with nimble feet
      To dance upon the air!

    And as one sees most fearful things
      In the crystal of a dream,
    We saw the greasy hempen rope
      Hooked to the blackened beam
    And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
      Strangled into a scream.

    And all the woe that moved him so
      That he gave that bitter cry,
    And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
      None knew so well as I:
    For he who lives more lives than one
      More deaths than one must die.

There are better things in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" than those
inspired by Housman. In the last of the three verses I quote there is a
distinction of thought which Housman hardly reached.

    "For he who lives more lives than one
      More deaths than one must die."

There are verses, too, wrung from the heart which have a diviner
influence than any product of the intellect:

    The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
      By his dishonoured grave:
    Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
      That Christ for sinners gave,
    Because the man was one of those
      Whom Christ came down to save.

           *       *       *       *       *

    This too I know--and wise were it
      If each could know the same--
    That every prison that men build
      Is built with bricks of shame,
    And bound with bars lest Christ should see
      How men their brothers maim.

    With bars they blur the gracious moon,
      And blind the goodly sun:
    And they do well to hide their Hell,
      For in it things are done
    That Son of God nor son of man
      Ever should look upon!

    The vilest deeds like poison weeds
      Bloom well in prison-air:
    It is only what is good in Man
      That wastes and withers there:
    Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
      And the Warder is Despair.

           *       *       *       *       *

    And he of the swollen purple throat,
      And the stark and staring eyes,
    Waits for the holy hands that took
      The Thief to Paradise;
    And a broken and a contrite heart
      The Lord will not despise.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is beyond all comparison the greatest
ballad in English: one of the noblest poems in the language. This is
what prison did for Oscar Wilde.

When speaking to him later about this poem I remember assuming that his
prison experiences must have helped him to realise the suffering of the
condemned soldier and certainly lent passion to his verse. But he would
not hear of it.

"Oh, no, Frank," he cried, "never; my experiences in prison were too
horrible, too painful to be used. I simply blotted them out altogether
and refused to recall them."

"What about the verse?" I asked:

    "We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
      We turned the dusty drill:
    We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
      And sweated on the mill:
    And in the heart of every man
      Terror was lying still."

"Characteristic details, Frank, merely the _décor_ of prison life, not
its reality; that no one could paint, not even Dante, who had to turn
away his eyes from lesser suffering."

It may be worth while to notice here, as an example of the hatred with
which Oscar Wilde's name and work were regarded, that even after he had
paid the penalty for his crime the publisher and editor, alike in
England and America, put anything but a high price on his best work.
They would have bought a play readily enough because they would have
known that it would make them money, but a ballad from his pen nobody
seemed to want. The highest price offered in America for "The Ballad of
Reading Gaol" was one hundred dollars. Oscar found difficulty in getting
even £20 for the English rights from the friend who published it; yet it
has sold since by hundreds of thousands and is certain always to sell.

I must insert here part of another letter from Oscar Wilde which
appeared in _The Daily Chronicle_, 24th March, 1898, on the cruelties of
the English prison system; it was headed, "Don't read this if you want
to be happy to-day," and was signed by "The Author of 'The Ballad of
Reading Gaol.'" It was manifestly a direct outcome of his prison
experiences. The letter was simple and affecting; but it had little or
no influence on the English conscience. The Home Secretary was about to
reform (!) the prison system by appointing more inspectors. Oscar Wilde
pointed out that inspectors could do nothing but see that the
regulations were carried out. He took up the position that it was the
regulations which needed reform. His plea was irrefutable in its
moderation and simplicity: but it was beyond the comprehension of an
English Home Secretary apparently, for all the abuses pointed out by
Oscar Wilde still flourish. I can't help giving some extracts from this
memorable indictment: memorable for its reserve and sanity and complete
absence of any bitterness:

"... The prisoner who has been allowed the smallest privilege dreads the
arrival of the inspectors. And on the day of any prison inspection the
prison officials are more than usually brutal to the prisoners. Their
object is, of course, to show the splendid discipline they maintain.

"The necessary reforms are very simple. They concern the needs of the
body and the needs of the mind of each unfortunate prisoner.

"With regard to the first, there are three permanent punishments
authorised by law in English prisons:

"1. Hunger.

"2. Insomnia.

"3. Disease.

"The food supplied to prisoners is entirely inadequate. Most of it is
revolting in character. All of it is insufficient. Every prisoner
suffers day and night from hunger....

"The result of the food--which in most cases consists of weak gruel,
badly baked bread, suet and water--is disease in the form of incessant
diarrhoea. This malady, which ultimately with most prisoners becomes a
permanent disease, is a recognised institution in every prison. At
Wandsworth Prison, for instance--where I was confined for two months,
till I had to be carried into hospital, where I remained for another
two months--the warders go round twice or three times a day with
astringent medicine, which they serve out to the prisoners as a matter
of course. After about a week of such treatment it is unnecessary to say
that the medicine produces no effect at all.

"The wretched prisoner is thus left a prey to the most weakening,
depressing and humiliating malady that can be conceived, and if, as
often happens, he fails from physical weakness to complete his required
evolutions at the crank, or the mill, he is reported for idleness and
punished with the greatest severity and brutality. Nor is this all.

"Nothing can be worse than the sanitary arrangements of English
prisons.... The foul air of the prison cells, increased by a system of
ventilation that is utterly ineffective, is so sickening and unwholesome
that it is not uncommon for warders, when they come into the room out of
the fresh air, and open and inspect each cell, to be violently sick....

"With regard to the punishment of insomnia, it only exists in Chinese
and English prisons. In China it is inflicted by placing the prisoner in
a small bamboo cage; in England by means of the plank bed. The object of
the plank bed is to produce insomnia. There is no other object in it,
and it invariably succeeds. And even when one is subsequently allowed a
hard mattress, as happens in the course of imprisonment, one still
suffers from insomnia. It is a revolting and ignorant punishment.

"With regard to the needs of the mind, I beg that you will allow me to
say something.

"The present prison system seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking
and the destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity
is, if not its object, certainly its result. That is a well-ascertained
fact. Its causes are obvious. Deprived of books, of all human
intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence,
condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the
external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below
the level of any of the brute-creation, the wretched man who is confined
in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane."

This letter ended by saying that if all the reforms suggested were
carried out much would still remain to be done. It would still be
advisable to "humanise the governors of prisons, to civilise the
warders, and to Christianise the Chaplains."

This letter was the last effort of the new Oscar, the Oscar who had
manfully tried to put the prison under his feet and to learn the
significance of sorrow and the lesson of love which Christ brought into
the world.

In the beautiful pages about Jesus which form the greater part of _De
Profundis_, also written in those last hopeful months in Reading Gaol,
Oscar shows, I think, that he might have done much higher work than
Tolstoi or Renan had he set himself resolutely to transmute his new
insight into some form of art. Now and then he divined the very secret
of Jesus:

"When he says 'Forgive your enemies' it is not for the sake of the
enemy, but for one's own sake that he says so, and because love is more
beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, 'Sell all
that thou hast and give to the poor,' it is not of the state of the poor
that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that
wealth was marring."

In many of these pages Oscar Wilde really came close to the divine
Master; "the image of the Man of Sorrows," he says, "has fascinated and
dominated art as no Greek god succeeded in doing."... And again:

"Out of the carpenter's shop at Nazareth had come a personality
infinitely greater than any made by myth and legend, and one, strangely
enough, destined to reveal to the world the mystical meaning of wine and
the real beauties of the lilies of the field as none, either on
Cithæron or Enna, has ever done. The song of Isaiah, 'He is despised
and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we
hid as it were our faces from him,' had seemed to him to prefigure
himself, and in him the prophecy was fulfilled."

In this spirit Oscar made up his mind that he would write about "Christ
as the precursor of the romantic movement in life" and about "The
artistic life considered in its relation to conduct."

By bitter suffering he had been brought to see that the moment of
repentance is the moment of absolution and self-realisation, that tears
can wash out even blood. In "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" he wrote:

    And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
      The hand that held the steel:
    For only blood can wipe out blood,
      And only tears can heal:
    And the crimson stain that was of Cain
      Became Christ's snow-white seal.

This is the highest height Oscar Wilde ever reached, and alas! he only
trod the summit for a moment. But as he says himself: "One has perhaps
to go to prison to understand that. And, if so, it may be worth while
going to prison." He was by nature a pagan who for a few months became a
Christian, but to live as a lover of Jesus was impossible to this
"Greek born out of due time," and he never even dreamed of a reconciling

The arrest of his development makes him a better representative of his
time: he was an artistic expression of the best English mind: a Pagan
and Epicurean, his rule of conduct was a selfish Individualism:--"Am I
my brother's keeper?" This attitude must entail a dreadful Nemesis, for
it condemns one Briton in every four to a pauper's grave. The result
will convince the most hardened that such selfishness is not a creed by
which human beings can live in society.

       *       *       *       *       *

This summer of 1897 was the harvest time in Oscar Wilde's Life; and his
golden Indian summer. We owe it "De Profundis," the best pages of prose
he ever wrote, and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," his only original poem;
yet one that will live as long as the language: we owe it also that
sweet and charming letter to Bobbie Ross which shows him in his habit as
he lived. I must still say a word or two about him in this summer in
order to show the ordinary working of his mind.

On his release, and, indeed, for a year or two later, he called himself
Sebastian Melmoth. But one had hardly spoken a half a dozen words to
him, when he used to beg to be called Oscar Wilde. I remember how he
pulled up someone who had just been introduced to him, who persisted in
addressing him as Mr. Melmoth.

"Call me Oscar Wilde," he pleaded, "Mr. Melmoth is unknown, you see."

"I thought you preferred it," said the stranger excusing himself.

"Oh, dear, no," interrupted Oscar smiling, "I only use the name Melmoth
to spare the blushes of the postman, to preserve his modesty," and he
laughed in the old delightful way.

It was always significant to me the eager delight with which he shuffled
off the new name and took up the old one which he had made famous.

An anecdote from his life in the Châlet at this time showed that the old
witty pagan in Oscar was not yet extinct.

An English lady who had written a great many novels and happened to be
staying in Dieppe heard of him, and out of kindness or curiosity, or
perhaps a mixture of both motives, wrote and invited him to luncheon. He
accepted the invitation. The good lady did not know how to talk to Mr.
Sebastian Melmoth, and time went heavily. At length she began to
expatiate on the cheapness of things in France; did Mr. Melmoth know how
wonderfully cheap and good the living was?

"Only fancy," she went on, "you would not believe what that claret you
are drinking costs."

"Really?" questioned Oscar, with a polite smile.

"Of course I get it wholesale," she explained, "but it only costs me
sixpence a quart."

"Oh, my dear lady, I'm afraid you have been cheated," he exclaimed,
"ladies should never buy wine. I'm afraid you have been sadly

The humour may excuse the discourtesy, but Oscar was so uniformly polite
to everyone that the incident simply shows how ineffably he had been

This summer of 1897 was the decisive period and final turning-point in
Oscar Wilde's career. So long as the sunny weather lasted and friends
came to visit him from time to time Oscar was content to live in the
Châlet Bourgeat; but when the days began to draw in and the weather
became unsettled, the dreariness of a life passed in solitude, indoors,
and without a library became insupportable. He was being drawn in two
opposite directions. I did not know it at the time; indeed he only told
me about it months later when the matter had been decided irrevocably;
but this was the moment when his soul was at stake between good and
evil. The question was whether his wife would come to him again or
whether he would yield to the solicitations of Lord Alfred Douglas and
go to live with him.

Mr. Sherard has told in his book how he brought about the first
reconciliation between Oscar and his wife; and how immediately
afterwards he received a letter from Lord Alfred Douglas threatening to
shoot him like a dog, if, by any words of his, Wilde's friendship was
lost to him, Douglas.

Unluckily Mrs. Wilde's family were against her going back to her
husband; they begged her not to go; talked to her of her duty to her
children and herself, and the poor woman hesitated. Finally her advisers
decided for her, and Mrs. Wilde wrote this decision to Oscar's
solicitors shortly before his release: Oscar's probation was to last at
least a year. I do not know enough about Mrs. Wilde and her relations
with her family and with her husband even to discuss her inaction: I
dare not criticise her: but she did not go to her husband when if she
had gone boldly she might have saved him. She knew Lord Alfred Douglas'
influence over him; knew that it had already brought him to grief. Gide
says, and Oscar himself told me afterwards, that he had come out of
prison determined not to go back to Alfred Douglas and the old life. It
seems a pity that his wife did not act promptly; she allowed herself to
believe that a time of probation was necessary. The delay wounded
Oscar, and all the while, as he told me a little later, he was resisting
an influence which had dominated his life in the past.

"I got a letter almost every day, Frank, begging me to come to
Posilippo, to the villa which Lord Alfred Douglas had rented. Every day
I heard his voice calling, 'Come, come, to sunshine and to me. Come to
Naples with its wonderful museum of bronzes and Pompeii and Pæstum, the
city of Poseidon: I am waiting to welcome you. Come.'

"Who could resist it, Frank? love calling, calling with outstretched
arms; who could stay in bleak Berneval and watch the sheets of rain
falling, falling--and the grey mist shrouding the grey sea, and think of
Naples and love and sunshine; who could resist it all? I could not,
Frank, I was so lonely and I hated solitude. I resisted as long as I
could, but when chill October came and Bosie came to Rouen for me, I
gave up the struggle and yielded."

Could Oscar Wilde have won and made for himself a new and greater life?
The majority of men are content to think that such a victory was
impossible to him. Everyone knows that he lost; but I at least believe
that he might have won. His wife was on the point of yielding, I have
since been told; on the point of complete reconciliation when she heard
that he had gone to Naples and returned to his old habit of living; a
few days made all the difference.

It was at the instigation of Lord Alfred Douglas that Oscar began the
insane action against Lord Queensberry, in which he put to hazard his
success, his position, his good name and liberty, and lost them all. Two
years later at the same tempting, he committed soul-suicide.

He was not only better in health than he had ever been; but he was
talking and writing better than ever before and full of literary
projects which would certainly have given him money and position and a
measure of happiness besides increasing his reputation. From the moment
he went to Naples he was lost, and he knew it himself; he never
afterwards wrote anything: as he used to say, he could never afterwards
face his own soul.

He could never have won up again, the world says, and shrugs careless
shoulders. It is a cheap, unworthy conclusion. Some of us still persist
in believing that Oscar Wilde might easily have won and never again been
caught in that dreadful wind which whips the victims of sensual desire
about unceasingly, driving them hither and thither without rest in that
awful place where: "Nulla speranza gli conforta mai." (No hope ever


[7] Reproduced in the Appendix.

[8] Fac-simile copies of some of the notes Oscar wrote to Warder Martin
about these children are reproduced in the Appendix. The notes were
written on scraps of paper and pushed under his cell-door; they are
among the most convincing evidences of Oscar's essential humanity and
kindness of heart.

[9] The Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley, when questioned by Mr.
Michael Davitt in the House of Commons, May 25, 1897, declared that this
dismissal of a warder for feeding a little hungry child at his own
expense was "fully justified" and a "proper step." This same Home
Secretary appointed his utterly incompetent brother to be a judge of the
High Court.

[10] The correspondent to whom Wilde writes and the other friend
referred to are Roman Catholics.

[11] This refers to a story which Wilde was much interested in at the

[12] The proprietor of the hotel.

[13] The Sphinx is a nickname for Mrs. Leverson, author of "The Eleventh
Hour," and other witty novels.

[14] Ernest was her husband.

[15] The silver spoon is a proposed line for a play given by Ross to
Turner (Reggie).

[16] Wilde's solicitor in Regina v. Wilde.

[17] A reference to the "Vailima Letters" of Stevenson which Wilde read
when he was in prison.

[18] An architect who sent Wilde books on his release from prison.

[19] His letter to _The Daily Chronicle_ about Warder Martin and the
little children.

[20] The Ballad was finished in Naples and Alfred Douglas has since
declared that he helped Oscar Wilde to write it. I have no wish to
dispute this: Alfred Douglas' poetic gift was extraordinary, far greater
than Oscar Wilde's. The poem was conceived in prison and a good deal of
it was printed before Oscar went near Alfred Douglas and some of the
best stanzas in it are to be found in this earlier portion: no part of
the credit of it, in my opinion, belongs to Alfred Douglas. See Appendix
for Ross's opinion.

[21] Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.


     "Non dispetto, ma doglia."--_Dante._

Oscar Wilde did not stay long in Naples, a few brief months; the
forbidden fruit quickly turned to ashes in his mouth.

I give the following extracts from a letter he wrote to Robert Ross in
December, 1897, shortly after leaving Naples, because it describes the
second great crisis in his life and is besides the bitterest thing he
ever wrote and therefore of peculiar value:

     "The facts of Naples are very bald. Bosie for four months, by
     endless lies, offered me a home. He offered me love,
     affection, and care, and promised that I should never want for
     anything. After four months I accepted his offer, but when we
     met on our way to Naples, I found he had no money, no plans,
     and had forgotten all his promises. His one idea was that I
     should raise the money for us both; I did so to the extent of
     £120. On this Bosie lived quite happy. When it came to his
     having to pay his own share he became terribly unkind and
     penurious, except where his own pleasures were concerned, and
     when my allowance ceased, he left.

     "With regard to the £500[22] which he said was a debt of
     honour, he has written to me to say that he admits the debt of
     honour, but as lots of gentlemen don't pay their debts of
     honour, it is quite a common thing and no one thinks any the
     worse of them.

     "I don't know what you said to Constance, but the bald fact is
     that I accepted the offer of the home, and found that I was
     expected to provide the money, and when I could no longer do
     so I was left to my own devices. It is the most bitter
     experience of a bitter life. It is a blow quite awful. It had
     to come, but I know it is better I should never see him again,
     I don't want to, it fills me with horror."

A word of explanation will explain his reference to his wife, Constance,
in this letter: by a deed of separation made at the end of his
imprisonment, Mrs. Wilde undertook to allow Oscar £150 a year for life,
under the condition that the allowance was to be forfeited if Oscar ever
lived under the same roof with Lord Alfred Douglas. Having forfeited the
allowance Oscar got Robert Ross to ask his wife to continue it and in
spite of the forfeiture Mrs. Wilde continually sent Oscar money through
Robert Ross, merely stipulating that her husband should not be told
whence the money came. Ross, too, who had also sent him £150 a year,
resumed his monthly payments as soon as he left Douglas.

My friendship with Oscar Wilde, which had been interrupted after he left
prison by a silly gibe directed rather against the go-between he had
sent to me than against him, was renewed in Paris early in 1898. I have
related the little misunderstanding in the Appendix. I had never felt
anything but the most cordial affection for Oscar and as soon as I went
to Paris and met him I explained what had seemed to him unkind. When I
asked him about his life since his release he told me simply that he had
quarrelled with Bosie Douglas.

I did not attribute much importance to this; but I could not help
noticing the extraordinary change that had taken place in him since he
had been in Naples. His health was almost as good as ever; in fact, the
prison discipline with its two years of hard living had done him so
much good that his health continued excellent almost to the end.

But his whole manner and attitude to life had again changed: he now
resembled the successful Oscar of the early nineties: I caught echoes,
too, in his speech of a harder, smaller nature; "that talk about
reformation, Frank, is all nonsense; no one ever really reforms or
changes. I am what I always was."

He was mistaken: he took up again the old pagan standpoint; but he was
not the same; he was reckless now, not thoughtless, and, as soon as one
probed a little beneath the surface, depressed almost to despairing. He
had learnt the meaning of suffering and pity, had sensed their value; he
had turned his back upon them all, it is true, but he could not return
to pagan carelessness, and the light-hearted enjoyment of pleasure. He
did his best and almost succeeded; but the effort was there. His creed
now was what it used to be about 1892: "Let us get what pleasure we may
in the fleeting days; for the night cometh, and the silence that can
never be broken."

The old doctrine of original sin, we now call reversion to type; the
most lovely garden rose, if allowed to go without discipline and
tendance, will in a few generations become again the common scentless
dog-rose of our hedges. Such a reversion to type had taken place in
Oscar Wilde. It must be inferred perhaps that the old pagan Greek in him
was stronger than the Christian virtues which had been called into being
by the discipline and suffering of prison. Little by little, as he began
to live his old life again, the lessons learned in prison seemed to drop
from him and be forgotten. But in reality the high thoughts he had lived
with, were not lost; his lips had been touched by the divine fire; his
eyes had seen the world-wonder of sympathy, pity and love and, strangely
enough, this higher vision helped, as we shall soon see, to shake his
individuality from its centre, and thus destroyed his power of work and
completed his soul-ruin. Oscar's second fall--this time from a
height--was fatal and made writing impossible to him. It is all clear
enough now in retrospect though I did not understand it at the time.
When he went to live with Bosie Douglas he threw off the Christian
attitude, but afterwards had to recognise that "De Profundis" and "The
Ballad of Reading Gaol" were deeper and better work than any of his
earlier writings. He resumed the pagan position; outwardly and for the
time being he was the old Oscar again, with his Greek love of beauty and
hatred of disease, deformity and ugliness, and whenever he met a
kindred spirit, he absolutely revelled in gay paradoxes and brilliant
flashes of humour. But he was at war with himself, like Milton's Satan
always conscious of his fall, always regretful of his lost estate and by
reason of this division of spirit unable to write. Perhaps because of
this he threw himself more than ever into talk.

He was beyond all comparison the most interesting companion I have ever
known: the most brilliant talker, I cannot but think, that ever lived.
No one surely ever gave himself more entirely in speech. Again and again
he declared that he had only put his talent into his books and plays,
but his genius into his life. If he had said into his talk, it would
have been the exact truth.

People have differed a great deal about his mental and physical
condition after he came out of prison. All who knew him really, Ross,
Turner, More Adey, Lord Alfred Douglas and myself, are agreed that in
spite of a slight deafness he was never better in health, never indeed
so well. But some French friends were determined to make him out a

In his picture of Wilde's last years, Gide tells us that "he had
suffered too grievously from his imprisonment.... His will had been
broken ... nothing remained in his shattered life but a mouldy
ruin,[23] painful to contemplate, of his former self. At times he seemed
to wish to show that his brain was still active. Humour there was; but
it was far-fetched, forced and threadbare."

These touches may be necessary in order to complete a French picture of
the social outcast. They are not only untrue when applied to Oscar
Wilde, but the reverse of the truth; he never talked so well, was never
so charming a companion as in the last years of his life.

In the very last year his talk was more genial, more humorous, more
vivid than ever, with a wider range of thought and intenser stimulus
than before. He was a born _improvisatore_. At the moment he always
dazzled one out of judgment. A phonograph would have discovered the
truth; a great part of his charm was physical; much of his talk mere
topsy-turvy paradox, the very froth of thought carried off by gleaming,
dancing eyes, smiling, happy lips, and a melodious voice.

The entertainment usually started with some humorous play on words. One
of the company would say something obvious or trivial, repeat a proverb
or commonplace tag such as, "Genius is born, not made," and Oscar would
flash in smiling, "not 'paid,' my dear fellow, not 'paid.'"

An interesting comment would follow on some doing of the day, a skit on
some accepted belief or a parody of some pretentious solemnity, a winged
word on a new book or a new author, and when everyone was smiling with
amused enjoyment, the fine eyes would become introspective, the
beautiful voice would take on a grave music and Oscar would begin a
story, a story with symbolic second meaning or a glimpse of new thought,
and when all were listening enthralled, of a sudden the eyes would
dance, the smile break forth again like sunshine and some sparkling
witticism would set everyone laughing.

The spell was broken, but only for a moment. A new clue would soon be
given and at once Oscar was off again with renewed brio to finer

The talking itself warmed and quickened him extraordinarily: he loved to
show off and astonish his audience, and usually talked better after an
hour or two than at the beginning. His verve was inexhaustible. But
always a great part of the fascination lay in the quick changes from
grave to gay, from pathos to mockery, from philosophy to fun.

There was but little of the actor in him. When telling a story he never
mimicked his personages; his drama seldom lay in clash of character, but
in thought; it was the sheer beauty of the words, the melody of the
cadenced voice, the glowing eyes which fascinated you and always and
above all the scintillating, coruscating humour that lifted his
monologues into works of art.

Curiously enough he seldom talked of himself or of the incidents of his
past life. After the prison he always regarded himself as a sort of
Prometheus and his life as symbolic; but his earlier experiences never
suggested themselves to him as specially significant; the happenings of
his life after his fall seemed predestined and fateful to him; yet of
those he spoke but seldom. Even when carried away by his own eloquence,
he kept the tone of good society.

When you came afterwards to think over one of those wonderful evenings
when he had talked for hours, almost without interruption, you hardly
found more than an epigram, a fugitive flash of critical insight, an
apologue or pretty story charmingly told. Over all this he had cast the
glittering, sparkling robe of his Celtic gaiety, verbal humour, and
sensual enjoyment of living. It was all like champagne; meant to be
drunk quickly; if you let it stand, you soon realised that some still
wines had rarer virtues. But there was always about him the magic of a
rich and _puissant_ personality; like some great actor he could take a
poor part and fill it with the passion and vivacity of his own nature,
till it became a living and memorable creation.

He gave the impression of wide intellectual range, yet in reality he was
not broad; life was not his study nor the world-drama his field. His
talk was all of literature and art and the vanities; the light
drawing-room comedy on the edge of farce was his kingdom; there he ruled
as a sovereign.

Anyone who has read Oscar Wilde's plays at all carefully, especially
"The Importance of Being Earnest," must, I think, see that in kindly,
happy humour he is without a peer in literature. Who can ever forget the
scene between the town and country girl in that delightful farce-comedy.
As soon as the London girl realises that the country girl has hardly any
opportunity of making new friends or meeting new men, she exclaims:

"Ah! now I know what they mean when they talk of agricultural

This sunny humour is Wilde's especial contribution to literature: he
calls forth a smile whereas others try to provoke laughter. Yet he was
as witty as anyone of whom we have record, and some of the best epigrams
in English are his. "The cynic knows the price of everything and the
value of nothing" is better than the best of La Rochefoucauld, as good
as the best of Vauvenargues or Joubert. He was as wittily urbane as
Congreve. But all the witty things that one man can say may be numbered
on one's fingers. It was through his humour that Wilde reigned supreme.
It was his humour that lent his talk its singular attraction. He was the
only man I have ever met or heard of who could keep one smiling with
amusement hour after hour. True, much of the humour was merely verbal,
but it was always gay and genial: summer-lightning humour, I used to
call it, unexpected, dazzling, full of colour yet harmless.

Let me try and catch here some of the fleeting iridescence of that
radiant spirit. Some years before I had been introduced to Mdlle. Marie
Anne de Bovet by Sir Charles Dilke. Mdlle. de Bovet was a writer of
talent and knew English uncommonly well; but in spite of masses of fair
hair and vivacious eyes she was certainly very plain. As soon as she
heard I was in Paris, she asked me to present Oscar Wilde to her. He had
no objection, and so I made a meeting between them. When he caught sight
of her, he stopped short: seeing his astonishment, she cried to him in
her quick, abrupt way:

"N'est-ce pas, M. Wilde, que je suis la femme la plus laide de France?"
(Come, confess, Mr. Wilde, that I am the ugliest woman in France.)

Bowing low, Oscar replied with smiling courtesy:

"Du monde, Madame, du monde." (In the world, madame, in the world.)

No one could help laughing; the retort was irresistible. He should have
said: "Au monde, madame, au monde," but the meaning was clear.

Sometimes this thought-quickness and happy dexterity had to be used in
self-defence. Jean Lorrain was the wittiest talker I have ever heard in
France, and a most brilliant journalist. His life was as abandoned as it
could well be; in fact, he made a parade of strange vices. In the days
of Oscar's supremacy he always pretended to be a friend and admirer.
About this time Oscar wanted me to know Stephane Mallarmé. He took me to
his rooms one afternoon when there was a reception. There were a great
many people present. Mallarmé was standing at the other end of the room
leaning against the chimney piece. Near the door was Lorrain, and we
both went towards him, Oscar with outstretched hands:

"Delighted to see you, Jean."

For some reason or other, most probably out of tawdry vanity, Lorrain
folded his arms theatrically and replied:

"I regret I cannot say as much: I can no longer be one of your friends,
M. Wilde."

The insult was stupid, brutal; yet everyone was on tiptoe to see how
Oscar would answer it.

"How true that is," he said quietly, as quickly as if he had expected
the traitor-thrust, "how true and how sad! At a certain time in life all
of us who have done anything like you and me, Lorrain, must realise that
we no longer have any friends in this world; but only lovers." (Plus
d'amis, seulement des amants.)

A smile of approval lighted up every face.

"Well said, well said," was the general exclamation. His humour was
almost invariably generous, kind.

One day in a Paris studio the conversation turned on the character of
Marat: one Frenchman would have it that he was a fiend, another saw in
him the incarnation of the revolution, a third insisted that he was
merely the gamin of the Paris streets grown up. Suddenly one turned to
Oscar, who was sitting silent, and asked his opinion: he took the ball
at once, gravely.

"_Ce malheureux! Il n'avait pas de veine--pour une fois qu'il a pris un
bain_...." (Poor devil, he was unlucky! To come to such grief for once
taking a bath.)

For a little while Oscar was interested in the Dreyfus case, and
especially in the Commandant Esterhazy, who played such a prominent
part in it with the infamous _bordereau_ which brought about the
conviction of Dreyfus. Most Frenchmen now know that the _bordereau_ was
a forgery and without any real value.

I was curious to see Esterhazy, and Oscar brought him to lunch one day
at Durand's. He was a little below middle height, extremely thin and as
dark as any Italian, with an enormous hook nose and heavy jaw. He looked
to me like some foul bird of prey: greed and cunning in the restless
brown eyes set close together, quick resolution in the out-thrust, bony
jaws and hard chin; but manifestly he had no capacity, no mind: he was
meagre in all ways. For a long time he bored us by insisting that
Dreyfus was a traitor, a Jew, and a German; to him a trinity of faults,
whereas he, Esterhazy, was perfectly innocent and had been very badly
treated. At length Oscar leant across the table and said to him in
French with, strange to say, a slight Irish accent, not noticeable when
he spoke English:

"The innocent," he said, "always suffer, M. le Commandant; it is their
_métier_. Besides, we are all innocent till we are found out; it is a
poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The
interesting thing surely is to be guilty and so wear as a halo the
seduction of sin."

Esterhazy appeared put out for a moment, and then he caught the genial
gaiety of the reproof and the hint contained in it. His vanity would not
allow him to remain long in a secondary _rôle_, and so, to our
amazement, he suddenly broke out:

"Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is I, Esterhazy,
who alone am guilty. I wrote the _bordereau_. I put Dreyfus in prison,
and all France can not liberate him. I am the maker of the plot, and the
chief part in it is mine."

To his surprise we both roared with laughter. The influence of the
larger nature on the smaller to such an extraordinary issue was
irresistibly comic. At the time no one even suspected Esterhazy in
connection with the _bordereau_.

Another example, this time of Oscar's wit, may find a place here. Sir
Lewis Morris was a voluminous poetaster with a common mind. He once
bored Oscar by complaining that his books were boycotted by the press;
after giving several instances of unfair treatment he burst out:
"There's a conspiracy against me, a conspiracy of silence; but what can
one do? What should I do?"

"Join it," replied Oscar smiling.

Oscar's humour was for the most part intellectual, and something like
it can be found in others, though the happy fecundity and lightsome
gaiety of it belonged to the individual temperament and perished with
him. I remember once trying to give an idea of the different sides of
his humour, just to see how far it could be imitated.

I made believe to have met him at Paddington, after his release from
Reading, though he was brought to Pentonville in private clothes by a
warder on May 18th, and was released early the next morning, two years
to the hour from the commencement of the Sessions at which he was
convicted on May 25th. The Act says that you must be released from the
prison in which you are first confined. I pretended, however, that I had
met him. The train, I said, ran into Paddington Station early in the
morning. I went across to him as he got out of the carriage: grey dawn
filled the vast echoing space; a few porters could be seen scattered
about; it was all chill and depressing.

"Welcome, welcome, Oscar!" I cried holding out my hands. "I am sorry I'm
alone. You ought to have been met by troops of boys and girls
flower-crowned, but alas! you will have to content yourself with one
middle-aged admirer."

"Yes, it's really terrible, Frank," he replied gravely. "If England
persists in treating her criminals like this, she does not deserve to
have any...."

"Ah," said an old lady to him one day at lunch, "I know you people who
pretend to be a great deal worse than you are, I know you. I shouldn't
be afraid of you."

"Naturally we pretend to be bad, dear lady," he replied; "it is the only
way to make ourselves interesting to you. Everyone believes a man who
pretends to be good, he is such a bore; but no one believes a man who
says he is evil. That makes him interesting."

"Oh, you are too clever for me," replied the old lady nodding her head.
"You see in my day none of us went to Girton and Newnham. There were no
schools then for the higher education of women."

"How absurd such schools are, are they not?" cried Oscar. "Were I a
despot, I should immediately establish schools for the lower education
of women. That's what they need. It usually takes ten years living with
a man to complete a woman's education."

"Then what would you do," asked someone, "about the lower education of

"That's already provided for, my dear fellow, amply provided for; we
have our public schools and universities to see to that. What we want
are schools for the higher education of men, and schools for the lower
education of women."

Genial persiflage of this sort was his particular _forte_ whether my
imitation of it is good or bad.

His kindliness was ingrained. I never heard him say a gross or even a
vulgar word, hardly even a sharp or unkind thing. Whether in company or
with one person, his mind was all dedicated to genial, kindly,
flattering thoughts. He hated rudeness or discussion or insistence as he
hated ugliness or deformity.

One evening of this summer a trivial incident showed me that he was
sinking deeper in the mud-honey of life.

A new play was about to be given at the Français and because he
expressed a wish to see it I bought a couple of tickets. We went in and
he made me change places with him in order to be able to talk to me; he
was growing nearly deaf in the bad ear. After the first act we went
outside to smoke a cigarette.

"It's stupid," Oscar began, "fancy us two going in there to listen to
what that foolish Frenchman says about love; he knows nothing about it;
either of us could write much better on the theme. Let's walk up and
down here under the columns and talk."

The people began to go into the theatre again and, as they were
disappearing, I said:

"It seems rather a pity to waste our tickets; so many wish to see the

"We shall find someone to give them to," he said indifferently, stopping
by one of the pillars.

At that very moment as if under his hand appeared a boy of about fifteen
or sixteen, one of the gutter-snipe of Paris. To my amazement, he said:

"Bon soir, Monsieur Wilde."

Oscar turned to him smiling.

"Vous êtes Jules, n'est-ce pas?" (you are Jules, aren't you?) he

"Oui, M. Wilde."

"Here is the very boy you want," Oscar cried; "let's give him the
tickets, and he'll sell them, and make something out of them," and Oscar
turned and began to explain to the boy how I had given two hundred
francs for the tickets, and how, even now, they should be worth a louis
or two.

"Des jaunets" (yellow boys), cried the youth, his sharp face lighting
up, and in a flash he had vanished with the tickets.

"You see he knows me, Frank," said Oscar, with the childish pleasure of
gratified vanity.

"Yes," I replied drily, "not an acquaintance to be proud of, I should

"I don't agree with you, Frank," he said, resenting my tone, "did you
notice his eyes? He is one of the most beautiful boys I have ever seen;
an exact replica of Emilienne D'Alençon,[24] I call him Jules D'Alençon,
and I tell her he must be her brother. I had them both dining with me
once and the boy is finer than the girl, his skin far more beautiful.

"By the way," he went on, as we were walking up the Avenue de l'Opera,
"why should we not see Emilienne; why should she not sup with us, and
you could compare them? She is playing at Olympia, near the Grand Hotel.
Let's go and compare Aspasia and Agathon, and for once I shall be
Alcibiades, and you the moralist, Socrates."

"I would rather talk to you," I replied.

"We can talk afterwards, Frank, when all the stars come out to listen;
now is the time to live and enjoy."

"As you will," I said, and we went to the Music Hall and got a box, and
he wrote a little note to Emilienne D'Alençon, and she came afterwards
to supper with us. Though her face was pretty she was pre-eminently dull
and uninteresting without two ideas in her bird's head. She was all
greed and vanity, and could talk of nothing but the hope of getting an
engagement in London: could he help her, or would Monsieur, referring to
me, as a journalist get her some good puffs in advance? Oscar promised
everything gravely.

While we were supping inside, Oscar caught sight of the boy passing
along the Boulevard. At once he tapped on the window, loud enough to
attract his attention. Nothing loth, the boy came in, and the four of us
had supper together--a strange quartette.

"Now, Frank," said Oscar, "compare the two faces and you will see the
likeness," and indeed there was in both the same Greek beauty--the same
regularity of feature, the same low brow and large eyes, the same
perfect oval.

"I am telling my friend," said Oscar to Emilienne in French, "how alike
you two are, true brother and sister in beauty and in the finest of
arts, the art of living," and they both laughed.

"The boy is better looking," he went on to me in English. "Her mouth is
coarse and hard; her hands common, while the boy is quite perfect."

"Rather dirty, don't you think?" I could not help remarking.

"Dirty, of course, but that's nothing; nothing is so immaterial as
colouring; form is everything, and his form is perfect, as exquisite as
the David of Donatello. That's what he's like, Frank, the David of
Donatello," and he pulled his jowl, delighted to have found the painting

As soon as Emilienne saw that we were talking of the boy, her interest
in the conversation vanished, even more quickly than her appetite. She
had to go, she said suddenly; she was so sorry, and the discontented
curiosity of her look gave place again to the smirk of affected

"_Au revoir, n'est-ce pas? à Charing Cross, n'est-ce-pas, Monsieur? Vous
ne m'oublierez pas?..._"

As we turned to walk along the boulevard I noticed that the boy, too,
had disappeared. The moonlight was playing with the leaves and boughs of
the plane trees and throwing them in Japanese shadow-pictures on the
pavement: I was given over to thought; evidently Oscar imagined I was
offended, for he launched out into a panegyric on Paris.

"The most wonderful city in the world, the only civilised capital; the
only place on earth where you find absolute toleration for all human
frailties, with passionate admiration for all human virtues and

"Do you remember Verlaine, Frank? His life was nameless and terrible, he
did everything to excess, was drunken, dirty and debauched, and yet
there he would sit in a café on the Boul' Mich', and everybody who came
in would bow to him, and call him _maître_ and be proud of any sign of
recognition from him because he was a great poet.

"In England they would have murdered Verlaine, and men who call
themselves gentlemen would have gone out of their way to insult him in
public. England is still only half-civilised; Englishmen touch life at
one or two points without suspecting its complexity. They are rude and

All the while I could not help thinking of Dante and his condemnation of
Florence, and its "hard, malignant people," the people who still had
something in them of "the mountain and rock" of their birthplace:--"_E
tiene ancor del monte e del macigno._"

"You are not offended, Frank, are you, with me, for making you meet two
caryatides of the Parisian temple of pleasure?"

"No, no," I cried, "I was thinking how Dante condemned Florence and its
people, its ungrateful malignant people, and how when his teacher,
Brunetto Latini, and his companions came to him in the underworld, he
felt as if he, too, must throw himself into the pit with them. Nothing
prevented him from carrying out his good intention (_buona voglia_)
except the fear of being himself burned and baked as they were. I was
just thinking that it was his great love for Latini which gave him the
deathless words:

    ... "Non dispetto, ma doglia
    La vostra condizion dentro mi fisse.

"Not contempt but sorrow...."

"Oh, Frank," cried Oscar, "what a beautiful incident! I remember it all.
I read it this last winter in Naples.... Of course Dante was full of
pity as are all great poets, for they know the weakness of human

But even "the sorrow" of which Dante spoke seemed to carry with it some
hint of condemnation; for after a pause he went on:

"You must not judge me, Frank: you don't know what I have suffered. No
wonder I snatch now at enjoyment with both hands. They did terrible
things to me. Did you know that when I was arrested the police let the
reporters come to the cell and stare at me. Think of it--the degradation
and the shame--as if I had been a monster on show. Oh! you knew! Then
you know, too, how I was really condemned before I was tried; and what a
farce my trial was. That terrible judge with his insults to those he was
sorry he could not send to the scaffold.

"I never told you the worst thing that befell me. When they took me from
Wandsworth to Reading, we had to stop at Clapham Junction. We were
nearly an hour waiting for the train. There we sat on the platform. I
was in the hideous prison clothes, handcuffed between two warders. You
know how the trains come in every minute. Almost at once I was
recognised, and there passed before me a continual stream of men and
boys, and one after the other offered some foul sneer or gibe or scoff.
They stood before me, Frank, calling me names and spitting on the
ground--an eternity of torture."

My heart bled for him.

"I wonder if any punishment will teach humanity to such people, or
understanding of their own baseness?"

After walking a few paces he turned to me:

"Don't reproach me, Frank, even in thought. You have no right to. You
don't know me yet. Some day you will know more and then you will be
sorry, so sorry that there will be no room for any reproach of me. If I
could tell you what I suffered this winter!"

"This winter!" I cried. "In Naples?"

"Yes, in gay, happy Naples. It was last autumn that I really fell to
ruin. I had come out of prison filled with good intentions, with all
good resolutions. My wife had promised to come back to me. I hoped she
would come very soon. If she had come at once, if she only had, it might
all have been different. But she did not come. I have no doubt she was
right from her point of view. She has always been right.

"But I was alone there in Berneval, and Bosie kept on calling me,
calling, and as you know I went to him. At first it was all wonderful.
The bruised leaves began to unfold in the light and warmth of
affection; the sore feeling began to die out of me.

"But at once my allowance from my wife was stopped. Yes, Frank," he
said, with a touch of the old humour, "they took it away when they
should have doubled it. I did not care. When I had money I gave it to
him without counting, so when I could not pay I thought Bosie would pay,
and I was content. But at once I discovered that he expected me to find
the money. I did what I could; but when my means were exhausted, the
evil days began. He expected me to write plays and get money for us both
as in the past; but I couldn't; I simply could not. When we were dunned
his temper went to pieces. He has never known what it is to want really.
You have no conception of the wretchedness of it all. He has a terrible,
imperious, irritable temper."

"He's the son of his father," I interjected.

"Yes," said Oscar, "I am afraid that's the truth, Frank; he is the son
of his father; violent, and irritable, with a tongue like a lash. As
soon as the means of life were straitened, he became sullen and began
reproaching me; why didn't I write? Why didn't I earn money? What was
the good of me? As if I could write under such conditions. No man,
Frank, has ever suffered worse shame and humiliation.

"At last there was a washing bill to be paid; Bosie was dunned for it,
and when I came in, he raged and whipped me with his tongue. It was
appalling; I had done everything for him, given him everything, lost
everything, and now I could only stand and see love turned to hate: the
strength of love's wine making the bitter more venomous. Then he left
me, Frank, and now there is no hope for me. I am lost, finished, a
derelict floating at the mercy of the stream, without plan or
purpose.... And the worst of it is, I know, if men have treated me
badly, I have treated myself worse; it is our sins against ourselves we
can never forgive.... Do you wonder that I snatch at any pleasure?"

He turned and looked at me all shaken; I saw the tears pouring down his

"I cannot talk any more, Frank," he said in a broken voice, "I must go."

I called a cab. My heart was so heavy within me, so sore, that I said
nothing to stop him. He lifted his hand to me in sign of farewell, and I
turned again to walk home alone, understanding, for the first time in my
life, the full significance of the marvellous line in which Shakespeare
summed up his impeachment of the world and his own justification: the
only justification of any of us mortals:

     "A man more sinn'd against than sinning."


[22] This was the sum promised by the whole Queensberry family and by
Lord Alfred Douglas in particular to Oscar to defray the costs of that
first action for libel which they persuaded him to bring against Lord
Queensberry. Ross has since stated in court that it was never paid. The
history of the monies promised and supplied to Oscar at that time is so
extraordinary and so characteristic of the age that it might well
furnish a chapter to itself. Here it is enough just to say that those
who ought to have supplied him with money evaded the obligation, while
others upon whom he had no claim, helped him liberally; but even large
sums slipped through his careless fingers like water.

[23] Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."

[24] One of the prettiest daughters of the game to be found in Paris at
the time.


The more I considered the matter, the more clearly I saw, or thought I
saw, that the only chance of salvation for Oscar was to get him to work,
to give him some purpose in life, and the reader should remember here
that at this time I had not read "De Profundis" and did not know that
Oscar in prison had himself recognised this necessity. After all, I said
to myself, nothing is lost if he will only begin to write. A man should
be able to whistle happiness and hope down the wind and take despair to
his bed and heart, and win courage from his harsh companion. Happiness
is not essential to the artist: happiness never creates anything but
memories. If Oscar would work and not brood over the past and study
himself like an Indian Fakir, he might yet come to soul-health and
achievement. He could win back everything; his own respect, and the
respect of his fellows, if indeed that were worth winning. An artist, I
knew, must have at least the self-abnegation of the hero, and heroic
resolution to strive and strive, or he will never bring it far even in
his art. If I could only get Oscar to work, it seemed to me everything
might yet come right. I spent a week with him, lunching and dining and
putting all this before him, in every way.

I noticed that he enjoyed the good eating and the good drinking as
intensely as ever. He was even drinking too much I thought, was
beginning to get stout and flabby again, but the good living was a
necessity to him, and it certainly did not prevent him from talking
charmingly. But as soon as I pressed him to write he would shake his

"Oh, Frank, I cannot, you know my rooms; how could I write there? A
horrid bedroom like a closet, and a little sitting room without any
outlook. Books everywhere; and no place to write; to tell you the truth
I cannot even read in it. I can do nothing in such miserable poverty."

Again and again he came back to this. He harped upon his destitution, so
that I could not but see purpose in it. He was already cunning in the
art of getting money without asking for it. My heart ached for him; one
goes down hill with such fatal speed and ease, and the mire at the
bottom is so loathsome. I hastened to say:

"I can let you have a little money; but you ought to work, Oscar. After
all why should anyone help you, if you will not help yourself? If I
cannot aid you to save yourself, I am only doing you harm."

"A base sophism, Frank, mere sophistry, as you know: a good lunch is
better than a bad one for any living man."

I smiled, "Don't do yourself injustice: you could easily gain thousands
and live like a prince again. Why not make the effort?"

"If I had pleasant, sunny rooms I'd try.... It's harder than you think."

"Nonsense, it's easy for you. Your punishment has made your name known
in every country in the world. A book of yours would sell like wildfire;
a play of yours would draw in any capital. You might live here like a
prince. Shakespeare lost love and friendship, hope and health to
boot--everything, and yet forced himself to write 'The Tempest.' Why
can't you?"

"I'll try, Frank, I'll try."

I may just mention here that any praise of another man, even of
Shakespeare, was sure to move Oscar to emulation. He acknowledged no
superior. In some articles in _The Saturday Review_ I had said that no
one had ever given completer record of himself than Shakespeare. "We
know him better than we know any of our contemporaries," I went on, "and
he is better worth knowing." At once Oscar wrote to me objecting to this
phrase. "Surely, Frank, you have forgotten me. Surely, I am better
worth knowing than Shakespeare?"

The question astonished me so that I could not make up my mind at once;
but when he pressed me later I had to tell him that Shakespeare had
reached higher heights of thought and feeling than any modern, though I
was probably wrong in saying that I knew him better than I knew a living

I had to go back to England and some little time elapsed before I could
return to Paris; but I crossed again early in the summer, and found he
had written nothing.

I often talked with him about it; but now he changed his ground a

"I can't write, Frank. When I take up my pen all the past comes back: I
cannot bear the thoughts ... regret and remorse, like twin dogs, wait to
seize me at any idle moment. I must go out and watch life, amuse,
interest myself, or I should go mad. You don't know how sore it is about
my heart, as soon as I am alone. I am face to face with my own soul; the
Oscar of four years ago, with his beautiful secure life, and his
glorious easy triumphs, comes up before me, and I cannot stand the
contrast.... My eyes burn with tears. If you care for me, Frank, you
will not ask me to write."

"You promised to try," I said somewhat harshly, "and I want you to try.
You haven't suffered more than Dante suffered in exile and poverty; yet
you know if he had suffered ten times as much, he would have written it
all down. Tears, indeed! the fire in his eyes would have dried the

"True enough, Frank, but Dante was all of one piece whereas I am drawn
in two different directions. I was born to sing the joy and pride of
life, the pleasure of living, the delight in everything beautiful in
this most beautiful world, and they took me and tortured me till I
learned pity and sorrow. Now I cannot sing the joy, heartily, because I
know the suffering, and I was never made to sing of suffering. I hate
it, and I want to sing the love songs of joy and pleasure. It is joy
alone which appeals to my soul; the joy of life and beauty and love--I
could sing the song of Apollo the Sun-God, and they try to force me to
sing the song of the tortured Marsyas."

This to me was his true and final confession. His second fall after
leaving prison had put him "at war with himself." This is, I think, the
very heart of truth about his soul; the song of sorrow, of pity and
renunciation was not his song, and the experience of suffering prevented
him from singing the delight of life and the joy he took in beauty. It
never seemed to occur to him that he could reach a faith which should
include both self-indulgence and renunciation in a larger acceptance of

In spite of his sunny nature he had a certain amount of jealousy and
envy in him which was always brought to light by the popular success of
those whom he had known and measured. I remember his telling me once
that he wrote his first play because he was annoyed at the way Pinero
was being praised--"Pinero, who can't write at all: he is a
stage-carpenter and nothing else. His characters are made of dough; and
never was there such a worthless style, or rather such a complete
absence of style: he writes like a grocer's assistant."

I noticed now that this trait of jealousy was stronger in him than ever.
One day I showed him an English illustrated paper which I had bought on
my way to lunch. It contained a picture of George Curzon (I beg his
pardon, Lord Curzon) as Viceroy of India. He was photographed in a
carriage with his wife by his side: the gorgeous state carriage drawn by
four horses, with outriders, and escorted by cavalry and cheering
crowds--all the paraphernalia and pomp of imperial power.

"Do you see that?" cried Oscar angrily; "fancy George Curzon being
treated like that. I know him well; a more perfect example of plodding
mediocrity was never seen in the world. He had never a thought or phrase
above the common."

"I know him pretty well, too," I replied. "His incurable commonness is
the secret of his success. He 'voices,' as he would say himself, the
opinion of the average man on every subject. He might be a leader-writer
on the _Mail_ or _Times_. What do you know of the average man or of his
opinions? But the man in the street, as he is called to-day, can only
learn from the man who is just one step above himself, and so the George
Curzons come to success in life. That, too, is the secret of the
popularity of this or that writer. Hall Caine is an even larger George
Curzon, a better endowed mediocrity."

"But why should he have fame and state and power?" Oscar cried

"State and power, because he is George Curzon, but fame he never will
have, and I suspect if the truth were known, in the moments when he too
comes face to face with his own soul, as you say, he would give a good
deal of his state and power for a very little of your fame."

"That is probably true, Frank," cried Oscar, "that is almost certainly
the crumpled rose-leaf of his couch, but how grossly he is
over-estimated and over-rewarded.... Do you know Wilfred Blunt?"

"I have met him," I replied, "but don't know him. We met once and he
bragged preposterously about his Arab ponies. I was at that time editor
of _The Evening News_: and Mr. Blunt tried hard to talk down to my

"He is by way of being a poet, and he has a very real love of

"I know," I said; "I really know his work and a good deal about him and
have nothing but praise for the way he championed the Egyptians, and for
his poetry when he has anything to say."

"Well, Frank, he had a sort of club at Crabbett Park, a club for poets,
to which only poets were invited, and he was a most admirable and
perfect host. Lady Blunt could never make out what he was up to. He used
to get us all down to Crabbett, and the poet who was received last had
to make a speech about the new poet--a speech in which he was supposed
to tell the truth about the new-comer. Blunt took the idea, no doubt,
from the custom of the French Academy. Well, he asked me down to
Crabbett Park, and George Curzon, if you please, was the poet picked to
make the speech about me."

"Good God," I cried, "Curzon a poet. It's like Kitchener being taken for
a great captain, or Salisbury for a statesman."

"He writes verses, Frank, but of course there is not a line of poetry in
him: his verses are good enough though, well-turned, I mean, and sharp,
if not witty. Well, Curzon had to make this speech about me after
dinner. We had a delightful dinner, quite perfect, and then Curzon got
up. He had evidently prepared his speech carefully, it was bristling
with innuendoes; sneering side-hits at strange sins. Everyone looked at
his fellow and thought the speech the height of bad taste.

"Mediocrity always detests ability, and loathes genius; Curzon wanted to
prove to himself that at any rate in the moralities he was my superior.

"When he sat down I had to answer him. That was the programme. Of course
I had not prepared a speech, had not thought about Curzon, or what he
might say, but I got up, Frank, and told the kindliest truth about him,
and everyone took it for the bitterest sarcasm, and cheered and cheered
me, though what I said was merely the truth. I told how difficult it was
for Curzon to work and study at Oxford. Everyone wanted to know him
because of his position, because he was going into Parliament, and
certain to make a great figure there; and everyone tried to make up to
him, but he knew that he must not yield to such seduction, so he sat in
his room with a wet towel about his head, and worked and worked without

"In the earlier examinations, which demand only memory, he won first
honours. But even success could not induce him to relax his efforts; he
lived laborious days and took every college examination seriously; he
made out dates in red ink, and hung them on his wall, and learnt pages
of uninteresting events and put them in blue ink in his memory, and at
last came out of the 'Final Schools' with second honours. And now, I
concluded, 'this model youth is going into life, and he is certain to
treat it seriously, certain to win at any rate second honours in it, and
have a great and praiseworthy career.'

"Frank, they roared with laughter, and, to do Curzon justice, at the end
he came up to me and apologised, and was charming. Indeed, they all made
much of me and we had a great night.

"I remember we talked all the night through, or rather I talked and
everyone else listened, for the great principle of the division of
labour is beginning to be understood in English Society. The host gives
excellent food, excellent wine, excellent cigarettes, and
super-excellent coffee, that's his part, and all the men listen, that's
theirs: while I talk and the stars twinkle their delight.

"Wyndham was there, too; you know George Wyndham, with his beautiful
face and fine figure: he is infinitely cleverer than Curzon but he has
not Curzon's push and force, or perhaps, as you say, he is not in such
close touch with the average man as Curzon; he was charming to me.

"In the morning we all trooped out to see the dawn, and some of the
young ones, wild with youth and high spirits, Curzon of course among the
number, stripped off their clothes and rushed down to the lake and began
swimming and diving about like a lot of schoolboys. There is a great
deal of the schoolboy in all Englishmen, that is what makes them so
lovable. When they came out they ran over the grass to dry themselves,
and then began playing lawn tennis, just as they were, stark naked, the
future rulers of England. I shall never forget the scene. Wilfred Blunt
had gone up to his wife's apartments and had changed into some fantastic
pyjamas; suddenly he opened an upper window and came out and perched
himself, cross-legged, on the balcony, looking down at the mad game of
lawn tennis, for all the world like a sort of pink and green Buddha,
while I strolled about with someone, and ordered fresh coffee and talked
till the dawn came with silent silver feet lighting up the beautiful
greenery of the park....

"Now George Curzon plays king in India: Wyndham is on the way to power,
and I'm hiding in shame and poverty here in Paris, an exile and outcast.
Do you wonder that I cannot write, Frank? The awful injustice of life
maddens me. After all, what have they done in comparison with what I
have done?

"Close the eyes of all of us now and fifty years hence, or a hundred
years hence, no one will know anything about Curzon or Wyndham or Blunt:
whether they lived or died will be a matter of indifference to everyone;
but my comedies and my stories and 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' will be
known and read by millions, and even my unhappy fate will call forth
world-wide sympathy."

It was all true enough, and good to keep in mind; but even when Oscar
spoke of greater men than himself, he took the same attitude: his
self-esteem was extraordinary. He did not compare his work with that of
others; was not anxious to find his true place, as even Shakespeare was.
From the beginning, from youth on, he was convinced that he was a great
man and going to do great things. Many of us have the same belief and
are just as persuaded, but the belief is not ever present with us as it
was with Oscar, moulding all his actions. For instance, I remarked once
that his handwriting was unforgettable and characteristic. "I worked at
it," he said, "as a boy; I wanted a distinctive handwriting; it had to
be clear and beautiful and peculiar to me. At length I got it but it
took time and patience. I always wanted everything about me to be
distinctive," he added, smiling.

He was proud of his physical appearance, inordinately pleased with his
great height, vain of it even. "Height gives distinction," he declared,
and once even went so far as to say, "One can't picture Napoleon as
small; one thinks only of his magnificent head and forgets the little
podgy figure; it must have been a great nuisance to him: small men have
no dignity."

All this utterly unconscious of the fact that most tall men have no ever
present-sense of their height as an advantage. Yet on the whole one
agrees with Montaigne that height is the chief beauty of a man: it gives

Oscar never learned anything from criticism; he had a good deal of
personal dignity in spite of his amiability, and when one found fault
with his work, he would smile vaguely or change the subject as if it
didn't interest him.

Again and again I played on his self-esteem to get him to write; but
always met the same answer.

"Oh, Frank, it's impossible, impossible for me to work under these
disgraceful conditions."

"But you can have better conditions now and lots of money if you'll
begin to work."

He shook his head despairingly. Again and again I tried, but failed to
move him, even when I dangled money before him. I didn't then know that
he was receiving regularly more than £300 a year. I thought he was
completely destitute, dependent on such casual help as friends could
give him. I have a letter from him about this time asking me for even
£5[25] as if he were in extremest need.

On one of my visits to Paris after discussing his position, I could not
help saying to him:

"The only thing that will make you write, Oscar, is absolute, blank
poverty. That's the sharpest spur after all--necessity."

"You don't know me," he replied sharply. "I would kill myself. I can
endure to the end; but to be absolutely destitute would show me suicide
as the open door."

Suddenly his depressed manner changed and his whole face lighted up.

"Isn't it comic, Frank, the way the English talk of the 'open door,'
while their doors are always locked, and barred, and bolted, even their
church doors? Yet it is not hypocrisy in them; they simply cannot see
themselves as they are; they have no imagination."

A long pause, and he went on gravely:

"Suicide, Frank, is always the temptation of the unfortunate, a great

"Suicide is the natural end of the world-weary," I replied; "but you
enjoy life intensely. For you to talk of suicide is ridiculous."

"Do you know that my wife is dead, Frank?"[26]

"I had heard it," I said.

"My way back to hope and a new life ends in her grave," he went on.
"Everything I do, Frank, is irrevocable."

He spoke with a certain grave sincerity.

"The great tragedies of the world are all final and complete; Socrates
would not escape death, though Crito opened the prison door for him. I
could not avoid prison, though you showed me the way to safety. We are
fated to suffer, don't you think? as an example to humanity--'an echo
and a light unto eternity.'"

"I think it would be finer, instead of taking the punishment lying down,
to trample it under your feet, and make it a rung of the ladder."

"Oh, Frank, you would turn all the tragedies into triumphs, you are a
fighter. My life is done."

"You love life," I cried, "as much as ever you did; more than anyone I
have ever seen."

"It is true," he cried, his face lighting up quickly, "more than anyone,
Frank. Life delights me. The people passing on the Boulevards, the play
of the sunshine in the trees; the noise, the quick movement of the cabs,
the costumes of the _cochers_ and _sergents-de-ville_; workers and
beggars, pimps and prostitutes--all please me to the soul, charm me, and
if you would only let me talk instead of bothering me to write I should
be quite happy. Why should I write any more? I have done enough for

"I will tell you a story, Frank," he broke off, and he told me a slight
thing about Judas. The little tale was told delightfully, with eloquent
inflections of voice and still more eloquent pauses....

"The end of all this is," I said before going back to London, "that you
will not write?"

"No, no, Frank," he said, "that I cannot write under these conditions.
If I had money enough; if I could shake off Paris, and forget those
awful rooms of mine and get to the Riviera for the winter and live in
some seaside village of the Latins with the blue sea at my feet, and the
blue sky above, and God's sunlight about me and no care for money, then
I would write as naturally as a bird sings, because I should be happy
and could not help it....

"You write stories taken from the fight of life; you are careless of
surroundings, I am a poet and can only sing in the sunshine when I am

"All right," I said, snatching at the half-promise. "It is just possible
that I may get hold of some money during the next few months, and, if I
do, you shall go and winter in the South, and live as you please without
care of money. If you can only sing when the cage is beautiful and
sunlight floods it, I know the very place for you."

With this sort of vague understanding we parted for some months.


[25] _Cfr._ Appendix.

[26] See Appendix.



There is no more difficult problem for the writer, no harder task than
to decide how far he should allow himself to go in picturing human
weakness. We have all come from the animal and can all without any
assistance from books imagine easily enough the effects of unrestrained
self-indulgence. Yet it is instructive and pregnant with warning to
remark that, as soon as the sheet anchor of high resolve is gone, the
frailties of man tend to become master-vices. All our civilisation is
artificially built up by effort; all high humanity is the reward of
constant striving against natural desires.

In the fall of this year, 1898, I sold _The Saturday Review_ to Lord
Hardwicke and his friends, and as soon as the purchase was completed, I
think in November, I wired to Oscar that I should be in Paris in a short
time, and ready to take him to the South for his holiday. I sent him
some money to pave the way.

A few days later I crossed and wired to him from Calais to dine with me
at Durand's, and to begin dinner if I happened to be late.

While waiting for dinner, I said:

"I want to stay two or three days in Paris to see some pictures. Would
you be ready to start South on Thursday next?" It was then Monday, I

"On Thursday?" he repeated. "Yes, Frank, I think so."

"There is some money for anything you may want to buy," I said and
handed him a cheque I had made payable to self and signed, for he knew
where he could cash it.

"How good of you, Frank, I cannot thank you enough. You start on
Thursday," he added, as if considering it.

"If you would rather wait a little," I said, "say so: I'm quite

"No, Frank, I think Thursday will do. We are really going to the South
for the whole winter. How wonderful; how gorgeous it will be."

We had a great dinner and talked and talked. He spoke of some of the new
Frenchmen, and at great length of Pierre Louÿs, whom he described as a

"It was I, Frank, who induced him to write his 'Aphrodite' in prose." He
spoke, too, of the Grand Guignol Theatre.

"Le Grand Guignol is the first theatre in Paris. It looks like a
nonconformist chapel, a barn of a room with a gallery at the back and a
little wooden stage. There you see the primitive tragedies of real life.
They are as ugly and as fascinating as life itself. You must see it and
we will go to Antoine's as well: you must see Antoine's new piece; he is
doing great work."

We kept dinner up to an unconscionable hour. I had much to tell of
London and much to hear of Paris, and we talked and drank coffee till
one o'clock, and when I proposed supper Oscar accepted the idea with

"I have often lunched with you from two o'clock till nine, Frank, and
now I am going to dine with you from nine o'clock till breakfast
to-morrow morning."

"What shall we drink?" I asked.

"The same champagne, Frank, don't you think?" he said, pulling his jowl;
"there is no wine so inspiring as that dry champagne with the exquisite
_bouquet_. You were the first to say my plays were the champagne of

When we came out it was three o'clock and I was tired and sleepy with my
journey, and Oscar had drunk perhaps more than was good for him. Knowing
how he hated walking I got a _voiture de cercle_ and told him to take
it, and I would walk to my hotel. He thanked me and seemed to hesitate.

"What is it now?" I asked, wanting to get to bed.

"Just a word with you," he said, and drew me away from the carriage
where the _chasseur_ was waiting with the rug. When he got me three or
four paces away he said, hesitatingly:

"Frank, could you ... can you let me have a few pounds? I'm very hard

I stared at him; I had given him a cheque at the beginning of the
dinner: had he forgotten? Or did he perchance want to keep the hundred
pounds intact for some reason? Suddenly it occurred to me that he might
be without even enough for the carriage. I took out a hundred franc note
and gave it to him.

"Thank you, so much," he said, thrusting it into his waistcoat pocket,
"it's very kind of you."

"You will turn up to-morrow at lunch at one?" I said, as I put him into
the little brougham.

"Yes, of course, yes," he cried, and I turned away.

Next day at lunch he seemed to meet me with some embarrassment:

"Frank, I want to ask you something. I'm really confused about last
night; we dined most wisely, if too well. This morning I found you had
given me a cheque, and I found besides in my waistcoat pocket a note for
a hundred francs. Did I ask you for it at the end? 'Tap' you, the French
call it," he added, trying to laugh.

I nodded.

"How dreadful!" he cried. "How dreadful poverty is! I had forgotten that
you had given me a cheque, and I was so hard up, so afraid you might go
away without giving me anything, that I asked you for it. Isn't poverty

I nodded; I could not say a word: the fact told so much.

The chastened mood of self-condemnation did not last long with him or go
deep; soon he was talking as merrily and gaily as ever.

Before parting I said to him:

"You won't forget that you are going on Thursday night?"

"Oh, really!" he cried, to my surprise, "Thursday is very near; I don't
know whether I shall be able to come."

"What on earth do you mean?" I asked.

"The truth is, you know, I have debts to pay, and I have not enough."

"But I will give you more," I cried, "what will clear you?"

"Fifty more I think will do. How good you are!"

"I will bring it with me to-morrow morning."

"In notes please, will you? French money. I find I shall want it to pay
some little things at once, and the time is short."

I thought nothing of the matter. The next day at lunch I gave him the
money in French notes. That night I said to him:

"You know we are going away to-morrow evening: I hope you'll be ready? I
have got the tickets for the _Train de Luxe_."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" he cried, "I can't be ready."

"What is it now?" I asked.

"Well, it's money. Some more debts have come in."

"Why will you not be frank with me, and tell me what you owe? I will
give you a cheque for it. I don't want to drag it out of you bit by bit.
Tell me a sum that will make you free, and I will give it to you. I want
you to have a perfect six months, and how can you if you are bothered
with debts?"

"How kind you are to me! Do you really mean it?"

"Of course I do."

"Really?" he said.

"Yes," I said, "tell me what it is."

"I think, I believe ... would another fifty be too much?"

"I will give it you to-morrow. Are you sure that will be enough?"

"Oh, yes, Frank; but let's go on Sunday. Sunday is such a good day for
travelling, and it's always so dull everywhere, we might just as well
spend it on the train. Besides, no one travels on Sunday in France, so
we are sure to be able to take our ease in our train. Won't Sunday do,

"Of course it will," I replied laughing; but a day or two later he was
again embarrassed, and again told me it was money, and then he confessed
to me that he was afraid at first I should not have paid all his debts,
if I had known how much they were, and so he thought by telling me of
them little by little, he would make sure at least of something. This
pitiful, pitiable confession depressed me on his account. It showed
practice in such petty tricks and all too little pride. Of course it did
not alter my admiration of his qualities; nor weaken in any degree my
resolve to give him a fair chance. If he could be saved, I was
determined to save him.

We met at the Gare de Lyons on Sunday evening. I found he had dined at
the buffet: there was a surprising number of empty bottles on the table;
he seemed terribly depressed.

"Someone was dining with me, Frank, a friend," he offered by way of

"Why did he not wait? I should like to have seen him."

"Oh, he was no one you would have cared about, Frank," he replied.

I sat with him and took a cup of coffee, whilst waiting for the train.
He was wretchedly gloomy; scarcely spoke indeed; I could not make it
out. From time to time he sighed heavily, and I noticed that his eyes
were red, as if he had been crying.

"What is the matter?" I asked.

"I will tell you later, perhaps. It is very hard; parting is like
dying," and his eyes filled with tears.

We were soon in the train running out into the night. I was as
light-hearted as could be. At length I was free of journalism, I
thought, and I was going to the South to write my Shakespeare book, and
Oscar would work, too, when the conditions were pleasant. But I could
not win a single smile from him; he sat downcast, sighing hopelessly
from time to time.

"What on earth's the matter?" I cried. "Here you are going to the
sunshine, to blue skies, and the wine-tinted Mediterranean, and you're
not content. We shall stop in a hotel near a little sun-baked valley
running down to the sea. You walk from the hotel over a carpet of pine
needles, and when you get into the open, violets and anemones bloom
about your feet, and the scent of rosemary and myrtle will be in your
nostrils; yet instead of singing for joy the bird droops his feathers
and hangs his head as if he had the 'pip.'"

"Oh, don't," he cried, "don't," and he looked at me with tears filling
his eyes; "you don't know, Frank, what a great romantic passion is."

"Is that what you are suffering from?"

"Yes, a great romantic passion."

"Good God!" I laughed; "who has inspired this new devotion?"

"Don't make fun of me, Frank, or I will not tell you; but if you will
listen I will try to tell you all about it, for I think you should know,
besides, I think telling it may ease my pain, so come into the cabin and

"Do you remember once in the summer you wired me from Calais to meet you
at Maire's restaurant, meaning to go afterwards to Antoine's Theatre,
and I was very late? You remember, the evening Rostand was dining at the
next table. Well, it was that evening. I drove up to Maire's in time,
and I was just getting out of the victoria when a little soldier passed,
and our eyes met. My heart stood still; he had great dark eyes and an
exquisite olive-dark face--a Florentine bronze, Frank, by a great
master. He looked like Napoleon when he was first Consul, only--less
imperious, more beautiful....

"I got out hypnotised, and followed him down the Boulevard as in a
dream; the _cocher_ came running after me, I remember, and I gave him a
five franc piece, and waved him off; I had no idea what I owed him; I
did not want to hear his voice; it might break the spell; mutely I
followed my fate. I overtook the boy in a short time and asked him to
come and have a drink, and he said to me in his quaint French way:

"'_Ce n'est pas de refus!_' (Too good to refuse.)

"We went into a café, and I ordered something, I forget what, and we
began to talk. I told him I liked his face; I had had a friend once like
him; and I wanted to know all about him. I was in a hurry to meet you,
but I had to make friends with him first. He began by telling me all
about his mother, Frank, yes, his mother." Oscar smiled here in spite of

"But at last I got from him that he was always free on Thursdays, and he
would be very glad to see me then, though he did not know what I could
see in him to like. I found out that the thing he desired most in the
world was a bicycle; he talked of nickel-plated handle bars, and
chains--and finally I told him it might be arranged. He was very
grateful and so we made a rendezvous for the next Thursday, and I came
on at once to dine with you."

"Goodness!" I cried laughing. "A soldier, a nickel-plated bicycle and a
great romantic passion!"

"If I had said a brooch, or a necklace, some trinket which would have
cost ten times as much, you would have found it quite natural."

"Yes," I admitted, "but I don't think I'd have introduced the necklace
the first evening if there had been any romance in the affair, and the
nickel-plated bicycle to me seems irresistibly comic."

"Frank," he cried reprovingly, "I cannot talk to you if you laugh; I am
quite serious. I don't believe you know what a great romantic passion
is; I am going to convince you that you don't know the meaning of it."

"Fire away," I replied, "I am here to be convinced. But I don't think
you will teach me that there is any romance except where there is
another sex."

"Don't talk to me of the other sex," he cried with distaste in voice and
manner. "First of all in beauty there is no comparison between a boy and
a girl. Think of the enormous, fat hips which every sculptor has to tone
down, and make lighter, and the great udder breasts which the artist
has to make small and round and firm, and then picture the exquisite
slim lines of a boy's figure. No one who loves beauty can hesitate for a
moment. The Greeks knew that; they had the sense of plastic beauty, and
they understood that there is no comparison."

"You must not say that," I replied; "you are going too far; the Venus of
Milo is as fine as any Apollo, in sheer beauty; the flowing curves
appeal to me more than your weedy lines."

"Perhaps they do, Frank," he retorted, "but you must see that the boy is
far more beautiful. It is your sex-instinct, your sinful sex-instinct
which prevents you worshipping the higher form of beauty. Height and
length of limb give distinction; slightness gives grace; women are
squat! You must admit that the boy's figure is more beautiful; the
appeal it makes far higher, more spiritual."

"Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other," I barked. "Your sculptor
knows it is just as hard to find an ideal boy's figure as an ideal
girl's; and if he has to modify the most perfect girl's figure, he has
to modify the most perfect boy's figure as well. If he refines the
girl's breasts and hips he has to pad the boy's ribs and tone down the
great staring knee-bones and the unlovely large ankles; but please go
on, I enjoy your special pleading and your romantic passion interests
me; though you have not yet come to the romance, let alone the passion."

"Oh, Frank," he cried, "the story is full of romance; every meeting was
an event in my life. You have no idea how intelligent he is; every
evening we spent together he was different; he had grown, developed. I
lent him books and he read them, and his mind opened from week to week
like a flower, till in a short time, a few months, he became an
exquisite companion and disciple. Frank, no girl grows like that; they
have no minds, and what intelligence they have is all given to wretched
vanities, and personal jealousies. There is no intellectual
companionship possible with them. They want to talk of dress, and not of
ideas, and how persons look and not of what they are. How can you have
the flower of romance without a brotherhood of soul?"

"Sisterhood of soul seems to me infinitely finer," I said, "but go on."

"I shall convince you," he declared; "I must be able to, because all
reason is on my side. Let me give you one instance. Of course my boy had
his bicycle; he used to come to me on it and go to and fro from the
barracks on it. When you came to Paris in September, you invited me to
dine one night, one Thursday night, when he was to come to me. I told
him I had to go and dine with you. He didn't mind; but was glad when I
said I had an English editor for a friend, glad that I should have
someone to talk to about London and the people I used to know. If it had
been a woman I loved, I should have been forced to tell lies: she would
have been jealous of my past. I told him the truth, and when I spoke
about you he grew interested and excited, and at last he put a wish
before me. He wanted to know if he might come and leave his bicycle
outside and look through the window of the restaurant, just to see us at
dinner. I told him there might possibly be women-guests. He replied that
he would be delighted to see me in dress-clothes talking to gentlemen
and ladies.

"Might he come?" he persisted.

"Of course I said he could come, and he came, but I never saw him.

"The next time we met he told me all about it; how he had picked you out
from my description of you, and how he knew Baüer from his likeness to
Dumas _père_, and he was delightful about it all.

"Now, Frank, would any girl have come to see you enjoying yourself with
other people? Would any girl have stared through the window and been
glad to see you inside amusing yourself with other men and women? You
know there's not a girl on earth with such unselfish devotion. There is
no comparison, I tell you, between the boy and the girl; I say again
deliberately, you don't know what a great romantic passion is or the
high unselfishness of true love."

"You have put it with extraordinary ability," I said, "as of course I
knew you would. I think I can understand the charm of such
companionship; but only from the young boy's point of view, not from
yours. I can understand how you have opened to him a new heaven and a
new earth, but what has he given you? Nothing. On the other hand any
finely gifted girl would have given you something. If you had really
touched her heart, you would have found in her some instinctive
tenderness, some proof of unselfish, exquisite devotion that would have
made your eyes prickle with a sense of inferiority.

"After all, the essence of love, the finest spirit of that companionship
you speak about, of the sisterhood of soul, is that the other person
should quicken you, too; open to you new horizons, discover new
possibilities; and how could your soldier boy help you in any way? He
brought you no new ideas, no new feelings, could reveal no new thoughts
to you. I can see no romance, no growth of soul in such a connection.
But the girl is different from the man in all ways. You have as much to
learn from her as she has from you, and neither of you can come to
ideal growth in any other way: you are both half-parts of
humanity--complements, and in need of each other."

"You have put it very cunningly, Frank, as I expected you would, to
return your compliment, but you must admit that with the boy, at any
rate, you have no jealousy, no mean envyings, no silly inanities. There
it is, Frank, some of us hate 'cats.' I can give reasons for my dislike,
which to me are conclusive."

"The boy who would beg for a bicycle is not likely to be without mean
envyings," I replied. "Now you have talked about romance and
companionship," I went on, "but can you really feel passion?"

"Frank, what a silly question! Do you remember how Socrates says he felt
when the chlamys blew aside and showed him the limbs of Charmides? Don't
you remember how the blood throbbed in his veins and how he grew blind
with desire, a scene more magical than the passionate love-lines of

"There is no other passion to be compared with it. A woman's passion is
degrading. She is continually tempting you. She wants your desire as a
satisfaction for her vanity more than anything else, and her vanity is
insatiable if her desire is weak, and so she continually tempts you to
excess, and then blames you for the physical satiety and disgust which
she herself has created. With a boy there is no vanity in the matter, no
jealousy, and therefore none of the tempting, not a tenth part of the
coarseness; and consequently desire is always fresh and keen. Oh, Frank,
believe me, you don't know what a great romantic passion is."

"What you say only shows how little you know women," I replied. "If you
explained all this to the girl who loves you, she would see it at once,
and her tenderness would grow with her self-abnegation; we all grow by
giving. If the woman cares more than the man for caresses and kindness,
it is because she feels more tenderness, and is capable of intenser

"You don't know what you are talking about, Frank," he retorted. "You
repeat the old accepted commonplaces. The boy came to the station with
me to-night. He knew I was going away for six months. His heart was like
lead, tears gathered in his eyes again and again in spite of himself,
and yet he tried to be gay and bright for my sake; he wanted to show me
how glad he was that I should be happy, how thankful he was for all I
had done for him, and the new mental life I had created in him. He did
his best to keep my courage up. I cried, but he shook his tears away.
'Six months will soon be over,' he said, 'and perhaps you will come
back to me, and I shall be glad again.' Meantime he will write charming
letters to me, I'm sure.

"Would any girl take a parting like that? No; she would be jealous and
envious, and wonder why you were enjoying yourself in the South while
she was condemned to live in the rainy, cold North. Would she ask you to
tell her of all the beautiful girls you met, and whether they were
charming and bright, as the boy asked me to tell him of all the
interesting people I should meet, so that he, too, might take an
interest in them? A girl in his place would have been ill with envy and
malice and jealousy. Again I repeat, you don't know what a high romantic
passion is."

"Your argument is illogical," I cried, "if the girl is jealous, it is
because she has given herself more completely: her exclusiveness is the
other side of her devotion and tenderness; she wants to do everything
for you, to be with you and help you in every way, and in case of
illness or poverty or danger, you would find how much more she had to
give than your red-breeched soldier."

"That's merely a rude gibe and not an argument, Frank."

"As good an argument as your 'cats,'" I replied; "your little soldier
boy with his nickel-plated bicycle only makes me grin," and I grinned.

"You are unpardonable," he cried, "unpardonable, and in your soul you
know that all the weight of argument is on my side. In your soul you
must know it. What is the food of passion, Frank, but beauty, beauty
alone, beauty always, and in beauty of form and vigour of life there is
no comparison. If you loved beauty as intensely as I do, you would feel
as I feel. It is beauty which gives me joy, makes me drunk as with wine,
blind with insatiable desire...."


He was an incomparable companion, perfectly amiable, yet vivid, and
eager as a child, always interested and interesting. We awoke at Avignon
and went out in pyjamas and overcoats to stretch our legs and get a bowl
of coffee on the platform in the pearly grey light of early morning.
After coffee and cigarettes he led the way to the other end of the
platform, that we might catch a glimpse of the town wall which, though
terribly restored, yet, when seen from a distance, transports one back
five hundred years to the age of chivalry.

"How I should have loved to be a troubadour, or a _trouvère_, Frank;
that was my true _métier_, to travel from castle to castle singing love
songs and telling romantic stories to while away the tedium of the lives
of the great. Fancy the reception they would have given me for bringing
a new joy into their castled isolation, new ideas, new passions--a
breath of gossip and scandal from the outside world to relieve the
intolerable boredom of the middle ages. I should have been kept at the
Court of Aix: I think they would have bound me with flower-chains, and
my fame would have spread all through the sunny vineyards and grey
olive-clad hills of Provence."

When we got into the train again he began:

"We stop next at Marseilles, don't we, Frank? A great historic town for
nearly three thousand years. One really feels a barbarian in comparison,
and yet all I know of Marseilles is that it is famous for
_bouillabaisse_. Suppose we stop and get some?"

"_Bouillabaisse_," I replied, "is not peculiar to Marseilles or the _Rue
Cannebière_. You can get it all along this coast. There is only one
thing necessary to it and that is _rascasse_, a fish caught only among
the rocks: you will get excellent _bouillabaisse_ at lunch where we are

"Where are we going? You have not told me yet."

"It is for you to decide," I answered. "If you want perfect quiet there
are two places in the Esterel mountains, Agay and La Napoule. Agay is in
the middle of the Esterel. You would be absolutely alone there except
for the visit of an occasional French painter. La Napoule is eight or
ten miles from Cannes, so that you are within reach of a town and its
amusements. There is still another place I had thought of, quieter than
either, in the mountains behind Nice."

"Nice sounds wonderful, Frank, but I should meet too many English people
there who would know me, and they are horribly rude. I think we will
choose La Napoule."

About ten o'clock we got out at La Napoule and installed ourselves in
the little hotel, taking up three of the best rooms on the second or top
floor, much to the delight of the landlord. At twelve we had breakfast
under a big umbrella in the open air, looking over the sea. I had put
the landlord on his mettle, and he gave us a fry of little red mullet,
which made us understand how tasteless whitebait are: then a plain
beefsteak _aux pommes_, a morsel of cheese, and a sweet omelette. We
both agreed that we had had a most excellent breakfast. The coffee left
a good deal to be desired, and there was no champagne on the list fit to
drink; but both these faults could be remedied by the morrow, and were

We spent the rest of the day wandering between the seashore and the
pine-clad hills. The next morning I put in some work, but in the
afternoon I was free to walk and explore. On one of my first tramps I
discovered a monastery among the hills hundreds of feet above the sea,
built and governed by an Italian monk. I got to know the Père
Vergile[27] and had a great talk with him. He was both wise and strong,
with ingratiating, gentle manners. Had he gone as a boy from his little
Italian fishing village to New York or Paris, he would have certainly
come to greatness and honour. One afternoon I took Oscar to see him: the
monastery was not more than three-quarters of an hour's stroll from our
hotel; but Oscar grumbled at the walk as a nuisance, said it was miles
and miles; the road, too, was rough, and the sun hot. The truth was, he
was abnormally lazy. But he fascinated the Italian with his courteous
manner and vivid speech, and as soon as we were alone the Abbé asked me
who he was.

"He must be a great man," he said, "he has the stamp of a great man, and
he must have lived in courts: he has the charming, graceful, smiling
courtesy of the great."

"Yes," I nodded mysteriously, "a great man--incognito."

The Abbé kept us to dinner, made us taste of his oldest wines, and a
special liqueur of his own distilling; told us how he had built the
monastery with no money, and when we exclaimed with wonder, reproved us

"All great things are built with faith, and not with money; why wonder
that this little building stands firmly on that everlasting

When we came out of the monastery it was already night, and the
moonlight was throwing fantastic leafy shadows on the path, as we walked
down through the avenue of forest to the sea shore.

"You remember those words of Vergil, Frank--_per amica silentia
lunæ_--they always seem to me indescribably beautiful; the most magic
line about the moon ever written, except Browning's in the poem in which
he mentioned Keats--'him even.' I love that 'amica silentia.' What a
beautiful nature the man had who could feel 'the _friendly_ silences of
the moon.'"

When we got down the hill he declared himself tired.

"Tired after a mile?" I asked.

"Tired to death, worn out," he said, laughing at his own laziness.

"Shall we get a boat and row across the bay?"

"How splendid! of course, let's do it," and we went down to the landing
stage. I had never seen the water so calm; half the bay was veiled by
the mountain, and opaque like unpolished steel; a little further out,
the water was a purple shield, emblazoned with shimmering silver. We
called a fisherman and explained what we wanted. When we got into the
boat, to my astonishment, Oscar began calling the fisher boy by his
name; evidently he knew him quite well. When we landed I went up from
the boat to the hotel, leaving Oscar and the boy together....

A fortnight taught me a good deal about Oscar at this time; he was
intensely indolent: quite content to kill time by the hour talking to
the fisher lads, or he would take a little carriage and drive to Cannes
and amuse himself at some wayside café.

He never cared to walk and I walked for miles daily, so that we spent
only one or at most two afternoons a week together, meeting so seldom
that nearly all our talks were significant. Several times contemporary
names came up and I was compelled to notice for the first time that
really he was contemptuous of almost everyone, and had a sharp word to
say about many who were supposed to be his friends. One day we spoke of
Ricketts and Shannon; I was saying that had Ricketts lived in Paris he
would have had a great reputation: many of his designs I thought
extraordinary, and his intellect was peculiarly French--_mordant_ even.
Oscar did not like to hear praise of anyone.

"Do you know my word for them, Frank? I like it. I call them 'Temper and

Was his punishment making him a little spiteful or was it the temptation
of the witty phrase?

"What do you think of Arthur Symons?" I asked.

"Oh, Frank, I said of him long ago that he was a sad example of an
Egoist who had no Ego."

"And what of your compatriot, George Moore? He's popular enough," I

"Popular, Frank, as if that counted. George Moore has conducted his
whole education in public. He had written two or three books before he
found out there was such a thing as English grammar. He at once
announced his discovery and so won the admiration of the illiterate. A
few years later he discovered that there was something architectural in
style, that sentences had to be built up into a paragraph, and
paragraphs into chapters and so on. Naturally he cried this revelation,
too, from the housetops, and thus won the admiration of the journalists
who had been making rubble-heaps all their lives without knowing it. I'm
much afraid, Frank, in spite of all his efforts, he will die before he
reaches the level from which writers start. It's a pity because he has
certainly a little real talent. He differs from Symons in that he has an
Ego, but his Ego has five senses and no soul."

"What about Bernard Shaw?" I probed further, "after all he's going to

"Yes, Frank, a man of real ability but with a bleak mind. Humorous
gleams as of wintry sunlight on a bare, harsh landscape. He has no
passion, no feeling, and without passionate feeling how can one be an
artist? He believes in nothing, loves nothing, not even Bernard Shaw,
and really, on the whole, I don't wonder at his indifference," and he
laughed mischievously.

"And Wells?" I asked.

"A scientific Jules Verne," he replied with a shrug.

"Did you ever care for Hardy?" I continued.

"Not greatly. He has just found out that women have legs underneath
their dresses, and this discovery has almost wrecked his life. He writes
poetry, I believe, in his leisure moments, and I am afraid it will be
very hard reading. He knows nothing of love; passion to him is a
childish illness like measles--poor unhappy spirit!"

"You might be describing Mrs. Humphry Ward," I cried.

"God forbid, Frank," he exclaimed with such mock horror I had to laugh.
"After all, Hardy is a writer and a great landscape painter."

"I don't know why it is," he went on, "but I am always match-making when
I think of English celebrities. I should so much like to have introduced
Mrs. Humphry Ward blushing at eighteen or twenty to Swinburne, who
would of course have bitten her neck in a furious kiss, and she would
have run away and exposed him in court, or else have suffered agonies of
mingled delight and shame in silence.

"And if one could only marry Thomas Hardy to Victoria Cross he might
have gained some inkling of real passion with which to animate his
little keepsake pictures of starched ladies. A great many writers, I
think, might be saved in this way, but there would still be left the
Corellis and Hall Caines that one could do nothing with except bind them
back to back, which would not even tantalise them, and throw them into
the river, a new _noyade_: the Thames at Barking, I think, would be
about the place for them...."

"Where do you go every afternoon?" I asked him once casually.

"I go to Cannes, Frank, and sit in a café and look across the sea to
Capri, where Tiberius used to sit like a spider watching, and I think of
myself as an exile, the victim of one of his inscrutable suspicions, or
else I am in Rome looking at the people dancing naked, but with gilded
lips, through the streets at the _Floralia_. I sup with the _arbiter
elegantiarum_ and come back to La Napoule, Frank," and he pulled his
jowl, "to the simple life and the charm of restful friendship."

More and more clearly I saw that the effort, the hard work, of writing
was altogether beyond him: he was now one of those men of genius,
talkers merely, half artists, half dreamers, whom Balzac describes
contemptuously as wasting their lives, "talking to hear themselves
talk"; capable indeed of fine conceptions and of occasional fine
phrases, but incapable of the punishing toil of execution; charming
companions, fated in the long run to fall to misery and destitution.

Constant creation is the first condition of art as it is the first
condition of life.

I asked him one day if he remembered the terrible passage about those
"eunuchs of art" in "La Cousine Bette."

"Yes, Frank," he replied; "but Balzac was probably envious of the
artist-talker; at any rate, we who talk should not be condemned by those
to whom we dedicate our talents. It is for posterity to blame us; but
after all I have written a good deal. Do you remember how Browning's
Sarto defends himself?

           "Some good son
    Paint my two hundred pictures--let him try."

He did not see that Balzac, one of the greatest talkers that ever lived
according to Théophile Gautier, was condemning the temptation to which
he himself had no doubt yielded too often. To my surprise, Oscar did not
even read much now. He was not eager to hear new thoughts, a little
rebellious to any new mental influence. He had reached his zenith, I
suppose: had begun to fossilise, as men do when they cease to grow.

One day at lunch I questioned him:

"You told me once that you always imagined yourself in the place of
every historic personage. Suppose you had been Jesus, what religion
would you have preached?"

"What a wonderful question!" he cried. "What religion is mine? What
belief have I?

"I believe most of all in personal liberty for every human soul. Each
man ought to do what he likes, to develop as he will. England, or rather
London, for I know little of England outside London, was an ideal place
to me, till they punished me because I did not share their tastes. What
an absurdity it all was, Frank: how dared they punish me for what is
good in my eyes? How dared they?" and he fell into moody thought.... The
idea of a new gospel did not really interest him.

It was about this time he first told me of a new play he had in mind.

"It has a great scene, Frank," he said. "Imagine a _roué_ of forty-five
who is married; incorrigible, of course, Frank, a great noble who gets
the person he is in love with to come and stay with him in the country.
One evening his wife, who has gone upstairs to lie down with a
headache, is behind a screen in a room half asleep; she is awakened by
her husband's courting. She cannot move, she is bound breathless to her
couch; she hears everything. Then, Frank, the husband comes to the door
and finds it locked, and knowing that his wife is inside with the host,
beats upon the door and will have entrance, and while the guilty ones
whisper together--the woman blaming the man, the man trying to think of
some excuse, some way out of the net--the wife gets up very quietly and
turns on the lights while the two cowards stare at her with wild
surmise. She passes to the door and opens it and the husband rushes in
to find his hostess as well as the host and his wife. I think it is a
great scene, Frank, a great stage picture."

"It is," I said, "a great scene; why don't you write it?"

"Perhaps I shall, Frank, one of these days, but now I am thinking of
some poetry, a 'Ballad of a Fisher Boy,' a sort of companion to 'The
Ballad of Reading Gaol,' in which I sing of liberty instead of prison,
joy instead of sorrow, a kiss instead of an execution. I shall do this
joy-song much better than I did the song of sorrow and despair."

"Like Davidson's 'Ballad of a Nun,'" I said, for the sake of saying

"Naturally Davidson would write the 'Ballad of a Nun,' Frank; his talent
is Scotch and severe; but I should like to write 'The Ballad of a Fisher
Boy,'" and he fell to dreaming.

The thought of his punishment was oft with him. It seemed to him
hideously wrong and unjust. But he never questioned the right of society
to punish. He did not see that, if you once grant that, the wrong done
to him could be defended.

"I used to think myself a lord of life," he said. "How dared those
little wretches condemn me and punish me? Everyone of them tainted with
a sensuality which I loathe."

To call him out of this bitter way of regret I quoted Shakespeare's

    "For why should others' false adulterate eyes
      Give salutation to my sportive blood?
    Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
      Which in their wills count bad what I think good?"

"His complaint is exactly yours, Oscar."

"It's astonishing, Frank, how well you know him, and yet you deny his
intimacy with Pembroke. To you he is a living man; you always talk of
him as if he had just gone out of the room, and yet you persist in
believing in his innocence."

"You misapprehend me," I said, "the passion of his life was for Mary
Fitton, to give her a name; I mean the 'dark lady' of the sonnets, who
was Beatrice, Cressida and Cleopatra, and you yourself admit that a man
who has a mad passion for a woman is immune, I think the doctors call
it, to other influences."

"Oh, yes, Frank, of course; but how could Shakespeare with his beautiful
nature love a woman to that mad excess?"

"Shakespeare hadn't your overwhelming love of plastic beauty," I
replied; "he fell in love with a dominant personality, the complement of
his own yielding, amiable disposition."

"That's it," he broke in, "our opposites attract us irresistibly--the
charm of the unknown!"

"You often talk now," I went on, "as if you had never loved a woman; yet
you must have loved--more than one."

"My salad days, Frank," he quoted, smiling, "when I was green in
judgment, cold of blood."

"No, no," I persisted, "it is not a great while since you praised Lady
So and So and the Terrys enthusiastically."

"Lady ----," he began gravely (and I could not but notice that the mere
title seduced him to conventional, poetic language), "moves like a lily
in water; I always think of her as a lily; just as I used to think of
Lily Langtry as a tulip, with a figure like a Greek vase carved in
ivory. But I always adored the Terrys: Marion is a great actress with
subtle charm and enigmatic fascination: she was my 'Woman of no
importance,' artificial and enthralling; she belongs to my theatre--"

As he seemed to have lost the thread, I questioned again.

"And Ellen?"

"Oh, Ellen's a perfect wonder," he broke out, "a great character. Do you
know her history?" And then, without waiting for an answer, he

"She began as a model for Watts, the painter, when she was only some
fifteen or sixteen years of age. In a week she read him as easily as if
he had been a printed book. He treated her with condescending courtesy,
_en grand seigneur_, and, naturally, she had her revenge on him.

"One day her mother came in and asked Watts what he was going to do
about Ellen. Watts said he didn't understand. 'You have made Ellen in
love with you,' said the mother, and it is impossible that could have
happened unless you had been attentive to her.'

"Poor Watts protested and protested, but the mother broke down and
sobbed, and said the girl's heart would be broken, and at length, in
despair, Watts asked what he was to do, and the mother could only
suggest marriage.

"Finally they were married."

"You don't mean that," I cried, "I never knew that Watts had married
Ellen Terry."

"Oh, yes," said Oscar, "they were married all right. The mother saw to
that, and to do him justice, Watts kept the whole family like a
gentleman. But like an idealist, or, as a man of the world would say, a
fool, he was ashamed of his wife; he showed great reserve to her, and
when he gave his usual dinners or receptions, he invited only men and
so, carefully, left her out.

"One evening he had a dinner; a great many well-known people were
present and a bishop was on his right hand, when, suddenly, between the
cheese and the pear, as the French would say, Ellen came dancing into
the room in pink tights with a basket of roses around her waist with
which she began pelting the guests. Watts was horrified, but everyone
else delighted, the bishop in especial, it is said, declared he had
never seen anything so romantically beautiful. Watts nearly had a fit,
but Ellen danced out of the room with all their hearts in her basket
instead of her roses.

"To me that's the true story of Ellen Terry's life. It may be true or
false in reality, but I believe it to be true in fact as in symbol; it
is not only an image of her life, but of her art. No one knows how she
met Irving or learned to act, though, as you know, she was one of the
best actresses that ever graced the English stage. A great personality.
Her children even have inherited some of her talent."

It was only famous actresses such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt and
great ladies that Oscar ever praised. He was a snob by nature; indeed
this was the chief link between him and English society. Besides, he had
a rooted contempt for women and especially for their brains. He said
once, of some one: "he is like a woman, sure to remember the trivial and
forget the important."

It was this disdain of the sex which led him, later, to take up our
whole dispute again.

"I have been thinking over our argument in the train," he began; "really
it was preposterous of me to let you off with a drawn battle; you should
have been beaten and forced to haul down your flag. We talked of love
and I let you place the girl against the boy: it is all nonsense. A girl
is not made for love; she is not even a good instrument of love."

"Some of us care more for the person than the pleasure," I replied, "and
others--. You remember Browning:

    Nearer we hold of God
    Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe."

"Yes, yes," he replied impatiently, "but that's not the point. I mean
that a woman is not made for passion and love; but to be a mother.

"When I married, my wife was a beautiful girl, white and slim as a lily,
with dancing eyes and gay rippling laughter like music. In a year or so
the flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless,
deformed: she dragged herself about the house in uncouth misery with
drawn blotched face and hideous body, sick at heart because of our love.
It was dreadful. I tried to be kind to her; forced myself to touch and
kiss her; but she was sick always, and--oh! I cannot recall it, it is
all loathsome.... I used to wash my mouth and open the window to cleanse
my lips in the pure air. Oh, nature is disgusting; it takes beauty and
defiles it: it defaces the ivory-white body we have adored, with the
vile cicatrices of maternity: it befouls the altar of the soul.

"How can you talk of such intimacy as love? How can you idealise it?
Love is not possible to the artist unless it is sterile."

"All her suffering did not endear her to you?" I asked in amazement;
"did not call forth that pity in you which you used to speak of as

"Pity, Frank," he exclaimed impatiently; "pity has nothing to do with
love. How can one desire what is shapeless, deformed, ugly? Desire is
killed by maternity; passion buried in conception," and he flung away
from the table.

At length I understood his dominant motive: _trahit sua quemque
voluptas_, his Greek love of form, his intolerant cult of physical
beauty, could take no heed of the happiness or well-being of the

"I will not talk to you about it, Frank; I am like a Persian, who lives
by warmth and worships the sun, talking to some Esquimau, who answers me
with praise of blubber and nights spent in ice houses and baths of foul
vapour. Let's talk of something else."


[27] He lived till November, 1910.


A little later I was called to Monte Carlo and went for a few days,
leaving Oscar, as he said, perfectly happy, with good food, excellent
champagne, absinthe and coffee, and his simple fisher friends.

When I came back to La Napoule, I found everything altered and altered
for the worse. There was an Englishman of a good class named M----
staying at the hotel. He was accompanied by a youth of seventeen or
eighteen whom he called his servant. Oscar wanted to know if I minded
meeting him.

"He is charming, Frank, and well read, and he admires me very much: you
won't mind his dining with us, will you?"

"Of course not," I replied. But when I saw M---- I thought him an
insignificant, foolish creature, who put to show a great admiration for
Oscar, and drank in his words with parted lips; and well he might, for
he had hardly any brains of his own. He had, however, a certain liking
for the poetry and literature of passion.[28]

To my astonishment Oscar was charming to him, chiefly I think because
he was well off, and was pressing Oscar to spend the summer with him at
some place he had in Switzerland. This support made Oscar recalcitrant
to any influence I might have had over him. When I asked him if he had
written anything whilst I was away, he replied casually:

"No, Frank, I don't think I shall be able to write any more. What is the
good of it? I cannot force myself to write."

"And your 'Ballad of a Fisher Boy'?" I asked.

"I have composed three or four verses of it," he said, smiling at me, "I
have got them in my head," and he recited two or three, one of which was
quite good, but none of them startling.

Not having seen him for some days, I noticed that he was growing stout
again: the good living and constant drinking seemed to ooze out of him;
he began to look as he looked in the old days in London just before the

One morning I asked him to put the verses on paper which he had recited
to me, but he would not; and when I pressed him, cried:

"Let me live, Frank; tasks remind me of prison. You do not know how I
abhor even the memory of it: it was degrading, inhuman!"

"Prison was the making of you," I could not help retorting, irritated by
what seemed to me a mere excuse. "You came out of it better in health
and stronger than I have ever known you. The hard living, regular hours
and compulsory chastity did you all the good in the world. That is why
you wrote those superb letters to the 'Daily Chronicle,' and the 'Ballad
of Reading Gaol'; the State ought really to put you in prison and keep
you there."

For the first time in my life I saw angry dislike in his eyes.

"You talk poisonous nonsense, Frank," he retorted. "Bad food is bad for
everyone, and abstinence from tobacco is mere torture to me. Chastity is
just as unnatural and devilish as hunger; I hate both. Self-denial is
the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity."

To all this M---- giggled applause, which naturally excited the
combative instincts in me--always too alert.

"All great artists," I replied, "have had to practise chastity; it is
chastity alone which gives vigour and tone to mind and body, while
building up a reserve of extraordinary strength. Your favourite Greeks
never allowed an athlete to go into the palæstra unless he had
previously lived a life of complete chastity for a whole year. Balzac,
too, practised it and extolled its virtues, and goodness knows he loved
all the mud-honey of Paris."

"You are hopelessly wrong, Frank, what madness will you preach next! You
are always bothering one to write, and now forsooth you recommend
chastity and 'skilly,' though I admit," he added laughing, "that your
'skilly' includes all the indelicacies of the season, with champagne,
Mocha coffee, and absinthe to boot. But surely you are getting too
puritanical. It's absurd of you; the other day you defended conventional
love against my ideal passion."

He provoked me: his tone was that of rather contemptuous superiority. I
kept silent: I did not wish to retort as I might have done if M---- had
not been present.

But Oscar was determined to assert his peculiar view. One or two days
afterwards he came in very red and excited and more angry than I had
ever seen him.

"What do you think has happened, Frank?"

"I do not know. Nothing serious, I hope."

"I was sitting by the roadside on the way to Cannes. I had taken out a
Vergil with me and had begun reading it. As I sat there reading, I
happened to raise my eyes, and who should I see but George
Alexander--George Alexander on a bicycle. I had known him intimately in
the old days, and naturally I got up delighted to see him, and went
towards him. But he turned his head aside and pedalled past me
deliberately. He meant to cut me. Of course I know that just before my
trial in London he took my name off the bill of my comedy, though he
went on playing it. But I was not angry with him for that, though he
might have behaved as well as Wyndham,[29] who owed me nothing, don't
you think?

"Here there was nobody to see him, yet he cut me. What brutes men are!
They not only punish me as a society, but now they are trying as
individuals to punish me, and after all I have not done worse than they
do. What difference is there between one form of sexual indulgence and
another? I hate hypocrisy and hypocrites! Think of Alexander, who made
all his money out of my works, cutting me, Alexander! It is too ignoble.
Wouldn't you be angry, Frank?"

"I daresay I should be," I replied coolly, hoping the incident would be
a spur to him.

"I've always wondered why you gave Alexander a play? Surely you didn't
think him an actor?"

"No, no!" he exclaimed, a sudden smile lighting up his face; "Alexander
doesn't act on the stage; he behaves. But wasn't it mean of him?"

I couldn't help smiling, the dart was so deserved.

"Begin another play," I said, "and the Alexanders will immediately go on
their knees to you again. On the other hand, if you do nothing you may
expect worse than discourtesy. Men love to condemn their neighbours' pet
vice. You ought to know the world by this time."

He did not even notice the hint to work, but broke out angrily:

"What you call vice, Frank, is not vice: it is as good to me as it was
to Cæsar, Alexander, Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It was first of all
made a sin by monasticism, and it has been made a crime in recent times,
by the Goths--the Germans and English--who have done little or nothing
since to refine or exalt the ideals of humanity. They all damn the sins
they have no mind to, and that's their morality. A brutal race; they
overeat and overdrink and condemn the lusts of the flesh, while
revelling in all the vilest sins of the spirit. If they would read the
23rd chapter of St. Matthew and apply it to themselves, they would learn
more than by condemning a pleasure they don't understand. Why, even
Bentham refused to put what you call a 'vice' in his penal code, and you
yourself admitted that it should not be punished as a crime; for it
carries no temptation with it. It may be a malady; but, if so, it
appears only to attack the highest natures. It is disgraceful to punish
it. The wit of man can find no argument which justifies its punishment."

"Don't be too sure of that," I retorted.

"I have never heard a convincing argument which condemns it, Frank; I do
not believe such a reason exists."

"Don't forget," I said, "that this practice which you defend is
condemned by a hundred generations of the most civilised races of

"Mere prejudice of the unlettered, Frank."

"And what is such a prejudice?" I asked. "It is the reason of a thousand
generations of men, a reason so sanctified by secular experience that it
has passed into flesh and blood and become an emotion and is no longer
merely an argument. I would rather have one such prejudice held by men
of a dozen different races than a myriad reasons. Such a prejudice is
incarnate reason approved by immemorial experience.

"What argument have you against cannibalism; what reason is there why we
should not fatten babies for the spit and eat their flesh? The flesh is
sweeter, African travellers tell us, than any other meat, tenderer at
once and more sustaining; all reasons are in favour of it. What hinders
us from indulging in this appetite but prejudice, sacred prejudice, an
instinctive loathing at the bare idea?

"Humanity, it seems to me, is toiling up a long slope leading from the
brute to the god: again and again whole generations, sometimes whole
races, have fallen back and disappeared in the abyss. Every slip fills
the survivors with fear and horror which with ages have become
instinctive, and now you appear and laugh at their fears and tell them
that human flesh is excellent food, and that sterile kisses are the
noblest form of passion. They shudder from you and hate and punish you,
and if you persist they will kill you. Who shall say they are wrong? Who
shall sneer at their instinctive repulsion hallowed by ages of
successful endeavour?"

"Fine rhetoric, I concede," he replied, "but mere rhetoric. I never
heard such a defence of prejudice before. I should not have expected it
from you. You admit you don't share the prejudice; you don't feel the
horror, the instinctive loathing you describe. Why? Because you are
educated, Frank, because you know that the passion Socrates felt was not
a low passion, because you know that Cæsar's weakness, let us say, or
the weakness of Michelangelo or of Shakespeare, is not despicable. If
the desire is not a characteristic of the highest humanity, at least it
is consistent with it."[30]

"I cannot admit that," I answered. "First of all, let us leave
Shakespeare out of the question, or I should have to ask you for proofs
of his guilt, and there are none. About the others there is this to be
said, it is not by imitating the vices and weaknesses of great men that
we shall get to their level. And suppose we are fated to climb above
them, then their weaknesses are to be dreaded.

"I have not even tried to put the strongest reasons before you; I should
have thought your own mind would have supplied them; but surely you see
that the historical argument is against you. This vice of yours is
dropping out of life, like cannibalism: it is no longer a practice of
the highest races. It may have seemed natural enough to the Greeks, to
us it is unnatural. Even the best Athenians condemned it; Socrates took
pride in never having yielded to it; all moderns denounce it
disdainfully. You must see that the whole progress of the world, the
current of educated opinion, is against you, that you are now a 'sport,'
a peculiarity, an abnormality, a man with six fingers: not a 'sport'
that is, full of promise for the future, but a 'sport' of the dim
backward and abysm of time, an arrested development."

"You are bitter, Frank, almost rude."

"Forgive me, Oscar, forgive me, please; it is because I want you at long
last to open your eyes, and see things as they are."

"But I thought you were with us, Frank, I thought at least you condemned
the punishment, did not believe in the barbarous penalties."

"I disbelieve in all punishment," I said; "it is by love and not by hate
that men must be redeemed. I believe, too, that the time is already come
when the better law might be put in force, and above all, I condemn
punishment which strikes a man, an artist like you, who has done
beautiful and charming things as if he had done nothing. At least the
good you have accomplished should be set against the evil. It has always
seemed monstrous to me that you should have been punished like a Taylor.
The French were right in their treatment of Verlaine: they condemned the
sin, while forgiving the sinner because of his genius. The rigour in
England is mere puritanic hypocrisy, shortsightedness and racial

"All I can say, Frank, is, I would not limit individual desire in any
way. What right has society to punish us unless it can prove we have
hurt or injured someone else against his will? Besides, if you limit
passion you impoverish life, you weaken the mainspring of art, and
narrow the realm of beauty."

"All societies," I replied, "and most individuals, too, punish what they
dislike, right or wrong. There are bad smells which do not injure
anyone; yet the manufacturers of them would be indicted for committing a
nuisance. Nor does your plea that by limiting the choice of passion you
impoverish life, appeal to me. On the contrary, I think I could prove
that passion, the desire of the man for the woman and the woman for the
man, has been enormously strengthened in modern times. Christianity has
created, or at least cultivated, modesty, and modesty has sharpened
desire. Christianity has helped to lift woman to an equality with man,
and this modern intellectual development has again intensified passion
out of all knowledge. The woman who is not a slave but an equal, who
gives herself according to her own feeling, is infinitely more desirable
to a man than any submissive serf who is always waiting on his will. And
this movement intensifying passion is every day gaining force.

"We have a far higher love in us than the Greeks, infinitely higher and
more intense than the Romans knew; our sensuality is like a river
banked in with stone parapets, the current flows higher and more
vehemently in the narrower bed."

"You may talk as you please, Frank, but you will never get me to believe
that what I know is good to me, is evil. Suppose I like a food that is
poison to other people, and yet quickens me; how dare they punish me for
eating of it?"

"They would say," I replied, "that they only punish you for inducing
others to eat it."

He broke in: "It is all ignorant prejudice, Frank; the world is slowly
growing more tolerant and one day men will be ashamed of their barbarous
treatment of me, as they are now ashamed of the torturings of the Middle
Ages. The current of opinion is making in our favour and not against

"You don't believe what you say," I cried; "if you really thought
humanity was going your way, you would have been delighted to play
Galileo. Instead of writing a book in prison condemning your companion
who pushed you to discovery and disgrace, you would have written a book
vindicating your actions. 'I am a martyr,' you would have cried, 'and
not a criminal, and everyone who holds the contrary is wrong.'

"You would have said to the jury:

"'In spite of your beliefs, and your cherished dogmas; in spite of your
religion and prejudice and fanatical hatred of me, you are wrong and I
am right: the world does move.'

"But you didn't say that, and you don't think it. If you did you would
be glad you went into the Queensberry trial, glad you were accused, glad
you were imprisoned and punished because all these things must bring
your vindication more quickly; you are sorry for them all, because in
your heart you know you were wrong. This old world in the main is right:
it's you who are wrong."

"Of course everything can be argued, Frank; but I hold to my conviction:
the best minds even now don't condemn us, and the world is becoming more
tolerant.[31] I didn't justify myself in court because I was told I
should be punished lightly if I respected the common prejudices, and
when I tried to speak afterwards the judge would not let me."

"And I believe," I retorted, "that you were hopelessly beaten and could
never have made a fight of it, because you felt the Time-spirit was
against you. How else was a silly, narrow judge able to wave you to
silence? Do you think he could have silenced me? Not all the judges in
Christendom. Let me give you an example. I believe with Voltaire that
when modesty goes out of life it goes into the language as prudery. I am
quite certain that our present habit of not discussing sexual questions
in our books is bound to disappear, and that free and dignified speech
will take the place of our present prurient mealy-mouthedness. I have
long thought it possible, probable even, in the present state of society
in England, where we are still more or less under the heel of the
illiterate and prudish Philistinism of our middle class, that I might be
had up to answer some charge of publishing an indecent book. The current
of the time appears to be against me. In the spacious days of Elizabeth,
in the modish time of the Georges, a freedom of speech was habitual
which to-day is tabooed. Our cases, therefore, are somewhat alike. Do
you think I should dread the issue or allow myself to be silenced by a
judge? I would set forth my defence before the judge and before the jury
with the assurance of victory in me! I should not minimise what I had
written; I should not try to explain it away; I should seek to make it
stronger. I should justify every word, and finally I'd warn both judge
and jury that if they condemned and punished me they would only make my
ultimate triumph more conspicuous. 'All the great men of the past are
with me,' I would cry; 'all the great minds of to-day in other
countries, and some of the best in England; condemn me at your peril:
you will only condemn yourselves. You are spitting against the wind and
the shame will be on your own faces.'

"Do you believe I should be left to suffer? I doubt it even in England
to-day. If I'm right, and I'm sure I'm right, then about me there would
be an invisible cloud of witnesses. You would see a strange movement of
opinion in my favour. The judge would probably lecture me and bind me
over to come up for judgment; but if he sentenced me vindictively then
the Home Secretary[32] would be petitioned and the movement in my favour
would grow, till it swept away opposition. This is the very soul of my
faith. If I did not believe with every fibre in me that this poor stupid
world is honestly groping its way up the altar stairs to God, and not
down, I would not live in it an hour."

"Why do you argue against me, Frank? It is brutal of you."

"To induce you even now to turn and pull yourself out of the mud. You
are forty odd years of age, and the keenest sensations of life are over
for you. Turn back whilst there's time, get to work, write your ballad
and your plays, and not the Alexanders alone, but all the people who
really count, the best of all countries--the salt of the earth--will
give you another chance. Begin to work and you'll be borne up on all
hands: No one sinks to the dregs but by his own weight. If you don't
bear fruit why should men care for you?"

He shrugged his shoulders and turned from me with disdainful

"I've done enough for their respect, Frank, and received nothing but
hatred. Every man must dree his own weird. Thank Heaven, life's not
without compensations. I'm sorry I cannot please you," and he added
carelessly, "M----has asked me to go and spend the summer with him at
Gland in Switzerland. _He_ does not mind whether I write or not."

"I assure you," I cried, "it is not my pleasure I am thinking about.
What can it matter to me whether you write or not? It is your own good I
am thinking of."

"Oh, bother good! One's friends like one as one is; the outside public
hate one or scoff at one as they please."

"Well, I hope I shall always be your friend," I replied, "but you will
yet be forced to see, Oscar, that everyone grows tired of holding up an
empty sack."

"Frank, you insult me."

"I don't mean to; I'm sorry; I shall never be so brutally frank again;
but you had to hear the truth for once."

"Then, Frank, you only cared for me in so far as I agreed with you?"

"Oh, that's not fair," I replied. "I have tried with all my strength to
prevent you committing soul-suicide, but if you are resolved on it, I
can't prevent you. I must draw away. I can do no good."

"Then you won't help me for the rest of the winter?"

"Of course I will," I replied, "I shall do all I promised and more; but
there's a limit now, and till now the only limit was my power, not my

It was at Napoule a few days later that an incident occurred which gave
me to a certain extent a new sidelight on Oscar's nature by showing just
what he thought of me. I make no scruple of setting forth his opinion
here in its entirety, though the confession took place after a futile
evening when he had talked to M---- of great houses in England and the
great people he had met there. The talk had evidently impressed M----
as much as it had bored me. I must first say that Oscar's bedroom was
separated from mine by a large sitting-room we had in common. As a rule
I worked in my bedroom in the mornings and he spent a great deal of time
out of doors. On this especial morning, however, I had gone into the
sitting-room early to write some letters. I heard him get up and splash
about in his bath: shortly afterwards he must have gone into the next
room, which was M----'s, for suddenly he began talking to him in a loud
voice from one room to the other, as if he were carrying on a
conversation already begun, through the open door.

"Of course it's absurd of Frank talking of social position or the great
people of English society at all. He never had any social position to be
compared with mine!" (The petulant tone made me smile; but what Oscar
said was true: nor did I ever pretend to have such a position.)

"He had a house in Park Lane and owned _The Saturday Review_ and had a
certain power; but I was the centre of every party, the most honoured
guest everywhere, at Clieveden and Taplow Court and Clumber. The
difference was Frank was proud of meeting Balfour while Balfour was
proud of meeting me: d'ye see?" (I was so interested I was unconscious
of any indiscretion in listening: it made me smile to hear that I was
proud of meeting Arthur Balfour: it would never have occurred to me that
I should be proud of that: still no doubt Oscar was right in a general

"When Frank talks of literature, he amuses me: he pretends to bring new
standards into it; he does: he brings America to judge Oxford and
London, much like bringing Macedon or Boeotia to judge Athens--quite
ridiculous! What can Americans know about English literature?...

"Yet the curious thing is he has read a lot and has a sort of vision:
that Shakespeare stuff of his is extraordinary; but he takes sincerity
for style, and poetry as poetry has no appeal for him. You heard him
admit that himself last night....

"He's comic, really: curiously provincial like all Americans. Fancy a
Jeremiad preached by a man in a fur coat! Frank's comic. But he's really
kind and fights for his friends. He helped me in prison greatly:
sympathy is a sort of religion to him: that's why we can meet without
murder and separate without suicide....

"Talking literature with him is very like playing Rugby football.... I
never did play football, you know; but talking literature with Frank
must be very like playing Rugby where you end by being kicked violently
through your own goal," and he laughed delightedly.

I had listened without thinking as I often listened to his talk for the
mere music of the utterance; now, at a break in the monologue, I went
into the next room, feeling that to listen consciously would be
unworthy. On the whole his view of me was not unkindly: he disliked to
hear any opinion that differed from his own and it never came into his
head that Oxford was no nearer the meridian of truth than Lawrence,
Kansas, and certainly at least as far from Heaven.

Some weeks later I left La Napoule and went on a visit to some friends.
He wrote complaining that without me the place was dull. I wired him and
went over to Nice to meet him and we lunched together at the Café de la
Regence. He was terribly downcast, and yet rebellious. He had come over
to stay at Nice, and stopped at the Hotel Terminus, a tenth-rate hotel
near the station; the proprietor called on him two or three days
afterwards and informed him he must leave the hotel, as his room had
been let.

"Evidently someone has told him, Frank, who I am. What am I to do?"

I soon found him a better hotel where he was well treated, but the
incident coming on top of the Alexander affair seemed to have frightened

"There are too many English on this coast," he said to me one day, "and
they are all brutal to me. I think I should like to go to Italy if you
would not mind."

"The world is all before you," I replied. "I shall only be too glad for
you to get a comfortable place," and I gave him the money he wanted. He
lingered on at Nice for nearly a week. I saw him several times. He
lunched with me at the Reserve once at Beaulieu, and was full of delight
at the beauty of the bay and the quiet of it. In the middle of the meal
some English people came in and showed their dislike of him rudely. He
at once shrank into himself, and as soon as possible made some pretext
to leave. Of course I went with him. I was more than sorry for him, but
I felt as unable to help him as I should have been unable to hold him
back if he had determined to throw himself down a precipice.


[28] Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."

[29] The incident is worth recording for the honour of human nature. At
the moment of Oscar's trial Charles Wyndham had let his theatre, the
Criterion, to Lewis Waller and H.H. Morell to produce in it "An Ideal
Husband" which had been running for over 100 nights at the Haymarket.
When Alexander took Oscar's name off the bill, Wyndham wrote to the
young Managers, saying that, if under the altered circumstances they
wished to cancel their agreement, he would allow them to do so. But if
they "put on" a play of Mr. Wilde's, the author's name must be on all
the bills and placards as usual. He could not allow his theatre to be
used to insult a man who was on his trial.

[30] Cfr. end of Appendix:--A Last Word.

[31] Cfr. end of Appendix:--A Last Word.

[32] This was written years before a Home Secretary, Mr. Reginald
MacKenna, tortured women and girls in prison in England by forcible
feeding, because they tried to present petitions in favour of Woman's
Suffrage. He afterwards defended himself in Parliament by declaring that
"'forcible feeding' was not unpleasant." The torturers of the
Inquisition also befouled cruelty with hypocritical falsehood: they
would burn their victims; but would not shed blood.


    "The Gods are just and of our pleasant vices
    Make instruments to plague us."

It was full summer before I met Oscar again; he had come back to Paris
and taken up his old quarters in the mean little hotel in the Rue des
Beaux Arts. He lunched and dined with me as usual. His talk was as
humorous and charming as ever, and he was just as engaging a companion.
For the first time, however, he complained of his health:

"I ate some mussels and oysters in Italy, and they must have poisoned
me; for I have come out in great red blotches all over my arms and chest
and back, and I don't feel well."

"Have you consulted a doctor?"

"Oh, yes, but doctors are no good: they all advise you differently; the
best of it is they all listen to you with an air of intense interest
when you are talking about yourself--which is an excellent tonic."

"They sometimes tell one what's the matter; give a name and significance
to the unknown," I interjected.

"They bore me by forbidding me to smoke and drink. They are worse than
M----, who grudged me his wine."

"What do you mean?" I asked in wonder.

"A tragi-comic history, Frank. You were so right about M---- and I was
mistaken in him. You know he wanted me to stay with him at Gland in
Switzerland, begged me to come, said he would do everything for me. When
the weather got warm at Genoa I went to him. At first he seemed very
glad to see me and made me welcome. The food was not very good, the
drink anything but good, still I could not complain, and I put up with
the discomforts. But in a week or two the wine disappeared, and beer
took its place, and I suggested I must be going. He begged me so
cordially not to go that I stayed on; but in a little while I noticed
that the beer got less and less in quantity, and one day when I ventured
to ask for a second bottle at lunch he told me that it cost a great deal
and that he could not afford it. Of course I made some decent pretext
and left his house as soon as possible. If one has to suffer poverty,
one had best suffer alone. But to get discomforts grudgingly and as a
charity is the extremity of shame. I prefer to look on it from the other
side; M---- grudging me his small beer belongs to farce."

He spoke with bitterness and contempt, as he used never to speak of

I could not help sympathising with him, though visibly the cloth was
wearing threadbare. He asked me now at once for money, and a little
later again and again. Formerly he had invented pretexts; he had not
received his allowance when he expected it, or he was bothered by a bill
and so forth; but now he simply begged and begged, railing the while at
fortune. It was distressing. He wanted money constantly, and spent it as
always like water, without a thought.

I asked him one day whether he had seen much of his soldier boy since he
had returned to Paris.

"I have seen him, Frank, but not often," and he laughed gaily. "It's a
farce-comedy; sentiment always begins romantically and ends in
laughter--_tabulae solvuntur risu_. I taught him so much, Frank, that he
was made a corporal and forthwith a nursemaid fell in love with his
stripes. He's devoted to her: I suppose he likes to play teacher in his

"And so the great romantic passion comes to this tame conclusion?"

"What would you, Frank? Whatever begins must also end."

"Is there anyone else?" I asked, "or have you learned reason at last?"

"Of course there's always someone else, Frank: change is the essence of
passion: the _reason_ you talk of is merely another name for impotence."

"Montaigne declares," I said, "that love belongs to early youth, 'the
next period after infancy,' is his phrase, but that is at the best a
Frenchman's view of it. Sophocles was nearer the truth when he called
himself happy in that age had freed him from the whip of passion. When
are you going to reach that serenity?"

"Never, Frank, never, I hope: life without desire would not be worth
living to me. As one gets older one is more difficult to please: but the
sting of pleasure is even keener than in youth and far more egotistic.

"One comes to understand the Marquis de Sade and that strange, scarlet
story of de Retz--the pleasure they got from inflicting pain, the
curious, intense underworld of cruelty--"

"That's unlike you, Oscar," I broke in. "I thought you shrank from
giving pain always: to me it's the unforgivable sin."

"To me, also," he rejoined instantly, "intellectually one may understand
it; but in reality it's horrible. I want my pleasure unembittered by any
drop of pain. That reminds me: I read a terrible, little book the other
day, Octave Mirbeau's 'Le Jardin des Supplices'; it is quite awful, a
_sadique_ joy in pain pulses through it; but for all that it's
wonderful. His soul seems to have wandered in fearsome places. You with
your contempt of fear, will face the book with courage--I--"

"I simply couldn't read it," I replied; "it was revolting to me,

"A sort of grey adder," he summed up and I nodded in complete agreement.

I passed the next winter on the Riviera. A speculation which I had gone
in for there had caused me heavy loss and much anxiety. In the spring I
returned to Paris, and of course, asked him to meet me. He was much
brighter than he had been for a long time. Lord Alfred Douglas, it
appeared, had come in for a large legacy from his father's estate and
had given him some money, and he was much more cheerful. We had a great
lunch at Durand's and he was at his very best. I asked him about his

"I'm all right, Frank, but the rash continually comes back, a ghostly
visitant, Frank: I'm afraid the doctors are in league with the devil. It
generally returns after a good dinner, a sort of aftermath of champagne.
The doctors say I must not drink champagne, and must stop smoking, the
silly people, who regard pleasure as their natural enemies; whereas it
is our pleasures which provide them with a living!"

He looked fairly well, I thought; he was a little fatter, his skin a
little dingier than of old, and he had grown very deaf, but in every
other way he seemed at his best, though he was certainly drinking too
freely--spirits between times as well as wine at meals.

I had heard on the Riviera during the winter that Smithers had tried to
buy a play from him, so one day I brought up the subject.

"By the way, Smithers says that you have been working on your play; you
know the one I mean, the one with the great screen scene in it."

"Oh, yes, Frank," he remarked indifferently.

"Won't you tell me what you've done?" I asked. "Have you written any of

"No, Frank," he replied casually, "it's the scenario Smithers talked

A little while afterwards he asked me for money. I told him I could not
afford any at the moment, and pressed him to write his play.

"I shall never write again, Frank," he said. "I can't, I simply can't
face my thoughts. Don't ask me!" Then suddenly: "Why don't you buy the
scenario and write the play yourself?"

"I don't care for the stage," I replied; "it's a sort of rude encaustic
work I don't like; its effects are theatrical!"

"A play pays far better than a book, you know--"

But I was not interested. That evening thinking over what he had said, I
realised all at once that a story I had in mind to write would suit
"the screen scene" of Oscar's scenario; why shouldn't I write a play
instead of a story? When we met next day I broached the idea to Oscar:

"I have a story in my head," I said, "which would fit into that scenario
of yours, so far as you have sketched it to me. I could write it as a
play and do the second, third and fourth acts very quickly, as all the
personages are alive to me. Could you do the first act?"

"Of course I could, Frank."

"But," I said, "will you?"

"What would be the good, you could not sell it, Frank."

"In any case," I went on, "I could try; but I would infinitely prefer
you to write the whole play if you would; then it would sell fast

"Oh, Frank, don't ask me."

The idea of the collaboration was a mistake; but it seemed to me at the
moment the best way to get him to do something. Suddenly he asked me to
give him £50 for the scenario at once, then I could do what I liked with

After a good deal of talk I consented to give him the £50 if he would
promise to write the first act; he promised and I gave him the

A little later I noticed a certain tension in his relations with Lord
Alfred Douglas. One day he told me frankly that Lord Alfred Douglas had
come into a fortune of £15,000 or £20,000, "and," he added, "of course
he's always able to get money. He'll marry an American millionairess or
some rich widow" (Oscar's ideas of life were nearly all conventional,
derived from novels and plays); "and I wanted him to give me enough to
make my life comfortable, to settle enough on me to make a decent life
possible to me. It would only have cost him two or three thousand
pounds, perhaps less. I get £150 a year and I wanted him to make it up
to £300.[34] I lost that through going to him at Naples. I think he
ought to give me that at the very least, don't you? Won't you speak to
him, Frank?"

"I could not possibly interfere," I replied.

"I gave him everything," he went on, in a depressed way. "When I had
money, he never had to ask for it; all that was mine was his. And now
that he is rich, I have to beg from him, and he gives me small sums and
puts me off. It is terrible of him; it is really very, very wrong of

I changed the subject as soon as I could; there was a note of bitterness
which I did not like, which indeed I had already remarked in him.

I was destined very soon to hear the other side. A day or two later Lord
Alfred Douglas told me that he had bought some racehorses and was
training them at Chantilly; would I come down and see them?

"I am not much of a judge of racehorses," I replied, "and I don't know
much about racing; but I should not mind coming down one evening. I
could spend the night at an hotel, and see the horses and your stable in
the morning. The life of the English stable lads in France must be
rather peculiar."

"It is droll," he said, "a complete English colony in France. There are
practically no French jockeys or trainers worth their salt; it is all
English, English slang, English ways, even English food and of course
English drinks. No French boy seems to have nerve enough to make a good

I made an arrangement with him and went down. I missed my train and was
very late; I found that Lord Alfred Douglas had dined and gone out. I
had my dinner, and about midnight went up to my room. Half an hour later
there came a knocking at the door. I opened it and found Lord Alfred

"May I come in?" he asked. "I'm glad you've not gone to bed yet."

"Of course," I said, "what is it?" He was pale and seemed
extraordinarily excited.

"I have had such a row with Oscar," he jerked out, nervously moving
about (I noticed the strained white face I had seen before at the Café
Royal), "such a row, and I wanted to speak to you about it. Of course
you know in the old days when his plays were being given in London he
was rich and gave me some money, and now he says I ought to settle a
large sum on him; I think it ridiculous, don't you?"

"I would rather not say anything about it," I replied; "I don't know
enough about the circumstances."

He was too filled with a sense of his own injuries; too excited to catch
my tone or understand any reproof in my attitude.

"Oscar is really too dreadful," he went on; "he is quite shameless now;
he begs and begs and begs, and of course I have given him money, have
given him hundreds, quite as much as he ever gave me: but he is
insatiable and recklessly extravagant besides. Of course I want to be
quite fair to him: I've already given him back all he gave me. Don't you
think that is all anyone can ask of me?"

I looked at him in astonishment.

"That is for you and Oscar," I said, "to decide together. No one else
can judge between you."

"Why not?" he snapped out in his irritable way, "you know us both and
our relations."

"No," I replied, "I don't know all the obligations and the interwoven
services. Besides, I could not judge fairly between you."

He turned on me angrily, though I had spoken with as much kindness as I

"He seemed to want to make you judge between us," he cried. "I don't
care who's the judge. I think if you give a man back what he has given
you, that is all he can ask. It's a d----d lot more than most people get
in this world."

After a pause he started off on a new line of thought:

"The first time I ever noticed any fault in Oscar was over that 'Salome'
translation. He's appallingly conceited. You know I did the play into
English. I found that his choice of words was poor, anything but good;
his prose is wooden....

"Of course he's not a poet," he broke off contemptuously, "even you must
admit that."

"I know what you mean," I replied; "though I should have to make a vast
reservation in favour of the man who wrote 'The Ballad of Reading

"One ballad doesn't make a man a poet," he barked; "I mean by poet one
to whom verse lends power: in that sense he's not a poet and I am." His
tone was that of defiant challenge.

"You are certainly," I replied.

"Well, I did the translation of 'Salome' very carefully, as no one else
could have done it," and he flushed angrily, "and all the while Oscar
kept on altering it for the worse. At last I had to tell him the truth,
and we had a row. He imagines he's the greatest person in the world, and
the only person to be considered. His conceit is stupid.... I helped[35]
him again and again with that 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' you're always
praising: I suppose he'd deny that now.

"He's got his money back; what more can he want? He disgusts me when he

I could not contain myself altogether.

"He seems to blame you," I said quietly, "for egging him on to that
insane action against your father which brought him to ruin."

"I've no doubt he'd find some reason to blame me," he whipped out. "How
did I know how the case would go?... Why did he take my advice, if he
didn't want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest....
He's simply disgusting now; he's getting fat and bloated, and always
demanding money, money, money, like a daughter of the horse-leech--just
as if he had a claim to it."

I could not stand it any longer; I had to try to move him to kindness.

"Sometimes one gives willingly to a man one has never had anything from.
Misery and want in one we like and admire have a very strong claim."

"I do not see that there is any claim at all," he cried bitterly, as if
the very word maddened him, "and I am not going to pamper him any more.
He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he
won't do anything. He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day;
and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable. I thought when he kept
asking me for that money to-night, he was like an old prostitute."

"Good God!" I cried. "Good God! Has it come to that between you?"

"Yes," he repeated, not heeding what I said, "he was just like an old
fat prostitute," and he gloated over the word, "and I told him so."

I looked at the man but could not speak; indeed there was nothing to be
said. Surely at last, I thought, Oscar Wilde has reached the lowest
depth. I could think of nothing but Oscar; this hard, small, bitter
nature made Oscar's suffering plain to me.

"As I can do no good," I said, "do you mind letting me sleep? I'm simply
tired to death."

"I'm sorry," he said, looking for his hat; "will you come out in the
morning and see the 'gees'?"

"I don't think so," I replied, "I'm incapable of a resolution now, I'm
so tired I would rather sleep. I think I'll go up to Paris in the
morning. I have something rather urgent to do."

He said "Good night" and went away.

I lay awake, my eyes prickling with sorrow and sympathy for poor Oscar,
insulted in his misery and destitution, outraged and trodden on by the
man he had loved, by the man who had thrust him into the Pit....[36]

I made up my mind to go to Oscar at once and try to comfort him a
little. After all, I thought, another fifty pounds or so wouldn't make a
great deal of difference to me, and I dwelt on the many delightful hours
I had passed with him, hours of gay talk and superb intellectual

I went up by the morning train to Paris, and drove across the river to
Oscar's hotel.

He had two rooms, a small sitting-room and a still smaller bedroom
adjoining. He was lying half-dressed on the bed as I entered. The rooms
affected me unpleasantly. They were ordinary, mean little French rooms,
furnished without taste; the usual mahogany chairs, gilt clock on the
mantelpiece and a preposterous bilious paper on the walls. What struck
me was the disorder everywhere; books all over the round table; books on
the chairs; books on the floor and higgledy-piggledy, here a pair of
socks, there a hat and cane, and on the floor his overcoat. The sense of
order and neatness which he used to have in his rooms at Tite Street was
utterly lacking. He was not living here, intent on making the best of
things; he was merely existing without plan or purpose.

I told him I wanted him to come to lunch. While he was finishing
dressing it came to me that his clothes had undergone much the same
change as his dwelling. In his golden days in London he had been a good
deal of a dandy; he usually wore white waistcoats at night; was
particular about the flowers in his buttonhole, his gloves and cane. Now
he was decently dressed and that was all; as far below the average as he
had been above it. Clearly, he had let go of himself and no longer took
pleasure in the vanities: it seemed to me a bad sign.

I had always thought of him as very healthy, likely to live till sixty
or seventy; but he had no longer any hold on himself and that depressed
me; some spring of life seemed broken in him. Bosie Douglas' second
betrayal had been the _coup de grâce_.

In the carriage he was preoccupied, out of sorts, and immediately began
to apologise.

"I shall be poor company, Frank," he warned me with quivering lips.

The fragrant summer air in the Champs Elysées seemed to revive him a
little, but he was evidently lost in bitter reflections and scarcely
noticed where he was going. From time to time he sighed heavily as if
oppressed. I talked as well as I could of this and that, tried to lure
him away from the hateful subject that I knew must be in his mind; but
all in vain. Towards the end of the lunch he said gravely:

"I want you to tell me something, Frank; I want you to tell me honestly
if you think I am in the wrong. I wish I could think I was.... You know
I spoke to you the other day about Bosie; he is rich now and he is
throwing his money away with both hands in racing.

"I asked him to settle £1,500 or £2,000 on me to buy me an annuity, or
to do something that would give me £150 a year. You said you did not
care to ask him, so I did. I told him it was really his duty to do it at
once, and he turned round and lashed me savagely with his tongue. He
called me dreadful names. Said dreadful things to me, Frank. I did not
think it was possible to suffer more than I suffered in prison, but he
has left me bleeding ..." and the fine eyes filled with tears. Seeing
that I remained silent, he cried out:

"Frank, you must tell me for our friendship's sake. Is it my fault? Was
he wrong or was I wrong?"

His weakness was pathetic, or was it that his affection was still so
great that he wanted to blame himself rather than his friend?

"Of course he seems to me to be wrong," I said, "utterly wrong." I could
not help saying it and I went on:

"But you know his temper is insane; if he even praises himself, as he
did to me lately, he gets into a rage in order to do it, and perhaps
unwittingly you annoyed him by the way you asked. If you put it to his
generosity and vainglory you would get it easier than from his sense of
justice and right. He has not much moral sense."

"Oh, Frank," he broke in earnestly, "I put it to him as well as I could,
quite quietly and gently. I talked of our old affection, of the good and
evil days we had passed together: you know I could never be harsh to
him, never.

"There never was," he burst out, in a sort of exaltation, "there never
was in the world such a betrayal. Do you remember once telling me that
the only flaw you could find in the perfect symbolism of the gospel
story was that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, the foreigner from Kerioth,
when he should have been betrayed by John, the beloved disciple; for it
is only those we love who can betray us? Frank, how true, how tragically
true that is! It is those we love who betray us with a kiss."

He was silent for some time and then went on wearily, "I wish you would
speak to him, Frank, and show him how unjust and unkind he is to me."

"I cannot possibly do that, Oscar," I said, "I do not know all the
relations between you and the myriad bands that unite you: I should only
do harm and not good."

"Frank," he cried, "you do know, you must know that he is responsible
for everything, for my downfall and my ruin. It was he who drove me to
fight with his father. I begged him not to, but he whipped me to it;
asked me what his father could do; pointed out to me contemptuously that
he could prove nothing; said he was the most loathsome, hateful creature
in the world, and that it was my duty to stop him, and that if I did
not, everyone would be laughing at me, and he could never care for a
coward. All his family, his brother and his mother, too, begged me to
attack Queensberry, all promised me their support and afterwards--

"You know, Frank, in the Café Royal before the trial how Bosie spoke to
you, when you warned me and implored me to drop the insane suit and go
abroad; how angry he got. You were not a friend of mine, he said. You
know he drove me to ruin in order to revenge himself on his father, and
then left me to suffer.

"And that's not the worst of it, Frank: I came out of prison determined
not to see him any more. I promised my poor wife I would not see him
again. I had forgiven him; but I did not want to see him. I had suffered
too much by him and through him, far too much. And then he wrote and
wrote of his love, crying it to me every hour, begging me to come,
telling me he only wanted me, in order to be happy, me in the whole
world. How could I help believing him, how could I keep away from him?
At last I yielded and went to him, and as soon as the difficulties began
he turned on me in Naples like a wild beast, blaming me and insulting

"I had to fly to Paris, having lost everything through him--wife and
income and self-respect, everything; but I always thought that he was at
least generous as a man of his name should be: I had no idea he could be
stingy and mean; but now he is comparatively rich, he prefers to
squander his money on jockeys and trainers and horses, of which he knows
nothing, instead of lifting me out of my misery. Surely it is not too
much to ask him to give me a tenth when I gave him all? Won't you ask

"I think he ought to have done what you want, without asking," I
admitted, "but I am certain my speaking would not do any good. He shows
me hatred already whenever I do not agree with him. Hate is nearer to
him always than sympathy: he is his father's son, Oscar, and I can do
nothing. I cannot even speak to him about it."

"Oh, Frank, you ought to," said Oscar.

"But suppose he retorted and said you led him astray, what could I

"Led him astray!" cried Oscar, starting up, "you cannot believe that.
You know better than that. It is not true. It is he who always led,
always dominated me; he is as imperious as a Cæsar. It was he who began
our intimacy: he who came to me in London when I did not want to see
him, or rather, Frank, I wanted to but I was afraid; at the very
beginning I was afraid of what it would all lead to, and I avoided him;
the desperate aristocratic pride in him, the dreadful bold, imperious
temper in him terrified me. But he came to London and sent for me to
come to him, said he would come to my house if I didn't. I went,
thinking I could reason with him; but it was impossible. When I told him
we must be very careful, for I was afraid of what might happen, he made
fun of my fears, and encouraged me. He knew that they'd never dare to
punish him; he's allied to half the peerage and he did not care what
became of me....

"He led me first to the street, introduced me to the male prostitution
in London. From the beginning to the end he has driven me like the
Oestrum of which the Greeks wrote, which drove the ill-fated to

"And now he says he owes me nothing; I have no _claim_, I who gave to
him without counting; he says he needs all his money for himself: he
wants to win races and to write poetry, Frank, the pretty verses which
he thinks poetry.

"He has ruined me, soul and body, and now he puts himself in the balance
against me and declares he outweighs me. Yes, Frank, he does; he told me
the other day I was not a poet, not a true poet, and he was, Alfred
Douglas greater than Oscar Wilde.

"I have not done much in the world," he went on hotly, "I know it better
than anyone, not a quarter of what I should have done, but there are
some things I have done which the world will not forget, can hardly
forget. If all the tribe of Douglas from the beginning and all their
achievements were added together and thrown into the balance, they would
not weigh as dust in comparison. Yet he reviled me, Frank, whipped me,
shamed me.... He has broken me, he has broken me, the man I loved; my
very heart is a cold weight in me," ... and he got up and moved aside
with the tears pouring down his cheeks.

"Don't take it so much to heart," I said in a minute or two, going after
him, "the loss of affection I cannot help, but a hundred or so a year is
not much; I will see that you get that every year."

"Oh, Frank, it is not the money; it is his denial, his insults, his hate
that kills me; the fact that I have ruined myself for someone who cares
nothing; who puts a little money before me; it is as if I were choked
with mud....

"Once I thought myself master of my life; lord of my fate, who could do
what I pleased and would always succeed. I was as a crowned king till I
met him, and now I am an exile and outcast and despised.

"I have lost my way in life; the passers-by all scorn me and the man
whom I loved whips me with foul insults and contempt. There is no
example in history of such a betrayal, no parallel. I am finished. It is
all over with me now--all! I hope the end will come quickly," and he
moved away to the window, his tears falling heavily.


[33] The rest of this story concerns me chiefly and I have therefore
relegated it to the Appendix for those who care to read it.

[34] Oscar was already getting £300 a year from his wife and Robert
Ross, to say nothing of the hundreds given to him from time to time by
other friends.

[35] The truth about this I have already stated.

[36] Though I have reported this conversation as faithfully as I can and
have indeed softened the impression Lord Alfred Douglas made upon me at
the time; still I am conscious that I may be doing him some injustice. I
have never really been in sympathy with him and it may well be that in
reporting him here faithfully I am showing him at his worst. I am aware
that the incident does not reveal him at his best. He has proved since
in his writings and notably in some superb sonnets that he had a real
affection and admiration for Oscar Wilde. If I have been in any degree
unfair to him I can best correct it, I think, by reproducing here the
noble sonnet he wrote on Oscar after his death: in sheer beauty and
sincerity of feeling it ranks with Shelley's lament for Keats:

_The Dead Poet_[37]

 I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face All radiant and unshadowed
of distress, And as of old, in music measureless, I heard his golden
voice and marked him trace Under the common thing the hidden grace, And
conjure wonder out of emptiness, Till mean things put on beauty like a
dress And all the world was an enchanted place.

 And then methought outside a fast locked gate I mourned the loss of
unrecorded words, Forgotten tales and mysteries half said Wonders that
might have been articulate, And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing
birds And so I woke and knew that he was dead.

[37] In the Appendix I have published the first sketch of this fine
sonnet: lovers of poetry will like to compare them.


In a day or two, however, the clouds lifted and the sun shone as
brilliantly as ever. Oscar's spirits could not be depressed for long: he
took a child's joy in living and in every incident of life. When I left
him in Paris a week or so later, in midsummer, he was full of gaiety and
humour, talking as delightfully as ever with a touch of cynicism that
added piquancy to his wit. Shortly after I arrived in London he wrote
saying he was ill, and that I really ought to send him some money. I had
already paid him more than the amount we had agreed upon at first for
his scenario, and I was hard up and anything but well. I had chronic
bronchitis which prostrated me time and again that autumn. Having heard
from mutual friends that Oscar's illness did not hinder him from dining
out and enjoying himself, I received his plaints and requests with a
certain impatience, and replied to him curtly. His illness appeared to
me to be merely a pretext. When my play was accepted his demands became
as insistent as they were extravagant.

Finally I went back to Paris in September to see him, persuaded that I
could settle everything amicably in five minutes' talk: he must remember
our agreement.

I found him well in health, but childishly annoyed that my play was
going to be produced and resolved to get all the money he could from me
by hook or by crook. I never met such persistence in demands. I could
only settle with him decently by paying him a further sum, which I did.

In the course of this bargaining and begging I realised that contrary to
my previous opinion he was not gifted as a friend, and did not attribute
any importance to friendship. His affection for Bosie Douglas even had
given place to hatred: indeed his liking for him had never been founded
on understanding or admiration; it was almost wholly snobbish: he loved
the title, the romantic name--Lord Alfred Douglas. Robert Ross was the
only friend of whom he always spoke with liking and appreciation: "One
of the wittiest of men," he used to call him and would jest at his
handwriting, which was peculiarly bad, but always good-naturedly; "a
letter merely shows that Bobbie has something to conceal"; but he would
add, "how kind he is, how good," as if Ross's devotion surprised him, as
in fact it did. Ross has since told me that Oscar never cared much for
him. Indeed Oscar cared so little for anyone that an unselfish affection
astonished him beyond measure: he could find in himself no explanation
of it. His vanity was always more active than his gratitude, as indeed
it is with most of us. Now and then when Ross played mentor or took him
to task, he became prickly at once and would retort: "Really, Bobbie,
you ride the high horse so well, and so willingly, it seems a pity that
you never tried Pegasus"--not a sneer exactly, but a rap on the knuckles
to call his monitor to order. Like most men of charming manners, Oscar
was selfish and self-centred, too convinced of his own importance to
spend much thought on others; yet generous to the needy and kind to all.

After my return to London he kept on begging for money by almost every
post. As soon as my play was advertised I found myself dunned and
persecuted by a horde of people who declared that Oscar had sold them
the scenario he afterwards sold to me.[38] Several of them threatened to
get injunctions to prevent me staging my play, "Mr. and Mrs. Daventry,"
if I did not first settle with them. Naturally, I wrote rather sharply
to Oscar for having led me into this hornets' nest.

It was in the midst of all this unpleasantness that I heard from Turner,
in October, I believe, that Oscar was seriously ill, and that if I owed
him money, as he asserted, it would be a kindness to send it, as he was
in great need. The letter found me in bed. I could not say now whether I
answered it or not: it made me impatient; his friends must have known
that I owed Oscar nothing; but later I received a telegram from Ross
saying that Oscar was not expected to live. I was ill and unable to
move, or I should have gone at once to Paris. As it was I sent for my
friend, Bell, gave him some money and a cheque, and begged him to go
across and let me know if Oscar were really in danger, which I could
hardly believe. As luck would have it, the next afternoon, when I hoped
Bell had started, his wife came to tell me that he had had a severe
asthmatic attack, but would cross as soon as he dared.

I was too hard up myself to wire money that might not be needed, and
Oscar had cried "wolf" about his health too often to be a credible
witness. Yet I was dissatisfied with myself and anxious for Bell to

Day after day passed in troubled doubts and fears; but it was not long
when a period was put to all my anxiety. A telegram came telling me he
was dead. I could hardly believe my eyes: it seemed incredible--the
fount of joy and gaiety; the delightful source of intellectual vivacity
and interest stilled forever. The world went greyer to me because of
Oscar Wilde's death.

Months afterwards Robert Ross gave me the particulars of his last

Ross went to Paris in October: as soon as he saw Oscar, he was shocked
by the change in his appearance: he insisted on taking him to a doctor;
but to his surprise the doctor saw no ground for immediate alarm: if
Oscar would only stop drinking wine and _a fortiori_ spirits, he might
live for years: absinthe was absolutely forbidden. But Oscar paid no
heed to the warning and Ross could only take him for drives whenever the
weather permitted and seek to amuse him harmlessly.

The will to live had almost left Oscar: so long as he could live
pleasantly and without effort he was content; but as soon as ill-health
came, or pain, or even discomfort, he grew impatient for deliverance.

But to the last he kept his joyous humour and charming gaiety. His
disease brought with it a certain irritation of the skin, annoying
rather than painful. Meeting Ross one morning after a day's separation
he apologised for scratching himself:

"Really," he exclaimed, "I'm more like a great ape than ever; but I hope
you'll give me a lunch, Bobbie, and not a nut."

On one of the last drives with this friend he asked for champagne and
when it was brought declared that he was dying as he had lived, "beyond
his means"--his happy humour lighting up even his last hours.

Early in November Ross left Paris to go down to the Riviera with his
mother: for Reggie Turner had undertaken to stay with Oscar. Reggie
Turner describes how he grew gradually feebler and feebler, though to
the end flashes of the old humour would astonish his attendants. He
persisted in saying that Reggie, with his perpetual prohibitions, was
qualifying for a doctor. "When you can refuse bread to the hungry,
Reggie," he would say, "and drink to the thirsty, you can apply for your

Towards the end of November Reggie wired for Ross and Ross left
everything and reached Paris next day.

When all was over he wrote to a friend giving him a very complete
account of the last hours of Oscar Wilde; that account he generously
allows me to reproduce and it will be found word for word in the
Appendix; it is too long and too detailed to be used here.

Ross's letter should be read by the student; but several touches in it
are too timid; certain experiences that should be put in high relief are
slurred over: in conversation with me he told more and told it better.

For example, when talking of his drives with Oscar, he mentions
casually that Oscar "insisted on drinking absinthe," and leaves it at
that. The truth is that Oscar stopped the victoria at almost the first
café, got down and had an absinthe. Two or three hundred yards further
on, he stopped the carriage again to have another absinthe: at the next
stoppage a few minutes later Ross ventured to remonstrate:

"You'll kill yourself, Oscar," he cried, "you know the doctors said
absinthe was poison to you!"

Oscar stopped on the sidewalk:

"And what have I to live for, Bobbie?" he asked gravely. And Ross
looking at him and noting the wreck--the symptoms of old age and broken
health--could only bow his head and walk on with him in silence. What
indeed had he to live for who had abandoned all the fair uses of life?

The second scene is horrible: but is, so to speak, the inevitable
resultant of the first, and has its own awful moral. Ross tells how he
came one morning to Oscar's death-bed and found him practically
insensible: he describes the dreadful loud death-rattle of his breath,
and says: "terrible offices had to be carried out."

The truth is still more appalling. Oscar had eaten too much and drunk
too much almost habitually ever since the catastrophe in Naples. The
dreadful disease from which he was suffering, or from the after effects
of which he was suffering, weakens all the tissues of the body, and this
weakness is aggravated by drinking wine and still more by drinking
spirits. Suddenly, as the two friends sat by the bedside in sorrowful
anxiety, there was a loud explosion: mucus poured out of Oscar's mouth
and nose, and--

Even the bedding had to be burned.

If it is true that all those who draw the sword shall perish by the
sword, it is no less certain that all those who live for the body shall
perish by the body, and there is no death more degrading.

       *       *       *       *       *

One more scene, and this the last, and I shall have done.

When Robert Ross was arranging to bury Oscar at Bagneux he had already
made up his mind as soon as he could to transfer his body to Père
Lachaise and erect over his remains some worthy memorial. It became the
purpose of his life to pay his friend's debts, annul his bankruptcy, and
publish his books in suitable manner; in fine to clear Oscar's memory
from obloquy while leaving to his lovable spirit the shining raiment of
immortality. In a few years he had accomplished all but one part of his
high task. He had not only paid off all Oscar Wilde's debts; but he had
managed to remit thousands of pounds yearly to his children, and had
established his popularity on the widest and surest foundation.

He crossed to Paris with Oscar's son, Vyvyan, to render the last service
to his friend. When preparing the body for the grave years before Ross
had taken medical advice as to what should be done to make his purpose
possible. The doctors told him to put Wilde's body in quicklime, like
the body of the man in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." The quicklime, they
said, would consume the flesh and leave the white bones--the
skeleton--intact, which could then be moved easily.

To his horror, when the grave was opened, Ross found that the quicklime,
instead of destroying the flesh, had preserved it. Oscar's face was
recognisable, only his hair and beard had grown long. At once Ross sent
the son away, and when the sextons were about to use their shovels, he
ordered them to desist, and descending into the grave, moved the body
with his own hands into the new coffin in loving reverence.

Those who hold our mortal vesture in respect for the sake of the spirit
will know how to thank Robert Ross for the supreme devotion he showed to
his friend's remains: in his case at least love was stronger than

One can be sure, too, that the man who won such fervid self-denying
tenderness, had deserved it, called it forth by charm of companionship,
or magic of loving intercourse.


[38] See Appendix: p. 589 and especially p. 592.


It was the inhumanity of the prison doctor and the English prison system
that killed Oscar Wilde. The sore place in his ear caused by the fall
when he fainted that Sunday morning in Wandsworth Prison chapel formed
into an abscess and was the final cause of his death. The "operation"
Ross speaks of in his letter was the excision of this tumour. The
imprisonment and starvation, and above all the cruelty of his gaolers,
had done their work.

The local malady was inflamed, as I have already said, by a more general
and more terrible disease. The doctors attributed the red flush Oscar
complained of on his chest and back, which he declared was due to eating
mussels, to another and graver cause. They warned him at once to stop
drinking and smoking and to live with the greatest abstemiousness, for
they recognised in him the tertiary symptoms of that dreadful disease
which the brainless prudery in England allows to decimate the flower of
English manhood unchecked.

Oscar took no heed of their advice. He had little to live for. The
pleasures of eating and drinking in good company were almost the only
pleasures left to him. Why should he deny himself the immediate
enjoyment for a very vague and questionable future benefit?

He never believed in any form of asceticism or self-denial, and towards
the end, feeling that life had nothing more to offer him, the pagan
spirit in him refused to prolong an existence that was no longer joyous.
"I have lived," he would have said with profound truth.

Much has been made of the fact that Oscar was buried in an
out-of-the-way cemetery at Bagneux under depressing circumstances. It
rained the day of the funeral, it appears, and a cold wind blew: the way
was muddy and long, and only a half-a-dozen friends accompanied the
coffin to its resting-place. But after all, such accidents, depressing
as they are at the moment, are unimportant. The dead clay knows nothing
of our feelings, and whether it is borne to the grave in pompous
procession and laid to rest in a great abbey amid the mourning of a
nation or tossed as dust to the wind, is a matter of utter indifference.

Heine's verse holds the supreme consolation:

    Immerhin mich wird umgeben
    Gotteshimmel dort wie hier
    Und wie Todtenlampen schweben
    Nachts die Sterne ueber mir.

Oscar Wilde's work was over, his gift to the world completed years
before. Even the friends who loved him and delighted in the charm of his
talk, in his light-hearted gaiety and humour, would scarcely have kept
him longer in the pillory, exposed to the loathing and contempt of this
all-hating world.

The good he did lives after him, and is immortal, the evil is buried in
his grave. Who would deny to-day that he was a quickening and liberating
influence? If his life was given overmuch to self-indulgence, it must be
remembered that his writings and conversation were singularly kindly,
singularly amiable, singularly pure. No harsh or coarse or bitter word
ever passed those eloquent laughing lips. If he served beauty in her
myriad forms, he only showed in his works the beauty that was amiable
and of good report. If only half-a-dozen men mourned for him, their
sorrow was unaffected and intense, and perhaps the greatest of men have
not found in their lifetime even half-a-dozen devoted admirers and
lovers. It is well with our friend, we say: at any rate, he was not
forced to drink the bitter lees of a suffering and dishonourable old
age: Death was merciful to him.

My task is finished. I don't think anyone will doubt that I have done
it in a reverent spirit, telling the truth as I see it, from the
beginning to the end, and hiding or omitting as little as might be of
what ought to be told. Yet when I come to the parting I am painfully
conscious that I have not done Oscar Wilde justice; that some fault or
other in me has led me to dwell too much on his faults and failings and
grudged praise to his soul-subduing charm and the incomparable sweetness
and gaiety of his nature.

Let me now make amends. When to the sessions of sad memory I summon up
the spirits of those whom I have met in the world and loved, men famous
and men of unfulfilled renown, I miss no one so much as I miss Oscar
Wilde. I would rather spend an evening with him than with Renan or
Carlyle, or Verlaine or Dick Burton or Davidson. I would rather have him
back now than almost anyone I have ever met. I have known more heroic
souls and some deeper souls; souls much more keenly alive to ideas of
duty and generosity; but I have known no more charming, no more
quickening, no more delightful spirit.

This may be my shortcoming; it may be that I prize humour and
good-humour and eloquent or poetic speech, the artist qualities, more
than goodness or loyalty or manliness, and so over-estimate things
amiable. But the lovable and joyous things are to me the priceless
things, and the most charming man I have ever met was assuredly Oscar
Wilde. I do not believe that in all the realms of death there is a more
fascinating or delightful companion.

One last word on Oscar Wilde's place in English literature. In the
course of this narrative I have indicated sufficiently, I think, the
value and importance of his work; he will live with Congreve and with
Sheridan as the wittiest and most humorous of all our playwrights. "The
Importance of Being Earnest" has its own place among the best of English
comedies. But Oscar Wilde has done better work than Congreve or
Sheridan: he is a master not only of the smiles, but of the tears of
men. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is the best ballad in English; it is
more, it is the noblest utterance that has yet reached us from a modern
prison, the only high utterance indeed that has ever come from that
underworld of man's hatred and man's inhumanity. In it, and by the
spirit of Jesus which breathes through it, Oscar Wilde has done much,
not only to reform English prisons, but to abolish them altogether, for
they are as degrading to the intelligence as they are harmful to the
soul. What gaoler and what gaol could do anything but evil to the
author of such a verse as this:

    This too I know--and wise it were
      If each could know the same--
    That every prison that men build
      Is built with bricks of shame,
    And bound with bars, lest Christ should see
      How men their brothers maim.

Indeed, is it not clear that the man who, in his own wretchedness, wrote
that letter to the warder which I have reproduced, and was eager to
bring about the freeing of the little children at his own cost, is far
above the judge who condemned him or the society which sanctions such
punishments? "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," I repeat, and some pages of
"De Profundis," and, above all, the tragic fate of which these were the
outcome, render Oscar Wilde more interesting to men than any of his

He has been indeed well served by the malice and cruelty of his enemies;
in this sense his word in "De Profundis" that he stood in symbolic
relation to the art and life of his time is justified.

The English drove Byron and Shelley and Keats into exile and allowed
Chatterton, Davidson and Middleton to die of misery and destitution; but
they treated none of their artists and seers with the malevolent cruelty
they showed to Oscar Wilde. His fate in England is symbolic of the fate
of all artists; in some degree they will all be punished as he was
punished by a grossly materialised people who prefer to go in blinkers
and accept idiotic conventions because they distrust the intellect and
have no taste for mental virtues.

All English artists will be judged by their inferiors and condemned, as
Dante's master was condemned, for their good deeds (_per tuo ben far_):
for it must not be thought that Oscar Wilde was punished solely or even
chiefly for the evil he wrought: he was punished for his popularity and
his preëminence, for the superiority of his mind and wit; he was
punished by the envy of journalists, and by the malignant pedantry of
half-civilised judges. Envy in his case overleaped itself: the hate of
his justicers was so diabolic that they have given him to the pity of
mankind forever; they it is who have made him eternally interesting to
humanity, a tragic figure of imperishable renown.



Here are the two poems of Lord Alfred Douglas which were read out in
Court, on account of which the prosecution sought to incriminate Oscar
Wilde. My readers can judge for themselves the value of any inference to
be drawn from such work by another hand. To me, I must confess, the
poems themselves seem harmless and pretty--I had almost said, academic
and unimportant.



         Two loves I have of comfort and despair
         That like two spirits do suggest me still,
         My better angel is a man right fair,
         My worse a woman tempting me to ill.--_Shakespeare_.

    I dreamed I stood upon a little hill,
    And at my feet there lay a ground, that seemed
    Like a waste garden, flowering at its will
    With flowers and blossoms. There were pools that dreamed
    Black and unruffled; there were white lilies
    A few, and crocuses, and violets
    Purple or pale, snake-like fritillaries
    Scarce seen for the rank grass, and through green nets
    Blue eyes of shy pervenche winked in the sun.
    And there were curious flowers, before unknown,
    Flowers that were stained with moonlight, or with shades
    Of Nature's wilful moods; and here a one
    That had drunk in the transitory tone
    Of one brief moment in a sunset; blades
    Of grass that in an hundred springs had been
    Slowly but exquisitely nurtured by the stars,
    And watered with the scented dew long cupped
    In lilies, that for rays of sun had seen
    Only God's glory, for never a sunrise mars
    The luminous air of heaven. Beyond, abrupt,
    A gray stone wall, o'ergrown with velvet moss
    Uprose. And gazing I stood long, all mazed
    To see a place so strange, so sweet, so fair.
    And as I stood and marvelled, lo! across
    The garden came a youth, one hand he raised
    To shield him from the sun, his wind-tossed hair
    Was twined with flowers, and in his hand he bore
    A purple bunch of bursting grapes, his eyes
    Were clear as crystal, naked all was he,
    White as the snow on pathless mountains frore,
    Red were his lips as red wine-spilth that dyes
    A marble floor, his brow chalcedony.
    And he came near me, with his lips uncurled
    And kind, and caught my hand and kissed my mouth,
    And gave me grapes to eat, and said, "Sweet friend,
    Come, I will show thee shadows of the world
    And images of life. See, from the south
    Comes the pale pageant that hath never an end."
    And lo! within the garden of my dream
    I saw two walking on a shining plain
    Of golden light. The one did joyous seem
    And fair and blooming, and a sweet refrain
    Came from his lips; he sang of pretty maids
    And joyous love of comely girl and boy;
    His eyes were bright, and 'mid the dancing blades
    Of golden grass his feet did trip for joy.
    And in his hands he held an ivory lute,
    With strings of gold that were as maidens' hair,
    And sang with voice as tuneful as a flute,
    And round his neck three chains of roses were.
    But he that was his comrade walked aside;
    He was full sad and sweet, and his large eyes
    Were strange with wondrous brightness, staring wide
    With gazing; and he sighed with many sighs
    That moved me, and his cheeks were wan and white
    Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red
    Like poppies, and his hands he clenched tight,
    And yet again unclenched, and his head
    Was wreathed with moon-flowers pale as lips of death.
    A purple robe he wore, o'erwrought in gold
    With the device of a great snake, whose breath
    Was fiery flame: which when I did behold
    I fell a-weeping and I cried, "Sweet youth
    Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
    These pleasant realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
    What is thy name?" He said, "My name is Love."
    Then straight the first did turn himself to me
    And cried, "He lieth, for his name is Shame,
    But I am Love, and I was wont to be
    Alone in this fair garden, till he came
    Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
    The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame."
    Then sighing said the other, "Have thy will,
    I am the Love that dare not speak its name."


September, 1892.


    Unto my bed last night, methought there came
    Our lady of strange dreams, and from an urn
    She poured live fire, so that mine eyes did burn
    At sight of it. Anon the floating flame
    Took many shapes, and one cried, "I am Shame
    That walks with Love, I am most wise to turn
    Cold lips and limbs to fire; therefore discern
    And see my loveliness, and praise my name."

    And afterward, in radiant garments dressed,
    With sound of flutes and laughing of glad lips,
    A pomp of all the passions passed along,
    All the night through; till the white phantom ships
    Of dawn sailed in. Whereat I said this song,
    "Of all sweet passions Shame is loveliest."



This is not the whole of the unpublished portion of "De Profundis"; but
that part only which was read out in Court and used for the purpose of
discrediting Lord Alfred Douglas; still, it is more than half of the
whole in length and absolutely more than the whole in importance:
nothing of any moment is omitted, except the reiteration of accusations
and just this repetition weakens the effect of the argument and
strengthens the impression of querulous nagging instead of dispassionate
statement. If the whole were printed Oscar Wilde would stand worse;
somewhat more selfish and more vindictive.

I have commented the document as it stands mainly for the sake of
clearness and because it justifies in every particular and almost in
every epithet the shadows of the portrait which I have endeavoured to
paint in this book. Curiously enough Oscar Wilde depicts himself
unconsciously in this part of "De Profundis" in a more unfavourable
light than that accorded him in my memory. I believe mine is the more
faithful portrait of him, but that is for my readers to determine.


NEW YORK, December, 1915.

H.M. Prison,


After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you
myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think
that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever
having received a single line from you, or any news or message even,
except such as gave me pain.

Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and
public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often
with me, and the thought that loathing, bitterness and contempt should
for ever take the place in my heart once held by love is very sad to me;
and you yourself will, I think, feel in your heart that to write to me
as I lie in the loneliness of prison life is better than to publish my
letters without my permission, or to dedicate poems to me unasked,
though the world will know nothing of whatever words of grief or
passion, of remorse or indifference, you may choose to send as your
answer or your appeal.

I have no doubt that in this letter which I have to write of your life
and mine, of the past and of the future, of sweet things changed to
bitterness and of bitter things that may be turned to joy, there will be
much that will wound your vanity to the quick. If it prove so, read the
letter over and over again till it kills your vanity. If you find in it
something of which you feel that you are unjustly accused, remember that
one should be thankful that there is any fault of which one can be
unjustly accused. If there be in it one single passage that brings tears
to your eyes, weep as we weep in prison, where the day no less than the
night is set apart for tears. It is the only thing that can save you. If
you go complaining to your mother, as you did with reference to the
scorn of you I displayed in my letter to Robbie, so that she may flatter
and soothe you back into self-complacency or conceit, you will be
completely lost. If you find one false excuse for yourself you will soon
find a hundred, and be just what you were before. Do you still say, as
you said to Robbie in your answer, that I "attribute unworthy motives"
to you? Ah! you had no motives in life. You had appetites merely. A
motive is an intellectual aim. That you were "very young" when our
friendship began? Your defect was not that you knew so little about
life, but that you knew so much. The morning dawn of boyhood with its
delicate bloom, its clear pure light, its joy of innocence and
expectation, you had left far behind you. With very swift and running
feet you had passed from Romance to Realism. The gutter and the things
that live in it had begun to fascinate you. That was the origin of the
trouble[39] in which you sought my aid, and I, unwisely, according to
the wisdom of this world, out of pity and kindness, gave it to you. You
must read this letter right through, though each word may become to you
as the fire or knife of the surgeon that makes the delicate flesh burn
or bleed. Remember that the fool to the eyes of the gods and the fool to
the eyes of man are very different. One who is entirely ignorant[40] of
the modes of Art in its revelation or the moods of thought in its
progress, of the pomp of the Latin line or the richer music of the
vowelled Greek, of Tuscan sculpture or Elizabethan song, may yet be full
of the very sweetest wisdom. The real fool, such as the gods mock or
mar, is he who does not know himself. I was such a one too long. You
have been such a one too long. Be so no more. Do not be afraid. The
supreme vice is shallowness. Everything that is realised is right.
Remember also that whatever is misery to you to read, is still greater
misery to me to set down. They have permitted you to see the strange and
tragic shapes of life as one sees shadows in a crystal. The head of
Medusa that turns living men to stone, you have been allowed to look at
in a mirror merely. You yourself have walked free among the flowers.
From me the beautiful world of colour and motion has been taken away.

I will begin by telling you that I blame myself terribly. As I sit in
this dark cell in convict clothes, a disgraced and ruined man, I blame
myself. In the perturbed and fitful nights of anguish, in the long
monotonous days of pain, it is myself I blame. I blame myself for
allowing an intellectual friendship, a friendship whose primary aim was
not the creation and contemplation of beautiful things, entirely to
dominate my life. From the very first there was too wide a gap between
us. You had been idle at your school, worse than idle[41] at your
university. You did not realise that an artist, and especially such an
artist as I am, one, that is to say, the quality of whose work depends
on the intensification of personality, requires an intellectual
atmosphere, quiet, peace, and solitude. You admired my work when it was
finished: you enjoyed the brilliant successes of my first nights, and
the brilliant banquets that followed them: you were proud, and quite
naturally so, of being the intimate friend of an artist so
distinguished: but you could not understand the conditions requisite for
the production of artistic work. I am not speaking in phrases of
rhetorical exaggeration, but in terms of absolute truth to actual fact
when I remind you that during the whole time we were together I never
wrote one single line. Whether at Torquay, Goring, London, Florence, or
elsewhere, my life, as long as you were by my side, was entirely sterile
and uncreative. And with but few intervals, you were, I regret to say,
by my side always.

I remember, for instance, in September, '93, to select merely one
instance out of many, taking a set of chambers, purely in order to work
undisturbed, as I had broken my contract with John Hare, for whom I had
promised to write a play, and who was pressing me on the subject. During
the first week you kept away. We had, not unnaturally indeed, differed
on the question of the artistic value[42] of your translation of
_Salomé_. So you contented yourself with sending me foolish letters on
the subject. In that week I wrote and completed in every detail, as it
was ultimately performed, the first act of an _An Ideal Husband_. The
second week you returned, and my work practically had to be given up. I
arrived at St. James's Place every morning at 11.30 in order to have the
opportunity of thinking and writing without the interruption inseparable
from my own household, quiet and peaceful as that household was. But the
attempt was vain. At 12 o'clock you drove up and stayed smoking
cigarettes and chattering till 1.30, when I had to take you out to
luncheon at the Café Royal or the Berkeley. Luncheon with its liqueurs
lasted usually till 3.30. For an hour you retired to White's. At tea
time you appeared again and stayed till it was time to dress for
dinner. You dined with me either at the Savoy or at Tite Street. We did
not separate as a rule till after midnight, as supper at Willis' had to
wind up the entrancing day. That was my life for those three months,
every single day, except during the four days when you went abroad. I
then, of course, had to go over to Calais to fetch you back. For one of
my nature and temperament it was a position at once grotesque and

You surely must realise that now. You must see now that your incapacity
of being alone: your nature so exigent in its persistent claim on the
attention and time of others: your lack of any power of sustained
intellectual concentration: the unfortunate accident--for I like to
think it was no more--that you had not been able to acquire the "Oxford
temper" in intellectual matters, never, I mean, been one who could play
gracefully with ideas, but had arrived at violence of opinion
merely--that all these things, combined with the fact that your desires
and your interests were in Life, not in Art, were as destructive to your
own progress in culture as they were to my work as an artist. When I
compare my friendship with you to my friendship with still younger men,
as John Gray and Pierre Louys, I feel ashamed. My real life, my higher
life, was with them and such as they.

Of the appalling results of my friendship with you I don't speak at
present. I am thinking merely of its quality while it lasted. It was
intellectually degrading to me. You had the rudiments[43] of an artistic
temperament in its germ. But I met you either too late or too soon. I
don't know which. When you were away I was all right. The moment, in the
early December of the year to which I have been alluding, I had
succeeded in inducing your mother to send you out of England, I
collected again the torn and ravelled web of my imagination, got my life
back into my own hands, and not merely finished the three remaining acts
of the _Ideal Husband_, but conceived and had almost completed two other
plays of a completely different type, the _Florentine Tragedy_ and _La
Sainte Courtesane_, when suddenly, unbidden, unwelcome, and under
circumstances fatal to my happiness, you returned. The two works left
then imperfect I was unable to take up again. The mood that created them
I could never recover. You now, having yourself published a volume of
verse, will be able to recognise the truth of everything I have said
here. Whether you can or not it remains as a hideous truth in the very
heart of our friendship. While you were with me you were the absolute
ruin of my art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art
and myself, I give to myself shame and blame in the fullest degree. You
couldn't appreciate, you couldn't know, you couldn't understand. I had
no right to expect it of you at all. Your interests were merely in your
meals and moods. Your desires were simply for amusements, for ordinary
or less ordinary pleasures. They were what your temperament needed, or
thought it needed for the moment. I should have forbidden you my house
and my chambers except when I specially invited you. I blame myself
without reserve for my weakness. It was merely weakness. One half-hour
with Art was always more to me than a cycle with you. Nothing really at
any period of my life was ever of the smallest importance[44] to me
compared with Art. But in the case of an artist, weakness is nothing
less than a crime when it is a weakness that paralyses the imagination.

I blame myself for having allowed you to bring me to utter and
discreditable financial ruin. I remember one morning in the early
October of '92, sitting in the yellowing woods at Bracknell with your
mother. At that time I knew very little of your real nature. I had
stayed from a Saturday to Monday with you at Oxford. You had stayed with
me at Cromer for ten days and played golf. The conversation turned on
you, and your mother began to speak to me about your character. She told
me of your two chief faults, your vanity, and your being, as she termed
it, "all wrong about money." I have a distinct recollection of how I
laughed. I had no idea that the first would bring me to prison and the
second to bankruptcy. I thought vanity a sort of graceful flower for a
young man to wear, as for extravagance--the virtues of prudence and
thrift were not in my own nature or my own race. But before our
friendship was one month older I began to see what your mother really
meant. Your insistence on a life of reckless profusion: your incessant
demands for money: your claim that all your pleasures should be paid for
by me, whether I was with you or not, brought me, after some time, into
serious monetary difficulties, and what made the extravagance to me, at
any rate, so monotonously uninteresting, as your persistent grasp on my
life grew stronger and stronger, was that the money was spent on little
more than the pleasures of eating, drinking and the like. Now and then
it is a joy to have one's table red with wine and roses, but you
outstripped all taste and temperance. You demanded without grace and
received without thanks. You grew to think that you had a sort of right
to live at my expense, and in a profuse luxury to which you had never
been accustomed, and which, for that reason, made your appetites all the
more keen, and at the end, if you lost money gambling in some Algiers
Casino, you simply telegraphed next morning to me in London to lodge the
amount of your losses to your account at your bank, and gave the matter
no further thought of any kind.

When I tell you that between the autumn of 1892 and the date of my
imprisonment, I spent with you and on you, more than £5,000 in actual
money, irrespective of the bills I incurred, you will have some idea of
the sort of life on which you insisted. Do you think I exaggerate? My
ordinary expenses with you for an ordinary day in London--for luncheon,
dinner, supper, amusements, hansoms, and the rest of it--ranged from £12
to £20, and the week's expenses were naturally in proportion and ranged
from £80 to £130. For our three months at Goring my expenses (rent, of
course, included) were £1,340. Step by step with the Bankruptcy Receiver
I had to go over every item of my life. It was horrible. "Plain living
and high thinking," was, of course, an ideal you could not at that time
have appreciated, but such an extravagance was a disgrace to both of
us. One of the most delightful dinners I remember ever having had is one
Robbie and I had together in a little Soho Café, which cost about as
many shillings as my dinners to you used to cost pounds. Out of my
dinner with Robbie came the first and best of all my dialogues. Idea,
title, treatment, mode, everything was struck out at a 3 franc 50c.
table d'hôte. Out of the reckless dinners with you nothing remains but
the memory that too much was eaten and too much was drunk. And my
yielding to your demands was bad for you. You know that now. It made you
grasping often: at times not a little unscrupulous: ungracious always.
There was, on far too many occasions, too little joy or privilege in
being your host. You forgot--I will not say the formal courtesy of
thanks, for formal courtesies will strain a close friendship--but simply
the grace of sweet companionship, the charm of pleasant conversation,
and all those gentle humanities that make life lovely, and are an
accompaniment to life as music might be, keeping things in tune and
filling with melody the harsh or silent places. And though it may seem
strange to you that one in the terrible position in which I am situated,
should find a difference between one disgrace and another, still I
frankly admit that the folly of throwing away all this money on you, and
letting you squander my fortune to your own hurt as well as to mine,
gives to me and in my eyes a note of common profligacy to my bankruptcy
that makes me doubly ashamed of it. I was made for other things.

But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I
allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will power, and my
will power became absolutely subject[45] to yours. It sounds a grotesque
thing to say, but it is none the less true. Those incessant scenes that
seemed to be almost physically necessary to you, and in which your mind
and body grew distorted, and you became a thing as terrible to look at
as to listen to: that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the
mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters: your entire lack of
any control over your emotions as displayed in your long resentful
moods of sullen silence, no less than in the sudden fits of almost
epileptic rage: all these things in reference to which one of my letters
to you, left by you lying about in the Savoy or some other hotel, and so
produced in court by your father's counsel, contained an entreaty not
devoid of pathos, had you at that time been able to recognise pathos
either in its elements or its expression--these, I say, were the origin
and causes of my fatal yielding to you in your daily increasing demands.
You wore me out. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger
nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong
which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being "the only tyranny
that lasts." And it was inevitable. In every relation of life with
others one has to find some _moyen de vivre_.

I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant
nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could myself re-assert my
will power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great
moment my will power completely failed me. In life there is really no
great or small thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size.
My habit--due to indifference chiefly at first--of giving up to you in
everything had become insensibly a real part of my nature. Without my
knowing it, it had stereotyped my temperament to one permanent and fatal
mood. That is why, in the subtle epilogue to the first edition of his
essays, Pater says that "Failure is to form habits." When he said it the
dull Oxford people thought the phrase a mere wilful inversion of the
somewhat wearisome text of Aristotelian Ethics, but there is a
wonderful, a terrible truth hidden in it. I had allowed you to sap my
strength of character, and to me the formation of a habit had proved to
be not failure merely, but ruin. Ethically you had been even still more
destructive to me than you had been artistically.

The warrant once granted, your will, of course, directed everything. At
a time when I should have been in London taking wise counsel and calmly
considering the hideous trap in which I had allowed myself to be
caught--the booby trap, as your father calls it to the present day--you
insisted on my taking you to Monte Carlo, of all revolting places on
God's earth, that all day and all night as well, you might gamble as
long as the casino remained open. As for me--baccarat[46] having no
charms for me--I was left alone outside by myself. You refused to
discuss even for five minutes the position to which you and your father
had brought me. My business was merely to pay your hotel expenses and
your losses. The slightest allusion to the ordeal awaiting me was
regarded as a bore. A new brand of champagne that was recommended to us
had more interest for you. On our return to London those of my friends
who really desired my welfare implored me to retire abroad, and not to
face an impossible trial. You imputed mean motives to them for giving
such advice and cowardice to me for listening to it. You forced me to
stay to brazen it out, if possible, in the box by absurd and silly
perjuries. At the end, of course, I was arrested, and your father became
the hero of the hour.

As far as I can make out, I ended my friendship with you every three
months regularly. And each time that I did so you managed by means of
entreaties, telegrams, letters, the interposition of your friends, the
interposition of mine, and the like to induce me to allow you back.

But the froth and folly of our life grew often very wearisome to me: it
was only in the mire that we met: and fascinating, terribly fascinating
though the one[47] topic round which your talk invariably centered was,
still at the end it became quite monotonous to me. I was often bored to
death by it, and accepted it as I accepted your passion for music halls,
or your mania for absurd extravagance in eating and drinking, or any
other of your to me less attractive characteristics, as a thing that is
to say, that one simply had to put up with, a part of the high price one
had to pay for knowing you.

When you came one Monday evening to my rooms, accompanied by two[48] of
your friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to
escape from you, giving my family some absurd reason for my sudden
departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you
might follow me by the next train....

Our friendship had always been a source of distress to my wife: not
merely because she had never liked you personally, but because she saw
how your continual companionship altered me, and not for the better.

You started without delay for Paris, sending me passionate telegrams on
the road to beg me to see you once, at any rate. I declined. You arrived
in Paris late on a Saturday night and found a brief letter from me
waiting for you at your hotel stating that I would not see you. Next
morning I received in Tite Street a telegram of some ten or eleven pages
in length from you. You stated in it that no matter what you had done to
me you could not believe that I would absolutely decline to see you; you
reminded me that for the sake of seeing me even for one hour you had
travelled six days and six nights across Europe without stopping once on
the way; you made what I must admit was a most pathetic appeal, and
ended with what seemed to me a threat of suicide and one not thinly
veiled. You had yourself often told me how many of your race there had
been who had stained their hands in their own blood: your uncle
certainly, your grandfather possibly; many others in the mad bad line
from which you come. Pity, my old affection for you, regard for your
mother, to whom your death under such dreadful circumstances would have
been a blow almost too great for her to bear, the horror of the idea
that so young a life, and one that amidst all its ugly faults had still
promise of beauty in it, should come to so revolting an end, mere
humanity itself--all these, if excuses be necessary, must serve as an
excuse for consenting to accord you one last interview. When I arrived
in Paris, your tears breaking out again and again all through the
evening, and falling over your cheeks like rain as we sat at dinner
first at Voisin's, at supper at Paillard's afterwards, the unfeigned joy
you evinced at seeing me, holding my hand whenever you could, as though
you were a gentle and penitent child; your contrition, so simple and
sincere at the moment made me consent to renew our friendship. Two days
after we had returned to London, your father saw you having luncheon
with me at the Café Royal, joined my table, drank of my wine, and that
afternoon, through a letter addressed to you, began his first attack on
me.... It may be strange, but I had once again, I will not say the
chance, but the duty, of separating from you forced on me. I need hardly
remind you that I refer to your conduct to me at Brighton from October
10th to 13th, 1894. Three years is a long time for you to go back. But
we who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow,
have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter
moments. We have nothing else to think of. Suffering, curious as it may
sound to you, is the means by which we exist, because it is the only
means by which we become conscious of existing; and the remembrance of
suffering in the past is necessary to us as the warrant, the evidence,
of our continued identity. Between myself and the memory of joy lies a
gulf no less deep than that between myself and joy in its actuality. Had
our life together been as the world fancied it to be, one simply of
pleasure, profligacies and laughter, I would not be able to recall a
single passage in it. It is because it was full of moments and days
tragic, bitter, sinister in their warnings, dull or dreadful in their
monotonous scenes and unseemly violences, that I can see or hear each
separate incident in its detail, can indeed see or hear little else. So
much in this place do men live by pain that my friendship with you, in
the way through which I am forced to remember it, appears to me always
as a prelude consonant with those varying modes of anguish which each
day I have to realise, nay more, to necessitate them even; as though my
life, whatever it had seemed to myself and others, had all the while
been a real symphony of sorrow, passing through its rhythmically linked
movements to its certain resolution, with that inevitableness that in
Art characterises the treatment of every great theme.... I spoke of your
conduct to me on three successive days three years ago, did I not?

I entertained you, of course, I had no option in the matter; but
elsewhere, and not in my own home. The next day, Monday, your companion
returned to the duties[49] of his profession, and you stayed with me.
Bored with Worthing, and still more, I have no doubt, with my fruitless
efforts to concentrate my attention on my play, the only thing that
really interested me at the moment, you insist on being taken to the
Grand Hotel at Brighton.

The night we arrive you fall ill with that dreadful low fever that is
foolishly called the influenza, your second, if not your third, attack.
I need not remind you how I waited on you, and tended you, not merely
with every luxury of fruit, flowers, presents, books and the like that
money can procure, but with that affection, tenderness and love that,
whatever you may think, is not to be procured for money. Except for an
hour's walk in the morning, an hour's drive in the afternoon, I never
left the hotel. I got special grapes from London for you as you did not
care for those the hotel supplied; invented things to please you;
remained either with you or in the room next to yours; sat with you
every evening to quiet or amuse you.

After four or five days you recover, and I take lodgings in order to try
and finish my play. You, of course, accompany me. The morning after the
day on which we were installed I feel extremely ill.

The doctor finds I have caught the influenza from you.

There is no manservant to wait on me, not even any one to send out on a
message, or to get what the doctor orders. But you are there. I feel no
alarm. The next two days you leave me entirely alone without care,
without attendance, without anything. It was not a question of grapes,
flowers and charming gifts: it was a question of mere necessities.

And when I was left all day without anything to read, you calmly tell me
that you bought the book I wanted, and that they had promised to send it
down, a statement which I found by chance afterwards to have been
entirely untrue, from beginning to end. All the while you are, of
course, living at my expense, driving about, dining at the Grand Hotel,
and indeed only appearing in my room for money. On the Saturday night,
you having completely left me unattended and alone since the morning, I
asked you to come back after dinner, and sit with me for a little. With
irritable voice and ungracious manner you promise to do so. I wait till
11 o'clock, and you never appear.

At three in the morning, unable to sleep, and tortured with thirst, I
made my way in the dark and cold, down to the sitting-room in the hopes
of finding some water there. I found you. You fell on me with every
hideous word an intemperate mood, an undisciplined and untutored nature
could suggest. By the terrible alchemy of egotism you converted your
remorse into rage. You accused me of selfishness in expecting you to be
with me when I was ill; of standing between you and your amusements; of
trying to deprive you of your pleasures.

You told me, and I know it was quite true, that you had come back at
midnight simply in order to change your dress-clothes, and go out again.

I told you at length to leave the room; you pretended to do so, but when
I lifted up my head from the pillow in which I had buried it, you were
still there, and with brutality of laughter and hysteria of rage you
moved suddenly towards me. A sense of horror came over me, for what
exact reason I could not make out; but I got out of my bed at once, and
bare-footed and just as I was, made my way down the two nights of stairs
to the sitting-room.

You returned silently for money; took what you could find on the
dressing table, and mantelpiece, and left the house with your luggage.
Need I tell you what I thought of you during the two lonely wretched
days of illness that followed? Is it necessary for me to state, that I
saw clearly that it would be a dishonour to myself to continue even an
acquaintance with such a one as you had showed yourself to be? That I
recognised that the ultimate moment had come and recognised it as being
really a great relief? And that I knew that for the future my art and
life would be freer and better and more beautiful in every possible way?
Ill as I was, I felt at ease. The fact that the separation was
irrevocable gave me peace.

Wednesday was my birthday. Amongst the telegrams and communications on
my table was a letter in your handwriting. I opened it with a sense of
sadness on me. I knew that the time had gone by when a pretty phrase, an
expression of affection, a word of sorrow, would make me take you back.
But I was entirely deceived. I had underrated you.

You congratulated me on my prudence in leaving the sick bed, on my
sudden flight downstairs. "It was an ugly moment for you," you said,
"uglier than you imagine." Ah! I felt it but too well. What it had
really meant I do not know; whether you had with you the pistol you had
bought to try to frighten your father with, and that thinking it to be
unloaded, you had once fired off in a public restaurant in my company;
whether your hand was moving towards a common dinner knife that by
chance was lying on the table between us; whether forgetting in your
rage your low[50] stature and inferior strength, you had thought of some
special personal insult, or attack even, as I lay ill there; I could not
tell. I do not know to the present moment. All I know is that a feeling
of utter horror had come over me, and that I had felt that unless I left
the room at once and got away, you would have done or tried to do
something that would have been, even to you, a source of lifelong

On your return to town from the actual scene of the tragedy to which you
had been summoned, you came at once to me very sweetly and very simply,
in your suit of woe, and with your eyes dim with tears. You sought
consolation and help, as a child might seek it. I opened to you my
house, my home, my heart. I made your sorrow mine also, that you might
have help in bearing it. Never even by one word, did I allude to your
conduct towards me, to the revolting scenes, and the revolting letter.

The gods are strange. It is not our vices only they make instruments to
scourge us. They bring us to ruin through what in us is good, gentle,
humane, loving. But for my pity and affection for you and yours, I would
not now be weeping in this terrible place.

Of course, I discern in all our relations, not destiny merely, but
Doom--Doom that walks always swiftly, because she goes to the shedding
of blood. Through your father you come of a race, marriage with whom is
horrible, friendship fatal, and that lays violent hands either on its
own life, or on the lives of others.

In every little circumstance in which the ways of our lives met, in
every point of great or seemingly trivial import in which you came to me
for pleasure or help, in the small chances, the slight accidents that
look, in their relation to life, to be no more than the dust that dances
in a beam, or the leaf that flutters from a tree, ruin followed like the
echo of a bitter cry, or the shadow that hunts with the beast of prey.

Our friendship really begins with your begging me, in a most pathetic
and charming letter, to assist you in a position appalling to anyone,
doubly so to a young man at Oxford. I do so, and ultimately, through
your using my name as your friend with Sir George Lewis I begin to lose
his esteem and friendship, a friendship of fifteen years' standing. When
I was deprived of his advice and help and regard, I was deprived of the
one great safeguard of my life. You send me a very nice poem of the
undergraduate school of verse for my approval. I reply by a letter of
fantastic literary conceits; I compare you to Hylas, or Hyacinth,
Jonquil or Narcissus, or some one whom the Great God of Poetry favoured,
and honoured with his love. The letter is like a passage from one of
Shakespeare's sonnets transposed to a minor key.

It was, let me say frankly, the sort of letter I would, in a happy, if
wilful moment, have written to any graceful young man of either
university who had sent me a poem of his own making, certain that he
would have sufficient wit, or culture, to interpret rightly its
fantastic phrases. Look at the history of that letter! It passes from
you into the hands of a loathsome companion[51], from him to a gang of
blackmailers, copies of it are sent about London to my friends, and to
the manager[52] of the theatre where my work is being performed, every
construction but the right one is put on it, society is thrilled with
the absurd rumours that I have had to pay a high sum of money for having
written an infamous letter to you; this forms the basis of your father's
worst attack.

I produce the original letter myself in court to show what it really is;
it is denounced by your father's counsel as a revolting and insidious
attempt to corrupt innocence; ultimately it forms part of a criminal
charge; the crown takes it up; the judge sums up on it with little
learning and much morality; I go to prison for it at last. That is the
result of writing you a charming letter.

It makes me feel sometimes as if you yourself had been merely a puppet
worked by some secret and unseen hand to bring terrible events to a
terrible issue. But puppets themselves have passions. They will bring a
new plot into what they are presenting, and twist the ordered issue of
vicissitude to suit some whim or appetite of their own. To be entirely
free, and at the same time entirely dominated by law, is the eternal
paradox of human life that we realise at every moment; and this, I often
think, is the only explanation possible of your nature, if indeed for
the profound and terrible mystery of a human soul there is any
explanation at all, except one that makes the mystery all the more
marvellous still.

I thought life was going to be a brilliant comedy, and that you were to
be one of the graceful figures in it. I found it to be a revolting and
repellent tragedy, and that the sinister occasion of the great
catastrophe, sinister in its concentration of aim and intensity of
narrowed will power, was yourself stripped of the mask of joy and
pleasure by which you, no less than I, had been deceived and led astray.

The memory of our friendship is the shadow that walks with me here: that
seems never to leave me: that wakes me up at night to tell me the same
story over and over till its wearisome iteration makes all sleep abandon
me till dawn: at dawn it begins again: it follows me into the prison
yard and makes me talk to myself as I tramp round: each detail that
accompanied each dreadful moment I am forced to recall: there is nothing
that happened in those ill-starred years that I cannot recreate in that
chamber of the brain which is set apart for grief or for despair; every
strained note of your voice, every twitch and gesture of your nervous
hands, every bitter word, every poisonous phrase comes back to me: I
remember the street or river down which we passed: the wall or woodland
that surrounded us; at what figure on the dial stood the hands of the
clock; which way went the wings of the wind, the shape and colour of the

There is, I know, one answer to all that I have said to you, and that is
that you loved me: that all through those two and a half years during
which the fates were weaving into one scarlet pattern the threads of our
divided lives you really loved me.

Though I saw quite clearly that my position in the world of art, the
interest that my personality had always excited, my money, the luxury in
which I lived, the thousand and one things that went to make up a life
so charmingly and so wonderfully improbable as mine was, were, each and
all of them, elements that fascinated you and made you cling to me; yet
besides all this there was something more, some strange attraction for
you: you loved me far better than you loved anyone else. But you, like
myself, have had a terrible tragedy in your life, though one of an
entirely opposite character to mine. Do you want to learn what it was?
It was this. In you, hate was always stronger than love. Your hatred[53]
of your father was of such stature that it entirely outstripped,
overgrew, and overshadowed your love of me. There was no struggle
between them at all, or but little; of such dimensions was your hatred
and of such monstrous growth. You did not realise that there was no room
for both passions in the same soul: they cannot live together in that
fair carven house. Love is fed by the imagination, by which we become
wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are; by which we
can see life as a whole; by which and by which alone, we can understand
others in their real as in their ideal relations. Only what is fine, and
finely conceived, can feed love. But anything will feed hate. There was
not a glass of champagne that you drank, not a rich dish that you ate of
in all those years, that did not feed your hate and make it fat. So to
gratify it, you gambled with my life, as you gambled with my money,
carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequences. If you lost,
the loss would not, you fancied, be yours. If you won, yours, you knew,
would be the exultation and the advantages of victory.

Hate blinds people. You were not aware of that. Love can read the
writing on the remotest star, but hate so blinded you that you could see
no further than the narrow, walled in, and already lust-withered garden
of your common desires. Your terrible lack of imagination, the one
really fatal defect in your character, was entirely the result of the
hate that lived in you. Subtly, silently, and in secret, hate gnawed at
your nature, as the lichen bites at the root of some sallow plant, till
you grew to see nothing but the most meagre interests and the most petty
aims. That faculty in you which love would have fostered, hate poisoned
and paralysed.

The idea of your being the object of a terrible quarrel between your
father and a man of my position seemed to delight you.

You scented the chance of a public scandal and flew to it. The prospect
of a battle in which you would be safe delighted you.

You know what my art was to me, the great primal note by which I had
revealed, first myself to myself, and then myself to the world, the
great passion of my life, the love to which all other loves were as
marsh water to red wine, or the glow worm of the marsh to the magic
mirror of the moon.... Don't you understand now that your lack of
imagination was the one really fatal defect of your character? What you
had to do was quite simple, and quite clear before you; but hate had
blinded you, and you could see nothing.

Life is quite lovely to you. And yet, if you are wise, and wish to find
life much lovelier still, and in a different manner you will let the
reading of this terrible letter--for such I know it is--prove to you as
important a crisis and turning point of your life as the writing of it
is to me. Your pale face used to flush easily with wine or pleasure. If,
as you read what is here written, it from time to time becomes scorched,
as though by a furnace blast, with shame, it will be all the better for
you. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right.

How clearly I saw it then, as now, I need not tell you. But I said to
myself, "At all costs I must keep love in my heart. If I go into prison
without love, what will become of my soul?" The letters I wrote to you
at that time from Holloway were my efforts to keep love as the dominant
note of my own nature. I could, if I had chosen, have torn you to pieces
with bitter reproaches. I could have rent you with maledictions.

The sins of another were being placed to my account. Had I so chosen, I
could on either trial have saved myself at his expense, not from shame
indeed, but from imprisonment.[54] Had I cared to show that the crown
witnesses--the three most important--had been carefully coached by your
father and his solicitors, not in reticences merely, but in assertions,
in the absolute transference deliberate, plotted, and rehearsed, of the
actions and doings of someone else on to me, I could have had each one
of them dismissed from the box by the judge, more summarily than even
wretched perjured Atkins was. I could have walked out of court with my
tongue in my cheek, and my hands in my pockets, a free man. The
strongest pressure was put upon me to do so, I was earnestly advised,
begged, entreated to do so by people, whose sole interest was my
welfare, and the welfare of my house. But I refused. I did not choose to
do so. I have never regretted my decision for a single moment, even in
the most bitter periods of my imprisonment. Such a course of action
would have been beneath me. Sins of the flesh are nothing. They are
maladies for physicians to cure, if they should be cured. Sins of the
soul alone are shameful. To have secured my acquittal by such means
would have been a life-long torture to me. But do you really think that
you were worthy of the love I was showing you then, or that for a single
moment I thought you were? Do you really think that any period of our
friendship you were worthy of the love I showed you, or that for a
single moment I thought you were? I knew you were not. But love does not
traffic in a market place, nor use a huckster's scales. Its joy, like
the joy of the intellect, is to feel itself alive. The aim of love is to
love; no more, and no less. You were my enemy; such an enemy as no man
ever had. I had given you my life; and to gratify the lowest and most
contemptible of all human passions, hatred and vanity and greed, you had
thrown it away. In less than three years you had entirely ruined me from
every point of view.

After my terrible sentence, when the prison dress was on me, and the
prison house closed, I sat amidst the ruins of my wonderful life,
crushed by anguish, bewildered with terror, dazed through pain. But I
would not hate you. Every day I said to myself, "I must keep love in my
heart to-day, else how shall I live through the day?" I reminded myself
that you meant no evil to me at any rate....

It all flashed across me, and I remember that for the first and last
time in my entire prison life, I laughed. In that laugh was all the
scorn of all the world. Prince Fleur de lys! I saw that nothing that had
happened had made you realise a single thing. You were, in your own
eyes, still the graceful prince of a trivial comedy, not the sombre
figure of a tragic show.

Had there been nothing in your heart to cry out against so vulgar a
sacrilege, you might at least have remembered the sonnet he wrote who
saw with such sorrow and scorn the letters of John Keats sold by public
auction in London, and have understood at last the real meaning of my

          "... I think they love not art
    Who break the crystal of a poet's heart
    That small and sickly eyes may glare or gloat."

One cannot always keep an adder in one's breast to feed on one, nor rise
up every night to sow thorns in the garden of one's soul.

I cannot allow you to go through life bearing in your heart the burden
of having ruined a man like me.

Does it ever occur to you what an awful position I would have been in
if, for the last two years, during my appalling sentence, I had been
dependent on you as a friend? Do you ever think of that? Do you ever
feel any gratitude to those who by kindness without stint, devotion
without limit, cheerfulness and joy in giving, have lightened my black
burden for me, have arranged my future life for me, have visited me
again and again, have written to me beautiful and sympathetic letters,
have managed my affairs for me, have stood by me in the teeth of
obloquy, taunt, open sneer or insult even? I thank God every day that he
gave me friends other than you. I owe everything to them. The very books
in my cell are paid for by Robbie out of his pocket money. From the same
source[55] are to come clothes for me when I am released. I am not
ashamed of taking a thing that is given by love and affection. I am
proud of it. But do you ever think of what friends such as More Adey,
Robbie, Robert Sherard, Frank Harris, and Arthur Clifton have been to me
in giving me comfort, help, affection, sympathy and the like?...

I know that your mother, Lady Queensberry, puts the blame on me. I hear
of it, not from people who know you, but from people who do not know
you, and do not desire to know you. I hear of it often. She talks of the
influence of an elder over a younger man, for instance. It is one of her
favourite attitudes towards the question, as it is always a successful
appeal to popular prejudice and ignorance. I need not ask you what
influence I had over you. You know I had none.

It was one of your frequent boasts that I had none, the only one indeed,
that was well founded. What was there, as a mere matter of fact, in you
that I could influence? Your brain? It was undeveloped. Your
imagination? It was dead. Your heart? It was not yet born. Of all the
people who have ever crossed my life, you were the one, and the only
one, I was unable in any way to influence in any direction.

I waited month after month to hear from you. Even if I had not been
waiting but had shut the doors against you, you should have remembered
that no one can possibly shut the doors against love forever. The unjust
judge in the gospels rises up at length to give a just decision because
justice comes daily knocking at his door: and at night time the friend,
in whose heart there is no real friendship, yields at length to his
friend "because of his importunity." There is no prison in any world
into which love cannot force an entrance. If you did not understand
that, you did not understand anything about love at all....

Write to me with full frankness, about yourself: about your life: your
friends: your occupations: your books. Whatever you have to say for
yourself, say it without fear. Don't write what you don't mean: that is
all. If anything in your letter is false or counterfeit I shall detect
it by the ring at once. It is not for nothing, or to no purpose that in
my lifelong cult of literature, I have made myself,

    "Miser of sound and syllable, no less
    Than Midas of his coinage."

Remember also that I have yet to know you. Perhaps we have yet to know
each other. For myself, I have but this last thing to say. Do not be
afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not
believe them. The past, the present and the future are but one moment in
the sight of God, in whose sight we should try to live. Time and space,
succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of a thought.
The imagination can transcend them and more, in a free sphere of ideal
existences. Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make
them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it. "Where
others," says Blake, "see but the dawn coming over the hill, I see the
sons of God shouting for joy." What seemed to the world and to myself my
future I lost irretrievably when I let myself be taunted into taking the
action against your father, had, I daresay, lost in reality long before
that. What lies before me is the past. I have got to make myself look on
that with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different
eyes, to make God look on it with different eyes. This I cannot do by
ignoring it, or slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only
to be done fully by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution
of my life and character: by bowing my head to everything that I have

How far I am away from the true temper of soul, this letter in its
changing, uncertain moods, its scorn and bitterness, its aspirations and
its failures to realise those aspirations shows you quite clearly. But
do not forget in what a terrible school I am setting at my task. And
incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may have still much to
gain. You came to me to learn the pleasure of life and the pleasure of
art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the
meaning of sorrow and its beauty.

Your affectionate friend,


This letter of Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas is curiously
self-revealing and characteristic. While reading it one should recall
Oscar's provocation. Lord Alfred Douglas had driven him to the
prosecution, and then deserted him and left him in prison without using
his influence to mitigate his friend's suffering or his pen to console
and encourage him. The abandonment was heartless and complete. The
letter, however, is vindictive: in spite of its intimate revelations
Oscar took care that his indictment should be made public. The flagrant
self-deceptions of the plea show its sincerity: Oscar even accuses young
Alfred Douglas of having induced him to eat and drink too much.

The tap-root of the letter is a colossal vanity; the bitterness of it,
wounded egotism; the falseness of it, a self-righteous pose of ineffable
superiority as of a superman. Oscar denies to Alfred Douglas
imagination, scholarship, or even a knowledge of poetry: he tells him in
so many words:--he is without brain or heart. Then why did he allow
himself to be hag-ridden to his ruin by such a creature?

Yet how human the letter is, how pathetic!


Here is a note which Oscar Wilde wrote to Warder Martin towards the end
of his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. Warder Martin, it will be
remembered, was dismissed from his post for having given some sweet
biscuits, bought with his own money, to some hungry little children
confined in the prison.

Wilde happened to see the children and immediately wrote this note on a
scrap of paper and slipped it under his door so that it should catch
Warder Martin's eye as he patrolled the corridor.

     Please find out for me the name of A.2.11. Also, the names of
     the children who are in for the rabbits, and the amount of the

     Can I pay this and get them out? If so I will get them out
     tomorrow. Please, dear friend, do this for me. I must get them

     Think what a thing for me it would be to be able to help three
     little children. I would be delighted beyond words: if I can
     do this by paying the fine tell the children that they are to
     be released tomorrow by a friend, and ask them to be happy and
     not to tell anyone.

Here is a second note which shows Oscar's peculiar sensitiveness; what
is ugly and terrible cannot, he thinks, furnish even the subject of art;
he shrinks from whatever gives pain.

     I hope to write about prison-life and to try and change it for
     others, but it is too terrible and ugly to make a work of art
     of. I have suffered too much in it to write plays about it.

A third note simply thanks Warder Martin for all his kindness. It ends
with the words:

     ... Everyone tells me I am looking better and happier.

     This is because I have a good friend who gives me _The
     Chronicle_ and PROMISES me ginger biscuits. O.W.


(See page 408)

When I talked with Oscar in Reading Gaol, he told me that the only
reason he didn't write was that no one would accept his work. I assured
him that I would publish it in _The Saturday Review_ and would pay for
it not only at the rate I paid Bernard Shaw but also if it increased the
sale of the journal I'd try to compute its value to the paper and give
him that besides. He told me that was too liberal; he would be quite
content with what I paid Shaw: he feared that no one else in England
would ever publish his work again.

He promised to send me the book "De Profundis" as soon as it was
finished. Just before his release his friend, Mr. More Adey, called upon
me and wanted to know whether I would publish Oscar's work. I said I
would. He then asked me what I would give for it. I told him I didn't
want to make anything out of Oscar and would give him as much as I
could, rehearsing the proposal I had made to Oscar. Thereupon he told me
Oscar would prefer a fixed price. I thought the answer extraordinary and
the gentle, urbane manner of Mr. More Adey, whom I hardly knew at that
time and misunderstood, got on my nerves. I replied curtly that before I
could state a price, I'd have to see the work, adding at the same time
that I had wished to do Oscar a good turn, but, if he could find another
publisher, I'd be delighted. Mr. More Adey assured me that there was
nothing in the book to which any prude even could object, no _arrière
pensée_ of any kind, and so forth and so on. I answered with a jest, a
wretched play on his French phrase.

That night I happened to dine with Whistler and telling him of what had
occurred called forth a most stinging gibe at Oscar's expense.
Whistler's _mot_ cannot be published.

A week or two later Oscar asked me to get him some clothes, which I did
and on his release sent them to him, and received in reply a letter
thanking me which I reproduce on page 583.

In that same talk with Oscar in Reading Gaol, I was so desirous of
helping him that I proposed a driving tour through France. I told him of
one I had made a couple of years before which was full of delightful
episodes--an entrancing holiday. He jumped at the idea, said nothing
would please him better, he would feel safe with me, and so forth. In
order to carry out the idea in the best way I ordered an American mail
phaeton so that a pair of horses would find the load, even with luggage,
ridiculously light. I asked Mr. More Adey whether Oscar had spoken to
him of this proposed trip: he told me he had heard nothing of it.

In one letter to me Oscar asked me to postpone the tour; afterwards he
never mentioned it. I thought I had been treated rather cavalierly. As I
had gone to some expense in getting everything ready and making myself
free, I, no doubt, expressed some amazement at Oscar's silence on the
matter. At any rate the idea got about that I was angry with him, and
Oscar believed it. Nothing could have been further from the truth. What
I had done and proposed was simply in his interest: I expected no
benefit of any kind and therefore could not be cross; but the belief
that I was angry drew this sincere and touching letter from Oscar, which
I think shows him almost as perfectly as that still more beautiful
letter to Robert Ross which I have inserted in Chapter XIX.

M. Sebastian Melmoth,
Hotel de la Plage,

June 13, '97


I know you do not like writing letters, but still I think you might have
written me a line in answer, or acknowledgment of my letter[56] to you
from Dieppe. I am thinking of a story to be called "The Silence of Frank

I have, however, heard during the last few days that you do not speak of
me in the friendly manner I would like. This distresses me very much.

I am told that you are hurt with me because my letter of thanks to you
was not sufficiently elaborated in expression. This I can hardly credit.
It seems so unworthy of a big strong nature like yours, that knows the
realities of life. I told you I was grateful to you for your kindness to
me. Words, _now_, to me signify things, actualities, real emotions,
realised thoughts. I learnt in prison to be grateful. I used to think
gratitude a burden. Now I know that it is something that makes life
lighter as well as lovelier for one. I am grateful for a thousand
things, from my good friends down to the sun and the sea. But I cannot
say more than that I am grateful. I cannot make phrases about it. For
_me_ to use such a word shows an enormous development in my nature. Two
years ago I did not know the feeling the word denotes. Now I know it,
and I am thankful that I have learnt that much, at any rate, by having
been in prison. But I must say again that I no longer make _roulades_ of
phrases about the deep things I feel. When I write directly to you, I
speak directly: violin variations don't interest me. I am grateful to
you. If that does not content you, then you do not understand, what you
of all men should understand, how sincerity of feeling expresses itself.
But I dare say the story told of you is untrue. It comes from so many
quarters that it probably is.

I am told also that you are hurt[57] because I did not go on the
driving-tour with you. You should understand, that in telling you that
it was impossible for me to do so, I was thinking as much of _you_ as of
myself. To think of the feelings and happiness of others is not an
entirely new emotion in my nature. I would be unjust to myself and my
friends, if I said it was. But I think of those things far more than I
used to do. If I had gone with you, you would not have been happy, nor
enjoyed yourself. Nor would I. You must try to realise what two years
cellular confinement is, and what two years of absolute silence means
to a man of my intellectual power. To have survived at all--to have come
out sane in mind and sound of body--is a thing so marvellous to me, that
it seems to me sometimes, not that the age of miracles is over, but that
it is just beginning; that there are powers in God, and powers in man,
of which the world has up to the present known little. But while I am
cheerful, happy, and have sustained to the full that passionate interest
in life and art that was the dominant chord of my nature, and made all
modes of existence and all forms of expression utterly fascinating to me
always--still I need rest, quiet, and often complete solitude. Friends
have come to see me here for a day, and have been delighted to find me
like my old self, in all intellectual energy and sensitiveness to the
play of life, but it has always proved afterwards to have been a strain
upon a nervous force, much of which has been destroyed. I have now no
_storage_[58] of nervous force. When I expend what I have, in an
afternoon, nothing remains. I look to quiet, to a simple mode of
existence, to nature in all the infinite meanings of an infinite word,
to charge the cells for me. Every day, if I meet a friend, or write a
letter longer than a few lines, or even read a book that makes, as all
fine books do, a direct claim on me, a direct appeal, an intellectual
challenge of any kind, I am utterly exhausted in the evening, and often
sleep badly. And yet it is three whole weeks since I was released.

Had I gone with you on the driving tour, where we would have of
necessity been in immediate contact with each other from dawn to sunset,
I would have certainly broken off the tour the third day, probably
broken down the second. You would have then found yourself in a pitiable
position: your tour would have been arrested at its outset: your
companion would have been ill without doubt: perhaps might have needed
care and attendance, in some little remote French village. You would
have given it to me, I know. But I felt it would have been wrong,
stupid, and thoughtless of me to have started an expedition doomed to
swift failure, and perhaps fraught with disaster and distress. You are a
man of dominant personality: your intellect is exigent, more so than
that of any man I ever knew: your demands on life are enormous: you
require response, or you annihilate: the pleasure of being with you is
in the clash of personality, the intellectual battle, the war of ideas.
To survive you, one must have a strong brain, an assertive ego, a
dynamic character. In your luncheon parties, in the old days, the
remains of the guests were taken away with the _débris_ of the feast. I
have often lunched with you in Park Lane and found myself the only
survivor. I might have driven on the white roads, or through the leafy
lanes, of France, with a fool, or with the wisest of all things, a
child: with you, it would have been impossible. You should thank me
sincerely for having saved you from an experience that each of us would
have always regretted.

Will you ask me why then, when I was in prison, I accepted with grateful
thanks your offer? My dear Frank, I don't think you will ask so
thoughtless a question. The prisoner looks to liberty as an immediate
return to all his ancient energy, quickened into more vital forces by
long disuse. When he goes out, he finds he has still to suffer: his
punishment, as far as its effects go, lasts intellectually and
physically just as it lasts socially: he has still to pay: one gets no
receipt for the past when one walks out into the beautiful air....

I have now spent the whole of my Sunday afternoon--the first real day of
summer we have had--in writing to you this long letter of explanation.

I have written directly and simply: I need not tell the author of "Elder
Conklin" that sweetness and simplicity of expression take more out of
one than fiddling harmonics on one string. I felt it my duty to write,
but it has been a distressing one. It would have been _better_ for me to
have lain in the brown grass on the cliff, or to have walked slowly by
the sea. It would have been kinder of you to have written to me directly
about whatever harsh or hurt feelings you may have about me. It would
have saved me an afternoon of strain, and tension.

But I have something more to say. It is pleasanter to me, now, to write
about others, than about myself.

The enclosed is from a brother prisoner of mine: released June 4th: pray
read it: you will see his age, offence, and aim in life.

If you can give him a trial, do so. If you see your way to this kind
action, and write to him to come and see you, kindly state in your
letter that it is about a situation. He may think otherwise that it is
about the flogging of A.2.11., a thing that does not interest _you_,
and about which _he_ is a little afraid to talk.

If the result of this long letter will be that you will help this fellow
prisoner of mine to a place in your service, I shall consider my
afternoon better spent than any afternoon for the last two years, and
three weeks.

In any case I have now written to you fully on all things as reported to

I again assure you of my gratitude for your kindness to me during my
imprisonment, and on my release.

And am always

Your sincere friend and admirer


_With regard to Lawley_

All soldiers are neat, and smart, and make capital servants. He would be
a good _groom_: he is, I believe, a 3rd Hussars man--he was a quiet,
well-conducted chap in Reading always.

Naturally I replied to this letter at once, saying that he had been
misinformed, that I was not angry and if I could do anything for him I
should be delighted: I did my best, too, for Lawley.

Here is his letter of thanks to me for helping him when he came out of

Sandwich Hotel,


Just a line to thank you for your great kindness to me--for the lovely
clothes, and for the generous cheque.

You have been a real good friend to me--and I shall never forget your
kindness: to remember such a debt as mine to you--a debt of kind
fellowship--is a pleasure.

About our tour--later on let us think about it. My friends have been so
kind to me here that I am feeling happy already.



If you write to me please do so under cover to R.B. Ross, who is here
with me.

In the next letter of his which I have kept Oscar is perfectly friendly
again; he tells me that he is "entirely without money, having received
nothing from his Trustees for months," and asks me for even £5, adding,
"I drift in ridiculous impecuniosity without a sou."


I transcribe here another letter of Oscar to me from the second year
after his release to show his interest in all intellectual things and
for a flash of characteristic humour at the expense of the Paris police.
The envelope is dated October 13, 1898:--

M. Sebastian Melmoth,
Hotel d'Alsace,
Rue des Beaux-arts,


How are you? I read your appreciation of Rodin's "Balzac" with intensest
pleasure, and I am looking forward to more Shakespeare--you will of
course put all your Shakespearean essays into a book, and, equally of
course, I must have a copy. It is a great era in Shakespearean
criticism--the first time that one has looked in the plays not for
philosophy, for there is none, but for the wonder of a great
personality--something far better, and far more mysterious than any
philosophy--it is a great thing that you have done. I remember writing
once in "Intentions" that the more objective a work of art is in form,
the more subjective it really is in matter--and that it is only when you
give the poet a mask that he can tell you the truth. But you have shown
it fully in the case of the one artist whose personality was supposed to
be a mystery of deep seas, a secret as impenetrable as the secret of the

Paris is terrible in its heat. I walk in streets of brass, and there is
no one here. Even the criminal classes have gone to the seaside, and the
gendarmes yawn and regret their enforced idleness. Giving wrong
directions to the English tourists is the only thing that consoles them.

You were most kind and generous last month in letting me have a
cheque--it gives me just the margin to live on and to live by. May I
have it again this month? or has gold flown away from you?

Ever yours,



I received the following letter from Oscar early in 1899 I imagine. It
was written in the spring after the winter we spent in La Napoule.

From M. Sebastian Melmoth,
Canton Vaud,


I am, as you see from above, in Switzerland with M----: a rather
dreadful combination: the villa is pretty, and on the borders of the
lake with pretty pines about: on the other side are the mountains of
Savoy and Mont Blanc: we are an hour, by a slow train, from Geneva. But
M----is tedious, and lacks conversation: also he gives me Swiss wine to
drink: it is horrible: he occupies himself with small economies, and
mean domestic interests, so I suffer very much. _Ennui_ is the enemy.

I want to know if you will allow me to dedicate to you my next play,
"The Ideal Husband"--which Smithers is bringing out for me in the same
form as the others, of which I hope you received your copy. I should so
much like to write your name and a few words on the dedicatory page.

I look back with joy and regret to the lovely sunlight of the Riviera,
and the charming winter you so generously and kindly gave me: it was
most good of you: how can it ever be forgotten by me.

Next week a petroleum launch is to arrive here, so that will console me
a little, as I love to be on the water: and the Savoy side is starred
with pretty villages and green valleys.

Of course we won our bet--the phrase on Shelley is in Arnold's preface
to Byron: but M---- won't pay me! He suffers agony over a franc. It is
very annoying as I have had no money since my arrival here. However I
regard the place as a Swiss Pension--where there is no weekly bill....

Ever yours,


I believe I answered; but am not sure. I was naturally delighted to have
just "An Ideal Husband" dedicated to me, because I had suggested the
plot of it to Oscar--not that the plot was in any true sense mine. An
interesting and clever American in Cairo, a Mr. Cope Whitehouse, had
given it to me as I tell in this book. The story Whitehouse told may not
be true; but my mind jumped at once to the thought of a story where an
English Minister would be confronted with some early sin of that sort. I
had hardly bettered the story given to me when I related it to Oscar who
used it almost immediately with great effect. Dedicatory words are
usually as flattering as epitaphs; those of "An Ideal Husband" run:









(See page 447)

An evil fate seems to have pursued even Oscar's wife. She died in Genoa
and was buried in the corner of the Campo Santo set apart for
Protestants. This is what one reads on her tombstone:




     BORN ---- DIED ----

No reference to her marriage or to the famous man who was the father of
her two sons.

The irony of chance wills it that the late Horatio Lloyd, Q.C., had been
more than suspected of sexual viciousness: cfr. "Criticisms by Robert
Ross" at end of Appendix.


(See page 517)


    I dreamed of you last night, I saw your face
    All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
    And as of old, in measured tunefulness,
    I heard your golden voice and marked you trace
    Under the common thing the hidden grace,
    And conjure wonder out of emptiness,
    Till mean things put on Beauty like a dress,
    And all the world was an enchanted place.

    And so I knew that it was well with you,
    And that unprisoned, gloriously free,
    Across the dark you stretched me out your hand.
    And all the spite of this besotted crew,
    (Scrabbling on pillars of Eternity)
    How small it seems! Love made me understand.


December 10, 1900.

Whoever chooses to compare this first sketch of the sonnet of 1900 with
the sonnet as it was published in 1910 will remark three notable

The first sketch was entitled "To Oscar Wilde," the revision to "The
Dead Poet."

In the early draft, the first line:

"I dreamed of you last night, I saw your face," has become less
intimate, having been changed into:

"I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face."

Finally the sextet which in the first sketch was very inferior to the
rest has now been discarded in favour of six lines which are worthy of
the octave. The published sonnet is assuredly superior to the first
sketch, superb though that was.


(See page 534)

There has been so much discussion about the play entitled "Mr. and Mrs.
Daventry," and Oscar Wilde's share in it, that I had better set forth
here briefly what happened.

When I returned to London in the summer of 1899 after buying, as I
thought, all rights in the sketch of the scenario from Oscar, I wrote at
once the second, third and fourth acts of the play, as I had told Oscar
I would. I sent him what I had written and asked him to write the first
act as he had promised for the £50.

Some time before this I had seen Mr. Forbes Robertson and Mrs. Patrick
Campbell in "Hamlet," and Mrs. Patrick Campbell's Ophelia had made a
deeper impression on me than even the Hamlet of Forbes Robertson. I
wished her to take my play, and as luck would have it, she had just gone
into management on her own account and leased the Royalty Theatre.

I read her my play one afternoon, and at once she told me she would take
it; but I must write a first act. I told her that I was no good at
preliminary scenes and that Oscar Wilde had promised to write a first
act, which would, of course, enhance the value of the play enormously.

To my surprise Mrs. Patrick Campbell would not hear of it: "Quite
impossible," she said, "a play's not a patchwork quilt; you must write
the first act yourself."

"I must write to Oscar then," I replied, "and see whether he has
finished it already or not."

Mrs. Campbell insisted that the play, if she was to accept it, must be
the work of one hand. I wrote to Oscar at once, asking him whether he
had written the first act, adding that if he had not written it and
would send me his idea of the scenario, I would write it. I was
overjoyed to tell him that Mrs. Patrick Campbell had provisionally
accepted the play.

To my astonishment Oscar replied in evident ill-temper to say that he
could not write the first act, or the scenario, but at the same time he
hoped I would now send him some money for having helped to make my
_début_ on the stage.

I returned to tell Mrs. Campbell my disappointment and to see if she had
any idea of what she wanted in the first act. She was delighted with my
news, and said that all I had to do was to write an act introducing my
characters, and that I ought, for the sake of contrast, to give her a
mother. Some impish spirit suggested to me the idea of making a mother
much younger than her daughter, that is, a very flighty ordinary woman,
impulsive and feather-brained, with a mania for attending sales and
collecting odds and ends at bargain prices. Full of this idea I wrote
the first act off hand.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell did not like it much, and in this, as indeed
always, showed excellent judgment and an extraordinary understanding of
the requirements of the stage; nevertheless she accepted the play and
settled terms. A little later I went to Leeds, where she was playing,
and read the play to her and her "Company." We discussed the cast, and I
suggested Mr. Kerr to play Mr. Daventry. Mrs. Patrick Campbell jumped at
the idea, and everything was settled.

I wrote the good news to Oscar, and back came another letter from him,
more ill-tempered than the first, saying he had never thought I would
take his scenario; I had no right to touch it; but as I had taken it, I
must really pay him something substantial.

The claim was absurd, but I hated to dispute with him or even appear to

I wrote to him that if I made anything out of the play I would send him
some more money. He replied that he was sure my play would be a failure;
but I ought to get a good sum down in advance of royalties from Mrs.
Patrick Campbell, and at once send him half of it. His letters were
childishly ill-conditioned and unreasonable; but, believing him to be in
extreme indigence, I felt too sorry for him even to argue the point.
Again and again I had helped him, and it seemed sordid and silly to hurt
our old friendship for money. I couldn't believe that he would talk of
my having done anything that I ought not to have done if we met, so as
soon as I could I crossed to Paris to have it out with him.

To my astonishment I found him obdurate in his wrong-headedness. When I
asked him what he had sold me for the £50 I paid him, he coolly said he
didn't think I was serious, that no man would write a play on another
man's scenario; it was absurd, impossible--"_C'est ridicule!_" he
repeated again and again. When I reminded him that Shakespeare had done
it, he got angry: it was altogether different then--today: "_C'est
ridicule!_" Tired of going over and over the old ground I pressed him to
tell me what he wanted. For hours he wouldn't say: then at length he
declared he ought to have half of all the play fetched, and even that
wouldn't be fair to him, as he was a dramatist and I was not, and I
ought not to have touched his scenario and so on, over and over again.

I returned to my hotel wearied in heart and head by his ridiculous
demands and reiterations. After thrashing the beaten straw to dust on
the following day, I agreed at length to give him another £50 down and
another £50 later. Even then he pretended to be very sorry indeed that I
had taken what he called "his play," and assured me in the same breath
that "Mr. and Mrs. Daventry" would be a rank failure: "Plays cannot be
written by amateurs; plays require knowledge of the stage. It's quite
absurd of you, Frank, who hardly ever go to the theatre, to think you
can write a successful play straight off. I always loved the theatre,
always went to every first night in London, have the stage in my blood,"
and so forth and so on. I could not help recalling what he had told me
years before, that when he had to write his first play for George
Alexander, he shut himself up for a fortnight with the most successful
modern French plays, and so learned his _métier_.

Next day I returned to London, understanding now something of the
unreasonable persistence in begging which had aroused Lord Alfred
Douglas' rage.

As soon as my play was advertised a crowd of people confronted me with
claims I had never expected. Mrs. Brown Potter wrote to me saying that
some years before she had bought a play from Oscar Wilde which he had
not delivered, and as she understood that I was bringing it out, she
hoped I would give it to her to stage. I replied saying that Oscar had
not written a word of my play. She wrote again, saying that she had paid
£100 for the scenario: would I see Mr. Kyrle Bellew on the matter? I saw
them both a dozen times; but came to no decision.

While these negotiations were going on, a host of other Richmonds came
into the field. Horace Sedger had also bought the same scenario, and
then in quick succession it appeared that Tree and Alexander and Ada
Rehan had also paid for the same privilege. When I wrote to Oscar about
this expressing my surprise he replied coolly that he could have gone on
selling the play now to French managers, and later to German managers,
if I had not interfered: "You have deprived me of a certain income:" was
his argument, "and therefore you owe me more than you will ever get from
the play, which is sure to fall flat."

A little later Miss Nethersole presented herself, and when I would not
yield to her demands, went to Paris, and Oscar wrote to me saying she
ought to stage the piece as she would do it splendidly, or at least I
should repay her the money she had advanced to him.

This letter showed me that Oscar had not only deceived me, but, for some
cause or other, some pricking of vanity I couldn't understand, was
willing to embarrass me as much as possible without any scruple.

Finally Smithers, the publisher of three of Oscar's books, whom I knew
to be a real friend of Oscar, came to me with a still more appealing
story. When Oscar was in Italy, and in absolute need, Smithers got a man
named Roberts to advance £100 on the scenario. I found that Oscar had
written out the whole scenario for him and outlined the characters of
his drama. This was evidently the completest claim that had yet been
brought before me: it was also, Smithers proved, the earliest, and
Smithers himself was in dire need. I wrote to Oscar that I thought
Smithers had the best claim because he was the first buyer, and
certainly ought to have something. Oscar replied, begging me not to be
a fool: to send him the money and tell Smithers to go to Sheol.
Thereupon I told Smithers I could not afford to give him any money at
the moment; but if the play was a success he should have something out
of it.

The play was a success: it was stopped for a week by Queen Victoria's
death, in January, and was, I think, the only play that survived that
ordeal. Mrs. Patrick Campbell was good enough to allow me to rewrite the
first act for the fiftieth performance, and it ran, if I remember
rightly, some 130 nights. About the twentieth representation I paid

For the first weeks of the run I was bombarded with letters from Oscar,
begging money and demanding money in every tone. He made nothing of the
fact that I had already paid him three times the price agreed upon, and
paid Smithers to boot, and lost through his previous sales of the
scenario whatever little repute the success of the piece might have
brought me. Nine people out of ten believed that Oscar had written the
play and that I had merely lent my name to the production in order to
enable him, as a bankrupt, to receive the money from it. Even men of
letters deceived themselves in this way. George Moore told Bernard Shaw
that he recognised Oscar's hand in the writing again and again, though
Shaw himself was far too keen-witted to be so misled. As a matter of
fact Oscar did not write a word of the play and the characters he
sketched for Smithers and Roberts were altogether different from mine
and were not known to me when I wrote my story.

I have set forth the bare facts of the affair here because Oscar managed
to half-persuade Ross and Turner and other friends that I owed him money
which I would not pay; though Ross had discounted most of his
complaints, even before hearing my side.

Oscar got me over to Paris in September under the pretext that he was
ill; but I found him as well as could be, and anxious merely to get more
money out of me by any means. I put it all down to his poverty. I did
not then know that Ross was giving him £150 a year; that indeed all his
friends had helped him and were helping him with singular generosity,
and I recalled the fact that when he had had money he never showed any
meanness, or any desire to over-reach. Want is a dreadful teacher, and I
did not hold Oscar altogether responsible for his weird attitude to me



Dec. 14th, 1900.

On Tuesday, October 9th, I wrote to Oscar, from whom I had not heard for
some time, that I would be in Paris on Thursday, October the 18th, for a
few days, when I hoped to see him. On Thursday, October 11th, I got a
telegram from him as follows:--"Operated on yesterday--come over as soon
as possible." I wired that I would endeavour to do so. A wire came in
response, "Terribly weak--please come." I started on the evening of
Tuesday, October 16th. On Wednesday morning I went to see him about
10.30. He was in very good spirits; and though he assured me his
sufferings were dreadful, at the same time he shouted with laughter and
told many stories against the doctors and himself. I stayed until 12.30
and returned about 4.30, when Oscar recounted his grievances about the
Harris play. Oscar, of course, had deceived Harris about the whole
matter--as far as I could make out the story--Harris wrote the play
under the impression that only Sedger had to be bought off at £100,
which Oscar had received in advance for the commission; whereas Kyrle
Bellew, Louis Nethersole, Ada Rehan, and even Smithers, had all given
Oscar £100 on different occasions, and all threatened Harris with
proceedings--Harris, therefore, only gave Oscar £50 on account,[59] as
he was obliged to square these people first--hence Oscar's grievance.
When I pointed out to him that he was in a much better position than
formerly, because Harris, at any rate, would eventually pay off the
people who had advanced money and that Oscar would eventually get
something himself, he replied in the characteristic way, "Frank has
deprived me of my only source of income by taking a play on which I
could always have raised £100."

I continued to see Oscar every day until I left Paris. Reggie and myself
sometimes dined or lunched in his bedroom, when he was always very
talkative, although he looked very ill. On October 25th, my brother
Aleck came to see him, when Oscar was in particularly good form. His
sister-in-law, Mrs. Willie, and her husband, Texeira, were then passing
through Paris on their honeymoon, and came at the same time. On this
occasion he said he was "dying above his means" ... he would never
outlive the century ... the English people would not stand him--he was
responsible for the failure of the Exhibition, the English having gone
away when they saw him there so well-dressed and happy ... all the
French people knew this, too, and would not stand him any more.... On
October the 29th, Oscar got up for the first time at mid-day, and after
dinner in the evening insisted on going out--he assured me that the
doctor had said he might do so and would not listen to any protest.

I had urged him to get up some days before as the doctor said he might
do so, but he had hitherto refused. We went to a small café in the Latin
Quartier, where he insisted on drinking absinthe. He walked there and
back with some difficulty, but seemed fairly well. Only I thought he had
suddenly aged in face, and remarked to Reggie next day how different he
looked when up and dressed. He appeared _comparatively_ well in bed. (I
noticed for the first time that his hair was slightly tinged with grey.
I had always remarked that his hair had never altered its colour while
he was in Reading;[60] it retained its soft brown tone. You must
remember the jests he used to make about it, he always amused the
warders by saying that his hair was perfectly white.) Next day I was not
surprised to find Oscar suffering with a cold and great pain in his ear;
however, Dr. Tucker said he might go out again, and the following
afternoon, a very mild day, we drove in the Bois. Oscar was much
better, but complained of giddiness; we returned about 4.30. On Saturday
morning, November 3rd, I met the Panseur Hennion (Reggie always called
him the Libre Penseur), he came every day to dress Oscar's wounds. He
asked me if I was a great friend or knew Oscar's relatives. He assured
me that Oscar's general condition was very serious--that he could not
live more than three or four months unless he altered his way of
life--that I ought to speak to Dr. Tucker, who did not realise Oscar's
serious state--that the ear trouble was not of much importance in
itself, but a grave symptom. On Sunday morning I saw Dr. Tucker--he is a
silly, kind, excellent man; he said Oscar ought to write more--that he
was much better, and that his condition would only become serious when
he got up and went about in the usual way. I begged him to be frank. He
promised to ask Oscar if he might talk to me openly on the subject of
Oscar's health. I saw him on the Tuesday following by appointment; he
was very vague; and though he endorsed Hennion's view to some extent,
said that Oscar was getting well now, though he could not live long
unless he stopped drinking. On going to see Oscar later in the day I
found him very agitated. He said he did not want to know what the doctor
had told me. He said he did not care if he had only a short time to live
and then went off on to the subject of his debts, which I gather
amounted to something over more than £400.[61] He asked me to see that
at all events some of them were paid if I was in a position to do so
after he was dead; he suffered remorse about some of his creditors.
Reggie came in shortly afterwards much to my relief. Oscar told us that
he had had a horrible dream the previous night--"that he had been
supping with the dead." Reggie made a very typical response, "My dear
Oscar, you were probably the life and soul of the party." This delighted
Oscar, who became high-spirited again, almost hysterical. I left feeling
rather anxious. That night I wrote to Douglas saying that I was
compelled to leave Paris--that the doctor thought Oscar very ill--that
---- ought to pay some of his bills as they worried him very much, and
the matter was retarding his recovery--a great point made by Dr. Tucker.
On November 2nd, All Souls' Day, I had gone to Père la Chaise with ----.
Oscar was much interested and asked me if I had chosen a place for his
tomb. He discussed epitaphs in a perfectly light-hearted way, and I
never dreamt he was so near death.

On Monday, November 12th, I went to the Hotel d'Alsace with Reggie to
say good-bye, as I was leaving for the Riviera next day. It was late in
the evening after dinner. Oscar went all over his financial troubles. He
had just had a letter from Harris about the Smithers claim, and was much
upset; his speech seemed to me a little thick, but he had been given
morphia the previous night, and he always drank too much champagne
during the day. He knew I was coming to say good-bye, but paid little
attention when I entered the room, which at the time I thought rather
strange; he addressed all his observations to Reggie. While we were
talking, the post arrived with a very nice letter from Alfred Douglas,
enclosing a cheque. It was partly in response to my letter I think.
Oscar wept a little but soon recovered himself. Then we all had a
friendly discussion, during which Oscar walked around the room and
declaimed in rather an excited way. About 10.30 I got up to go. Suddenly
Oscar asked Reggie and the nurse to leave the room for a minute, as he
wanted to say good-bye. He rambled at first about his debts in Paris:
and then he implored me not to go away, because he felt that a great
change had come over him during the last few days. I adopted a rather
stern attitude, as I really thought that Oscar was simply hysterical,
though I knew that he was genuinely upset at my departure. Suddenly he
broke into a violent sobbing, and said he would never see me again
because he felt that everything was at an end--this very painful
incident lasted about three-quarters of an hour.

He talked about various things which I can scarcely repeat here. Though
it was very harrowing, I really did not attach any importance to my
farewell, and I did not respond to poor Oscar's emotion as I ought to
have done, especially as he said, when I was going out of the room,
"Look out for some little cup in the hills near Nice where I can go when
I am better, and where you can come and see me often." Those were the
last articulate words he ever spoke to me.

I left for Nice the following evening, November 13th.

During my absence Reggie went every day to see Oscar, and wrote me short
bulletins every other day. Oscar went out several times with him
driving, and seemed much better. On Tuesday, November 27th, I received
the first of Reggie's letters, which I enclose (the others came after I
had started), and I started back for Paris; I send them because they
will give you a very good idea of how things stood. I had decided that
when I had moved my mother to Mentone on the following Friday, I would
go to Paris on Saturday, but on the Wednesday evening, at five-thirty, I
got a telegram from Reggie saying, "Almost hopeless." I just caught the
express and arrived in Paris at 10.20 in the morning. Dr. Tucker and Dr.
Kleiss, a specialist called in by Reggie, were there. They informed me
that Oscar could not live for more than two days. His appearance was
very painful, he had become quite thin, the flesh was livid, his
breathing heavy. He was trying to speak. He was conscious that people
were in the room, and raised his hand when I asked him whether he
understood. He pressed our hands. I then went in search of a priest, and
after great difficulty found Father Cuthbert Dunn, of the Passionists,
who came with me at once and administered Baptism and Extreme
Unction--Oscar could not take the Eucharist. You know I had always
promised to bring a priest to Oscar when he was dying, and I felt rather
guilty that I had so often dissuaded him from becoming a Catholic, but
you know my reasons for doing so. I then sent wires to Frank Harris, to
Holman (for communicating with Adrian Hope) and to Douglas. Tucker
called again later and said that Oscar might linger a few days. A _garde
malade_ was requisitioned as the nurse had been rather overworked.

Terrible offices had to be carried out into which I need not enter.
Reggie was a perfect wreck.

He and I slept at the Hotel d'Alsace that night in a room upstairs. We
were called twice by the nurse, who thought Oscar was actually dying.
About 5.30 in the morning a complete change came over him, the lines of
the face altered, and I believe what is called the death rattle began,
but I had never heard anything like it before; it sounded like the
horrible turning of a crank, and it never ceased until the end. His eyes
did not respond to the light test any longer. Foam and blood came from
his mouth, and had to be wiped away by someone standing by him all the
time. At 12 o'clock I went out to get some food, Reggie mounting guard.
He went out at 12.30. From 1 o'clock we did not leave the room; the
painful noise from the throat became louder and louder. Reggie and
myself destroyed letters to keep ourselves from breaking down. The two
nurses were out, and the proprietor of the hotel had come up to take
their place; at 1.45 the time of his breathing altered. I went to the
bedside and held his hand, his pulse began to flutter. He heaved a deep
sigh, the only natural one I had heard since I arrived, the limbs seemed
to stretch involuntarily, the breathing came fainter; he passed at 10
minutes to 2 p.m. exactly.

After washing and winding the body, and removing the appalling _débris_
which had to be burnt, Reggie and myself and the proprietor started for
the Maine to make the official declaration. There is no use recounting
the tedious experiences which only make me angry to think about. The
excellent Dupoirier lost his head and complicated matters by making a
mystery over Oscar's name, though there was a difficulty, as Oscar was
registered under the name of Melmoth at the hotel, and it is contrary to
the French law to be under an assumed name in your hotel. From 3.30 till
5 p.m. we hung about the Maine and the Commissaire de Police offices. I
then got angry and insisted on going to Gesling, the undertaker to the
English Embassy, to whom Father Cuthbert had recommended me. After
settling matters with him I went off to find some nuns to watch the
body. I thought that in Paris of all places this would be quite easy,
but it was only after incredible difficulties I got two Franciscan

Gesling was most intelligent and promised to call at the Hotel d'Alsace
at 8 o'clock next morning. While Reggie stayed at the hotel interviewing
journalists and clamorous creditors, I started with Gesling to see
officials. We did not part till 1.30, so you can imagine the formalities
and oaths and exclamations and signing of papers. Dying in Paris is
really a very difficult and expensive luxury for a foreigner.

It was in the afternoon the District Doctor called and asked if Oscar
had committed suicide or was murdered. He would not look at the signed
certificates of Kleiss and Tucker. Gesling had warned me the previous
evening that owing to the assumed name and Oscar's identity, the
authorities might insist on his body being taken to the Morgue. Of
course I was appalled at the prospect, it really seemed the final touch
of horror. After examining the body, and, indeed, everybody in the
hotel, and after a series of drinks and unseasonable jests, and a
liberal fee, the District Doctor consented to sign the permission for
burial. Then arrived some other revolting official; he asked how many
collars Oscar had, and the value of his umbrella. (This is quite true,
and not a mere exaggeration of mine.) Then various poets and literary
people called, Raymond de la Tailhade, Tardieu, Charles Sibleigh, Jehan
Rictus, Robert d'Humieres, George Sinclair, and various English people,
who gave assumed names, together with two veiled women. They were all
allowed to see the body when they signed their names....

I am glad to say dear Oscar looked calm and dignified, just as he did
when he came out of prison, and there was nothing at all horrible about
the body after it had been washed. Around his neck was the blessed
rosary which you gave me, and on the breast a Franciscan medal given me
by one of the nuns, a few flowers placed there by myself and an
anonymous friend who had brought some on behalf of the children, though
I do not suppose the children know that their father is dead. Of course
there was the usual crucifix, candles and holy water.

Gesling had advised me to have the remains placed in the coffin at once,
as decomposition would begin very rapidly, and at 8.30 in the evening
the men came to screw it down. An unsuccessful photograph of Oscar was
taken by Maurice Gilbert at my request, the flashlight did not work
properly. Henri Davray came just before they had put on the lid. He was
very kind and nice. On Sunday, the next day, Alfred Douglas arrived, and
various people whom I do not know called. I expect most of them were
journalists. On Monday morning at 9 o'clock, the funeral started from
the hotel--we all walked to the Church of St. Germain des Près behind
the hearse--Alfred Douglas, Reggie Turner and myself, Dupoirier, the
proprietor of the hotel, Henri the nurse, and Jules, the servant of the
hotel, Dr. Hennion and Maurice Gilbert, together with two strangers whom
I did not know. After a low mass, said by one of the vicaires at the
altar behind the sanctuary, part of the burial office was read by Father
Cuthbert. The Suisse told me that there were fifty-six people
present--there were five ladies in deep mourning--I had ordered three
coaches only, as I had sent out no official notices, being anxious to
keep the funeral quiet. The first coach contained Father Cuthbert and
the acolyte; the second Alfred Douglas, Turner, the proprietor of the
hotel, and myself; the third contained Madame Stuart Merrill, Paul Fort,
Henri Davray and Sar Luis; a cab followed containing strangers unknown
to me. The drive took one hour and a half; the grave is at Bagneux, in a
temporary concession hired in my name--when I am able I shall purchase
ground elsewhere at Père la Chaise for choice. I have not yet decided
what to do, or the nature of the monument. There were altogether
twenty-four wreaths of flowers; some were sent anonymously. The
proprietor of the hotel supplied a pathetic bead trophy, inscribed, "A
mon locataire," and there was another of the same kind from "The service
de l'Hotel," the remaining twenty-two were, of course, of real flowers.
Wreaths came from, or at the request of, the following: Alfred Douglas,
More Adey, Reginald Turner, Miss Schuster, Arthur Clifton, the Mercure
de France, Louis Wilkinson, Harold Mellor, Mr. and Mrs. Texiera de
Mattos, Maurice Gilbert, and Dr. Tucker. At the head of the coffin I
placed a wreath of laurels inscribed, "A tribute to his literary
achievements and distinction." I tied inside the wreath the following
names of those who had shown kindness to him during or after his
imprisonment, "Arthur Humphreys, Max Beerbohm, Arthur Clifton, Ricketts,
Shannon, Conder, Rothenstein, Dal Young, Mrs. Leverson, More Adey,
Alfred Douglas, Reginald Turner, Frank Harris, Louis Wilkinson, Mellor,
Miss Schuster, Rowland Strong," and by special request a friend who
wished to be known as "C.B."

I can scarcely speak in moderation of the magnanimity, humanity and
charity of John Dupoirier, the proprietor of the Hotel d'Alsace. Just
before I left Paris Oscar told me he owed him over £190. From the day
Oscar was laid up he never said anything about it. He never mentioned
the subject to me until after Oscar's death, and then I started the
subject. He was present at Oscar's operation, and attended to him
personally every morning. He paid himself for luxuries and necessities
ordered by the doctor or by Oscar out of his own pocket. I hope that
---- or ---- will at any rate pay him the money still owing. Dr. Tucker
is also owed a large sum of money. He was most kind and attentive,
although I think he entirely misunderstood Oscar's case.

Reggie Turner had the worst time of all in many ways--he experienced all
the horrible uncertainty and the appalling responsibility of which he
did not know the extent. It will always be a source of satisfaction to
those who were fond of Oscar, that he had someone like Reggie near him
during his last days while he was articulate and sensible of kindness
and attention....




Vol. I. Page 80 Line 3. I demur very much to your statement in this
paragraph. Wilde was too much of a student of Greek to have learned
anything about controversy from Whistler. No doubt Whistler was more
nimble and more naturally gifted with the power of repartee, but when
Wilde indulged in controversy with his critics, whether he got the best
of it or not, he never borrowed the Whistlerian method. Cf. his
controversy with Henley over Dorian Gray.

Then whatever you may think of Ruskin, Wilde learnt a great deal about
the History and Philosophy of Art from him. He learned more from Pater
and he was the friend and intimate of Burne-Jones long before he knew
Whistler. I quite agree with your remark that he had "no joy in
conflict" and no doubt he had little or no knowledge of the technique of
Art in the modern expert's sense.

[There never was a greater master of controversy than Whistler, and I
believe Wilde borrowed his method of making fun of the adversary. Robert
Ross's second point is rather controversial. Shaw agrees with me that
Wilde never knew anything really of music or of painting and neither the
history nor the so-called philosophy of art makes one a connoisseur of
contemporary masters. F.H.]

Page 94. Last line. For "happy candle" read "Happy Lamp." It was at the
period when oil lamps were put in the middle of the dinner table just
before the general introduction of electric light; by putting "candle"
you lose the period. Cf. Du Maurier's pictures of dinner parties in

Page 115. I venture to think that you should state that Wilde at the end
of his story of 'Mr. W.H.' definitely says that the theory is all
nonsense. It always appeared to me a semi-satire of Shakespearean
commentary. I remember Wilde saying to me after it was published that
his next Shakespearean book would be a discussion as to whether the
commentators on Hamlet were mad or only pretending to be. I think you
take Wilde's phantasy too seriously but I am not disputing whether you
are right or wrong in your opinion of it; but it strikes me as a little
solemn when on Page 116 you say that the 'whole theory is completely
mistaken'; but you are quite right when you say that it did Wilde a
great deal of harm. [Ross does not seem to realise that if the theory
were merely fantastic the public might be excused for condemning Oscar
for playing with such a subject. As a matter of fact I remember Oscar
defending the theory to me years later with all earnestness: that's why
I stated my opinion of it. F.H.]

Page 142 Line 19. What Wilde said in front of the curtain was: "I have
enjoyed this evening immensely."

[I seem to remember that Wilde said this; my note was written after a
dinner a day or two later when Oscar acted the whole scene over again
and probably elaborated his effect. I give the elaboration as most
characteristic. F.H.]

Vol. II. Page 357 Line 3. Major Nelson was the name of the Governor at
Reading prison. He was one of the most charming men I ever came across.
I think he was a little hurt by the "Ballad of Reading Gaol," which he
fancied rather reflected on him though Major Isaacson was the Governor
at the time the soldier was executed. Isaacson was a perfect monster.
Wilde sent Nelson copies of his books, "The Ideal Husband" and "The
Importance of Being Earnest," which were published as you remember after
the release, and Nelson acknowledged them in a most delightful way. He
is dead now.

[Major Isaacson was the governor who boasted to me that he was knocking
the nonsense out of Wilde; he seemed to me almost inhuman. My report got
him relieved and Nelson appointed in his stead. Nelson was an ideal
governor. F.H.]

Page 387. In the First Edition of the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" issued by
Methuen I have given the original draft of the poem which was in my
hands in September 1897, long before Wilde rejoined Douglas. I will send
you a copy of it if you like, but it is much more likely to reach you if
you order it through Putnam's in New York as they are Methuen's agents.
I would like you to see it because it fortifies your opinion about
Douglas' ridiculous contention; though I could explode the whole thing
by Wilde's letters to myself from Berneval. Certain verses were indeed
added at Naples. I do not know what you will think, but to me they prove
the mental decline due to the atmosphere and life that Wilde was leading
at the time. Let us be just and say that perhaps Douglas assisted more
than he was conscious of in their composition. To me they are terribly
poor stuff, but then, unlike yourself, I am a heretic about the Ballad.

Page 411. In fairness to Gide: Gide is describing Wilde after he had
come back from Naples in the year 1898, not in 1897, when he had just
come out of prison.

Appendix Page 438 Line 20. Forgive me if I say it, but I think your
method of sneering at Curzon unworthy of Frank Harris. Sneer by all
means; but not in that particular way.

[Robert Ross is mistaken here: no sneer was intended. I added Curzon's
title to avoid giving myself the air of an intimate. F.H.]

Page 488 Line 17. You really are wrong about Mellor's admiration for
Wilde. He liked his society but loathed his writing. I was quite angry
in 1900 when Mellor came to see me at Mentone (after Wilde's death, of
course), when he said he could never see any merit whatever in Wilde's
plays or books. However the point is a small one.

Page 490 Line 6. The only thing I can claim to have invented in
connection with Wilde were the two titles "De Profundis" and "The
Ballad of Reading Gaol," for which let me say I can produce documentary
evidence. The publication of "De Profundis" was delayed for a month in
1905 because I could not decide on what to call it. It happened to catch
on but I do not think it a very good title.

Page 555 Line 18. Do you happen to have compared Douglas' translation of
Salome in Lane's First edition (with Beardsley's illustrations) with
Lane's Second edition (with Beardsley's illustrations) or Lane's little
editions (without Beardsley's illustrations)? Or have you ever compared
the aforesaid First edition with the original? Douglas' translation
omits a great deal of the text and is actually wrong as a rendering of
the text in many cases. I have had this out with a good many people. I
believe Douglas is to this day sublimely unconscious that his text, of
which there were never more than 500 copies issued in England, has been
entirely scrapped; his name at my instance was removed from the current
issues for the very good reason that the new translation is not his. But
this is merely an observation not a correction.

[I talked this matter over with Douglas more than once. He did not know
French well; but he could understand it and he was a rarely good
translator as his version of a Baudelaire sonnet shows. In any dispute
as to the value of a word or phrase I should prefer his opinion to
Oscar's. But Ross is doubtless right on this point. F.H.]

Appendix Page 587. Your memory is at fault here. The charge against
Horatio Lloyd was of a normal kind. It was for exposing himself to
nursemaids in the gardens of the Temple.

[I have corrected this as indeed I have always used Ross's corrections
on matters of fact. F.H.]

Page 596 Line 13. I think there ought to be a capital "E" in exhibition
to emphasise that it is the 1900 Exhibition in Paris.


When I was editing "The Fortnightly Review," Oscar Wilde wrote for me
"The Soul of Man Under Socialism." On reading it then it seemed to me
that he knew very little about Socialism and I disliked his airy way of
dealing with a religion he hadn't taken the trouble to fathom. The essay
now appears to me in a somewhat different light. Oscar had no deep
understanding of Socialism, it is true, much less of the fact that in a
healthy body corporate socialism or co-operation would govern all public
utilities and public services while the individual would be left in
possession of all such industries as his activity can control.

But Oscar's genius was such that as soon as he had stated one side of
the problem he felt that the other side had to be considered and so we
get from him if not the ideal of an ordered state at least _aperçus_ of
astounding truth and value.

For example he writes: "Socialism ... by converting private property
into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will
restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy
organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the

Then comes the return on himself: "But for the full development of Life
... something more is needed. What is needed is Individualism."

And the ideal is always implicit: "Private property has led
Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim."

Humor too is never far away: "Only one class thinks more about money
than the rich and that is the poor."

His short stay in the United States also benefited him.... "Democracy
means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.
It has been found out."

Taken all in all a provocative delightful essay which like _Salome_ in
the æsthetic field marks the end of his _Lehrjahre_ and the beginning of
his work as a master.


In the couple of years that have elapsed since the first edition of this
book was published, I have received many letters from readers asking for
information about Wilde which I have omitted to give. I have been
threatened with prosecution and must not speak plainly; but something
may be said in answer to those who contend that Oscar might have brought
forward weightier arguments in his defence than are to be found in
Chapter XXIV. As a matter of fact I have made him more persuasive than
he was. When Oscar declared (as recorded on page 496) that his weakness
was "consistent with the highest ideal of humanity if not a
characteristic of it," I asked him: "would he make the same defence for
the Lesbians?" He turned aside showing the utmost disgust in face and
words, thus in my opinion giving his whole case away.

He could have made a better defence. He might have said that as we often
eat or drink or smoke for pleasure, so we may indulge in other
sensualities. If he had argued that his sin was comparatively venial and
so personal-peculiar that it carried with it no temptation to the normal
man, I should not have disputed his point.

Moreover, love at its highest is independent of sex and sensuality.
Since Luther we have been living in a centrifugal movement, in a wild
individualism where all ties of love and affection have been loosened,
and now that the centripetal movement has come into power we shall find
that in another fifty years or so friendship and love will win again to
honor and affinities of all sorts will proclaim themselves without shame
and without fear. In this sense Oscar might have regarded himself as a
forerunner and not as a survival or "sport." And it may well be that
some instinctive feeling of this sort was at the back of his mind though
too vague to be formulated in words. For even in our dispute (see Page
500) he pleaded that the world was becoming more tolerant, which, one
hopes, is true. To become more tolerant of the faults of others is the
first lesson in the religion of Humanity.

_The End._

_A letter from Lord Alfred Douglas to Oscar Wilde that I reproduce here
speaks for itself and settles once for all, I imagine, the question of
their relations. Had Lord Alfred Douglas not denied the truth and posed
as Oscar Wilde's patron, I should never have published this letter
though it was given to me to establish the truth. This letter was
written between Oscar's first and second trial; ten days later Oscar
Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor._


22, Avenue de l'Opera, 22
Wednesday, May 15, 1895.

My darling Oscar:

Have just arrived here.

It seems too dreadful to be here without you, but I hope you will join
me next week. Dieppe was too awful for anything; it is the most
depressing place in the world, even Petits Chevaux was not to be had as
the Casino was closed. They are very nice here, and I can stay as long
as I like without paying my bill which is a good thing, as I am quite

The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you at
once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had
received. I shall have to send this by a cab to the Gare du Nord to
catch the post as I want you to get it first post to-morrow.

I am going to see if I can find Robert Sherard to-morrow if he is in

Charlie is with me and sends you his best love.

I had a long letter from More (Adey) this morning about you. Do keep up
your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and
night and I send you all my love.

I am always your own loving and devoted boy.


_This letter now published for the first time is the most characteristic
I received from Oscar Wilde in the years after his imprisonment. It
dates I think from the winter of 1897, say some eight months after his
release. F.H._

Rue des Beaux Arts

My dear Frank:

I cannot express to you how deeply touched I am by your letter--it is
_une vraie poignée de main_. I simply long to see you and to come again
in contact with your strong sane wonderful personality.

I cannot understand about the poem (The Ballad of Reading Gaol) my
publisher tells me that, as I had begged him to do, he sent the two
_first_ copies to the "Saturday" and the "Chronicle"--and he also tells
me that Arthur Symons told him he had written especially to you to ask
you to allow him to do a _signed_ article.

I suppose publishers are untrustworthy. They certainly always look it. I
hope some notice will appear, as your paper, or rather yourself, is a
great force in London and when you speak men listen.

I of course feel that the poem is too autobiographical and that real
experience are alien things that should never influence one, but it was
wrung out of me, a cry of pain, the cry of Marsyas, not the song of
Apollo. Still, there are some good things in it. I feel as if I had made
a sonnet out of skilly, and that is something.

When you return from Monte Carlo please let me know. I long to dine with

As regards a comedy, my dear Frank, I have lost the mainspring of life
and art--_la joie de vivre_--it is dreadful. I have pleasures and
passions, but the joy of life is gone. I am going under, the Morgue
yawns for me. I go and look at my zinc bed there. After all I had a
wonderful life, which is, I fear, over. But I must dine once with you

Ever yours,



[39] Oscar told me this story; but as it only concerns Lord Alfred
Douglas, and throws no new light on Oscar's character, I don't use it.

[40] This is extravagant condemnation of Lord Alfred Douglas' want of
education; for he certainly knew a great deal about the poetic art even
then and he has since acquired a very considerable knowledge of
"Elizabethan Song."

[41] Whoever wishes to understand this bitter allusion should read his
father's letter to Lord Alfred Douglas transcribed in the first volume.
The Marquis of Queensberry doesn't hesitate to hint why his son was
"sent down" from Oxford.

[42] Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."

[43] Oscar is not flattering his friend in this: Lord Alfred Douglas has
written two or three sonnets which rank among the best in the language.

[44] This statement--more than half true--is Oscar Wilde's _Apologia_
and justification.

[45] This is, I believe, true and the explanation that follows is
probably true also.

[46] Baccarat is not played in the Casino: _roulette_ and _trente et
quarante_ are the games: roulette was Lord Alfred Douglas' favourite.

[47] This is a confession almost as much as an accusation.

[48] Oscar here crosses the _t's_ and dots the _i's_ of his charge.

[49] The previous accusation repeated, with bitterest sarcasm.

[50] Lord Alfred Douglas is well above the middle height: he holds
himself badly but is fully five feet nine inches in height.

[51] The old accusation.

[52] Mr. Beerbohm Tree.

[53] The very truth, it seems to me.

[54] Proving another guilty would not have exculpated Oscar. Readers of
my book will remember that I urged Oscar to tell the truth and how he
answered me.

[55] As will be seen from a letter of Oscar Wilde which I reproduce
later, I supplied the clothes.

[56] His letter was merely an acknowledgment that he had received the
clothes and cheque and was grateful. I saw nothing in it to answer as he
had not even mentioned the driving tour.

[57] I felt hurt that he dropped the idea without giving me any reason
or even letting me know his change of purpose.

[58] I think this was true; though it had never struck me till I read
this letter. Later, in order to excuse himself for not working, he
magnified the effect on his health of prison life. A year after his
release I think he had as large a reserve of nervous energy as ever.

[59] Fifty pounds was all Oscar asked me: the whole sum agreed upon. As
a matter of fact I gave him fifty pounds more before leaving Paris. I
didn't then know that he had ever told the scenario to anyone else, much
less sold it; though I ought perhaps to have guessed it.--F.H.

[60] I (Frank Harris) noticed at Reading that his hair was getting grey
in front and at the sides; but when we met later the grey had
disappeared. I thought he used some dye. I only mention this to show how
two good witnesses can differ on a plain matter of fact.

[61] Ross found afterwards that they amounted to £620.



Copyright, 1918,


George Bernard Shaw ordered a special copy of this book of mine:
"Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions," as soon as it was announced.
I sent it to him and asked him to write me his opinion of the book.

In due course I received the following MSS. from him in which he tells
me what he thinks of my work:--"the best life of Wilde, ... Wilde's
memory will have to stand or fall by it"; and then goes on to relate
all his own meetings with Wilde, the impressions they made upon him
and his judgment of Wilde as a writer and as a man.

He has given himself this labor, he says, in order that I may publish
his views in the Appendix to my book if I think fit--an example, not
only of Shaw's sympathy and generosity, but of his light way of
treating his own kindness.

I am delighted to be able to put Shaw's considered judgment of Wilde
beside my own for the benefit of my readers. For if there had been
anything I had misseen or misjudged in Wilde, or any prominent trait
of his character I had failed to note, the sin, whether of omission or
commission, could scarcely have escaped this other pair of keen eyes.
Now indeed this biography of Wilde may be regarded as definitive.

Shaw says his judgment of Wilde is severer than mine--"far sterner,"
are his words; but I am not sure that this is an exact estimate.

While Shaw accentuates Wilde's snobbishness, he discounts his "Irish
charm," and though he praises highly his gifts as dramatist and
story-teller he lays little stress on his genuine kindness of nature
and the courteous smiling ways which made him so incomparable a
companion and intimate.

On the other hand he excuses Wilde's perversion as pathological, as
hereditary "giantism," and so lightens the darkest shadows just as he
has toned down the lights.

I never saw anything abnormal in Oscar Wilde either in body or soul
save an extravagant sensuality and an absolute adoration of beauty and
comeliness; and so, with his own confessions and practises before me,
I had to block him in, to use painters' jargon, with black shadows,
and was delighted to find high lights to balance them--lights of
courtesies, graces and unselfish kindness of heart.

On the whole I think our two pictures are very much alike and I am
sure a good many readers will be almost as grateful to Shaw for his
collaboration and corroboration as I am.


Since writing this foreword I have received the proof of his
contribution which I had sent to Shaw. He has made some slight
corrections in the text which, of course, have been carried out, and
some comments besides on my notes as Editor. These, too, I have
naturally wished to use and so, to avoid confusion, have inserted them
in italics and with his initials. I hope the sequence will be clear to
the reader.




"I have an interesting letter of yours to answer; but when you ask me
to exchange biographies, you take an unfair advantage of the changes
of scene and bustling movement of your own adventures. My
autobiography would be like my best plays, fearfully long, and not
divided into acts. Just consider this life of Wilde which you have
just sent me, and which I finished ten minutes ago after putting aside
everything else to read it at one stroke.

"Why was Wilde so good a subject for a biography that none of the
previous attempts which you have just wiped out are bad? Just because
his stupendous laziness simplified his life almost as if he knew
instinctively that there must be no episodes to spoil the great
situation at the end of the last act but one. It was a well made life
in the Scribe sense. It was as simple as the life of Des Grieux, Manon
Lescaut's lover; and it beat that by omitting Manon and making Des
Grieux his own lover and his own hero.

"Des Grieux was a worthless rascal by all conventional standards; and
we forgive him everything. We think we forgive him because he was
unselfish and loved greatly. Oscar seems to have said: 'I will love
nobody: I will be utterly selfish; and I will be not merely a rascal
but a monster; and you shall forgive me everything. In other words, I
will reduce your standards to absurdity, not by writing them down,
though I could do that so well--in fact, _have_ done it--but by
actually living them down and dying them down.'

"However, I mustn't start writing a book to you about Wilde: I must
just tumble a few things together and tell you them. To take things in
the order of your book, I can remember only one occasion on which I
saw Sir William Wilde, who, by the way, operated on my father to
correct a squint, and overdid the correction so much that my father
squinted the other way all the rest of his life. To this day I never
notice a squint: it is as normal to me as a nose or a tall hat.

"I was a boy at a concert in the Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick
Street in Dublin. Everybody was in evening dress; and--unless I am
mixing up this concert with another (in which case I doubt if the
Wildes would have been present)--the Lord Lieutenant was there with
his blue waistcoated courtiers. Wilde was dressed in snuffy brown; and
as he had the sort of skin that never looks clean, he produced a
dramatic effect beside Lady Wilde (in full fig) of being, like
Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was
beyond Good and Evil. He was currently reported to have a family in
every farmhouse; and the wonder was that Lady Wilde didn't
mind--evidently a tradition from the Travers case, which I did not
know about until I read your account, as I was only eight in 1864.

"Lady Wilde was nice to me in London during the desperate days between
my arrival in 1876 and my first earning of an income by my pen in
1885, or rather until, a few years earlier, I threw myself into
Socialism and cut myself contemptuously loose from everything of which
her at-homes--themselves desperate affairs enough, as you saw for
yourself--were part. I was at two or three of them; and I once dined
with her in company with an ex-tragedy queen named Miss Glynn, who,
having no visible external ears, reared a head like a turnip. Lady
Wilde talked about Schopenhauer; and Miss Glynn told me that Gladstone
formed his oratorical style on Charles Kean.

"I ask myself where and how I came across Lady Wilde; for we had no
social relations in the Dublin days. The explanation must be that my
sister, then a very attractive girl who sang beautifully, had met and
made some sort of innocent conquest of both Oscar and Willie. I met
Oscar once at one of the at-homes; and he came and spoke to me with an
evident intention of being specially kind to me. We put each other out
frightfully; and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very
last, even when we were no longer mere boyish novices and had become
men of the world with plenty of skill in social intercourse. I saw him
very seldom, as I avoided literary and artistic society like the
plague, and refused the few invitations I received to go into society
with burlesque ferocity, so as to keep out of it without offending
people past their willingness to indulge me as a privileged lunatic.

"The last time I saw him was at that tragic luncheon of yours at the
Café Royal; and I am quite sure our total of meetings from first to
last did not exceed twelve, and may not have exceeded six.

"I definitely recollect six: (1) At the at-home aforesaid. (2) At
Macmurdo's house in Fitzroy Street in the days of the Century Guild
and its paper '_The Hobby Horse_.' (3) At a meeting somewhere in
Westminster at which I delivered an address on Socialism, and at which
Oscar turned up and spoke. Robert Ross surprised me greatly by telling
me, long after Oscar's death, that it was this address of mine that
moved Oscar to try his hand at a similar feat by writing 'The Soul of
Man Under Socialism.' (4) A chance meeting near the stage door of the
Haymarket Theatre, at which our queer shyness of one another made our
resolutely cordial and appreciative conversation so difficult that our
final laugh and shake-hands was almost a reciprocal confession. (5) A
really pleasant afternoon we spent together on catching one another in
a place where our presence was an absurdity. It was some exhibition in
Chelsea: a naval commemoration, where there was a replica of Nelson's
Victory and a set of P. & O. cabins which made one seasick by mere
association of ideas. I don't know why I went or why Wilde went; but
we did; and the question what the devil we were doing in that galley
tickled us both. It was my sole experience of Oscar's wonderful gift
as a raconteur. I remember particularly an amazingly elaborate story
which you have no doubt heard from him: an example of the cumulation
of a single effect, as in Mark Twain's story of the man who was
persuaded to put lightning conductor after lightning conductor at
every possible point on his roof until a thunderstorm came and all the
lightning in the heavens went for his house and wiped it out.

"Oscar's much more carefully and elegantly worked out story was of a
young man who invented a theatre stall which economized space by
ingenious contrivances which were all described. A friend of his
invited twenty millionaires to meet him at dinner so that he might
interest them in the invention. The young man convinced them
completely by his demonstration of the saving in a theatre holding, in
ordinary seats, six hundred people, leaving them eager and ready to
make his fortune. Unfortunately he went on to calculate the annual
saving in all the theatres of the world; then in all the churches of
the world; then in all the legislatures; estimating finally the
incidental and moral and religious effects of the invention until at
the end of an hour he had estimated a profit of several thousand
millions: the climax of course being that the millionaires folded
their tents and silently stole away, leaving the ruined inventor a
marked man for life.

"Wilde and I got on extraordinarily well on this occasion. I had not
to talk myself, but to listen to a man telling me stories better than
I could have told them. We did not refer to Art, about which,
excluding literature from the definition, he knew only what could be
picked up by reading about it. He was in a tweed suit and low hat like
myself, and had been detected and had detected me in the act of
clandestinely spending a happy day at Rosherville Gardens instead of
pontificating in his frock coat and so forth. And he had an audience
on whom not one of his subtlest effects was lost. And so for once our
meeting was a success; and I understood why Morris, when he was dying
slowly, enjoyed a visit from Wilde more than from anybody else, as I
understand why you say in your book that you would rather have Wilde
back than any friend you have ever talked to, even though he was
incapable of friendship, though not of the most touching kindness[1]
on occasion.

[Footnote 1: Excellent analysis. [Ed.]]

"Our sixth meeting, the only other one I can remember, was the one at
the Café Royal. On that occasion he was not too preoccupied with his
danger to be disgusted with me because I, who had praised his first
plays handsomely, had turned traitor over 'The Importance of Being
Earnest.' Clever as it was, it was his first really heartless play. In
the others the chivalry of the eighteenth century Irishman and the
romance of the disciple of Théophile Gautier (Oscar was really
old-fashioned in the Irish way, except as a critic of morals) not only
gave a certain kindness and gallantry to the serious passages and to
the handling of the women, but provided that proximity of emotion
without which laughter, however irresistible, is destructive and
sinister. In 'The Importance of Being Earnest' this had vanished; and
the play, though extremely funny, was essentially hateful. I had no
idea that Oscar was going to the dogs, and that this represented a
real degeneracy produced by his debaucheries. I thought he was still
developing; and I hazarded the unhappy guess that 'The Importance of
Being Earnest' was in idea a young work written or projected long
before under the influence of Gilbert and furbished up for Alexander
as a potboiler. At the Café Royal that day I calmly asked him whether
I was not right. He indignantly repudiated my guess, and said loftily
(the only time he ever tried on me the attitude he took to John Gray
and his more abject disciples) that he was disappointed in me. I
suppose I said, 'Then what on earth has happened to you?' but I
recollect nothing more on that subject except that we did not quarrel
over it.

"When he was sentenced I spent a railway journey on a Socialist
lecturing excursion to the North drafting a petition for his release.
After that I met Willie Wilde at a theatre which I think must have
been the Duke of York's, because I connect it vaguely with St.
Martin's Lane. I spoke to him about the petition, asking him whether
anything of the sort was being done, and warning him that though I and
Stewart Headlam would sign it, that would be no use, as we were two
notorious cranks, and our names would by themselves reduce the
petition to absurdity and do Oscar more harm than good. Willie
cordially agreed, and added, with maudlin pathos and an inconceivable
want of tact: 'Oscar was NOT a man of bad character: you
could have trusted him with a woman anywhere.' He convinced me, as you
discovered later, that signatures would not be obtainable; so the
petition project dropped; and I don't know what became of my draft.

"When Wilde was in Paris during his last phase I made a point of
sending him inscribed copies of all my books as they came out; and he
did the same to me.

"In writing about Wilde and Whistler, in the days when they were
treated as witty triflers, and called Oscar and Jimmy in print, I
always made a point of taking them seriously and with scrupulous good
manners. Wilde on his part also made a point of recognizing me as a
man of distinction by his manner, and repudiating the current estimate
of me as a mere jester. This was not the usual reciprocal-admiration
trick: I believe he was sincere, and felt indignant at what he thought
was a vulgar underestimate of me; and I had the same feeling about
him. My impulse to rally to him in his misfortune, and my disgust at
'the man Wilde' scurrilities of the newspapers, was irresistible: I
don't quite know why; for my charity to his perversion, and my
recognition of the fact that it does not imply any general depravity
or coarseness of character, came to me through reading and
observation, not through sympathy.

"I have all the normal violent repugnance to homosexuality--if it is
really normal, which nowadays one is sometimes provoked to doubt.

"Also, I was in no way predisposed to like him: he was my
fellow-townsman, and a very prime specimen of the sort of
fellow-townsman I most loathed: to wit, the Dublin snob. His Irish
charm, potent with Englishmen, did not exist for me; and on the whole
it may be claimed for him that he got no regard from me that he did
not earn.

"What first established a friendly feeling in me was, unexpectedly
enough, the affair of the Chicago anarchists, whose Homer you
constituted yourself by '_The Bomb_.' I tried to get some literary men
in London, all heroic rebels and skeptics on paper, to sign a memorial
asking for the reprieve of these unfortunate men. The only signature I
got was Oscar's. It was a completely disinterested act on his part;
and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of
his life.

"To return for a moment to Lady Wilde. You know that there is a
disease called giantism, caused by 'a certain morbid process in the
sphenoid bone of the skull--viz., an excessive development of the
anterior lobe of the pituitary body' (this is from the nearest
encyclopedia). 'When this condition does not become active until after
the age of twenty-five, by which time the long bones are consolidated,
the result is acromegaly, which chiefly manifests itself in an
enlargement of the hands and feet.' I never saw Lady Wilde's feet; but
her hands were enormous, and never went straight to their aim when
they grasped anything, but minced about, feeling for it. And the
gigantic splaying of her palm was reproduced in her lumbar region.

"Now Oscar was an overgrown man, with something not quite normal about
his bigness--something that made Lady Colin Campbell, who hated him,
describe him as 'that great white caterpillar.' You yourself describe
the disagreeable impression he made on you physically, in spite of his
fine eyes and style. Well, I have always maintained that Oscar was a
giant in the pathological sense, and that this explains a good deal of
his weakness.

"I think you have affectionately underrated his snobbery, mentioning
only the pardonable and indeed justifiable side of it; the love of
fine names and distinguished associations and luxury and good
manners.[2] You say repeatedly, and _on certain planes_, truly, that
he was not bitter and did not use his tongue to wound people. But this
is not true on the snobbish plane. On one occasion he wrote about T.P.
O'Connor with deliberate, studied, wounding insolence, with his
Merrion Square Protestant pretentiousness in full cry against the
Catholic. He repeatedly declaimed against the vulgarity of the British
journalist, not as you or I might, but as an expression of the odious
class feeling that is itself the vilest vulgarity. He made the mistake
of not knowing his place. He objected to be addressed as Wilde,
declaring that he was Oscar to his intimates and Mr. Wilde to others,
quite unconscious of the fact that he was imposing on the men with
whom, as a critic and journalist, he had to live and work, the
alternative of granting him an intimacy he had no right to ask or a
deference to which he had no claim. The vulgar hated him for snubbing
them; and the valiant men damned his impudence and cut him. Thus he
was left with a band of devoted satellites on the one hand, and a
dining-out connection on the other, with here and there a man of
talent and personality enough to command his respect, but utterly
without that fortifying body of acquaintance among plain men in which
a man must move as himself a plain man, and be Smith and Jones and
Wilde and Shaw and Harris instead of Bosie and Robbie and Oscar and
Mister. This is the sort of folly that does not last forever in a man
of Wilde's ability; but it lasted long enough to prevent Oscar laying
any solid social foundations.[3]

[Footnote 2: I had touched on the evil side of his snobbery, I
thought, by saying that it was only famous actresses and great ladies
that he ever talked about, and in telling how he loved to speak of the
great houses such as Clumber to which he had been invited, and by half
a dozen other hints scattered through my book. I had attacked English
snobbery so strenuously in my book on "The Man Shakespeare," had
resented its influence on the finest English intelligence so bitterly,
that I thought if I again laid stress on it in Wilde, people would
think I was crazy on the subject. But he was a snob, both by nature
and training, and I understand by snob what Shaw evidently understands
by it here.]

[Footnote 3: The reason that Oscar, snobbish as he was, and admirer of
England and the English as he was, could not lay any solid social
foundations in England was, in my opinion, his intellectual interests
and his intellectual superiority to the men he met. No one with a fine
mind devoted to things of the spirit is capable of laying solid social
foundations in England. Shaw, too, has no solid social foundations in
that country.

_This passing shot at English society serves it right. Yet able men
have found niches in London. Where was Oscar's?--G.B.S._]

"Another difficulty I have already hinted at. Wilde started as an
apostle of Art; and in that capacity he was a humbug. The notion that
a Portora boy, passed on to T.C.D. and thence to Oxford and spending
his vacations in Dublin, could without special circumstances have any
genuine intimacy with music and painting, is to me ridiculous.[4]
When Wilde was at Portora, I was at home in a house where important
musical works, including several typical masterpieces, were being
rehearsed from the point of blank amateur ignorance up to fitness for
public performance. I could whistle them from the first bar to the
last as a butcher's boy whistles music hall songs, before I was
twelve. The toleration of popular music--Strauss's waltzes, for
instance--was to me positively a painful acquirement, a sort of
republican duty.

[Footnote 4: I had already marked it down to put in this popular
edition of my book that Wilde continually pretended to a knowledge of
music which he had not got. He could hardly tell one tune from
another, but he loved to talk of that "scarlet thing of Dvorak,"
hoping in this way to be accepted as a real critic of music, when he
knew nothing about it and cared even less. His eulogies of music and
painting betrayed him continually though he did not know it.]

"I was so fascinated by painting that I haunted the National Gallery,
which Doyle had made perhaps the finest collection of its size in the
world; and I longed for money to buy painting materials with. This
afterwards saved me from starving: it was as a critic of music and
painting in the _World_ that I won through my ten years of journalism
before I finished up with you on the _Saturday Review_. I could make
deaf stockbrokers read my two pages on music, the alleged joke being
that I knew nothing about it. The real joke was that I knew all about

"Now it was quite evident to me, as it was to Whistler and Beardsley,
that Oscar knew no more about pictures[5] than anyone of his general
culture and with his opportunities can pick up as he goes along. He
could be witty about Art, as I could be witty about engineering; but
that is no use when you have to seize and hold the attention and
interest of people who really love music and painting. Therefore,
Oscar was handicapped by a false start, and got a reputation[6] for
shallowness and insincerity which he never retrieved until it was too

[Footnote 5: I touched upon Oscar's ignorance of art sufficiently I
think, when I said in my book that he had learned all he knew of art
and of controversy from Whistler, and that his lectures on the
subject, even after sitting at the feet of the Master, were almost

[Footnote 6: Perfectly true, and a notable instance of Shaw's

"Comedy: the criticism of morals and manners _viva voce_, was his real
forte. When he settled down to that he was great. But, as you found
when you approached Meredith about him, his initial mistake had
produced that 'rather low opinion of Wilde's capacities,' that
'deep-rooted contempt for the showman in him,' which persisted as a
first impression and will persist until the last man who remembers his
esthetic period has perished. The world has been in some ways so
unjust to him that one must be careful not to be unjust to the world.

"In the preface on education, called 'Parents and Children,' to my
volume of plays beginning with _Misalliance_, there is a section
headed 'Artist Idolatry,' which is really about Wilde. Dealing with
'the powers enjoyed by brilliant persons who are also connoisseurs in
art,' I say, 'the influence they can exercise on young people who have
been brought up in the darkness and wretchedness of a home without
art, and in whom a natural bent towards art has always been baffled
and snubbed, is incredible to those who have not witnessed and
understood it. He (or she) who reveals the world of art to them opens
heaven to them. They become satellites, disciples, worshippers of the
apostle. Now the apostle may be a voluptuary without much conscience.
Nature may have given him enough virtue to suffice in a reasonable
environment. But this allowance may not be enough to defend him
against the temptation and demoralization of finding himself a little
god on the strength of what ought to be a quite ordinary culture. He
may find adorers in all directions in our uncultivated society among
people of stronger character than himself, not one of whom, if they
had been artistically educated, would have had anything to learn from
him, or regarded him as in any way extraordinary apart from his actual
achievements as an artist. Tartufe is not always a priest. Indeed, he
is not always a rascal: he is often a weak man absurdly credited with
omniscience and perfection, and taking unfair advantages only because
they are offered to him and he is too weak to refuse. Give everyone
his culture, and no one will offer him more than his due.'

"That paragraph was the outcome of a walk and talk I had one afternoon
at Chartres with Robert Ross.

"You reveal Wilde as a weaker man than I thought him: I still believe
that his fierce Irish pride had something to do with his refusal to
run away from the trial. But in the main your evidence is conclusive.
It was part of his tragedy that people asked more moral strength from
him that he could bear the burden of, because they made the very
common mistake--of which actors get the benefit--of regarding style as
evidence of strength, just as in the case of women they are apt to
regard paint as evidence of beauty. Now Wilde was so in love with
style that he never realized the danger of biting off more than he
could chew: in other words, of putting up more style than his matter
would carry. Wise kings wear shabby clothes, and leave the gold lace
to the drum major.

"You do not, unless my memory is betraying me as usual, quite
recollect the order of events just before the trial. That day at the
Café Royal, Wilde said he had come to ask you to go into the witness
box next day and testify that _Dorian Gray_ was a highly moral work.
Your answer was something like this: 'For God's sake, man, put
everything on that plane out of your head. You don't realize what is
going to happen to you. It is not going to be a matter of clever talk
about your books. They are going to bring up a string of witnesses
that will put art and literature out of the question. Clarke will
throw up his brief. He will carry the case to a certain point; and
then, when he sees the avalanche coming, he will back out and leave
you in the dock. What you have to do is to cross to France to-night.
Leave a letter saying that you cannot face the squalor and horror of a
law case; that you are an artist and unfitted for such things. Don't
stay here clutching at straws like testimonials to _Dorian Gray_. _I
tell you I know._ I know what is going to happen. I know Clarke's
sort. I know what evidence they have got. You must go.'

"It was no use. Wilde was in a curious double temper. He made no
pretence either of innocence or of questioning the folly of his
proceedings against Queensberry. But he had an infatuate haughtiness
as to the impossibility of his retreating, and as to his right to
dictate your course. Douglas sat in silence, a haughty indignant
silence, copying Wilde's attitude as all Wilde's admirers did, but
quite probably influencing Wilde as you suggest, by the copy. Oscar
finally rose with a mixture of impatience and his grand air, and
walked out with the remark that he had now found out who were his real
friends; and Douglas followed him, absurdly smaller, and imitating his
walk, like a curate following an archbishop.[7] You remember it the
other way about; but just consider this. Douglas was in the wretched
position of having ruined Wilde merely to annoy his father, and of
having attempted it so idiotically that he had actually prepared a
triumph for him. He was, besides, much the youngest man present, and
looked younger than he was. You did not make him welcome: as far as I
recollect you did not greet him by a word or nod. If he had given the
smallest provocation or attempted to take the lead in any way, I
should not have given twopence for the chance of your keeping your
temper. And Wilde, even in his ruin--which, however, he did not yet
fully realize--kept his air of authority on questions of taste and
conduct. It was practically impossible under such circumstances that
Douglas should have taken the stage in any way. Everyone thought him a
horrid little brat; but I, not having met him before to my knowledge,
and having some sort of flair for his literary talent, was curious to
hear what he had to say for himself. But, except to echo Wilde once or
twice, he said nothing.[8] You are right in effect, because it was
evident that Wilde was in his hands, and was really echoing him. But
Wilde automatically kept the prompter off the stage and himself in the
middle of it.

[Footnote 7: This is an inimitable picture, but Shaw's fine sense of
comedy has misled him. The scene took place absolutely as I recorded
it. Douglas went out first saying--"Your telling him to run away shows
that you are no friend of Oscar's." Then Oscar got up to follow him.
He said good-bye to Shaw, adding a courteous word or two. As he turned
to the door I got up and said:--"I hope you do not doubt my
friendship; you have no reason to."

"I do not think this is friendly of you, Frank," he said, and went on

[Footnote 8: I am sure Douglas took the initiative and walked out

_I have no doubt you are right, and that my vision of the exit is
really a reminiscence of the entrance. In fact, now that you prompt my
memory, I recall quite distinctly that Douglas, who came in as the
follower, went out as the leader, and that the last word was spoken by
Wilde after he had gone.--G.B.S._]

"What your book needs to complete it is a portrait of yourself as good
as your portrait of Wilde. Oscar was not combative, though he was
supercilious in his early pose. When his snobbery was not in action,
he liked to make people devoted to him and to flatter them exquisitely
with that end. Mrs. Calvert, whose great final period as a stage old
woman began with her appearance in my _Arms and the Man_, told me one
day, when apologizing for being, as she thought, a bad rehearser, that
no author had ever been so nice to her except Mr. Wilde.

"Pugnacious people, if they did not actually terrify Oscar, were at
least the sort of people he could not control, and whom he feared as
possibly able to coerce him. You suggest that the Queensberry
pugnacity was something that Oscar could not deal with successfully.
But how in that case could Oscar have felt quite safe with you? You
were more pugnacious than six Queensberrys rolled into one. When
people asked, 'What has Frank Harris been?' the usual reply was,
'Obviously a pirate from the Spanish Main.'

"Oscar, from the moment he gained your attachment, could never have
been afraid of what you might do to him, as he was sufficient of a
connoisseur in Blut Bruderschaft to appreciate yours; but he must
always have been mortally afraid of what you might do or say to his

[Footnote 9: This insight on Shaw's part makes me smile because it is
absolutely true. Oscar commended Bosie Douglas to me again and again
and again, begged me to be nice to him if we ever met by chance; but I
refused to meet him for months and months.]

"You had quite an infernal scorn for nineteen out of twenty of the men
and women you met in the circles he most wished to propitiate; and
nothing could induce you to keep your knife in its sheath when they
jarred on you. The Spanish Main itself would have blushed rosy red at
your language when classical invective did not suffice to express your

"It may be that if, say, Edmund Gosse had come to Oscar when he was
out on bail, with a couple of first class tickets in his pocket, and
gently suggested a mild trip to Folkestone, or the Channel Islands,
Oscar might have let himself be coaxed away. But to be called on to
gallop _ventre à terre_ to Erith--it might have been Deal--and hoist
the Jolly Roger on board your lugger, was like casting a light
comedian and first lover for _Richard III_. Oscar could not see
himself in the part.

"I must not press the point too far; but it illustrates, I think, what
does not come out at all in your book: that you were a very different
person from the submissive and sympathetic disciples to whom he was
accustomed. There are things more terrifying to a soul like Oscar's
than an as yet unrealized possibility of a sentence of hard labor. A
voyage with Captain Kidd may have been one of them. Wilde was a
conventional man: his unconventionality was the very pedantry of
convention: never was there a man less an outlaw than he. You were a
born outlaw, and will never be anything else.

"That is why, in his relations with you, he appears as a man always
shirking action--more of a coward (all men are cowards more or less)
than so proud a man can have been. Still this does not affect the
truth and power of your portrait. Wilde's memory will have to stand or
fall by it.

"You will be blamed, I imagine, because you have not written a lying
epitaph instead of a faithful chronicle and study of him; but you will
not lose your sleep over that. As a matter of fact, you could not have
carried kindness further without sentimental folly. I should have made
a far sterner summing up. I am sure Oscar has not found the gates of
heaven shut against him: he is too good company to be excluded; but he
can hardly have been greeted as, 'Thou good and faithful servant.' The
first thing we ask a servant for is a testimonial to honesty, sobriety
and industry; for we soon find out that these are the scarce things,
and that geniuses[10] and clever people are as common as rats. Well,
Oscar was not sober, not honest, not industrious. Society praised him
for being idle, and persecuted him savagely for an aberration which it
had better have left unadvertized, thereby making a hero of him; for
it is in the nature of people to worship those who have been made to
suffer horribly: indeed I have often said that if the crucifixion
could be proved a myth, and Jesus convicted of dying of old age in
comfortable circumstances, Christianity would lose ninety-nine per
cent. of its devotees.

[Footnote 10: The English paste in Shaw; genius is about the rarest
thing on earth whereas the necessary quantum of "honesty, sobriety and
industry," is beaten by life into nine humans out of ten.--ED.

_If so, it is the tenth who comes my way.--G.B.S._]

"We must try to imagine what judgment we should have passed on Oscar
if he had been a normal man, and had dug his grave with his teeth in
the ordinary respectable fashion, as his brother Willie did. This
brother, by the way, gives us some cue; for Willie, who had exactly
the same education and the same chances, must be ruthlessly set aside
by literary history as a vulgar journalist of no account. Well,
suppose Oscar and Willie had both died the day before Queensberry left
that card at the Club! Oscar would still have been remembered as a wit
and a dandy, and would have had a niche beside Congreve in the drama.
A volume of his aphorisms would have stood creditably on the library
shelf with La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. We should have missed the
'Ballad of Reading Gaol' and 'De Profundis'; but he would still have
cut a considerable figure in the Dictionary of National Biography, and
been read and quoted outside the British Museum reading room.

"As to the 'Ballad' and 'De Profundis,' I think it is greatly to
Oscar's credit that, whilst he was sincere and deeply moved when he
was protesting against the cruelty of our present system to children
and to prisoners generally, he could not write about his own
individual share in that suffering with any conviction or
sympathy.[11] Except for the passage where he describes his exposure
at Clapham Junction, there is hardly a line in 'De Profundis' that he
might not have written as a literary feat five years earlier. But in
the 'Ballad,' even in borrowing form and melody from Coleridge, he
shews that he could pity others when he could not seriously pity
himself. And this, I think, may be pleaded against the reproach that
he was selfish. Externally, in the ordinary action of life as
distinguished from the literary action proper to his genius, he was no
doubt sluggish and weak because of his giantism. He ended as an
unproductive drunkard and swindler; for the repeated sales of the
Daventry plot, in so far as they imposed on the buyers and were not
transparent excuses for begging, were undeniably swindles. For all
that, he does not appear in his writings a selfish or base-minded man.
He is at his worst and weakest in the suppressed[12] part of 'De
Profundis'; but in my opinion it had better be published, for several
reasons. It explains some of his personal weakness by the stifling
narrowness of his daily round, ruinous to a man whose proper place was
in a large public life. And its concealment is mischievous because,
first, it leads people to imagine all sorts of horrors in a document
which contains nothing worse than any record of the squabbles of two
touchy idlers; and, second, it is clearly a monstrous thing that
Douglas should have a torpedo launched at him and timed to explode
after his death. The torpedo is a very harmless squib; for there is
nothing in it that cannot be guessed from Douglas's own book; but the
public does not know that. By the way, it is rather a humorous stroke
of Fate's irony that the son of the Marquis of Queensberry should be
forced to expiate his sins by suffering a succession of blows beneath
the belt.

[Footnote 11: Superb criticism.]

[Footnote 12: I have said this in my way.]

"Now that you have written the best life of Oscar Wilde, let us have
the best life of Frank Harris. Otherwise the man behind your works
will go down to posterity[13] as the hero of my very inadequate
preface to 'The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.'"


[Footnote 13: A characteristic flirt of Shaw's humor. He is a great
caricaturist and not a portrait-painter.

When he thinks of my Celtic face and aggressive American frankness he
talks of me as pugnacious and a pirate: "a Captain Kidd": in his
preface to "The Fair Lady of the Sonnets" he praises my "idiosyncratic
gift of pity"; says that I am "wise through pity"; then he extols me
as a prophet, not seeing that a pitying sage, prophet and pirate
constitute an inhuman superman.

I shall do more for Shaw than he has been able to do for me; he is the
first figure in my new volume of "Contemporary Portraits." I have
portrayed him there at his best, as I love to think of him, and
henceforth he'll have to try to live up to my conception and that will
keep him, I'm afraid, on strain.

_God help me!--G.B.S._]

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