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Title: Oscar Wilde, a Critical Study
Author: Ransome, Arthur, 1884-1967
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: Oscar Wilde. from the Painting by Harper Pennington now
in the possession of Robert Ross. Esq.]


  BOHEMIA IN LONDON (Sketches and Essays), 1907

Copyright reserved in all countries signatory to the
Berne Convention. The copyright of this book in
Russia is the property of the Scorpion Press, Moscow




I wish to thank Mr. Robert Ross, Wilde's literary executor, who has
helped me in every possible way, allowed me to read many of the letters
that Wilde addressed to him, and given much time out of a very busy life
to the verification, from documents in his possession, of the
biographical facts included in my book. I wish to thank Mr. Walter
Ledger for much interesting information, and for the sight of many rare
editions of Wilde's books that made possible the correction of several
bibliographical errors into which I had fallen. I wish to thank Mr.
Martin Secker for putting at my disposal his collection of late
nineteenth-century literature. I wish to thank an anonymous author for
lending me the proof-sheets of a forthcoming book, which will contain a
full and accurate account of the legal proceedings for and against
Wilde. Many of those who knew Wilde have helped me, by letter or in
conversation, with valuable reminiscence. I would thank, particularly,
M. Paul Fort, M. Remy de Gourmont, M. Stuart Merrill, and Mr. Reginald

The texts of Wilde's books that I have used throughout are these:
Messrs. Methuen's limited edition of the works, and the five shilling
edition issued by the same firm; Mr. Charles Carrington's edition of
_The Picture of Dorian Gray_; Mr. A. L. Humphreys' edition of _The Soul
of Man under Socialism_; Mr. David Nutt's edition of _The Happy Prince
and other Tales_. To these, as to the best, and in some cases the only,
editions easily accessible, I must refer my readers. Much accurate
observation is to be found in M. André Gide's "Oscar Wilde," published
by the Mercure de France, and the result of much laborious and useful
research is embodied in Mr. Stuart Mason's "Bibliography of the Poems of
Oscar Wilde," published by Mr. Grant Richards. Permission to include
many quotations has been granted by Messrs. Methuen and Co., and Mr.
Robert Ross.


INTRODUCTORY              13


POEMS                     36

ÆSTHETICISM               59


INTENTIONS               104

THE THEATRE              130

DISASTER                 153

DE PROFUNDIS             157

1897-1900                178

AFTERTHOUGHT             201



Gilbert, in 'The Critic as Artist,' complains that "we are overrun by a
set of people who, when poet or painter passes away, arrive at the house
along with the undertaker, and forget that their one duty is to behave
as mutes. But we won't talk about them," he continues. "They are the
mere body-snatchers of literature. The dust is given to one and the
ashes to another, but the soul is out of their reach." That is not a
warning lightly to be disregarded. No stirring up of dust and ashes is
excusable, and none but brutish minds delight in mud-pies mixed with
blood. I had no body-snatching ambition. Impatient of such criticism of
Wilde as saw a law-court in _The House of Pomegranates_, and heard the
clink of handcuffs in the flowing music of _Intentions_, I wished, at
first, to write a book on Wilde's work in which no mention of the man or
his tragedy should have a place. I remembered that he thought
Wainewright, the poisoner and essayist, too lately dead[1] to be
treated in "that fine spirit of disinterested curiosity to which we owe
so many charming studies of the great criminals of the Italian
Renaissance." To-day it is Wilde who is too near us to be seen without a
blurring of perspectives. Some day it will be possible to write of him
with the ecstatic acquiescence that Nietzsche calls _Amor Fati_, as we
write of Cæsar Borgia sinning in purple, Cleopatra sinning in gold, and
Roberto Greene hastening his end by drab iniquity and grey repentance.
But not yet. He only died a dozen years ago. I planned an artificial
ignorance that should throw him to a distance where his books alone
would represent him.

I was wrong, of course. Such wilful evasion would have been foolish in a
contemporary critic of Shelley, worse than foolish in a critic of Wilde.
An artist is unable to do everything for us. He gives us his work as a
locked casket. Sometimes the wards are very simple and all the world
have keys to fit; sometimes they are intricate and subtle, and the
casket is only to be opened by a few, though all may taste imperfectly
the precious essences distilling through the hinges. Sometimes, when our
knowledge of an artist and of the conditions under which he wrote have
been entirely forgotten, there are no keys, and the work of art remains
a closed casket, like much early poetry, of which we can only say that
it is cunningly made and that it has a secret. Why do we try to pierce
the obscurity that surrounds the life of Shakespeare if not because an
intenser (I might say a more accurate) enjoyment of his writings may be
given us by a fuller knowledge of the existence out of which he wrote?
It is for this that we study the Elizabethan theatre, and print upon our
minds a picture of the projecting stage, the gallants smoking pipes and
straddling their stools, the flag waving from above the tiled roof. We
would understand his technique, but, still more, while we lack directer
evidence, we would use these hints about the furniture of his mind's eye
in moments of composition. Writers of Wordsworth's generation realized,
at least subconsciously, that a work of art is not independent of
knowledge. They tried to help us by printing at the head of a poem
information about the circumstances of its conception. When a poet tells
us that a sonnet was composed "on Westminster Bridge," or "suggested by
Mr. Westell's views of the caves, etc., in Yorkshire," he is trying to
ease for us the task of æsthetic reproduction to which his poem is a
stimulus. There is a crudity about such obvious assistance, and it
would be quite insufficient without the knowledge on which we draw
unconsciously as we read. But the crudity of those pitiable little
scraps of proffered information is not so remarkable as that of the
presumptuous attempt to read a book as if it had fallen like manna from
heaven, and that of the gross dullness of perception that can allow a
man to demand of a poem or a picture that it shall itself compel him
fully to understand it. To gain the privilege of a just appreciation of
a man's books (if, indeed, such an appreciation is possible) we must
know what place they took in his life, and handle the rough material
that dictated even their most ethereal tissue. In the case of such a
writer as Wilde, whose books are the by-products of a life more
important than they in his own eyes, it is not only legitimate but
necessary for understanding to look at books and life together as at a
portrait of an artist by himself, and to read, as well as we may,
between the touches of the brush. It is not that there is profit in
trying to turn works of art into biographical data, though that may be a
fascinating pastime. It is that biographical data cannot do other than
assist us in our understanding of the works of art.

In any case, leaving on one side this question, admittedly subject to
debate, it would have been ridiculous to study the writings alone of a
man who said, not without truth, that he put his genius into his life,
keeping only his talent for his books. I therefore changed my original
intention, and, while concerned throughout with Wilde as artist and
critic rather than as criminal, read his biographers and talked with his
friends that I might be so far from forgetting as continually to
perceive behind the books the spectacle of the man, vividly living his
life and filling it as completely as he filled his works with his
strange and brilliant personality.

It is too easy to talk glibly of the choice between life and literature.
No choice can be made between them. The whole is greater than its part,
and literature is at once the child and the stimulus of life,
inseparable from it. But, beside art, life has other activities, all of
which aspire to the self-consciousness that art makes possible. The
artist himself, for all his gift of tongues, is not blinded by the
descending light to the plastic qualities of the existence that fires
his words and is itself intensified by his speech. He, too, moves in
walled town or on the green earth, and has a little time in which to
build two memories, one for his fellows, and another, a secret diary, to
carry with him when he dies. In his life, his books or pictures or
brave harmonies of music are but moments, notes of colour in a
composition vital to himself. And when we speak so carelessly of a
choice between life and literature, we do not mean a choice. We only
compare the vividness of a man's whole life, as we perceive it, with
that of those portions of it that he spent in books. Sometimes we wonder
which is more alive. In Wilde's case we compare a row of volumes,
themselves remarkable, with a life that was the occupation of an agile
and vivid personality for which a cloistered converse with itself was
not enough, a personality that loved the lights and the bustle, the eyes
and ears of the world, and the applause that does not have to wait for

Wilde was a kind of Wainewright, to whom his own life was very
important. He saw art as self-expression and life as self-development.
He felt that his life was material on which to practise his powers of
creation, and handled it and brooded over it like a sculptor planning to
make a dancing figure out of a pellet of clay. Even after its
catastrophe he was still able to speak of his life as of a work of art,
as if he had seen it from outside. Indeed, to a surprising extent, he
had been a spectator of his own tragedy. In building his life his strong
sense of the picturesque was not without admirable material, and he was
able to face the street with a decorative and entertaining façade,
which, unlike those of the palaces in Genoa, was not contradicted by
dullness within. He made men see him as something of a dandy among
authors, an amateur of letters in contrast with the professional maker
of books and plays. If he wrote books he did not allow people to presume
upon the fact, but retained the status of a gentleman. At the Court of
Queen Joan of Naples he would have been a rival to Boccaccio, himself an
adventurer. At the Court of James he would have crossed "Characters"
with Sir Thomas Overbury. In an earlier reign he would have corresponded
in sonnets with Sir Philip Sidney, played with Euphuism, been very kind
to Jonson at the presentation of a masque, and never set foot in The
Mermaid. Later, Anthony Hamilton might have been his friend, or with the
Earl of Rochester he might have walked up Long Acre to belabour the
watch without dirtying the fine lace of his sleeves. In no age would he
have been a writer of the study. He talked and wrote only to show that
he could write. His writings are mostly vindications of the belief he
had in them while still unwritten. It pleased him to pretend that his
plays were written for wagers.

After making imaginary backgrounds for him, let us give him his own.
This man, who would perhaps have found a perfect setting for himself in
the Italy of the Renaissance, was born in 1854. Leigh Hunt, De Quincey,
and Macaulay were alive. Wordsworth had only been dead four years.
Tennyson was writing "Maud" and "The Idylls of the King." Borrow was
wandering in wild Wales and finishing "The Romany Rye." Browning was
preparing "Men and Women" for the press. Dickens was the novelist of the
day, and had half a dozen books yet to write. Thackeray was busy on "The
Newcomes." Matthew Arnold was publishing his "Poems." FitzGerald was
working underground in the mine from which he was to extract the roses
of Omar. Ruskin had just published "Stones of Venice," was arranging to
buy the work of a young man called Rossetti, helping with the Working
Men's College, and writing a pamphlet on the Crystal Palace. William
Morris, younger even than Rossetti, was an undergraduate at Oxford,
rhyming nightly, and exclaiming that, if this was poetry, it was very

It is characteristic of great men that, born out of their time, they
should come to represent it. Victor Hugo, in 1830, was a young man
irreverently trying to overturn established tradition. He had to pack a
theatre with his friends to save his play from being hissed. Now,
looking back on that time, his enemies seem to have faded away, tired
ghosts, and he to be alone upon the stage laying about him on backs of
air. So far was the Elizabethan age from a true appreciation of
Shakespeare that Webster could patronise him with praise of "his happy
and copious industry." Shakespeare was a busy little dramatist, working
away on the fringe of the great light cast by the effulgent majesty of
Elizabeth. To-day Shakespeare divides with his queen the honour of
naming the years they lived in. The nineties, the early nineties when
Wilde's talent was in full fruition, seem now, at least in literature,
to be coloured by the personality of Wilde and the movement foolishly
called Decadent. But in the nineties, when Wilde was writing, he had a
very few silent friends and a very great number of vociferous enemies.
His books were laughed at, his poetry parodied, his person not kindly
caricatured, and, even when his plays won popular applause, this
hostility against him was only smothered, not choked. His disaster
ungagged it, and few men have been sent to perdition with a louder cry
of hounds behind them.

There was relief as well as hostility in the cry. Wilde had meant a
foreign ideal, and one not too easy to follow. If he were right, then
his detractors were wrong, and there was joy in the voices of those who
taunted, pointing to the Old Bailey, "that is where the artistic life
leads a man." There was also shown a curious inability to distinguish
between the destruction of a man's body and the extinction of his mind's
produce. When Wilde was sent to prison the spokesmen of the nineties
were pleased to shout, "We have heard the last of him." To make sure of
that they should have used the fires of Savonarola as well as the cell
of Raleigh. They should have burnt his books as well as shutting up the
writer. That sentence, so frequently iterated, that "No more would be
heard of him," showed a remarkable error in valuation of his powers.

There was surprise in England when _Salomé_ was played in Paris while
its author was in prison. It seemed impossible that a man who had been
sent to gaol for such offences as his could be an artist honoured out of
his own country. Only after his death, upon the appearance of _De
Profundis_, and translations of his writings into French, German,
Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian, did popular
opinion recognize (if it has yet recognized) that the Old Bailey, the
public disgrace and the imprisonment were only circumstances in Wilde's
private tragedy that would have been terrible even without them, and
that they were no guarantee of the worthlessness of what he wrote.

So far were Wilde's name and influence from ending with his personal
disaster that they are daily gathering weight. Whether his writings are
perfectly successful or not, they altered in some degree the course of
literature in his time, and are still an active power when the wind has
long blown away the dust of newspaper criticism with which they were
received. It is already clear that Wilde has an historical importance
too easily underestimated. His indirect influence is incalculable, for
his attitude in writing gave literature new standards of valuation, and
men are writing under their influence who would indignantly deny that
their work was in any way dictated by Wilde.

A personality as vivid as his, exercised at once through books and in
direct but perhaps less intimate social intercourse, cannot suddenly be
wiped away like a picture on a slate. No man's life was crossed by
Wilde's without experiencing a change. Men lived more vividly in his
presence, and talked better than themselves. No common man lives and
dies without altering, to some extent, the life about him and so the
history of the world. How much wider is their influence who live their
lives like flames, hurrying to death through their own enjoyment and
expenditure alike of their bodies and their brains. "Pard-like spirits,
beautiful and swift" are sufficiently rare and notable to be ensured
against oblivion.

His personality was stronger than his will. When, as he often did, he
set himself to imitation, he could not prevent himself from leaving his
mark upon the counterfeit. He stole freely, but often mounted other
men's jewels so well that they are better in his work than in their own.
It is impossible to dismiss even his early poetry as without
significance. He left no form of literature exactly as he found it. He
brought back to the English stage a spirit of comedy that had been for
many years in mourning. He wrote a romantic play which necessitated a
new manner of production, and may be considered the starting-point of
the revolution in stage-management that, happily, is still proceeding.
He showed both in practice and theory the possibilities of creation open
to the critic. He found a new use for dialogue, and brought to England a
new variety of the novel. His work continually upset accepted canons and
received views. It placed, for example, the apparently settled question
of sincerity in a new obscurity, and the distinction between decoration
and realism in a new light. One of the tests of novelty and beauty is
that they should be a little out at elbows in an old æsthetic. Wilde
sets the subtlest problems before us, and I shall not be wasting time in
posing them and showing that his work has at least this quality of what
is beautiful and new, that it is impossible to apply to it definitions
that were sufficient before it. It will be necessary in considering his
writing, as I hope to do, to digress again and again from book, or play,
or poem into the abstract regions of speculation. Only so will it be
possible to appreciate this man whose name was to have disappeared in
1895, whose work is likely to preserve that name long after oblivion has
swallowed the well-intentioned prophets of its extinction.

Even so, however carefully I may discuss alike his work and the abstract
and technical questions that it raises; however carefully I may gather
evidence of his overflowing richness of personality, I shall not be able
to make a complete and worthy portrait of the man. There are people,
mostly of the generation before my own (though the youngest of us may
come to it), who make a practice of suggesting our entire ignorance of a
subject by demanding that we shall define it in a few words. "Say what
you think of him in a sentence." If I could do that, do you think I
should be going to the labour of writing a book? One cannot define in a
sentence a man whom it has taken God several millions of years to make.
In a dozen chapters it is no less impossible. The utmost one can do, and
that only with due humility, is to make an essay in definition.


[1] He died in 1852. Wilde wrote in 1888.



"The necessity of complying with times, and of sparing persons, is the
great impediment of biography. History may be formed from permanent
monuments and records; but Lives can only be written from personal
knowledge, which is growing every day less, and in a short time is lost
for ever. What is known can seldom be immediately told; and when it
might be told, it is no longer known. The delicate features of the mind,
the nice discriminations of character, and the minute peculiarities of
conduct, are soon obliterated; and it is surely better that caprice,
obstinacy, frolick, and folly, however they might delight in the
description, should be silently forgotten, than that, by wanton
merriment and unseasonable detection, a pang should be given to a widow,
a daughter, a brother, or a friend. As the process of these narratives
is now bringing me among my contemporaries, I begin to feel myself
_walking upon ashes under which the fire is not extinguished_, and
coming to the time of which it will be proper rather to say _nothing
that is false, than all that is true_" (Samuel Johnson, in his "Life of

Before proceeding to the main business of the book, an examination of
Wilde's work, I wish to set before myself and my readers a summary
biography which may hereafter be useful for our reference. Much of the
life of Wilde is so bound up with his work as to be incapable of
separate treatment; but, on the other hand, dates clog a page, and facts
do not always enjoy their just value when dovetailed into criticism. In
this chapter I shall set down the facts of Wilde's parentage and
education, up to the time when it becomes possible and advisable to
speak of his life and his work together. Thenceforward, I shall do
little more than note the dates of events and publications (reserving to
myself the right of repeating them when I find it convenient), and make,
as it were, a skeleton that shall gather flesh from the ensuing pages of
the book.

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, at
21, Westland Row, Dublin. His father was William Wilde, knighted in
1864, a celebrated oculist and aurist, a man of great intellectual
activity and uncertain temper, a runner after girls, with a lusty
enjoyment of life, and a delight in falling stars and thunderstorms.
His mother, whose maiden name was Elgee, was a clever woman, who, when
very young, writing as "Speranza" in a revolutionary paper, had tried to
rouse Irishmen to the storming of Dublin Castle. She read Latin and
Greek, but was ready to suffer fools for the sake of social adulation.
She was clever enough to enjoy astonishing the _bourgeois_, but her
cleverness seldom carried her further. When Wilde was born, she was
twenty-eight and her husband thirty-nine. They were people of
consideration in Dublin. His schoolfellows did not have to ask Wilde who
his father was. It is said, that before Wilde's birth, his mother had
hoped for a girl. He was a second son. His elder brother, William,
became a journalist in London, and died in 1899. He had a sister, Isola,
younger than himself, who died in childhood. Her death suggested the
poem 'Requiescat.' To him, as to De Quincey, a sister brought the idea
of mortality. There are exceptions to that fine rule of Hazlitt's
brother: "No young man believes he shall ever die." De Quincey looking
across his sister's death-bed through an open window on a summer day,
and Wilde, thinking of

     "All her bright golden hair
       Tarnished with rust,
     She that was young and fair
       Fallen to dust,"

felt the fingers of death before their time. Like most of Wilde's early
melodies, his lament is sung to a borrowed lyre, but the thing is so
sweet that it seems ungracious to remember its indebtedness to Hood.[2]

Both Sir William and Lady Wilde busied themselves in collecting
folk-lore. Wilde in boyhood travelled with his father to visit ruins and
gather superstitions. His childhood must have had a plentiful mythology.
Wilde and his brother were not excluded from the extravagant
conversations of their mother's _salon_. Any precocity they showed was
encouraged, if only by that curious atmosphere of agile cleverness.
There are no valuable anecdotes of his childhood, but it is said that
his mother always thought that Oscar was less brilliant than her elder

When he was eleven he was sent to the Portora Royal School at
Enniskillen, where he behaved well, did not particularly distinguish
himself, did not play games, read a great deal, and was very bad at
mathematics. In the holidays he travelled with his mother in France.
Leaving Portora in 1873, he went with a scholarship to Trinity College,
Dublin, where, in 1874, he won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. In
the same year he left Dublin for Oxford, matriculating at Magdalen and
taking a scholarship. In 1876 he took a First Class in Classical
Moderations, always a sufficient proof of sound learning, and, in 1878,
he took a First Class in Literae Humaniores. In 1877 he travelled in
Italy and went to Greece with Professor Mahaffy. This experience had
great influence on his attitude towards art, filled the classical
dictionary with life, and made the figures of mythology so luminous that
he was tempted to overwork them. In 1878 he read the Newdigate Prize
Poem in the Sheldonian Theatre.

On leaving Oxford he brought to London a small income, a determination
to conquer the town, and a reputation as a talker. He took rooms in the
Adelphi. He adopted a fantastic costume to emphasize his personality,
and, perhaps to excuse it, spoke of the ugliness of modern dress. In
three years he had won the recognition of Punch, which, thenceforward,
caricatured him several times a month.

In 1881 he published his first book, a volume of poems, discussed in the
next chapter. Five editions of it were immediately sold. His costume and
identification with the æsthetic movement of that time determined his
selection as a lecturer in America. The promoters of his tour there
were, however, anxious to help not the æsthetic movement but the success
of a play that laughed at it. He went to America in 1882, and again in
1883, on the latter occasion to see the production of _Vera_. On his
return from the first visit he went to Paris, where he finished _The
Duchess of Padua_, which was not published till 1908. In 1891 it was
produced in New York, when twenty copies were printed for the actors and
for private circulation. It is likely that in 1883, while in Paris, he
began _The Sphinx_, upon which he worked at various periods before its
publication in 1894.

Returning to England, he took rooms in Charles Street, Haymarket, and
lectured in the provinces. In 1884 he married Constance Mary Lloyd, who
brought him enough money to enable him to take No. 16 Tite Street,
Chelsea, which was his home until 1895. He wrote for a number of
periodical newspapers, and, for two years, edited The Woman's World.

In 1885 'The Truth of Masks' appeared as 'Shakespeare and Stage Costume'
in The Nineteenth Century. In 1886 he began that course of conduct that
was to lead to his downfall in 1895. In 1887 he published 'Lord Arthur
Savile's Crime,' 'The Canterville Ghost,' 'The Sphinx without a
Secret,' and 'The Model Millionaire,' which were issued together in
1891. In 1888 he published _The Happy Prince and other Tales_. In 1889
'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.' appeared in Blackwood's Magazine. 'Pen,
Pencil and Poison' appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 1889, 'The
Decay of Lying' in The Nineteenth Century in the same year, and 'The
Critic as Artist' in The Nineteenth Century in 1890. _A House of
Pomegranates_ and _Intentions_, in which these three essays were
reprinted with 'The Truth of Masks,' were published in 1891. In the same
year 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' appeared in The Fortnightly
Review. _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ appeared in Lippincott's Magazine
in 1890. The Preface was published separately in The Fortnightly Review
in 1891. He added several chapters, and _The Portrait of Dorian Gray_
was published in book form in 1891. Much of his time was spent in Paris,
and there, before the end of the year, he wrote _Salomé_. In 1892 that
play was prohibited by the Censor when Madame Sarah Bernhardt had begun
to rehearse it for production at the Palace Theatre. It was first
produced in Paris, at the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre, in 1896. _Lady
Windermere's Fan_ was produced on February 20, 1892, by Mr. George
Alexander at the St. James's Theatre. _A Woman of No Importance_ was
produced on April 19, 1893, by Mr. H. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket
Theatre, where, on January 3, 1895, he produced _An Ideal Husband_. On
February 14, 1895, Mr. George Alexander produced _The Importance of
Being Earnest_ at the St. James's.

With the production of these plays Wilde became not only a caricatured
celebrity but a popular success. He lived extravagantly. In 1895 the
applause was turned to execration, when he lost in a prosecution for
criminal libel that he brought against the Marquis of Queensberry, and
was himself arrested on a more serious charge. The jury disagreed, and
he was released on bail, perhaps in the hope that he would leave the
country. He waited the re-trial, was convicted, and sentenced to two
years' imprisonment with hard labour, which sentence he served. Towards
the end of his time in prison he wrote the letter from which _De
Profundis_ (published in 1905) is extracted. After his release he went
to Berneval-sur-mer, near Dieppe, where he began _The Ballad of Reading
Gaol_, which he revised in Naples and Paris, and published
pseudonymously in 1898. He also wrote two letters on prison abuses,
which were published in The Daily Chronicle on May 28, 1897, and March
24, 1898. He lived in Italy, Switzerland and France. He died in Paris on
November 30, 1900. He was buried on December 3 in the Bagneux Cemetery.
On July 20, 1909, his remains were moved to Père Lachaise.



     "Take her up tenderly,
       Lift her with care;
     Fashioned so slenderly,
       Young, and so fair!"



It is a relief to turn from a list of bibliographical and biographical
dates to the May-day colouring of a young man's first book; to forget
for a moment the suffering that is nearly twenty years ahead, and to
think of "undergraduate days at Oxford; days of lyrical ardour and of
studious sonnet-writing; days when one loved the exquisite intricacy and
musical repetitions of the ballade, and the villanelle with its linked
long-drawn echoes and its curious completeness; days when one solemnly
sought to discover the proper temper in which a triolet should be
written; delightful days, in which, I am glad to say, there was far more
rhyme than reason." It is too easy to forget this note in Wilde's
personality, that he sounded again and again, and that was not cracked
even by the terrible experiences whose symbol was imprisonment. To the
end of his life Wilde retained the enthusiasm, the power of self-abandon
to a moment of emotion, the delight in difficult beauty, in accomplished
loveliness, that made his Oxford years so happy a memory, and give his
first book a savour quite independent of its poetical value.

Ballade and villanelle, rondeau and triolet, the names of these French
forms were enough to set the key for a young craftsman's reverie. But
the university at that time was full of lively influences. Walter
Pater's "Renaissance" had not long left the press. Its author, that
grave man, was to be met in his panelled rooms, ready to advise, to
point the way to rare books, and to talk of the secrets of his art.
Pater in those days was a new classic, the private possession of those
young men who found his books "the holy writ of beauty." The new
classics of the generation before--Tennyson and Arnold and Browning--had
not yet faded into that false antiquity that follows swift upon the
heels of popular recognition. The scholar gipsy had not long been given
his place in the mythology of "Oxford riders blithe," and the trees in
Bagley Wood were still a little tremulous at his presence. Browning's
"The Ring and the Book" had been published ten years before. Queen
Victoria's approval of Tennyson may have somewhat marred him in the eyes
of youthful seekers after subtlety, but the early poems offered a
pleasant opportunity for discriminating appreciation. It was not very
long since Swinburne "had set his age on fire by a volume of very
perfect and very poisonous poetry." Morris, the first edition of whose
"Defence of Guenevere," though published in 1857, was not exhausted till
thirteen years later, was a master not yet so widely admired as to deny
to his disciples the delight of a personal and almost daring loyalty.
Rossetti's was a still more powerful influence.

All these factors must be remembered in any attempt to reconstruct the
atmosphere in which Wilde wrote his early poems. Nor must we forget that
when Wilde entered that atmosphere as an undergraduate he had an unusual
training behind him. He had known another university, and carried away
from it a gold medal for Greek. He was an Irishman whose nationality had
been momentarily intensified by his revolutionary mother and his own
name. And, perhaps still more important, he was a very youthful
cosmopolitan, had been often abroad, knew a good deal of French poetry,
and had been able to date one of his earliest poems from that
light-hearted Avignon where the Popes once held their court, and whence
the dancing on the broken bridge has sent a merry song throughout the

It is curious to see this young lover of Théophile Gautier and old
intricate rhyme-forms, winning the Newdigate Prize for a poem in
decasyllabic couplets on a set subject. Many bad and a few good poets
have won that prize, and it constitutes, I suppose, a sort of academic
recognition that a man writes verse. Wilde was always pleased with
recognition, of whatever quality, and was, perhaps, induced to compete
on finding himself curiously favoured by the subject chosen for the
year, which happened to be _Ravenna_. He had visited Ravenna on his way
to Greece in the previous long vacation, and so was equipped with
memories denied to his rivals. He saw the city "across the sedge and
mire," when they could only see her on the map. He knew "the lonely
pillar, rising on the plain" where Gaston de Foix had died. And, in
Italian woods, he had actually watched, hoping to see and hear

     "Some goat-foot Pan make merry minstrelsy
     Amid the reeds! some startled Dryad-maid
     In girlish flight! or lurking in the glade,
     The soft brown limbs, the wanton treacherous face
     Of woodland god!"

The wordy piece of rhetoric that was published after winning him the
prize is enriched by some pictorial effects that are almost effects of
poetry. But the best that can or need be said of the whole is, that it
is an admirable prize poem.

Three years later he published his first book.

_Poems_, bound in white vellum, decorated with gold, and beautifully
printed, contains work done before and after _Ravenna_. The most obvious
quality of this work, and that which is most easily and most often
emphasized, is its richness in imitations. But there is more in it than
that. It is full of variations on other men's music, but they are
variations to which the personality of the virtuoso has given a certain
uniformity. Wilde played the sedulous ape with sufficient
self-consciousness and sufficient failure to show that he might himself
be somebody. His emulative practice of his art asks for a closer
consideration than that usually given to it. Let me borrow an admirable
phrase from M. Remy de Gourmont, and say that a "dissociation of ideas"
is necessary in thinking of imitation. To describe a young poet's work
as derivative is not the same thing as to condemn it. All work is
derivative more or less, and to pour indiscriminate contempt on Wilde's
imitations because they are imitations, is to betray a lamentable
ignorance of the history of poetry. There is no need too seriously to
defend this early work. Wilde's reputation can stand without or even in
spite of it. But it is worth while to notice that the worst it suggests
is that young poets should be very careful to be bad critics, since they
always do ill if they imitate the best contemporary models. They do
better to copy poetasters, whom they must believe to be Miltons. When
Coleridge admires Bowles, makes forty transcriptions from his poems for
distribution among his friends, and imitates him as wholeheartedly as he
can, he will but gain in comparison with his original. There is nothing
in the master strong enough to impose itself upon the pupil. When Keats,
full of admiration, imitates Leigh Hunt, he is not very heavily impeded
in his search for Keats. But when Wilde blows the horn of Morris, an
echo from that Norseman's lungs throws out of harmony the notes of his
disciple. When he touches Rossetti's lute his melody is blurred by the
thrum of the strings that the Italian's fingers have so lately left. In
fifty years' time it will, perhaps, be safe to imitate Swinburne. It is
not so at present.

Even in springing from the ground of prose into the air of song, it is
wise to choose ground that age has worn or that is not itself
remarkable. When Coleridge reads Purchas--

     "In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing
     sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile
     Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfule Streames, and all sorts of
     beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous
     house of  pleasure"----

and rewrites it--

     "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
     A stately pleasure dome decree:
     Where Alph the sacred river ran
     Through caverns measureless to man
           Down to a sunless sea.
     So twice five miles of fertile ground
     With walls and towers were girdled round:
     And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
     Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
     And here were forests ancient as the hills.
     Enfolding sunny spots of greenery"----

he works a true magic, bringing two out of one, and setting beside
Purchas something that we can independently enjoy. Purchas died so long
ago. He and Coleridge have different worlds behind them. But when Wilde
remembers a passage in his favourite book, written not a dozen years
before, and asks why he should not make personal to himself the
description of the manifold life of Mona Lisa, that ends, "all this has
been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes"; when he prefixes two
verses of explanation to a rhymed elaboration of that sentence--

     "But all this crowded life has been to thee
       No more than lyre, or lute, or subtle spell
     Of viols, or the music of the sea
       That sleeps, a mimic echo, in the shell"----

he only puts it out of drawing. It is impossible to avoid a comparison,
because Pater and Wilde are so close together, alike in time and

'Eleutheria,' a section at the beginning of the book, includes a number
of discreet sacrifices on the altar of Milton. Here Wilde does much
better. Some of these exercises, which are among the most interesting he
wrote, suggest a new view of the morale of imitation. With Wilde in this
mood, imitation (to use one of those renewals of popular sayings that
were the playthings of his mind), was the sincerest form of parody. Now
parody is a branch of criticism. The critics of the music-hall stage are
those favourite comedians who imitate their fellow-actors. Lewis Carroll
is a negligible critic neither of Longfellow nor of Tennyson. Parody's
criticism is too often facile, seeking applause by the readiest means,
holding up to ridicule rather than to examination faults rather than
excellences, exaggerating tricks of manner and concerning itself not at
all with personality. Wilde's parodies are at once more valuable and
more sincere. He tries to catch not only the letter but the spirit, and
does indeed present a clearer view of Milton than is contained in many
academic essays. An accusation of mere plagiary is made impossible by
his openness. He writes a sonnet on Milton, a sonnet on Louis Napoleon,
and then, matching even the title of his model, a sonnet on the Massacre
of the Christians in Bulgaria. Let me print the sonnet "On the Late
Massacre in Piedmont":--

     "Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints whose bones
     Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold;
     Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
     When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
     Forget not: in thy book record their groans
     Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
     Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that roll'd
     Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
     The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
     To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
     O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
     The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
     An hundredfold, who having learned thy way
     Early may fly the Babylonian woe."

And then Wilde's:--

     "Christ, dost thou live indeed? or are thy bones
     Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
     And was thy Rising only dreamed by Her
     Whose love of thee for all her sin atones?
     For here the air is horrid with men's groans,
     The priests who call upon thy name are slain,
     Dost thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
     From those whose children lie upon the stones?
     Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
     Curtains the land, and through the starless night
     Over thy Cross a Crescent moon I see!
     If thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
     Come down, O Son of Man! and show thy might,
     Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!"

This is a very different thing from the blind plagiary of those who
cannot see their own way, and are themselves surprised to find that they
have stolen. In their case, mistrust of their own powers is
justifiable. But here, when the young poet, as an exercise--indeed as
more than an exercise--catches the accent of Milton in words that
deliberately set the doubtful faith of our day beside the noble
assurance of the Puritans, and show by implication what that absolute
belief meant to Milton, we are in the presence not of flattery, but of
criticism, of exact appreciation. On the next page is the sonnet
'Quantum Mutata,' with the lines:--

     "Witness the men of Piedmont, chiefest care
       Of Cromwell, when with impotent despair
     The Pontiff in his painted portico
       Trembled before our stern ambassadors";

and the suggestion, certainly not personal to Wilde, but chosen for its
fitness to the poet of whom he is thinking--

                         "that Luxury
     With barren merchandise piles up the gate
     Where noble thoughts and deeds should enter by:
       Else might we still be Milton's heritors."

If we were to take this view of the character of Wilde's imitations it
would be an easy task to run through most of the book, showing how
carefully he acknowledges his indebtedness to Arnold, to Swinburne, to
Morris, much as a creative critic like Walter Pater courteously sets the
name of Pico della Mirandola, or of Sir Thomas Browne, at the head of a
piece of his own writing of which they have been less the occasion than
the chosen keynote. But there is no need.

It is more important to the student of Wilde to notice that the book had
a popular success, and a success in no way due to any praise from the
contemporary critics who, naturally enough, were unable to consider
_Poems_ as the first book of a great man, could not review it in the
light of his later writings, and attacked it wholeheartedly, perhaps
because they were flattered by the ease with which they detected its
openly-acknowledged borrowings. Five editions were sold immediately, and
this not very trustworthy success increased or confirmed Wilde's
confidence in himself. The readiness of the public to throw their
opinion in the critics' teeth was partly due, I think, to precisely
those qualities for which the book was attacked. Much of this unusual
eagerness of ordinary people to buy poetry, a commodity that they seldom
think worth money, may be attributed to the curiosity which Wilde had
contrived to stimulate by carefully calculated eccentricity. But such
curiosity would be more easily satisfied by the sight of the man than by
the reading of his poems. It is hardly enough to explain the sale of
five editions of a book of verse. I think we may look for another reason
of the book's popularity in the fact that Wilde, so far from inventing
a new poetry, happened to summarize in himself the poetry of his time.
He made himself, as it were, the representative poet of his period, a
middleman between the muses and the public. People who had heard of
Rossetti and Swinburne, but never read them, were able to recover their
self-respect by purchasing Wilde.

And this leads us back to the book. All the defects of this young man's
verse became qualities that contributed to its popular success. It was
imitative: it summed up a period of poetry. It was overweighted with
allusion: nothing could be more poetical in the ears of readers not
trained by an austere Bowyer to a distrust of Pierian springs, lutes,
lyres, Pegasus, and Hippocrene.

     "In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming Harp? Harp? Lyre?
     Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse. Your nurse's daughter,
     you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister pump, I suppose."
     (Coleridge on Bowyer, in the "Biographia Literaria.")

The presence in verse of certain names of places and persons has come to
be taken as implicit evidence of poetry. Where Venus is, there must
poetry be; Helicon, Narcissus, Endymion (after Keats), and a score of
others have become a sort of poetical counters that careless eyes do not
distinguish from the sterling coin. Wilde makes full use of them, and,
perhaps, trusting to the capital letters to carry them through,
frequently decorates his verse with names of similar character not yet
so hackneyed as to be immediately recognized as poetry. This kind of
allusion flatters the reader's learning. Sometimes he brings colour into
his verse by the use of a reference that must be unintelligible to a
large part of his audience, and seems quite irrelevant to those who take
the trouble to follow it, and have not the good fortune to hit upon the
correct clue. For example, in 'The New Helen':--

     "Alas, alas, thou wilt not tarry here,
       But, like that bird, the servant of the sun,
         Who flies before the north wind and the night,
     So wilt thou fly our evil land and drear,
         Back to the tower of thine old delight,
       And the red lips of young Euphorion."

Now that, though not poetry, is a pleasant piece of colour. But, leaving
aside the question of the bird, the servant of the sun, itself not easy
to resolve, young Euphorion, who has served Wilde's verse well enough in
having scarlet lips, is more than a little puzzling. Wilde probably
remembers Part II of Goethe's "Faust." Achilles and Helen are said, as
ghosts, to have had a child called Euphorion, but Goethe makes him the
son of Faust and Helen, named in the legend Justus Faust. He leaps from
earth when "scarcely called to life," and "out of the deep" invites his
mother to follow him not to any "tower of old delight," but to "the
gloomy realm." The reference is wilful, but Euphorion is a wonderful

Sometimes, indeed, the verse gains nothing from such allusion. For
example, in the same poem:--

     "Nay, thou wert hidden in that hollow hill
       With one who is forgotten utterly,
      _That discrowned Queen men call the Erycine_."

This is simply learning put in for its own sake by the young scholar
delighting in his knowledge of antiquity. The line that I have printed
in italics is no more than a riddle whose answer is Venus, sometimes
called Erycina (Erycina ridens) because she had a temple on Mount Eryx.
Wilde means that Helen was hidden with the spirit of beauty (Venus) now
shamefully neglected. He delighted in such riddles and disguised
references, and they certainly helped his less cultured readers to feel
that in reading him they were intimate with more poetry than they had
read. In 'The Burden of Itys,' to take a last example, he says,
addressing the nightingale:--

     "Light-winged and bright-eyed miracle of the wood!
       If ever thou didst soothe with melody
     One of that little clan, that brotherhood
       Which loved the morning-star of Tuscany
     More than the perfect sun of Raphael
       And is immortal, sing to me! for I too love thee well."

Sir Piercie Shafton might choose such a method of referring to the
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Indeed, so far does Wilde carry his
ingenuity that we are reminded of the defects of that school of verse
that Johnson called the metaphysical, whose virtues are too generally
forgotten. He hears the wind in the trees as Palæstrina playing the
organ in Santa Maria on Easter Day. With half an echo of Browning he
describes a pike as "some mitred old bishop _in partibus_," and, with a
true seventeenth-century conceit, speaks of the early rose as "that
sweet repentance of the thorny briar."

This ready-made or artificial poetry lacked, however, the firm
intellectual substructure that could have infused into ornament and
elaboration the vitalizing breath of unity. Wilde was uncertain of
himself, and, in each one of the longer poems, rambled on, gathering
flowers that would have seemed better worth having if he had not had so
many of them. Doubtful of his aim in individual poems, he was doubtful
of his inclinations as a poet. Nothing could more clearly illustrate
this long wavering of his mind than a list of the poets whom he admired
sufficiently to imitate. I have mentioned Morris, Swinburne, Arnold, and
Rossetti; but these are not enough. In swift caprice he rifled a score
of orchards. He very honestly confesses in 'Amor Intellectualis' that
he had often "trod the vales of Castaly," sailed the sea "which the nine
Muses hold in empery," and never turned home unladen.

     "Of which despoilèd treasures these remain,
       Sordello's passion, and the honeyed line
     Of young Endymion, lordly Tamburlaine
       Driving his pampered jades, and more than these
     The seven-fold vision of the Florentine,
       And grave-browed Milton's solemn harmonies."

Milton, Dante, Marlowe, Keats, and Browning, with those I have already
named, and others, make up a goodly list of sufferers by this
lighthearted corsair's piracies. He built with their help a brilliant
coloured book, full of ingenuity, a boy's criticism of the objects of
his admiration, almost a rhymed dictionary of mythology, whose
incongruity is made apparent by those poems in which, leaving his
classics passionately aside, he went, like a scholar gipsy, to seek a
new accomplishment in the simplicity of folk-song.

Wilde's reputation as a poet does not rest on this first book, but on
half a dozen poems that include 'The Harlot's House,' 'A Symphony in
Yellow,' 'The Sphinx' and 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol,' and alone are
worthy of a place beside his work in prose. But, though poetry is rare
in it, it will presently be recognized that the first books of few men
are so rich in autobiography. We have seen that the book is an index to
his reading: let us see now how many indications it gives us of his

Threaded through the book, between the longer poems, runs an itinerary
of his travels in Italy and Greece, written by a young man very
conscious of being a poet, and keenly sensible of what it was fitting he
should feel. In Italy, for example, he thought that he owed himself a
conversion to the Catholic faith:--

     "Before yon field of trembling gold
       Is garnered into dusty sheaves,
       Or ere the autumn's scarlet leaves
     Flutter as birds adown the wold,

     I may have run the glorious race,
       And caught the torch while yet aflame,
       And called upon the holy name
     Of Him who now doth hide his face."

He wrote almost as a Catholic might write, and spoke of the Pope as "the
prisoned shepherd of the Church of God." But later, when

     "The silver trumpets ran across the Dome:
       The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
       And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
     Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome,"

he turned, as a Puritan might have turned, from the emblem,
triple-crowned, and clothed in red and white, of Christ's sovereignty,
to remember a passage in the gospels: "Foxes have holes, and birds of
the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head."

He had a Calvinistic, half-shocked and half-exultant vision of his own
iniquity, this undergraduate of twenty-three:--

     "My heart is as some famine-murdered land
       Whence all good things have perished utterly,
       And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
     If I this night before God's throne should stand."

Yet he took hope:--

     "My nets gaped wide with many a break and flaw,
       Nathless I threw them as my final cast
       Into the sea, and waited for the end.
     When lo! a sudden glory! and I saw
       From the black waters of my tortured past
       The argent splendour of white limbs ascend!"

He had, in short, a religious experience, such as is known by most young
men. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was disturbed,
delightfully disturbed, by feeling that a religious experience was
possible to him. He went on to Greece, and, remembering Plato, forgot
the half-hoped, half-feared sensation of a wholly voluntary repose in

He returned to Oxford, to win the Newdigate Prize in the next year, and
to remember, with something of a girl's adventurous regret for a lover
whom she has rejected, his Italian emotion. All this is written down in
'The Burden of Itys':--

     "This English Thames is holier far than Rome,
       Those harebells like a sudden flush of sea
     Breaking across the woodland, with the foam
       Of meadow-sweet and white anemone
     To fleck their blue waves,--God is likelier there
     Than hidden in that crystal-hearted star the pale monks bear";

and, in a later stanza:--

                   "strange, a year ago
       I knelt before some crimson Cardinal
     Who bare the Host across the Esquiline,
     And now--those common poppies in the wheat seem twice as fine."

'Panthea,' in language that suggests that he is looking for approval
from the eyes of Swinburne, describes his substitute for that refused
conversion. It is the creed of a young poet who finds the gods asleep,
and does not care, because of Darwin, Evolution, and the Law of the
Conservation of Energy.

     "With beat of systole and of diastole
       One grand great life throbs through earth's giant heart,
     And mighty waves of single Being roll
       From nerveless germ to man, for we are part
     Of every rock and bird and beast and hill,
     One with the things that prey on us, and one with what we kill."


     "From lower cells of waking life we pass
       To full perfection; thus the world grows old:"


     "This hot hard flame with which our bodies burn
       Will make some meadow blaze with daffodil,
     Ay! and those argent breasts of thine will turn
       To water-lilies; the brown fields men till
     Will be more fruitful for our love to-night,
     Nothing is lost in Nature, all things live in Death's despite."

It is boy's thought, as serious as the sentimental dreaming of a girl.
There is no need to laugh at either. No young girl ever yet made a great
poem out of her inexperience, nor has any young man turned to great art
his hurried reading of the universe. But few great men have been without
such thoughts in youth, and the noblest women can remember girlish
dreams of an incredible unreality.

After taking his degree Wilde left Oxford and came to London to build up
that phantom of himself that helped to advertise him, and, at the same
time, to make his progress difficult. He dedicates a sonnet to 'My
Friend Henry Irving,' another to Sarah Bernhardt, and two to Ellen
Terry, 'Written at the Lyceum Theatre.' We have an impression of the
young man, more elaborately dressed than he can afford, paying
extravagant, delightful compliments, and quickly gaining the sort of
reputation that was given to gallants of an older time, who knew actors,
and had their seats on the stage.

Finally, and certainly most important in his own eyes, the book contains
a record of the love affair which, in a sense, balanced the abortive
religious experience. He fell in love with an actress, who found him
quite delightful, did not love him, let him love her for a summer, and
then told him not to waste his time. Wilde, as a young poet, probably
came to town prepared to fall in love, just as he had gone to Italy
prepared to be converted to Catholicism. His actress may have recognized
that this was so, and been ready, within reason, to play the part
assigned her. Through Wilde's magnificent phrasing there appears a
replica of the love affairs of how many boys with women wiser than
themselves and not without a sense of humour.

     "Ah! hadst thou liked me less and loved me more,
       Through all these summer days of joy and rain,
     I had not now been sorrow's heritor,
       Or stood a lackey in the House of Pain."

But he had not to grumble: he had been able to love her learnedly in
sonnets and gallantly in serenades. He had--

     "Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
       The Love which moves the Sun and all the Stars!"

That was really all that he had needed, but an awakening critical
faculty told him that he won more pain than poetry.

     "Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made
       them bleed,
     You had walked with Bice and the angels on that verdant and
       enamelled mead."

He was disappointed, but the fault was not his, not his lady's, but due
only to impatience. He who wills to love has rhetoric in his feeling,
and, though he wrote--

     "I have made my choice, have lived my poems, and, though youth is
       gone in wasted days,
     I have found the lover's crown of myrtle better than the poet's
       crown of bays,"

we cannot help thinking that we know better.

The book is the monument of Wilde's boyhood, and contains its history.
Perhaps that, though it may save it from oblivion, is the reason of its
failure. It is too immediate an attempt to translate life into
literature. Sometimes it even suggests that there has been an attempt to
make life simply for the purpose of transcribing it. Wilde disguised it
in elaboration, but it wears the mask with an ingenuous awkwardness. It
is so youthful. Indeed, the youth of the book is its justification, and
helps it to throw a flickering light upon his later work. For Wilde
never entirely lost his boyhood, and died, as he had mostly lived,
young. Five years after the publication of _Poems_ he wrote a letter in
which, catching exactly the mood of his undergraduate days of ten years
before, he said that he wished he could grave his sonnets on an ivory
tablet, since sonnets should always look well. That is the precise
sentiment of those who seek "to discover the proper temper in which a
triolet should be written." It was his whenever he wished. But, though
he could recapture the mood, and assume again the attitude, he did not
allow himself to imitate the work that mood and attitude had produced.
In that white vellum volume were harvested all the wild oats of the
intellect that he did not leave to later gleaners. He was free
thenceforth, and seldom again, until the magnificent confession _De
Profundis_, did he allow his experiences the use of the first person.[3]
He had done with the crude subjectivity of boyhood, whose capital "I"
seems so unreal beside the complete fusions of soul and body, manner and
material, that Art demands and that he was later to achieve.


[3] Except, of course, in the lectures. We must remember their
occasion, and that it never occurred to him to reprint them or count
them among his works.



"I never object," said Coleridge, "to a certain degree of
disputatiousness in a young man from the age of seventeen to that of
four or five and twenty, provided I find him always arguing on one side
of the question." Coleridge would seem to reserve legitimate dispute for
the very young, did we not remember that academic education began and
ended earlier in his day. Boys went to college at seventeen. I do not
think he would have objected to the disputatiousness of Wilde, although
he was well over twenty-five before he left the noisy field of argument,
if, indeed, he left it at all. Wilde, at least, would have pleased
Coleridge by arguing always on one side of the question, though it is
possible that Coleridge would not have recognized that that side was his
own. At Oxford, Wilde had already begun to count himself, if not an
inventor, at least an exponent of the æsthetic theories of life that
were then disturbing with fitful movements the stagnant surface of
British Philistinism. He did not plan a Pantisocracy, and would have
turned with fright from Coleridge's sturdy proposal to harden the bodies
of those accustomed to intellectual and sedentary labour until they were
fitted to share in the tilling of the soil. But he was discontented with
life as it was commonly lived, and had learnt to hope that it might be
beautified by being set among beautiful things. He had expressed a wish
that he could "live up to his blue china." His rooms in Magdalen,
panelled and hung with engravings chosen for their difference from the
pictures commonly affected, had been a centre of debate. His attitude
had caused discussion and public protest, for he rode but did not hunt,
did not play cricket, watched boat-races but did not go on the river,
and only once showed much physical activity, when he wheeled Ruskin's
barrow during the famous expedition of undergraduate navvies to make a
road on Hinksey Marsh.[4]

We shall, perhaps, be better able to understand the first period of
Wilde's public prominence, if we examine the origins of the movement of
which, by accident and inclination, he became the accepted protagonist.
Continental critics have noticed in his writings theories so closely
analogous to those of the French Symbolists that they find it difficult
not to believe that he was a disciple of that school, and, as it were,
an English representative of Mallarmé's salon in the Rue de Rome. It is
true that, like the Symbolists, he sought intensity in art, and emphasis
of its potential at the expense of its kinetic qualities. But in this he
was English as well as French. Later in his life he was influenced by
Maeterlinck and by Huysmans, but, while he was at Oxford and for some
time after, he found his rules of art and life in the teaching of the
Pre-Raphaelites. That teaching represents a movement in the same
direction as the Symbolists, but a movement which, unlike the French,
came to be identified with a desire to bring ordinary life into harmony
with the intensity it demanded from art.

It is worth while to gain a clear perspective by discovering the
relation between such men as Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Ruskin,
and the cult of knee-breeches and chrysanthemums with which Punch and
"Patience" identified Wilde. This cult was not a sudden sporadic
flowering of strange blooms in the frail hands of a few undergraduates.
It had its origin in 1848, when the members of the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood founded The Germ, an extraordinarily earnest little monthly
magazine, in which appeared Rossetti's "Blessed Damozel," and etchings
by Holman Hunt and Madox Brown. Perhaps, indeed, it had an earlier
origin in the poetry of Keats, whose pure devotion to art for art's sake
foreshadowed the feeling of the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren, or in the
poetry of Blake, who, like them, emphasized the difference between the
Sons of David and the Philistines. But, if we go back so far, we must go
further and find still deeper roots for it in the great figures of the
Romantic Movement, in the figures who made that movement possible, in
Goethe, in Rousseau, in Ossian, in Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English
Poetry." Wilde, at least, saw back thus far into his spiritual ancestry.
But, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Pre-Raphaelites,
refusing the abstract art whose beginnings are marked by the technical
skill of Raphael, finding in early Italian painting, whose spirit was
less hidden by clear and insistent letter, a vivifying principle, stood,
not only for a new kind of painting, but for a new attitude towards art
in general, and then for a new attitude towards life. They were
attacked, and Ruskin, who thought they were trying to realize a prophecy
of his own, came to aid them with eloquent defence. Their pictures were
sold but seldom exhibited, so that a kind of separateness, almost a
secrecy, came to belong to their admirers. The public in general looked
upon them as something aloof and mad. It happened, perhaps through the
accident of Miss Siddal and Mrs. William Morris so frequently sitting as
their models, perhaps because the ladies exemplified what was already
their ideal, that there came into many paintings what is best known as
the Pre-Raphaelite woman, long-necked, and pomegranate lipped. Nature,
as Wilde was never tired of insisting, is assiduous in her imitation of
art, and, when Sir Coutts Lindsay opened the Grosvenor Gallery for the
benefit of these artists and their admirers, there were, beside those on
the walls, a sufficient number of Pre-Raphaelite portraits walking about
in the flesh to justify the curiosity and amusement of the crowd. A
play, "The Colonel," of no great value, and the wholly delightful
"Patience," a comic opera by Gilbert with music by Sullivan, brought the
"green and yallery" gowns of the "Grosvenor Gallery" elect, with their
poets and flowers and feelings towards the intenser life, into a
charming masquerade. "Patience" was played at the Savoy with great
success. Mr. D'Oyly Carte, attempting to repeat this success in America,
perceived that Americans, being without a Grosvenor Gallery, missed much
of the humour of the play, and conceived the Napoleonic scheme of
sending over a specimen æsthete to show what "Patience" was laughing at.
This somewhat ignominious position was, with due diplomacy, offered to
Oscar Wilde, on account of his extravagance in dress,[5] and proudly
accepted by him on the wilful supposition that it was a fitting tribute
to his recently published _Poems_. That is how it came about that on
December 24, 1881, Wilde sailed for New York, to say that he was
disappointed in the Atlantic, to tell the Customs Officials that he had
nothing to declare except his genius, and to lecture throughout America
on "The English Renaissance of Art," "House Decoration," and "Art and
the Handicraftsman."

Youth and vanity helped to blind him to the rather humiliating reason of
his lecturing. He wanted the money, but was able to persuade himself
that he had really been chosen to represent the æsthetic movement to the
American people on account of his book of poems, and that, in any case,
he wanted to go to America to have _Vera_, a worthless melodrama he had
just written, put upon the stage. With his happy power of dramatizing
his position, a power he shared with Beau Brummel and picturesque
adventurers of lesser genius, he saw himself, almost immediately, as a
sort of combination of William Morris and John Ruskin, gifted more than
they with wit, beauty, and youth. He spoke of himself visiting the South
Kensington Museum on Saturday nights, "to see the handicraftsman, the
wood-worker, the glass-blower, and the worker in metals." He inspected
art-schools, and carried away, to show his audiences, brass dishes
beaten by little boys, and wooden bowls painted by little girls. He
began to take himself more and more seriously--no doubt Punch's
caricatures had helped him, and he was alone in America, far from the
facts--and was able to tell his listeners "how it first came to me at
all to create an artistic movement in England, a movement to show the
rich what beautiful things they might enjoy and the poor what beautiful
things they might create." By this time I have no doubt that he believed
with perfect good faith that the æsthetic movement was the work and aim
of his life. Only occasionally did he remember that he was living up to
"Patience." "You have listened to 'Patience' for a hundred nights," he
said, "and you have heard me for one only. It will make, no doubt, that
satire more piquant by knowing something about the subject of it, but
you must not judge of æstheticism by the satire of Mr. Gilbert." Once,
indeed, he allowed himself to remind his audience of the extravagances
at which that opera laughed, but then it was only to defend them with
all the solemnity of an apostle. "You have heard, I think, a few of you,
of two flowers connected with the æsthetic movement in England, and said
(I assure you, erroneously) to be the food of some æsthetic young men.
Well, let me tell you that the reason we love the lily and the
sunflower, in spite of what Mr. Gilbert may tell you, is not for any
vegetable fashion at all. It is because these two lovely flowers are in
England the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally
adapted for decorative art--the gaudy leonine beauty of the one and the
precious loveliness of the other giving to the artist the most entire
and perfect joy." This seems insufferable now, and probably was so then,
but it is a proof of the perfection with which Wilde played the part his
stage-manager had assigned him.

There is much that is charming in the lectures, together with much that
is ridiculous, and some of the charm is in the folly. It is a very young
knight who fights with a lily on his helmet and a sunflower tied to his
spear-point. He has not perceived that the battle is at all difficult.
He does not try with slow argument to undermine the enemy's position,
but only says, quite cheerfully, that he would like to win. "When I was
at Leadville and reflected that all the shining silver that I saw
coming from the mines would be made into ugly dollars, it made me sad.
It should be made into something more permanent. The golden gates at
Florence are as beautiful to-day as when Michael Angelo saw them." He
does not ever come to blows, but only says how ready he is for battle.
"I have no respect," he quotes from Keats, "for the public, nor for
anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the memory of great men and
the principle of Beauty." And he shows that the great men are on his
side. In one lecture alone he appeals to Goethe, Rousseau, Scott,
Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Homer, Dante, Morris, Keats, Chaucer,
Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ruskin, Swinburne, Tennyson,
Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Edgar Allan Poe, Phidias, Michael
Angelo, Sophocles, Milton, Fra Angelico, Rubens, Leopardi, Titian,
Giorgione, Hugo, Balzac, Shakespeare, Mazzini, Petrarch, Baudelaire,
Theocritus, and Gautier.

Indeed, his relation to the æsthetic movement of 1880 is not unlike that
of Gautier to the Romantic movement of 1830. Gautier, like Wilde, was
born into an army already on the march, and became its most violent
champion and exemplar. Gautier's crimson waistcoat balances Wilde's
knee-breeches. It would be possible to carry the comparison further, and
to find in _Dorian Gray_ a parallel to "Mademoiselle de Maupin." An
identical spirit presided over the writing of both these books. And it
would be easy to find in Wilde, at any rate before his release from
prison, an aloofness from ordinary life not at all unlike that of the
man who exclaimed, "Je suis un homme des temps homériques;--le monde où
je vis n'est pas le mien, et je ne comprends rien à la société qui
m'entoure." I can imagine Gautier lecturing Americans in just such a
manner as Wilde's, and forgetting, but for his loyalty to Hugo, that he
had not invented Romanticism.

Wilde's lectures must have amused if they did not edify America. He
urged the miners to retain their high boots, their blouses, their
sombreros, when, with wealth in their pockets, they should return to the
abomination of civilization. Surprised audiences in the towns heard him
speak seriously of the stolid ugliness of the horse-hair sofa, and still
more seriously of stoves decorated with funeral urns in cast iron. He
begged them to realize the importance of a definite scheme of colour in
their rooms, and to use other kinds of jugs than one. In his
independence of the quarrels of his elders, he talked to them as Ruskin
might have talked, of the craftsman and his place in life, and, at the
same time, praised the Peacock Room and the room in blue and yellow
designed by that American whom Ruskin had accused of throwing a pot of
paint in the public's face. On one or two occasions Americans were rude
to him. But he spoke with such courtesy and such obvious benevolence
that more often they were content to pay their dollars, listen to him
attentively, stare at him curiously, and then go to see "Patience."

Wilde took their dollars, left the propagation of beautiful furniture
behind him, and went to Paris. He was tired of prophecy and ready to
take a new part in a new play. He had

     "... touched the tender stops of various quills,
     With eager thought warbling his Doric lay,"

and now, seeking the fresh woods of the Bois, and the new pastures of
the Champs Élysées, he "twitched his mantle" and threw it away, and with
it sunflower, lily, and knee-breeches, preferring a change of costume
with his change of part. He dressed now as a man of fashion, a dandy,
but not an æsthete. He even cut his hair. But the reputation he had made
swelled before him. He came to Paris, after his lecturing, in 1883, but,
as late as 1891, for those who had not seen him, Wilde "n'était encore
que celui qui fumait des cigarettes à bout d'or et qui se promenait dans
les rues une fleur de tournesol à la main." He may even have encouraged
this reputation. Stuart Merrill, writing in La Plume, said: "Certains
cochers de hansom affirment même l'avoir vu se promener, vers l'heure
des chats et des poètes, avec un lys enorme à la main. Oscar Wilde
récuse comme à regret leur témoignage en répondant que la légende est
souvent plus vraie que la réalité." But in 1883 Wilde had had a surfeit
of lilies and sunflowers, and came to Paris as a poet, fashionably
dressed, with a number of white vellum volumes of verse to distribute
among those whose acquaintance he wished to secure.

He took rooms at the Hôtel Voltaire, and saw most of the better known
people of the day. But, as always, he was not content to leave a part
half played. He was in Paris as a poet, and, if he was ready to receive
the poet's reward of admiration and homage, he was determined also to
earn it, to write poetry, and not to rest on what he had already
written. He was, at this time, impressed as much by Balzac's power of
work as by his genius, and his biographer tells us that, with a view to
imitating it, he wore, while working, a white robe with a hood, like the
dressing-gown in which Balzac sat up at night, drinking coffee and
creating his fiery world. He also walked out with an ivory stick, set
with turquoises, like the stick that pleased Balzac because it set the
town talking. At a later time he sought a similar adventitious aid to
industry in buying Carlyle's writing table. He felt, like Balzac, that
the special paraphernalia of work was likely to induce the proper
spirit. In these circumstances, in the Hôtel Voltaire, he finished _The
Duchess of Padua_, and possibly either wrote or re-wrote _The Sphinx_.

_The Duchess of Padua_ is a play on the Elizabethan model of dark and
bloody tragedy. It is a sombre spectacle, marred by a constantly
shifting perspective. The folds of tragedy's cloak fall over an angular
figure, a little stiff in the joints, and the verse has the effect of
voluntary draping. It is the performance of a young man who has not yet
achieved the knowledge of the stage that was later to be his; the
performance of a young man who has not yet achieved a knowledge of
himself. It is better built than _Vera_ and more interesting, but it has
the faults of the 1881 volume of _Poems_, without the same excuse of
eager imitation and criticism. Here and there are lines of poetry that
seem now afraid and now defiant of the progress of the play. The poet
changes faces too often. He has all the Elizabethans at his back, and
writes like the young Shakespeare on one page, and on the next like
Shakespeare grown mature. His predilections are now for simplicity and
now for such overworked conceits as this:--

     "GUIDO.               Oh, how I love you!
       See, I must steal the cuckoo's voice, and tell
       This one tale over.

     DUCHESS.              Tell no other tale!
       For, if that is the little cuckoo's song,
       The nightingale is hoarse, and the loud lark
       Has lost its music."

Wilde's weakness of grip on himself and his play is shown by the quite
purposeless inclusion of cumbersome, would-be-Shakespearian comic

     "THIRD CITIZEN. What think you of this young man who stuck the
     knife into the Duke?

     SECOND CITIZEN. Why, that he is a well-behaved, and a well-meaning,
     and a well-favoured lad, and yet wicked in that he killed the Duke.

     THIRD CITIZEN. 'Twas the first time he did it: maybe the law will
     not be hard on him, as he did not do it before."

That is a specimen very favourable to the play, which contains yet
duller jokes. It is hard to believe that the same man who wrote them was
also the author of _Intentions_ and the inventor of Bunbury. But there
is no need to linger over _The Duchess of Padua_, which, though it has
moments of obscure power, Wilde did not, in later years, consider worthy
of himself.

There is some doubt as to the date of composition of _The Sphinx_. A
line and a half in it--

                               "I have hardly seen
     Some twenty summers cast their green for Autumn's gaudy liveries"--

not only suggest extreme youth in the writer, but occur in _Ravenna_.
Mr. Stuart Mason, in his admirable "Bibliography to the Poems of Oscar
Wilde," says that "altogether some dozen passages of _Ravenna_ are taken
more or less verbatim from poems published before 1878, while no
instance is found of lines in the Newdigate Prize Poem being repeated in
poems admittedly of later date, and this," he thinks, "seems fairly
strong proof that the lines in _The Sphinx_ (if not the whole poem)
antedate _Ravenna_." Mr. Ross says that Wilde told him the poem was
written at the Hôtel Voltaire during an earlier visit in 1874. This
statement, he thinks, was an example of the poetic license in which
Wilde, like Shelley and other men of genius, was willing to indulge. Mr.
Sherard says positively that Wilde wrote _The Sphinx_ in 1883 at the
Hôtel Voltaire. There seems to be no real reason why Wilde should not
have borrowed from _Ravenna_ on this, even if he did so on no other
occasion. He was always ready to seem younger than he was, and always
ready to use again a phrase that had pleased him, no matter where he had
used it before. In _The Duchess of Padua_, about whose date there is no
question, he even went so far as to use two lines from a sonnet that he
had previously addressed to Ellen Terry, and published in _Poems_:--

     "O hair of gold, O crimson lips, O face
     Made for the luring and the love of man!"

There is much in the poem itself that inclines me to trust Mr. Sherard's
memory of its date.

It is work more personal to Wilde than anything in _Poems_. The firm
mastery of its technique would, indeed, be overwhelming proof that it
was written after _The Duchess of Padua_ if it were not known that Wilde
spent some time in revising it in 1889. But revision cannot alter the
whole texture of a poem, and _The Sphinx_ is full of those decorative
effects that are rare in his very early work and give to much of his
matured writing its most noticeable quality. No one has suggested that
it was written later than 1883, so that we must explain the
extraordinary advance that it shows on _The Duchess of Padua_ as one of
those curious phenomena known to most artists: it often happens that,
in turning from one kind of work to another, as from dramatic writing
to poetry, men come quite suddenly on what seem to be revised and better
editions of themselves.

The kinetic base, the obvious framework, of _The Sphinx_ is an
apostrophe addressed by a student to a Sphinx that lies in his room,
perhaps a dream, perhaps a paperweight, an apostrophe that consists in
the enumeration of her possible lovers, and the final selection of one
of them as her supposed choice. It is a series rather than a whole,
though an effect of form and cumulative weight is given to it by a
carefully preserved monotony. In a firm, lava-like verse, the Sphinx's
paramours are stiffened to a bas-relief. The water-horse, the griffon,
the hawk-faced god, the mighty limbs of Ammon, are formed into a frieze
of reverie; they do not collaborate in a picture, but are left behind as
the dream goes on. It goes on, perhaps, just a little too long. So do
some of the finest rituals; and _The Sphinx_ is among the rare
incantations in our language. It is a piece of black magic. Of the
student who saw such things men might well say:--

     "Weave a circle round him thrice,
     And close your eyes with holy dread,"

but they could never continue:--

     "For he on honey-dew hath fed,"

and, with whatever milk he had been nourished, they would be certain
that it was not that of Paradise.

     "Dawn follows Dawn and Nights grow old, and all the while this
       curious cat
     Lies crouching on the Chinese mat with eyes of satin rimmed with

To paint the visions she inspires, Wilde ransacks the world for
magnificent colouring. He does not always secure magnificence in the
noblest way, but is satisfied with an opulence, rather of things than of
emotion, brought bodily into the verse and not suggested by the proud
stepping of the mind. Cleopatra's wine, ivory-bodied Antinous, the
crocodile with jewelled ears, metal-flanked gryphons, gilt-scaled

     "Some Nereid coiled in amber foam with curious rock-crystal breasts,"

the Ethiopian, "whose body was of polished jet," Pasht "who had green
beryls for her eyes," Horus,

     "Whose wings, like strange transparent talc, rose high above his
       hawk-faced head,
     Painted with silver and with red and ribbed with rods of Oreichalch,"

the marble limbs of Ammon, "on pearl and porphyry pedestalled," an ocean
emerald on his ivory breast--

     "The merchants brought him steatite from Sidon in their painted
     The meanest cup that touched his lips was fashioned from a

the lion's "long flanks of polished brass," the tiger's "amber
sides":--I think it is worth while to notice the mineral character of
all this imagery. It is as if a man were finding solace for his feverish
hands in the touch of cool hard stones, and at the same time,
stimulating his fever by the sexual excitement of contrast between the
over-sensitive and the utterly insensible.

Wilde had but a short respite from the trouble of keeping up a
reputation and an income. The American dollars were soon spent, and he
had to bring to an end his Balzacian industry, and the delightful
business of being a poet in Paris. He returned to London, where he took
rooms in Charles Street, Haymarket. He had to earn a livelihood, and
poverty and his own extravagance compelled him to do that which he most
disliked, to take up again a pose whose fascination he had exhausted. He
signed an agreement with a lecture agency, and toured through the
English provinces, repeating, as cheerfully as he could, the lectures he
had given in America.


     Both before and after his American lecturing tour Wilde was one of
     the frequenters of Whistler's studio in Chelsea. He had an
     unbounded admiration for this painter, whose conversation was no
     less vivid than his work, and Whistler's attitude towards him was
     not so cavalier as that he adopted to others among his admirers.
     Wilde, in spite of his youth, had a reputation, and shared with
     Whistler the applause of any company in which they were together.
     In 1883, when Wilde was to lecture to the Academy Students, he
     asked Whistler what he should say to them. Whistler sketched a
     lecture for him, and Wilde used parts of it with success and repaid
     him by a tremendous compliment. Two years later Whistler himself
     lectured, and, for his "Ten O'Clock," re-appropriated some of the
     material he had suggested to his friend. That is the origin of the
     accusation, so often made, that Wilde built a reputation on
     borrowed bons mots. In the "Ten O'Clock," Whistler, annoyed by
     Wilde's lecturing on art, as he would have been by the lecturing of
     any other man who was not himself a painter, held a veiled figure
     of him up to ridicule, and threw a stone from a frail house in
     jeering at his knee-breeches. "Costume is not dress. And the
     wearers of wardrobes may not be doctors of taste ..." Wilde
     smilingly replied. Whistler feinted. Wilde parried. Whistler
     thrust:--"What has Oscar in common with Art except that he dines at
     our tables and picks from our platters the plums for the pudding
     that he peddles in the provinces? Oscar--the amiable,
     irresponsible, esurient Oscar--with no more sense of a picture than
     he has of the fit of a coat--has the courage of the opinions ... of
     others!" Wilde answered that "with our James vulgarity begins at
     home and should be allowed to stay there," and with that their
     friendship was buried, like the hatchet, "in the side of the
     enemy." Two years later, Wilde, with an indifference amusing in any
     case and delightful if it was conscious, roused further protest by
     using in "The Decay of Lying" the phrase, "the courage of the
     opinions of others," that had been the sting of Whistler's
     reproach. The letters on both sides may be read in "The Gentle Art
     of Making Enemies." The whole story only makes it clear that Wilde
     was better able to appreciate Whistler than Whistler to appreciate
     a younger man, whose talent, no less brilliant, was entirely
     different from his own. As Mr. Ross has pointed out, all Wilde's
     best work was written after their friendship ceased.


[4] "The Æsthetic Movement in England," by Walter Hamilton.

[5] He wore at this time a velvet _béret_ on his head, his
shirts turned back with lace over his sleeves, puce velveteen
knickerbockers with buckles, and black silk stockings.



On May 29, 1884, Oscar Wilde was married to Constance Mary Lloyd, the
daughter of a Dublin barrister. He settled with her in Chelsea. They had
two children, both boys, born respectively in 1885 and 1886. Wilde's
marriage was not felicitous, though he regretted it more for his wife's
sake than his own. It is said that Mrs. Wilde was rather cruelly made to
pose for Lady Henry Wotton in _Dorian Gray_, that "curious woman, whose
dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on
in a tempest.... She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in
being untidy ... looking like a bird of paradise that had been out all
night in the rain...." She was sentimental, pretty, well-meaning and
inefficient. She would have been very happy as the wife of an ornamental
minor poet, and it is possible that in marrying Wilde she mistook his
for such a character. It must be remembered that she married the author
of _Poems_ and the lecturer on the æsthetic movement. His development
puzzled her, made her feel inadequate, and so increased her inadequacy.
She became more a spectacle for Wilde than an influence upon him, and
was without the strength that might have prevented the disasters that
were to fall through him on herself. She had a passion for leaving
things alone, broken only by moments of interference badly timed. She
became one of those women whose Christian names their husbands, without
malice, preface with the epithets "poor dear." Her married life was no
less ineffectual than unhappy.

Wilde supplemented his wife's income by writing reviews of books for The
Pall Mall Gazette, and articles on the theatre for The Dramatic Review.
From the autumn of 1887 to that of 1889 he edited The Woman's World.
Little of this was wasted labour, though Wilde had no need to fillip his
invention by such practice as the writing of reviews provided.
Conversation was to him what diaries, note-books, and hack-work are to
so many others. But there is an ease in the essays of _Intentions_
wholly lacking in 'The Rise of Historical Criticism' and in the
lectures. It is impossible not to believe that in writing literary notes
in The Woman's World and reviews in The Pall Mall Gazette, he quickened
the turn of his wrist and sharpened the point of his rapier.

There is little of any great value in the volume of reviews collected
by his executor; little, that is to say, that raises them above the
level of reviews written by far less gifted men. Here and there are
fragments that he improved and used again in more lasting works. Here
and there are perfectly charming sentences, that show what sort of man
would be found if we could lift the mask of the reviewer. Throughout the
book are uncertain indications of the theories of art that were later to
be expounded in _Intentions_. But that is all. There is, however, an
historical interest in learning what Wilde thought of the writers of his
time. He railed at the shocking bad grammar of Professor Saintsbury, and
got an undergraduate enjoyment from laughing at Professor Mahaffy. When
he could, he piously drew attention to the works of his father and
mother. He was polite to his cousin, W. G. Wills, who had happened to be
delivered of an epic. Among greater men, he had excellent praise for
William Morris, a just appreciation of Pater, an enthusiasm for
Meredith, the expression of which he afterwards used in _Intentions_,
and a perspicuous criticism of Swinburne. The volume is full of clues to
the sources of the inessentials in his later work. The original of the
passage in _Dorian Gray_ on embroideries and tapestries is to be found
in a review of a book by Ernest Lefébure. The Starchild's curls "were
like the rings of the daffodil." This curious and delightful phrase may
be traced to a review of Morris' translation of the Odyssey, where Wilde
noticed the line,

     "With the hair on his head crisp curling as the bloom of the

and quoted another version published in 1665,

     "Minerva renders him more tall and fair.
     Curling in rings like daffodils his hair."

It would be possible to make a long list of such alibis.

Marriage and journalism slackened for a moment his ambition. He lectured
once or twice, though Whistler had almost succeeded in discrediting him
as an authority upon art. His reputation waned, and he was for some time
a young man with a brilliant past. Art seemed less worth while than it
had been, and he was ready to amuse himself with things that he thought
scarcely worth writing, things that required more cleverness than
temperament, and did not stretch his genius. It was in this mood that he
turned to narrative, and wrote the four stories which, published in
magazines in 1887, were collected into a volume in 1891. He had always
been accustomed to invent plots for other people, and to compose such
anecdotes as were needed to illustrate his conversation and to give it
an historical basis. Mr. Sherard says that he used to devise stories,
sometimes as many as six in a morning, for his brother William to write.
It occurred to him to write some of these tales himself, and, using the
conventions of the popular magazine fiction of his day, yet find means
to indulge his mind with the ingenious play in which it delighted. Three
of these tales need detain no student of Wilde. 'The Canterville Ghost'
is just so boisterous as to miss its balance, but, because it is about
Americans, is very popular in America. 'The Sphinx without a Secret'
betrays its secret in its title. 'The Model Millionaire' is an empty
little thing no better than the popular tales it tries to imitate. 'Lord
Arthur Savile's Crime,' however, is not only remarkable as an indication
of what Wilde was to do both as a dramatist and as a storyteller, but is
itself a delightful piece of buffoonery. Wilde is so serious. The
readers of The Family Herald are fond of Lords, and so the story begins
with a reception at Bentinck House, a delightful parody of the popular
descriptions of such a function. "It was certainly a wonderful medley of
people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular
preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of
bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the
staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it
was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with
geniuses." There was a cheiromantist, and a Duchess, who, on learning
that he was present, "began looking about for a small tortoiseshell fan
and a very tattered lace shawl, so as to be ready to go at a moment's
notice." The plot is no less moral than simple. Lord Arthur Savile
learns from the palmist that at some period of his life it is decreed
that he shall commit a murder. Unwilling to marry while a potential
criminal, he sets about committing the murder at once, to get it over,
and be able to marry with the easy conscience of one who knows that his
duty has been satisfactorily performed. He tries to kill a charming aunt
with a sugared pill, and a benevolent uncle with an explosive clock,
and, failing in both these essays, "oppressed with the barrenness of
good intentions," walks miserably on the Embankment, where he finds Mr.
Podgers, the cheiromantist, observing the river. "A brilliant idea
flashed across him, and he stole softly up behind. In a moment he had
seized Mr. Podgers by the legs, and flung him into the Thames. There was
a coarse oath, a heavy splash, and all was still. Lord Arthur looked
anxiously over, but could see nothing of the cheiromantist but a tall
hat, pirouetting in an eddy of moonlit water. After a time it also sank,
and no trace of Mr. Podgers was visible. Once he thought that he caught
sight of the bulky misshapen figure striking out for the staircase by
the bridge, and a horrible feeling of failure came over him, but it
turned out to be merely a reflection, and when the moon shone out from
behind a cloud it passed away. At last he seemed to have realised the
decree of destiny. He heaved a deep sigh of relief, and Sybil's name
came to his lips." Like much of Wilde's work, this story is very clever
talk, an elaborated anecdote, told with flickering irony, a cigarette
now and again lifted to the lips. But, already, a dramatist is learning
to use this irony in dialogue, and a decorative artist is restraining
his buoyant cleverness, to use it for more subtle purposes. There is a
delicate description of dawn in Piccadilly, with the waggons on their
way to Covent Garden, white-smocked carters, and a boy with primroses in
a battered hat, riding a big grey horse--a promise of the fairy stories.
The vegetables against the sky are masses of jade, "masses of green jade
against the pink petals of some marvellous rose." And, too, over the
sudden death of Mr. Podgers "the moon peered through a mane of tawny
clouds, as if it were a lion's eye, and innumerable stars spangled the
hollow vault, like gold dust powdered on a purple dome."

_The Happy Prince and other Tales_, published in 1888, with pictures by
Jacomb Hood and Walter Crane, are very married stories. In reading them,
I cannot help feeling that Wilde wrote one of them as an experiment, to
show, I suppose, that he could have been Hans Andersen if he had liked,
and his wife importuned him to make a book of things so charming, so
good, and so true. He made the book, and there is one beautiful thing in
it, 'The Happy Prince,' which was, I suspect, the first he wrote. The
rest, except, perhaps, 'The Selfish Giant,' a delightful essay in
Christian legend, are tales whose morals are a little too obvious even
for grown-up people. Children are less willing to be made good. Wilde
was himself perfectly aware of his danger, and, no doubt, got some
pleasure out of saying so, at the end of the story called 'The Devoted
Friend': "'I am rather afraid that I have annoyed him,' answered the
Linnet. 'The fact is, that I told him a story with a moral.' 'Ah! that
is always a very dangerous thing to do,' said the Duck. And I quite
agree with her." There is a moral in 'The Happy Prince,' but there is
this difference between that story and the others, that it is quite
clear that Wilde wanted to write it. It is Andersen, treated exactly as
Wilde treated Milton in the volume of 1881, only with more assurance,
and a greater certainty about his own contribution. We recognise Wilde
by the decorative effects that are scattered throughout the book. He
preferred a lyrical pattern to a prosaic perspective, and, even more
than his wit, his love of decoration is the distinguishing quality of
his work. Andersen might well have invented the story of the swallow who
died to repay the statue for jewelled eyes and gold-leaf mail given to
the poor of the town of which he had once been the Happy and unseeing
Prince, but he would never have let the swallow say: "The King is there
in his painted coffin. He is wrapped in yellow linen and embalmed in
spices. Round his neck is a chain of pale green jade, and his hands are
withered leaves." And only a swallow belonging to the author of _The
Sphinx_ would have said, "To-morrow my friends will fly up to the second
Cataract. The river horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a
great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the
stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and
then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water's
edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is
louder than the roar of the Cataract."

In the next year he was again amusing himself with fairy tales, writing
this time a book alone in English literature; a book of tales not
intended for the British child but for those grown-up people who shared
Wilde's own enjoyment of brilliant-coloured fantasy. He had learnt to
control his invention, although he did not choose to do without a tuning
fork. Andersen still struck the note to which Wilde sang, but Flaubert
had been his singing master, and the curious and beautiful tales
collected in _A House of Pomegranates_ are like what I imagine "The Snow
Queen" would have been, if it had been written by the author of "Saint
Julien l'Hospitalier." In 'The Infanta's Birthday,' where one of Goya's
grotesques dances before a painting by Velasquez, the flowers pass their
opinions on the dwarf quite in the Danish manner. In 'The Star-child':
"The Earth is going to be married, and this is her bridal dress,"
whispered the Turtle-doves to each other. "Their little pink feet were
quite frost-bitten, but they felt that it was their duty to take a
romantic view of the situation." That is surely written by the ghost of
Andersen's English translator. But 'The Star-child' ends with the firm,
aloof touch of Flaubert, who would not tolerate "quite": "Yet ruled he
not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his
testing, for after the space of three years, he died. And he who came
after him ruled evilly." I remember the end of "Hérodias" on just such a
distant note: "Et tous les trois, ayant pris la tête de Iaokanaan, s'en
allèrent du côté de la Galilée. Comme elle était très lourde, ils la
portaient alternativement." And the picture of the leper in this story
is almost a transcription of that in "Saint Julien l'Hospitalier": "Over
his face hung a cowl of grey linen, and through the eyelets his eyes
gleamed like red coals." And Flaubert: "Il était enveloppé d'une toile
en lambeaux, la figure pareille à un masque de platre et les deux yeux
plus rouge que des charbons." I do not suggest that one is a copy of the
other; but I think that Wilde remembered that clay mask with gleaming
eyes, and mistook it for a creation of his own whose eyes shone through
a grey linen cowl.

It is hardly worth while so to carry the study of influence into detail.
Wilde wrote, with the pen of Flaubert, stories that might have been
imagined by Andersen, and sometimes one and sometimes the other touches
his hand. It is not impossible that Baudelaire was also present. But
all this does not much concern us, except that by subtraction we may
come to what we seek, which is the personal, elusive, but unmistakable
quality contributed by Wilde himself.

This is, secondarily, a round mellowness of voice, a smooth solidity of
suggested movement, a delight in magnificence; and, primarily, a
wonderful feeling for decorative effect. This last is Wilde's peculiar
contribution to literature. His contribution to thought, his exegesis of
the critical attitude, is another matter. But this feeling for
decoration, that made him see life itself as a tapestry of ordered and
beautiful movements caught in gold and dyed silk, that made him
incapable of realizing that life was not so, until at last it became too
strong and tore his canvas, was itself enough to prevent the picturesque
figure of the dandy from obliterating the artist in the minds of
posterity. It is scarcely twenty years since Wilde wrote his books, and,
in poetry as well as in prose, their influence is already becoming so
common as not to be recognized. The historian of the period will have to
trace what he may call "The Decorative Movement in Literature" to the
works of Wilde, and through them to the Pre-Raphaelite pictures and
poems, whose ideals he so fantastically misrepresents.

I have implied a distinction between decoration and realism that I have
not clearly defined. This distinction is not, though it has often been
held to be, a distinction between two different kinds of art, between
which runs a sharp dividing line. It is rather a recognition of opposite
ends of a scale, like the recognition of heat and cold, both degrees of
temperature, but without intrinsic superiority one over the other. In
painting we thus distinguish between the attempt to imitate and the
willingness (not the intention) to suggest nature. This distinction is
best expressed in the old simile of the window and the wall. Some
pictures represent a pattern on a wall: some pictures represent a vision
through a window. In some we look at the canvas: in others we look
through the frame. Some are decorative: some are realistic. Many
painters have wished that their pictures should not be found wanting
when compared with the pictures of similar subjects that each spectator
paints with the brushes and palette of his own brain. Sometimes this
desire has been carried so far as to preclude all others. Painters do
not usually read Berkeley, and there have been some who forgot that
there was no such thing as a world outside their brains, and cared only
to be recognised as faithful portrait-painters of nature: that is to
say, of what all spectators see, or can see, by training their
observation. There have been critics, too, like Ruskin, who have chosen
to compare painters by their fidelity to this external and observable
nature. But painters have other things to do than photograph, other
things to do than to select from what a camera would represent.
Sometimes the idea of imitation fades away, and they are willing, no
more, to suggest lilies by a convention, and to distort even the human
figure, while they concern themselves with harmonies in which the shapes
of flower or figure sound merely incidental notes. We must not forget
that these are extremes in a single scale, and that all painting is to
some extent realistic, to some extent decorative. Its extremes are
wholly imitative in aim, and dull, and wholly conventional in aim, and
empty. We call the two aims realism and decoration for our convenience.
In literature it is possible to trace a similar double aim, separate
from but analogous to the duality in speech that we shall have to
examine in a later chapter. There are books subservient to what we call
reality, and books for which reality is no more than an excuse, books
that follow nature, and books that cast nature into their own mould,
and, delighting in no accidental harmonies, bend nature to the patterns
that please them, and heighten or lower her colours for their private
purposes of beautiful creation. Even in music we can trace these
tendencies: there is music that humbly follows the moods of man, and
music whose serenely indifferent patterns compel the dancing attendance
of those moods.

We have observed in _The Sphinx_ the decorative character of Wilde's
work. These tales provide the best examples of it that are to be found
in his prose. To the woodcutters looking down from the forest, the Earth
seemed "like a flower of silver, and the Moon like a flower of gold."
The young fisherman speaks to the witch of his "_painted_ boat," and his
author is no less aloof from realism. When the young fisherman forgets
his nets and his cunning, as he listens to the sweet voice of the
mermaid, Wilde writes: "Vermilion finned and with eyes of bossy gold,
the tunnies went by in shoals, but he heeded them not." Now that is a
picture that the young fisherman could not see. Nor can we see it,
unless the fisherman is a figure on a tapestry, sewn in stitches of
bright-coloured thread. Above him three undulating lines are waves, and
between them four tunnies, twisting unanimous tails, show their
vermilion fins and their eyes of gilded metal, skilfully bedded in the

Wilde, always perfectly self-conscious, was not unaware of this
difference between his own writing and that of most of his
contemporaries. When _Dorian Gray_ was attacked for immorality, Wilde
wrote, in a letter to a paper: "My story is an essay on decorative art.
It reacts against the brutality of plain realism." _The Picture of
Dorian Gray_ was written for publication in a magazine. Seven chapters
were added to it to make it long enough for publication as a novel,
because those who buy books, like those who buy pictures, are unable to
distinguish between size and quality, and imagine that value depends
upon area. The preface was written to answer assailants of the morality
of the story in its first form, and included only when it was printed as
a book. These circumstances partly explain the lack of proportion, and
of cohesion, that mars, though it does not spoil, the first French novel
to be written in the English language. England has a traditional
novel-form with which even the greatest students of human comedy and
tragedy square their work. In France there is no such tradition, with
the result that the novel is a plastic form, moulded in the most various
ways by the most various minds. After all, it is a question of name, and
it is impossible without elaborate and tedious qualification to discuss
classifications of literature. They should not be made, or they should
be made differently, for, at present, they deal only with superficial
resemblances, depending, sometimes, upon nothing more essential than the
price for which a book is sold. They have, however, a distinct influence
upon production. In France, Flaubert's "Tentation de Saint Antoine,"
that wonderful dream in which so many strange dialogues are overheard,
Remy de Gourmont's "Une Nuit au Luxembourg," that delightful speculative
mirage, and Huysmans' "À Rebours," that phantasmagoria of intellectual
experience, are all included in publishers' lists of novels and sold as
such. Publishers in England are not so catholic. Whatever the reason may
be, economical, depending upon the publisher, traditional, depending on
the writer, Wilde's _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ was the first novel for
many years to be written in England with that freedom in choice of
matter and manner that has for a long time been in no way extraordinary
in France. It has, so far, had no successor free as itself from the
enforced interest in a love affair, to which we have grown so mournfully

The story of the book is a fantastic invention like that of Balzac's "Le
Peau de Chagrin," in which the scrap of skin from a wild ass shrinks
with each wish of its possessor. The picture of Dorian Gray, painted by
his friend, ages with the lines of cruelty, lust and hypocrisy that
should mar its ever-youthful subject. He, remaining as beautiful as when
at twenty-one he had inspired the painter with a masterpiece, walks in
the ways of men, sullying his soul, whose bodily reflection records
neither his age nor his sins. It is the sort of invention that would
have pleased Hawthorne, and the book itself is written with the marked
ethical sympathy that Wilde, in his preface, denounced as "an
unpardonable mannerism of style." Perhaps the reason why it was so
loudly accused of immorality was that in the popular mind luxury and sin
are closely allied, and the unpardonable mannerism that made him preach,
in a parable, against the one, did not hide his whole-hearted delight in
describing the other.

The preface, inspired by the hostility the book aroused, is an essay not
in the gentle art of making enemies, but in that of annoying them when
made. If his critics tell him that his book leers with the eyes of
foulness and dribbles with the lips of prurience, Wilde replies, with an
ambiguity as disturbing as his smile, that "it is the spectator, and not
life, that art really mirrors," and again that "the highest, as the
lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography." His arrows are not
angrily tipped with poison, but are not for that the less displeasing to
those against whom they are directed. They are weighted not with anger
but with æsthetic theory. They are so far separate from the story that
they are best discussed with the essays of _Intentions_.

There are a few strange books that share the magic of some names, like
Cornelius Agrippa, Raymond Lully, and Paracelsus, names that possibly
mean more to us before than after we have investigated the works and
personalities that lie behind them. These books are mysterious and kept,
like mysteries, for peculiar moods. They are not books for every day,
nor even for every night. We keep them for rare moments, as we keep in a
lacquer cabinet some crystal-shrined thread of subtle perfume, or some
curious gem, to be a solace in a mood that does not often recur, or,
perhaps, to be an instrument in its evocation. _Dorian Gray_, for all
its faults, is such a book. It is unbalanced; and that is a fault. It is
a mosaic hurriedly made by a man who reached out in all directions and
took and used in his work whatever scrap of jasper, or porphyry or
broken flint was put into his hand; and that is not a virtue. But in it
there is an individual essence, a private perfume, a colour whose secret
has been lost. There are moods whose consciousness that essence,
perfume, colour, is needed to intensify.

There is little need to discuss the minutiæ of the book; to point out
that its sayings occur in Wilde's plays, poems, reviews and dialogues;
that it is, as it were, an epitome of his wit before and after the fact;
that the eleventh chapter is a wonderful condensation of a main theme in
"À Rebours," like an impression of a concerto rendered by a virtuoso
upon a violin. There is no need to emphasize Wilde's delight in colour
and fastidious luxury, as well as in a most amusing kind of dandyism: in
the opening scene the studio curtains are of tussore silk, the dust is
golden that dances in the sunlight, tea is poured from a fluted Georgian
urn, there is a heavy scent of roses, the blossoms of the laburnum are
honey-coloured as well as honey-sweet, Lord Henry Wotton reclines on a
divan of Persian saddlebags, and taps "the toe of his patent-leather
boot with a tasselled ebony cane." There is no need to point out any of
these things, but they help to justify what I have already said, and to
define the indefinable character of the book. Lord Henry Wotton would
have liked to write "a novel that would be as lovely as a Persian
carpet, and as unreal." Wilde tried to write it, and very nearly

       *       *       *       *       *

Wilde's second period of swift development began towards the end of
1888. This, perhaps, explains the sentence in 'Pen, Pencil, and
Poison'--"One can fancy an intense personality being created out of
sin." His personality was, certainly, intensified when he became an
habitual devotee of the vice for which he was imprisoned. He had first
experimented in that vice in 1886; his experiments became a habit in
1889, and in that year he published 'Pen, Pencil, and Poison' and 'The
Decay of Lying,' revised _The Sphinx_, and wrote some, at least, of the
stories in _A House of Pomegranates_; these were immediately followed by
'The Critic as Artist' and _Salomé_.

These things are among his best work. It is possible that a
consciousness of separation from the common life of men is a sufficient
explanation of an increased vividness in a man's self, a heightened
ardour of production. Is Wilde's exceptional activity in those years to
be attributed to an eagerness to justify himself by other men's
admiration, of which he had never been careless? Was he eager to bring
mankind to his side? "It is the spectator, not life, that art really
mirrors." This sentence must now be applied to himself, when we consider
_The Portrait of Mr. W. H._ That narrative, now printed at the end of
_Lord Arthur Savile's Crime_, and first published in Blackwood's
Magazine in 1889, is an essay in criticism.

Wilde read something of himself into Shakespeare's sonnets, and, in
reading, became fascinated by a theory that he was unable to prove.
Where another man would, perhaps, have written a short, serious essay,
and whistled his theory down the wind that carries the dead leaves of
Shakespeare's commentators, Wilde tosses it as a belief between three
brains, and allows it to unfold itself as the background to a story. The
three brains are the narrator, Cyril Graham, and Erskine. Graham
discovers the Mr. W. H. of the Sonnets in a boy-actor called Will
Hughes, and by diligent examination of internal evidence, almost
persuades Erskine to believe him. Erskine, however, demands a proof, and
Graham finds one for him in a portrait of Will Hughes nailed to an old
wooden chest. Erskine is persuaded, but discovers that the picture is a
forgery, whereupon Graham, explaining that he had only had it made for
Erskine's satisfaction, leaves the picture to his friend, protests that
the forgery in no way invalidates the theory, and kills himself as a
proof of his good faith. Erskine, disbelieving, tells all this to the
narrator, who instantly sets to work on the sonnets, finds a quantity of
further evidence, but none that sets beyond question the existence in
Elizabethan times of a boy-actor called William Hughes. He writes
Erskine a letter of passionate reasoning, that, while persuading
Erskine, wipes away his own belief. He finds that he has become an
infidel to the theory of which he has been a successful advocate. It was
a favourite idea of Wilde's, and the motive of _La Sainte Courtisane_,
that to slough off a belief like a snake's skin, one has only to convert
someone else to it. I need not further analyse the story, which is
merely the mechanism that Wilde used for the display of the evidence to
which he desired to draw attention.

It would be impossible to build an airier castle in Spain than this of
the imaginary William Hughes; impossible, too, to build one so
delightfully designed. The prose and the reasoning seem things of ivory,
Indian-carved, through which the rarest wind of criticism may freely
blow and carry delicate scents away without disturbing the yet more
delicate fabric. Wilde assumes that Shakespeare addressed the sonnets to
William Hughes, and, that assumption granted (though there is no William
Hughes to be found), colours his theory with an abundance of persuasive
touches, to strengthen what is, at first, only a courtesy belief. Though
all his argument is special pleading, Wilde contrives to make you feel
that counsel knows, though he cannot prove, that his client is in the
right. The evidence is only for the jury. You are inclined to interrupt
him with the exclamation that you are already convinced. But it is a
pleasure to listen to him, so you let him go on. After all, "brute
reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It
is like hitting below the intellect." Wilde's _Portrait of Mr. W. H._ is
more than a refutable theory, a charming piece of speculation. It is an
illustration of the critic as artist, a foretaste of _Intentions_. It is
better than 'The Truth of Masks,' as good as 'The Decay of Lying.' Yet
it was not printed in that book, where it might well have had a place.
The reason for this is not uninteresting. Wilde did not intend to
reprint it as it stood. The theory beneath that delicate brain-play had
a lasting fascination for him, and, with its proofs, grew in his mind
till it overbalanced Cyril Graham and doubting Erskine. He re-wrote it
at greater length, after delays. When he was arrested, the publishers,
who had already announced it as a forthcoming book, returned it to his
house, whence it disappeared on the day of the enforced sale of his
effects. It has never been recovered.



Mrs. Malaprop classes paradoxes with Greek, Hebrew, simony and fluxions
as inflammatory branches of learning, and, in _De Profundis_, Wilde
says: "What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity
became to me in the realm of passion." Paradox and perversity were
matches to set fire to his thought and his dreams. But paradox is not in
itself different from direct speech. It is made by the statement of a
result and the omission of the steps of reasoning by which that result
has been achieved. When somebody accused Jean Moréas, that brilliant
Greek, of being paradoxical, he replied: "I do not know what paradox is;
I believe it is the name which imbeciles give to the truth." Wilde might
have made a similar answer, and perhaps did. His paradoxes are only
unfamiliar truths. Those of them that were thought the wildest are
already becoming obvious, for unfamiliarity is a temporal quality like
flowers in a road: when a multitude has passed that way the flowers are
trodden out of sight. Paradox is, however, a proof of vitality and
adventurous thought, and these things are sometimes the companions of
charm. Unfamiliar truth was, at first, the most noticeable
characteristic of Wilde's _Intentions_, but, though paradox may fade to
commonplace, "age cannot wither nor custom stale" the fresh and debonair
personality that keeps the book alive, tossing thoughts like roses, and
playing with them in happiness of heart.

There is something of the undergraduate about the book. Its pages might
be reprinted from a college magazine in which a genius was stretching
youthful limbs, instead of from such staid and respectable reviews as
The Fortnightly and The Nineteenth Century. It belongs to the days when
the most natural thing in life is to talk until "the dusky night rides
down the sky," and the pale morning light mocks at our yellow lamp.
Indeed, I think that such freshness and vivacity of writing is the gift
of those authors only who are also talkers. They are accustomed to see
their sentences in company, not in solitude. They give them a pleasing
strut and swagger and teach them to make graceful entries and exits
neither too ceremonious nor yet disorderly. Their sentences are men of
the world, and of a world where the passport to success is charm. It is
not so with lecturers or preachers, whose office puts them in a
different category. But men who talk for their own enjoyment and that of
those who listen to them are less likely than the others to compose by
eye instead of by ear. It is actually difficult to read Wilde in
silence. His sentences lift the voice as well as the thoughts of their
writer from the printed page.

Wilde loved speech for its own sake, and nothing could be more
characteristic of his gift than his choice of that old and inexhaustible
form that Plato, Lucian, Erasmus and Landor, to name only a few, have
turned to such different purposes. Dialogue is at once personal and
impersonal. "By its means he (the thinker) can both reveal and conceal
himself, and give form to every fancy, and reality to every mood. By its
means he can exhibit the object from each point of view, and show it us
in the round, as a sculptor shows us things, gaining in this manner all
the richness and reality of effect that comes from those side issues
that are suddenly suggested by the central idea in its progress, and
really illumine the idea more completely, or from those felicitous
afterthoughts that give a fuller completeness to the central scheme, and
yet convey something of the delicate charm of chance." Nothing could
better describe Wilde's own essays in dialogue.

The first of these essays is 'The Decay of Lying,' in which a young
gentleman called Vivian reads aloud an article on that subject to a
slightly older and rather incredulous young gentleman called Cyril,
commenting as he reads, answering objections, and sometimes laying the
manuscript on his knees as he follows the swift-flying swallow of his
thought through the airy mazes of her joyous exercise. Vivian holds a
brief for the artist against the nature that he is supposed to imitate.
He behaves like a lawyer, first picking his opponent to pieces, lest the
jury should be prejudiced in his favour, and then proving his own case
in so far as it is possible to prove it. The dialogue is a delightful
thing in itself: it is also of the first importance to the student of
Wilde's theories of art. Under its insouciance and extravagance lie many
of the ideas that dictated his attitude as writer and as critic. Vivian
begins by opposing the comfort of a Morris chair to the discomfort of
nature's insect-ridden grass, and complains that nature is as
indifferent to her cultured critic as to cow or burdock--which is not to
be borne. He then, a little more seriously, envisages the history of art
as a long warfare between the simian instinct of imitation and the
God-like instinct of self-expression. He needs to show that fine art
does not imitate, and points out that Japanese painting, of which, at
that time, everybody was talking, does not concern itself with Japan,
and that the Japan we imagine for ourselves with the help of
willow-pattern plates and the drawings of Hokusai is no more real in one
sense and no less real in another than the slit-eyed girl of Gautier's
"Chinoiserie," who lives in a porcelain tower above the Yellow River and
the long-necked cormorants. Our ideal Japan has existed only in the
minds of the artists who saw it, and when we cross the seas to look for
it, we find nothing but a few fans and coloured lanterns. But that is
not enough. We continually see lovely things in nature, strangely like
the things we see in books and pictures. There is plagiary here, on one
side or on the other, and, with almost ecstatic courage, Vivian
announces that, so far from art holding the mirror to nature (a view
advanced by Hamlet as a proof of his insanity), nature imitates art. He
may have taken the hint from Musset, for Fortunio, in the comedy of that
name, exclaims with melancholy criticism: "Comme ce soleil couchant est
manqué ce soir. Regarde moi un pen ce vallée là-bas, ces quatre ou cinq
méchants nuages qui grimpent sur cette montagne. Je faisais des paysages
comme celui-là, quand j'avais douze ans, sur la couverture de mes livres
de classe." But he made the statement in no spirit of extravagance. It
seemed to him that we observe in nature what art has taught us to see,
and he chose that way of saying so. He elaborates it delightfully, so
that people may forget he has spoken the truth. Fogs, for example, did
not exist till art had invented them. "Now, it must be admitted, fogs
are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique,
and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people
bronchitis." Then he runs on for a few pages, illustrating these wise
saws with modern and ingenious instances of life hurrying after fiction,
reproducing the opening of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," setting an unreal
Becky Sharp beside Thackeray's creation, and going so far, indeed, as to
trip up the heels of a serial story with the sordid actuality of fact.

He discusses Zola and his no less heavy-footed disciples, who stand for
the failure of imitation and are the best proofs that the mirror cracks
when the artist holds it up to anything except himself. Cyril suggests
that Balzac was a realist, and Vivian quotes Baudelaire's saying, that
"his very scullions have genius," compares him to Holbein, and points
out that he is far more real than life. "A steady course of Balzac
reduces our living friends to shadows and our acquaintances to the
shadows of shades."

Then comes an objection to modernity of form, and some reasons for that
objection that suggest a very interesting speculation. He thinks that
Balzac's love for modernity of form prevented him from producing any
single book that can rank with the masterpieces of romantic art. And
then:--"The public imagine that, because they are interested in their
immediate surroundings, Art should be interested in them also, and
should take them as her subject matter. But the mere fact that they are
interested in these things makes them an unsuitable subject for Art. The
only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not
concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects
us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to
our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live,
it is outside the proper sphere of Art." These words seemed, in 1889, to
be both daring and precarious. The influence of philosophy is not so
immediate as is sometimes supposed. It is not extravagant to find in
those few words a reflection, direct or indirect, of Immanuel Kant, who,
writing in 1790, said that what is called beautiful is the object of a
delight apart from any interest, and showed that charm, or intimate
reference to our own circumstances or possible circumstances, so far
from being a criterion of beauty, was a disturbing influence upon our
judgment. In the Preface to _Dorian Gray_, that little flaunting
compendium of Wilde's æsthetics, it is easy to trace the ideas of Kant,
divested of their technical phrasing, freed from their background of
reasoning and their foreground of accurate explanation. For
example:--"No artist desires to prove anything." This balances Kant's
banishment of concepts from the beautiful. For another:--"All art is
quite useless." This balances Kant's distinction between the beautiful
and the good. This is not the place for any worthy discussion of the
relation between the theory and the practice of art; but it is
interesting to notice that what was temperamentally true for Wilde, and
therefore peculiarly his own, had been logically true for a philosopher
a hundred years before. Coleridge, whose originality there is no more
need to question than Wilde's, gave Kant's ideas a different colouring.
Is it that the philosopher is unable to apply in detail what the artist
is unable to conceive as a whole?

It is important to remember that throughout this dialogue, Wilde is
speaking of pure art, a thing which possibly does not exist, and,
recognising it as an ideal towards which all artists should aspire, is
engaged in pointing out the more obvious means of falling short of it.
He achieves a triumph, of a kind in which he delighted, by making
people read of such a subject. Not wishing to be laughed at by the
British intellect, and wishing to be listened to, he laughs at it
instead, and, near the end of the dialogue, is so daring as to present
it with a picture of what is occurring, confident that the individual
will disclaim the general, and smile without annoyance at the
caricature. "The stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like
the Sphinx in Flaubert's marvellous tale, and fantasy, _La Chimère_,
dances round it and calls to it with her false flute-toned voice." And
the individual reader did not understand, and Wilde danced away until he
felt inclined again to make him listen to the flute-toned enunciation of
unfamiliar truths.

'Pen, Pencil, and Poison,' the essay on Wainewright, not in dialogue,
has some of the hard angular outlines of the set article on book or
public character. It fills these outlines, however, with picturesque
detail and half-ironic speculation. It is impossible not to notice the
resemblance between the subject of this essay and its author. It is
difficult not to suspect that Wilde, in setting in clear perspective
Wainewright's poisoning and writing, in estimating the possible power of
crime to intensify a personality, was analysing himself, and expressing
through a psychological account of another man the results of that
analysis. Perhaps, in that essay we have less analysis than hypothesis.
Wilde may have happened on the Life of Wainewright, and taken it, among
all the books he had read, as a kind of Virgilian omen. My metaphor, as
Dr. Chasuble would say, is drawn from Virgil. It used to be customary
among those who wished to look into the future to open the works of that
poet and to observe the lines covered by the thumb: "which lines, if in
any way applicable to one's condition, were accounted prophetic." I
think it possible that Wilde looked upon the little account of
Wainewright that gave him a basis for his article as just such a
prophetic intimation. He may have written the article to taste his
future before the fact. Anyhow, he foreshadows the line of defence to be
taken by his own apologists when he exclaims that "the fact of a man
being a poisoner is nothing against his prose." In any discussion of the
influence that Wilde's disease or crime exerted on his art, this essay
would be a valuable piece of evidence. But in other things than the
engaging in a secret activity, Wainewright offered Wilde a curious
parallel with himself. He too introduced a new manner in writing by a
new manner in dress, and Wilde was able to use his own emotions in the
presence of blue china to vitalize the piece of Dutch painting, a
Gabriel Metsu or a Jan van Eyck, in which he paints Wainewright with his
cats, his curiosities, his crucifixes, his rare books, his cameos, and
his "brown-biscuit tea-pots, filigree worked," against a background in
which green predominates. "He had that curious love of green, which in
individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in
nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals." Wilde
also was fond of green. I have not counted occasions, but I have the
impression that green is the colour most often mentioned alike in his
verse and in his prose. Green and jade: these are his keynotes in
colour, unless I am mistaken, and in these matters impressions are less
likely to err than mathematics.

But the most striking and beautiful thing in _Intentions_ is that
dialogue between the two young men in a library whose windows look over
the kaleidoscopic swirl of Piccadilly to the trees and lawns of the
Green Park. They talk through the summer night, supping delicately on
ortolans and Chambertin, and, in the early morning, draw the curtains,
see the silver ribbon of the road, the purple mist among the trees, and
walk down to Covent Garden to look at the roses that have come in from
the country. There is something of Boccaccio in that setting,
something, too, of Landor in the lucid sentences of their talk, and
something of Walter Pater in the choice of the fruit they so idly pluck
from the tree of knowledge. But Pater could not have let their
conversation change so easily from smooth to ripple and from ripple to
smooth; Landor would have caught the ripples and carved them in
transparent moonstone, and Boccaccio would have given them girls to talk
of, instead of "The Critic as Artist."

That would seem to be a question for the learned and not for two young
exquisites with a taste for music and books and an æsthetic dislike of
the German language. But the only critical dialogue in English
literature that is at all comparable with Wilde's is "The Impartial
Critick" of John Dennis, who was ready to prove that choruses were
unnecessary in tragedy, that Wycherley excelled Plautus, and that
Shakespeare himself was not so bad as Thomas Rymer had painted him. And
there too we have young men, not themselves authors, talking for
pleasure's sake, drinking with discretion, now in their lodgings, now at
The Old Devil and now at The Cock, reading aloud to each other and
commenting verse by verse on Mr. Waller, whom they admit to be "a great
Genius and a gallant Writer." There is a delightful savour about that
dialogue, dry as some of the questions were that those two young sparks
discussed with such wet throats. There is a suggestion of the town
outside and the country beyond, of stage-coaches passing through the
Haymarket, and of Hampshire gentlemen "being forbid by the perpetual
Rains to follow the daily labour of their Country Sports," handing about
their Brimmers within doors, "as fast as if they had done it for
Exercise." And those young men talk with just the fine superiority of
Ernest and Gilbert to the authordom whose rules and persons they amuse
themselves by discussing.

Ernest and Gilbert are, however, better talkers. In fact, their talk is
far too good really to have been heard. They set their excellence as a
barrier between themselves and life. Not for a moment will they forget
that they are the creatures of art: not for a moment will they leave
that calm air for the dust and turmoil of human argument. Wilde was
never so sure of his art as in this dialogue, where Ernest, that
ethereal Sancho Panza, and Gilbert, that rather languid Don Quixote,
tilt for their hearer's joy. They share the power of visualization that
made Wilde's own talk like a continuous fairy tale. They turn their
ideas into a coloured pageantry, and all the gods of Greece and
characters of art are ready to grace by their visible presence the
exposition, whether of the ideas that are to be confuted or of those
that are to take their place. "In the best days of art," says Ernest,
"there were no art critics," and four pages follow in which the sculptor
releases the sleeping figures from the marble, Phædrus bathes his feet
in the nymph-haunted meadow, the little figures of Tanagra are shaped
with bone or wooden tool from river clay, Artemis and her hounds are cut
upon a veined sardonyx, the wanderings of Odysseus are stained upon the
plaster, and round the earthen wine-jar Bacchus dances and Silenus

"But no," says Gilbert, "the Greeks were a nation of art-critics." He
balances with a sequence of ideas his friend's pageant of pictures. The
Greeks criticized language, and "Words have not merely music as sweet as
that of viol and lute, colour as rich and vivid as any that makes lovely
for us the canvas of the Venetian or the Spaniard, and plastic form no
less sure and certain than that which reveals itself in marble or in
bronze, but thought and passion and spirituality are theirs also, are
theirs indeed alone. If the Greeks had criticized nothing but language,
they would still have been the great art-critics of the world. To know
the principles of the highest art is to know the principles of all the
arts." And so the talk goes on. There is but one defect in this
panoramic method of presenting ideas. Each time that Wilde empties, or
seems to spill before us, his wonderful cornucopia of coloured imagery,
he seems to build a wave that towers like the blue and silver billow of
Hokusai's print. Now, surely, it will break, we say, and are tempted to
echo Cyril in 'The Decay of Lying,' when, at the close of one of these
miraculous paragraphs, he remarks, "I like that. I can see it. Is that
the end?" Too many of Wilde's paragraphs are perorations.

It is easy, in remembering the colour and rhythm of this dialogue, to
forget the subtlety of its construction, the richness of its matter, and
the care that Wilde brought to the consideration of his subject. I have
pleased myself by working out a scheme of its contents, such as Wilde
may have used in building it. Perhaps I could have found no better
method of illustrating the qualities I have mentioned.

He begins with a story in the memoirs of an Academician, and, without
telling it, goes on to praise autobiographies and biographies and
egotism, in order to induce a frame of mind in the reader that shall
make him ready to consider without too much hostility a peculiarly
subjective form of art. He winds into his subject like a serpent, as
Goldsmith said of Burke, by way of music, returning to the story told by
the Academician, which is allowed to suggest a remark on the uselessness
of art-criticism. The ideas follow in some such order as this. Bad
Criticism. The Browning Society as an example. Browning. A swift and
skilful return to the point at issue. The Greeks not art critics. The
Greeks a nation of art critics. Life and Literature the highest arts.
Walter Pater. Greek criticism of language and the test of the spoken
word. Blind Milton writing by ear alone. Example of Greek criticism in
Aristotle's "Poetics." Identification of the creative and critical
faculties. All fine art is self-conscious. Criticism as such more
difficult than creation. Action and reverie. Sin an element of progress,
because it intensifies the individuality. The world made by the singer
for the dreamer. Criticism itself art, a form of autobiography concerned
with thoughts not events. Criticism purely subjective, and so
independent of obvious subject. For examples, Ruskin's prose independent
of his views on Turner; Pater's description of Mona Lisa independent of
the intention of Leonardo. "The meaning of a beautiful created thing is
as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who
wrought it." Music. "Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods." The
highest criticism "criticizes not merely the individual work of art, but
Beauty itself, and fills with wonder a form which the artist may have
left void, or not understood, or understood incompletely." A work of art
is to the critic a suggestion for a new work of his own. Modern
painting. Too intelligible pictures do not challenge the critic.
Imitation and suggestion. "The æsthetic critic rejects those obvious
modes of art that have but one message to deliver, and having delivered
it become dumb and sterile." At this point, supper, with a promise to
discuss the critic as interpreter. Part II picks up the discussion and
continues. Works of art need interpretation. A true appreciation of
Milton, for example, impossible without scholarship. But the truth of a
critic's interpretation depends on the intensity of his own personality.
All arts have their critics. The actor a critic of the drama. The
executant a critic of the composer. Critics "will be always showing us
the work of art in some new relation to our age." Tendency towards
finding experience in art rather than in life. Life a failure from the
artistic point of view, if only because a moment of life can never be
lived again, whereas in literature, one can be sure of finding the
particular emotion for which one looks. A pageantry of the things that
have been happening in Dante for six hundred years. Baudelaire and
others. The transference of emotion. Not through life but through art
can we realize perfection. The immorality of art. "For emotion for the
sake of emotion is the aim of art, and emotion for the sake of action is
the aim of life, and of that practical organization of life that we call
society." A further comparison between action and contemplation. Ernest
asks, "We exist, then, to do nothing," and Gilbert answers, "It is to do
nothing that the elect exist." There follows one of the few passages
that contains any outspoken mention of a decadence. (This word was
freely used as a label in England and France at this time.) "But we who
are born at the close of this wonderful age are at once too cultured and
too critical, too intellectually subtle and too curious of exquisite
pleasures, to accept any speculations about life in exchange for life
itself." "In the development of the critical spirit we shall be able to
realise, not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race."
Heredity, "the only one of the gods whose real name we know," brings
gifts of strange temperaments and impossible desires, and the power of
living a thousand lives. Imagination is "concentrated race-experience."
Being and becoming compared with doing. Defence of egotism. "The sure
way of knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful."
Schoolmasters. Self-culture, not the culture of others, the proper aim
of man. The idea is dangerous: so are all ideas. Ernest suggests that
the fact that a critical work is subjective places it below the greatest
work, which is impersonal and objective. Gilbert replies that "the
difference between objective and subjective work is one of external form
merely. It is accidental, not essential. All artistic creation is
absolutely subjective." Critics not even limited to the more obviously
subjective forms of expression, but may use drama, dialogues, narrative,
or poetry. He then turns more particularly to the critic's
qualifications. He must not be fair, not be rational, not be sincere,
except in his devotion to the principle of beauty, Journalism,
reviewing, and prurience. Intrusion of morals into art. Further
consideration of the critic's qualifications. Temperament, its
cultivation through decorative art. A digression on modern painting,
returning to the subject of decorative art. The influence of the critic
should be the mere fact of his existence. "You must not ask of him to
have any aim other than the perfecting of himself." It is not his
business to reform bad artists, who are probably quite irreclaimable.
Remembering, but not alluding to Whistler's attack, he lets Ernest ask,
"But may it not be that the poet is the best judge of poetry, and the
painter of painting?" Gilbert replies, "The appeal of all art is simply
to the artistic temperament." Great artists unable to recognize the
beauty of work different from their own. Examples:--Wordsworth on Keats,
Shelley on Wordsworth, Byron on all three, Sophocles on Euripides,
Milton on Shakespeare, Reynolds on Gainsborough. The future belongs to
criticism. "The subject-matter at the disposal of creation is always
diminishing, while the subject-matter of criticism increases daily." The
use of criticism. It makes culture possible, makes the mind a fine
instrument, "takes the cumbersome mass of creative work, and distils it
into a finer essence." It recreates the past. It makes us cosmopolitan.
Goethe could not hate France even during her invasion of Germany.
Comparison between ethics and æsthetics. "To discern the beauty of a
thing is the finest point to which we can arrive." "Creation is always
behind the age. It is Criticism that leads us." A swift summary, with a
graceful transition to the dawn and opening windows over Piccadilly.
Such is the skeleton of thought that connects all that is said, and,
disguised by a wonderful skill, makes even the transitions delightful,
and remembers the main purpose again and again without ever wearying us
by allowing us to be conscious of repetition.

But, forgetting these mechanics and listening to that light-hearted
conversation, we become aware that we are enjoying the exposition of a
point of view without an understanding of which Wilde would be
unintelligible as either man or writer. It does not represent him
completely; a man's points of views are as various as his moods. But,
with 'The Decay of Lying,' it does represent what was, perhaps, the
dominant mood of his life. The dialogues overlap, but do not contradict
each other. It can hardly have been chance that divided them in
_Intentions_, by 'Pen, Pencil, and Poison,' that reflects the mood
directly opposite, the mood in which he delighted to see a personality
express itself in clothes, in vice, in action of any kind other than the
vivid inaction of art. It is more likely to have been self-knowledge.
For the mood that dictated the study of Wainewright was akin to that in
which he found it an astounding adventure to entertain poisonous things.
"It was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the
excitement." Wilde's tragedy may be traced to the conflict between these
moods, the one inviting him to life, the other to art. In either case,
life or art matched its colours to seduce his temperament. The mood of
the dialogues was that in which he turned, not necessarily always to
writing, but to seek experience in art. In this mood he preferred, if
you like to put it so, to take life at second-hand, and was happier to
speak of Corot than of twilight, of Turner than of sunset. In this mood,
like Vivian, he did not seek in Japanese art to know Japan, but rather
to learn a new country "anywhere out of the world." Ancient Greece did
not mean to him the Peloponnesian War, but the candour of Grecian
statuary and the small figures of Tanagra, in the folds of whose dancing
dresses, that seem always to have caught the tint of the evening sky in
their terra-cotta, he found the secret of quite another country than the
Greece of the historian. It was always his pleasure to begin where
others had ended, and criticism rather than creation came to mean for
him the delicate adventures of the intellect, such a life as was the
best part of his own. And so criticism became creation for him, building
its impressions into things beautiful in themselves, and transforming
the life of the critic into something no less delightful than the
subjects of his contemplation.

Such a theory of criticism had not been stated before his time, though
there had been such critics and such criticism. The abstract usually
follows the concrete, and the practice dictates the precept. Wilde had
in his mind as he wrote such fine flaming things as Swinburne's study of
Blake, and such slow-moving magnificent pageants as "Marius the
Epicurean," in which Pater had criticized a century of manners and
ideas. And, perhaps, he did not forget his own 'Pen, Pencil, and
Poison,' that was "a study in green," as well as a summary of the life
and talents of Janus Weathercock of The London Magazine.

Beautiful criticism had been made as long ago as when Sidney wrote of
the "blind crowder," whose song moved his heart like the sound of a
trumpet. But men had not known what they were doing, and made lovely
things with quite another purpose. Coleridge set the key for many men's
playing when he said that "the ultimate end of criticism is much more to
establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass
judgments on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible
that the two could be separated." And Mr. Arthur Symons, who has in our
own day made fine critical things, yet says, quite humbly, that "the aim
of criticism is to distinguish what is essential in the work of a
writer," and again, that "criticism is a valuation of forces." Hazlitt
was no further from the truth when he wrote, in a pleasant, rather
malicious article on the critics of his time, that "a genuine criticism
should, as I take it, reflect the colours, the light and shade, the soul
and body of a work." Criticism, as Wilde saw it, was free to do all
these things, but had a further duty to itself. Hazlitt, and those who
read him in his own day, thought that he was giving opinions, talking,
reflecting "the soul and body of a work"; but it is for himself that we
read him now, and his subjects and opinions matter little beside the
gusto and the fresh wind of the chalk downs that make his essays things
in themselves and fit for such criticism as he liked. Wainewright too,
who learnt from Hazlitt, "deals," as Wilde saw, "with his impressions of
the work as an artistic whole, and tries to translate these impressions
into words, to give, as it were, the literary equivalent for his
imaginative and mental effect." But he did not say so, and perhaps
Walter Pater's essays were the first to make it impossible not to
recognize that criticism was more than a series of judgments, opinions
and ideas, necessarily subordinate to the thing criticized.

Wilde, at any rate, recognized this, and carried passive recognition
into active proclamation of a new creed for critics. He gave them a new
creed and a new charter, and, if he had done nothing else, would have
earned a place in the history of our literature. He showed that they
were free to do all they had ever attempted, to track the secret stream
of inspiration to its source, to work out alike the melody and
counterpoint of art, to discover its principles, to enjoy its examples,
to paint portraits, to talk with their sitters, to enounce ideas, to
catch the fleeting sunlight and shadow of impression. They were free to
do all this, and for a creed he taught them that criticism is itself a
creative art, perhaps the most creative of the arts, certainly an art to
be practised with no less delicate care than that of the maker of poems,
the teller of stories, the painter of pictures, the man who captures a
melody, or the man who shapes a dream in stone.

My private predilections may have led me to lay too much emphasis on the
main contention of 'The Critic as Artist.' I hope not, but must take
this opportunity of remembering that, like 'The Decay of Lying,' this
dialogue is rich in other matter than theory. Wilde never, unless in the
essay on Wainewright, deliberately set himself to estimate an artist or
to paint a portrait. But throughout the two dialogues are scattered
fragments of vivid criticism, sometimes a little swift and careless,
always subordinated as notes of colour to the prevailing scheme of the
whole, but never impersonal or dull. It is impossible to read a page of
_Intentions_ without experiencing a delightful stimulus. It is, in my
opinion, that one of Wilde's books that most nearly represents him. In
nothing else that he wrote did he come so near to pouring into
literature the elixir of intellectual vitality that he royally spilled
over his conversation.

The fourth essay in the book is not on the high level of the others. It
is more practical and less beautiful, was written earlier than the rest,
and published in the year after Wilde's marriage. It is interesting, but
less as a thing in itself than as an indication of the character of
Wilde's knowledge of the theatre. I have therefore passed it over to the
next chapter.



There is a public glory in the art of the theatre, a direct and
immediate applause that is nearer to the face-to-face praise and visible
worship that is won by conversation than the discreet approval of
readers of books. Of all the arts that of the drama is most likely to
attract the talker for talk's sake. By its means he can set his fancies
moving on the boards, fling his metaphors dressed and coloured on a
monstrous screen, and entertain a thousand listeners at once. Hazlitt
never wrote a play; but his was talk with a purpose. He talked to learn,
to teach, to think aloud. But Lamb, who talked for the delight of
himself and his friends, tried to amuse a larger audience with "Mr. H.,"
and, when that play was damned, joined heartily in the hisses, for fear
of being mistaken for the author. Those who conspired at the Mermaid
Tavern to send brave argosies of wit trafficking on a bluer sea than
ever sailed Drake's galleons were playwrights to a man. Particularly the
theatre attracts those dandies among authors and talkers, for whom
social means as much as artistic success--Steele, Congreve, Wilde.
Congreve, like Wilde, went to Trinity College, Dublin (though he was not
an Irishman), came to London with but little money, was a public
character before he was twenty-five, cared as much for society as for
art, grew fat with success, and became a gentleman of the world. The
differences between his comedies and Wilde's are not due to different
aims in writing, but only to differences in their personalities, and to
the change in public taste during the two centuries that passed between
"Love for Love" and _The Importance of Being Earnest_. Not until
Congreve had had three plays successfully acted did he write one of
which "but little ... was prepared for that general taste which seems
now to be predominant in the palates of our audience."

It is important in considering Wilde's early comedies to remember the
character of the audience with which he had to contend. His was a public
that asked to feel as well as to smile, a public that had grown
accustomed to smile with tears in its eyes, a public that was best
pleased to laugh loudly and to sob into handkerchiefs, and judged a play
by the loudness of the laughs and the number of the handkerchiefs that
it made necessary. He had not a Restoration audience of men and women
with sharpened wits and a delight in their exercise, ready to smile and
quite unready to take anything seriously except amusement. It is for
that reason that he called _Lady Windermere's Fan_ "A Play about a Good
Woman," instead of making Mrs. Erlynne a Sylvia and punishing Lord
Darlington with a marriage.

The spectacular effects of the theatre, the possibilities of delightful
dialogue, the public glory, of which he was always rather greedy, drew
Wilde to the writing of plays. But beside these less intimate motives he
had a genuine dramatic instinct that kept him from his early youth
intermittently preparing himself as a playwright. The first thing he
wrote after the publication of _Poems_ was a play. He took it with him
to America, and on his return wrote another. With the charming
braggadocio of one who was quite determined that there should be an Op.
XXX. he printed Op. II. on the title-page of the private issue of _The
Duchess of Padua_. His public recognition as a playwright was deferred
till 1892, but after the writing of _Vera_, which, I suppose, was Op.
I., he seldom ceased to observe and to plan for the stage.

The character of Wilde's study of the theatre was shown in 'The Truth of
Masks,' and in the dramatic criticism that he wrote in the years
immediately following his marriage. It was a study of methods and
concerned no less with stage-management than with the drama. Nearly
thirty years ago he made a plea for beautiful scenery, and asked for
that harmony between costumier and scene-painter that has been achieved
in our day by Charles Ricketts and Cayley Robinson under the management
of Mr. Herbert Trench. He remarked that painted doors were superior to
real ones, and pointed out that properties which need light from more
than one side destroy the illumination suggested by the scene-painter's
shadings. From the first his dramatic criticism was written in the
wings, not from the point of view of an audience careless of means,
observant only of effects. _Vera_ may have been dull, and _The Duchess
of Padua_ unplayable, but actors, at least, shall have no fault to find
in the technique of _Lady Windermere's Fan_. That play seems to me to be
no more than a conscious experiment in the use of the knowledge that
Wilde had sedulously worked to obtain.

There was a continuity in Wilde's interest in the theatre wholly lacking
in his passing fancies for narrative or essay-writing. This, with the
fact that his plays brought him his first financial success, has made it
usual to consider him as a dramatist whose recreations are represented
by his books. Even Mr. Symons, in his article on Wilde as "An Artist in
Attitudes," finds that his plays, "the wittiest that have been seen upon
the modern stage," expressed, "as it happened by accident, precisely
what he himself was best able to express." I cannot help feeling that
this is a little unjust to him. His most perfectly successful works,
those which most exactly accomplish what they attempt, without
sacrificing any part of themselves, are, perhaps, _The Importance of
Being Earnest_ and _Salomé_. Both these are plays. But neither of them
seems to me so characteristic, so inclusive of Wilde as _Intentions_,
_De Profundis_, _The Portrait of Mr. W. H._, or even _The Picture of
Dorian Gray_. His plays are wilfully limited, subordinated to an aim
outside themselves, and, except in the two I have just mentioned, these
limitations are not such as to justify themselves by giving freedom to
the artist. Some limitations set an artist free for an achievement
otherwise impossible. But the limitations of which I complain only made
Wilde a little contemptuous of his work. They did not save his talent
from preoccupations, but compelled it to a labour in whose success alone
he could take an interest.

It is impossible not to feel that Wilde was impatient of the methods and
the meanings of his first three successful plays, like a juggler,
conscious of being able to toss up six balls, who is admired for tossing
three. These good women, these unselfish, pseudonymous mothers, these
men of wit and fashion discomfited to make a British holiday; their
temptations, their sacrifices, their defeats, are not taken from any
drama played in Wilde's own mind. He saw them and their adventures quite
impersonally; and no good art is impersonal. Salomé kissing the pale
lips of Iokanaan may once have moved him when he saw her behind the
ghostly footlights of that secret theatre in which each man is his own
dramatist, his own stage-manager, and his own audience. But Lady
Windermere did not return to her husband for Wilde's sake, and he did
not feel that Sir Robert Chiltern's future mattered either way. He cared
only that an audience he despised should be relieved at her return, and
that to them the career of a politician should seem to be important. Not
until the production of _The Importance of Being Earnest_ did he share
the pleasure of the pit. I know a travelling showman who makes "enjoy"
an active verb, and speaks of "enjoying the poor folk" when, for
coppers, he lets them ride on merry-go-rounds, and agitate themselves in
swing-boats, which offer him no manner of amusement. In just this way
Wilde "enjoyed" the London audiences with his early plays. He did not
enjoy them himself.

Hazlitt said of Congreve that "the workmanship overlays the materials;
in Wycherley the casting of the parts and the fable are alone sufficient
to ensure success." Wilde may not have read Hazlitt on "The English
Comic Writers," but his earlier plays suggest a determination to "ensure
success" after the manner of Wycherley, and to overlay the base material
necessary for that purpose with wit's fine workmanship after the manner
of Congreve. The fables, the characters, the settings, were chosen on
account of their experience; all were veterans with reputations
untarnished by any failure in popularity. Some were taken from the
English stage, some from the French; all served as the machinery to keep
an audience interested and carry Wilde's voice across the footlights. In
the theatre, as in storytelling, he was not unready to work to

I say, to carry Wilde's voice across the footlights: that is exactly
what his plays do. Those neat, polished sentences, snapping like
snuffboxes, are often taken from the books that hold what he chose to
preserve of his conversation. An aphorism that has served the author of
_The Soul of Man_ and shone for a moment in _Dorian Gray_ is given a new
vitality by Lord Illingworth, and what is good enough for Lady
Narborough is a little better in the mouth of Dumby. Wilde was never
without the power, shared by all amateurs of genius, of using up the
odds and ends from one pastime to fill out the detail of another. Doing
things, like Merimée, for wagers with himself, he would make plays that
should be powerful in their effect on other people, but he would reserve
the right to show, even while making them, that he could do something
else. He learnt from Musset, and believed, with Fortunio, that "a pun is
a consolation for many ills, and a play upon words as good a way as
another of playing with thoughts, actions, and people." He consoled
himself for his plots by taking extraordinary liberties with them, and
amused himself with quips, bons-mots, epigrams and repartee that had
really nothing to do with the business in hand. Most of his witty
sayings would bear transplanting from one play to another, and it is
necessary to consult the book if we would remember in whose mouth they
were placed. This is a very different thing from the dialogue of
Congreve on the one hand or of J. M. Synge on the other. The whole
arrangement in conversation, as he might appropriately have called
either _Lady Windermere's Fan_, _An Ideal Husband_, or _A Woman of No
Importance_, was very much lighter than the story that served as its
excuse and sometimes rudely interrupted it. It was so sparkling,
good-humoured and novel that even the audience for whom he had
constructed the story forgave him for putting a brake upon its speed
with this quite separate verbal entertainment.

I suppose that this forgiveness encouraged him to believe that the
situations and emotional appeals he borrowed from melodrama were not
necessary to his success. In _The Importance of Being Earnest_ he threw
them bravely overboard, and wrote a play whose very foundation was a
pun. Nothing could be a better proof of the inessential nature of those
tricks with which he had been making sure of his audience than the
immense superiority of this play to the others. Free from the necessity
of living up to any drama more serious than its conversation, it
preserves a unity of feeling and of tone that sets it upon a higher
level. Wit is a little heartless, a little jarring, when flashed over a
crisis of conscience, even when we know that the agitated politician is
only a figure cut from an illustrated paper and mounted on cardboard.
And passion, whether of repentance or of indignation, is a little
_outré_ in a picture-gallery where Lord Illingworth has said that a
well-tied tie is the first serious step in life. In those first three
plays, even when Wilde makes a serious effort to get dramatic value out
of, for example, the Lord Illingworth's worldly wisdom, he is quite
unable to disguise the fact that it is an effort and serious. Those
plays are interesting, amusing, clever, what you will, but their
contradictions have cost them beauty. It is not in the least surprising
that _The Importance of Being Earnest_, the most trivial of the social
plays, should be the only one of them that gives that peculiar
exhilaration of spirit by which we recognise the beautiful. It is
precisely because it is consistently trivial that it is not ugly. If
only once it marred its triviality with a bruise of passion, its beauty
would vanish with the blow. But it never contradicts itself, and it is
worth noticing that its unity, its dovetailing of dialogue and plot, so
that the one helps the other, is not achieved at the expense of the
conversation, but at that of the mechanical contrivances for filling a
theatre that Wilde had not at first felt sure of being able to do
without. The dialogue has not been weighted to trudge with the plot; the
plot has been lightened till it can fly with the wings of the dialogue.
The two are become one, and the lambent laughter of this comedy is due
to the radioactivity of the thing itself, and not to glow-worms
incongruously stuck over its surface.

It is not easy to define the quality of that laughter. It is not
uproarious enough to provide the sore throat of farce. It is not
thoughtful enough to pass Meredith's test of comedy. It is not due to a
sense of superior intellect, like much of Mr. Shaw's. It is the laughter
of complicity. We do not laugh at but with the persons of the play. We
would, if we could, abet the duplicity of Mr. Worthing, and be
accessories after the fact to the Bunburying of Algernon. We would even
encourage Lady Bracknell's determined statement, for we are in the
secret, and we know--

     She only does it to amuse,
     Because she knows it pleases.

The simultaneous speech of Cecily and Gwendolen is no insult to our
intelligence, nor do we boggle for a moment over the delightful
impossibility of Lane. We are caught from the beginning by a spirit of
delicate fun. We busy ourselves in the intrigues, and would on no
account draw back. _The Importance of Being Earnest_ is to solid comedy
what filigree is to a silver bowl. We are relieved of our corporeal
envelopes, and share with Wilde the pleasure of sporting in the fourth

       *       *       *       *       *

Nothing better illustrates Wilde's extraordinary versatility than his
almost simultaneous business as two entirely different dramatists. The
one wrote the plays we have been discussing, the other, plays so
different from these in character that it is hard to believe that they
are the work of the same man. These other plays have been called
"romantic," a word that hardly distinguishes them from the "romantic"
comedy of _The Importance of Being Earnest_. Still, Gautier and Flaubert
have made it possible to attribute to that word a flavour of the South
and the East, and these plays have Southern and Eastern settings that
are harmonious with their contents. There is no laughter in these plays.
They are nearer to _The Duchess of Padua_ than to comedy. Wilde
delighted in laughter, but also in a quality in emotion almost hostile
to laughter, a quality that I can best describe as magnificence. In his
prose books both are expressed; if his dramatic writing had been limited
to the four plays that brought him success, it would have seemed that
the Wilde who wrote _The Sphinx_ had not been represented on the stage.

But, when he was writing _Lady Windermere's Fan_, or a little earlier,
he wrote down, swiftly, as if to relieve himself, a play whose mood was
at the opposite end of his range. And, while _The Importance of Being
Earnest_ was filling the St. James's Theatre, he was trying to finish
_La Sainte Courtisane_, and had submitted to a manager the latter part
of _A Florentine Tragedy_, which he had never been able to begin. When
he was released from prison, he left the manuscript of the first in a
cab, and did not complete the second. He had imagined, while in Reading
Gaol, two other such plays as _Salomé--Ahab and Isabel_, and _Pharaoh_.
These, unfortunately, like _The Cardinal of Arragon_, portions of which
Wilde was accustomed to recite, were never written. The non-existence
and the incompleteness of these plays are explicable on other grounds
than those of inclination. I think that if _Salomé_ had been produced
with success as soon as it was written, Wilde would very likely not have
written his plays about good women and conscience-stricken men of State,
or, having written one, would have written no more. It is possible that
we owe _The Importance of Being Earnest_ to the fact that the Censor
prevented Sarah Bernhardt from playing _Salomé_ at the Palace Theatre.
For though Wilde had the secret of a wonderful laughter, he preferred to
think of himself as a person with magnificent dreams. He would rather
have been a magician than a jester. The well-dressed modern plays
starved too many of his intimate desires. He was unable to clothe
magnificent emotions in evening dress. But applause was necessary to
him. He made sure of it by the modern plays, and had not a chance of
securing it by anything else. And so there are four social comedies, and
only one _Salomé_.

Of the unfinished plays, as they are printed in his works, there is
little to be said. _La Sainte Courtisane_ is a beautiful fragment,
suggesting a story rather intellectual than emotional, but an admirable
framework on which to drape a cloak of imagery. The motive is the same
as that of _The Portrait of Mr. W. H._ The woman covered with jewels is
converted by the hermit to the love of God, and he by her to the love of
the flesh. They lose their own beliefs in imparting them, and the hermit
goes to Alexandria, while the woman remains in the desert. The dialogue
is of the same character as that of _Salomé_, which we shall presently
discuss. We cannot tell how fine a play it might have been. _The
Florentine Tragedy_ is less fragmentary. As Wilde left it, it was the
latter part of a play in one act in blank verse, beginning with the
surprisal of the lovers by the husband. The whole of the conversation
between the three had been written. To fit the play for presentation on
the stage, Mr. Sturge Moore wrote a preparation for it that cannot be
far different from Wilde's design, and is now printed with the rest. It
is not the business of this book to consider the brilliant and vigorous
poetry of Mr. Sturge Moore, though it is impossible not to remember with
delight passages from many of his books, always rich in ore, and again
and again melting into purest gold. His induction to Wilde's play is
perfectly calculated. He catches the spirit of Wilde's verse, and
subdues his own to agreement. His is the difficult task of so drawing
Bianca's character that she shall be able without incongruity to beg the
young lord to kill her husband, and, when the young lord is himself
killed, to come dazed towards the merchant she has despised, with the

     Did you not tell me you were so strong?"

and receive the answer--

     Did you not tell me you were beautiful?"

Wilde's is a piece of cumulative drama that keeps up an increasing
tension in the audience from the moment that the husband enters till the
moment when the lover dies and those two sentences are spoken. The play
resembles _The Duchess of Padua_ in being unable to disguise an aloof
intention, an extraneous will-power, that is perfectly hidden in the
earlier _Salomé_.

It is surprising to think that _Salomé_ was not written with a view to
production. It was only offered to Sarah Bernhardt when she asked Wilde
why he had not written a play for her. The stage-directions, I am told,
set almost insoluble problems to the manager, whose ideas are limited by
the conventions of the modern theatre. The final speech of Salomé is of
a length that demands, if abridgment is to be avoided, a consummate
actress and an audience in a state of extraordinary tension. But, since
the play induces such a tension, the lack of an actress can hardly be
urged as a blemish on its technique. And since, when the play is
produced it is extremely successful, we can only rejoice that it has
shown, if only accidentally, the inadequacy of once accepted dogmas of
theatrical presentation. An appeal to the populace is not good
criticism, but no badly built play can show such a record of success as
_Salomé_. Mr. Ross will, I am sure, allow me to use some of the heavy
fire of facts with which he answered those critics who spoke of the play
as having been "dragged from obscurity" when it was produced in England
in 1905. "In 1901, within a year of the author's death, it was produced
in Berlin; from that moment it has held the European stage. It has run
for a longer consecutive period in Germany than any play by any
Englishman, not excepting Shakespeare. Its popularity has extended to
all countries where it is not prohibited. It is performed throughout
Europe, Asia, and America. It is played even in Yiddish."

But before discussing the play itself let me set down the facts on both
sides of the mild controversy over the writing of it in French. Wilde
had talked of the play for some time before he wrote it, and talked of
it chiefly in Paris. Frenchmen had applauded the fragments he recited.
It was to them that he wished to show it when completed. This is the
reason why it shares with "Vathek" and "The Grammont Memoirs" the
distinction of being a work written in French by an English-speaking man
of genius. It has been suggested that the language made it possible, but
_La Sainte Courtisane_ is enough to show that it could have been written
in English. There are slight disagreements over Wilde's knowledge of
French. M. André Gide says that "he knew French admirably, but pretended
to have to look for the words for which he meant his listeners to wait.
He had almost no accent, or at most only what it pleased him to retain
to give a new and strange aspect to his words." On the other hand, M.
Stuart Merrill writes of his speaking French with a fantasy that,
pleasant enough in conversation, would have produced a deplorable
impression in the theatre. For example, Wilde ended one of his stories
with "Et puis, alors, le roi il est mouru."

These pieces of evidence must be remembered when we consider the
composition of _Salomé_. Mr. Ross says: "The play was passed for press
by no less a writer than Marcel Schwob, whose letter to the Paris
publisher, returning the proofs and mentioning two or three slight
alterations, is still in my possession. Marcel Schwob told me some years
afterwards that he thought it would have spoiled the spontaneity and
character of Wilde's style if he had tried to harmonize it with the
diction demanded by the French Academy." M. Merrill says: "Un jour Wilde
me remit son drame qu'il avait écrit très rapidement, de premier jet, en
français, et me demanda d'en corriger les erreurs manifestes. Ce ne fut
pas chose facile de faire accepter à Wilde toutes mes corrections.... Je
me rappelle que la plupart des tirades de ses personnages commençaient
par l'explétif: _enfin!_ En ai-je assez biffé, des _enfin!_ Mais je
m'apercus bientôt que le bon Wilde n'avait en mon gout qu'une confiance
relative, et je le recommandai aux soins de Retté. Celui-ci continua mon
travail de correction et d'émendation. Mais Wilde finit par se méfier de
Retté autant que de moi, et ce fut Pierre Louys qui donna le dernier
coup de lime au texte de _Salomé_." In comment, I shall do no more than
notice that the play was written in 1891, and not published till 1893.
The two stories do not necessarily contradict each other, for Marcel
Schwob did not suggest that he saw the manuscript, and M. Merrill's
reminiscence is concerned with _Salomé_ long before it was sent to the

The question is not one of any great importance. It is sufficient for
our purpose to observe that the French of _Salomé_, whether as Wilde
wrote it or as it survived the emendations of his friends, is very
simple in construction. Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa,
did not use the finer subtleties of the language in which she loved
Iokanaan. A perusal of Maeterlinck's "Les Sept Princesses" had taught
her to use a speech whose power depends on its simplicity. She, Herod,
Herodias and all their entourage, speak like children who have had a
French nurse. Their speech is made of short sentences, direct assertions
and negations, that run like pages beside the progress of the play. They
show, these short sentences, what is happening, the more forcefully,
because they are themselves aloof from it and busied with their own
concerns. For example:--

     "_Herode._ Qu'est-ce que cela me fait qu'elle danse ou non? Cela ne
     me fait rien. Je suis heureux ce soir. Je suis très heureux. Jamais
     je n'ai été si heureux.

     _Le premier soldat._ Il a l'air sombre, le tétrarque. N'est-ce pas
     qu'il a l'air sombre?

     _Le second soldat._ Il a l'air sombre."

The effect of the play is won by the cumulative weight of these short
contradictory sentences, that fall like continual drops of water on a
stone, never argue, are never loud enough to be quarrelsome, and
sometimes amuse themselves by reflecting, as if in a box of mirrors, a
single object in a hundred ways. The moon is translated into many moods.
For the page of Herodias she is a dead woman coming from the tomb to
look for dead men. Salomé's lover sees her as a little dancing princess,
with yellow veil and silver feet. For Salomé she is a little piece of
money, cold, chaste, a virgin. The page of Herodias sees her again as a
dead woman, covering herself with a winding-sheet, and when the young
Syrian dies, laments that, knowing she was seeking a dead man, he had
not hidden his friend in a cavern where she could not see him. Herod
finds her an hysterical woman seeking lovers everywhere, naked, and
refusing to be veiled by the clouds. Herodias finds that the moon
resembles the moon, and that is all. Then in the eyes of Herod she
becomes red in accordance with the prophecy, and Herodias replies,
jeering, "And the Kings of the Earth have fear." And finally, when
Salomé is speaking to the head, when all is over but her death, Herod
cries aloud that the moon should be put out with the torches and the
stars, because he begins to be afraid.

The drama, reflected in these images of the moon that show the changing
colours of the minds that look at her, is thrown inward, and must be
read between the lines. Rather than describe the strength of an emotion,
or show it in immediate action, Wilde shows what it compels its
possessor to disregard. Salomé answers the question of the young Syrian
with irrelevant remarks, because she is obsessed by the mole's eyes of
her stepfather. When Iokanaan speaks, and the young Syrian suggests that
she should go into the garden in her litter, she replies simply, "Il dit
des choses monstrueuses à propos de ma mère, n'est-ce pas?" When he
kills himself, on account of her words to the prophet, and falls before
her feet, she does not see him. The page laments, and a soldier tells
her of what has happened before her eyes:--

     "_Le premier soldat._ Princesse, le jeune capitaine vient de se

     _Salomé._ Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche, Iokanaan."

This is potential as opposed to kinetic drama, and expresses itself not
in action, but in being unmoved by action. It is an expression of the
aspiration towards purely potential speech characteristic of the French
symbolists, and of all who seek "a literature in which the visible world
is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream." It was,
perhaps, the fear that such drama of the mind would be impossible on the
stage that made Maeterlinck write as sub-title to a book of plays,
"Little Dramas for Marionettes." For the speech maps out by avoidance
what is really said, and whereas some plays would lose little by being
acted in dumb show, these appeal less to the eye than to the ear.

In writing _Salomé_, however, Wilde did not neglect the wonderful visual
sense of the theatre that was, later, to suggest to him the appearance
on the stage of Jack in mourning for his non-existent brother. He was
able to see the play from the point of view of the audience, and refused
no means of intensifying its effect. When Salomé is leaning over the
cistern, listening for the death of Iokanaan, he does not allow the
executioner to come up with the head. The man would have shared the
attention of the audience, and made the head a piece of meat. Instead:
"Un grand bras noir, le bras du bourreau, sort de la citerne apportant
sur un bouclier d'argent la tête d'Iokanaan. Salomé la saisit. Hérode se
cache le visage avec son manteau. Hérodias sourit et s'évente. Les
Nazaréens s'agenouillent et commencent à prier." The head, like a
dramatic moment, isolated upon the stage, compels a group of
characteristic actions. Its appearance is a significant speech. The
strength of the emotion in the play blinds many to the beauty without
which it would be worthless. Salomé's lust, wreaking itself on dead lips
because it was denied them living, is, indeed, a powerful demon to
subdue to the service of beauty. And the prurient, who are most
intimately moved by it, make up most of those who cannot see beyond it.
But this emotion is but part of a larger harmony, which, though still
more powerful, is not allowed to confuse the delicate, careful fingering
of the artist. Control is never lost, and, when the play is done, when
we return to it in our waking dreams, we return to that elevation only
given by the beautiful, undisturbed by the vividness, the clearness with
which we realise the motive of passion playing its part in that deeper
motive of doom, that fills the room in which we read, or the theatre in
which we listen, with the beating of the wings of the angel of death.



Before the success of the plays, Wilde had been an adventurer on thin
ice, exhibiting a brave superiority to fortune, but painfully conscious
that his income was far smaller than that on which it was possible to
live with the happy extravagance that was natural to him. He had been
born with the ghost of a silver spoon in his mouth, but had never been
able to materialize it. It was his right to live luxuriously, since that
task was one that he was peculiarly fitted to perform. Some carelessness
in the inviting of his fairy godmothers, some inattention on the part of
the presiding gods, had denied him that right. When the success of the
plays suddenly raised his income to several thousands of pounds a year,
he lost no time in living up to and above it. Some of his extravagances
were of the simplest, most childish kind. He over-fed, like a schoolboy
in a tuckshop with an unexpected sovereign in his hand. Flowers he had
always worn, hansom-cabs he had always used, but now he bought the most
expensive button-holes, and kept his cab waiting all day. His
friendships became proportionately costly, for he denied nothing to
those he liked, and some of them never forgot to ask. He hurriedly
ruined himself with prosperity, like the poor man in the fairy tale,
whose wish for all the gold in the world was granted by a mischievous

The success of the plays and the extravagance that it permitted placed
him in so strong a light of public attention that he could do nothing in
secret. He became one of those people whose celebrity lends a savour to
gossip. Scandal borrowed wings from the knowledge that it had a
beginning in truth. In 1889, before the maleficent flood of gold was
poured upon him, he had become accustomed to indulge the vice that,
openly alluded to in the days and verses of Catullus, is generally
abhorred and hidden in our own. He had been in youth a runner after
girls, but, as a man, he ceased to take any interest in women. In the
moment of his success, when many were ready to throw themselves at his
feet, one, perhaps, of the reasons of his power was his own indifference
to his conquests. Many excuses have been made for him. It has been
suggested, for example, that in his absorption in antiquity he allowed
himself to forget that he was not living in it. But Wilde was not a
scholar with a rampart of books between himself and the present. Our
business here is scientific, not apologetic, and such evidence as we
have shows that the vice needs none but a pathological explanation. It
was a disease, a malady of the brain, not the necessary consequence of a
delight in classical literature. Opulence permitted its utmost
development, but did not create it. Opulence did, however, make it
noticeable, and prepared the circumstances in which it was publicly

Wilde had always been laughed at, and, even before the facts of his
conduct were generally known, the laughter was coloured by dislike. A
book that was written by a small, prehensile mind, gifted with a limber
cleverness, enables us to see him through the eyes of the early
nineties. This book, "The Green Carnation," is a limited but faithful
caricature. Wilde was accused of having written it, but
characteristically replied: "I invented that magnificent flower. But
with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely
beautiful name, I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The
flower is a work of art. The book is not." Here, as in the matter of
"Patience," he could not forgo the perversity of lending colour to other
people's parodies of himself. "The Green Carnation" shows us Esmé
Amarinth and a youthful patrician who models himself upon him expounding
the art of being self-consciously foolish, wearing green carnations,
and teaching choir-boys to sing a catch about "rose-white youth" in the
presence of the widow of a strong and silent British soldier. Lady Locke
thinks that England has changed, and though fascinated by Amarinth's
under-study, does not marry him, for fear her "soldier's son," a stout
Jehu of the governess-cart, should learn from him a soul-destroying and
effeminate love of carnations pickled in arsenic. This book is like a
clever statue, brightly painted, of Britannia refusing the advances of
the æsthete. The æsthete is made to look rather a fool; and so is
Britannia. Such sections of the public as took pleasure in it thought
Wilde a peculiarly arrogant coxcomb, a disconcerting and polished reply
to the Victorian tradition of muscular manhood in which they had long
been secure. They were ready to rejoice in his discomfiture, and their
hostility to Wilde spread swiftly and gave a quality of triumph to the
delight of all classes as soon as he was arrested.

An elaborate account of the various trials would in no way serve the
purpose of this book. It is sufficient to say that on May 25, 1895, he
was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour.



The book called _De Profundis_, first published in 1905, five years
after Wilde's death, is not printed as it was written, but is composed
of passages from a long letter whose complete publication would be
impossible in this generation. The passages were selected and put
together by Mr. Robert Ross with a skill that it is impossible
sufficiently to admire. The letter, a manuscript of "eighty
close-written pages on twenty folio sheets," was not addressed to Mr.
Ross but to a man to whom Wilde felt that he owed some, at least, of the
circumstances of his public disgrace. It was begun as a rebuke of this
friend, whose actions, even subsequent to the trials, had been such as
to cause Wilde considerable pain. It was not delivered to him, but given
to Mr. Ross by Wilde, who also gave instructions as to its partial

It is not often possible to detect the original intention of rebuke in
the published portions of _De Profundis_. I suppose that as Wilde
pointed out his friend's share in his disaster, and set down on paper
what that disaster was, he came to examine its ulterior effect on his
own mind, for those pages that are open to us contain such an
examination. He is in prison, and is at pains to realize exactly what
this means to him: where he is unchanged, where he has lost, and where
and how he has gained. He would draw up a profit and loss account, of
the loaves that are sustenance for the body and the flowers of the white
narcissus that are food for the soul, and in this way give himself
courage to face the world with the knowledge that he had kept his soul
alive. He will discover where he stands with regard to Christianity, and
where with regard to Flaubert. A critic and artist, he will realize
himself among masterpieces, and discover what is altered in the
personality for whose notation he has been accustomed to use his
criticism of works of art. "To the artist, expression is the only mode
under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead."

Wilde's life in prison was lived on two planes. Only one of them is
represented in _De Profundis_. In writing that letter he was able to
pick up the frayed threads of his intellectual existence, to find that
some were gold and some were crimson, and to learn that whatever else he
might have lost he had not lost his lordship over words. The existence
whose threads he thus collected was not that which was at the moment
determining the further development of his character. It was an
aftermath of that summer of the intellect that had given him
_Intentions_. Instead of the debonair personality of an Ernest or a
Gilbert, he painted now a no less ideal vision of himself in
circumstances similar to those that now surrounded him.

Behind this imaginary and as it were dramatic life was another in which
he shared the days and the day's business of his fellow convicts.

     "We tore the tarry rope to shreds
       With blunt and bleeding nails;
     We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors
       And cleaned the shining rails:
     And rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
       And clattered with the pails."

There was the routine of the prison, the daily walk for one hour round a
circular path, watched by warders, inside a wall that hid all but the
sky and the topmost branches of a tree, upon whose bare twigs, buds, and
green and ruddy leaves, the prisoners depended for news of the
magnificent passage of the seasons. These daily walks, like all the work
of the prison, took place in silence, broken only by the warders' words
of command delivered in the raucous voice that tradition has dictated.
As speech is the greatest of man's privileges, so its deprivation is the
least bearable of his punishments. During the daily walks even those
convicts who in other things are obedient to the prison discipline,
learn to speak without a perceptible motion of the lips. For six weeks
Wilde walked in silence, but one evening at the end of that time, he
heard the man walking behind him say: "Oscar Wilde, I am sorry for you.
It must be worse for you than for us." He nearly fainted, and replied:
"No; it's the same for all of us." In this way he made the
acquaintanceship of his fellows. One by one he talked with all of them,
and these scraps of conversation, he told M. André Gide, made his life
so far tolerable that he lost his first desire of killing himself. "The
only humanizing influence in prison is the prisoners," he wrote after he
came out. Except in the matter of permission to write (a permission not
granted until near the end of his term, and then only on the
recommendation of the doctor), the prison discipline was in no way
relaxed for Wilde. He slept on a plank bed. He did not, like
Wainewright, remain "a gentleman," and share a cell with a bricklayer
and a sweep, neither of whom ever offered him the brush. He cleaned out
his cell, polished his tin drinking cup, turned the crank, and picked
the oakum like the rest.

Echoes of these things are heard in _De Profundis_, but if, as Wilde
had, we have made ourselves

     "Misers of sound and syllable, no less
     Than Midas of his coinage,"

it is not in what books say but in their style that we look for the
secrets of their writers. And it is impossible not to notice that the
character of Wilde's prose in this book is not very different from that
in _Intentions_. He observed changes in himself, and foresaw others, but
the real alteration of his point of view was not accomplished until he
came out of prison. In gaol he was in retreat, like a man who has gone
into a monastery. The world was still the world that he had left, and
not until he was again free did he realize more vividly than by
speculation how different his life was to be, and across what a gulf he
would look back at the existence that had been broken off by his
disaster. His artistic attitude had not yet been changed.

It is for this reason that the book raises so easily a question dear to
those who prefer praising or blaming to understanding. Is it sincere?
they ask. Is it possible that a man who felt such things sincerely could
write of his feelings in such mellifluous prose? Is it sincere? they
ask, with particular insistence, pointing to the character of Wilde's
life after leaving prison as a proof that it was not. And if not, what
then? Why then, they say, it is worthless.

     "Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
     A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least
     That to the faithful herdsman's art belongs!
     What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
     And, when they list, their lean and flashy songs
     Grate on their scrannel-pipes of wretched straw."

They demand that the truth shall be told in a hoarse voice, that they
may recognize it, and yet the ugly, conscientious noise of their
scrannel-pipes is no nearer than _De Profundis_ to the sincerity they
admire. Sincerity, in the sense that they give to that word, does not
exist in art. "What people call insincerity is simply a method by which
we can multiply our personalities." That sentence, from the mouth of one
of the personalities that Wilde was able to assume, explains the obvious
variety of his work. It throws also no dubious light upon the general
nature of art. For in art no attitude is insincere whose result is
beautiful, and no attitude is possible whose result may not be
beautiful. All depends on the artist and on the depth and abandon of his
insincerity. For art tolerates many contradictions, but a work of art
tolerates none. The man who takes an attitude and is unable to sustain
it, who smirks at the audience, who plays as it were the traitor to his
own choice, can produce nothing but what is ugly, since, like him, it
will contain a contradiction. But the man who chooses an attitude, and
preserves it consistently in any work of art, is thereby fulfilling a
condition of beauty. He may make a lovely thing, and then, taking
another attitude, may contradict himself in a thing of no less
loveliness. Repentance like that in _De Profundis_ is a guarantee of a
moment of humility, but not of a life of reform. Shakespeare wrote
Hamlet's soliloquy and also Juliet's murmuring from the balcony. Yet he
was not always in love, nor always melancholy with inaction. We are
accustomed to insincerity in play-writing, and do not expect each
character, fool or wise, young or old, to represent its author. We
allow, as, for an obvious example, in Restoration comedy, plays to be
written from a standpoint that their authors could not possibly maintain
in private life. In poetry also, we do not consider Browning insincere
because he speaks now for Lippo Lippi, and now for Andrea del Sarto. In
novels we allow Fielding to write "Jonathan Wild" as a satirist, and
"Joseph Andrews" as a comic romancer, and we are not shocked when he
relishes in imagination deeds that as a magistrate he would be bound to
censure. I think we have to learn that all fine literature is dramatic.
No man pours from his mouth in any single speech all the roses and the
vomit that would represent his soul. Men speak and hold their peace.
They make and their hands are still. And many moods flit by while they
are silent, and myriad souls agitate the blood in the veins of those
motionless hands. The artist is he who, remembering this mood or that,
can hold it fast and maintain it long enough for the making of a work of
art. We do not ask him to retain it further. The shaping of his mood in
words or in clay has already changed his personality. The writer of a
mad song need not gibber in the streets. Golden phrases lose none of
their magnificence if he who made them wears plain homespun when we meet
him in the marketplace. He has been a king for a moment, and given us
his kingship for ever. We can ask no more.

Wilde, perhaps more than other men, insisted on the dramatic character
of his work. In considering any of it we should remember those sentences
in the last paragraph of 'The Truth of Masks':--"Not that I agree with
everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I
entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint,
and in æsthetic criticism attitude is everything." I am not sure that
this confession does not spoil 'The Truth of Masks.' It is perilously
like an aside; but Wilde was sufficiently subtle to have chosen a mood
which such an aside would illustrate rather than contradict. In
considering his work, we must remember, first, that all work is
dramatic, true to an individual mood only; and, secondly, that Wilde,
more clearly conscious of this than most artists, was better able to
take advantage of it. He was freed from those qualms of conscience which
made Swinburne glad to differentiate his earlier from his later work by
saying:--"In my next work it should be superfluous to say that there is
no touch of dramatic impersonation or imaginary emotion." This sentence,
that denies together what is universal and what does not exist (since
you cannot imagine an emotion without feeling it) points to no blemish
in Swinburne's work, but only to a discomfort of mind that some of it
must have caused him. From this discomfort Wilde was free. He had many
tuning-forks, and distrusted none of them because it happened to be
pitched differently from another.

There is no doubt that, when _De Profundis_ was finished, Wilde regarded
it as a document of historical value, as a veracious confession. This
is clear from the tone in which he wrote of it to Mr. Ross:--"I don't
defend my conduct. I explain it. Also there are in my letter certain
passages which deal with my mental development in prison, and the
inevitable evolution of my character and intellectual attitude towards
life that has taken place; and I want you and others who still stand by
me and have affection for me to know exactly in what mood and manner I
hope to face the world." Those sentences certainly let us see the
attitude that Wilde hoped to induce in his readers, but, if we would
turn to Wilde himself, and, careless of the beauty of the work, pry past
it to discover the private feelings of the author, we must take them not
as a statement of the truth, but, seeking the truth, take that statement
into account. That statement, the published _De Profundis_, those
unpublished portions of the letter which, probably, will never be read
in our lifetime, the whole of Wilde's works, the whole of his life, the
character of that person to whom he was immediately writing, the
character of those other friends by whom he desired to be read, the
character which, without deliberate choice, he had himself grown
accustomed to present to them: we must know all these things, and be
able to weigh them exactly, and balance them justly against each other.
Have I not said enough to show that it is a vain task to seek for the
absolute truth in such a matter, and that we are better and more
hopefully employed when we concern ourselves simply with a wonderful
piece of literature dictated by certain conditions that we admit are
impossible accurately to discover?

In pointing out that the details of Wilde's life in prison did not
affect the manner of his thought, but only provided him with fresh
material, I do not wish to suggest that prison was unimportant to him.
It might have been. He might, in revolt against it, have made it no more
than a hideous accident, stunting his nature by not refusing to allow it
to assimilate the black bread that had been thrown to it as well as the
sweetened cakes. If he had been earlier released, as he said, this might
have happened. He was not released, and revolt was changed to
acceptance, and, at last, he was able to say, as he had hoped, that
society's sending him to prison ranked with his father's sending him to
Oxford, as a turning point in his life. But that is a question for the
next chapter, for imprisonment did not radically alter him until he was
again in the world.

In prison, however, the anæsthetic of magnificent living was denied him,
and he turned to magnificent thought, recovering the power that had
been his before popular success had narrowed his horizon.

     "Knowing the possible, see thou try beyond it
     Into impossible things, unlikely ends;
     And thou shalt find thy knowledgeable desire
     Grow large as all the regions of thy soul."[6]

In 1894 he had known the possible, and achieved it in _The Importance of
Being Earnest_. But in 1889 he had been trying far beyond it, and now
again, in prison, he found his desires growing far beyond the possible,
and covering the regions of his soul. He needed an idea that should make
this bread-and-water existence one with that of wine and lilies, an idea
that should make it possible for him to conceive his life as a whole,
and, in the conception, make it so.

In _De Profundis_ he tries to make his friend realize what he has
scarcely realized himself; the depth of his fall, the twilight in his
cell, the twilight in his heart, the nature of suffering, the nature of
the sorrow that does not allow itself to be forgotten. He writes
passages so poignant as to blind us to their beauty, for sorrow is no
less sorrow when it walks in purple than when in rags it lies in the
dust. Then, after showing the ruins of his life, he paints a picture, no
less poignant, of himself rebuilding that broken edifice with those
things that he has hitherto rejected. He has learnt, he tells himself,
the value of pain and the virtue of humility. He has once believed that
pain was a blemish on creation, and that the sobbing of a child made the
gods hide their faces for shame. He now believes that suffering is a
means for the purification of the spirit, a fire through which vessels
of clay must pass to their perfection. And, for humility, he discovers
that there is no defiance so lofty as that of self-accusation. He has
been told to forget who he is; life in prison almost compels him to
rebellion; but he has learnt that only by remembering his identity, by
shifting to his own shoulders the burden of his disaster, and by an
absolute acceptance of all that has happened in and to him, will he be
able to win the pride that humility confers and that rebellion makes

This purpose, to give his life the unity he demanded from a poem; these
motives, of suffering and humility, run waveringly through _De
Profundis_, carrying with them here and there fragments of mournful
experience. Through them he came to contemplate Christ, not only as a
type of humility and suffering, but also as an example of one whose life
was a work of art. In such books as _De Profundis_, the continuous
wandering speech of a mind following itself, some paragraphs seem to
withdraw themselves a little, as the keynotes of the rest. Such
paragraphs are, I think, those in which he wrote of Christ as the
supreme artist, of Christ's influence on art, and of his philosophy as
Wilde interpreted it. These paragraphs have seemed blasphemous to some
and unreasonable to others. I cannot consider them more blasphemous than
a Madonna and Child by Murillo, or a Christ and his Father by Milton, or
more unreasonable than those persons who are unable to perceive that
religion, no less than the Sabbath, was made for man, and not for the
delectation of the Almighty.

Man makes God in his own image, or as he would like himself to be, and,
as man's image changes, so is his God continually recast. Wilde's
prose-poem of the artist and the bronze is the story of the making and
remaking of religion. The Christ of the Roman slaves who escaped from
their masters' rods to worship their God in cellars was indeed a Man of
Sorrows, who found in misery and low estate the means of creating
loveliness. As they hoped, he promised, and each labourer's penny was
minted with the superscription he had himself designed. With the
renaissance of joy came new Christs. One taught the Irish monks to build
their wattled cells. Another, delighting in richness no less than in
simplicity, designed the stone lacework of the French cathedrals. Later,
the sombre, fiery Calvin saw a divinity of black and scarlet. Milton's
God conceived humanity as an epic, whose conclusion must neither be
hurried nor delayed. There have been Gods of war and Gods of peace,
changing with man's desires. It is for that reason that we are warned to
make no graven images, lest we should commit ourselves to a God of a
single mood. It was quite natural that the Christ whom Wilde saw, as he
sat on the wooden bench in his cell and turned the pages of his Greek
Testament, should be a Christ who showed that in all the acts of his
life there had been hope, a Christ who perceived "the enormous
importance of living completely for the moment," swept aside the tyranny
of orthodoxy, and "regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves
beautiful holy things and modes of perfection."

Wilde expresses his conception with incomparable wit and charm. When he
speaks of Christ's love of the sinner, he remarks that "the conversion
of a publican into a Pharisee would not have seemed to him a great
achievement." On Christ's view that "one should not bother too much over
affairs," he comments, "the birds didn't, why should man?" And again:
"The beggar goes to heaven because he has been unhappy. I cannot
conceive a better reason for his being sent there. The people who work
for an hour in the vineyard in the cool of the evening receive just as
much reward as those who have toiled there all day long in the hot sun.
Why shouldn't they? Probably no one deserved anything." And I cannot
refrain from reminding myself by writing it down, of his beautiful
comparison of the Greek Testament with the version that endless
repetition without choice of occasion has made an empty noise in our
ears: "When one returns to the Greek, it is like going into a garden of
lilies out of some narrow and dark house." It pleased him to accept the
not generally received view of some scholars, that Greek was the
language actually spoken by Christ, and that [Greek: tetelestai][7] was
indeed his last word and not a mere translation of a similar expression
in a Nazarene dialect of Aramaic.

But Wilde's study of the gospels had left him more than a handful of
phrases, and these chance flowers must not blind us to the garden of
thought in which they grew. Among the subjects on which he planned to
write was "Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life."
This essay was never written, but Wilde had made it almost unnecessary
by those suggestive paragraphs in the letter to his friend.

Christ, for him, was a supreme artist, who chose to build a beautiful
thing in life instead of in marble or song. Marble and song are to the
artist means of living, indeed the medium of the highest life of which
he is capable. Christ essayed the more difficult task of giving life
itself the unity and the loveliness that another might have given stone
or melody. And this beautiful and complete life, more moving in its
completeness than that of any of the gods of Greece, who "in spite of
the white and red of their fair fleet limbs were not really what they
appeared to be," was at once a work of art and the life of an artist.
Christ, Wilde saw, cared more for intensity than for magnificence, for
the soul more than raiment. His teaching was not one of the refusal of
experience, but of self-development. He set personality above
possessions, and told his followers to forgive their enemies, for their
own sake, not because their enemies wished to be forgiven; it is very
annoying to be forgiven. "But," says Wilde, "while Christ did not say to
men 'Live for others,' he pointed out that there was no difference at
all between the lives of others and one's own life." And it is this
truth that marks the difference between ancient and modern art. In
reading ancient critics of ancient art, we perceive that their view of
the tragedies whose performance they were privileged to see in the open
amphitheatres of Greece was narrower than ours. Theirs was the spectacle
of a good man or a good woman at odds with tragic circumstance. We have
made tragic circumstance human, and, though we walk with Christ to
Calvary, we also wash trembling hands with Pontius Pilate.

It is just this widened sympathy, this vitalization of other things in a
story besides the hero that divides what is called romantic from what is
called classical art. To Greek tragedy there was a background of the
Fates; but nobody sympathized with them. In whatever is classical as
opposed to romantic in modern art, we shall find a background of Fates
with whom nobody sympathizes, in whom nobody believes. But all the world
was alive to St. Francis. Shakespeare is myriad-mouthed as well as
myriad-minded. Daffodils are alive for him no less than kings, and Iago
is a man no less than Othello. And in all art that springs from the
spirit, thought Wilde, "wherever there is a romantic movement in art,
there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ."
Wilde, thinking in prison of Christianity in art, saw through the stone
walls the cathedral at Chartres in the blue morning mist, Dante and
Virgil walking in hell, the painted ship of the ancient mariner idly
rocking upon the painted ocean, Juliet leaning from her balcony, Pierre
Vidal flying as a wolf before the hounds, the irises of Baudelaire, the
bird-song of Verlaine, the breaking heart of Russian storytelling,
Tannhauser in the Venusberg, and all the flowers and children who have
laughed in a wind of song.

For the mind, as for love,

     "Stone walls do not a prison make,
       Nor iron bars a cage."

Wilde had all the art of the world before him as he wrote. Seldom in his
life did his thought move more magnificently and with greater wealth of
illustration than in the cell where, in a perpetual twilight, his mind
alone could illumine itself, and in its own light pursue that game of
thinking whose essential it is to be free and harmonious.[8] Its
harmonies are those of agreement with its own character, like the
harmonies of art. Its freedom is that of the consistent representation
of the character chosen by the thinker. In _De Profundis_ Wilde wrote
as harmoniously and freely as if his life were spent in conversation
instead of in silence, in looking at books and pictures instead of in
shredding oakum or in swinging the handle of a crank.

It is impossible too firmly to emphasize the division between the
texture of the life in _De Profundis_ and that of Wilde's life in
prison, a division not only needing explanation but explicable in the
light of later events. When he left prison he wrote _The Ballad of
Reading Gaol_. Now that ballad would have been obscured or enriched by a
silver cobweb of scarcely perceptible sensations if it had been written
before or during his imprisonment. Wilde could not then have suffered
some of the harsh and crude effects that are harmonious with its
character and necessary to its success. The newly-learnt insensibility,
that allowed him to use in the ballad emotions that once he would have
carefully guarded himself from perceiving, had been taught him in
prison. In prison his nerves had been so jangled that they responded
only to a violent agitation, so jarred that a delicate touch left them
silent. But at the time of the writing of _De Profundis_ these janglings
and jarrings were too immediate to affect him. They disappeared like
print held too close to the eye. He escaped from them as he wrote, for
he wrote from memory. While the events were happening, had just
happened, and might happen again, that produced the insensibility
without which he could not have secured the broad and violent effects of
his later work, he returned, in writing, to an earlier life. When he
took up his pen, it was as if none of these things were, unless as
material for the use of an aloof and conscious artist. He was outside
the prison as he wrote, and only saw as if in vision the tall man, with
roughened hands, who had once been "King of life," and now was writing
in a cell.


[6] From _The Sale of St. Thomas_. By Lascelles Abercrombie.

[7] [Greek: KATA IÔANNÊN], XIX, 30.

[8] "L'exercice de la pensée est un jeu, mais il faut que ce
jeu soit libre et harmonieux."--REMY DE GOURMONT.



"All trials," wrote Wilde, "are trials for one's life, just as all
sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The
first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back
to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two
years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me,
has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just
alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret
valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night
with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling,
and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my
hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me

He asked too much, both from Nature and from himself. Society would
indeed have none of him, as he had foreseen, but Nature could only
harbour for a moment this liver in great cities who had told her that
her use was to illustrate quotations from the poets, and had said that
he preferred to have her captive on his walls in the canvases of Corot
and of Constable, than to live in her cruder landscapes. He had never
intended to make too elaborate an advance to her. He had learnt from
Stevenson's letters that that ingenious man had "merely extended the
sphere of the artificial by taking to digging." He knew that reading
Baudelaire in a café would be more natural to him than an agricultural
existence. He was determined, however, not to return to the
extravagances of his life before prison, and he hoped that the country
would help him to keep this resolve. He was to learn that "one merely
wanders round and round within the circle of one's personality." When he
left prison he did not know that one must keep moving, but hoped to
choose a pleasant point in his personality, and stay there.

Released from prison on May 19, 1897, he crossed the Channel to Dieppe,
where he stayed for some days, and drove about with Mr. Robert Ross and
Mr. Reginald Turner, examining the surrounding villages, most of which
seemed uninhabitable. At the end of a week he took rooms in the inn at
the little hamlet of Berneval.

Here, for the first time, he lost his power of turning life into
tapestry. Alone in his cell he had written the magnificent pageant of
_De Profundis_, a pageant of purple and fine linen, though he who wrote
it wore the coarse cloth of convict dress. Set suddenly in the world
again, he was cut off more sharply from his former existence than ever
he had been cut off in prison. He became blithe and smiling, like a
child who has had no past. He bathed, and was amused at the simplicity
of his experience, which he laughingly attributed to having attended
Mass and so not bathing as a pagan.... "I was not tempted by either
Sirens or Mermaidens, or any of the green-haired following of Glaucus. I
really think this is a remarkable thing. In my Neronian days the sea was
always full of Tritons blowing conches, and other unpleasant things. Now
it is quite different." "Prison has completely changed me," he said to
M. André Gide, who visited him at Berneval; "I counted on it for that."
He spoke with disparagement of a man who urged him to take up his former
life, a thing, he said, which one must never do. "Ma vie est comme un
oeuvre d'art; un artiste ne recommence jamais deux fois la même chose
... ou bien c'est qu'il n'avait pas réussi. Ma vie d'avant la prison a
été aussi réussie que possible. Maintenant c'est une chose achevée." He
felt that a continuation of a life that had, as it were, ended in
prison, would be like adding a sixth act and a happy ending to a
tragedy, a deed repulsive to an artist, who finds it hard enough to
bear when murdered Cæsar doffs his wig and smiles upon the audience that
has witnessed the agony of his death. He did not wish to appear in Paris
until he had had time to lay aside the costume he had worn in the play
that, he was glad to think, was now concluded. He did not wish to be
received as a released convict, but as the author of a new work of art.
"If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob
malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the
tongue of scorn by the roots." For the moment, at any rate, he was
content in the country, and asked M. Gide to send him a Life of St.

"If I live in Paris," he wrote, "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 o'clock. I am frightened of Paris.... I want
to live here." He visited the little chapel of Notre Dame de Liesse, and
persuaded the curé to celebrate Mass there. He made friends with a
farmer and urged him to adopt three children. He found that the
customs-officers were bored, and lent them the novels of Dumas père. And
on the day of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee he entertained forty children
from the school with their master so successfully that for days after
they cheered when he passed: "Vive Monsieur Melmoth[9] et la Reine
d'Angleterre." In his first enthusiasm for Berneval he wished to build a
house there, and did, indeed, take a chalet for the season, giving Mr.
Ross, through whom his allowance passed, all sorts of amusing reasons
for doing so, and for hurrying on the necessary preliminaries. He
planned the arrangement of the house with something of the impatient
delight of a student furnishing his first independent rooms. He asked
for his pictures, and for Japanese gold paper that should provide a
fitting background for lithographs by Rothenstein and Shannon. The
Châlet Bourgeat was ready for habitation on June 21. A month later he
wrote of _The Ballad of Reading Gaol_: "The poem is nearly finished.
Some of the verses are awfully good."

He had left prison with an improved physique, and, now that he was able
to work, there was hope that he would not risk the loss of it by leaving
this life of comparative simplicity. Suddenly, however, he flung aside
his plans and resolutions, desperately explaining that his folly was
inevitable. The iterated entreaty of a man whose friendship had already
cost him more than it was worth, and a newly-felt loneliness at
Berneval, destroyed his resolution. He became restless and went to
Rouen, where it rained and he was miserable; then back to Dieppe; a few
days later, with his poem still unfinished, he was in Naples sharing a
momentary magnificence with the friend whose conduct he had condemned,
whose influence he had feared.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have particularly noticed the change in his mental attitude that
became apparent at Berneval, because I think that it throws light on the
character of the work he did after leaving prison, so markedly different
from that of _De Profundis_, or _Intentions_, or _The Sphinx_, or any
other of the delightful designs it had pleased him to embroider. What is
remarkable in _The Ballad of Reading Gaol_, apart from its strength, or
its violence of emotion, is a change in the quality of Wilde's language.
A distinction between decoration and realism, though it immediately
suggests itself, is too blunt to enable us to state clearly a change in
Wilde's writing that it is impossible to overlook. We require a more
sensitive instrument, and must seek it in a definition of literature, a
formula that is concerned with the actual medium that literature

To make such a definition I have borrowed two words from the terminology
of physical science. Energy is described by physicists as kinetic and
potential. Kinetic energy is force actually exerted. Potential energy is
force that a body is in a position to exert. Applying these terms to
language, without attempting too strict an analogy, I wish to define the
medium of literature as a combination of kinetic with potential speech.
There is no such thing in literature as speech purely kinetic or purely
potential. Purely kinetic speech is prose, not good prose, not
literature, but colourless prose, prose without atmosphere, the sort of
prose that M. Jourdain discovered he had been speaking all his life. It
says things. An example of purely potential speech may be found in
music. I do not think it can be made with words, though we can give our
minds a taste of it in listening to a meaningless but narcotic
incantation, or a poem in a language that we do not understand. The
proportion between kinetic and potential speech and the energy of the
combination vary with different poems and with the poetry of different

Let me take an example of fine poetry, and show that it does perform in
itself this dual function of language. Let us examine the first stanza
of Blake's "The Tiger":--

     "Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
     In the forests of the night,
     What immortal hand or eye
     Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

It is impossible to deny the power of suggestion wielded by those four
lines, a power utterly disproportionate to what is actually said. The
kinetic base of that stanza is only the proposition to a supposed tiger
of a difficult problem in metaphysics. But above, below, and on either
side of that question, completely enveloping it, is the phosphorescence
of another speech, that we cannot so easily overhear.[10]

Let me now apply this formula of kinetic and potential speech to a
definition of the change in Wilde's aims as a writer, that is
illustrated by _The Ballad of Reading Gaol_. I have said that the
proportion between kinetic and potential speech varies with different
poems and the poetry of different ages. The poets of the eighteenth
century, for example, cared greatly for kinetic speech, though the white
fire of their better work shows that they were fortunately prevented
from its invariable achievement. The Symbolists of the nineteenth
century cared greatly for potential speech. "Nommer un objet," said
Mallarmé, "c'est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème
qui est faite du bonheur de deviner peu à peu. Le suggérer, voilà le
rêve." Mallarmé, indeed, went so far as to work over a poem, destroying
where he could its kinetic speech, its direct statement, in the effort
to make it purely potential. He is not intelligible, except where he
failed in this. Wilde grew up with the Symbolists, and under the
influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. His criticism of pictures accurately
reflects his aims as a writer. The critic, he says, will turn from
pictures that are too intelligible that "do not stir the imagination but
set definite bounds to it"; "he will turn from them to such works as
make him brood and dream and fancy, to works that possess the subtle
quality of suggestion, and seem to tell us that even from them there is
an escape into a wider world." He will have none of "those obvious modes
of art that have but one message to deliver, and having delivered it
become dumb and sterile." He recognized suggestion or, as I prefer to
say, potentiality, in pictures that were decorations rather than
anecdotes, and, in his preference of potential over kinetic speech, made
his own work decorative rather than realistic. Decoration was for him a
mode of potentiality. Like the Symbolists, he had a sort of contempt for
kinetic speech, because while it obviously preponderates in the kind of
writing that he considered bad, he did not perceive that it is also
essential in the writing that he admitted to be good. This view was
intimately connected with his character, and before he could write a
poem whose kinetic was comparable to its potential power he had to
change completely his attitude towards life. He could not, without doing
violence to himself, have written _The Ballad of Reading Gaol_ before
his imprisonment.

Such an alteration in his attitude became apparent when he was released:
not before. And he then proceeded to write a poem whose potentiality was
not won at the expense of directness. The difference between the work he
did before and after his release is the same, though not so exaggerated,
as that between Mallarmé and the eighteenth-century poets. The later
work falls midway between these two extremes. It is writing that
depends, far more nearly than anything he had yet done, in verse, upon
its actual statements. _The Ballad of Reading Gaol_ is not more
powerfully suggestive than _The Sphinx_, but what it says, its
translatable element, is more important to its effect than the catalogue
of the Sphinx's lovers.

We can more accurately observe this change of attitude if we examine the
early version of the ballad. This version, as it is now printed by the
side of that originally published, represents the poem as it was when
Wilde wrote to say that it was nearly finished. It is probably very
like what the poem would have been if he had not broken short his stay
at Berneval. The momentary retaste of his former life at Naples gave him
the more decorative verses that were then added, and the contrast
between the two moods made possible his disregard of the beliefs he once
had held concerning the evil effect of a message on a work of art. At
the same time, he realized at Naples how far he had departed from his
old standards, and added a certain recklessness to his already altered
equipment. For example, he had written at Berneval one stanza of direct
statement that he had afterwards deleted with others from the first
version that he sent to England:--

     "The Governor was strong upon
       The Regulation Act:
     The Doctor said that Death was but
       A scientific fact:
     And twice a day the chaplain called
       And left a little tract."

At Naples he replaced it. He admits, in a letter to Mr. Ross, that "the
poetry is not good," and says, "I have put 'The Governor was strict upon
the Regulation Act'--I now think that strong is better. The verse is
meant to be colloquial--G. R. Sims at best--and when one is going for a
coarse effect, one had better be coarse. So please restore 'strong.'" I
think that nothing could more clearly illustrate the difference between
Wilde as artist before and after he was released. The change was
radical, and appeared not only in the medium of his work but in its
intention. He had once said that nothing was sadder in the history of
literature than the career of Charles Reade, who, after writing "The
Cloister and the Hearth," "wasted the rest of his life in a foolish
attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our
convict prisons." Now, he cheerfully labelled his ballad, "Poetry and
Propaganda," and admitted that though the poem should end with the fifth
canto, he had something to say and must therefore go on a little longer.
He had once written for his own admiration, and, to his disadvantage,
for that of people he might meet at dinner. He now wished to publish his
ballad in one of the more widely read newspapers, to reach the sort of
people who had shared his life in gaol. He had become anxious to speak
and to be heard, and was no longer content to make and to be admired.

Little trace of the friction of change is left in the poem. It is true
that in certain lights a reader may perceive that he is examining a
palimpsest, and wonder what manner of writer he was whose writing is
obliterated. But there is an energy in the ballad that swings even the
more obvious propaganda into the powerful motion of the poetry. Nowhere
else in Wilde's work is there such a feeling of tense muscles, of
difficult, because passionate, articulation. And this was the effect
that he was willing to achieve. The blemishes on the poem, its moments
of bad verse, its metaphors only half conceived (like the filling of an
urn that has long been broken) scarcely mar the impression. It is felt
that a relaxed watchfulness is due to the effort of reticence. I know of
no other poem that so intensifies our horror of mortality. Beside it
Wordsworth's sonnets on Capital Punishment debate with aloof,
respectable philosophy the expediency of taking blood for blood, and
suggest the palliatives with which a tender heart may soothe the pain of
its acquiescence. Even Villon, who, like Wilde, had been in prison, and,
unlike Wilde, had been himself under sentence of death, is infinitely
less actual. He sees only after death: the gibbet, the row of corpses,
their heads hanging, the eyes picked from their sockets by the crows, a
row of blackened, sun-dried bodies swinging in wind and rain. He sees
that, and thinks it a pitiful spectacle, but his only prayer is
"qu'enfer n'ayt de nous la maistrie!" For Wilde it is life that matters.
After it, who knows? A pall of burning lime, a barren spot where might
be roses. But he lives an hundred times life's last moments, and
multiplies the agony of the man who dies in the hearts of all those
others who feel with him how frail is their own perilous hold.

       *       *       *       *       *

Wilde's two letters to The Daily Chronicle, 'On the Case of Warder
Martin,' and 'On Prison Reform,' show just such a change in his attitude
towards social questions as that which the ballad shows in his attitude
towards poetry. I have not, so far, said anything of _The Soul of Man
under Socialism_, and I left undiscussed the consciousness of social
problems that is apparent in some of the fairy tales. It seemed better
to consider these things later in the book, when it should be possible
to compare his attitudes towards the social system before and after he
had come in conflict with it.

At the beginning of his career he had written republican poetry, but had
prefaced it with the avowal:--

     "Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
     See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
     Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,--
     But that the roar of thy Democracies,
     Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
     Mirror my wildest passions like the sea
     And give my rage a brother----!"

But for this, he says, nations might be wronged and he remain unmoved,

                         "... and yet, and yet,
     These Christs that die upon the barricades,
     God knows it I am with them, in some things."

For several years this double attitude persisted, though, as Wilde left
boyhood he left also the rage and the passions, if he had ever had them,
that could only be mirrored by turbulent oceans and fiery revolutions.
He was, however, increasingly troubled by the knowledge that he could
not accept the comfortable belief of Dr. Pangloss, that this is the best
of all possible worlds. If he had lived among the poor, he would,
perhaps, have amused them by pointing out the undeserved misery of the
rich. As he happened, mostly, to live among the rich, he stimulated
their enjoyment of their position by reminding them of the insecurity of
their tenure, of the existence of the poor, and of the inadequacy of the
means adopted to eliminate them. At that time in England many charitable
movements, now institutions, had only lately started upon their curious
careers, and, as Wilde pointed out, men "tried to solve the problem of
poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a
very advanced school, by amusing the poor." Wilde suggested no remedies,
but used his own clear perception of the difficulty, and the uneasiness
of other people's minds, as a background for much delightful
conversation, and for such stories as that of 'The Young King,' who sees
in dreams the pain that is hidden in the pearl that the diver has
brought for his sceptre, the toil woven into the golden tissues of his
robes, and the blood that fills with light the rubies of his crown.

Yet Wilde was not without a personal stake in the solution of the
problem, for, though he lived among the rich, he was himself one of the
poor. He had not had enough money to write as he pleased and when he
pleased. He had had to lecture, to write in newspapers, and to edit a
magazine for women. Perhaps the solution of the problem of poverty would
also solve that of unpopular art and of the cakes and wine of the
unpopular artist. I cannot easily understand the extraordinary position
that, I am told, _The Soul of Man_ has taken in the literature of
revolution. It does, it is true, say many just things of the poor, as
for example, its rebuke of thrift: "Man should not be ready to show that
he can live like a badly fed animal." It upholds agitators. It praises
the ingratitude of those to whom is given only a little of what is their
own. But the essay as a whole is scarcely at all concerned with popular
revolt. It is concerned less with socialism than with individualism.
"The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of
Socialism, is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us
from that sordid necessity of living for others which in the present
condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact,
scarcely anyone at all escapes." Wilde had not escaped himself. "Under
Socialism," he says, "all this will, of course, be altered." There is no
need to estimate the precise quality of the irony in that "of course."
If Socialism meant the ruling of the people by the people, Wilde
disliked it, as a new form of an old tyranny. He took it simply as an
hypothesis of free food for everybody and the abolition of property.
Rich and poor alike, he supposed, were to sell all they had and give ...
to the state. He was interested solely in the development of
personality, which, he thought, was hindered by the existence of private
property, whether possessed or not possessed, a plus or a minus
quantity. "Socialism itself," he says, "will be of value simply because
it will lead to Individualism," an individualism now difficult and rare,
because it consists in the free development of personality that
property, plus or minus, makes almost impossible except in special
cases. That seems to me to be a very different Socialism from that of
the people who, accepting greedily the sops thrown to Cerberus in the
course of the essay, are willing to accept the whole as a manifesto of
social revolution. Wilde keeps aloof from rich and poor alike, and,
throughout a long paper, more carelessly written than most of his, is
simply speculating upon what art can gain by social reform, and of what
kind that reform must be, if art is not to be left in a worse case than
before it. The essay is like notes from half a dozen charming, and, at
that time, daring talks, thrown together, and loosely brought into some
sort of unity by a frail connecting thread.

In its airy distance from practical politics, nothing could be more
dissimilar than _The Soul of Man_ from the two letters to The Daily
Chronicle. While he lived in it, Wilde had been able to disguise, at
least sometimes, his lack of independence from society. When society put
him in prison he was face to face with that unpleasing fact. From being
the subject of ironical discussion, society and its reform became most
powerful and insistent realities. The poor were no longer people whose
unlovely woe he did not like to remember, but men whom he had met, men
from whom he had received kindness when he, like them, was "in trouble."
Reform was no longer a vague idea with possibilities at once dangerous
and delightful, but concrete, and with an immediate end. It was
concerned not with the development of individuality, but with saving
from disaster one poor man who had disobeyed regulations in giving a
biscuit to a starving child, and many poor men from sleeping
unnecessarily in an atmosphere of decaying excreta. _The Ballad of
Reading Gaol_ was poetry and propaganda; the two letters scarcely
troubled about anything but their urgent purpose, though Wilde was
incapable of writing sentences that should not be dignified and urbane.
A beggar had been allowed into the Palace of Art, and would not be

       *       *       *       *       *

Soon after Wilde left Berneval for Naples, those who controlled the
allowance that enabled him to live with his friend purposely stopped it.
His friend, as soon as there was no money, left him. "It was," said
Wilde, "a most bitter experience in a bitter life." He went to Paris. In
February 1898, the ballad, that he had not been able to sell to a
newspaper, was published as a book. In March The Daily Chronicle printed
the second of the letters on prison abuses. He wrote nothing else after
he left prison, but revised _The Importance of Being Earnest_ and _An
Ideal Husband_ for publication, and supervised the French translation
of the ballad made by M. Davray, who, as he pointed out, had not had the
advantage of imprisonment, and was consequently puzzled to find
equivalents to some of the words. He suggested the plot of a play that
another man wrote. There was talk of his adapting a French play for the
English stage; but nothing came of it. He complained that he found it
"not easy to recapture the artistic mood of detachment from the activity
of life." He often left Paris. In December, 1898, he went to Napoule,
and in the following spring to Switzerland.

His work was done, and, after the writing of the ballad, he was impotent
of any sustained effort, whether in life or in literature. He lost,
however, little of his intellectual activity, and none of his power of
enjoyment. When he was in Rome in the spring of 1900, he learnt how to
use a photographic camera, and took innumerable photographs with a most
childlike enthusiasm. He was blessed by the Pope, not once only but
seven times. His pleasure in watching the ceremonies of the Church
recalled the year when, as an Oxford undergraduate, he had half-hoped,
half-feared to find salvation, or, at least, a religious experience.

In May he returned to Paris, where his life cannot but have been
humiliating to one who had been "le Roi de la vie." Many doors were
closed to him and others he was too proud to enter. He spent days and
nights in cafés, drank too much, and wasted his conversation on students
who treated him without respect. He had sufficient money, but his
extravagances often left him penniless. M. Stuart Merrill has a note
from him asking for a very little sum, "afin de finir ma semaine." He
was not starving, as has been suggested, nor was he entirely deserted by
his friends, though most of the French writers ignored in misfortune the
man they had worshipped in success. M. Paul Fort, almost the only French
poet of whom in his last illness Wilde spoke with affection, spent much
time with him, and remembers him not outwardly unhappy, less capable
than he had been of concealing his depths, and interested in everything,
like a child. Another Frenchman who saw him during these months thought
him dazed, like a man who has had a blow on the head. The two opinions
are not contradictory. They represent a man whose power of will has been
suddenly taken from him. Wilde no longer picked and chose; he no longer,
a critic in life as in art, directed his doings with intention and
self-knowledge. He could no longer dominate life and twist her to the
patterns he desired, but was become flotsam in a stream now obviously
much stronger than himself. He could smile as he drifted, but he could
not stop.

As the year went on, he fell ill, and though he rallied more than once,
and never lost the brilliance and clarity of his intellect except in
delirium, he grew steadily worse. His death was hurried by his inability
to give up the drinking to which he had become accustomed. It was
directly due to meningitis, the legacy of an attack of tertiary
syphilis. For some months he had increasingly painful headaches. On
October 10, he was operated upon. He rallied after the operation, and, a
fortnight later, was in a condition to talk with wit and charm, as, for
example, when he said that he was dying beyond his means. On October 29,
he got up and went to a café. On the 30th, he was less well, though he
drove in the Bois. Throughout November he grew steadily weaker, and was
often hysterical and delirious. Specialists were called in consultation
but could do little more than label the manner of his death. On November
29, a priest, brought by Mr. Robert Ross, baptized him into the Catholic
Church, and administered extreme unction.

The following account of his last hours is taken from a letter written
by Mr. Ross to a friend, ten days after Wilde's death. Mr. Reginald
Turner had nursed Wilde for some time before his death and, with Mr.
Ross and the proprietor of the hotel,[11] was present when he died.

"About five-thirty in the morning (November 30) 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 continually from his mouth.... From one o'clock we
did not leave the room, the painful noise from the throat became louder
and louder. (We) 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 became fainter, he passed
at ten minutes to two exactly."

On December 3, 1900, Oscar Wilde was buried in the Cemetery of Bagneux.
On July 20, 1909, his remains were moved to Père Lachaise.


[9] After he left prison he took the name of Sebastian

[10] For a longer but still inadequate discussion of the
question, see an article in "The Oxford and Cambridge Review" for
October, 1911.

[11] Hôtel d'Alsace, 13 rue des Beaux Arts.



Wilde has been dead for nearly a dozen years. Already the more swiftly
fading colours of his work are vanishing; already critics who fix their
eyes on that departing brilliance are helping his books into the neglect
that often precedes and invariably follows popularity. His life is
already midway between fact and legend, between realism and glamour. His
life and his books alternately illumine and obscure each other. The
mutilated _De Profundis_ is given a biographical importance that it does
not, in its present state, possess, and the scarlet and drab contrasts
of his tattered tapestry of existence blind the eyes of people who would
otherwise read his books.

       *       *       *       *       *

There is a word, often applied to Wilde in his lifetime, that has, since
his death, been used to justify a careless neglect of his work. That
word is "pose." In all such popular characterizations there is hidden a
distorted morsel of truth. Such a morsel of truth is hidden here. We
need not examine the dull envy of brilliance, the envy felt by timid
persons of a man who dared to display the hopes and the intentions that
were making holiday within him, the envy that used that word as a
reproach, and sought to veil the fact that it was a confession. But we
shall do well to discover what it was beside that envy that made the
word applicable to Wilde.

Wilde "posed" as an æsthete. He was an æsthete. He "posed" as brilliant.
He was brilliant. He "posed" as cultured. He was cultured. The quality
in him to which that word was applied was not pretence, though that was
willingly suggested, but display. Wilde let people see, as soon as he
could, and in any way that was possible, who and what he was or wished
to be. No bushel hid his lamp. He arranged it where it could best be
seen, and beat drums before it to summon the spectators. He had every
quality of a charlatan, except one: the inability to keep his promises.
Wilde promised nothing that he could not perform. But, because he
promised so loudly, he earned the scorn of those whom charlatans do not
outwit. He has even met with the scorn of charlatans, who cannot
understand why he made so much noise when he really could do what he

The noise and the display that were inseparable from any stage of
Wilde's career, and were not without an indirect echo and repetition in
his books, were partly due to the self-consciousness that was among his
most valuable assets. He knew himself, and he knew his worth, and,
conscious of an intellectual pre-eminence over most of his fellows,
assumed its recognition, and was in a hurry to bring the facts level
with his assumption. He had, more than most men, a dramatic conception
of himself. "There is a fatality," says the painter of Dorian Gray,
"about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality
that seems to dog the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be
different from one's fellows." Wilde was always profoundly conscious of
his own "physical and intellectual distinction," not with the almost
scornful consciousness of Poe, but with a deprecating pride and a sense
of what was due to it from himself and from others. Wilde's "pose"--call
it what you will--is easily adopted by talent since Wilde created it
with genius. Its origin was a sense of the possession of genius, of
being distinct from the rest of the world. Poe emphasized this
distinction by looking at people from a distance. Wilde emphasized it by
charming them, with a kind of desperate generosity. He knew that he had
largesse to scatter, and not till the end of his life did he begin to
feel that he had wasted it, that in him a vivid personality had passed
through the world and was not leaving behind it a worthy memorial. This
was not the common regret at having been unable to accomplish things. It
was a regret at leaving insufficient proof of a power of accomplishment
that he did not doubt, but had never exerted to the uttermost. In
thinking of the virtuosity of Wilde's manner, a thing not at all common
in English literature, we must remember the consciousness of power that
wrapped his days in a bright light, served him sometimes as a mantle of
invisibility, and made him loved and hated with equal vehemence. His
tasks were always too easy for him. He never strained for achievement,
and nothing requires more generosity to forgive than success without

This consciousness of his power excused in him an extravagance that in a
lesser man would have been laughable. He would have it recognised at all
costs, for confirmation's sake. He needed admiration at once, from the
world, from England, from London, from any small company in which he
happened to be. The same desires whose gratification earned him the
epithet "poseur," made him expend in conversation energies that would
have multiplied many times the volume if not the value of his writings.
He pawned much of himself to the moment, and was never able to redeem

He leaves three things behind him, a legend, his conversation, and his
works. The legend will be that of a beautiful boy, so gifted that all
things were possible to him, so brilliant that in middle age men still
thought him young, stepping through imaginary fields of lilies and
poisonous irises, and finding the flowers turned suddenly to dung, and
his feet caught in a quagmire not only poisonous but ugly. It will
include the less intimate horror of a further punishment, an
imprisonment without the glamour of murder, as with Wainewright, or that
of burglary, as with Deacon Brodie, but a hideous publication to the
world of the sordid transformation of those imagined flowers. The lives
of Villon and of a few saints can alone show such swift passage from
opulence to wretchedness, from ease to danger, from the world to a cell.
We are not here concerned to blame or palliate the deeds that made this
catastrophe possible, but only to remark that to Wilde himself, in
comparison with the life of his intellect, they probably seemed
infinitely unimportant and insignificant. The life of the thinker is in
thought, of the artist in art. He feels it almost unfair that mere
actions should be forced into a position where they have power over his
destiny. As time goes on, the legend will, no doubt, be modified. It is
too dramatic to be easily forgotten.

In earlier chapters I have spoken of the conversational quality of
Wilde's prose, but not, so far, of his conversation, which, to some of
those who knew him best, seemed more valuable than the echo of it in his
books. It varied at different periods and in different companies. More
than one writer has described it, and the descriptions do not agree.
With an audience that he thought stupid he was startling, said
extravagant things and asked impossible questions. With another, he
would trace an idea through history, filling out the facts he needed for
his argument with bright pageants of colour, like the paragraphs of
_Intentions_. At one dinner-table he discoursed; at another he told
stories. Wilde "ne causait pas; il contait," says M. Gide. He spoke in
parables, and, as he was an artist, he made more of the parables than of
their meanings. An idea of this fairy-tale talk may be gathered from his
_Poems in Prose_. These things, among the most wonderful that Wilde
wrote, are said to be less beautiful in their elaborate form than as he
told them over the dinner-table, suggested by the talk that passed. They
are certainly a little heavy with gold and precious stones. They are
wistful, like princesses in fairy-tales who look out on the world from
under their crowns, when other children toss their hair in the wind. But
we may well fail to imagine the conversation in which such anecdotes
could have a part, not as excrescences but one in texture with the rest.
No other English talker has talked in this style, and the Queen
Scheherazada did not surpass it when she talked to save her life. Beside
Lamb's stuttered jests, Hazlitt's incisions, Coleridge's billowy
eloquence, Wilde's tapestried speech must be set among the regrettable
things of which time has carelessly deprived us. I have heard it said
that Wilde talked for effect. The peacock spreads his tail in burning
blue and gold against the emerald lawn, and as Whistler made a room of
it, so Wilde made conversation. He talked less to say than to make, and
his manner is suggested by his own description of the talk of Lord Henry
Wotton in _The Picture of Dorian Gray_:--

"He played with the idea, and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and
transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with
fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on,
soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and
catching the mad music of Pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her
wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the
hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled
before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge
press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round
her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over
the vat's black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary

Wilde improvised like that. A metaphor would suddenly grow more
important in his eyes than the idea that had called it into being. The
idea would vanish in the picture; the picture would elaborate itself and
become story, and then, dissolving like a pattern in a kaleidoscope,
turn to idea again, and allow him to continue on his way. Wilde talked
tapestries, as he wrote them. He saw his conversation, and made other
men see it. They thought him a magician.

And now that mouth is closed, from which, as from Alain Chartier's, "so
many golden words have proceeded." Death has given the kiss of the Lady
Anne of Brittany, and the glittering words are blown away, or fallen in
the pages of other men's books to gild a meagre ground. In fifty years'
time the last of those who heard him speak will be old men and dull of
memory, or garrulous with tedious invention. The talk is gone. Wilde
had no Boswell. All that largesse of genius has been carried away and
spent, or thrown away and forgotten. A talker is like an actor. It is
only possible to say, he was wonderful on such an evening, or on such
another, and, as time goes on and this becomes matter of hearsay, why,
it is as if his achievement had never been. For the flowers of his talk
bloom only in dead men's memories, and have been buried with their

Wilde's talk is gone, but its effects remain in the conversational ease
of his prose, and in the mental attitude that his writings perpetuate.
The talker is, almost of necessity, a dilettante, a man who delights in,
but is not the slave of, his subject of the moment. The existence of the
dilettante is changeful and playful, resembling the bee-like,
sweet-seeking pilgrimage of the critic, but quite distinct from it.
Conversation fosters criticism and dilettantism alike, and these are
Wilde's most noticeable characteristics. I have already insisted,
perhaps too often, on the critical attitude of his work. He insisted on
it himself. Much in his poetry and in his tales is imitative criticism,
his dialogues are critical, the subject of the best of them is "the
critic as artist," and he did not call _Dorian Gray_ a story, but "an
essay on decorative art." I have not insisted on the dilettantism that
made even his multiform criticism a by-product rather than the object of
his life, and allowed it to look for applause, and to reflect his
conversation instead of letting his conversation borrow from its less
fleeting radiance. Wilde's work is distinguished from the greatest in
this: it is not overheard.

Wilde provides us with the rare spectacle of a man most of whose powers
are those of a spectator, a connoisseur, a man for whom pictures are
painted and books written, the perfect collaborator for whom the artist
hopes in his heart; the spectacle of such a man, delighting in the
delicacies of life no less than in those of art, and yet able to turn
the pleasures of the dilettante and the amateur into the motives of the
artist. In some ages, when talk has been more highly valued than in
ours, he would have been ready to let his criticism die in the air: he
would have been content that all who knew him should credit him with the
power of doing wonderful things if he chose, and with the preference of
touching with the tips of his fingers the baked and painted figurine
over the modelling of it in cold and sticky clay. Such credit is not to
be had in our time, and he had to take the clay in his fingers and prove
his mastery. Besides, he had not the money that would have let him live
at ease among blue china, books wonderfully bound, and men and women as
strange as the moods it would have pleased him to induce. If he had been
rich, I think it possible that he would have been a des Esseintes or a
Dorian Gray, and left nothing but a legend and a poem or two, and a few
curiosities of luxury to find their way into the sale-rooms.

Wilde preserved, even in those of his writings that cost him most
dearly, a feeling of recreation. His books are those of a wonderfully
gifted and accomplished man who is an author only in his moments of
leisure. Only one comparison is possible, and that is with Horace
Walpole; but Wilde's was infinitely the richer intellect. Walpole is
weighted by his distinction. Wilde wears his like a flower. Walpole is
without breadth, or depth, and equals only as a gossip Wilde's
enchanting freedom as a juggler with ideas. Wilde was indolent and knew
it. Indolence was, perhaps, the only sin that stared him in the face as
he lay dying, for it was the only one that he had committed with a bad
conscience. It had lessened his achievement, and left its marks on what
he had done. Even in his best work he is sometimes ready to secure an
effect too easily. "Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning,"
may be regarded as an example of such effects. Much of his work fails;
much of it has faded, but _Intentions_, _The Sphinx_, _The Ballad of
Reading Gaol_, _Salomé_, _The Importance of Being Earnest_, one or two
of the fairy tales, and _De Profundis_, are surely enough with which to
challenge the attention of posterity.

These things were the toys of a critical spirit, of a critic as artist,
of a critic who took up first one and then another form of art, and
played with it almost idly, one and then another form of thought, and
gave it wings for the pleasure of seeing it in the light; of a man of
action with the eyes of a child; of a man of contemplation curious of
all the secrets of life, not only of those that serve an end; of a
virtuoso with a distaste for the obvious and a delight in disguising
subtlety behind a mask of the very obvious that he disliked. His love
for the delicate and the rare brought him into the power of things that
are vulgar and coarse. His attempt to weave his life as a tapestry
clothed him in a soiled and unbeautiful reality. Even this he was able
to subdue. Nihil tetigit quod non ornavit. He touched nothing that he
did not decorate. He touched nothing that he did not turn into a

I do not care to prophesy which in particular of these decorations, of
these friezes and tapestries of vision and thought, will enjoy that
prolongation of life, insignificant in the eternal progress of time,
which, for us, seems immortality. Art is, perhaps, our only method of
putting off death's victory, but what does it matter to us if the books
that feed the intellectual life of our generation are stones to the next
and manna to the generation after that? Of this, at least, we may be
sure: whether remembered or no, the works that move us now will have an
echo that cannot be denied them, unheard but still disturbing, or,
perhaps, carefully listened for and picked out, among the myriad roaring
of posterity along the furthest and least imaginable corridors of time.


_Uniform with this Volume._





"This very interesting study."


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instincts are mated with an enthusiastic and careful precision of


_Uniform with this Volume._





"Mr. Freeman's study will be eagerly welcomed. He deals with all
Peacock's known writings, giving analysis of each; and he writes with a
freshness, a searching clearness and thoroughness delightful in these
days of so much slovenly, slipshod criticism. He sends one to Peacock,
and thereby does the best service a critic of Peacock can do."


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of a man who had a magic pen, and who was nothing if not original."


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