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Title: Oscar Wilde - An Idler's Impression
Author: Saltus, Edgar, 1855-1921
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Oscar Wilde - An Idler's Impression" ***

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                             OSCAR WILDE

                       _An Idler's Impression_


                             EDGAR SALTUS

                         [Illustration: Logo]


                         BROTHERS OF THE BOOK


                            COPYRIGHT 1917


                             EDGAR SALTUS

       *       *       *       *       *

Of this first edition of _Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression, by Edgar
Saltus_, there have been printed four hundred and seventy-four copies,
and the type distributed. No second edition will be made. The
autographed copies were all subscribed for before publication.

     The edition consists of

     49 copies on Inomachi vellum, in full binding, each copy
     autographed by the author. Numbered from 1 to 49 inclusive.

     100 copies on Inomachi vellum, in three-quarters binding.
     Numbered from 50 to 149 inclusive.

     325 copies on Fabriano hand-made paper, in boards. Numbered
     from 150 to 474 inclusive.

     This Copy is Number

       *       *       *       *       *

_Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression_


Years ago, in a Paris club, one man said to another: "Well, what's
up?" The other shook a paper: "There is only one genius in England and
they have put him in jail."

One may wonder though whether it were their doing, or even Wilde's,
that put him there. One may wonder whether it were not the high fates
who so gratified him in order that, from his purgatory, he might rise
to a life more evolved. But that view is perhaps obvious. Wilde
himself, who was the least mystic of men, accepted it. In the "De
Profundis," after weighing his disasters, he said: "Of these things I
am not yet worthy."

The genuflexion has been called a pose. It may have been. Even so, it
is perhaps better to kneel, though it be in the gallery, than to stoop
at nothing, and Wilde, who had stood very high, bent very low. He saw
that there is one thing greater than greatness and that is humility.

Yet though he saw it, it is presumable that he forgot it. It is
presumable that the grace which was his in prison departed in Paris.
On the other hand it may not have. There are no human scales for any

It was at Delmonico's, shortly after he told our local Customs that he
had nothing to declare but genius, that I first met him. He was
dressed like a mountebank. Without, at the entrance, a crowd had
collected. In the restaurant people stood up and stared. Wilde was
beautifully unmoved. He was talking, at first about nothing whatever,
which is always an interesting topic, then about "Vera," a play of his
for which a local manager had offered him an advance, five thousand
dollars I think, "mere starvation wages," as he put it, and he went on
to say that the manager wanted him to make certain changes in it. He
paused and added: "But who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?"--a
jest which afterward he was too generous to hoard.

Later, in London, I saw him again. In appearance and mode of life he
had become entirely conventional. The long hair, the knee-breeches,
the lilies, the velvet, all the mountebank trappings had gone. He was
married, he was a father, and in his house in Tite street he seemed a
bit bourgeois. Of that he may have been conscious. I remember one of
his children running and calling at him: "My good papa!" and I
remember Wilde patting the boy and saying: "Don't call me that, it
sounds so respectable."

In Tite street I had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Oscar, who asked me
to write something in an album. I have always hated albumenous poetry
and, as I turned the pages in search of possible inspiration, I
happened on this: _From a poet to a poem. Robert Browning._

Poets exaggerate and why should they not? They have been found, too,
with their hands in other people's paragraphs. Wilde helped himself to
that line which he put in a sonnet to this lady, who had blue eyes,
fair hair, chapped lips, and a look of constant bewilderment.

As for that, Oscar was sufficiently bewildering. He talked infinitely
better than he wrote, and on no topic, no matter what, could he talk
as other mortals must. Once only I heard of him uttering a platitude
and from any one else that platitude would have been a paradox. He
exuded wit and waded in it with a serenity that was disconcerting.

It was on this abnormal serenity and on his equally abnormal
brilliance that he relied to defeat the prosecution. "I have all the
criminal classes with me," he announced, and that was his one
platitude, a banality that contrived to be tragic. Then headlong down
the stair of life he fell.

Hell he had long since summarised as the union of souls without bodies
to bodies without souls. There are worse definitions than this which
years later I recalled when, through a curious forethought of fate, he
was taken, en route to the cemetery, through the Porte de l'Enfer.

But in Tite street, at this time, and in Regent street where he
occasionally dined, he was gentle, wholesome, and joyous; a man who
paid compliments because, as he put it, he could pay nothing else. He
had been caricatured: the caricatures had ceased. People had turned to
look: they looked no longer. He was forgiven and, what is worse,
forgotten. Yet that tiger, his destiny, was but sharpening its claws.

At an inn where Gautier dined, the epigrams were so demoralising that
a waiter became insane. Similarly in the Regent street restaurant it
was reported, perhaps falsely, that a waiter had also lost his reason.
But Wilde, though a three decanter man, always preserved his own. He
preserved, too, his courtesy which was invariable. The most venomous
thing that he ever said of anyone was that he was a tedious person,
and the only time he ever rebuked anybody was at the conclusion of one
of those after-dinner stories which some host or other interrupted by
rising and saying: "Shall we continue the conversation in the

But I am in error. That was not his only rebuke. On one occasion I
drove with him to Tite street. An hour previous he had executed a
variation on the "Si j'étais roi." "If I were king," he had sung, "I
would sit in a great hall and paint on green ivory and when my
ministers came and told me that the people were starving, I would
continue to paint on green ivory and say: 'Let them starve.'"

The aria was rendered in the rooms of Francis Hope, a young man who
later married and divorced May Yohe, but who at the time showed an
absurd interest in stocks. Someone else entered and Hope asked what
was new in the City. "Money is very tight," came the reply. "Ah,
yes," Wilde cut in. "And of a tightness that has been felt even in
Tite street. Believe me, I passed the forenoon at the British Museum
looking at a gold-piece in a case."

Afterward we drove to Chelsea. It was a vile night, bleak and bitter.
On alighting, a man came up to me. He wore a short jacket which he
opened. From neck to waist he was bare. I gave him a shilling. Then
came the rebuke. With entire simplicity Wilde took off his overcoat
and put it about the man.

But the simplicity seemed to me too Hugoesque and I said: "Why didn't
you ask him in to dinner?"

Wilde gestured. "Dinner is not a feast, it is a ceremony."

Subsequently that ceremony must have been contemplated, for Mrs. Wilde
was kind enough to invite me. The invitation reached me sometime in
advance and I took it of course that there would be other guests. But
on the appointed evening, or what I thought was the appointed
evening, when I reached this house--on which Oscar objected to paying
taxes because, as he told the astonished assessors, he was so seldom
at home--when I reached it, it seemed to me that I must be the only
guest. Then, presently, in the dreary drawing-room, Oscar appeared.
"This is delightful of you," he told me. "I have been late for dinner
a half hour, again a whole hour; you are late an entire week. That is
what I call originality."

I put a bold face on it. "Come to my shop," I said, "and have dinner
with me. Though," I added, "I don't know what I can give you."

"Oh, anything," Wilde replied. "Anything, no matter what. I have the
simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best."

He was not boasting. One evening he dined on his "Sphinx."
Subsequently I supped with him on "Salome."

That was in the Regent street restaurant where, apropos of nothing, or
rather with what to me at the time was curious irrelevance, Oscar,
while tossing off glass after glass of liquor, spoke of Phémé, a
goddess rare even in mythology, who, after appearing twice in Homer,
flashed through a verse of Hesiod and vanished behind a page of
Herodotos. In telling of her, suddenly his eyes lifted, his mouth
contracted, a spasm of pain--or was it dread?--had gripped him. A
moment only. His face relaxed. It had gone.

I have since wondered, could he have evoked the goddess then? For
Phémé typified what modern occultism terms the impact--the premonition
that surges and warns. It was Wilde's fate to die three times--to die
in the dock, to die in prison, to die all along the boulevards of
Paris. Often since I have wondered could the goddess then have been
lifting, however slightly, some fringe of the crimson curtain, behind
which, in all its horror, his destiny crouched. If so, he braved it.

I had looked away. I looked again. Before me was a fat pauper, florid
and over-dressed, who, in the voice of an immortal, was reading the
fantasies of the damned. In his hand was a manuscript, and we were
supping on "Salome."

As the banquet proceeded, I experienced that sense of sacred terror
which his friends, the Greeks, knew so well. For this thing could have
been conceived only by genius wedded to insanity and, at the end, when
the tetrarch, rising and bundling his robes about him, cries: "Kill
that woman!" the mysterious divinity whom the poet may have evoked,
deigned perhaps to visit me. For, as I applauded, I shuddered, and
told him that I had.

Indifferently he nodded and, assimilating Hugo with superb unconcern,
threw out: "It is only the shudder that counts."

That was long before the crash. After it, Mrs. Wilde said that he was
mad and had been for three years, "quite mad" as the poor woman
expressed it.

It may be that she was right. St. George, I believe, fought a dragon
with a spear. Whether or not he killed the brute I have forgotten.
But Wilde fought poverty, which is perhaps more brutal, with a pen.
The fight, if indolent, was protracted. Then, abruptly, his inkstand
became a Vesuvius of gold. London that had laughed at him, laughed
with him and laughed colossally. A penny-a-liner was famous. The
international hurdle-race of the stage had been won in a canter and
won by a hack. A sub-editor was top of the heap.

The ascent was perhaps too rapid. The spiderous Fates that sit and
spin are jealous of sudden success. It may be that Mrs. Wilde was
right. In any event, for some time before the crash he saw few of his
former friends. After his release few of his former friends saw him.
But personally, if I may refer to myself, I am not near sighted. I saw
him in Paris, saw too, and to my regret, that he looked like a drunken
coachman, and told him how greatly I admired the "Ballad,"--that poem
which tells of his life, or rather of his death, in jail. Half
covering his mouth with his hand, he laughed and said: "It does not
seem to me sufficiently vécu."

Before the enormity of that I fell back. But at once he became more
human. He complained that even the opiate of work was denied him,
since no one would handle his wares.

The Athenians, who lived surrounded by statues, learned from them the
value of silence, the mystery that it lends to beauty, in particular
the dignity that it gives to grief. In their tragedies any victim of
destiny is as though stricken dumb. Wilde knew that, he knew
everything, in addition to being a thorough Hellenist. None the less
he told of his fate. It was human, therefore terrible, but it was not
the tragic muse. It was merely a tragedy of letters.

Letters, yes, but lower case. Wilde was a third rate poet who
occasionally rose to the second class but not once to the first. Prose
is more difficult than verse and in it he is rather sloppy. In spite
of which, or perhaps precisely on that account, he called himself
lord of language. Well, why not, if he wanted to? Besides, in his talk
he was lord and more--sultan, pontifex maximus. Hook, Jerrold, Smith,
Sheridan, rolled into one, could not have been as brilliant. In talk
he blinded and it is the subsiding wonder of it that his plays

In the old maps, on the vague places, early geographers used to put:
Hic sunt leones--Here are lions. On any catalogue of Wilde's plays
there should be written: Here lions might have been. For assuming his
madness, one must also admit his genius and the uninterrupted
conjunction of the two might have produced brilliancies such as few
bookshelves display.

Therein is the tragedy of letters. Renan said that morality is the
supreme illusion. The diagnosis may or may not be exact. Yet it is on
illusions that we all subsist. We live on lies by day and dreams at
night. From the standpoint of the higher mathematics, morality may be
an illusion. But it is very sustaining. Formerly it was also Oscar
Wilde inspirational. In post-pagan days it created a new conception of
beauty. Apart from that, it has nothing whatever to do with the arts,
except the art of never displeasing, which, in itself, is the whole
secret of mediocrity.

Oscar Wilde lacked that art, and I can think of no better epitaph for

Here ends this book written by Edgar Saltus, arranged in this form by
Laurence C. Woodworth, Scrivener, and printed for the BROTHERS OF THE
BOOK at the press of The Faithorn Company, Chicago, 1917.

[Illustration: Logo]

_Incipit Vita Nova_

       *       *       *       *       *

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