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Title: Oscar Wilde
Author: Ingleby, Leonard Cresswell
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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Inconsistencies in the author's use of hyphens and accent marks have
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errors have been corrected without comment. One example of a
typographical error is on page 144 where the word "miuutes" was
corrected to "minutes". In cases other than obvious typographical
errors, the author's spelling has been left unchanged from the original
text with the following three exceptions:

  1. Page 126 the word "worldings" was changed to "worldlings" in the
  phrase: "... guests are all mere worldlings...."

  2. Page 262 the quoted phrase from the original: "Fait vour quelle
  sera votre votre maturité" was changed to: "Fait voir quelle sera
  votre maturité" which is the correct wording from the poem "À Théodore
  de Banville" by Charles Baudelaire.

  3. Page 317 the name "Bazil" was changed to "Basil" in the phrase:
  "... Basil Hallward's studio...." to correspond with the author's
  other spellings of the name Basil Hallward.

Two items in the index, which were out of alphabetical order ("De
Profundis--Biblical influence" and "Shaw, G. B.") were placed in correct
alphabetical order in this version.





  _Very fully Illustrated and with Photogravure
  Frontispiece, and a Biography_



  _Demy 8vo, Cloth gilt_

  _Also a limited edition de luxe_



_From a Crayon Portrait by_ S. WRAY.










  OSCAR WILDE: THE MAN                           3


    The Dramatist                               95
    "Lady Windermere's Fan"                    104
    "A Woman Of No Importance"                 119
    "The Ideal Husband"                        129
    "The Importance Of Being Earnest"          149


    "Salomé"                                   161
    "The Duchess of Padua"                     199
    "Vera, or the Nihilists"                   207
    "The Florentine Tragedy"                   215
    "The Woman Covered With Jewels"            220


    The Fairy Stories                          227


    Poems                                      245


    Fiction                                    301


  THE PHILOSOPHY OF BEAUTY                     331


  "DE PROFUNDIS"                               359

  INDEX                                        397





The [Greek: synetoi], the connoisseurs, always recognised the genius of
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde from the very first moment when he
began to write. For many years ordinary people to whom literature and
literary affairs were not of, at anyrate, absorbing interest only knew
of Oscar Wilde by his extravagances and poses.

Then it happened that Wilde turned his powers in the direction of the
stage and achieved a swift and brilliant success. The English public
then began to realise that here was an unusually brilliant man, and the
extraordinary genius of the subject of this work would have certainly
been universally recognised in a few more years, when the shocking
scandals associated with his name occurred and Oscar Wilde disappeared
into oblivion.

A great change gradually took place in public opinion. Little by little
the feeling of prejudice against the work of Oscar Wilde began to die
away. The man himself was dead. He had expiated his crimes by a
prolonged agony of the most hideous suffering and disgrace, and people
began to wonder if his writings were in any way associated with the dark
side of his life and character, or whether they might not, after all, be
beautiful, pure, and treasures of the literature of our time. The four
comedies of Manners, "Lady Windermere's Fan," "The Ideal Husband," "A
Woman Of No Importance," "The Importance Of Being Earnest," everyone had
seen and laughed at. They were certainly absolutely without offence. It
was gradually seen that because a house was built by an architect of an
immoral private life that did not necessarily invalidate it as a
residence, that if Stephenson had ended his life upon the gallows people
would still find railways convenient and necessary. The truth gradually
dawned that Wilde had never in his life written a line that was immoral
or impure, and that, in short, the criminal side of him was only a part
of his complex nature, horribly disastrous for himself and his personal
life, but absolutely without influence upon his work.

Art and his aberration never mingled or overlapped. Everybody began to
realise the fact.

Opinion was also being quietly moulded from within by a band of literary
and artistic people, some of them friends of the late author, others
knowing him simply through his work.

The public began to ask for Wilde's books and found it almost
impossible to obtain them, for the "Ballad of Reading Gaol," published
while its author was still alive, had not stimulated any general demand
for other works.

It was after Oscar Wilde's death that his friends and admirers were able
to set to work at their endeavours to rehabilitate him as artist in the
mind of general prejudice. Books and monographs were written about Wilde
in English, French, and German. He was quoted in the leading Continental
reviews. His play "Salomé" met with sudden and stupendous success all
over Europe, a famous musician turned it into an opera. A well-known
English man of letters, Mr Robert Harborough Sherard, published a final
official "Life" of the dead author, and Wilde's own "De Profundis"
appeared to startle, sadden, and thrill the whole reading world.

His plays are being revived, and an authoritative and exhaustive edition
of his writings is being issued by a leading publishing house.

There is no doubt about it, the most prejudiced and hostile critics must
admit it--in a literary sense, as a man of letters with extraordinary
genius, Oscar Wilde has come into his own. The time is, therefore, ripe
for a work of the present character which endeavours to "appreciate" one
of the strangest, saddest, most artistic and powerful brains of modern
times. Five years ago such a book as this would probably have been out
of place. When Balzac died Sainte-Beuve prefaced a short critical
article of fourteen pages, as follows:--

     "A careful study of the famous novelist who has just been taken
     from us, and whose sudden loss has excited universal interest,
     would require a whole work, and the time for that, I think, has not
     yet come. Those sort of moral autopsies cannot be made over a
     freshly dug grave, especially when he who has been laid in it was
     full of strength and fertility, and seemed still full of future
     works and days. All that is possible and fitting in respect of a
     great contemporary renown at the moment death lays it low is to
     point out, by means of a few clear-cut lines, the merits, the
     varied skill, by which it charmed its epoch and acquired influence
     over it."

When Oscar Wilde died, and before the publication of "De Profundis,"
various short essays did, as I have stated, make an appearance. A longer
work seems called for, and it is that want which the present volume does
its best to supply.

"Oscar Wilde: The Man" is the title of the first part of this
Appreciation. In Mr Sherard's "The Story of an Unhappy Friendship," as
also in his careful and scholarly "Life," the many-sided nature of Oscar
Wilde was set forth with all the ability of a brilliant pen. But there
is yet room for another, and possibly more detached point of view, and
also a summary of the views of others which will assist the general
reader to gain a mental picture of a writer whose works, in a very short
time, are certain to have a general, as well as a particular appeal.

The scheme of a work of this nature, which is critical rather than
biographical, would nevertheless be incomplete without a personal study.

The study of Wilde's writings cannot fail to be enormously assisted by
some knowledge of synetoithe man himself, and how he was regarded by
others both before and after his personal disgrace.

Ever since his name was known to the world at all the public view of him
has constantly been shifting and changing. There are, however, four
principal periods during each of which Wilde was regarded in a totally
different way. I have made a careful analysis of each of these periods
and collected documentary and other evidence which defines and explains

The first period of all--Oscar Wilde himself always spoke of the
different phases of his extraordinary career as "periods"--was that of
the "Æsthetic movement" as it is generally called, or the æsthetic
"craze" as many people prefer to name it still. New movements, whether
good or bad in their conception and ultimate result, always excite
enmity, hostility, and ridicule. In affairs, in religion, in art, this
is an invariable rule. No pioneer has ever escaped it. England laughed
at the first railway, jeered at the volunteer movement and laughed at
John Keats in precisely the same fashion as it ridiculed Oscar Wilde and
the æsthetic movement.

It is as well to define that movement carefully, for, though marred by
innumerable extravagances and still suffering from the inanities of its
first disciples, it has nevertheless had a real and permanent influence
upon English life. Oscar Wilde was, of course, not the originator of the
æsthetic movement. He took upon himself to become its hierophant, and to
infuse much that was peculiarly his own into it. The movement was begun
by Ruskin, Rossetti, William Morris, Burne-Jones, and a host of others,
while it was continued in the delicate and beautiful writings of Walter
Pater. But it had always been an eclectic movement, not for the public
eye or ear, neither known of nor popular with ordinary people.

Oscar Wilde then began to interest and excite England and America in the
true aims and methods of art of all kinds. It shows an absolute
ignorance of the late Victorian era to say that the movement was a
passing craze. To Oscar Wilde we owe it that people of refined tastes
but moderate means can obtain beautiful papers for the walls of their
houses at a moderate cost. The cheap and lovely fabrics that we can buy
in Regent Street are spun as a direct consequence of the movement;
harmony and delicacy of colour, beauty of curve and line, the whole
renaissance of art in our household furniture are mainly due to the
writings and lectures of Oscar Wilde.

It is not a crime to love beautiful things, it is not effeminate to care
for them. It is to the subject of this appreciation we owe our national
change of feeling on such matters.

This, briefly, is what the æsthetic movement was, such are its
indubitable results. Let us see, in some instances, how Wilde was
regarded in the period when, before his real literary successes, he
preached the gospel of Beauty in everyday life.

Let us take a Continental view of Wilde in his first period, the view of
a really eminent man, a distinguished scientist and man of letters.

The name of Dr Max Nordau will be familiar to many readers of this book.
But, if the book fulfils the purpose for which it was designed, then
possibly there will be many readers who will know little or nothing of
the distinguished foreign writer. Hard, one-sided, and bitter as his
remarks upon Wilde during the æsthetic movement will seem to most of
us--seem to me--yet they have the merit of absolute detachment and
sincerity. It is as well to insist on this fact in order that my
readers may realise exactly such value as the words may have, no less
and no more. The following short account of Dr Max Nordau's position and
achievements is taken from that useful dictionary of celebrities, "Who's
Who?" for 1907:--

     "NORDAU, MAX SIMON, M.D. Paris, Budapesth; Officier d'Académie,
     France; Commander of the Royal Hellenic Order of the St Saviour;
     author and physician; President Congress of Zionists; Hon. Mem. of
     the Greek Acad. of the Parnassos; _b._ Budapesth, 29th July 1849;
     _y. s._ of Gabriel Südfield, Rabbi, Krotoschin, Prussia, and his
     2nd wife, _b._ Nelkin, Riga, Russia. _Educ._ Royal Gymnasium and
     Protestant Gymnasium, Budapesth; Royal University, Budapesth;
     Faculty of Medicine, Paris. Wrote very early for newspapers;
     travelled for several years all over Europe; practised as a
     physician for a year and a half, 1878-80, at Budapesth; settled
     then at Paris, residing there ever since; _m._ Anna-Elizabeth, 2nd
     _d._ of State-councillor Captain Julius Dons, Copenhagen, Denmark;
     one _d._ _Publications_: Paris, Studien und Bilder aus dem wahren
     Milliardenlande, 1878; Seifenblasen, 1879; Vom Kreml zur Alhambra,
     1880; Aus der Zeitungswelt (together with Ferdinand Gross), 1880;
     Paris under der dritten Republik, 1881; der Krieg der Millionen,
     1882; Die conventionellen Lügen der Culturmenschheit, 1883;
     Ausgewählte Pariser Briefe, 1884; Paradoxe, 1885; Die Krankheit des
     Jahrhunderts, 1887; Seelenanalysen, 1891; Gefühlskomödie, 1892;
     Entartung, 1893; Das Recht zu lieben, 1894; Die Kugel, 1895;
     Drohnenschlacht, 1896; La funzione sociale dell arte, 1897; Doctor
     Kohn, 1898; The Drones must Die, 1899: Zeitgenössische Franzosen,
     1901; Morganatic, 1904; Mahâ-Rôg, 1905. _Recreations_:
     foil-fencing, swimming. _Address_: 8, Rue Léonie, Paris."

Nearly all the modern manifestations of Art, implies Dr Max Nordau, in
"Degeneration," are manifestations of madness. Such a sweeping statement
is incredible and has not--nor will it have--many advocates, despite the
brilliant special pleading of its originator. In Oscar Wilde's case the
aphorism seems particularly misleading for the reason that there may
appear to be a considerable amount of truth in it.

That Wilde's _social_ downfall was due to a certain kind of elliptiform
insanity is without doubt. Mr Sherard has insisted on this over and over
again. He has spent enormous labour in researches into Wilde's ancestry.
His view is really a scientific view because it is written by an artist
who sees both sides of the question, has a judicial mind, and while
capable of appreciating the truths that science teaches us, is further
capable of welding them to the psychological truths which the intuition
of the artist alone evolves.

A certain definite and partial insanity alone can explain Wilde's life
in certain of its aspects. But when once his pen was in his hand, in his
real bright life of literature and art, this hidden thing entirely
disappears. Therefore, Dr Max Nordau's study seems to me fundamentally
wrong, though extremely interesting and not to be disregarded. To know
Oscar Wilde we must know what all sorts of people, whose opinion has
weight enough to secure a wide hearing, really thought about him.

The German scientist said:

     "The ego-mania of decadentism, its love of the artificial, its
     aversion to nature, and to all forms of activity and movement, its
     megalomaniacal contempt for men and its exaggeration of the
     importance of art, have found their English representative among
     the 'Æsthetes,' the chief of whom is Oscar Wilde.

     "Wilde has done more by his personal eccentricities than by his
     works. Like Barbey d'Aurevilly, whose rose-coloured silk hats and
     gold lace cravats are well known, and like his disciple Joséphin
     Péladan, who walks about in lace frills and satin doublet, Wilde
     dresses in queer costumes which recall partly the fashions of the
     Middle Ages, partly the rococo modes. He pretends to have abandoned
     the dress of the present time because it offends his sense of the
     beautiful; but this is only a pretext in which probably he himself
     does not believe. What really determines his actions is the
     hysterical craving to be noticed, to occupy the attention of the
     world with himself, to get talked about. It is asserted that he has
     walked down Pall Mall in the afternoon dressed in doublet and
     breeches, with a picturesque biretta on his head, and a sunflower
     in his hand, the quasi-heraldic symbol of the Æsthetes. This
     anecdote has been reproduced in all the biographies of Wilde, and I
     have nowhere seen it denied. But it is a promenade with a sunflower
     in the hand also inspired by a craving for the beautiful.

     "Phrasemakers are perpetually repeating the twaddle, that it is a
     proof of honourable independence to follow one's own taste without
     being bound down to the regulation costume of the Philistine
     cattle, and to choose for clothes the colours, materials and cut
     which appear beautiful to oneself, no matter how much they may
     differ from the fashion of the day. The answer to this cackle
     should be that it is above all a sign of anti-social ego-mania to
     irritate the majority unnecessarily, only to gratify vanity, or an
     æsthetical instinct of small importance and easy to control--such
     as is always done when, either by word or deed, a man places
     himself in opposition to this majority. He is obliged to repress
     many manifestations of opinions and desires out of regard for his
     fellow-creatures; to make him understand this is the aim of
     education, and he who has not learnt to impose some restraint upon
     himself in order not to shock others is called by malicious
     Philistines, not an Æsthete, but a blackguard.

     "It may become a duty to combat the vulgar herd in the cause of
     truth and knowledge; but to a serious man this duty will always be
     felt as a painful one. He will never fulfil it with a light heart,
     and he will examine strictly and cautiously if it be really a high
     and imperative law which forces him to be disagreeable to the
     majority of his fellow-creatures. Such an action is, in the eyes of
     a moral and sane man, a kind of martyrdom for a conviction, to
     carry out which constitutes a vital necessity; it is a form, and
     not an easy form, of self-sacrifice, for it means the renunciation
     of the joy which the consciousness of sympathy with one's
     fellow-creatures gives, and it exacts the painful overthrow of
     social instincts, which, in truth, do not exist in deranged
     ego-maniacs, but are very strong in the normal man.

     "The predilection for strange costume is a pathological aberration
     of a racial instinct. The adornment of the exterior has its origin
     in the strong desire to be admired by others--primarily by the
     opposite sex--to be recognised by them as especially well shaped,
     handsome, youthful, or rich and powerful, or as pre-eminent
     through rank or merit. It is practised, then, with the object of
     producing a favourable impression on others, and is a result of
     thought about others, of preoccupation with the race. If, now, this
     adornment be, not through misjudgment but purposely, of a character
     to cause irritation to others, or lend itself to ridicule--in other
     words, if it excites disapproval instead of approbation--it then
     runs exactly counter to the object of the art of dress, and evinces
     a perversion of the instinct of vanity.

     "The pretence of a sense of beauty is the excuse of consciousness
     for a crank of the conscious. The fool who masquerades in Pall Mall
     does not see himself, and, therefore, does not enjoy the beautiful
     appearance which is supposed to be an æsthetic necessity for him.
     There would be some sense in his conduct if it had for its object
     an endeavour to cause others to dress in accordance with his taste;
     for them he sees and they can scandalise him by the ugliness, and
     charm by the beauty, of their costume. But to take the initiative
     in a new artistic style in dress brings the innovator not one
     hair's breadth nearer his assumed goal of æsthetic satisfaction.

     "When, therefore, an Oscar Wilde goes about in 'æsthetic costume'
     among gazing Philistines, exciting either their ridicule or their
     wrath, it is no indication of independence of character, but rather
     from a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and
     hysterical longing to make a sensation, justified by no exalted
     aim; nor is it from a strong desire of beauty, but from a
     malevolent mania for contradiction."

It is impossible to read the extracts quoted above--and only a few
paragraphs sufficient to show the trend of a much longer article have
been used--without realising its injustice and yet at the same time its
perfect sincerity. During the "first period," with which we are dealing
now, Wilde undoubtedly excited the enmity and ridicule of a vast number
of people. He knew that he had something to say which was worth
listening to. He knew also--as the genius always has known--that he was
superior in intellect to those by whom he was surrounded. His
temperament was impatient. He wanted to take the place to which he felt
he was entitled in a sudden moment. His quick Celtic imagination ran
riot with fact, his immeasurable ambition, his serene consciousness of
worth, which to usual minds and temperaments suggested nothing but
conceit, all urged him to display and extravagance in order to more
speedily mount the rostrum from which he would be heard.

Therefore, in this first period of this so astonishing a career, he went
far to spoil and obscure his message by the very means he hoped would
enable him to publish it widely. He invented a pose which he intended
should become a megaphone, whereas, in the effect, it did but retard
the hearing of his voice until the practical wisdom of what he wished to
say proved itself in concrete form.

Nor must we ever forget the man's constant sense of humour, a mocking
sprite which doubtless led him to this or that public foolishness while
he chuckled within at his own attitude and the dance he was leading his
imitators and fools. For Oscar Wilde had a supreme sense of humour. Many
people would like to deny him _humour_, while admitting his marvellous
and scintillating _wit_. That they are wrong I unhesitatingly assert,
and I believe that this will be proved over and over again in the
following pages.

Let us take another view of Wilde at this period. It was written after
his disappearance from public life, or rather when it was imminent and
certain. The words are those of Mr Labouchere, the _flaneur_ with an
intellect, the somewhat acid critic of how many changing aspects and
phases of English social life.

"I have known Oscar Wilde off and on for years," writes Mr Labouchere in
_Truth_. "Clever and witty he unquestionably is, but I have always
regarded him as somewhat wrong in the head, for his craving after
notoriety seemed to me a positive craze. There was nothing that he would
not do to attract attention. When he went over to New York he went
about dressed in a bottle-green coat with a waist up to his shoulders.
When he entered a restaurant people threw things at him. When he drove
in the evening to deliver his lectures the windows of his carriage were
broken, until a policeman rode on each side of it. Far from objecting to
all this, it filled him with delighted complacency. 'Insult me, throw
mud at me, but only look at me,' seemed to be his creed; and such a
creed was never acted upon by anyone whose mind was not out of balance.
So strange and wondrous is his mind, when in an abnormal condition, that
it would not surprise me if he were deriving a keen enjoyment from a
position which most people, whether really innocent or guilty, would
prefer to die rather than occupy. He must have known in what a glass
house he lived when he challenged investigation in a court of justice.
After he had done this he went abroad. Why did he not stay abroad? The
possibilities of a prison may not be pleasing to him, but I believe that
the notoriety that has overtaken him has such a charm for him that it
outweighs everything else. I remember, in the early days of the cult of
æstheticism, hearing someone ask him how a man of his undoubted capacity
could make such a fool of himself. He gave this explanation. He had
written, he said, a book of poems, and he believed in their excellence.
In vain he went from publisher to publisher asking them to bring them
out: no one would even read them, for he was unknown. In order to find a
publisher he felt that he must do something to become a personality. So
he hit upon æstheticism. It succeeded. People talked about him; they
invited him to their houses as a sort of lion. He then took his poems to
a publisher, who--still without reading them--gladly accepted them."

This is thoroughly unsympathetic, but no doubt it represents a mood with
some faithfulness. In criticising the work of critics one _must be a
psychologist_. Religion, the Christian religion at anyrate, teaches
tolerance. Its teachings are seldom obeyed. The four Hags of the
litany--let us personify them!--Envy, Hatred, Malice, and
Uncharitableness unfortunately intrude into religious life too often and
too powerfully. But the real psychologist, not the scientist (_vide_
Nordau) _is_ able to understand better than anyone else the motives
which have animated criticism at any given date. The psychologist more
than any other type of man or woman has learnt the lesson Charles Reade
tried to inculcate in "Put Yourself In His Place."

With a little effort, we can realise what _Truth_ thought when these
lines were written. We cannot blame the writer, we can only record his
words as a part of the general statement dealing with Oscar Wilde's life
and attitude during the "Æsthetic Period."

At this point the reader may possibly ask himself if the title given to
the book--"Oscar Wilde: an Appreciation"--is entirely justified. "The
writer of it," he may say to himself, "is giving us examples of hostile
criticism of Wilde's first period, and though he endeavours to explain
them, yet, in an appreciation, it rather seems that such quotations are
out of place."

I do not think that if the point of view is considered for a moment, the
stricture will be persisted in.

Eulogy, indiscriminating eulogy, is simply an _ex parte_ statement which
can have no weight at all. I shall endeavour to show, before this first
part of the book is completed, not only how those who attacked Wilde
were mistaken, not only how those who bestowed indiscriminate praise
upon him made an over-statement, but finally and definitely what Wilde
was as seen through the temperament of the writer, corrected by the
statements of other writers both for and against him.

I am convinced that this is the only scientific method of arriving at a
just estimation of the character of this brilliant and extraordinary
man. No summing up of the æsthetic period could be complete without
copious references to the great chronicler of our modern life--the
pages of Mr Punch.

_Punch_ has never been bitter. It has often been severe, but Mr Punch
has always, from the very first moment of his arrival among us,
successfully held the balance between this or that faction, and,
moreover, has faithfully reflected the consensus of public opinion upon
any given matter.

The extraordinary skill with which some of the brightest and merriest
wits have made our national comic paper the true diary of events cannot
be controverted or disputed. Follies and fashions have been criticised
with satire, but never with spleen. Addison said that the "appearance of
a man of genius in the world may always be known by the virulence of
dunces." _Punch_ has proved for generations that its kindly appreciation
or depreciation has never been virulent, but nearly always an accurate
statement of the opinion and point of view of the ordinary more or less
cultured and well-bred person.

It has always been a sign of eminence in this or that department of life
to be mentioned in _Punch_ at all. The conductors of that journal during
its whole career have always exercised the wisest discrimination, and
have always kept shrewd fingers upon the pulses of English thought. When
a politician, for example, is caricatured in _Punch_ that politician
knows that he has arrived at a certain place and point in public
estimation. When a writer is caricatured, either in line or words, he
also knows that he has, at anyrate, obtained a hold of this or that sort
upon the country.

Now those who would try to minimise the place of Oscar Wilde in the
public eye during the æsthetic period have only to look at the pages of
_Punch_ to realise how greatly that movement influenced English life
during its continuance.

Let it be thoroughly understood--and very few people will attempt to
deny it--that _Punch_ has always been a perfectly adjusted barometer of

It is, therefore, not out of place, herein, to publish a bibliography of
the references to Oscar Wilde which, from first to last of that
cometlike career, appeared in the pages of Mr Punch. Such a list proves
immediately the one-sidedness of Dr Max Nordau's and Mr Labouchere's
views. From extracts I have given from the remarks of these two eminent
people the ordinary man might well be inclined to think that the
æsthetic movement and the doings of Oscar Wilde in his first period were
small and local things. This is not so, and the following carefully
compiled list will show that it is not so.

The list has been properly indexed and is now given below. Afterwards I
shall give a small selection from the witticisms of the famous journal
to support the bibliography.

Those students of the work of Oscar Wilde and his position in modern
life will find the references below of great interest. They date from
1881 to 1906, and those collectors of "Oscariana" and students of
Wilde's work will doubtless be able to obtain the numbers in which the
following articles, poems, and paragraphs have appeared.


  February   12, p.  62. Maudle on the Choice of a Profession.

    "         "  p.  71. Beauty _Not_ at Home.

  April       9, p. 161. A Maudle in Ballad. _To His Lily._

   "         30, p. 201. The First of May. An Æsthetic
                           Rondeau. Substitution.

  May         7, p. 213. A Padded Cell.

   "          "  p. 215. Design for an Æsthetic Theatrical
                           Poster. "Let Us Live Up To It."

   "         14, p. 218. The Grosvenor Gallery.

   "          "  p. 220. Fashionable Nursery Rhyme.

   "          "  p. 221. Philistia Defiant.

   "         28, p. 242. More Impressions. _By Oscuro
                           Wildegoose._ La Fuite des Oies.

   "          "  p. 245. Æsthetic Notes.

  June       25, p. 297. Æsthetics at Ascot.

   "          "  p. 298. _Punch's_ Fancy Portraits. No. 37,
                           "O. W."

  July       23, p.  26. Swinburne and Water.

   "          "  p.  29. Maunderings at Marlow. (_By Our
                           Own Æsthetic Bard._)

  August     20, p.  84. "Croquis" by Dumb-Crambo

    "        20, p.  84. Too-Too Awful. _A Sonnet of

  September  17, p. 132. Impression De L'Automne.
                           (_Stanzas by our muchly-admired
                           Poet, Drawit Milde._)

  October     1, p. 154. The Æsthete to the Rose. (_By
                           Wildegoose, after Waller._)

    "        29, p. 204. Spectrum Analysis. (_After "The
                           Burden of Itys," by the Wild-Eyed

  November   12, p. 228. A Sort of "Sortes."

    "        19, p. 237. Poet's Corner; _Or, Nonsense
                           Rhymes on Well-known Names_.

    "        26, p. 241. The Downfall of the Dado.

    "         "  p. 242. Theoretikos. By Oscuro Wildegoose.

  December   10, p. 274. "Impressions du Theatre."

    "        17, p. 288. The Two Æsthetic Poets.

    "        24, p. 289. Mr Punch's "Mother Hubbard"
                           Fairy Tale Grinaway Christmas
                           Cards.--(Second Series.)

    "        31, p. 309. Mrs Langtry as "Lady Macbeth."

  Almanack for 1882 (Dec. 6, 1881) (p. 5). More Impressions.
                         (_By Oscuro Wildegoose._) Des


  January     7, p.     10. "A New Departure."

    "         " pp. 10, 11. Clowning and Classicism.

    "         "  p.     12. In Earnest.

    "        14, p.     14. Oscar Interviewed.

    "         "  p.     16. Æsthetic Ladies' Hair.

    "         "  p.     18. Murder Made Easy. _A Ballad à
                              la Mode. By "Brother Jonathan"
                              Wilde._ (With Cartoon.)

    "         "  p.     18. To An Æsthetic Poet.

    "         "  p.     22. Impression du Theatre.

  February    4, p.     49. Sketches from "Boz." Oscar
                              Wilde as _Harold Skimpole_.

    "         4, p.     58. A Poet's Day. Ariadne in Naxes;
                              Or, Very Like a Wail.

    "         "  p.     49. Distinctly Precious Pantomime.

    "        18, p.     81. Lines by Mrs Cimabue Brown.

  March      11, p.    109. The Poet Wilde's _Unkissed Kisses_.

    "          " p.    117. Ossian (with Variations).

  April       1, p.    153. A Philistine to An Æsthete.

    "          " p.    156. The Poet Wilde.

    "         8, p.    168. Impression De Gaiety Théâtre.
                              _By Ossian Wilderness._

    "        22, p.    192. Likely.

  November    4, p.    216. Not Generally Known.

    "        25, p.    249. "What! No Soap!" Or, Pop
                              Goes The Langtry Bubble.


  March      31, p.    155. To Be Sold.

    "         "  p.    156. Sage Green. (_By a Fading-out

  May        12, pp. 220-1. Our Academy Guide. No. 163.--Private
                              Frith's View.--Members
                              of the Salvation Army, led by
                              General Oscar Wilde, joining in
                              a hymn.

  September   1, p.     99. "The Play's (not) the Thing."

  November    3, p.    209. Sartorial Sweetness and Light.

    "        10, p.    218. Counter Criticism.

    "        17, p.    231. Cheap Telegrams.

    "         "  p.    238. Another Invitation to Amerikay.

    "        24, p.    249. "And is this Fame?"


  June       14, p. 288. The Town. II.--Bond Street.

  August     23, p.  96. The Town. No. XI.--"Form."
                           A Legend of Modern London.
                           Part I.

    "        30, p. 105. A Legend of Modern London.
                           Part II.


  May        30, p. 253. Ben Trovato.

  June       27, p. 310. Interiors and Exteriors. No. 13.
                           At Burlington House. The

  December    7, Almanack for 1886. The Walnut Season.
                           "Here Y' ar'. Ten a Penny.
                           All Cracked."


  December   10, p. 276. Our Booking-Office. _Woman's


  January     5, p.  12. Our Booking-Office. Article in
                           _The Fortnightly_.

  July        6, p.  12. Advertisement of _Blackwood's
                           Magazine_, containing "The
                           Portrait of Mr W. H." by Oscar

  October     5, p. 160. Appropriate Subject.


  July       19, p.  26. Our Booking-Office. _Dorian Gray._

  September  20, p. 135. Development.

  Christmas Number. Punch Among the Planets.


  March      14, p. 123. Desdemona to the Author of
                           "Dorian Gray." (_Apropos of
                           his paragraphic Preface._)

    "         "  p. 125. Wilde Flowers.

  May        30, p. 257. Our Booking-Office. _Intentions._


  March       5, p. 113. A Wilde "Tag" to a Tame Play.
                           With Fancy Portrait. "Quite
                           Too-Too Puffickly Precious."

  March      12, p. 123. Lord Wildermere's Mother-in-Law.

    "         "  p. 124. Pathetic Description of the
                           Present State of Mr George

  April      30, p. 215. Staircase Scenes.--No. 1, Private
                           View, Royal Academy.

  June       25, p. 304. The Playful Sally.

  July        2, p. 315. A Difficulty.

    "         9, p.   1. A Wilde Idea; Or, More Injustice
                           to Ireland.

    "        16, p.  16. On the Fly-leaf of an Old

    "        16, p.  23. Racine, With the Chill Off.


  January    19, p.  29.    "To Rome for Sixteen Guineas."

  April      22, p. 189.    The B. and S. Drama at the

    "        29, p. 193.    Stray Thoughts on Play-Writing.

    "         "  p. 195.    The Premier at the Haymarket
                              last Wednesday.

  May         6, p. 213.    A Work--of Some Importance.

    "        13, p. 221.    Wilder Ideas; _Or, Conversation as
                              she is spoken at the Haymarket_.

    "        27, p. 246.    A Wylde Vade Mecum. (_By
                              Professor H-xl-y_)

  June        3, p. 257.    Second Title for the Play at the

  July       15, p.  13.    An Afternoon Party.

    "        15, p.  22.    "The Play is Not the Thing."

    "        29, p.  46.    At The T. R. H.

  August     26, p.  94.    Still Wilder Ideas. (_Possibilities
                              for the next O. Wilde Play._)

  December   30, pp. 304-5. New Year's Eve at Latterday Hall.
                              An Incident. Dorian Gray
                              taking Juliet in to Dinner.


  February   17, p.  73. "Blushing Honours."

  March      10, p. 109. She-Notes. By Borgia Smudgiton.

  July       21, p.  33. The Minx.--A Poem in Prose.

  August      4, p.  60. Our Charity Fete.

  October    13, p. 177. The O.B.C. (Limited).

   "         20, p. 185. The Blue Gardenia. (_A Colourable

   "         27, p. 204. Morbidezza.

  November   10, p. 225. The Decadent Guys. (_A Colour-Study
                           in Green Carnations._)

  December   15, p. 287. The Truisms of Life. (Note 12.)


  January    12, p.  24. Overheard Fragment of a Dialogue.

   "         19, p.  29. "To Rome for Sixteen Guineas."

   "          "  p.  36. "A penny Plain--But Oscar

  February    2, p.  54. A Wilde "Ideal Husband."

   "          "  p.  60. A God in the Os-Car.

   "  23,        p.  85. The O. W. Vade Mecum.

  March       2, p. 106. "The Rivals" at the A.D.C.

   "          "  p. 107. The Advisability of Not Being
                           Born in a Handbag.

   "         16, p. 121. The Advantage of Being Consistent.

  April       6, p. 157. April Foolosophy. (_By One of

   "         13, p. 171. The Long and Short of It.

   "          "  p. 177. Concerning a Misused Term; _viz._
                           _Art_, as recently applied to a
                           certain form of Literature.


  January     3, p.  18. Our Booking-Office. (R. H.
                           Sherard's "_Twenty Years in

This list at least spells, and spelt, celebrity and a recognition of the
importance of the Æsthetic movement.

Especially did the American lecturing tour of Oscar Wilde excite the
comment and ridicule of _Punch_.

I quote some paragraphs from a pretended despatch from an "American


     (_From an American Correspondent_)


     "You see I am, after all, but mortal," remarked the Poet, with an
     ineffable affable smile, as he looked up from an elegant but
     substantial dish of ham and eggs. Passing a long, willowy hand
     through his waving hair, he swept away a stray curl-paper with the
     _nonchalance_ of a D'ORSAY.

     After this effort, Mr WILDE expressed himself as feeling somewhat
     faint; and, with a half-apologetic smile, ordered another portion


     in the evident enjoyment of which, after a brief interchange of
     international courtesies, I left the Poet.

The irresponsible but not ungenial and quite legitimate fun of this is
a fairly representative indication of the way in which the young
"Apostle of Beauty" was thought of in England during his American visit.

The writer goes on to tell how, later in the day, he once more
encountered the "young patron of Culture." It is astonishing to us now
to realise how even the word "culture" was distorted from its real
meaning and made into the badge of a certain set. At anyrate, Mr Punch's
contributor goes on to say that "Oscar" was found at the business
premises of the


     On this occasion the Poet, by special request, appeared in the
     uniform of an English Officer of the Dragoon Guards, the dress, I
     understand, being supplied for the occasion from the elegant
     wardrobe of Mr D'OYLEY CARTE'S "Patience" Company.

     Several ladies expressed their disappointment at the "insufficient
     leanness" of the Poet's figure, whereupon his Business Manager
     explained that he belonged to the fleshy school.

     To accommodate Mr WILDE, the ordinary lay-figures were removed from
     the showroom, and, after a sumptuous luncheon, to which the _élite_
     of Miss ----'s customers were invited, the distinguished guest
     posed with his fair hostess in an allegorical tableau, representing
     _English Poetry extending the right hand to American Commerce_.

     "This is indeed Fair Trade," remarked Mr Wilde lightly, and
     immediately improvised a testimonial advertisement (in verse) in
     praise of Miss ----'s patent dress-improver.

     At a dinner given by "JEMMY" CROWDER (as we familiarly call him),
     the Apologist of Art had discarded his military garb for the
     ordinary dress of an


     in which his now world-famed knee-breeches form a conspicuous item,
     suggesting indeed the Admiral's uniform in Mr D'OYLEY CARTE'S
     "Pinafore" combination.

     "I think," said the Poet, in a pause between courses, "one cannot
     dine too well"--placing everyone at his ease by his admirable tact
     in partaking of the thirty-six items of the _menu_.

The skit continues wittily enough, but it is not necessary to quote more
of it. The paragraphs sufficiently explain the attitude of Mr Punch,
which was the general attitude at the time.

It was hammered in persistently. "Oscar Interviewed" appeared under the
date of January 1882, and again, in the following extracts the reader
will recognise the same note.

     "DETERMINED to anticipate the rabble of penny-a-liners ready to
     pounce upon any distinguished foreigner who approaches our shores,
     and eager to assist a sensitive Poet in avoiding the impertinent
     curiosity and ill-bred insolence of the Professional Reporter, I
     took the fastest pilot-boat on the station, and boarded the
     splendid Cunard steamer, the _Boshnia_, in the shucking of a


     He stood, with his large hand passed through his long hair, against
     a high chimney-piece--which had been painted pea-green, with panels
     of peacock-blue pottery let in at uneven intervals--one elbow on
     the high ledge, the other hand on his hip. He was dressed in a
     long, snuff-coloured, single-breasted coat, which reached to his
     heels, and was relieved with a sealskin collar and cuffs rather the
     worse for wear. Frayed linen, and an orange silk handkerchief, gave
     a note to the generally artistic colouring of the _ensemble_, while
     one small daisy drooped despondently in his buttonhole.... We may
     state that the chimney-piece, as well as the sealskin collar, is
     the property of OSCAR, and will appear in his Lectures "on the
     Growth of Artistic Taste in England."


     "Yes; I should have been astonished had I not been interviewed!
     Indeed, I have not been well on board this Cunard _Argosy_. I have
     wrestled with the glaukous-haired Poseidon, and feared his
     ravishment. Quite: I have been too ill, too utterly ill.
     Exactly--seasick in fact, if I must descend to so trivial an
     expression. I fear the clean beauty of my strong limbs is somewhat
     waned. I am scarcely myself--my nerves are thrilling like throbbing
     violins--in exquisite pulsation.

     "You are right. I believe I was the first to devote my subtle
     brain-chords to the worship of the Sunflower, and the apotheosis of
     the delicate Tea-pot. I have ever been jasmine-cradled from my
     youth. Eons ago, I might say centuries, in '78, when a student at
     Oxford, I had trampled the vintage of my babyhood, and trod the
     thorn-spread heights of Poesy. I had stood in the Arena and torn
     the bays from the expiring athletes, my competitors."

       *       *       *       *       *


     "Yes; I expect my Lecture will be a success. So does DOLLAR
     CARTE--I mean D'OYLEY CARTE. Too-Toothless Senility may jeer, and
     poor, positive Propriety may shake her rusty curls; but I am here
     in my creamy lustihood, to pipe of Passion's venturous Poesy, and
     reap the scorching harvest of Self-Love! I am not quite sure what
     I mean. The true Poet never is. In fact, true Poetry is nothing if
     it is intelligible. She is only to be compared to SALMACIS, who is
     not a boy or girl, but yet is both."

And so forth, and so forth.

About the conversation and superficial manner of Oscar Wilde there must
have been something strangely according to formula. Among intimate
friends, friends who were sympathetic to his real ideals, his talk was
wonderful. That fact is vouched for in a hundred quarters, it is not to
be denied.

As I write I have dozens of undeniable testimonies to the fact, I myself
can bear witness to it on at least one occasion. But when Wilde was not
with people for whose opinion of him he cared much--really cared--his
odd perversity of phrase, his persistent wish to astonish the fools, his
extraordinary carelessness of average opinion often compelled him to
talk the most frantic nonsense which was only redeemed from mere
childish inversion of phrase by the air and manner with which it was
said, and the merest tinsel pretence of wit. The wittiest talker of his
generation, certainly the wittiest writer, gave the very worst of his
wit to the pressmen who pestered him but who, and this was the thing he
was unable to appreciate at its true value, represented him to the world
during this "first period."

The mock interviews in _Punch_ which have been quoted from are really no
very wide departures from the real thing. A year or two after the
Æsthetic movement was not so prominent in the public eye as was the
success of Wilde as a writer of plays, an actual interview with him
appeared in a well-known weekly paper in which he talked not much less
extravagantly than he was caricatured as talking in _Punch_. A play of
his had been produced and, while it was a complete and satisfying
success, it had been assailed in that unfortunately hostile way by the
critics to which he was accustomed.

He was asked what he thought about the attitude of the critics towards
his play.

"For a man to be a dramatic critic," he is said to have replied, "is as
foolish and inartistic as it would be for a man to be a critic of epics,
or a pastoral critic, or a critic of lyrics. All modes of art are one,
and the modes of the art that employs words as its medium are quite
indivisible. The result of the vulgar specialisation of criticism is an
elaborate scientific knowledge of the stage--almost as elaborate as that
of the stage-carpenter, and quite on a par with that of the
call-boy--combined with an entire incapacity to realise that a play is a
work of art, or to receive any artistic impressions at all."

He was told that he was rather severe upon the dramatic critics.

"English dramatic criticism of our own day has never had a single
success, in spite of the fact that it goes to all the first nights," was
his reply.

Thereupon the interviewer suggested that dramatic criticism was at least

"Certainly; that is why it is so bad," he replied, and went on to say:

"The moment criticism exercises any influence it ceases to be criticism.
The aim of the true critic is to try and chronicle his own moods, not to
try and correct the masterpieces of others."

"Real critics would be charming in your eyes, then?"

"Real critics? Ah, how perfectly charming they would be! I am always
waiting for their arrival. An inaudible school would be nice. Why do you
not found it?"

Oscar Wilde was asked if there were, then, absolutely no critics in

"There are just two," he answered, but refused to give their names. The
interviewer goes on to recount his exact words:

"Mr Wilde, with the elaborate courtesy for which he has always been
famous, replied, 'I think I had better not mention their names; it might
make the others so jealous.'

"'What do the literary cliques think of your plays?'

"'I don't write to please cliques; I write to please myself. Besides, I
have always had grave suspicions that the basis of all literary cliques
is a morbid love of meat-teas. That makes them sadly uncivilised.'

"'Still, if your critics offend you, why don't you reply to them?'

"'I have far too much time. But I think some day I will give a general
answer, in the form of a lecture, in a public hall, which I shall call
"Straight Talks to Old Men."'

"'What is your feeling towards your audiences--towards the public?'

"'Which public? There are as many publics as there are personalities.'

"'Are you nervous on the night that you are producing a new play?'

"'Oh no, I am exquisitely indifferent. My nervousness ends at the last
dress rehearsal; I know then what effect my play, as presented upon the
stage, has produced upon me. My interest in the play ends there, and I
feel curiously envious of the public--they have such wonderful fresh
emotions in store for them.'

"I laughed, but Mr Wilde rebuked me with a look of surprise.

"'It is the public, not the play, that I desire to make a success,' he

"'But I'm afraid I don't quite understand----'

"'The public makes a success when it realises that a play is a work of
art. On the three first nights I have had in London the public has been
most successful, and had the dimensions of the stage admitted of it, I
would have called them before the curtain. Most managers, I believe,
call them behind.'"

There are pages more of this sort of thing, and the earlier and
pretended interview in _Punch_ differs a little in period but very
little in manner from this real interview.

_Punch_ continued its gibes during the whole time of the first period.
Really witty parodies of Oscar Wilde's poems and plays appeared from
time to time. Pictures of him were drawn in caricature by well-known
artists. It was the same in almost every society. The band of
enthusiasts listened to the message, but gave more prominence to the
poses and extravagances which accompanied it. The message was obscured
and it was the fault of Oscar Wilde's eccentricity.

We are reaping the benefit of it all now, at present I am merely the
chronicler of opinion when the movement was in what the unobservant
thought was its heyday, but which has proved to be its infancy.

The chorus of dislike and mistrust was almost universal. At Oxford
itself, popularly supposed to be a stronghold of æstheticism at the
time, a debate on the question took place at the Union. A very
prominent undergraduate of the day, Mr J. A. Simon, of Wadham College,
reflected the bulk of Oxford opinion when he spoke as follows:--

     "Mr J. A. Simon (Wadham) said he felt nervous, for it was an
     extraordinary occasion for him to be on the side that would gain a
     majority. He did not consider that the motion had at all the
     meaning the mover gave it. He quite agreed with him as to the
     advances made in the illustrated press, and other things, and that
     many of these selected changes were good. The motion, however,
     evidently referred to the movement headed by Oscar Wilde, and
     represented by such things as the 'Yellow Book,' etc. He always
     thought that the mover was most natural when he was on the stage
     (applause) and they had all been given pleasure by his
     impersonations (applause). He believed, though, that he had been
     acting that night, and the speaker quoted from the speeches of
     Bassanio passages which he considered described the way the mover
     had led them off the scent. He intended to discuss the matter
     seriously. As a book entitled 'Degeneracy' pointed out, the new
     movement was the outcome of a craving for novelty, and the
     absurdities in connection with it would do credit to a madhouse.
     People were eccentric in the hope that they would be taken to be
     original (applause). It was not a development at all; it was but a
     jerk or twitching, the work of a moment. Oscar Wilde had actually
     signed his name to a most awful pun, as those who had seen 'The
     Importance Of Being Earnest' would understand. The writer's many
     epigrams were doubtless clever, for next to pretending to be drunk,
     pretending to be mad was the most difficult (applause). The process
     was to turn a proverb upside down, and there was the epigram. Then
     Aubrey Beardsley's figures, if they showed anything, showed
     extraordinary development; they certainly were not delicate; in
     fact, he should call them distinctly indelicate. For one thing,
     such creatures never existed, and it was a species of art that was
     absolutely imbecile. Oscar Wilde, though, had said that until we
     see things as they are not we never really live. But all he could
     say was that he hoped he should never live (applause). It was
     really not art at all, for art was nearly allied to nature,
     although Oscar Wilde said that the only connecting link was a
     really well-made buttonhole. That sort of thing was the art of
     being brilliantly absurd (applause). It was insignificant to lay
     claim to manners on the ground of personal appearance; such were
     not manners but mannerisms. Aubrey Beardsley's figures were but a
     mannerism of this sort (applause). A development must be new and
     permanent, and the pictures referred to were not new, for similar
     ones could be found on the old Egyptian monuments (applause). This
     cult were not even original individually, for where one led all the
     rest followed. Oscar Wilde talked about a purple sin: the others
     did the same. By-the-by, that remark was not original, for scarlet
     sins had been mentioned in very early days; it was indeed all of it
     but a resuscitation of what was old and had been long left behind
     by the rest of the world (applause). The movement was not
     permanent, as might be seen by the æsthetic craze of fifteen years
     ago. Velvet coats and peacock feathers were dying out, and soon it
     would not be correct to wear the hair long (laughter). It was but a
     phase; if everyone were to talk in epigrams it would be
     distinguished to talk sense. He was in a difficulty, for if he got
     a large majority against the motion, to be in a minority was just
     what would please the æsthetes most. Therefore, let as few vote
     against as possible (laughter). To be serious, he considered that
     true art should give pleasure and comfort to people who were in
     trouble or down in the world, and who, he asked, would be helped by
     the art of either Aubrey Beardsley or Oscar Wilde? (applause). In
     conclusion, he would ask the House to give the movers the
     satisfaction of having as few as possible voting for them

  "_Ars longa est!_ All know what once that meant;
      But cranks corrupt so sickeningly have shindied
    About _their_ ART of late, 'tis evident
      The rendering now must be, 'Art is long-winded!'
    For _Vita brevis_,--all true men must hope,
    Brief life for such base Art--and a short rope!"

said a popular rhyme of the time. It sums up average opinion and may
fittingly close this summary of it during the "Æsthetic" period.

We are forced to admit that the general misunderstanding was partially
due to the fashion in which the new doctrines were presented. The thing
was well worth saying, but it was not said seriously enough. It was a
lamentable mistake, but it helps us to understand a certain aspect of
Oscar Wilde: the man.


At the time in which what I have called the "second period" may be said
to have begun, Wilde was emerging from the somewhat obscuring influences
of the Æsthetic movement and was in a state of transition.

He was then editing a magazine known as _The Woman's World_, and doing
his work with a conscientiousness and sense of responsibility which
shows us another side of him and one which, to the sane, if limited,
English temperament is a singularly pleasant one. He had moaned, money
must be earned, and he earned it faithfully under a discipline. It is a
speculation not without interest when we wonder to what heights such a
man might not have risen if a discipline such as this had been more

"Lord of himself, that heritage of woe," sang Lord Byron, well aware
from personal experience of the constant dangers, the almost certain
shipwreck that the life of perfect freedom has for such as he was, and
for such a temperament as Wilde's also.

Oscar was living in a beautiful house at Chelsea, and it is a remarkable
instance of how surely the first period had merged into the second when
we find that the decorations of his home were beautiful indeed, but not
much like those he had preached about and insisted on in his æsthetic
lectures and writings.

There was an utter lack of so-called æsthetic colouring in the house
where Mr and Mrs Wilde had made their home. The scheme consisted,
indeed, of faded and delicate brocades, against a background of white or
cream painting, and was French rather than English.

Rare engravings and etchings formed a deep frieze along two sides of the
drawing-room, and stood out on a dull-gold background, while the only
touches of bright colour in the apartment were lent by two splendid
Japanese feathers let into the ceiling, while, above the white, carved
mantelpiece, a gilt-copper bas-relief, by Donaghue, made living Oscar
Wilde's fine verses, "Requiescat."

Not the least interesting work of art in this characteristic
sitting-room was a quaint harmony in greys and browns, purporting to be
a portrait of the master of the house as a youth; a painting which was a
wedding present from Mr Harper Pennington, the American artist.

The house could boast of an exceptionally choice gallery of contemporary
art. Close to a number of studies of Venice, presented by Mr Whistler
himself, hung an exquisite pen-and-ink illustration by Walter Crane. An
etching of Bastien Le Page's portrait of Sarah Bernhardt contained in
the margin a few kindly words written in English by the great

Mrs Oscar Wilde herself had strong ideas upon house decoration. She once
told an inquirer that "no one who has not tried them knows the value of
uniform tints and a quiet scheme of colouring. One of the most effective
effects in house decoration can be obtained by having, say, the
sitting-room pure cream or white, with, perhaps, a dado of six or seven
feet from the ground. In an apartment of this kind, ample colouring and
variety will be introduced by the furniture, engravings, and carpet; in
fact, but for the trouble of keeping white walls in London clean, I do
not think there can be anything prettier and more practical than this
mode of decoration, for it is both uncommon and easy to carry out. I am
not one of those," continued Mrs Wilde, "who believe that beauty can
only be achieved at considerable cost. A cottage parlour may be, and
often is, more beautiful, with its unconsciously achieved harmonies and
soft colouring, than a great reception-room, arranged more with a view
to producing a magnificent effect. But I repeat, of late, people, in
their wish to decorate their homes, have blended various periods,
colourings and designs, each perhaps beautiful in itself, but producing
an unfortunate effect when placed in juxtaposition. I object also to
historic schemes of decoration, which nearly always make one think of
the upholsterer, and not of the owner of the house."

In conjunction with her husband, Mrs Wilde had also thought out the
right place of flowers in the decoration of a house. She would say: "It
is impossible to have too many flowers in a room, and I think that
scattering cut blossoms on a tablecloth is both a foolish and a cruel
custom, for long before dinner is over the poor things begin to look
painfully parched and thirsty for want of water. A few delicate flowers
in plain glass vases produce a prettier effect than a great number of
nosegays, and yet, even though people may see that something is wrong,
many do not realise how easily a charming effect might be produced with
the same materials somewhat differently disposed.

"A Japanese native room, for example, is furnished with dainty
simplicity, and one flower and one pot supply the Jap's æsthetic longing
for decoration. When he gets tired of his flower and his pot, he puts
them away, and seeks for some other scheme of colour produced by equally
simple means."

Oscar Wilde now began to take a definite place in the English social
world. His wit, his brilliance of conversation, his singular charm of
manner all combined to render him a welcome guest, and in many cases a
valued friend, in circles where distinction of intellect and charm of
personality are the only passports. He began to make money and to
indulge a natural taste for profusion and splendour. Yet, let it be said
here, and said with emphasis, that greatly as he desired, and acquired,
the elegances of life, increasing fortune found him as kind and generous
as before. It is a known fact that he gave away large sums of money to
those less fortunate in the effort to make an income by artistic
pursuits. His purse was always open to the struggling and the unhappy
and his influence constantly exerted on their behalf.

Suddenly all London was captured by the brilliant modern comedies he
began to write. Success of the completest kind had arrived, the poet's
name was in everyone's mouth. Curiously enough it is the French students
of Wilde's career who have paid the most attention to Wilde in this
second period. The man of society, the witty talker, the maker of
epigrams--Wilde at his apogee just before his fall--this is the picture
on which the Latin psychologists have liked to dwell.

     "In our days, the master of repartee and the after-dinner speaker
     is foredoomed to forgetfulness, for he always stands alone, and to
     gain applause has to talk down to and flatter lower-class
     audiences. No writer of blood-curdling melodramas, no weaver of
     newspaper novels is obliged to lower his talent so much as the
     professional wit. If the genius of Mallarmé was obscured by the
     flatterers that surrounded him, how much more was Wilde's talent
     overclouded by the would-be-witty, shoddy-elegant, and
     cheaply-poetical society hangers-on, who covered him with incense.
     We are told that the first attempts of the sparkling talker were by
     no means successful in the Parisian salons.

     "In the house of Victor Hugo, seeing he must wait to let the
     veteran sleep out his nap whilst others among the guests slumbered
     also, he made up his mind to astonish them. He succeeded, but at
     what a cost! Although he was a verse writer, most sincerely devoted
     to poetry and art, and one of the most emotional and sensitive and
     tender-hearted amongst modern wielders of the pen, he succeeded in
     gaining only a reputation for artificiality.

     "We all know his studied paradoxes, his five or six continually
     repeated tales, but we are tempted to forget the charming dreamer
     who was full of tenderness for everything in nature."

Thus M. Charles Grolleau, and there is much in his point of view. The
writer of "The Happy Prince" and "The House of Pomegranates" is a
different person from the paradoxical _causeur_ who went cometlike
through a few London and Paris seasons before disappearing into the
darkness of space.

And it was the encouragement and applause bestowed upon Oscar Wilde
during the second period that not only confirmed him in his
determination to live as the complete _flaneur_, but which prevented
even sympathetic critics from appreciating his work at its true worth.

The late M. Hugues Rebell, who knew him fairly intimately, said of him:

     "It is true that Mallarmé has not written much, but all he has done
     is valuable. Some of his verses are most beautiful, whilst Wilde
     seemed never to finish anything. The works of the English æsthete
     are very interesting, because they characterise his epoch; his
     pages are useful from a documentary point of view, but are not
     extraordinary from a literary standpoint. In the 'Duchess of
     Padua,' he imitates Hugo and Sardou; the 'Picture of Dorian Gray'
     was inspired by Huysmans; 'Intentions' is a _vade mecum_ of
     symbolism, and all the ideas contained therein are to be found in
     Mallarmé and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. As for Wilde's poetry, it
     closely follows the lines laid down by Swinburne. His most original
     composition is 'Poems in Prose.' They give a correct idea of his
     home-chat, but not when he was at his best; that, no doubt, is
     because the art of talking must always be inferior to any form of
     literary composition. Thoughts properly set forth in print after
     due correction must always be more charming than a finely sketched
     idea hurriedly enunciated when conversing with a few disciples. In
     ordinary table-talk we meet nothing more than ghosts of new-born
     ideas foredoomed to perish. The jokes of a wit seldom survive the
     speaker. When we quote the epigrams of Wilde, it is as if we were
     exhibiting in a glass case a collection of beautiful butterflies,
     whose wings have lost the brilliancy of their once gaudy colours.
     Lively talk pleases, because of the man who utters it, and we are
     impressed also by the gestures which accompany his frothy
     discourse. What remains of the sprightly quips and anecdotes of
     such celebrated _hommes d'esprit_ as Scholl, Becque, Barbey
     d'Aurevilly! Some stories of the eighteenth century have been
     transmitted to us by Chamfort, but only because he carefully
     remodelled them by the aid of his clever pen."

Yet during all the time of his success, when he was receiving flattery
enough, celebrity enough, money enough to turn the head of a far
stronger-willed man than he was, there is abundant evidence of a
frequent aspiration after better things. Serene and lofty moods came to
him now and again and found utterance in his words or writings.

From the very beginning of his career he had been in the public eye. Now
he had, it seemed, come into his own. The years of ridicule and
misrepresentation, the years of the first period, were over and done
with. A real and solid popularity seemed to be his. Yet, just as he had
spoilt and obscured his æsthetic message by those eccentricities which
the Anglo-Saxon mind will not permit in anyone who comes professing to
teach it, so now Oscar Wilde was to spoil the triumphs of the second
period by a mental intoxication that led him step by step to ultimate
ruin and disgrace.

At this moment let us sum up the results at which we have arrived in the
study of this complex character. We are all of us complex, but Wilde was
more strangely compounded than the ordinary man in exact proportion as
his intelligence was greater and his power beyond the general measure.
This much and no more.

We have seen that the great fault of Wilde's career up to this period
was that of an unconquerable egoism. He was complex only because such
mighty gifts as those with which he was dowered were united to a
temperament naturally gracious, kindly, and that of a gentleman in the
best sense of the word, while both were obscured by a self-appreciation
and confidence which reached not only the heights of absurdity but
surely impinged upon the borders of mental failure. As he himself said
over and over again after his downfall, he had nobody but himself to
blame for it. Generous-hearted, free with all material things, kind to
the unfortunate, gentle to the weak--Oscar Wilde was all these things.
Yet, at the same time, he committed the most dreadful crimes against the
social well-being; without a thought of those his influence led into
terrible paths, without a thought of those nearest and dearest to him,
he deliberately imposed upon them a horror and a shame with an
extraordinary and almost unparalleled callousness and hardness of heart.

Bound up in the one man were the twin natures of an angel of light and
an angel of dark. It is the same with all men, but never perhaps in the
history of the world, certainly never in the history of literature, is
there to be found a contrast so astonishing. It is not for the writer
of this study to hold the balance and to say which part of his nature
predominated. Opinion about him is still divided into two camps, and
this book is a statement from which everyone can draw his own
conclusion, and does not attempt to do more than provide the materials
for doing so. Yet, the explanation of it all, if explanation there is,
seems simple enough. There was an extraordinary and abnormal divorce
between will-power and intelligence. Heavy indulgence grew and grew and
gradually obscured the finer nature until he imagined his will was
supreme and his wishes the only law. The royal intellect dominated the
soul and grew by what it fed on, until it unseated the reason, and Wilde
fell never to rise again, except only in his work.

At the end of the second period came the frightful exposure and scandals
which sent the author into prison. It is no part of this book to touch
upon these scandals or to do more than breathe the kindly hope that
Wilde was unconscious of what he did, and was totally incapable of
realising its enormity.

The third period, in this attempt at chronicling the various phases of
his life and temperament, might be said to have begun on the day of his
arrest, when his long agony and punishment were to begin. Greatly as he
deserved a heavy punishment, not so much as for what he did to himself
but because of the corrupting influence his life and association with
others had upon a large section of society, it is yet a moot point
whether he did not suffer for others and was made their scapegoat. The
true history of this terrible period cannot be written and never will be
written. Yet, those who know it in its entirety will say that Wilde bore
the penalty for the transgressions of many other people in addition to
the just punishment he received for his own.

Few nobler things can be said of any man than this. Let it be eternally
placed to his credit that he made no endeavour to lighten his own
punishment by implicating others. In more than one instance the betrayal
of a friend would undoubtedly have lessened the cumulative burden of the
indictment brought against him. He betrayed none of his friends.


This beautiful thread of brightness in the dark warp and woof of Wilde's
life at this moment must not be forgotten by those who would estimate
his character. It is one of the few relieving lights in the blackness
with which the third period opens. And yet, there is still something
that can be said for Wilde at this time which certainly provides the
student with another aspect of him. It is the way in which he met his
fate and was prepared to endure his punishment, although it would have
been simple for him to have avoided it. To avoid the consequences of
what he had done, inasmuch as the ruin of his career is concerned, was,
of course, impossible. That, indeed, was to be the heaviest part of his
penalty. Yet, had he so chosen, imprisonment and the frightful agony of
the two years need never have been his portion. A French critic writing
of him in the _Mercure de France_ takes an analytical view of this fact,
which I do not think is the true one, though, nevertheless, it is
interesting. He says: "Neither his own heedlessness nor the envious and
hypocritical anger of his enemies, nor the snobbish cruelty of social
reprobation were the true cause of his misfortunes. It was he himself
who, after a time of horrible anguish, consented to his punishment, with
a sort of supercilious disdain for the weakness of human will, and out
of a certain regard and unhealthy curiosity for the sportfulness of
fate. Here was a voluptuary seeking for torture and desiring pain after
having wallowed in every sensual pleasure. Can such conduct have been
due to aught else but sheer madness?"

That is all very well, but it does not bear the stamp of truth. It is
an interesting point of view and nothing more. The conduct of Wilde when
he at last came athwart the horror of his destiny, when he realised what
all the world realised, that he must answer for his sins before the
public justice of England, was not unheroic, nor without a fine and
splendid dignity. At this time I would much prefer to say, and all the
experiences of those around him confirm it, that Wilde knew that it was
his duty to himself to endure what society was about to mete out to him.
To say that he was a mere gloomy and jaded voluptuary who wished to
taste the pleasures of the most horrible and sordid pain, is surely to
talk something perilously like nonsense, though full of one of those
minute psychological presumptions so dear to a certain type of Latin

Let it be remembered that Oscar Wilde refused to betray his friends, and
in the light of that fact, let us see whether his motive for remaining
in England to "face the music," as his brother, William Wilde, expressed
it, was not something high and worthy in the midst of this hideous wreck
and bankruptcy of his fortune. A friend who was with him then, his
biographer, and a man of position in English letters, said that when the
subject of flight was discussed, he declared to Wilde that, in his
opinion, it was the best thing he could do, not only in his own
interests but in those of the public too. This self-sacrificing friend
offered to take all the responsibility of the flight upon his own
shoulders and to make all the arrangements for it being carried out.

It must be remembered that, at the time Wilde was out on bail, and it
has since been proved, with as much certainty as anything of the sort
can be proved, that he was not watched by the police, and that even
between the periods of his first and second trials, if he had secretly
left the country and sought a safe asylum on the Continent, everybody
would have felt relieved and the public would have been spared a
repetition of the horrors which had already filled the pages of the
newspapers to repletion. After the collapse of the action Oscar Wilde
brought against Lord Queensberry, he was allowed several hours before
the warrant for his arrest was executed in order that he might leave the
country. "But imitative of great men in their whims and fancies, he
refused to imitate the base in acts which he deemed cowardly. I do not
think he ever seriously considered the question of leaving the country,
and this, in spite of the fact that the gentleman who was responsible
for almost the whole of the bail, had said, 'it will practically ruin me
if I lose all that money at the present moment, but if there is a
chance, even after conviction, in God's name let him go.'"

Whatever Wilde's motive was for staying to "face the music," we cannot
deny that it was fine. Either he felt that he must endure the punishment
society was to give him because he had outraged the law of society, or
else he was unwilling to ruin the disinterested and noble-minded man--a
gentleman who had only the slightest acquaintance with him--who had
furnished the amount of his bail.

Let these facts be written to his credit and considered when the readers
of this memoir pass their judgment upon his character.

At the beginning of this third period public opinion which, but a short
time ago, had simply meant a chorus of public adulation, except for a
minority of people who either envied his successes or honestly
reprobated his attitude towards art and life, was now terribly bitter,
venomous, and full of spleen and hatred.

Society, however much society was disposed to deny the fact, had set up
an idol in their midst. It was partly owing to the senseless and
indiscriminate adulation of its idol that its foundations were
undermined and that it fell with so resonant a crash. When it was down
society assailed it with every ingenuity of reprobation and hatred that
it knew how to voice and use.

Nothing was too bad to be said about the erstwhile favourite who, let it
be remembered, was not yet adjudged guilty but who, if ever a man was,
was denied the application of the prime principle of English criminal
law, which says that every man accused is to be deemed innocent until
guilt has been proved against him. People gloated over the downfall.

When Wilde was first arrested and placed in Holloway, and before he was
admitted to bail, the more scurrilous portion of the press was full of
sickening pictures, both in line and words, of the fallen creature's

Contrasts were drawn by little pens dipped in venom, and the writer of
this memoir has in his possession a curious and saddening collection of
the screeds of those days, a collection which shows how innate the
principle of cruelty is still in the human mind despite centuries of
civilisation and the influence of the Cross, which forbids gladiators to
slay each other in the arena but allows a more subtle and terrible form
of savage sport than anything that Nero or Caligula ever saw or

It is unnecessary to quote largely from the productions which disgraced
the English press at this time. One single article will serve to prove
the point. Let those who read it learn tolerance from this mock sympathy
and cruel dwelling upon the tortures of one so recently high in public
popularity and esteem, still presumably innocent by English law, and yet
placed under the vulgar microscope of the morbid-minded and the lovers
of sensation at any cost.

     "Figuratively speaking but yesterday Oscar Wilde was the man of the
     hour, and to him, and him alone, we looked for our wit, our
     epigrams, and our learned and interesting plays. But what a change!
     To-day, Oscar Wilde, the wit, the epicure, is gone from his world,
     and is languishing in a dreary cell in Holloway Prison. In short,
     Mr Wilde, in a moment of weak-headedness, walked over the side of
     the mountain of fame and fell headlong from its height to the
     morass below, to lie there forgotten, neglected and abused.

     "Yes, although I have little or no sympathy with Oscar Wilde I
     cannot but help feeling for him in his altered circumstances. He is
     a man who from his very infancy has been nursed in the lap of
     luxury, and has systematically lived on the fat of the land. Mr
     Wilde's residence in Tite Street was elegantly and luxuriously
     furnished. His rooms at the Cadogan Hotel were all that comfort
     could desire. His room, or rather cell, in Holloway Prison is
     altogether undesirable, is badly furnished, ill-lighted, and
     uncomfortable. Picture to yourself this change--yes, a change
     effected within twenty-four hours--and then you can imagine what
     the mental and physical sufferings of a man of the Oscar Wilde
     temperament must be. It is in this sense alone that my sympathy
     goes out towards him, and I feel as a man for another man who has
     been suddenly snatched from the lap of indolent, free livelihood
     and suddenly pitched foremost into the icelike crevasse of a
     British prison cell.

     "I will now describe in as few words as I possibly can, but with
     absolute accuracy and detail, the cell in which Mr Wilde spends his
     time and the manner in which he lives. The cell in which Oscar is
     incarcerated is not an ordinary one--that is, it is not one that is
     used by any condemned or ordinary prisoner under remand. The cell
     is known in prison _parlance_ as a 'special cell,' for the use of
     which a fee is payable to the authorities, and is the same one as
     was occupied by a certain well-known Duchess some few months back
     when she was committed by the Queen's Bench Judges for contempt of
     court. The prison authorities only supply the 'cell,' the prisoner
     himself has to find his own furniture, which he usually hires, by
     the advice of one of the warders, from a local firm who have a
     suite they keep for the use of this 'special cell' in Holloway.
     When Mr Wilde arrived at the prison last Saturday week afternoon
     this 'cell' was vacant. He promptly gave orders for the furniture
     to be brought in, and in an incredibly short space of time the cell
     was furnished, and the distinguished prisoner took possession of
     his apartment. I will first describe the room, and then take one
     typical day in the prison routine, which will clearly show the
     kind of life that Mr Wilde is compelled to live.

     "Now to the cell. The room is situated at the far end of the east
     wing of the prison, and is entered from the long passage which runs
     from the head warder's rooms past the convict cells, and terminates
     at the door which protects Oscar from the common herd, and helps to
     make him secure. The door is an ordinary prison cell door,
     possessing spyholes and flaptrap, and large iron bars and locks.
     The cell itself is about 10 ft. broad, 12 ft. long, and 11 ft.
     high. The walls are not papered but whitewashed, and the light by
     which the room is supplied is obtained through an iron-barred
     window in the wall placed high up and well out of the prisoner's
     reach. A small fireplace is also fixed securely at the end of the
     room, but it is seldom lit, as the room is well heated by hot-water
     pipes. Now to the furniture in the room. Just on the right-hand
     side of the window is placed a table made of hard, white wood. No
     cloth covers it, but at the back is placed a looking-glass, whilst
     on the table itself is a water jug and a Bible. Near the table and
     almost under the window is an arm-chair, in which Oscar spends most
     of his time. But more of this anon. In the corner near the
     fireplace is placed a small camp bedstead, which is so small that
     it seems almost an impossibility that so massive a form as that of
     Oscar could recline with any ease upon so small a space. No feather
     bed is upon the iron supports, and the sleeper is compelled to
     repose upon hard--probably too hard--mattresses. The bed is
     supplied with sheets, blankets, and a cover quilt, made up of
     patches of all colours of the rainbow. This quilt is not pretty,
     and most considerably upsets the artistic being of a man like
     Wilde. A small table on the other side of the room, another chair,
     and a small metal washing stand, go to make up all the furniture
     the room possesses. No carpet is on the floor, but the boards are
     kept scrupulously clean. This I think briefly comprises a
     description of Mr Wilde's residential and sleeping compartment. Now
     to his daily routine and the life he is compelled to lead. He is
     awakened by a warder at six o'clock, and whether he likes it or
     not, is compelled to get up. After washing himself in cold
     water--hot is not permitted--and using ordinary common soap, Mr
     Wilde dresses himself, and to do him justice, he turns himself out
     very neat and span considering he has no valet to wait upon him. At
     seven o'clock one of the convicted prisoners enters Mr Wilde's
     cell, cleans up the room, makes the bed, and generally tidies up
     the place. For this service the prisoner receives 1s. per week, and
     it usually takes him quite half-an-hour per day to get through his
     work. Truly a munificent remuneration, but then prison
     regulations, whenever reasonable, are on the side of liberality. At
     half-past seven o'clock Wilde's breakfast, usually consisting of
     tea, ham and eggs, or a chop, toast and bread and butter, arrives
     from a well-known restaurant in Holloway. Of course Mr Wilde pays
     for the food, and, within reason, can eat and drink what he

     "At nine o'clock Mr Wilde is compelled to leave his cell, and
     proceed to the exercising yard of the prison, and for one hour he
     is compelled to walk at regulation pace round a kind of tower
     erected in the centre of the yard. After exercise the distinguished
     prisoner returns to his cell, and the daily newspapers are brought
     to him, for which he also pays. Mr Wilde sits during the time he is
     in his cell in the chair by the window, and then reads his papers.
     He, however, has moments of very low-spiritedness, and becomes
     almost despondent in the moods. The sketch in this issue represents
     him seated in his favourite chair, with a paper in his hand, and,
     after an interview with his solicitor, Mr Wilde is very fond, when
     his active brain is working too deeply, to push back his hair from
     off his forehead and then leave the hand on the head, and, as if
     staring into vacancy, sit for hours in this position thinking
     deeply. But, to continue, at twelve o'clock Mr Wilde's lunch
     arrives from the restaurant, for which he pays. It consists of a
     cut off the joint, vegetables, cheese, and biscuits and water, or
     one glass of wine. After lunch he is again taken to the exercise
     ground for an hour, and then sent back to his cell. Still seated in
     his chair, he still reads his papers, and thinks out improbable
     problems. Sometimes one of his friends comes to see him. On these
     occasions he brightens up, but after the visits of his solicitor he
     is visibly very low-spirited and morose. At six o'clock Mr Wilde's
     dinner--for which he pays--arrives. It consists usually of soup,
     fish, joint, or game, cheese, and half-a-pint of any wine he
     chooses to select. The dinner finished, Mr Wilde sits again in his
     chair, and the agony he endures at not being allowed even a whiff
     at his favourite cigarette must to him be agony indeed. At eight
     o'clock a warder enters his room and places a lamp on the table to
     light the room. At nine o'clock the same warder again enters the
     room and gives Oscar five minutes to undress himself and get into
     bed. He complies willingly but with a sigh. When he is safely in
     bed the warder removes the lamp, bolts and locks the door, and
     leaves Oscar to sleep or remain awake thinking, just as he pleases.
     Oscar, however, does not sleep much. He is out of bed most of the
     night, and in unstockinged feet paces the room in apparently not
     too good a mood. Yes, poor Oscar, I do pity you."

So much for popular kindness!

The trial, at which the accused man was admitted by everyone to have
comported himself with a dignity and resignation that had nothing of
that levity and occasional pose which must be allowed to have
characterised his attitude during the two former ordeals, came to a
close. Wilde was sentenced to prison for two years' hard labour.

During the trial, of course, no comment was permissible, though there
were not wanting some papers who committed contempt of court. When,
however, the sentence had been pronounced and Wilde as a man with a
place in society--I am using the word society here not in its limited
but its economic sense--had ceased to exist, then the thunders of the
important and influential journals were let loose.

_The Daily Telegraph_ which, to do it justice, had never been
sympathetic to Wilde in his days of prosperity and fame, came out with a
most weighty and severe condemnation. The article, from which I am about
to quote an extract, certainly represented the opinion of the country at
the time--as _The Daily Telegraph_ has nearly always represented the
mass of opinion of the country at any given moment. To the sympathisers
with Wilde this article will seem unnecessarily cruel and severe. But to
those who have taken into account the best that has been written herein
about him during this terrible third period, and who have realised that
the writer simply states facts and does not desire to comment on them,
the article will seem only a natural and dignified expression of a truth
which was hardly controvertible.

     "No sterner rebuke could well have been inflicted on some of the
     artistic tendencies of the time than the condemnation on Saturday
     of Oscar Wilde at the Central Criminal Court. We have not the
     slightest intention of reviewing once more all the sordid incidents
     of a case which has done enough, and more than enough, to shock the
     conscience and outrage the moral instincts of the community. The
     man has now suffered the penalties of his career, and may well be
     allowed to pass from that platform of publicity which he loved into
     that limbo of disrepute and forgetfulness which is his due. The
     grave of contemptuous oblivion may rest on his foolish ostentation,
     his empty paradoxes, his insufferable posturing, his incurable
     vanity. Nevertheless, when we remember that he enjoyed a certain
     popularity among some sections of society, and, above all, when we
     reflect that what was smiled at as insolent braggadocio was the
     cover for, or at all events ended in, flagrant immorality, it is
     well, perhaps, that the lesson of his life should not be passed
     over without some insistence on the terrible warning of his fate.
     Young men at the universities, clever sixth-form boys at public
     schools, silly women who lend an ear to any chatter which is
     petulant and vivacious, novelists who have sought to imitate the
     style of paradox and unreality, poets who have lisped the language
     of nerveless and effeminate libertinage--these are the persons who
     should ponder with themselves the doctrines and the career of the
     man who has now to undergo the righteous sentence of the law. We
     speak sometimes of a school of Decadents and Æsthetes in England,
     although it may well be doubted whether at any time its prominent
     members could not have been counted on the fingers of one hand;
     but, quite apart from any fixed organisation or body such as may or
     may not exist in Paris, there has lately shown itself in London a
     contemporary bias of thought, an affected manner of expression and
     style, and a few loudly vaunted ideas which have had a limited but
     evil influence on all the better tendencies of art and literature.
     Of these the prisoner of Saturday constituted himself a
     representative. He set an example, so far as in him lay, to the
     weaker and the younger brethren; and, just because he possessed
     considerable intellectual powers and unbounded assurance, his
     fugitive success served to dazzle and bewilder those who had
     neither experience nor knowledge of the principles which he
     travestied, or of that true temple of art of which he was so
     unworthy an acolyte. Let us hope that his removal will serve to
     clear the poisoned air, and make it cleaner and purer for all
     healthy and unvitiated lungs."

It was the duty of a great journal to say what it said. Yet,
nevertheless, a certain wave of sorrow seemed to pass over the press
generally, and hostile comment on the _débâcle_ was not unmingled with
regret for the unhappy man himself. The doctrines he was supposed to
have preached to the world at large were sternly denied and thundered
against. His own fate was, in the majority of cases, treated with a
sorrowful regret.

Yet, nobody realised at all that in condemning what was supposed to be
the teaching and doctrine of Oscar Wilde, they were condemning merely
supposititious deduction from his manner of life, which could not be in
the least substantiated by any single line he had ever written.

All through this first part of the book I have insisted upon the fact
that the man's life and the man's work should not be regarded as
identical. To-day, as I write, that attitude has taken complete
possession of the public mind. As was said in the first few pages of the
memoir, the whole of Europe is taking a sympathetic and intelligent
interest in the supreme art of the genius who produced so many beautiful
things. The public seems to have learned its lesson at last, but at the
beginning of what I have called the third period it was unable to
differentiate between the criminal, part of whose life was shameful, and
the artist, all of whose works were pure, stimulating, and splendid. I
quote but a few words from the printed comments upon Wilde's downfall.
They are taken from the well-known society paper _Truth_, and the writer
seems to strike only a note of wonder and amazement. The horrible fact
of Wilde's conviction had startled England, had startled the writer, and
a writer by no means unsympathetic in effect, into the following

     "For myself, I turned into the Lyceum for half-an-hour, just to
     listen, when the performance was actually stopped by the great
     shout of congratulation that welcomed the first entrance of 'Sir
     Henry.' Yet, through all these cheers I seemed to hear the dull
     rumble of the prison van in which Oscar Wilde made his last
     exit--to Holloway. While the great actor-manager stood in the
     plenitude of position bowing and bowing again, to countless friends
     and admirers, again there rose before my eyes the last ghastly
     scene at the Old Bailey--I heard the voice of the foreman in its
     low but steady answer, 'Guilty,' 'Guilty,' 'Guilty,' as count after
     count was rehearsed by the clerk. I heard again that last awful
     admonition from the judge. I remembered how there had flitted
     through my mind the recollection of a night at St James's, the
     cigarette, and the green carnation, as the prisoner, broken,
     beaten, tottering, tried to steady himself against the dock rail
     and asked in a strange, dry, ghostlike voice if he might address
     the judge. Then came the volley of hisses, the prison warders, the
     rapid break-up of the Court, the hurry into the blinding sunshine
     outside, where some half-score garishly dressed, loose women of the
     town danced on the pavement a kind of carmagnole of rejoicing at
     the verdict. 'He'll 'ave 'is 'air cut regglar _now_,' says one of
     them; and the others laughed stridently. I came away. I did not
     laugh, for the matter is much too serious for laughter.

     "The more I think about the case of Oscar Wilde, my dear Dick, the
     more astounding does the whole thing seem to me. So far as the man
     himself is concerned, it would be charitable to assume that he is
     not quite sane. Without considering--for the moment--the moral
     aspect of the matter, here was a man who must have known that the
     commission of certain acts constituted in the eye of the Law a
     criminal offence. But no thought of wife or children, no regard, to
     put it selfishly, for his own brilliant prospects, could induce him
     to curb a depraved appetite which led him--a gentleman and a
     scholar--to consort with the vilest and most depraved scum of the

Although, as I have said, printed comment was in one way reserved and
not ungenerous, the public and spoken comment on the case was utterly
and totally cruel. Those readers who remember the period of which I am
writing will bear me witness as to the universal chorus of hatred which
rose and bubbled all over the country.

This was natural enough.

One cannot expect mob law to be tolerant or to understand the myriad
issues and influences which go to make up any given event. The public
was right from its own point of view in all it said. To give instances
from personal recollection or the personal recollection of others of
this terrible shout of condemnation and hatred would be too painful for
writer and reader alike.

While in prison Oscar Wilde wrote his marvellous book "De Profundis."
The reader will find that work very fully dealt with in its due place in
this work. It is not, therefore, necessary to say very much about it in
this first part of the volume which I have headed "Oscar Wilde: the
Man." It may not be out of place, however, to say that grave doubts were
thrown upon the truth of the statement that the book was written in
prison. Upon its publication rumours were circulated that the author
wrote "De Profundis" at his ease in Paris or in Naples, and finally the
rumours crystallised in a letter which was sent to _The St James's
Gazette_, the gist of which was as follows:--

     "I have very strong doubts that it was written in prison, and the
     gentleman who asserts that he received the MSS. before the
     expiration of the sentence in Reading Gaol ought to procure a
     confirmatory testimony to a proceeding which is contrary to all
     prison discipline. If there is one thing more strictly carried out
     than another it is that a prisoner shall not be allowed to handle
     pen, ink, and paper, except when he writes the letter to his
     friends, which, until the Prison Act, 1899, was once every three
     months. Each prisoner can amuse himself with a slate and pencil,
     but not pen and ink. It is now, and was, absolutely forbidden by
     the prison authorities.

     "As was seen in Adolf Beck's case, where nine petitions appear in
     the Commissioner's Report (Blue Book), a prisoner's liberty,
     fortune, reputation, and life may be at stake, but he must tell his
     story on two and a half sheets of foolscap. Not a scrap of paper is
     allowed over the regulation sheets. In a local prison Oscar Wilde
     could apply for the privilege of a special visit or a letter, and
     probably would receive it, but as the official visitors of
     prisoners are simply parts of a solemn farce, and there is no such
     stereotyped method as giving a prisoner the slightest relief in
     matters affecting the intellect, I have grave doubts that such
     facilities were given as supplying pen, ink and paper to write 'De

     "If it was otherwise the following process would have had to be
     gone through, either an application to the official prison visitor
     (possibly Major Arthur Griffiths) for leave to have pen, ink and
     paper in his cell, which would be refused. By the influence of
     friends, or the statement of his solicitors that they required
     special instructions in reference to some evidence, his case, or
     his property, leave might be granted, but not for journalistic or
     literary purposes. Had Oscar Wilde's sentence been that of a
     'first-class misdemeanant' he could have had those privileges, but
     I never heard that his sentence was mitigated in this respect.

     "Or, he might have applied to the visiting magistrates. In either
     case there would be a record of such facilities, and the Governor
     of Reading Gaol, the chaplain, and other officials can satisfy the
     public as well as the Prison Commissioners. If the book was written
     in prison then it is clear the officials made a distinction between
     Oscar Wilde and other prisoners.

     "There is some glamour about books written in prisons. The
     'Pilgrim's Progress' is a prison book, but Bedford Gaol was a
     pretty easy dungeon. Under the old _régime_ such men as William
     Corbett, Orator Hunt, and Richard Carlile, conducted their polemic
     warfare in prison. The last Chartist leader (the late Mr Ernest
     Jones) used to tell how he wrote the 'Painter of Florence' and
     other poems in a London gaol while confined for sedition. It was a
     common subject of conversation with his young disciples how, as ink
     was denied in Coldbath Street Prison, he made incisions in his arm
     and wrote his poetry in his own blood. We believed it then, but as
     we grew older that feeling of doubt made us sceptical. Thomas
     Cooper's prison rhyme, the 'Purgatory of Suicides,' and his novel,
     the 'Baron's Yule Feast,' were written during his two years'
     imprisonment in Stafford Gaol for preaching a 'universal strike' as
     a means of establishing a British Republic.

     "As 'De Profundis' is likely to be a classic, is it not as well to
     have this question thrashed out at the beginning and not leave it
     to the twenty-first century?"

The editor of "De Profundis" replied in a short letter saying, in
effect, that he was not concerned to add anything to his definite
statement in the preface of the book, a course with which everyone will
be in agreement. To answer a busybody throwing doubts upon the statement
of an honourable gentleman is a mistake. The matter, however, went a
little further and was eventually set finally at rest.

In _The Daily Mirror_ a facsimile of a page of the manuscript written on
prison paper was reproduced, and Mr Hamilton Fyfe accompanied the
letterpress by informing the public that he had seen the whole of the
manuscript of "De Profundis." It was written on blue foolscap paper with
the prison stamp on the top. There were about 60,000 words, of which
altogether not more than one-third were published in the English
edition. The explanation of the fact that the prisoner was allowed to
write in his cell is perfectly simple.

Oscar Wilde handed this roll of paper to Mr Robert Ross on the day of
his release, and gave him absolute discretion as to printing it. He had
written most of it during the last three months of his two years'
sentence. It was during the last half-year of his term that Wilde was
allowed the special privilege of writing as much as he pleased. His
friends represented to the Home Office that a man who had been
accustomed to use his brain so continually was in danger of having his
mind injured by being unable to write for so long a time as two years.

Dr Nicholson, of Broadmoor, who was consulted on the point, said he
thought this danger was quite a real one. So the necessary permission
was given, and Wilde could write whatever he liked.

Later on the prison regulations were relaxed again. As a rule, prisoners
are not allowed to take away with them what they have written in their
cells. Strictly, the MS. of "De Profundis" ought to have remained among
the archives of Reading Gaol.

The authorities realised, however, that to enforce this rule in Wilde's
case would have been harsh and unreasonable, so when (in order to defeat
the intentions of the late Lord Queensberry and his hired bullies) he
was removed from Reading to Wandsworth Prison, on the evening before his
release he took the MS. with him; and he had it under his arm when he
left the gloomy place next morning a free man.

This statement, and the facsimile printed above, should make it
impossible henceforward for anyone to suggest, as many have been
suggesting quite recently, that there is any doubt about the whole of
the book having been written by Oscar Wilde during the time he was in

The development of Oscar Wilde during his incarceration has, of course,
been summed up and stated for all time by himself in the marvellous
pages of "De Profundis." Yet, there are various accounts of that time of
agony which do but go to show what a really purifying and salutary
influence even the awful torture he underwent had upon the unhappy man.
By those who knew him in prison he is described as living a life which,
in its simple resignation, its kindly gentleness, its sweetness of
demeanour, was the life of a saint. No bitterness or harsh word ever
escaped him. When opportunity occurred of doing some tiny and furtive
kindness that kindness was always forthcoming. Those who rejoiced at the
fact of Wilde's imprisonment may well pause now when the true story of
it has filtered through various channels and is generally known. He
himself told Monsieur André Gide a strange and pathetic story of those
silent, unhappy hours.

He speaks of one of the Governors under whose rule he lay in durance,
and says that this gentleman imposed needless suffering upon his unhappy
charges, not because of any inherent cruelty or contravention of the
rules for prison discipline, but because he was entirely lacking in

On one occasion, during the hour allowed for exercise, a prisoner who
walked behind Wilde upon the circular pathway of the yard addressed him
by name, and told him that he pitied him even more than he pitied
himself, because his sufferings must be greater than his. Such a sudden
word of sympathy from an unknown fellow-convict gave the poor poet an
exquisite moment of pleasure and pain. He answered him appropriately
with a word of thanks. But one of the warders had been a witness of the
occasion, and the matter was reported to the Governor. Two convicts had
been guilty of the outrage of exchanging a few words. The unknown
convict was taken first before the Governor. It is a prison regulation
that the punishment is not the same for the man who speaks first and the
man who answers him. The first offender has to pay a double penalty. The
Convict X., when before the Governor, stated that he was the culprit and
that he had spoken first. When afterwards Wilde was taken before the
martinet, he very naturally told him that he himself was the principal
offender. The Governor stated that he was unable to understand the
matter at all. He grew red and uneasy, and told Wilde that he had
already given X. fifteen days' solitary confinement. He then stated that
as Wilde had also confessed to be the principal offender he should award
him fifteen days' solitary confinement also!

This touching incident shows both Wilde and the unknown convict in a
noble light, but the gentle way in which Oscar told of the incident to
the French journalist is even a greater tribute to the innate dignity of
his character, so long obscured by the exigencies of his life, so
beautifully laid bare when he had paid his debt to society.

There are other anecdotes extant which confirm the above. All go to show
that the third period brought out the finest traits in Wilde's
character. We have in this period another and most touching side of the
complex temperament of this great genius, this extraordinary and unhappy
man. Much will have to be said on this point when the criticism of "De
Profundis" is reached.

Meanwhile, I close the "third period" with a sense that here, at
anyrate, there is nothing to be said which is not wholly fragrant and
redolent of sincerity.


It is with a sense of both reluctance and relief that I enter upon a
short account of the fourth period, insomuch as this or that incident
during it throws a light upon the character of him of whom we speak.

With a relief, because it is a far happier and more gracious task to
endeavour to criticise and appreciate the literary works of a great
genius than it is to chronicle facts in the life of a most unhappy man
which may help to elucidate the puzzle of his personality.

With reluctance, because the fourth period is again one of almost
unadulterated gloom and sadness. I shall be as brief as possible, and
too much already has been written about the last days of Oscar Wilde
after his release from prison.

A considerable amount of information has been placed at my disposal,
but I design to use none of it. The facts that are already known to
those who have taken an interest in Oscar Wilde may be briefly touched
upon here, and that is all. An eloquent plea from a near relation of the
poet should be respected here, and only such few facts as are really
necessary to complete this incomplete study shall be given. "Nothing
could have horrified him more than that men calling themselves his
friends should publish concerning his latter days details so disgusting
as those appearing in your issue of yesterday." Thus a paragraph from
the appeal I have mentioned, an appeal which was prompted by the
publication of many controversial articles as to the truth, or
otherwise, of Mr Wilde's reception into the Roman Church, his debts, his
manner of living towards the end. "I should be glad to think that this
expression of my wish may put an end to this unpleasant correspondence.
If it does not, I can only appeal to your correspondents to be very
careful of what they write, and to reflect upon what Mr Oscar Wilde
would think if he could read their letters. In life, he never said or
countenanced a coarse or common thing. Personally, I write with too much
reluctance to reply to them again, and I leave the matter to their sense
of decency and chivalry."

Immediately upon his release from prison Oscar Wilde wrote his famous
letters to _The Daily Chronicle_ on "Children in Prison and Other
Cruelties of Life in Gaol." He told a terrible story of a poor little
child whose face was "like a white wedge of sheer terror," and in his
eyes "the mute appeal of a hunted animal." Wilde had heard the poor
little fellow at breakfast-time crying and calling to be let out. He was
calling for his parents, and every now and then the elder prisoner could
hear the harsh voice of the warder on duty telling the little boy to be
quiet. The child had not been convicted of the offence with which he was
charged, but was simply on remand. A kind-hearted warder, finding the
little fellow crying with hunger and utterly unable to eat the bread and
water given it for breakfast, brought it some sweet biscuits. This, Mr
Wilde truthfully said, was a "beautiful action on the warder's part."
The child, grateful for the man's kindness, told one of the senior
warders about it. The result was that the warder who had brought the
biscuits to the starving child was reported and dismissed from the

It is not too much to say that this story, told in the prose of a master
of prose, written with a crushing and sledgehammer force all the more
powerful because it was most marvellously simple, thrilled the whole of
England. There followed an even more terrible story.

Three months or so before his release, Wilde had noticed, among the
prisoners who took exercise with him, a young prisoner who was obviously
either half-witted or trembling upon the verge of insanity. This poor
creature used to gesticulate, laugh and talk to himself. "At chapel he
used to sit right under the observation of two warders, who carefully
watched him all the time. Sometimes he would bury his head in his hands,
an offence against the chapel regulations, and his head would be
immediately struck up by a warder.... He was on more than one occasion
sent out of chapel to his cell, and of course he was continually
punished.... I saw that he was becoming insane and was being treated as
if he were shamming." There was a terrible denouement to this hideous
story. Mr Wilde went on to say in words that do him eternal credit and
which no one who has read them could ever forget:

     "On Saturday week last, I was in my cell at about one o'clock
     occupied in cleaning and polishing the tins I had been using for
     dinner. Suddenly I was startled by the prison silence being broken
     by the most horrible and revolting shrieks, or rather howls, for at
     first I thought some animal like a bull or a cow was being
     unskilfully slaughtered outside the prison walls. I soon realised,
     however, that the howls proceeded from the basement of the prison,
     and I knew that some wretched man was being flogged. I need not
     say how hideous and terrible it was for me, and I began to wonder
     who it was being punished in this revolting manner. Suddenly it
     dawned upon me that they might be flogging this unfortunate
     lunatic. My feelings on the subject need not be chronicled; they
     have nothing to do with the question.

     "The next day, Sunday, I saw the poor fellow at exercise, his weak,
     ugly, wretched face bloated by tears and hysteria almost beyond
     recognition. He walked in the centre ring along with the old men,
     the beggars and the lame people, so that I was able to observe him
     the whole time. It was my last Sunday in prison, a perfectly lovely
     day, the finest day we had had the whole year, and there, in the
     beautiful sunlight, walked this poor creature--made once in the
     image of God--grinning like an ape, and making with his hands the
     most fantastic gestures."

The story continued with even more terrible details than these. It is no
part of my plan to harrow the feelings of my readers by a reprint of
such horrors. I have said enough, I trust, to fulfil my purpose in
quoting Oscar Wilde's letters to all--to show how powerfully he himself
was moved with pity, and how he strove, even in his own terrible
re-entrance to a world which would have none of him, to influence public
opinion on the behalf of one who was being done to death, not perhaps
by conscious cruelty, but by the awful stupidity of those who live by an
inflexible rule which can make no allowance for special circumstances,
which is as hard as the nether millstone and as cold as death itself.

So Oscar Wilde passed out of England with pity flowing from his pen and
with pity in his heart. I wish that it was possible to end this memoir
here. As I have set out to give all the facts which seem necessary to
provide a complete picture for readers who know little or nothing of
Oscar Wilde's nature, beyond the fact of his triumphs as a playwright
and his subsequent disgrace, I must not shrink from proceeding to the
end, as I have not shrunk from frankly recording facts in the first and
second periods. It would be a fault, and insincere, to allow a deep and
very natural sympathy to interfere with the performance, however
inadequately it has been carried out, of the task I set out to complete.

Oscar Wilde crossed immediately to Dieppe, and shortly afterwards
installed himself in a villa at a small seaside place some miles away
from the gay Norman bathing place. His life at Berneval was simple and
happy. His biographer, Mr Robert Harborough Sherard, who visited him
there, has told of the quiet repose and healing days which Oscar Wilde
enjoyed. He had a sufficient sum of money to live in comfort for a year
or so, and all would doubtless have gone well with him had it not been
for certain malign influences which had already been prominent factors
in wrecking his life, and which now appeared again to menace his newly
found salvation of mind and spirit. Such references are not within the
province of the book, the story has been told elsewhere. The thing would
not have been referred to at all, did it not illustrate the impatience
and weakness of Wilde's character, even at this point in his history.
The malign influences eventually had their way with the poet--that is to
say, certain companions whom it was most unwise of him to see or
recognise, once more entered into his life in a certain degree.

A letter which was written to a gentleman who has translated a French
memoir dealing with the poet, says: "No more beautiful life has any man
lived, no more beautiful life could any man live than Oscar Wilde lived
during the short period I knew him in prison. He wore upon his face an
eternal smile; sunshine was on his face, sunshine of some sort must have
been in his heart. People say he was not sincere: he was the very soul
of sincerity when I knew him. If he did not continue that life after he
left prison, then the forces of evil must have been too strong for him.
But he tried, he honestly tried, and in prison he succeeded." The
forces of evil were too strong.

Oscar Wilde spent the last few years, and alas! miserable years, of his
life in alternations of sordid poverty and sudden waves of temporary
prosperity, in the city of Paris. There have been all sorts of stories
about these last few years. The truth is simply this. Wilde's intellect
was crushed and broken. The creative faculty flamed up for the last time
in that brilliant and terrible poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Then
it sank again and was never revived. When I say "creative faculty" I
mean the faculty of producing a sustained artistic effort. As a talker
the poet was never more brilliant. "Every now and again one or other of
the very few faithful English friends left to him would turn up in Paris
and take him to dinner at one of the best restaurants, and anyone who
met him on these occasions would have found it difficult to believe that
he had ever passed through such awful experiences. Whether he was
expounding some theory, grave or fantastic, embroidering it the while
with flashes of impromptu wit, or deepening it with extraordinary
intimate learning, or whether he was keeping the table in a roar with
his delightfully whimsical humour, a summer lightning that flashed and
hurt no one, he was equally admirable. To have lived in his lifetime and
not to have heard him talk is as though one had lived at Athens without
going to look at the Parthenon."

I think we should be glad to know that in the wrecked life of this
period the poet had some happy moments when he could reconstruct in
bright and brilliant surroundings some slight renewal of other days that
were gone for ever. There is no doubt at all that friends, both those
who had had a good and those who had had a bad influence on his past
life, were very kind to him.

He was supplied with enough money to have lived in considerable comfort
had he not been incurably reckless and a spendthrift. It has been said
that he died in wretched poverty and in debt. This is partly true, but
it was entirely his own fault. There is indubitable proof of the fairly
large sums he received from time to time. Some of his letters to a man
in London, who occasionally employed his pen, have been sold to the
curious, and such poignant passages as: "I rely on your sending me a
little money to-morrow. I have only succeeded in getting twenty francs
from the Concierge, and I am in a bad way," or, "I wish to goodness you
could come over, also--send me, if you can, £4 or even £3. I am now
trying to leave my hotel and get rooms where I can be at rest, and so
stay in during the morning."

These letters seem to show that Oscar Wilde was nearly starving. I can
assure my readers this was not the case. With the realisation that there
would never be any more place for him in the world had come a
carelessness and recklessness to all but immediate and petty sensual
gratifications from day to day.

His landlord stated that towards the end it became very difficult for
Wilde to write at all. "He used to whip himself up with cognac. A litre
bottle would hardly see him through the night. And he ate little. And he
took little exercise. He used to sleep till noon, and then breakfast,
and then sleep again till five or six in the evening."

This is enough. I have said as little as can well be said. But let us
remember the frightful and crushing disabilities under which Wilde
suffered. Who is there who dare cast a stone? His death came as a happy
release, and it was sordid and dreadful enough to complete the grim
tragedy of his life without deviation from its completeness. True, an
attached friend was by him at the end. True, the offices of the Holy
Catholic Church lightened his passing. Yet, nevertheless, there was an
abiding and sinister gloom about all his last hours. Details can be
found in other places. "How Oscar Wilde died" was a journalistic
sensation at the time.

I will simply quote the words of a French critic, who, after the end,
went to pay his last sad duties to the shell which had held the poet's
soul: "... The hotel in which he died was one of those horrible places
which are called in the popular papers 'Houses of Crime.' A veritable
Hercules of a porter led me through a long, evil-smelling corridor. At
last the odour of some disinfectant struck my nostrils. An open door. A
little square room. I stood before the corpse. His whitish, emaciated
face, strangely altered through the growth of a beard after death,
seemed to be lost in profound contemplation. A hand, cramped in agony,
still clutched the dirty bed cloth. There was no one to watch by his
body. Only much later they sent him some flowers. The noise of the
street pierced the thin walls of the building. A stale odour filled the
air. Ah, what loneliness, what an end!"

If I have quoted this ugly and vulgar picture of the poet's body in the
sordid room I have done so with intention.

It is in the contemplation of such scenes as this that our minds and
hearts are uplifted from the material to the supreme hope of all of us.
The man who had suffered and sinned and done noble things in this world
had gone away from it. Doubtless, when the Frenchman with his prying
eyes and notebook was gloating over the material sensation of the scene,
the soul of the poet was hearing harmonies too long unknown to it, and
was beginning to undergo the Purification.


       *       *       *       *       *

Oscar Wilde was always a loving student of Dante. In that contempt for
the world's opinion, which is sometimes the strength and also the ruin
of great geniuses, Wilde bore a strong resemblance to the great Italian
who said "Lascia dir le genti." The versatility of Oscar Wilde was
supreme, and that is in itself the real solution of whatever is most
astonishing in his power or startling in his madness, of all that most
draws us towards him or repels us with an equal strength. "A variety of
powers almost boundless, a pride not less vast in displaying them--a
susceptibility of new impressions and impulses, even beyond the usual
allotment of genius ... such were the two great and leading sources of
all that varied spectacle which his life exhibited; and that succession
of victories achieved by his genius, in almost every field of mind that
genius ever trod, and of all those sallies of character in every shape
and direction that unchecked feeling and dominant self-will can

It is not for the author of this memoir, whose attitude has been
studiously impersonal throughout, to attempt any dictation to his
readers as to the judgment they shall ultimately form upon the character
of Oscar Wilde.

At the same time, he hopes that it may not be forbidden him to give his
own, and doubtless very imperfect, view. He thinks that in regarding the
whole field of the poet's life, as far as it can be known to others, one
finds him to be a sweet and noble nature with much of the serenity of
"highness" which accompanies a great genius, yet, obscured, soiled,
overlapped, and periodically destroyed by a terrible and riotous
madness, both of talk and of thought. It is a facile and dangerous thing
to attribute all the good and noble actions of any man to his "real
self," and to say that all the evil he wrought and did came from madness
or irresponsibility. If such a doctrine were to be generally accepted
and believed, laws would lose their _raison d'être_, punishment would
become a mockery, and society would inevitably end.

Yet, possibly it may be that some few souls exist and have existed of
whom such a statement may be true. If such exceptions do exist and have
existed, then surely Oscar Wilde was one of them. There seems to be no
other explanation of him but just this; and if we do not accept it I, at
anyrate, cannot see any other.

Let each reader of this book appropriate his own, and I conclude the
first part of it by repeating the old, old prayer--





When Mr George Alexander produced "Lady Windermere's Fan" at the St
James's Theatre, in the spring of 1892, it created an unprecedented
furore among all ranks of the playgoing public, and placed the author at
once upon a pedestal in the Valhalla of the Drama; not on account of the
plot, which was frankly somewhat _vieux jeu_, nor yet upon any striking
originality in the types of the personages who were to unravel it, but
upon the sparkle of the dialogue, the brilliancy of the epigrams, a
condition of things to which the English stage had hitherto been
entirely unaccustomed. The author was acclaimed as a playwright who had
at last succeeded in clothing stagecraft with the vesture of literature,
and with happy phrase and nimble paradox delighted the minds of his
audience. What promise of a long succession of social comedies,
illuminated by the intimate knowledge of his subject that he so entirely
possessed, was held out to us! Here was a man who treated society as it
really exists; who was himself living in it; portraying its folk as he
knew them, with their virtues and vices coming to them as naturally as
the facile flow of their conversation; conversation interlarded with no
stilted sentences, no well- (or ill-) rounded periods, but such as that
which falls without conscious effort from the lips of people who, in
whatever surroundings they may be placed, are, before all things, and at
all times, thoroughly at their ease. It may be objected that people in
real life, even in the higher life of the Upper Ten, do not habitually
scatter sprightly pleasantries abroad as they sit around the
five-o'clock tea-table. That Oscar Wilde made every personage he
depicted talk as he himself was wont to talk. _Passe encore._ The real
fact remains that he _knew_ the social atmosphere he represented, had
breathed it, and was familiar with all its traditions and mannerisms. He
gave us the _tone_ of Society as it had never before been given. He was
at home in it. He could exhibit a ball upon the stage where real ladies
and gentlemen assembled together, quite distinct from the ancient
"Adelphi guests" who had hitherto done yeoman's service in every form of
entertainment imagined by the dramatist. The company who came to his
great parties were at least _vraisemblables_, beings who conducted
themselves as if they really might have been there. And so it was in
every scene, in every situation. His types are drawn with the pen of
knowledge, dipped in the ink of experience. That was his secret, the
keynote of his success. And with what power he used it the world is now
fully aware. It is not too much to say that Oscar Wilde revolutionised
dramatic art. Henceforth it began to be understood that the playwright
who would obtain the merit of a certain plausibility must endeavour to
infuse something of the breath of life into his creations, and make them
act and talk in a manner that was at least possible.

It has been a popular _pose_ among certain superior persons, equally
devoid of humour themselves as of the power of appreciating it in
others, that Oscar Wilde sacrificed dramatic action to dialogue; that
his plays were lacking in human interest, his plots of the very poorest;
a fact that was skilfully concealed by the sallies of smart sayings and
witty repartee, which carried the hearers away during the
representation, so that in the charm of the style they forgot the
absence of the substance. But such is by no means the case. The author
recognised, with his fine artistic _flair_, that mere talk, however
admirable, will not carry a play to a successful issue without a strong
underlying stratum of histrionic interest to support it. There are
situations in his comedies as powerful in their handling as could be
desired by the most devout stickler for dramatic intention. There are
scenes in which the humorist lays aside his motley, and becomes the
moralist, unsparing in his methods to enforce, _à l'outrance_, the
significance of his text. In each of his plays there are moments in
which the action is followed by the spectator with absorbed attention;
incidents of emotional value treated in no half-hearted fashion. Such
are the hall mark of the true dramatist who can touch, with the unerring
instinct of the poet, the finest feelings, the deepest sympathies of his
audience, and which place Oscar Wilde by the side of Victorien Sardou.
As has been well written by one of our most impartial critics: "No other
among our playwrights equals this distinguished Frenchman, either in
imagination or in poignancy of style."

Again, it has been contended, with a sneer, that the turning out of
witty speeches is but a trick, easy of imitation by any theatrical
scribe who sets himself to the task. But how many of Wilde's
imitators--and there have been not a few--have accomplished such command
of language, such literary charm, such "fineness" of wit? Who among them
all has ever managed to hold an audience spellbound in the same way? How
many have succeeded in drawing from a miscellaneous crowd of spectators
such spontaneous expressions of delighted approval as "How brilliant!
How true!" first muttered by each under the breath to himself, and then
tossed loudly from one to the other in pure enjoyment, as the solid
truth, underlying the varnish of the paradox, was borne home to them?
Surely, not one can be indicated. Nor is the reason far to seek. For in
all Oscar Wilde's seemingly irresponsible witticisms it is not only the
device of the inverted epigram that is made a characteristic feature of
the dialogue; there is real human nature behind the artificialities,
there is poetry beneath the prose, the grip of the master's hand in
seemingly toying with truth. And it is the possession of these innate
qualities that differentiates the inventor from his imitators, and
leaves them hopelessly behind in the race for dramatic distinction.

To invent anything is difficult, and in proportion to its merits
praiseworthy. To cavil at that which has been devised, to point with the
finger of scorn at its imperfections, to "run it down," is only too easy
a pastime. Oscar Wilde was before all an inventor. Whatever he touched
he endowed with the gracious gift of style that bore the stamp of his
own individual genius. He originated a new treatment for ancient themes.
For there is no such thing as an absolutely new "plot." Every play that
has been written is founded on doings, dealings, incidents that have
happened over and over again. Love, licit or illicit, the mainspring of
all drama, is the same to-day as it was yesterday, and will be for ever
and ever in this world. One man and one woman, or one woman and two men,
or again, as a pleasant variant, two women and one man. Such are the
eternal puppets that play the game of Love upon the Stage of Life; the
unconscious victims of the sentiment which sometimes makes for tragedy.
They are always with us, placed in the same situations, and extricating
themselves (or otherwise) in the same old way. So that when a new
playwright is condemned by the critics as a furbisher-up of well-known
_clichés_ he is hardly treated. He cannot help himself. He must tread
the familiar paths, _faute de mieux_. And the public, with its big human
heart and unquestioning traditions, knows this, and is satisfied
therewith. Nothing really pleases people so much as to tell them
something they already know. What an accomplished dramatist can do is to
rehabilitate his characters by the power of his own personality, and by
felicitous treatment invest his action with fresh interest. And this is
what Oscar Wilde effected in stagecraft. He vitalised it.

It is well-nigh impossible, under the existing conditions of the theatre
in England, to form any just appreciation of the dramatist's work at
all. A novel may be read at any time, but a play depends on the caprice
of a manager to "present" it or not, as suits his commercial
convenience. Happily for us the comedies of Oscar Wilde are printed and
published, and can be enjoyed equally in the study as in the stalls. We
must go back to Congreve and Sheridan to find a parallel. It is the
triumph of the _littérateur_ over the histrionic hack, the man whose
volumes are taken down from the shelves where they repose, again and
again, and require no adventitious aid of scenery and costume to enhance
the pleasure they afford. Albeit that the habit of reading plays is not
particularly an English one. The old Puritan feeling that all things
theatrical were tainted with more or less immorality still clings to
many a mind. Emotion is yet looked upon with suspicion, and as the
theatre is the hotbed of emotion it is even now regarded in some
quarters as a dangerous, if exciting, pleasure-ground. Sober-minded folk
prefer rather to take their doses of love tales in the form of the
novel, however inexpert, than in that of the play, however masterly it
may be. Let an author put to the vote his appeal to his public through
their eyes or their ears, it will be found that the eyes have it. They
prefer to stop at home and read, as they consider, seriously, than to go
abroad and listen to what they hold to be, trivialities. Oscar Wilde
has, in great measure, been instrumental in putting these illiberal
views to flight. Men and women are now to be found in the theatre when
his pieces are represented who not so long ago pooh-poohed the drama
from an intelligent standpoint. He has turned attention to the fact that
the dramatic method of telling a story may be made as intellectually
interesting as in the best-written romances of the novelist. He brought
to bear upon his work a singular power of observation, a fine
imagination, a unique wit, and above all, and beneath all, an extensive
knowledge of human life, and human character. Plays imbued with all
these qualities were bound to make their mark. He knocked away the
absurd conventions, the stereotyped phrases of the stage as he knew it.
He placed on it living people in the place of mechanical puppets, and by
his happy inspiration created a new order in the profession of

It would be an interesting subject for speculation--were it not such a
deeply sad one--how far Oscar Wilde, had he been permitted to live,
would have gone in the new _voie_ he had chosen for the expression of
his artistic perceptions. Between "Lady Windermere's Fan" and "The
Importance Of Being Earnest," the first and last of his comedies, there
is evidence of very marked and rapid advancement in his art. In the
former he shows us the invention of a hitherto unhandseled form of
histrionic composition--the dialogue-drama. But he is feeling his way in
this new departure of his, diffident of its success; while in the latter
he has perfected what was more or less crude, incomplete, found wanting,
and what was originally the natural hesitation of the novice has
developed into the assured pronouncements of the adept. He was moving
onwards. He was making theatrical history. He was becoming a power. And
we who now read, mark, learn, be it on the stage or in the study, what
he achieved in the production of but four modern comedies, can only
premise that to-day he would have "arrived" at the meridian of his art.
For, not in vain, was born the delicate wit that played around a
philosophy of life, founded upon subtle observation, and one that has
animated some of the most prominent literary and dramatic productions of
our generation. Not in vain was struck that note of truth and sincerity
in social ethics, unheard in the _ad captandum_ strains of our
professional novelists. Underlying those "phraseological inversions," so
daintily cooed by the dove, was the wisdom of the serpent. It is the
spirit of the poet speaking through the medium of prose. It is the
utterance of the great artist that must compel attention even from the
Philistines who sit in the seats of the scornful.


(_Produced by Mr George Alexander at the St James's Theatre on 22nd
February 1892_)

I Have endeavoured to indicate, I trust more or less successfully, the
manner in which an enthusiastic public received the first of Oscar
Wilde's comedies. Let us now glance at the attitude affected by the
critics. It is not too much to say that it was of undoubted hostility.
Their verdict was decidedly an inimical one. They had received an
unexpected shock, and were staggering under it in an angry, helpless
way. The new dramatist was a surprise, and an unpleasing one. He had in
one evening destroyed the comfortable conventions of the stage, hitherto
so dear to the critic's heart. He had dared to break down the barriers
of ancient prejudice, and attempt something new, something original. In
a word, he had dared to be himself, the most heinous offence of all!
They could not entirely ignore his undeniable talent. Public opinion was
on his side. So they dragged in side issues to point _their_ little
moral, and adorn _their_ little tale. This is how Mr Clement Scott
writes after the first performance of "Lady Windermere's Fan":

     "Supposing, after all, Mr Oscar Wilde is a cynic of deeper
     significance than we take him to be. Supposing he intends to reform
     and revolutionise Society at large by sublime self-sacrifice. There
     are two sides to every question, and Mr Oscar Wilde's piety in
     social reform has not as yet been urged by anybody. His attitude
     has been so extraordinary that I am inclined to give him the
     benefit of the doubt. It is possible he may have said to himself,
     'I will show you, and prove to you, to what an extent bad manners
     are not only recognised, but endorsed in this wholly free and
     unrestricted age. I will do on the stage of a public theatre what I
     should not dare to do at a mass meeting in the Park. I will uncover
     my head in the presence of refined women, but I refuse to put down
     my cigarette. The working man may put out his pipe when he spouts,
     but my cigarette is too 'precious' for destruction. I will show no
     humility, and I will stand unrebuked. I will take greater liberties
     with the public than any author who has ever preceded me in
     history. And I will retire scatheless. The society that allows boys
     to puff cigarette smoke in the faces of ladies in the theatre
     corridors will condone the originality of a smoking author on the
     stage.' This may be the form of Mr Oscar Wilde's curious cynicism.
     He may say, 'I will test this question of manners, and show that
     they are not nowadays recognised.'"

So far Mr Clement Scott, then the leader of the critic band who took his
tone and cheerfully followed where he led--the old story of "Les brebis
de Pannege." And to show how universal was this inordinate enmity, I
will quote a paragraph from, at that time, the leading journal of
historical criticism, written on the withdrawal of the play after a
successful "run" of nine months. After endorsing the general opinion of
the play as "A comedy of Society manners pure and simple which may
fairly claim its place among the recognised names in that almost extinct
class of drama," the writer goes on to say in the conclusion of his
article--"Not the least amusing reminiscence will be the ferocious wrath
which, on its first appearance, the play provoked among the regular
stage-critics, almost to a man. Except that Mr Wilde smoked a cigarette
when called on, it is difficult to see why--unless it was because the
comedy ran off the beaten track which is just what they are always
deprecating." In this last sentence lies the _clou_ of the whole
situation. The entire band had been clamouring for years for something
fresh, "off the beaten track," and this is how they received it when
they got it! Verily, the ways of criticism are indeed marvellous, and
difficult of comprehension. But the author triumphed over them all and
won his laurels despite the forces arrayed against him. His first
comedy was a splendid success.

It must be conceded that there is nothing new in the plot of "Lady
Windermere's Fan." It is an old tale of intrigue which has done duty on
the stage over and over again. It has inspired many a play. But as I
before observed, it is in its treatment by the accomplished hand that
the novelty of drama lies. And here we have an interesting example of
how old lamps may be made to look new at the touch of the magician's

Lord and Lady Windermere have been married for a couple of years when
the action of the play commences. It was a love-match, and the sky of
happiness has hitherto been without a cloud. But the cloud at last
appears in the guise of a certain Mrs Erlynne, a somewhat notorious
_divorcée_, who has managed to gain admission into Society, in a
half-acknowledged way, by means of her charms and her cash. The cash is
supplied by Lord Windermere, and is in the nature of hush-money. For Mrs
Erlynne turns out to be no other than Lady Windermere's mother, supposed
to be long dead, and the "cloud" might prove an uncommonly inconvenient
one if allowed suddenly to burst upon the unsuspicious _ménage_. So she
is kept quiet by the cheques of her son-in-law. But her friends are not
backward in enlightening Lady Windermere as to her husband's frequent
visits to Mrs Erlynne, and one of them, the Duchess of Berwick, is more
outspoken than the others, and succeeds in persuading poor
innocent-minded Lady Windermere that the worst constructions should be
placed upon his lordship's conduct. Mrs Erlynne has managed to induce
Lord Windermere to send her a card for his wife's birthday ball,
whereat, Lady Windermere, when she hears of this from her husband's
lips, declares she will insult the guest openly if she arrives. But she
does arrive and she is not insulted, although the celebrated fan is
grasped ready to strike the blow! The ball passes off quietly enough,
without any open scandal. But Lady Windermere, surprising, as she
imagines, her husband in a compromising _tête-à-tête_ with the
fascinating intruder, determines in a moment of nervous tension to leave
the house, and betake herself to the rooms of Lord Darlington, who
earlier in the evening has offered her his sympathy, and his heart.
Before she departs, however, she writes her husband a letter informing
him of her intentions. This letter she leaves on a bureau where he is
sure to find it. It is not he who finds it, however, but Mrs Erlynne.
With the instinct born of a past and vast experience she scents danger,
and opens and reads it. Then her better feelings and worse heart are
suddenly awakened, and she determines, at all risks, to save her
daughter. Whereupon she follows her to Lord Darlington's rooms, and,
after a long scene between the two women, induces Lady Windermere to
return to her husband before her flight is discovered. But it is too
late. Lord Darlington, with a party of friends including Lord
Windermere, is returning. Their voices are heard outside the door. Lady
Windermere hides behind a curtain ready to escape on the first
opportunity, while Mrs Erlynne--when Lord Windermere's suspicions are
aroused at the sight of his wife's fan, and he insists on searching the
room--comes forth from the place where she had concealed herself, and
boldly takes upon herself the ownership of the fatal _pièce á
conviction_. Lady Windermere is saved, and at the end of the play is
reconciled to her husband without uncomfortable explanations, while Mrs
Erlynne marries an elderly adorer, who is brother to the Duchess of

Such, in brief, is the plot of "Lady Windermere's Fan." Every playgoer
will at once recognise its situations, and hail its intrigue as an old
and well-tried friend; the loving husband and wife, the fascinating
adventuress who comes between them and cannot be explained; the tempter
who offers substantial consolation to the outraged wife; the
compromising fan, or scarf, or glove (_selon les gôuts_) found by the
husband in the room of the other man; the convenient curtain closely
drawn as if to invite concealment; the hairbreadth escape of the wife
leaving the _onus_ of the scandal to fall upon the shoulders of some
self-sacrificing friend; the final reconciliation of husband and wife
without any infelicitous catechism; are not these things written in the
pages of all the plays that--as George Meredith so happily puts
it--"deal with human nature in the drawing-rooms of civilised men and
women." With certain variations they are the mainstay--the French word
is _l'armature_--of every comedy of genteel passions and
misunderstandings that ever existed. Now, how does Oscar Wilde contrive
to clothe this dramatic skeleton with the flesh and blood of real life?
How invest the familiar figures with the plausible presentment of
new-born interest? Simply by the wonderful power of his personality,
which dominates all he touches, and rejuvenates the venerable bones of
his _dramatis personæ_, compelling them, after the fashion of the "Pied
Piper," to dance to any tune he chooses to call. Or, perhaps, "sing"
would be a better expression than "dance." For it is in what they say,
rather than what they do, that our chief interest in them lies. We do
not ask: "What are they going to do next?" That is more or less a
forgone conclusion. But what we wait for with alert attention is what
they are going to say next. And so we come back to that brilliant
dialogue which is, as it should be, the chief feature of the play
albeit that play is as well constructed as any could desire,
straightforward and convincing. As a critic once wrote of it from the
craftsman's point of view: "'Lady Windermere's Fan' as a specimen of
true comedy is a head and shoulders above any of its contemporaries. It
has nothing in common with farcical comedy, with didactic comedy, or the
'literary' comedy of which we have heard so much of late from
disappointed authors, whose principal claim to literature appears to
consist in being undramatic. It is a distinguishing note of Mr Wilde
that he has condescended to learn his business, and has written a
workmanlike play as well as a good comedy. Without that it would be
worthless." In corroboration of this statement it is only necessary to
note how skilfully, when it comes to the necessity of dramatic action,
these scenes are handled. Take the one in the second act, where Mrs
Erlynne, more or less, forces her way into Lady Windermere's ballroom.
It is an episode of extreme importance, and how well led up to! Lord and
Lady Windermere are on the stage together.

     _Lord Windermere._ Margaret, I _must_ speak to you.

     _Lady Windermere._ Will you hold my fan for me, Lord Darlington?
     Thanks. (_Comes down to him._)

     _Lord Windermere._ (_Crossing to her._) Margaret, what you said
     before dinner was, of course, impossible?

     _Lady Windermere._ That woman is not coming here to-night!

     _Lord Windermere._ (_R.C._) Mrs Erlynne is coming here, and if you
     in any way annoy or wound her, you will bring shame and sorrow on
     us both. Remember that! Ah, Margaret! only trust me! A wife should
     trust her husband.

     _Lady Windermere._ London is full of women who trust their
     husbands. One can always recognise them. They look so thoroughly
     unhappy. I am not going to be one of them. (_Moves up._) Lord
     Darlington, will you give me back my fan, please? Thanks.... A
     useful thing a fan, isn't it?... I want a friend to-night, Lord
     Darlington. I didn't know I would want one soon.

     _Lord Darlington._ Lady Windermere! I knew the time would come some
     day: but why to-night?

     _Lord Windermere._ I _will_ tell her. I must. It would be terrible
     if there were any scene. Margaret....

     _Parker_ (_announcing_). Mrs Erlynne.

     (_Lord Windermere starts. Mrs Erlynne enters, very beautifully
     dressed and very dignified. Lady Windermere clutches at her fan,
     then lets it drop on the floor. She bows coldly to Mrs Erlynne,
     who bows to her sweetly in turn, and sails into the room._)

If this is not effective stagecraft, I do not know what is. And the
dramatist strikes a deeper, and more tragic, note in the scene later on
(in the same act) where Mrs Erlynne discovers the letter of farewell
that Lady Windermere had written to her husband.

     (_Parker enters, and crosses towards the ballroom, R. Enter Mrs

     _Mrs Erlynne._ Is Lady Windermere in the ballroom?

     _Parker._ Her ladyship has just gone out.

     _Mrs Erlynne._ Gone out? She's not on the terrace?

     _Parker._ No, madam. Her Ladyship has just gone out of the house.

     _Mrs Erlynne_ (_Starts and looks at the servant with a puzzled
     expression on her face_). Out of the house?

     _Parker._ Yes, madam--her Ladyship told me she had left a letter
     for his Lordship on the table.

     _Mrs Erlynne._ A letter for Lord Windermere?

     _Parker._ Yes, madam.

     _Mrs Erlynne._ Thank you.

     (_Exit Parker. The music in the ballroom stops._)

     Gone out of her house! A letter addressed to her husband!

     (_Goes over to bureau and looks at letter. Takes it up and lays it
     down again with a shudder of fear._)

     No, no! it would be impossible! Life doesn't repeat its tragedies
     like that! Oh, why does this horrible fancy come across me? Why do
     I remember now the one moment of my life I most wish to forget?
     Does life repeat its tragedies?

     (_Tears letter open and reads it, then sinks down into a chair with
     a gesture of anguish._)

     Oh, how terrible! the same words that twenty years ago I wrote to
     her father! And how bitterly I have been punished for it! No; my
     punishment, my real punishment is to-night, is now!

I have quoted these two episodes from the second act to demonstrate how
equal was the playwright to the exigencies of his art. But it is in the
third act, laid in Lord Darlington's rooms, that he reaches the level of
high dramatic skill. First, in the scene between the mother and
daughter, written with extraordinary power and pathos, and later on,
when each of the women are hidden, the "man's scene" which ranks with
the famous club scene in Lord Lytton's "Money." The _blasé_ and genial
tone of these men of the world is admirably caught. Their conversation
sparkles with wit and wisdom--of the world _bien entendu_. But it is in
Mrs Erlynne's appeal to her daughter, with all its tragic intent that
the author surpasses himself. Just read it over. It is a masterpiece of
restrained emotion.

     _Mrs Erlynne._ (_Starts with a gesture of pain. Then restrains
     herself, and comes over to where Lady Windermere is sitting. As she
     speaks, she stretches out her hands towards her, but does not dare
     to touch her._) Believe what you choose about me. I am not without
     a moment's sorrow. But don't spoil your beautiful young life on my
     account. You don't know what may be in store for you, unless you
     leave this house at once. You don't know what it is to fall into
     the pit, to be despised, mocked, abandoned, sneered at--to be an
     outcast! to find the door shut against one, to have to creep in by
     hideous byways, afraid every moment lest the mask should be
     stripped from one's face, and all the while to hear the laughter of
     the world, a thing more tragic than all the tears the world has
     ever shed. You don't know what it is. One pays for one's sin, and
     then one pays again, and all one's life one pays. You must never
     know that. As for me, if suffering be an expiation, then at this
     moment I have expiated all my faults, whatever they have been; for
     to-night you have made a heart in one who had it not, made it and
     broken it. But let that pass. I may have wrecked my own life, but I
     will not let you wreck yours. You--why you are a mere girl, you
     would be lost. You haven't got the kind of brains that enables a
     woman to get back. You have neither the wit nor the courage. You
     couldn't stand dishonour. No! go back, Lady Windermere, to the
     husband who loves you, whom you love. You have a child, Lady
     Windermere. Go back to that child who even now, in pain or in joy,
     may be calling to you. (_Lady Windermere rises._) God gave you that
     child. He will require from you that you make his life fine, that
     you watch over him. What answer will you make to God, if his life
     is ruined through you? Back to your house, Lady Windermere--your
     husband loves you. He has never swerved for a moment from the love
     he bears you. But even if he had a thousand loves, you must stay
     with your child. If he was harsh to you, you must stay with your
     child. If he ill-treated you, you must stay with your child. If he
     abandoned you your place is with your child.

     (_Lady Windermere bursts into tears and buries her face in her

     (_Rushing to her_). Lady Windermere!

     _Lady Windermere_ (_holding out her hands to her, helplessly, as a
     child might do_). Take me home. Take me home.

Few people who witnessed that situation could have done so without being
deeply moved. It is Oscar Wilde the poet who speaks, not to the brain
but to the heart.

Then turn from the shadow of that scene to the shimmer of the one that
follows immediately, full of smartness and _jeu d'esprit_. The sprightly
and irresponsible chatter of men of the world.

     _Dumby._ Awfully commercial, women nowadays. Our grandmothers threw
     their caps over the mill, of course, but, by Jove, their
     granddaughters only throw their caps over mills that can raise the
     wind for them.

     _Lord Augustus._ You want to make her out a wicked woman. She is

     _Cecil Graham._ Oh! wicked women bother one. Good women bore one.
     That is the only difference between them.

       *       *       *       *       *

     _Dumby._ In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not
     getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is
     much the worst, the last is a real tragedy.

       *       *       *       *       *

     _Cecil Graham._ What is a cynic?

     _Lord Darlington._ A man who knows the price of everything and the
     value of nothing.

     _Cecil Graham._ And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man
     who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market
     price of any single thing.

       *       *       *       *       *

     _Dumby._ Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

       *       *       *       *       *

     _Lord Windermere._ What is the difference between scandal and

     _Cecil Graham._ Oh! gossip is charming! History is merely gossip.
     But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. Now I never
     moralise. A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman
     who moralises is invariably plain. There is nothing in the whole
     world so unbecoming to a woman as a Nonconformist conscience. And
     most women know it, I'm glad to say.

And so we take our leave of "Lady Windermere's Fan."


(_First produced at the Haymarket Theatre by Mr Beerbohm Tree on 19th
April 1903_)

Perhaps of all Oscar Wilde's plays "The Woman Of No Importance" provoked
the most discussion at the time of its production. It was his second
venture in the histrionic field, and people expected much. They felt
that he should now be finding his feet, that whatever shortcomings, from
the point of view of stagecraft, there may have been in "Lady
Windermere's Fan," should now be made good. His first comedy was a
well-constructed play of plot and incidents. But now, expectation rose
high, and required of the author something better, something greater,
something more considerable than what he had achieved before. How far
were these expectations realised? How did the first-night audience of
public, and critics, receive the new play? It must be confessed it was
with a feeling akin to disappointment. People at first were undeniably
disconcerted. They had come prepared to witness drama, possibly of
stirring interest, and what they heard was dialogue of brilliant
quality, indeed, but which, up to a certain point, had little to do in
forwarding the action of the piece. It was a surprise, and, to most of
them, a not altogether grateful one. And it came in the first act. Here
the author had actually been bold enough to defy popular traditions, and
to place his characters seated in a semicircle uttering epigram after
epigram, and paradox upon paradox, without any regard to whatever plot
there might be; for it is not until the curtain is about to fall that we
get an indication, for the first time, that something is going to happen
in the next act. Here was an upset indeed! A subversion of all
preconceived ideas as to how a play should begin! "Words! words!" they
muttered captiously, although the words were as the pearls and diamonds
that fell from the mouth of the maiden in the fairy tale. And so on,
through scene after scene, until we come to the unexpected meeting of
Lord Illingworth with the woman he had, long ago, betrayed and
abandoned. Then quickly follows the pathetic interview between mother
and son, culminating in Mrs Arbuthnot's confession that the man who
would befriend her son is no other than his own father, to whom he
should owe nothing, save the disgrace of his birth, leading up to the
_scene-à-faire_ in the final act, where Lord Illingworth's offer to make
reparation to the woman he has wronged is acknowledged by a blow across
the face. Here at last was drama, treated in the right spirit, and of an
emotional value that cannot be too highly recognised. But the shock of
the earlier acts had been a severe one, and it took all the intense
human interest of the last two acts to atone for the outraged
conventions of the two first. It speaks volumes of praise for the
playwright's powers that he was enabled to carry his work to a
successful issue, and secure for it a long run. And not only that, but
to stand the critical test of revival. For, at the moment of writing
these words, Mr Tree has reproduced "The Woman Of No Importance" at His
Majesty's Theatre, which is crowded, night after night, with audiences
eager to bring a posthumous tribute to the genius of the author.

_Apropos_ of the first act where all the _dramatis personæ_ are seated
in a semicircle engaged only in conversation, and which was likened, on
the occasion of the first production of the play, by an eminent critic
to "Christy Minstrelism Crystallised," it may not be uninteresting to
note, _en passant_, a similar arrangement of characters in a play of Mr
Bernard Shaw's recently performed at the Court Theatre. This is called
"Don Juan in Hell"--the dream from "Man and Superman"--mercifully
omitted when that play was produced. It had nothing whatever to do with
the comedy in which it was included, but is a Niagara of ideas, clumsily
put together, and is more or less an exposition of the Shawian

"Hear the result"--I quote from the critique in one of our leading
journals--"The curtain rose at half-past two on a darkened stage draped
in black. Enter, in turn, Don Juan, Dona Ana de Ulloa, the statue of her
father, and the devil. They sat down, and for an hour and a half
delivered those opinions of Mr Shaw with which we are all so terribly
familiar. Every now and then there was a laugh, as, for example, when
Don Juan said: 'Wherever ladies are is hell,' or, again, when he said:
'Have you ever had servants who were not devils?' It was all supposed to
be very funny and very naughty, of course, especially when the statue
said to Don Juan: 'If you dwelt in heaven, as I do, you would realise
your advantages.' And so on, and so on, _ad nauseum_."

See now, how the parallel scene of "only talk" as written by Oscar Wilde
was noticed upon its revival the other day. I quote from another
journal. "Let all that can be urged against this play be granted. None
the less is it worth watching the _dramatis personæ_ do nothing, so long
as the mind may be tickled by this unscrupulous, fastidious wit. And,
even if all the characters speak in the same accents of paradox, their
moods, the essentials of them, are differentiated with a brilliancy of
expression which condones the lack of dramatic movement. These things,
alone, evoke my gratitude to Mr Tree for reviving so interesting and
individual a comedy.... For even those utterances which seem to be mere
phraseological inversions are fraught with much wisdom, and the major
part of the dialogue reflects the mind of a subtle and daring social
observer." And it was this "mind," keen of observation, and equipped
with no ordinary wit, that dominates an audience and compels them to
sit, as it were, spellbound before the demonstration of the power of its
unique personality. I am informed that, to-day, in Germany, the only two
modern English dramatists who are listened to are Oscar Wilde and
Bernard Shaw--the poet and the proser. Truly may it be remarked: "_Les
extrêmes se touchent_."

The story of "The Woman Of No Importance" is quickly told.

Lord Illingworth, a cynical _roué_, has, in his youth, betrayed a too
trusting young lady, who, in consequence, gave birth to a son, by her
named Gerald. When the play begins this young fellow is nineteen years
old, and has, most hopelessly it would seem, fallen in love with an
American heiress whose name is Hester Worsley. He is living with his
mother, called Mrs Arbuthnot, at a quiet country village, where also
resides Lady Hunstanton, who acts as hostess to all the smart Society
folk who appear upon the scene, and among whom Lord Illingworth is the
most prominent. His lordship, ignorant of their real relationship, has
taken a fancy to Gerald, and offers him a private secretaryship.
Whereupon his future prospects brighten up considerably. But when Mrs
Arbuthnot discovers that Lord Illingworth is no other than the man who
had wronged her, she does all in her power to persuade her (and his) son
to refuse the offer, and, driven to extremity in her distress, tells
Gerald her own history, as that of another woman. Her efforts are
futile. The boy only says that the woman must have been as bad as the
man, and that, as far as he can see, Lord Illingworth is now a very good
fellow, and so he means to stick to him. Consequently, when his lordship
insists upon Gerald keeping to the bargain, and reminds his mother that
the boy will be her "judge as well as her son," should the truth of her
past be brought to light, Mrs Arbuthnot is induced to hold it still
secret. Unfortunately for this secret, Mrs Allonby, one of Lady
Hunstanton's guests, has goaded Lord Illingworth into promising to kiss
Miss Hester Worsley. This he does, much to the disgust of the fair
Puritan, who loudly announces that she has been insulted. Gerald's eyes
are suddenly opened to Lord Illingworth's turpitude, and with the
unbridled passion of the headstrong lover cries out that he will kill
him! Which, apparently, he would have done, had not Mrs Arbuthnot
stepped forward, and to everybody's surprise intervened with the
dramatic: "No--he is your father!"

_Tableau._ In the final act Hester Worsley, now that she knows Mrs
Arbuthnot, and is determined in spite of all to marry Gerald, solves
every difficulty by carrying off the mother and son to her home in the
New World, where we may presume the young couple marry, and live happily
ever afterwards. Before her departure from England, however, Mrs
Arbuthnot, maddened by the cynical offer of tardy reparation by marriage
on the part of Lord Illingworth, strikes him across the face with a
glove, and at the end of the play alludes to him as "a man of no
importance"; which balances his earlier description of her as "a woman
of no importance."

As I have pointed out elsewhere, many of the epigrams in this play were
lifted bodily from "The Picture of Dorian Gray," but after these are
eliminated there remain enough to establish the reputation of any
dramatist as a wit and epigrammatist of the very first rank. Much would
be forgiven for one definition alone, that of the foxhunter--"the
unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable." And Sheridan himself might
envy the pronouncement that "the youth of America is its oldest

But apart from brilliant repartee and amusing paradox, the piece is full
of passages of rare beauty and moments of touching pathos. Hester
Worsley's speech anent Society, which she describes as being "like a
leper in purple," "a dead thing smeared with gold," is as finely
written a piece of declamation as any actress could desire, apart from
its high literary qualities; and Mrs Arbuthnot's confession to her boy
and her appeal to him for mercy are conceived in a spirit of delicacy
and reticence that only the highest art can attain. Her pathetic
peroration: "Child of my shame, be still the child of my shame," touches
the deepest chords of human sorrow and anguish. With a masterly
knowledge of what the theatre requires, he gives us Hester at the
beginning of the play inveighing against any departure from the moral
code and quoting the Old Testament anent the sins of the father being
visited on the children. "It is God's law," she ends up--"it is God's
terrible law." Later, when she begs Mrs Arbuthnot to come away to other
climes, "where there are green valleys and fresh waters" and the poor
woman for whom the world is shrivelled to a palm's breadth confronts her
with her own pronouncement, how beautifully introduced is her
recantation: "Don't say that, God's law is only love." It has been
objected to Hester that she is a prig, but no girl could be a prig who
could utter a sentiment like that. She is a fine specimen of the
girlhood of the late nineteenth century, travelled, cultured, frank, and
fearless, and above all pure. In the artificial atmosphere of
Hunstanton, where the guests are all mere worldlings, her purity and
goodness stand out in high relief. If there is a prig it is Gerald who,
whether he be listening to Lord Illingworth's worldly teaching as to "a
well-tied tie being the first serious step in life," or hearing the
story of his mother's sin, is a singularly uninteresting and commonplace
young man. As to the other characters they are all admirable sketches of
Society folk. Lady Caroline Pontefract tyrannising over her husband and
making that gay old gentleman put on his goloshes and muffler is a
delightful type of those old-fashioned _grandes dames_ who have the
peerage at their fingers' ends. Nothing could be more delightfully
characteristic than her opining, when Hester tells her that some of the
States of America are as big as France and England put together, that
they must find it very draughty. Lady Hunstanton too, who prattles away
about everybody and everything and gets mixed up in all her statements,
as for instance, when referring to somebody as a clergyman who wanted to
be a lunatic, she is uncertain if it was not a lunatic who wanted to be
a clergyman, but who at anyrate wore straws in his hair or something
equally odd, is drawn with a fidelity to nature that shows what a really
great student of character Oscar Wilde was. No less admirable a
portrayal is that of the worldly archdeacon whose wife is almost blind,
quite deaf and a confirmed invalid, yet, nevertheless, is quite happy,
for though she can no longer hear his sermons she reads them at home.
He it is whom Lord Illingworth shocks so profoundly, first by his
assertion that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future, and
finally by the flippant remark that the secret of life is to be always
on the lookout for temptations, which are becoming so exceedingly scarce
that he sometimes passes a whole day without coming across one. As
literature alone, the play deserves to live, and will live, as a _piece
de théâtre_. It has met with more success than any play of the first
class within the last twenty years. The reason for that is not far to
seek--it is essentially human, and the woman's interest--the keynote of
the story--appeals to man and woman equally. I have seen rough
Lancashire audiences, bucolic boors in small country towns, and dour
hard-headed Scotsmen, sit spellbound as the story of the woman's sin and
her repentance was unfolded before them. A play that can do that is
imperishable, and it is no disparagement to the other brilliant dramatic
works of the author that, as a popular play which will ever find favour
with audiences of every class and kind, on account of its human interest
and its pathos, "A Woman Of No Importance" is certain of immortality.


(_First produced at the Haymarket Theatre, under the management of Mr
Lewis Waller and Mr H. H. Morell on 3rd January 1895_)

This, the third of Oscar Wilde's plays in their order of production, is
undoubtedly the most dramatic. The action is rapid, the interest of the
story sustained to the very end, and the dialogue always to the point.
Each of the principal characters concerned in the carrying out of the
plot is a distinct individualised type. What each one says or does is
entirely in keeping with his, or her, personality. And that personality
is in each case a well-marked and skilfully drawn one. The four
_personæ_ who are engaged in conducting the intrigue of this comedy are
Sir Robert Chiltern, Lady Chiltern (his wife), Lord Goring, and Mrs
Cheveley. A charming _ingénue_ in the person of Miss Mabel Chiltern (Sir
Robert's sister) is also instrumental in bringing the love-interest to a
happy hymeneal issue. The author of their being has handed down to us,
in his own inimitable way, his conception of them. Here it is:

"_Sir Robert Chiltern._ A man of forty, but looking somewhat younger.
Clean-shaven, with finely-cut features, dark-haired and dark-eyed. A
personality of mark. Not popular--few personalities are. But intensely
admired by the few, and deeply respected of the many. The note of his
manner is that of perfect distinction, with a slight touch of pride. One
feels that he is conscious of the success he has made in life. A nervous
temperament, with a tired look. The firmly-chiselled mouth and chin
contrast strikingly with the romantic expression in the deep-set eyes.
The variance is suggestive of an almost complete separation of passion
and intellect, as though thought and emotion were each isolated in its
own sphere through some violence of will-power. There is no nervousness
in the nostrils, and in the pale, thin, pointed hands. It would be
inaccurate to call him picturesque. Picturesqueness cannot survive the
House of Commons. But Vandyck would have liked to paint his head."

Of _Lady Chiltern_ we do not get more than that she is "a woman of grave
Greek beauty about twenty-seven years of age."

This is _Lord Goring_: "Thirty-four, but always says he is younger. A
well-bred expressionless face. He is clever, but would not like to be
thought so. A flawless dandy, he would be annoyed if he were considered
romantic. He plays with life, and is on perfectly good terms with the
world. He is fond of being misunderstood. It gives him a post of

_Mrs Cheveley_, the _âme damée_ of the plot, is thus portrayed: "Tall,
and rather slight. Lips very thin and highly coloured, a line of scarlet
on a pallid face. Venetian red hair, aquiline nose, a long throat. Rouge
accentuates the natural paleness of her complexion. Grey-green eyes that
move restlessly. She is in heliotrope, with diamonds. She looks rather
like an orchid, and makes great demands on one's curiosity. In all her
movements she is extremely graceful. A work of art on the whole, but
showing the influence of too many schools."

In these delicious word-pictures we gain for once an idea as to how the
author considered his characters, both physically and psychically. It is
interesting to note that of the four published plays this is the only
one in which such intimate directions are to be found. Was the author,
for once in a way, allowing himself a measure of poetic licence, and
giving free but eminently unpractical play to his imagination? Who may
tell? At anyrate, however high he may have soared in his requirements of
the performers, he comes down steadily to earth in his management of the
plot, which is acted out on these lines.

In the first act we find Lady Chiltern, whose husband is Under-Secretary
for Foreign Affairs, giving a party at her house in Grosvenor Square.
Here, among other fashionable folk who flit across the scene, we are
introduced to Lord Goring, between whom and Mabel Chiltern there is
evidently a more or less serious flirtation going on, especially on the
young lady's side. Shortly after his first entrance Lord Goring
"saunters over to Mabel Chiltern."

     _Mabel Chiltern._ You are very late!

     _Lord Goring._ Have you missed me?

     _Mabel Chiltern._ Awfully!

     _Lord Goring._ Then I am sorry I did not stay away longer. I like
     being missed.

     _Mabel Chiltern._ How very selfish of you.

     _Lord Goring._ I am very selfish.

     _Mabel Chiltern._ You are always telling me of your bad qualities,
     Lord Goring.

     _Lord Goring._ I have only told you half of them as yet, Miss

     _Mabel Chiltern._ Well, I delight in your bad qualities. I wouldn't
     have you part with one of them.

     _Lord Goring._ How very nice of you! But then you are always nice.
     By the way, I want to ask you a question, Miss Mabel. Who brought
     Mrs Cheveley here? That woman in heliotrope who has just gone out
     of the room with your brother?

     _Mabel Chiltern._ Oh, I think Lady Markby brought her. Why do you

     _Lord Goring._ I hadn't seen her for years, that is all.

But Lord Goring did not say, of course, all he knew about the brilliant
Mrs Cheveley, who is very _répondue_ in the diplomatic world at Vienna,
and has, in her day, been the heroine of much pretty gossip. The object
of her present visit to London is to obtain an introduction to Sir
Robert Chiltern, and it is when they first meet that the dramatic
interest of the story commences. The lady, it appears, has invested
largely, too largely, in a great political and financial scheme called
the Argentine Canal Company, acting on the advice of a certain Baron
Arnheim, now dead, who was also a friend of Sir Robert Chiltern's. When
Mrs Cheveley informs Sir Robert what her position is, he denounces the
scheme as "a commonplace Stock Exchange swindle."

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ Believe me, Mrs Cheveley, it is a
     swindle.... I sent out a special commission to inquire into the
     matter privately and they report that the works are hardly begun,
     and as for the money already subscribed, no one seems to know what
     has become of it.

A little later on he says "the success of the Canal depends of course on
the attitude of England, and I am going to lay the report of the
Commissioners before the House of Commons."

     _Mrs Cheveley._ That you must not do. In your own interests, Sir
     Robert, to say nothing of mine, you must not do that.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ (_Looking at her in wonder._) In my own
     interests? My dear Mrs Cheveley, what do you mean? (_Sits down
     beside her._)

     _Mrs Cheveley._ Sir Robert, I will be quite frank with you. I want
     you to withdraw the report that you had intended to lay before the
     House, on the ground that you have reason to believe that the
     Commissioners had been prejudiced or misinformed or something....
     Will you do that for me? (_Naturally Sir Robert is indignant at the
     proposition, and proposes to call the lady's carriage for her._)

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ You have lived so long abroad, Mrs Cheveley,
     that you seem to be unable to realise that you are talking to an
     English gentleman.

     _Mrs Cheveley._ (_Detains him by touching his arm with her fan, and
     keeping it there while she is talking._) I realise that I am
     talking to a man who laid the foundation of his fortune by selling
     to a Stock Exchange speculator a Cabinet secret.

This is unfortunately only too true. For, years ago, when secretary to
Lord Radley, "a great important minister," Sir Robert has written to
Baron Arnheim a letter telling the Baron to buy Suez Canal shares--a
letter written three days before the Government announced its own
purchase, and which letter also is in Mrs Cheveley's possession! Here is
a fine situation with a vengeance! By threatening to publish the scandal
and the proofs of it in some leading newspaper, Mrs Cheveley induces the
unfortunate Sir Robert to consent to withdraw the report, and state in
the House that he believes there are possibilities in the scheme. In
return for which she will give him back the compromising letter. So far,
so good. She has won her cause. But, true woman as she is, she cannot
conceal her triumph from Lady Chiltern as she is leaving the party.

     _Lady Chiltern._ Why did you wish to meet my husband, Mrs Cheveley?

     _Mrs Cheveley._ Oh, I will tell you. I wanted to interest him in
     this Argentine Canal Scheme, of which I daresay you have heard. And
     I found him most susceptible--susceptible to reason,--I mean. A
     rare thing in a man. I converted him in ten minutes. He is going to
     make a speech in the House to-morrow night, in favour of the idea.
     We must go to the Ladies' Gallery and hear him. It will be a great

And so she goes gaily away, leaving her hostess perplexed and troubled.
But in weaving her web round the hapless husband, she had not reckoned
on the influence of the wife to disentangle it, and set the victim free.
Yet, in a finely-conceived, and equally well-written, scene this is
what actually happened. The company have all departed and they are alone

     _Lady Chiltern._ Robert, it is not true, is it? You are not going
     to lend your support to this Argentine speculation? You couldn't.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ (_Starting._) Who told you I intended to do

     _Lady Chiltern._ That woman who has just gone out.... Robert, I
     know this woman. You don't. We were at school together.... She was
     sent away for being a thief. Why do you let her influence you?

Then after much painful probing as to why he has so suddenly changed his
attitude towards the scheme, she elicits the reason.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ But if I told you----

     _Lady Chiltern._ What?

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ That it was necessary, vitally necessary.

     _Lady Chiltern._ It can never be necessary to do what is not
     honourable.... Robert, tell me why you are going to do this
     dishonourable thing?

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ Gertrude, you have no right to use that
     word. I told you it was a question of rational compromise. It is no
     more than that.

But Lady Chiltern is not to be so easily put off as that. Her suspicions
are aroused. She says she knows that there are "men with horrible
secrets in their lives--men who had done some shameful thing, and who,
in some critical moment, have to pay for it, by doing some other act of
shame." She asks him boldly, is he one of these? Then, driven to bay, he
tells her the one lie of his life.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ Gertrude, there is nothing in my past life
     that you might not know.

She is satisfied. But he must write a letter to Mrs Cheveley, taking
back any promise he may have given her, and that letter must be written
at once. He tries to gain time, offers to go and see Mrs Cheveley
to-morrow; it is too late to-night. But Lady Chiltern is inexorable, and
so Sir Robert yields, and the missive is despatched to Claridge's Hotel.
Then, seized with a sudden terror of what the consequences may be, he
turns, with nerves all a-quiver, to his wife, pleadingly--

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ O, love me always, Gertrude, love me always.

     _Lady Chiltern._ I will love you always, because you will always be
     worthy of love. We needs must love the highest when we see it!
     (_Kisses him, rises and goes out._)

And the curtain falls upon this intensely emotional situation.

If I may seem to have quoted too freely from the dialogue, it is in part
to refute the charge, so often urged by the critics, that Oscar Wilde's
"talk is often an end in itself, it has no vital connection with the
particular play of which it forms a part, it might as well be put into
the mouth of one character as another...." Now in the first act of "The
Ideal Husband," when the action of the piece is being carried on at high
pressure, there is not a word of the dialogue that is not pertinent, no
sentence that is not significant. Whatever of wit the author may have
allowed himself to indulge in springs spontaneously from the woof of the
story, it is not, as was suggested in his earlier plays, "a mere
parasitic growth attached to it," in which this particular comedy under
consideration marks an immense advance on the methods of "The Woman Of
No Importance." Here is strenuous drama, treated strenuously, and
dealing with the whole gamut of human emotions. The playwright, as he
progresses in his art, does not here permit himself to endanger the
interest of the plot by any adventitious pleasantries on the part of the

In the second act we are again in Grosvenor Square, this time in a
morning-room, where Sir Robert Chiltern and Lord Goring are discussing
the awkward state of affairs. To Lord Goring the action of Sir Robert
appears inexcusable.

     _Lord Goring._ Robert, how could you have sold yourself for money?

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ (_Excitedly._) I did not sell myself for
     money. I bought success at a great price. That is all.

Such was his point of view. Lord Goring's now is that he should have
told his wife. But Sir Robert assures him that such a confession to such
a woman would mean a lifelong separation. She must remain in ignorance.
But now the vital question is--how is he to defend himself against Mrs
Cheveley? Lord Goring answers that he must fight her.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ But how?

     _Lord Goring._ I can't tell you how at present. I have not the
     smallest idea. But everyone has some weak point. There is some flaw
     in each one of us.

The conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Lady Chiltern. Sir
Robert goes out and leaves Lord Goring and his wife together. And there
follows a scene, brief, but as fine as any in the play, in which Lord
Goring endeavours to prepare Lady Chiltern very skilfully for the blow
that may possibly fall upon her. He deals in generalities: "I think
that in practical life there is something about success that is a little
unscrupulous, something about ambition that is unscrupulous always." And
again: "In every nature there are elements of weakness, or worse than
weakness. Supposing, for instance, that--that any public man, my father
or Lord Merton, or Robert, say, had, years ago, written some foolish
letter to someone...."

     _Lady Chiltern._ What do you mean by a foolish letter?

     _Lord Goring._ A letter gravely compromising one's position. I am
     only putting an imaginary case.

     _Lady Chiltern._ Robert is as incapable of doing a foolish thing,
     as he is of doing a wrong thing.

She is still unshaken in the belief of her husband's rectitude. And Lord
Goring departs sorrowing, but not before he has assured her of his
friendship that would serve her in any crisis.

     _Lord Goring._ ... And if you are ever in trouble, Lady Chiltern,
     trust me absolutely, and I will help you in every way I can. If you
     ever want me ... come at once to me.

Then on the scene arrives Mrs Cheveley, accompanied by Lady Markby (for
whose amusing _bavardage_ I wish I could find space) evidently to
revenge herself somehow for her rebuff, ostensibly to inquire after a
"diamond snake-brooch with a ruby," which she has lost, probably at Lady
Chiltern's. Now the audience knows all about this "brooch-bracelet," for
has not Lord Goring found it on the sofa last night, when flirting with
Mabel Chiltern, and recognising it as an old and somewhat ominous
friend, quietly put it in his pocket, at the same time enjoining Mabel
to say nothing about the incident. So, of course, the jewel has not been
found in Grosvenor Square. But when the two women are left alone, Mrs
Cheveley discovers that it was Lady Chiltern who dictated Sir Robert's
letter to her. A bitter passage of arms occurs between them, when Lady
Chiltern discusses her adversary, who boasts herself the ally of her

     _Lady Chiltern._ How dare you class my husband with yourself?...
     Leave my house. You are unfit to enter it. (_Sir Robert enters from
     behind. He hears his wife's last words, and sees to whom they are
     addressed. He grows deadly pale._)

     _Mrs Cheveley._ Your house! A house bought with the price of
     dishonour. A house everything in which has been paid for by fraud.
     (_Turns round and sees Sir Robert Chiltern._) Ask him what the
     origin of his fortune is! Get him to tell you how he sold to a
     stockbroker a Cabinet secret. Learn from him to what you owe your

     _Lady Chiltern._ It is not true! Robert! It is not true!

But Sir Robert cannot deny the accusation, and Mrs Cheveley departs, the
winner of the contest. The act concludes with a terrible denunciation on
the part of Sir Robert of his wife, whom he blindly accuses of having
wrecked his life, by not allowing him to accept the comfortable offer
made by Mrs Cheveley of absolute security from all future knowledge of
the sin he had committed in his youth.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ I could have killed it for ever, sent it
     back into its tomb, destroyed its record, burned the one witness
     against me. You prevented me.... Let women make no more ideals of
     men! Let them not put them on altars and bow before them, or they
     may ruin other lives as completely as you--you whom I have so
     wildly loved--have ruined mine!

Here is the sincere note of Tragedy! Surely, Oscar Wilde is among the

The action of the third act takes place in the library of Lord Goring's
house. It is inspired in the very best spirit of intrigue. Lady
Chiltern, mindful of Lord Goring's friendship, has, in the first
bewilderment of her discovery, written a note to him,--"I want you. I
trust you. I am coming to you. Gertrude." Lord Goring is about to make
preparations to receive her, when his father, Lord Caversham, most
inconveniently looks in to pay him a visit, the object of which is to
discuss his son's matrimonial prospects. The visit, therefore, promises
to be a lengthy one, and Lord Goring proposes they should adjourn to the
smoking-room, advising his servant, Phipps, at the same time that he is
expecting a lady to see him on particular business, and who is to be
shown, on her arrival, into the drawing-room. A lady does arrive, only
she is not Lady Chiltern, but Mrs Cheveley, who has not announced her
advent in any way. Surprised to hear that Lord Goring is expecting a
lady, and while Phipps is lighting the candles in the drawing-room, she
occupies her spare moments in running through the letters on the
writing-table, and comes across Lady Chiltern's note. Here, indeed, is
her opportunity. She is just about to purloin it, when Phipps returns,
and she slips it under a silver-cased blotting-book that is lying on the
table. She is, perforce, obliged to go into the drawing-room, from which
presently she emerges, and creeps stealthily towards the writing-table.
But suddenly voices are heard from the smoking-room, and she is
constrained to return to her hiding-place. Lord Caversham and his son
re-enter and Lord Goring puts his father's cloak on for him, and with
much relief sees him depart. But a shock is in store for him, for no
sooner has Lord Caversham vanished, than no less a personage than Sir
Robert Chiltern appears. In vain does Lord Goring try to get rid of his
most unwelcome visitor. Sir Robert has come to talk over his trouble,
and means to stay. Lady Chiltern must on no account be admitted. So he
says to Phipps:

     _Lord Goring._ When that lady calls, tell her that I am not
     expected home this evening. Tell her that I have been suddenly
     called out of town. You understand?

     _Phipps._ The lady is in that room, my lord. You told me to show
     her into that room, my lord.

Lord Goring realises that things are getting a little uncomfortable, and
again tries to send Sir Robert away. But Sir Robert pleads for five
minutes more. He is on his way to the House of Commons. "The debate on
the Argentine Canal is to begin at eleven." As he makes this
announcement a chair is heard to fall in the drawing-room. He suspects a
listener, and, despite Lord Goring's word of honour to the contrary,
determines to see for himself, and goes into the room, leaving Lord
Goring in a fearful state of mind. He soon returns, however, "with a
look of scorn on his face."

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ What explanation have you to give me for the
     presence of that woman here?

     _Lord Goring._ Robert, I swear to you on my honour that that lady
     is stainless and guiltless of all offence towards you.

     _Sir Robert Chiltern._ She is a vile, an infamous thing!

After a few more speeches, in which the _malentendu_ is well kept up,
Sir Robert goes out, and Lord Goring rushes to the drawing-room to
meet--Mrs Cheveley.

And now this woman is going to have another duel, but this time with an
enemy who is proof against her attacks. The whole of this scene is
imagined and written in a masterly manner. After a little airy sparring,
Lord Goring opens the match.

     _Lord Goring._ You have come here to sell me Robert Chiltern's
     letter, haven't you?

     _Mrs Cheveley._ To offer it you on conditions. How did you guess

     _Lord Goring._ Because you haven't mentioned the subject. Have you
     got it with you?

     _Mrs Cheveley._ (_Sitting down._) Oh, no! A well-made dress has no

     _Lord Goring._ What is your price for it?

Then, Mrs Cheveley tells him that the price is--herself. She is tired of
living abroad, and wants to come to London and have a salon. She vows to
him that he is the only person she has ever cared for, and that on the
morning of the day he marries her she will give him Sir Robert's letter.
Naturally he refuses her offer. Naturally she is furious. But she still
possesses the incriminating document and hurls her venomous words at his

     _Mrs Chiltern._ For the privilege of being your wife I was ready to
     surrender a great prize, the climax of my diplomatic career. You
     decline. Very well. If Sir Robert doesn't uphold my Argentine
     Scheme, I expose him. _Voilà tout!_

But he cares not for her threats. He hasn't done with her yet, for he
has got in his possession the diamond snake-brooch with a ruby! This
scene is most skilfully managed. Quite innocently he offers to return it
to her--he had found it accidentally last night. And then in a moment he
clasps it on her arm.

     _Mrs Cheveley._ I never knew it could be worn as a bracelet ... it
     looks very well on me as a bracelet, doesn't it?

     _Lord Goring._ Yes, much better than when I saw it last.

     _Mrs Cheveley._ When did you see it last?

     _Lord Goring._ (_Calmly._) Oh! ten years ago, on Lady Berkshire,
     from whom you stole it.

Now, he has her in his power. The bracelet cannot be unclasped unless
she knows the secret of the spring, and she is at his mercy, a convicted
thief. He moves towards the bell to summon his servant to fetch the
police. "To-morrow the Berkshires will prosecute you." What is she to
do? She will do anything in the world he wants.

     _Lord Goring._ Give me Robert Chiltern's letter.

     _Mrs Cheveley._ I have not got it with me. I will give it you

     _Lord Goring._ You know you are lying. Give it me at once. (_Mrs
     Cheveley pulls the letter out and hands it to him. She is horribly
     pale._) This is it?

     _Mrs Cheveley._ (_In a hoarse voice._) Yes.

Whereupon he burns it over the lamp. So letter number one is got out of
the way. But there is letter number two: Lady Chiltern's to Lord Goring.
The accomplished thief sees it just showing from under the
blotting-book; asks Lord Goring for a glass of water, and while his back
is turned steals it. So, though she has lost the day on one count she
has gained it on another. With a bitter note of triumph in her voice she
tells Lord Goring that she is going to send Lady Chiltern's
"love-letter" to him to Sir Robert. He tries to wrest it from her, but
she is too quick for him, and rings the electric bell. Phipps appears,
and she is safe.

     _Mrs Cheveley._ (_After a pause._) Lord Goring merely rang that you
     should show me out. Good-night, Lord Goring.

And on this fine situation the curtain falls.

Space does not permit me more than to indicate how, in the fourth and
last act, Sir Robert Chiltern has roundly denounced the Argentine Canal
Scheme in the House of Commons, and with it the whole system of modern
political finance. How Lady Chiltern's letter to Lord Goring does reach
her husband, and is by him supposed to be addressed to him. How Lady
Chiltern undeceives him, and confesses the truth. How Lord Goring
becomes engaged to Mabel, and Sir Robert Chiltern accepts, after some
hesitation, a vacant seat in the Cabinet, and peace is restored all
round. These episodes, cleverly and naturally handled, bring "The Ideal
Husband" to a satisfactory conclusion. It is certainly the most dramatic
of all Oscar Wilde's comedies, and could well bear revival.


A deliciously airily irresponsible comedy. Such is the "The Importance
Of Being Earnest," the most personally characteristic expression of
Wilde's art, and the last of the dramatic productions written under his
own name. The play bubbles over with mirth and fun. It is one unbroken
series of laughable situations and amusing surprises. The dialogue has
all the sparkle of bubbles from a gushing spring, and is brimful of
quaint conceits and diverting paradoxes. Even the genius of W. S.
Gilbert in the fantastic line pales before the irresponsible
frolicsomeness of the Irishman's wit. His fancy disports itself in an
atmosphere of epigrams like a young colt in a meadow. Never since the
days of Sheridan has anything been written to equal the brilliancy of
this trifle for serious people. No one could fail to be amused by its
delicate persiflage, its youthfulness and its utter irresponsibility.

Were one to take the works of Gyp, Gilbert, Henri Lavedan and Sheridan
and roll them into one, one would not even then obtain the essence of
sparkling comedy that animates the play. It is a trifle, but how clever,
how artistically perfect a trifle. When it was produced at the St
James's, in February 1895, one continuous ripple of laughter shook the
audience, even as a field of standing corn is swayed by a passing
breeze. The reading of the play alone makes one feel frivolous, and when
the characters stood before one, suiting the action to the word and the
word to the action, the effect was absolutely irresistible and even the
gravest and most slow-witted were moved to rollicking hilarity. One
critic summed it up by saying that "its title was a pun, its story a
conundrum, its characters lunatics, its dialogue a 'galimatias,' and its
termination a 'sell.' Questioned as to its merits, Wilde was credited
with saying that "The first act was ingenious, the second beautiful, the
third abominably clever." It was most beautifully staged by Mr George
Alexander, and I can see still the charming picture presented by Miss
Millard in the delightful garden scene as she watered her rose bushes
with a water-can filled with silver sand. The acting, too, left nothing
to be desired and altogether it was a performance to linger in one's
memory in the years to come.

The Ernest of the punning title is an imaginary brother, very wicked and
gay, invented by John Worthing, J.P., to account to his ward (Cecily
Cardew) for his frequent visits to London. John Worthing, it may be
mentioned, is a foundling who was discovered when a baby in the
cloak-room at a railway station inside a black bag stamped with the
initials of the absent-minded governess who had inadvertently placed him
in it instead of the manuscript of a three-volume novel. Now, Worthing
has a friend, a gay young dog, named Alexander Moncrieffe who likewise
has invented a fictitious personage, a sick friend, visits to whom he
makes serve as the reason of his absences from home. He has given this
imaginary friend the name of Bunbury, and designates his little
expeditions as "Bunburying." Moncrieffe lives in town, and is more or
less the model Worthing has chosen when describing his imaginary
brother. Worthing's ward is a romantic girl who has fallen in love with
her guardian's brother from his descriptions of him. She is especially
enamoured of his name, Ernest, for like old Mr Shandy she has quite
pronounced views and opinions about names. Now, the reason of Worthing's
constant visits to town is to see a young lady yclept Gwendolen Fairfax,
a cousin of Moncrieffe's, to whom he proposes and is accepted, but, for
some unexplained reason, for his periodical visits to town he adopts the
name of Ernest, so that Gwendolen, who, like Cecily, has distinctive
ideas about names, only knows him by that name. So it will be seen that
we have already two Ernests in the field--the imaginary brother whose
moral delinquencies are such a cause of worry to Cecily's guardian, and
the guardian himself masquerading as Ernest Worthing. A pretty
combination for complications to start with, but the author strews
Ernest about with a prodigality that excites our admiration, and he
gives us a third Ernest in the person of Alexander Moncrieffe, who,
learning that his friend is left alone at home, and that she is
extremely beautiful, determines to go down and make love to her. In
order to gain admittance to the house, he passes himself off as Ernest
Worthing, the imaginary naughty brother, and is warmly welcomed by
Cecily. In ten minutes he has wooed and won her, and the happy pair
disappear into the house just before John Worthing arrives on the scene.
Now that he has proposed and been accepted there is no longer any
necessity for inventing an excuse for his absences from home, and in
order to be rid of what might prove to be an embarrassing, although a
purely fictitious, person, he has invented a story of his putative
brother's death in Paris. He enters dressed in complete black, black
frock-coat, black tie, black hatband, and black-bordered handkerchief.
There follows a delightful comedy scene between him and Algernon, whose
imposture he cannot expose without betraying himself. Meanwhile,
Gwendolen has followed her sweetheart to make the acquaintance of
Cecily, and now arrives _en scene_. The two girls become bosom friends
at once, and all goes happily until the name of Ernest Worthing is
mentioned, and although no such person exists yet each of them imagines
herself to be engaged to him. The situation is, to use a theatrical
slang term, "worked up," and the young ladies pass from terms of
endearment to mutual recriminations. A pitched battle is on the tapis,
but with the appearance of their lovers, and their enforced explanation,
peace is restored between the two, and they join forces in annihilating
with scathing word and withering look the wretches who have so basely
deceived them. Never, never could either of them love a man whose name
was not Ernest. Each of them was engaged to Ernest Worthing, but, in the
words of the immortal Betsy Prig when referring to Mrs 'Arris, "There
ain't no sich person."

The situation is embarrassing and complicated. The two delinquents offer
to have themselves rechristened, but the suggestion is received with
withering scorn; the situation cannot be saved by any such ridiculous
subterfuge; the disconsolate wretches seek consolation in an orgy of
crumpets and tea cakes. Another difficulty there is also, Lady
Bracknell--Gwendolen's mother--refuses to accept as her son-in-law a
nameless foundling found in a railway station. However, the production
of the bag leads to the discovery of his parentage, and it turns out
that his father was the husband of Lady Bracknell's sister. The question
of his father's Christian name is raised, as it is thought probable that
he was christened after him, and although Lady Bracknell cannot remember
the name of the brother-in-law a reference to the Army List results in
the discovery that it was Ernest, so that both the difficulties of birth
and nomenclature are now overcome. As to Algernon, he is forgiven
because he explains that his imposture was undertaken solely to see
Cecily, and so the comedy ends happily as all good comedies should.

The piece is one mass of smart sayings, brilliant epigrams, and
mirth-provoking lines, as when Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, tells her
pupil to study political economy for an hour, but to omit, as too
exciting, the depreciation of the rupee. Some of the most delightful
sayings are put into the mouth of Lady Bracknell, the aristocratic
dowager who is responsible for the dictum that what the age suffers from
is want of principle and want of profile. Miss Prism too enunciates the
aphorism that "Memory is the diary we all carry about with us," and
Cecily naïvely informs us that "I keep a diary to enter the wonderful
secrets of my life. If I didn't write them down I would probably forget
all about them." There is also a delicious touching of feminine
amenities when, during the quarrel scene, Gwendolen says to Cecily, "I
speak quite candidly--I wish that you were thirty-five and more than
usually plain for your age." No woman could have written better. Even
the love passages are replete with humorous lines. Cecily passing her
hand through Moncrieffe's hair remarks, "I hope your hair curls
naturally," and with amusing candour comes his reply, "Yes, darling,
with a little help from others." The servants themselves are infected
with the prevailing atmosphere of frivolity. Moncrieffe apostrophising
his valet exclaims, "Lane, you're a perfect pessimist," and that
imperturbable individual replies, "I do my best to give satisfaction."
Again, when he remarks on the fact that though he had only two friends
to dinner on the previous day and yet eight bottles of champagne appear
to have been drunk, the impeccable servant corrects him with, "Eight and
a pint, sir," and in reply to his question, how is it that servants
drink more in bachelors' chambers than in private houses, the discreet
valet explains that it is because the wines are better, adding that you
do get some very poor wine nowadays in private houses.

"What is the use of the lower classes unless they set us a good
example?" "Divorces are made in heaven," "To have lost one parent is a
misfortune, to have lost both looks like carelessness," and "I am only
serious about my amusements," are samples taken haphazard of the good
things in the play.

It has been objected that the piece is improbable, but it was described
by the author merely as "a trivial comedy for serious people." As a
contributor to _The Sketch_ so aptly put it at the time, "Why carp at
improbability in what is confessedly the merest bubble of fancy? Why not
acknowledge honestly a debt of gratitude to one who adds so unmistakably
to the gaiety of the nation?"

The press were almost unanimous in their appreciation of the comedy.
_The Athenæum's_ critic wrote, "The mantle of Mr Gilbert has fallen on
the shoulders of Mr Oscar Wilde, who wears it in jauntiest fashion." And
_The Times_ is responsible for the statement that "almost every sentence
of the dialogue bristles with epigram of the now accepted pattern, the
manufacture of this being apparently conducted by its patentee with the
same facility as 'the butter-woman's rank to market.'" But more
flattering still was the appreciation of the _Truth_ critic whose
previous attitude to Wilde's work had been a hostile one.

"I have not the slightest intention of seriously criticising Mr O.
Wilde's piece at the St James's," he writes, under the heading of "The
Importance Of Being Oscar," "as well might one sit down after dinner
and attempt gravely to discuss the true inwardness of a _soufflé_. Nor,
unfortunately, is it necessary to enter into details as to its wildly
farcical plot. As well might one, after a successful display of
fireworks in the back garden, set to work laboriously to analyse the
composition of a Catherine Wheel. At the same time I wish to admit,
fairly and frankly, that 'The Importance Of Being Earnest' amused me
very much."

It is, however, since the author's death that the great body of critics
have emitted the opinion that the play is really an extremely clever
piece of work and a valuable contribution to the English drama. So many
pieces are apt to get _démodés_ in a few years, but now, twelve years
after its production, "The Importance Of Being Earnest" is as fresh as
ever, and does not date, as ladies say of their headgear. To compare the
blatant nonsense that Mr Bernard Shaw foists on a credulous public as
wit with the coruscating _bon mots_ of his dead compatriot, as seems to
be the fashion nowadays, is to show a pitiful lack of intelligence and
discernment; as well compare gooseberry wine to champagne, the fountains
in Trafalgar Square to Niagara.




Of all Wilde's plays the one that has provoked the greatest discussion
and most excited the curiosity of the public is undoubtedly "Salomé,"
which, written originally in French and then translated into English,
has finally been performed in two Continents.

Never perhaps has a play, at its inception, had less of a chance than
this Biblical tragedy written for a French Jewess (Madame Sarah
Bernhardt) banned by the English Censor and only produced after the
disgrace and consequent downfall of its author. From Salomé's first
speech to the end of the play we realise how the little part was
absolutely identified in the author's mind with the actress he had
written it for. To anyone who has studied, however superficially, Madame
Bernhardt's peculiar methods of diction and acting, the words in the
first speech--"I will not stay, I cannot stay. Why does the Tetrarch
look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking
eyelids?" convey at once a picture of the actress in the part. If there
is a fault to be found with the character it is that Bernhardt not
Salomé is depicted, and yet who shall say that there is much difference
between the temperaments or the physique of the two women. It is true
that, in a letter to _The Times_, the author strenuously denied that he
had written the play for Sarah, but one is inclined to take the denial
with a very big grain of salt. That while in detention Wilde made most
strenuous efforts to get her to produce it is a well-known fact.

The play, as even Macaulay's schoolboy knows, is based on the story of
Herodias' daughter dancing before Herod for the head of John the

An account of the episode is to be found in the 6th chapter of the
Gospel of St Mark, and it is interesting to contrast the strong and
simple Scriptural description with the highly decorative and glowing
language of the play.

Here is St Mark's account of the incident:

     v. 21. And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his
     birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains and chief
     _estates_ of Galilee;

     v. 22. And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and
     danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said
     unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give
     _it_ thee.

     v. 23. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I
     will give _it_ thee, unto the half of my kingdom.

     v. 24. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I
     ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.

     v. 25. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and
     asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the
     head of John the Baptist.

     v. 26. And the king was exceeding sorry; _yet_ for his oath's sake,
     and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.

     v. 27. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded
     his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,

     v. 28. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the
     damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

     v. 29. And when his disciples heard _of it_, they came and took up
     his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.

The account given by St Matthew (xiv. 6) is equally terse, but the
fuller description of the scene as reconstructed by Dean Farrar in his
"Life of Christ" is worth quoting.

     "But Herodias had craftily provided the king with an unexpected and
     exciting pleasure, the spectacle of which would be sure to
     enrapture such guests as his. Dancers and dancing-women were at
     that time in great request. The passion for witnessing these too
     often degrading representations had naturally made its way into the
     Sadducean and semi-pagan court of these usurping Edomites, and
     Herod the Great had built in his palace, a theatre for the
     Thymelici. A luxurious feast of the period was not regarded as
     complete unless it closed with some gross pantomimic
     representation; and doubtless Herod had adopted the evil fashion of
     his day. But he had not anticipated for his guests the rare luxury
     of seeing a princess--his own great-niece, a granddaughter of Herod
     the Great and of Mariamne, a descendant, therefore, of Simon the
     High Priest and the line of Maccabæan princes--a princess who
     afterwards became the wife of a tetrarch and the mother of a
     king--honouring them by degrading herself into a scenic dancer. Yet
     when the banquet was over, when the guests were full of meat and
     flushed with wine, Salomé herself, the daughter of Herodias, then
     in the prime of her young and lustrous beauty, executed, as it
     would now be expressed, a _pas seul_ 'in the midst of' those
     dissolute and half-intoxicated revellers. 'She came in and danced,
     and pleased Herod, and them that sat at meat with him.' And he,
     like another Xerxes, in the delirium of his drunken approval, swore
     to this degraded girl, in the presence of his guests, that he would
     give her anything for which she asked, even to the half of his

     "The girl flew to her mother, and said, 'What shall I ask?' It was
     exactly what Herodias expected, and she might have asked for robes,
     or jewels, or palaces, or whatever such a woman loves. But to a
     mind like hers revenge was sweeter than wealth or pride. We may
     imagine with what fierce malice she hissed out the answer, 'The
     head of John the Baptiser.' And coming in before the king
     _immediately with haste_--(what a touch is that! and how apt a
     pupil did the wicked mother find in her wicked daughter!)--Salomé
     exclaimed, 'My wish is that you give _me here, immediately_, on a
     dish, the head of John the Baptist.' Her indecent haste, her
     hideous petition, show that she shared the furies of her race. Did
     she think that in that infamous period, and among those infamous
     guests, her petition would be received with a burst of laughter?
     Did she hope to kindle their merriment to a still higher pitch by
     the sense of the delightful wickedness involved in a young and
     beautiful girl asking--nay, imperiously demanding--that then and
     there, on one of the golden dishes which graced the board, should
     be given into her own hands the gory head of the Prophet whose
     words had made a thousand bold hearts quail?

     "If so, she was disappointed. The tetrarch, at anyrate, was plunged
     into grief by her request; it more than did away with the pleasure
     of her disgraceful dance; it was a bitter termination of his
     birthday feast. Fear, policy, remorse, superstition, even whatever
     poor spark of better feeling remained unquenched under the white
     ashes of a heart consumed by evil passions, made him shrink in
     disgust from this sudden execution. He must have felt that he had
     been duped out of his own will by the cunning stratagem of his
     unrelenting paramour. If a single touch of manliness had been left
     in him he would have repudiated the request as one which did not
     fall either under the letter or the spirit of his oaths, since the
     life of one cannot be made the gift to another; or he would have
     boldly declared that if such was her choice, his oath was more
     honoured by being kept. But a despicable pride and fear of man
     prevailed over his better impulses. More afraid of the criticisms
     of his guests than of the future torment of such conscience as was
     left him, he sent an executioner to the prison, which in all
     probability was not far from the banqueting hall--and so, at the
     bidding of a dissolute coward and to please the loathly fancies of
     a shameless girl, the axe fell, and the head of the noblest of the
     prophets was shorn away. In darkness and in secrecy the scene was
     enacted, and if any saw it their lips were sealed; but the
     executioner emerged into the light carrying by the hair that noble
     head, and then and there, in all the pallor of the recent death, it
     was placed upon a dish from the royal table. The girl received it,
     and, now frightful as a Megæra, carried the hideous burden to her
     mother. Let us hope that those grim features haunted the souls of
     both thenceforth till death.

     "What became of that ghastly relic we do not know. Tradition tells
     us that Herodias ordered the headless trunk to be flung out over
     the battlements for dogs and vultures to devour. On her, at
     anyrate, swift vengeance fell."

In a footnote the Dean mentions that Salomé subsequently married her
uncle Philip, Tetrarch of Ituræa, and then her cousin Aristobulus, King
of Chalcis, by whom she became the mother of three sons. The traditional
death of the "dancing daughter of Herodias" is thus given by Nicephorus.
"Passing over a frozen lake, the ice broke and she fell up to the neck
in water, and her head was parted from her body by the violence of the
fragments shaken by the water and her own fall, and so she perished."

Thus the historical accounts, now for the play itself. To begin with,
let us note the stage directions. "A great terrace in the palace of
Herod set above the banqueting hall. To the right there is a gigantic
staircase, to the left, at the back, an old cistern surrounded by a wall
of green bronze. Moonlight."

These directions for the setting of the stage are for all practical
purposes useless--they would drive the most experienced stage-manager
crazy, but then Wilde, more particularly in the romantic dramas, was
sublimely indifferent to the mere mechanical side of stagecraft. He
issued his commands and it was for the _gens du métier_ to give
practical effect to them. He had the picture in his mind; what matter if
there were practical difficulties in the way of producing it! That was
no fault of his. It is curious to contrast his stage directions with
those of a practical playwright like Shakespeare. Shakespeare, for
instance, would have simply written "soldiers leaning over a balcony."
There is a whole chapter of difference in the introduction of the word

The time is night, that wonderful Judæan night, when the air is charged
with electricity and the mysterious heart of the East throbs with the
varied emotions of the centuries. "Moonlight," says the directions, and
here we recall the author's almost passionate worship of moonlight. Over
and over again in play, prose, essay, and verse, he writes about the
moon. She possessed an almost uncanny attraction for him, and one almost
wonders whether the superstition connecting certain phases of the planet
with the madness of human beings may not account for a good deal that
remains unexplained in the erratic career of this unfortunate genius!

A young Syrian, the "Captain of the Guard," is talking with the page of
Herodias. From a subsequent description we learn that he was handsome
with the dark languorous eyes of his nation, and that his voice was soft
and musical. He is in love with the Princess Salomé, the daughter of
Herodias, wife of the Tetrarch of Judæa, Herod Antipas, and his talk is
all of her and her beauty. The page, who seems to stand in great fear
of his mistress and to be likewise oppressed with a foreboding of coming
evil, tries to divert his attention to the moon, but in the moon the
enamoured Syrian sees only an image of his beloved. Then the page
strikes the first deep note of tragedy. To him she is like a dead woman.
A noise is heard, and the soldiers comment on it and its cause--namely,
the religious dissensions of the Jews. At this the young Syrian,
heedless of all else, breaks in once more like a Greek chorus in praise
of the Princess's beauty. (One can almost hear an imaginary Polonius
exclaiming: "Still harping on my daughter.") Again the page utters a
warning against the Captain's infatuation. He is certain that something
terrible may happen.

As if to confirm his fears the two soldiers begin discussing the
Tetrarch's sombre looks. Plain, uncultured fellows these Roman soldiers,
and yet, like most of the legionaries, they have travelled far afield as
may be gathered from their talk of Herod's various wives. A Cappadocian
joins in their conversation. He is completely _terre à terre_ and cannot
understand anything but the obvious. The talk drifts on to religion, and
then suddenly the voice of John the Baptist (the Jokanaan of the play)
is heard from the cistern in which he is confined. There is a certain
_naïveté_ in the introduction of this cistern which may well provoke a
smile, especially when later we meet with the stage direction "He goes
down into the cistern." Historically its introduction may be correct,
but one wishes that the author had chosen any other place of confinement
for the prophet, at anyrate called it by any other name. In the
utilitarian days of water companies and water rates the image that the
word cistern evokes is painfully reminiscent of a metal tank in the
lumber-room of a suburban residence. Even Longfellow, in one of his most
beautiful poems, failed to rob the word of its associations.

The voice strikes a perfectly new note in the play, and announces in
Scriptural language the advent of the Messiah. Then the soldiers, taking
the place of the _raissonneur_ in French plays, proceed to discuss and
describe the prophet. From them we learn that he is gentle and holy,
grateful for the smallest attentions of his guards, that when he came
from the desert he was clothed in camel's hair. We incidentally learn
that he is constantly uttering warnings and prophecies, and that by the
Tetrarch's orders no one is allowed to see him, much less communicate
with him. Then the Cappadocian comments on the strange nature of the
prison, and is informed that Herodias' first husband, the brother of
Herod, was imprisoned in it for twelve years, and was finally strangled.
The question by whom, so naturally put, introduces, with a master's
certainty of touch, another grim note, as Naaman, the executioner, a
gigantic negro, is pointed out as the perpetrator of the deed. Mention
is also made of the mandate he received to carry it out in the shape of
the Tetrarch's death ring.

Thus the soldiers gossip among themselves and Salomé's entrance, which
takes place almost immediately, is in stage parlance "worked up" by the
rapturous description of her movements and her person, delivered by the
Syrian, and the awestruck pleading of the page that he should not look
at her.

The Princess is trembling with emotion, and in her first speech gives us
the keynote to the action of the play by referring to the glances of
desire that Herod casts on her. To a timid question of the Syrian's she
vouchsafes no answer, but proceeds to comment on the sweetness of the
night air and the heterogenous collection of guests whom Herod is
entertaining. The proffer of a seat by the lovesick captain remains
likewise unnoticed, and like a chorus the page beseeches him once more
not to look at her, and presages coming evil. And again, the moon is
invoked as this daughter of kings soliloquises on the coldness and
chastity of the orb of heaven.

Her meditations are interrupted by the prophet's voice ringing out
mysteriously on the night air, and then a long dialogue in short,
pregnant sentences takes place between Salomé and two soldiers as to the
hidden speaker. We learn that Herod is afraid of him and that the man of
God is constantly inveighing against Herodias.

From time to time the Princess is interrupted by a messenger from the
Tetrarch requesting her to return, but she has no thought for anyone but
the prisoner in the cistern. She wishes to see him, but is informed that
this is against the Tetrarch's orders. Then she deliberately sets
herself to make the Syrian captain disobey his orders. She pleads with
him, she plays on his manhood by taunting him with being afraid of his
charge, she promises him a flower, "a little green flower." He remains
unmoved. The Princess uses all her blandishments to obtain her end; and
we can realise what a clever actress would make of the scene as she
murmurs, "I will look at you through the muslin veils, I will look at
you, Narraboth, it may be I will smile at you. Look at me, Narraboth,
look at me." And with more honeyed words and sentences, left unfinished,
she induces the young officer to break his trust. The speech consists
only of a few lines, and yet gives opportunity for as fine a piece of
acting as any player could desire. The soldier yields, and the page
suddenly draws attention to the moon, in which he discovers the hand of
a dead woman drawing a shroud over herself, though the Syrian can only
discover in her a likeness to the object of his infatuation. Jokanaan is
brought forth, and inquires for Herod, for whom he prophesies an early
death, and then for Herodias, the list of whose iniquities he

His fierce denunciations terrify Salomé, and in a wonderful piece of
word-painting she describes the cavernous depths of his eyes and the
terrors lying behind them. The Syrian begs her not to stay, but she is
fascinated by the ivory whiteness of the prophet's body and desire
enters her soul. Her fiery glances trouble the prophet, he inquires who
she is. He refuses to be gazed at by her "golden eyes under her gilded
eyelids." She reveals herself, and he bids her begone, referring to her
mother's iniquities. His voice moves her and she begs him to speak
again. The young Syrian's piteous remonstrance, "Princess! Princess!" is
unheeded, and she addresses the prophet once more. Here follows one of
the finest and most dangerous scenes of the play, and yet one which,
properly treated, is neither irreverent nor, as has been stupidly
asserted, immoral.

Maddened by desire, this high-born Princess makes violent love in
language of supreme beauty to the ascetic dweller in the desert. His
body, his hair, his mouth, are in turn the object of her praise only to
be vilified one by one as he drives her back with scathing words. She
insists that she shall kiss his mouth, and the jealous Syrian begs her
who is like "a garden of myrrh" not to "speak these things." She
insists, she will kiss his mouth. The Syrian kills himself, falling on
his own sword. This tragic event, to which a horror-struck soldier draws
her attention, does not for one second divert her attention from the
pursuit of her passion. Again and again, in spite of Jokanaan's warnings
and exhortations (for even in this supreme hour of horror and temptation
he preaches the Gospel of his Master), she pleads for a kiss of his
mouth. This reiteration of the request, even after the Saint has
returned to his prison, is a triumph of dramatic craftsmanship.

The page laments over his dead friend to whom he had given "a little bag
full of perfumes and a ring of agate that he wore always on his hand."
The soldiers debate about hiding the body and then, contrary to his
custom, Herod appears on the terrace accompanied by Herodias and all the
Court. His first inquiry is for Salomé, and Herodias, whose suspicions
are evidently aroused, tells him in identically the same words used by
the page to the dead Syrian that he "must not look at her," that he is
"always looking at her."

Again the regnant moon becomes a menace and a symbol. This time it is
Herod who finds a strange look in her, and whose morbid wine-heated
imagination compares her to a naked woman looking for lovers and reeling
like one drunk. He determines to stay on the terrace, and slips in the
blood of the suicide. Terror-struck, he inquires whence it comes, and
then espies the corpse. On learning whose it is, he mourns the loss of
his dead favourite and discusses the question of suicide with
Tigellinus, who is described in the _dramatis personæ_ as "a young
Roman." Herod is shaken by fears, he feels a cold wind when there is no
wind, and hears "in the air something that is like the beating of
wings." He devotes his attention to Salomé, who slights all his
advances. Once the voice of Jokanaan is heard prophesying that the hour
is at hand, and Herodias angrily orders that he should be silenced.
Herod feebly upholds the prophet and strenuously maintains that he is
not afraid of him as Herodias declares he is. She then inquires why,
that being the case, he does not deliver him into the hands of the Jews,
a suggestion that is at once taken up by one of the Jews present; and
then follows a discussion between Pharisees and Sadducees and Nazarenes
respecting the new Messiah. This is followed by a dialogue between
Herodias and the Tetrarch, interrupted ever and again by the
hollow-sounding denunciations and prophecies of Jokanaan.

Herod's mind is still filled with the thoughts of his stepdaughter and
he beseeches Salomé to dance for him, but supported by her mother she
keeps on refusing. The chorus, in the person of soldiers, once again
draws attention to the sombre aspect of the Tetrarch. More prophecies
from Jokanaan follow, with comments from Herod and his wife.

Once more the watching soldiers remark on the gloom and menace of the
despot's countenance and he himself confesses that he is sad, beseeching
his wife's child to dance for him, in return for which favour he will
give her all she may ask of him, even unto the half of his kingdom.
Salomé snatches greedily at the bait and, in spite of her mother's
reiterated protests, obtains from Herod an oath that he will grant her
whatsoever she wishes if she but dance for him. Even in the midst of the
joy with which her acceptance fills him, the shadow of approaching death
is over him, he feels an icy wind, hears the rustle of passing wings,
and feels a hot breath and the sensation of choking. The red petals of
his rose garland seem to him drops of blood, and yet he tries to delude
himself that he is perfectly happy.

In accordance with Salomé's instructions, slaves bring her perfumes and
the seven veils and remove her sandals. Even as Herod gloats over the
prospect of seeing her moving, naked feet, he recalls the fact that she
will be dancing in blood and notes that the moon has turned red even as
the prophet foretold. Herodias mocks at him and taunts him with
cowardice, endeavouring, at the same time, to persuade him to retire,
but her appeals are interrupted by the voice of Jokanaan. The sound of
his voice irritates her and she insists on going within, but Herod is
obstinate, he will not go till Salomé has danced. She appeals once more
to her daughter not to dance, but with an "I am ready, Tetrarch," Salomé
dances "the dance of the seven veils." There are no stage directions
given as to how the dance is to be performed, but whoever has seen the
slow, rhythmic, and lascivious movements of an Eastern dance can well
imagine it and all the passionate subtlety and exquisite grace with
which this languorous daughter of Judæan kings would endow it. The
ballet master who could not seize this opportunity of devising a _pas de
fascination_ worthy of the occasion does not know the rudiments of his

Herod is filled with delight and admiration. He is anxious to fulfil his
pledge and bids Salomé draw near and name her reward. She does so. Her
guerdon shall be the head of Jokanaan on a silver charger. At this,
Herodias is filled with satisfaction, but the Tetrarch protests. Again
Herodias expresses approval and Herod begs Salomé not to heed her.
Proudly the dancer answers that she does not heed her mother, that it
is for her own pleasure she demands the grisly reward, and reminds her
stepfather of his oath. He does not repudiate it but begs of her to
choose something else, even the half of his kingdom rather than what she
asks. Salomé insists, and Herodias chimes in with a recital of the
insults she had suffered at the hands of Jokanaan and is peremptorily
bidden to be silent by her husband, who argues with Salomé as to the
terrible and improper nature of her request, offering her his great
round emerald in place of the head. But Salomé is obdurate. "I demand
the head of Jokanaan," she insists.

Herod wishes to speak, but she interrupts him with "The head of
Jokanaan." Again Herod pleads with her and offers her fifty of his
peacocks whose backs are stained with gold and their feet stained with
purple, but she sullenly reiterates--"Give me the head of Jokanaan."

Herodias once more expresses approval, and her husband turns savagely on
her with "Be silent! You cry out always; you cry out like a beast of
prey." Then, his conscience stinging him, he pleads for Jokanaan's life,
and gives vent to pious sentiments: he talks of the omnipresence of God,
and then is uncertain of it. His mind is torn with doubts, and fears. He
has slipped in blood and heard a beating of wings which are evil omens.
Yet another appeal to Salomé is met with the uncompromising "Give me
the head of Jokanaan." He makes one last appeal, he enumerates his
treasures, jewels hidden away that Herodias even has never seen; he
describes the precious stones in his treasury. All these he offers her.
He will add cups of gold that if any enemy pour poison into them will
turn to silver, sandals encrusted with glass, mantles from the land of
the Seres, bracelets from the City of Euphrates; nay even the mantle of
the High Priest shall she have, the very veil of the Temple. Above the
angry protests of the Jews rises Salomé's "Give me the head of
Jokanaan," and sinking back into his seat the weak man gives way and
hands the ring of death to a soldier, who straightway bears it to the
executioner. As soon as his scared official has disappeared into the
cistern Salomé leans over it and listens. She is quivering with
excitement and is indignant that there is no sound of a struggle. She
calls to Naaman to strike. There is no answer--she can hear nothing.
Then there is the sound ... something has fallen on the ground. She
fancies it is the executioner's sword and that he is afraid to carry out
his task. She bids the page order the soldiers to bring her the head. He
recoils from her and she turns to the men themselves bidding them carry
out the sentence. They likewise recoil, and just as she turns to Herod
himself with a demand for the head, a huge black arm is extended from
the cistern presenting the head of Jokanaan on a silver shield. She
seizes it eagerly. Meanwhile the cowering Tetrarch covers his face with
his cloak and a smile of triumph illumines the face of Herodias. All the
tigress in Salomé is awakened; she apostrophises the head. He would not
let her kiss his mouth. Well, she will kiss it now, she will fasten her
teeth in it. She twits the eyes and the tongue with their present
impotence, she will throw the head to the dogs and the birds of the air.
But anon her mood changes, she recalls all that in him had appealed to
her, and laments over the fact that, though she loves him still, her
desire for him can now never be appeased.

All Herod's superstitious fears are awakened, he upbraids Herodias for
her daughter's crime, and mounts the staircase to enter the palace. The
stage darkens and Salomé, a moonbeam falling on her, is heard
apostrophising the head, the lips of which she has just kissed. Herod
turns, and, seeing her, orders her to be killed, and the soldiers,
rushing forward, crush her with their shields.

It will be seen that the dramatist has awarded the fate meted out in
Scripture to Herodias to the daughter and not the mother, a poetic
licence for which no one will blame him.

In reading the play carefully and critically one cannot but be struck
with the influence of Maeterlinck in the atmosphere and construction,
and of Flaubert in the gorgeous imagery of the dialogue, the _décor des
phrases_, so to speak. An artist in words Wilde also proves himself in
stagecraft in this play. Not the mere mechanical setting, of which I
shall speak later, but the ability to lead up to a situation, the power
to convey a whole volume in a few words to fill the audience with a
sense of impending tragedy, and to utilise outside influences to enhance
the value of the scenes. Thus, the references to the moon by the various
characters are so many stage settings for the emotion of the moment,
verbal pictures illustrating the state of mind of the speaker, or the
trend of the action. It has been objected that the constant reiteration
of a given phrase is a mere trick and Max Nordau has set it down as a
mark of insanity, but in the hands of an artist the use of that "trick"
incalculably enhances the value of the dialogue, although when employed
by a bungler the repetition would be as senseless and irritating as the
conversational remarks of a parrot. The young Syrian's admiration for
Salomé, the page's fears and warnings, Salomé's insistence that she will
kiss Jokanaan's mouth, later on her insistence on having his head, the
very comments of the soldiers on Herod's sombre look are all brought in
with a thoroughly definite purpose, and it would be difficult to find an
equally simple and effective way of achieving that purpose.

A favourite device of the author was to introduce, apparently casually,
a sentence or word at the beginning of the play to be repeated or used
with telling effect at the end. For instance, in "A Woman Of No
Importance" Lord Illingworth's casual remark--"Oh, no one--a woman of no
importance," which brings down the curtain on the first act, is used
with a slight alteration at the end of the play in Mrs Arbuthnot's reply
to Gerald's inquiry as to who her visitor has been, "Ah, no one--a man
of no importance." In the same way Salomé's reiterated cry, "I will kiss
the mouth of Jokanaan," in her scene with the prophet gives added
strength to her bitterly triumphant cry as, holding the severed head in
her hands, she repeats at three different intervals, "I have kissed thy
mouth, Jokanaan."

Apart from all questions of stage technique, Wilde had the incomparable
gift of finding _le mot juste_, of conveying a portrait in half-a-dozen
words. Could anything give one a more distinct portrait of Herod than
Salomé's description of his "mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids," or
would it be possible to explain Herod's passion for his stepdaughter in
fewer words than her soliloquy: "It is strange that the husband of my
mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. In truth, yes, I
know it." There is not a word wasted or misplaced, there is not a
superfluous syllable.

I have spoken of the influence of Flaubert or his language, but there
was in Wilde a thoroughly Eastern love of colour which found its
expression in sensuous richness of sound, jewelled words, wonderfully
employed to effect a contrast with the horror in which he seemed to take
a strange delight. The rich, decorative phrases only enhance the
constant presence of the weird and _macabre_, while in its turn the
horror gives an almost painful lustre to the words.

The play has been assailed as immoral, but this certainly is not so. The
setting of an Eastern drama is not that of a Western, and the morals and
customs of the East are no more to be judged by a Western standard than
the Court of Herod to be compared with that of Edward the Seventh.

The play deals frankly with a sensuous episode, and if the author has
introduced the proper atmosphere he is only doing in words what every
artist does in painting. Compare "Salomé" with Shakespeare's one Eastern
play, "Cleopatra," and though the treatment may be a little more modern,
a trifle more decadent, the same non-morality rather than immorality is
to be found in the principal characters.

I fancy that a great deal of the prejudice still existing in England
against the play is due to the illustrations of the late Aubrey
Beardsley. Beardsley was a personal friend of mine, and it, therefore,
pains me to have to frankly confess that, clever and decorative as his
drawings undoubtedly are, they are unhealthy in this instance, unhealthy
and evil in suggestion. I can imagine no more pruriently horrible
nightmare than these pictures of foul-faced, satyrlike men, feminine
youths and leering women. The worst of Beardsley's women is that, in
spite of their lubricity, they grow on one, and now and then one
suddenly traces in their features a likeness to really good women one
has known. It is as though something Satanic had been worked into the
ripe-lipped face of a girl. Such as these might have been the emissaries
of Satan who tempted anchorites of old to commit unpardonable sins.
Moreover, many of the illustrations have nothing whatever to do with the
text. I may be wrong, but I cannot for the life of me see what
connection there is between "Salomé," the play, and "The Peacock Skirt"
or "The Black Cape." Nor can I see the object of modernising the
"Stomach Dance," save to impart an extra dose of lubricity into the
subject. The _leit motif_ of all Beardsley's art was to _epater les
bourgeois_, to horrify the ordinary stolid Philistine, and he would
hesitate at nothing, however _outré_, to attain this end. In these
drawings he surpassed himself in that respect, and one can only wonder
that a publisher was found daring enough to publish them. The subject is
a painful one to me, but I should not have been doing my duty as a
critic of the play had I not remarked upon it. An edition from which the
drawings are omitted can, however, be bought to-day.

I have already commented on the vagueness of the directions as to the
setting of the scene, and it may not be out of place to quote here a
letter I have received from a well-known stage-manager on the subject.
"You ask me how I would set the scene in question in accordance with the
printed directions, and I reply frankly that I should be puzzled to do
so even were the scene to consist of the banqueting hall with the
balustraded terrace built up above it. The whole action of the piece
takes place on the terrace, from which the actors are supposed to
overlook the banqueting hall, so that the latter apartment need not be
in view of the audience, but the gigantic staircase on the _R._ I
confess fogs me. Where does it lead to, and, save for Herod's exit at
the end of the play, of what use is it? It only lumbers up the stage,
and looks out of place (to my mind, at anyrate) on a terrace.

"By the cistern I presume the author means a well, though how on earth
the actor who plays Jokanaan is going to manage to scramble in and out
of it with dignity so as not to provoke the hilarity of the audience is
beyond my ken. I note that in the production of the opera at Dresden
the printed directions were utterly ignored."

As has already been stated, "Salomé" was first written in French and
subsequently translated into English by a friend of Oscar Wilde.

Reading it in the language in which it was originally written, one fact
stands out pre-eminent--the work is that of a foreigner. The French,
though correct and polished, is not virile, living French. It is too
correct, too laboured; the writer does not take any liberties with his
medium. The words have all the delicacy of marble statuary but lack the
breath of life. I think it was Max Beerbohm who once said of Walter
Pater (heaven forbid that I should agree with him) that he wrote English
as though it were a dead language, and that is precisely what is the
matter with Wilde's French. One longs for a _tournure de phrase_, a
_maniement de mots_ that would give it a semblance of native authorship.
It is like a Russian talking French, and altogether too precise, too
pedantically grammatical.

I believe the play was revised by Marcel Schwab, but although he may
have corrected an error here and there he would hardly have liked to
tamper with the text itself.

The play was written in 1892, and was accepted by Madame Sarah
Bernhardt, who was to have produced it during her season at the Palace
Theatre. It was already in full rehearsal when it was prohibited by the
Censor. A great deal of abuse and ridicule has been heaped on that
official for this, but in all fairness to him it must be admitted that
he had no choice in the matter. Rightly or wrongly plays dealing with
Biblical subjects are not allowed to be performed on the English stage,
and the Censor's business is to see that the rules and regulations
governing stage productions are duly observed.

The author was greatly incensed at the refusal of the Lord Chamberlain's
officer to license the piece, and talked (whether seriously or not is a
moot point) of leaving England for ever and taking out naturalisation
papers as a French citizen. This threat he never carried out.

Meanwhile Madame Sarah Bernhardt had taken the play back to Paris with
her, promising to produce it at her own theatre of the Porte St Martin
at the very first opportunity, a promise that was never fulfilled.
Moreover, when a couple of years later Wilde, then a prisoner awaiting
his trial, finding himself penniless, sent a friend to her to explain
how he was circumstanced, and offering to sell her the play outright for
a comparatively small sum of money in order that he might be able to pay
for his defence, this incomparable _poseuse_ was profuse in her
expressions of sympathy and admiration for _ce grand artiste_ and
promised to assist him to the best of her ability. She had the cruelty
to delude with false hopes a man suffering a mental martyrdom, and
after buoying him up from day to day with promises of financial
assistance, the Jewess not considering the investment a remunerative
one, shut the door to his emissary, and failed to keep her word. Now
that the foreign royalties on play and opera amount to a considerable
sum annually her Hebrew heart must be consumed with rage at having
missed such "a good thing."

The piece was first produced at the Théâtre Libre in Paris in 1896 by
Monsieur Luigne Poë with Lina Muntz as Salomé. The news of the
production reached Wilde in his prison cell at Reading, and in a letter
to a friend the following reference to it occurs:--

     "Please say how gratified I was at the performance of my play, and
     have my thanks conveyed to Luigne Poë. It is something that at a
     time of disgrace and shame I should still be regarded as an artist.
     I wish I could feel more pleasure, but I seem dead to all emotions
     except those of anguish and despair. However, please let Luigne Poë
     know I am sensible of the honour he has done me. He is a poet
     himself. Write to me in answer to this, and try and see what
     Lemaitre, Bauer, and Sarcey said of 'Salomé.'"

There is something intensely pathetic in the picture of Convict 33
writing to know what the foremost critics of the most artistic city in
Europe have to say concerning the child of his brain.

The play was eventually privately produced in English by the New Stage
Club in May 1905 at the Bijou Theatre, Archer Street.

The following is the programme on that occasion:--




  AT THE BIJOU THEATRE, Archer Street, W.

  May 10th and May 13th 1905

  Characters of the drama in the order of their speaking:

  A Young Syrian Captain      Mr HERBERT ALEXANDER
  Page of Herodias            Mrs GWENDOLEN BISHOP
  1st Soldier                 Mr CHARLES GEE
  2nd Soldier                 Mr RALPH DE ROHAN
  Cappadocian                 Mr CHARLES DALMON
  Jokanaan                    Mr VINCENT NELLO
  Naaman the Executioner      Mr W. EVELYN OSBORN
  Salomé                      Miss MILLICENT MURBY
  Slave                       Miss CARRIE KEITH
  Herod                       Mr ROBERT FARQUHARSON
  Herodias                    Miss LOUISE SALOM
  Tigellinus                  Mr C. L. DELPH

  Slaves, Jews, Nazarenes, and Soldiers by
  Miss Stansfelds, Messrs Bernhard Smith, Fredk. Stanley
  Smith, John Bate, Stephen Bagehot and Frederick Lawrence.


  Stage Management under the direction of Miss FLORENCE FARR.

The following paragraphs are taken from a criticism on the performance
which appeared in _The Daily Chronicle_ of 11th May 1905:

     "If only the dazzling and unfortunate genius who wrote 'Salomé'
     could have seen it acted as it was acted yesterday at the little
     Bijou Theatre! One fears, if he had, he would have found that
     little phrase of his--'the importance of being earnest'--a more
     delicately true satire than ever upon our sometimes appalling

     "Quite a brilliant and crowded audience had responded to what
     seemed an undoubtedly daring and interesting venture. Many seemed
     to have come out of mere curiosity to see a play the censor had
     forbidden; some through knowing what a beautiful, passionate, and
     in its real altitude wholly inoffensive play 'Salomé' is.

     "As those who had read the play were aware, this was in no way the
     fault of the author of 'Salomé.' Its offence in the censor's
     eyes--and, considering the average audience, he was doubtless
     wise--was that it represents Salomé making love to John the
     Baptist, failing to win him to her desires, and asking for his
     death from Herod, as revenge. This, of course, is not Biblical, but
     is a fairly widespread tradition.

     "In the play, as it is written, this love scene is just a very
     beautiful piece of sheer passionate speech, full of luxurious,
     Oriental imagery, much of which is taken straight from the 'Song
     of Solomon.' It is done very cleverly, very gracefully. It is not
     religious, but it is, in itself, neither blasphemous nor obscene,
     whatever it may be in the ears of those who hear it. It might
     possibly, perhaps, be acted grossly; acted naturally and
     beautifully it would show itself at least art.

     "In the hands, however, of the New Stage Club it was treated after
     neither of these methods. It was treated solemnly, dreamily,
     phlegmatically, as a sort of cross between Maeterlinck and a
     'mystery play.'

     "The whole of the play was done in this manner, all save two
     parts--one, that of Herodias (Miss Salom), which was excellently
     and vigorously played: the other, that of Herod, which was
     completely spoiled by an actor who gave what appeared to be a sort
     of semi-grotesque portrait of one of the late Roman emperors. Even
     the play itself represents the usurping Idumean as a terrific
     figure of ignorant strength and lustfulness and power 'walking
     mightily in his greatness.' Some of the most luxurious speeches in
     the whole play--above all the wonderful description of his
     jewels--are put into Herod's mouth. Yet he is represented at the
     Bijou Theatre as a doddering weakling! And even so is desperately

     "Altogether, beneath this pall of solemnity on the one hand and
     lack of real exaltation on the other, the play's beauties of
     speech and thought had practically no chance whatever. Set as it is
     too, in one long act of an hour and a half, the lack of natural
     life and vigour made it more tiresome still. And the shade of Oscar
     Wilde will doubtless be blamed for it all!"

It was unavoidable that a play necessitating the highest histrionic
ability on the part of the actors, together with the greatest delicacy
of touch and artistic sense of proportion, should suffer in its
interpretation by a set of amateurs, however enthusiastic.

A second performance, given in June 1906 by the Literary Stage Society,
was far more successful from an artistic point of view. This was in a
great measure due to the admirable stage setting designed by one who is
an artist to his finger tips, Mr C. S. Ricketts, and who, having been a
personal friend of the author's, could enter thoroughly into the spirit
of the play. The scene was laid in Herod's tent, the long blue folds of
which, with a background curtain spangled with silver stars, set off to
perfection the exquisite Eastern costumes designed by the same
authority. Mr Robert Farquharson was the Herod and Miss Darragh the

But even this performance was far from being up to the standard the play
demands, and Dr Max Meyerfeld, who has done so much to make Wilde's work
known in Germany, wrote of it:

     "The most notable feature of the production of 'Salomé' was the
     costumes, designed by Mr C. S. Ricketts--a marvellous harmony of
     blue and green and silver. Here praise must end. The stage was left
     ridiculously bare, and never for a moment produced the illusion of
     the terrace outside Herod's banqueting hall. Not even the cistern
     out of which the Prophet rises was discoverable--Hamlet without the
     Prince of Denmark. And the actors! Without being too exigeant, I
     cannot but suggest that before attempting such a play they ought to
     have been sent by a special train to Berlin. Even then Miss Darragh
     would have been an impossible Salomé. She lacked nearly everything
     required by this complex character. The Dance of the Seven Veils
     was executed with all the propriety of a British governess. Mr
     Robert Farquharson, whose Herod delighted us last year, has now
     elaborated it to the verge of caricature. He emphasises far too
     much the neuropathic element, and revels in the repulsive symptoms
     of incipient softening of the brain.

     "I cannot think that either of these works has yet been given a
     fair chance in England. They are, however, things which will
     endure, being independent of place and time, of dominant prejudice
     and caprices of taste."

On the Continent "Salomé" has become almost a stock piece and has been
performed in France, Sweden, Holland, Italy, and Russia, and has been
translated into every European tongue. It was not, however, till the
production in February, 1905, of the opera of Richard Strauss at the
Royal Opera House, Dresden, that "Salomé" occupied its true and proper
place in the art world. Admirably rendered into German by Madame Hedwig
Lachmann, the libretto is a faithful translation of the original text.
The success of the opera was not for a minute in doubt, and with
operatic stars of the first order to interpret the characters and an
orchestra of 110 performers to do full justice to the instrumental
music, nothing was left undone to make the production a memorable one. A
distinguished foreign critic writing from Dresden says:

     "Death in Love, and Love in Death, that is the whole piece. Death
     of Narraboth, the young captain who cannot bear the burning words
     that Salomé addresses to Iokanaan; death of Iokanaan. Death of
     Salomé, impending death of Herod Antipas," and analysing the
     character of Salomé he continues: "It is not the Jewess 'so
     charming and full of touching humility' that Salomé represents, she
     is the Syrian who inspired the Song of Songs, for whom incest is
     almost a law and Semiramius, Lath, and Myrrha divinities. She is
     the Syrian a prey to the seven devils, who combines in her amorous
     cult beauty, death, and resurrection."

When the opera was performed at Berlin it is interesting to remember
that the Kaiser, whose views on morality are strict enough to satisfy
the most exacting Puritan, far from seeing anything to object to in the
story, not only was present on the opening night, but took an active
interest in the rehearsals, going so far even as to suggest certain
mechanical effects.

In New York a perfect storm of execration from the "ultra guid" greeted
the production of Strauss's work, which was almost immediately
withdrawn. It is only justice to say that the rendering of the Dance of
the Seven Veils was in a great measure responsible for this.

It was also freely rumoured that the puritanical daughter of one of the
millionaire directors of the Opera House had used her influence for the
suppression of the new production.

It is interesting to hear what the objectors to the story have to say,
and with this view I quote two extracts, one from a letter written by Mr
E. A. Baughan to _The Musical Standard_ and the other from a well-known
critic writing in a leading provincial paper.

Mr Baughan writes:

     "Oscar Wilde took nothing but the characters and the incident of
     John the Baptist's head being brought in a charger. All else is
     changed and bears no relation to the Bible story. That would not
     matter had worthy use been made of the story.

     "In 'Salomé' everything is twisted to create an atmosphere of
     eroticism and sensuality. That is the aim of the play and nothing
     else. There is none of the 'wide bearing on life' which you vaguely
     suggest. Herod is a sensuous beast who takes delight in the
     beautiful postures of his stepdaughter. He speaks line after line
     of highly coloured imagery and his mental condition is that of a
     man on the verge of delirium tremens, brought on by drink and
     satyriasis. Oscar Wilde does not make him 'sorry' but only slightly
     superstitious, thus losing whatever of drama there is in the Bible

     "So far, and in the drawing of Herodias, the dramatist may be
     allowed the licence he has taken, however. Even a Puritan must
     admit that art must show the evil as well as the good of life to
     present a perfect whole.

     "But it is in the character of Salomé herself that Oscar Wilde has
     succeeded in his aim of shocking any man or woman of decent mind.
     He makes Salomé in love with John the Baptist. It is a horrible,
     decadent, lascivious love. She prates of his beautiful smooth limbs
     and the cold, passionless lips which he will not yield to her
     insensate desire. It is a picture of unnatural passion, all the
     more terrible that Salomé is a young girl. John the Baptist's death
     is brought about as much by Salomé as her mother. The prophet will
     not yield himself alive to Salomé's desires, but she can, and does,
     feed her passion at his dead, cold lips. And that is what has
     disgusted New York.

     "You speak of fighting for liberty in art. If such exhibitions of
     degraded passion are included in what you call 'liberty,' then you
     will be fighting for the representation on the stage of satyriasis
     and nymphomania, set forth with every imaginable circumstance of
     literary and musical skill. I can conceive of no greater
     degradation of Richard Strauss's genius than the illustration of
     this play by music."

And here is what the critic of the provincial journals has to say:

     "Salomé marks the depths of all that was spurious, all that was
     artificial, all that was perverse. Startling to English ears, the
     play was not at all original. It drew its inspiration from the
     decadent school of France, but in that world it would rank as one
     of the commonplace.

     "The shocking, startling idea, that so outraged the respectable
     Yankees, is the twisting of a story of the New Testament to the
     needs of a literature of the most degenerate kind. But in Paris,
     and particularly amongst Wilde's friends, all such ideas had lost
     the thrill of novelty. Pierre Louys, to whom he dedicates the
     book, had couched his own 'Aphrodite' on similar perversions of
     history and mythology, and to treat the story of the New Testament
     in similar fashion was hardly likely to give pause to men who
     laughed at the basis of the Christian religion.

     "Even Academicians like Anatole France dealt with the Gospels as
     the mere framework of ironical stories, and writers of the stamp of
     Jean Loverain out-Heroded Wilde's Herod both in audacity and point.
     Catulle Mendes recently produced at the Opera House in Paris an
     opera founded on the supposed love of Mary Magdalen for Christ.
     Catulle Mendes has very real talent, the opera was a great

Whatever the judgment of posterity may be, and there can be little doubt
that it can be favourable, the play must ever appeal to the actor, the
artist, and the student of literature, on account of its dramatic
possibilities, its wonderful colouring, the perfection of its
construction, and the mastery of its style.

It stands alone in the literature of all countries.


The first of all Wilde's plays was "The Duchess of Padua." It was
written at the time when he was living at the Hotel Voltaire in Paris
and taking Balzac as his model. The title of the play was doubtless
inspired by Webster's gloomy tragedy of another Italian duchess; and the
play itself is in five acts. Although many students of his works
consider that it is worthy to rank with the masterpieces of the
Elizabethan drama, it must be confessed that the work, though full of
promise, is immature and too obviously indebted in certain scenes to
some of Shakespeare's most obvious stage tricks. He had written the play
with a view to its being played by Miss Mary Anderson, but to his great
disappointment she declined his offer of it.

His biographer's description of his reception of her refusal is worth

     "I was with him at the Hotel Voltaire on the day when he heard from
     Mary Anderson, to whom he had sent a copy of the drama which was
     written for her. He telegraphed in the morning for her decision,
     and whilst we were talking together after lunch her answer came. It
     was unfavourable; yet, though he had founded great hopes on the
     production of this play, he gave no sign of his disappointment. I
     can remember his tearing a little piece off the blue telegraph-form
     and rolling it up into a pellet and putting it into his mouth, as,
     by a curious habit, he did with every paper or book that came into
     his hands. And all he said, as he passed the telegram over to me,
     was, 'This, Robert, is rather tedious.'"

The scene of the play is laid in Padua, the period being the sixteenth
century, and the characters are as follows:--


  SIMONE GESSO             Duke of Padua.
  BEATRICE                 His Wife.
  ANDREA POLLAIUOLO        Cardinal of Padua.
  MAFFIO PETRUCCI          }
  JEPPO VITELOZZO          }Of the Ducal Household.
  TADDEO BARDI             }
  ASCANIO CRISTOFANO       His Friend.
  BERNARDO CAVALCANTI      Chief Justiciar of Padua.
  HUGO                     The Public Executioner.
  LUCIA                    A Tirewoman.

  Serving-Men, Burghers, Soldiers, Falconers, Monks, etc.

The scene opens in the market, where Ascanio and Guido are awaiting the
arrival of the writer of a letter who has promised to enlighten the
latter as to his birth, and who will wear a violet cloak with a silver
falcon embroidered on the shoulder. The stranger arrives and proves to
be Count Moranzone, who, Ascanio having been dismissed, informs the lad
that he is the son of Lorenzo, the late Duke of Padua, betrayed to an
ignominious death by the reigning Duke, Simone Gesso. He works on the
youth's feelings and induces him to swear to avenge his father's death
by slaying his betrayer, but not until Moranzone sends him his parent's
dagger. Guido left alone, in a fine speech renews his oath, and as he is
vowing on his drawn dagger to "forswear the love of women and that
hollow bauble men call female loveliness," Beatrice descends the steps
of the church, their eyes meet for a second and as she leaves the stage
she turns to look at him again. "Say, who is yonder lady?" inquires the
young man, and a burgher answers, "The Duchess of Padua."

In the second act the Duchess is seen pleading with her husband that he
should feed and assist his starving people. On his exit she is joined by
Guido, who, for the first time, declares his love, while she avows hers
in turn. A pretty love scene full of tenderness and poetry is
interrupted by the appearance of Count Moranzone, whom Beatrice alone
catches sight of, and presently a messenger enters and hands Guido a
parcel containing the fatal dagger. He will have no more to do with
love--for will not his soul be stained with murder?--and steeling his
heart against Beatrice he bids her farewell, telling her that there is
a barrier between them. The Duke makes a brief entrance. The Duchess
will not go hunting with him. He suspects, and inquires for Guido, and
with a veiled threat leaves her. She will end her life that very night,
she soliloquises, and yet, why should she die, why not the Duke?

She is interrupted by Moranzone, whom she taxes with taking Guido from
her. He answers that the young man does not love her nor will she ever
see him more, and leaves her. She determines that that very night she
will lie in Death's arms.

The third act takes place at night within the Palace. Guido enters the
apartment from without by means of a rope ladder, and is met by
Moranzone, to whom he declares that he will not stoop to murder, but
will place the dagger, with a paper stating who he is, upon the Duke's
bed and then take horse to Venice and enlist against the Infidels.
Nothing Moranzone urges can move him and the latter at last leaves him.

As Guido lifts the curtain to enter the Duke's chamber he is met by
Beatrice, who, after a while, confesses that she has stabbed her
husband. Guido, horrified, refuses to have aught to do with her, and
despite all her blandishments and entreaties remains adamant. She then
begs him to draw his sword on her "and quick make reckoning with Death,
who yet licks his lips after this feast."

He wrests the dripping knife from her hand, and although she explains
that 'twas for love of him she did the deed he bids her begone to her

Finally she turns on him with the threat "Who of us calls down the
lightning on his head let him beware the hurt that lurks within the
forked levin's flame," she leaves him. Left alone, his heart goes forth
to her and he calls her back, but soon her voice is heard without,
saying, "This way fled my husband's murderer." Soldiers enter, and Guido
is arrested, the bloodstained knife being taken from him.

The fourth act is laid in the hall of justice. The Duchess has accused
Guido of the murder. He will not defend himself though Moranzone, who
has recognised the dagger as the Duchess's, urges him to do so. Guido
tells his evil genius that he himself did the deed. He then begs leave
of the Justiciar to let him name the guilty one who slew the Duke, but
Beatrice, who is fearful he will accuse her, urges that he shall not be
allowed speech. A lengthy wrangle takes place between her, the judges,
and Moranzone, and the court retires to consider the point. During the
interval, the accused holds conference with the Cardinal, who will only
hear him in the Confessional. Beatrice tells him, "An thou dost meet my
husband in Purgatory with a blood-red star over his heart, tell him I
send you to bear him company." When at last the judges return they
decide that Guido may have speech. Beatrice, who has arranged for a
horse to be in waiting that it may convey her to Venice, endeavours to
leave the court, but is prevented. At last Guido speaks and confesses to
the murder. He is condemned to death, and is led forth as Beatrice,
calling out his name, "throws wide her arms and rushes across the stage
towards him."

The last act takes place in the prison. Guido is asleep, and Beatrice,
wearing a cloak and mask, enters to him. By wearing these and using her
ring of State she hopes he will be enabled to escape. Presently she
drinks the poison which, as he is of noble birth, has been placed near
him and when he awakes a reconciliation takes place between them. It is
too late, the poison has begun to work. "Oh, Beatrice, thy mouth wears
roses that do defy Death," exclaims Guido, and later on--"Who sins for
love, sins not," to which Beatrice replies, "I have sinned, and yet
mayhap shall I be forgiven. I have loved much." They kiss each other for
the first time in this act, and in a final spasm she expires, and he,
snatching the dagger from her belt, stabs himself as the executioner

The play was read for copyright purposes in March, 1907, by an amateur
dramatic society connected with St James's Church, Hampstead Road, Mr
George Alexander, lending his theatre for the purpose. It has been
produced, but without much success, in America by Miss Gale and the late
Lawrence Barrett, and in 1904 at one of the leading theatres in Hamburg.
The German production was, however, marred by a series of unfortunate
incidents, so that it can hardly be held to have been a fair test of the
merits of the play. The Guido had a severe cold, and during Beatrice's
long speech in the last act, when he is supposed to be asleep, kept on
spoiling the situation by repeated sneezes, while the Duchess herself
was uncertain of her words. On the third night the Cardinal went mad on
the stage and had to be taken off to an asylum.

"The Duchess of Padua" is much more a play for the study than the stage,
although replete with dramatic possibilities, for its gloomy character
would always militate against its success in this country. The plot is
finely elaborated, and yet perfectly clear. The characterisation is
keenly aware of the value of contrast in art and packed with a
psychology which, buried as it is, nevertheless is just and accurate. No
one can read the truly poetical dialogue with its stately cadence and
rich volume of sound without being moved by the dignity of tragedy, and
what blemishes there may be are more due to inexperience than to any
departure from the ideals in art that the author had set up for


And now in the survey of the Romantic Dramas we come to a play totally
different from any other work of the author's--"Vera, or the Nihilists."

This is a melodrama pure and simple, the action taking place in Russia
in 1795. It is described as "A Drama in a prologue and four acts," and
was written in 1881. Badly produced and acted in America it was printed
for private circulation.

The dramatis personæ are:


  PETER SABOUROFF (an Innkeeper).
  VERA SABOUROFF (his Daughter).
  MICHAEL (a Peasant).


  PRINCE PAUL MARALOFFSKI (Prime Minister of Russia).


  PETER TCHERNAVITCH, President of the Nihilists.
  ALEXIS IVANACIEVITCH, known as a Student of Medicine.

  Soldiers, Conspirators, etc.

  Scene, Moscow. Time, 1800.

The plot is briefly as follows:--

Dmitri Sabouroff, the son of an innkeeper, is, with other prisoners, on
his way to an exile in Siberia to which he has been sentenced for
participation in Nihilist conspiracies. The band of prisoners in its
melancholy progress halts at the paternal inn. Dmitri is recognised by
his sister Vera, and manages to pass her a piece of paper on which is
written the address of the Nihilist centre, together with the form of
oath used on joining. Then the old innkeeper recognises his son and
tries to get to him as the prisoners are being marched off. The colonel
in charge of the detachment (Kotemkin), closes the door on him and the
old man falls senseless to the ground. A peasant admirer of Vera's
(Michael) kneels down and tends the stricken father while Vera recites
the oath: "To strangle whatever nature is in me; neither to love nor to
be loved; neither to pity nor to be pitied; neither to marry nor to be
given in marriage, till the end is come." This tableau ends the

In the first act the Nihilists are assembled at their secret meeting
place and are anxiously waiting the return of Vera, who has gone to a
ball at the Grand Duke's to "see the Czar and all his cursed brood face
to face."

Amongst the conspirators is a young student of medicine, Alexis, who has
incurred the suspicions of Vera's admirer, Michael, the most
uncompromising of the revolutionists. Vera returns with the news that
martial law is to be proclaimed. She is in love with Alexis and reproves
him for running the risk of being present. Meanwhile, Michael and the
President confer together. Michael proposes to don the uniform of the
Imperial Guard, make his way into the courtyard of the palace, and shoot
the Czar as he attends a council to be held in a room, the exact
location of which he has learnt from Alexis. He has followed Alexis and
seen him enter the palace, but has not seen the young man come out again
though he had waited all night upon the watch.

Vera defends Alexis whom the conspirators wish to kill. Suddenly
soldiers are heard outside, the conspirators resume their masks as
Kotemkin and his men enter. In reply to his inquiries Vera informs him
that they are a company of strolling players. He orders her to unmask.
Alexis steps forward, removes his mask, and proclaims himself to be the
Czarevitch! The conspirators fear he will betray them, but he backs up
Vera's tale as to their being strolling players, gives the officer to
understand that he has an affair of gallantry on hand with Vera, and
with a caution to the General dismisses him and his men. The curtain
comes down, as, turning to the Nihilists, he exclaims, "Brothers, you
trust me now!"

The second act is laid in the Council Chamber, where the various
councillors are assembled, including the cynical Prime Minister, Prince
Paul Maraloffski. Presently the Czarevitch enters, followed later by the
Czar, whose fears Prince Paul has worked on to induce him to proclaim
martial law. He is about to sign the document when the Czarevitch
intervenes with a passionate appeal for the people and their rights, and
finally proclaims himself a Nihilist. His father orders his arrest, and
his orders are about to be carried out when a shot is heard from without
and the Czar, who has thrown open the window, falls mortally wounded,
and dies, denouncing his son as his murderer.

The third act takes place in the Nihilists' meeting place. Alexis has
been proclaimed Czar, and has dismissed his father's evil genius, Prince
Paul. The passwords are given and it is discovered that there is a
stranger present. He unmasks, and proves to be no other than Prince
Paul, who desires to become a Nihilist and revenge himself for his
dismissal. Alexis has not obeyed the summons to the meeting, and in
spite of Vera's protests is sentenced to death. The implacable Michael
reminds her of her brother's fate and of her oath. She steels her heart
and demands to draw with the others for the honour of carrying out the
sentence on Alexis. It falls to her, and it is arranged that she shall
make her way to the Czar's bedchamber that night, Paul having provided
the key and the password, and stab him in his sleep. Once she has
carried out her mission she is to throw out the bloodstained dagger to
her fellow-conspirators, who will be waiting outside, as a signal that
the Czar has been assassinated.

The fourth act is set in the antechamber of the Czar's private room,
where the various ministers are assembled discussing the Czar and his
plans of reform (he has already dismissed his guards and ordered the
release of all political prisoners).

Alexis enters and listens to their conversation. Stepping forward he
dismisses them all, depriving them of their fortunes and estates. Left
alone he falls asleep and Vera, entering, raises her hand to stab him,
when he awakes and seizes her arm. He tells her he has only accepted the
crown that she should share it with him. Vera realises that she loves
him and that she has broken her oath. A love scene follows. Midnight
strikes, the conspirators are heard clamouring in the streets. Vera
stabs herself, throws the dagger out of the window, and in answer to
Alexis's agonised, "What have you done?" replies with her dying breath,
"I have saved Russia."

The play, as I have already said, is quite different from any other of
Wilde's, and in reading it one cannot help regretting that he did not
turn some of his attention and devote a portion of his great talents to
the reform of English melodrama. He might have founded a strong, virile,
and healthy dramatic school, and by so doing raised the standard of the
popular everyday play in this country. Nevertheless, that "Vera" was not
a success when produced is not to be wondered at, apart from the fact of
its having been vilely acted. Pure melodrama, especially, despite a very
general idea to the contrary, requires an acquaintance with technique
and stage mechanism that is only obtainable after many years of
practice. At this period the author had not enjoyed this practice in
technique. Nevertheless, the play is essentially dramatic and had Mr
Wilde at this early time in his dramatic career called in the assistance
of some experienced actor or stage-manager, with a very little
alteration a perfectly workmanlike drama could have been made out of it.
The prologue and the first act could have been run into one act divided
into two separate scenes. More incident and action could have been
introduced into Act Two and some of the dialogue curtailed. Acts Three
and Four want very little revision, and it would have been easy to
introduce one or two female characters and perhaps a second love
interest. Some light-comedy love scenes would have helped to redeem the
gloom of the play and afforded a valuable contrast to the intensity of
the hero and heroine in their amorous converse.

The dialogue is crisp and vigorous and the language at times of rare
beauty. It is a pity that such a work should be wasted, and it is to be
hoped that some manager will have the astuteness and ability to produce
it in a good acting form. The experiment would certainly be worth

The play as a whole is certainly not one of its author's finest
productions. As has been said, it was written before he had mastered
stage technique and learned those secrets of dramaturgy which in later
years raised him to such a pinnacle of fame as a dramatic author. Yet it
can be said of it with perfect confidence that it is far and away
superior to nine-tenths of modern, and successful, melodramatic plays.
Indeed, whenever we discuss or criticise even the less important works
of Oscar Wilde we are amazed at their craftsmanship and delighted with
their achievement. The most unconsidered trifles from his pen stand out
among similar productions as the moon among stars, and his genius is so
great that work for which other writers would expect and receive the
highest praise in comparison with _his_ greatest triumphs almost fails
to excite more than a fugitive and passing admiration.


An interesting story attaches to "The Florentine Tragedy," a short play
by Wilde which was produced on 18th June 1906, by the Literary Theatre

The history of the play was related by Mr Robert Ross to a
representative of _The Tribune_ newspaper.

"The play was written," he said, "for Mr George Alexander, but for
certain reasons was not produced by him. In April 1895, Mr Wilde
requested me to go to his house and take possession of all his
unpublished manuscripts. He had been declared a bankrupt, and I reached
the house just before the bailiffs entered. Of course, the author's
letters and manuscripts of two other unpublished plays and the enlarged
version of 'The Portrait of Mr W. H.' upon which I knew he was
engaged--had mysteriously disappeared. Someone had been there before me.

"The thief was never discovered, nor have we ever seen 'The Florentine
Tragedy,' the 'Mr W. H.' story, or one of the other plays, 'The Duchess
of Padua'--since that time. Curiously enough, the manuscript of the
third play, a tragedy somewhat on the lines of 'Salomé,' was discovered
by a friend of Mr Wilde's in a secondhand bookshop in London, in 1897.
It was sent to the author in Paris, and was not heard of again. After
his death in 1900 it could not be found. With regard to 'The Duchess of
Padua,' the loss was not absolute, for this play, a five-act tragedy,
had previously been performed in America, and I possessed the 'prompt'

"To return to 'The Florentine Tragedy.' I had heard portions of it read,
and was acquainted with the incidents and language, but for a long time
I gave it up as lost. Then, after Mr Wilde's death, I had occasion to
sort a mass of letters and papers which were handed to me by his
solicitors. Among them I found loose sheets containing the draft of a
play which I recognised as 'The Florentine Tragedy.' By piecing these
together I was able to reconstruct a considerable portion of the play.
The first five pages had gone, and there was another page missing, but
some 400 lines of blank verse remained. Now the introductory scene of
the single act of which the play consists has been rewritten by Mr
Sturge Moore, and the 'Tragedy' will be presented to an English audience
for the first time at the King's Hall, Covent Garden, next Sunday.

"On the same occasion the Literary Theatre Club will give a performance
of Mr Wilde's 'Salomé,' which, as you know, cannot be given publicly in
this country, owing to the Biblical derivation of the subject. But
'Salomé' has been popular for years in Germany, and it has also been
played in Sweden, Russia, Italy, and Holland."

It seems that "The Florentine Tragedy" has also been played with great
success in Germany. It was translated by Dr Max Meyerfeld, and was
produced first at Leipsic, and afterwards at Hamburg and Berlin.
According to Mr Ross, "The Florentine Tragedy" promises to become almost
as popular with German playgoers as "Salomé" is now.

"The Florentine Tragedy," as already indicated, is a brief one-act
drama. There are only three characters: an old Florentine merchant, his
beautiful wife, and her lover. The simple plot may be briefly indicated.
The merchant, arriving suddenly at his home after a short absence, finds
his wife and his rival in her affections together at supper. He makes a
pretence at first of being profoundly courteous, and the ensuing
conversation (as need hardly be said) is pointed, epigrammatic, and
witty. Then the old man gradually leads up to what, it becomes obvious,
had been his fixed purpose from the beginning. He draws the lover into a
duel. This takes place in the presence of the wife, who, indeed, holds
aloft a torch in order that the two swordsmen may fight the more easily.
The contest waxes fiercer, and the swords are exchanged for daggers.
The wife casts the torch to the ground as the two men close with each
other, and the younger one falls mortally wounded. The ending is
dramatic. The infuriated husband turns to his shrinking wife and
exclaims, "Now for the other!" The woman, in mingled remorse and fear,
says, "Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" And the husband
rejoins, "Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?" As the curtain
descends, the couple, thus strangely reconciled, fall into each other's

The character of outstanding importance, of course, is that of the old
merchant. According to those who have studied the play, he is a
strikingly effective figure, most cleverly and delightfully drawn. In
the opinion of Mr Moore the part is one that would have fitted Sir Henry
Irving excellently well. The action of the drama occupies less than

In this connection it may be well to recall the testimony of an Irish
publisher quoted by Mr Sherard in his "Life of Oscar Wilde." This
gentleman attended the sale of the author's effects in Tite Street, and
in a room upstairs found the floor thickly strewn with letters addressed
to the quondam owner of the house and a great quantity of his
manuscripts. He concluded that as the various pieces of furniture had
been carried downstairs to be sold their contents had been emptied out
on to the floor of this room. Presently a broker's man came up to him
and inquired what he was doing in the room, and on his replying that
finding the door open he had walked in, the man said, "then somebody has
broken open the lock, because I locked the door myself." This gentleman
surmises that it was from this room that various manuscripts that have
never been recovered were stolen!

When the piece was produced by the Literary Theatre Club it suffered
from inadequate acting. Mr George Ingleton was quite overweighted by the
part of Simone, the Florentine merchant. It is a part that requires an
Irving to carry it through, or, at anyrate, an actor of great
experience, and for anyone else to attempt it is a piece of daring which
can only result in failure.

It is curious that the denouement, which was so severely handled by the
critics when the play was produced in Berlin, was the part of the piece
that seemed most to impress an English audience. The epigram and the
praises of strength and beauty provoked no protest or dissatisfaction,
as those who had seen the German production expected they would, nor was
the audience in the least shocked when the wife holds the torch for her
husband and lover to fight, nor when, at the close of the encounter, she
purposely throws it down. This, of course, is the unlooked-for climax of
the piece, and the dramatic character of the situation completely saved


Finally we have arrived at what must always be the most tantalising of
all Wilde's plays because the MS. has been lost and very little is known
about it. It had for title "The Woman Covered With Jewels." The only
copy of it known to exist, a small quarto book of ruled paper in the
author's own handwriting, was presumably stolen with the copies of "The
Incomparable and Ingenious History of Mr W. H. Being the true Secret of
Shakespeare's Sonnets, now for the first time here fully set forth," and
"The Florentine Tragedy," at the time of the Tite Street sale. But
little is known about the play--a very few privileged persons having
been favoured with a perusal of it, and the only information the public
have been able to gather about it is from an article by a well-known
book-lover that appeared in a weekly paper. I myself have not been able
to discover any further information.

The play was in prose and, like "Salomé," was a tragedy in one act. It
was written about 1896.

According to the writer of the article referred to, it was "presented by
its author to a charming and cultured Mayfair lady, well known in
London Society." He goes on to say that she allowed a few well-known
_littérateurs_ to peruse it, but that the manuscript is now lost and
that he has not succeeded in tracing a second copy anywhere. There seems
to be some confusion here, for if this were the only copy it could not
have been stolen from the Tite Street sale, as, according to the
biography, was the case. One thing, at anyrate, appears certain, and
that is that there is no copy in existence, or rather--for if it was
stolen it must be in someone's possession--available at the present
moment. It would be interesting to know how the lady to whom the book
was presented came to lose it. Perhaps she herself destroyed it at the
period when so many of his friends were so anxious to conceal all traces
of their friendship with its author. Again, the MS. may only have been
lent her, and may have been returned by her to Wilde before the crash.
At anyrate, it seems incredible that he should have parted with the
manuscript without keeping even a rough copy. The point needs

According to the writer of the article--"There is little doubt that the
lost tragedy by Wilde was intended originally--like 'Salomé'--for Sarah
Bernhardt. It contains a part somewhat like her _Izéil_. The period of
the play is that of the second century after Christ, a century of
heresy and manifold gospels that had made the Church of the day a thing
divided by sects and scarred with schisms. Fairly vigorous Christian
churches existed at Athens and Corinth. From one of these there seceded
a most holy man. He withdrew into the desert, and at the time the play
begins was dwelling in a cave 'whose mouth opened upon the tawny sand of
the desert like that of a huge lion.' His reputation for holiness had
gone forth to many cities. One day there came to his cave a beautiful
courtesan, covered with jewels. She had broken her journey in order to
see and hear the wonderful priest who had striven against the devil in
the desert. He sees the strange, beautiful intruder, and, speaking of
the faith that was within him, tries to win one more convert to its
kingdom, glory, and power. She listens as Thais listened to Paphnutius.
The hermit's eloquence sways her reason, while her exquisite beauty of
face and form troubles his constancy. She speaks in turn and presses him
to leave his hermit home and come with her to the city. There he may
preach to better effect the gospel of the Kingdom of God. 'The city is
more wicked than the desert,' she says, in effect.

"While they are talking two men drew near and gazed upon the unusual
scene. 'Surely it must be a king's daughter,' said one. 'She has
beautiful hair like a king's daughter, and, behold, she is covered with

"At last she mounts her litter and departs, and the men follow her. The
priest has been troubled, tortured by her beauty. He recalls the melting
glory of her eyes, the softly curving cheeks, the red humid mouth.
Recalls, too, the wooing voice that was like rippling wind-swept water.
Her hair fell like a golden garment; she was, indeed, covered with

"Evening draws near and there comes to the mouth of the cave a man who
says that robbers have attacked and murdered a great lady who was
travelling near that day. They show the horror-struck priest a great
coil of golden hair besmeared with blood. Here the tragedy ends.

"One sees that 'The Woman Covered With Jewels' is an outcome, and one
more expression, of that literary movement that gave us 'Salambo,'
'Thais,' 'Aphrodite,' 'Imperial Purple,' and many more remarkable works
of a school, or group of writers, who, wearied of the _jejune_, the
effete, and much else, have sought solace for their literary conscience
in a penman's reconquest of antiquity. Probably the old-world story of
Paphnutius and Thais inspired the tragedy and Maeterlinck's plays
suggested its technique. Who can know? Assuredly its tragic picture of
devotion, passion, cupidity, and murder would thrill and enthrall those
who could know it better than in this imperfect portrayal. 'The Woman
Covered With Jewels' is worthy of the pen that wrote 'Salomé,' and 'The

"Yet it is lost!"




A little girl who had kept her fifth birthday joyously in the garden of
her father's home went on the morrow to the great and grimy city which
was nearest to it. We were to visit the bazaars and buy books and toys.
As we went through the great square in which the Town Hall stands the
small hand in mine told me that here was something which we must stay to
consider. We stood at the base of the statue which the citizens had
raised in memory of a statesman's endeavour and success. She looked
steadily and long at the figure of which the noble head redeemed the
vulgar insignificance of costume and posture. "What did this man do,
uncle?" she asked, "that he has been turned into stone?" I was
dreadfully startled, for the horrid suspicion darted through my mind
that my little niece had remembered my talk with her father about modern
sculpture, and at five years old had already begun to pose. "Of course,
it had to be stone not salt in England," she went on to say, and I was
reassured; she at least was remembering Lot's wife.

It was in the later spring of 1888, and when the evening post brought me
fresh from the press "The Happy Prince and Other Tales," the first
story told me that Oscar Wilde, of whom men, even then, had many things
sinister and strange to say, had yet within him the heart of a little

"High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy

"When I was alive and had a human heart I did not know what tears were,
for I lived in the Palace of Sans Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to
enter. In the daytime I played with my companions in the garden, and in
the evening I led the dance in the great Hall. Round the garden ran a
very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything
about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and
happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness, so I lived and so I died.
And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see
all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is
made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep."

Here, strange to say, is the note of pathos which we hear again and
again in the volume of fairy stories which many men look upon as Oscar
Wilde's best and most characteristic prose work. Time after time they
make me murmur Vergil's untranslatable line _sunt lachrymæ rerum et
mentem mortalia tangunt_.

The felicity of expression is exquisite, and an opulent imagination
lavishes its treasures in every story. Our author has come into full
possession of his sovereignty of words and every sentence has its
carefully considered, yet spontaneous charm. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde
makes the Linnet his mouthpiece in the fourth story "The Devoted
Friend." "'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
agreed with her."

Dangerous though it is, Oscar Wilde essayed the endeavour. I do not
think that children would easily detect that _amari aliquid_ which makes
the fairy stories fascinating to minds that are mature, and I am sure
that many little ones have revelled in the Swallow's stories of what he
had seen in strange lands when he told "the Happy Prince of the red
ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile and catch gold
fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself,
and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants who walk
slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their
hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as
ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that
sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey
cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves,
and are always at war with the butterflies."

I suppose it would shock the authorities of the Education Department at
Whitehall if it were suggested that the children in the Elementary Day
Schools should have for their reading lesson, sometimes, the volume of
"The Happy Prince and Other Tales, by Oscar Wilde, illustrated by Walter
Crane and Jacomb Hood"--but I think the starved and stunted imaginations
of the children in the great, cruel cities would revive and grow if this
could be done.

But perhaps it would have to be an expurgated edition. The sad
consciousness of, and stern satire on, our social system might remain,
the children would take no hurt, and the weary school teachers would be
glad to hear and to read a children's fairy tale, which sets the student
thinking and makes the more worldly man consider his ways. But if I had
the editing of the book I would leave out here and there a sentence.

"'Bring me the two most precious things in the city,' said God to one of
His angels; and the angel brought him the leaden heart and the dead

"'You have rightly chosen,' said God, 'for in my garden of Paradise this
little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy
Prince shall praise me.'" The children would not like this, for in their
ears sound often the severe words of Sinai, "The Lord will not hold him
guiltless that taketh His name in vain," and I, who delight in the
beautiful prose poems, feel that here the dead artist was not at his

Some have said that there are no fairy stories like Oscar Wilde's, but
Hans Andersen had written before him, and Charles Kingsley's "Water
Babies" was published long before "The Happy Prince." The Dane managed
to touch on things Divine without a discord, and Charles Kingsley's
satire was not less keen than Oscar's, but he could point his moral
without intruding very sacred things into his playful pages, and I wish
that the two last sentences of "The Happy Prince" could be erased.

It is the gorgeous colour and the vivid sonorous words that charm us
most. It is easy to analyse these sentences and to note how pearls and
pomegranates, and the hyacinth blossom, and the pale ivory, and the
crimson of the ruby, again and again glow on the pages like the
illuminations of the mediæval missal; but each story has its own
peculiar charm.

"The Nightingale and the Rose" is a tale full of passion and tenderness,
and sad in the sorrow of wasted sympathy and unrequited love.

"Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds,
and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor
is it set forth in the market-place. It may not be purchased of the
merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance of gold."

I can fancy Oscar Wilde writing thus in the happy days of his early
married life in Chelsea, in the little study where his best work was
done, whilst memories of the Chapel of Magdalen murmured in his brain,
and he heard again the surpliced scholar reading from the lectern the
praise of wisdom which he transmuted into the praise of love which was
not wise. "It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed
for the price thereof. It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with
the precious onyx, or the sapphire. The gold and the crystal cannot
equal it: and the exchange of it shall not be for jewels or fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of pearls: for the price of wisdom
is above rubies. The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall
it be valued with pure gold."

Throughout "The Song of the Nightingale" there is a reminiscence of that
Song of Solomon which Wilde told a fellow-prisoner he had always loved.

"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a
man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would be
utterly contemned."

In "The Selfish Giant" another note is sounded. As we read it we pass
into the mediæval age, and we think of the story of Christopher.

The giant keeps the garden to himself and the children that played in it
are banished, and thenceforward its glories are gone. In the garden of
the Selfish Giant it was still winter. The birds did not care to sing in
it as there were no children, and the trees forgot to blossom. The Snow
covered up the grass with his great white cloak, and the Frost painted
all the trees silver, but anon there came a child who wept as he
wandered in the desolated garden, and the Selfish Giant's heart melted;
once again the children's voices are heard and the garden flourishes as
it did before, and the Giant grows old and watches from his chair the
children at their play. "I have many beautiful flowers," he said, "but
the children are the most beautiful flowers of it all," till at last the
grey old Giant finds again in his garden the child who had first touched
his hard heart--"but when he came quite close his face grew red with
anger, and he said, 'Who hath dared to wound thee?' for on the palms of
the child's hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two
nails were on the little feet. 'Who hath dared to wound thee?' cried the
Giant, 'tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.' 'Nay,'
answered the child, 'but these are the wounds of love.'"

"The Devoted Friend" is altogether in another vein. As the first story
is fragrant of the East and the second mediæval in its memories, so the
third is Teutonic, and "Hans and the Miller's Friendship" reminds us of
the Brothers Grimm. Now that every child has the chance of reading the
German fairy stories, Oscar Wilde's tale will be compared with theirs,
but I think the children will like this one best for the simple reason
that, being written in exquisite English, nothing that has passed
through the perils of translation can have its charm. Children are
wonderful, because perfectly unconscious, critics of style.

It is doubtful if readers will enjoy "The Remarkable Rocket" as they
will the other stories. The modern _milieu_ intrudes here and there. The
satire is keen and there are some clever epigrams. The Russian Princess
"had driven all the way from Finland in a sledge drawn by six reindeer
which was shaped like a great golden swan, and between the swan's wings
lay the little princess herself"--and we think that we are going to
enjoy again the atmosphere of Watteau, and are a little disappointed
when we find our author saying, "He was something of a politician, and
had always taken a prominent part in the local elections, or he knew the
proper Parliamentary expressions to use." And the story, alas! will
suggest over and over again painful thoughts which I would keep at a
distance when I read these other lovely tales. Was not this sentence of
evil omen? "'However, I don't care a bit,' said the Rocket. 'Genius like
mine is sure to be appreciated some day,' and he sank down a little
deeper into the mud." And the last sentence of all is terribly sinister.
"'I knew I should create a sensation,' gasped the Rocket, and he went

"The House of Pomegranates" was published in 1891, and is dedicated to
Constance Mary Wilde. Here, in a volume which the author frankly calls a
volume of "Beautiful Tales," is a very stern indictment of the social
system which, in his essay "The Soul of Man," Oscar Wilde had so
powerfully denounced. We know how profoundly that essay has influenced
the minds of men in every country in Europe. Translated into every
tongue it has taught the oppressed to resent the callous cruelty of
capital, but I doubt if its author was altogether as earnest as he
seems. Here, in the story of the young King, we have a lighter touch. It
is as though the writer hesitated between two paths. In the year 1895
the wrong path had been taken if we may trust the record of a
conversation which took place in that year.

"To be a supreme artist," said he, "one must first be a supreme

"You talk of Art," said I, "as though there were nothing else in the
world worth living for."

"For me," said he sadly, "there is nothing else."

But when Oscar Wilde dedicated "The House of Pomegranates" to his wife
the love of Beauty and the love of humankind still seemed to go

The young King is possessed with a passion for beauty. The son of the
old King's daughter, by a secret marriage, his childhood and early youth
have been obscure, and he comes into his kingdom suddenly. We see him in
the Palace where are gathered rich stores of all rare and beautiful
things and his love for them is an instinct. The author in some
exquisite pages tells us of the glories of the King's house. Here, as in
the other book of which I have written, the mind of the reader is helped
to realise how beautiful luxury may be. I must quote the description of
the young King's sleeping-chamber--"The walls were hung with rich
tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty. A large press, inlaid
with agate and lapis lazuli, fitted one corner, and facing the window
stood a curiously wrought cabinet with lacquer panels of powdered and
mosaiced gold, on which were placed some delicate goblets of Venetian
glass and a cup of dark veined onyx. Pale poppies were broidered on the
silk coverlet of the bed, as though they had fallen from the tired hands
of sleep, and tall reeds of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from
which great tufts of ostrich plumes sprang like white foam, to the
pallid silver of the fretted ceiling. A laughing Narcissus in green
bronze held a polished mirror above its head. On the table stood a flat
bowl of amethyst."

But on the eve of the coronation, the King dreams a dream. He is borne
to the weavers' quarter and marks their weary toil, and the weaver of
his own coronation robe has terrible things to tell him.

"In war," answered the weaver, "the strong make slaves of the weak, and
in peace the rich make slaves of the poor. We must work to live, and
they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long,
and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away
before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn,
and our own board is empty. We have chains though no eye beholds them;
and are slaves, though men call us free."

"Sic vos non nobis!" The artist in words is still haunted by his master
Vergil's verses, and he had not listened to Ruskin all in vain. The
Pagan point of view is not that which prevailed in those happy months
when "The House of Pomegranates" was written. Perhaps Ruskin's socialism
made no very deep impression, but Christian Art had its message once for
Oscar Wilde.

The young King sees in his dreams the toil of the weaver, and the diver,
and of those who dig for the red rubies, and when he wakes he puts his
pomp aside. In vain do his courtiers chide him, in vain do those whom he
pities tell him that his way of redress is wrong and that "out of the
luxury of the rich cometh the life of the poor."

The King asks, "Are not the rich and the poor brothers?"

"Ay," answered the man in the crowd, "and the name of the rich brother
is Cain." So the young King comes to the Cathedral for his coronation
clad in his leathern tunic and the rough sheepskin cloak of other days,
and when the wise and worldly Bishop has told him in decorous words even
the same as his own courtiers said.

"Sayest thou that in this House?" said the young King, and he strode
past the Bishop, and climbed up the steps of the altar, and stood before
the Image of the Christ.

But I must not be tempted to continue the quotation of this lovely
story, and will only give its closing words--

"And the young King came down from the high altar, and passed home
through the midst of the people. But no man dared look upon his face,
for it was like the face of an angel."

Here once more is the music of the lectern which an Oxford man of years
ago cannot forget, and I wonder if this story of the young King was not
written some time before those others which complete the book.

"The Birthday of the Infanta" does not give me the same delight. It is,
of course, clever, as all was that Oscar Wilde ever touched, but it is
cruel whilst it accuses cruelty. And now and then we have a sentence or
a phrase which seems to have escaped revision. The story of the little
dwarf who made sport for the princess and whose heart was broken when he
found that she was pleased, not by his dances, but by his deformity, is
not like its predecessor in the volume, and the picture of "the little
dwarf lying on the ground and beating the floor with his clenched hands"
did not need the awkward addition "in the most fantastic and exaggerated
manner." But every poet, of course, _aliquando dormitat_, and I would
rather appreciate than criticise.

Two more stories complete this beautiful book and I think I have not
said yet how beautiful the type and binding and engravings are of this
edition of 1891 in which I am reading. If ever it is reprinted it should
have still the same sumptuous setting forth.

Wilde himself described the _format_ of the book in the following
passage:--"Mr Shannon is the drawer of the dreams, and Mr Ricketts is
the subtle and fantastic decorator. Indeed, it is to Mr Ricketts that
the entire decorative design of the book is due, from the selection of
the type and the placing of the ornamentation, to the completely
beautiful cover that encloses the whole.

"The artistic beauty of the cover resides in the delicate tracing,
arabesques, and massing of many coral-red lines on a ground of white
ivory, the colour effect culminating in certain high gilt notes, and
being made still pleasurable by the overlapping band of moss-green cloth
that holds the book together."

"The Fisherman and his Soul," recalls many stories and is very weird in
its conception. We think of Undine and of Peter Schmeidel and his
shadow; and again there is a reminiscence of "The Arabian Nights." Yet
once more it is the old burden of the song "Love is better than wisdom,
and more precious than riches, and fairer than the feet of the daughters
of men. The fires cannot destroy it, nor can the waters quench it." But
in the story there is seen distinctly the strong attraction which the
Ritual of The Catholic Church had for Oscar Wilde. Those who have read
that fine poem, "Rome Unvisited," which even the saintly recluse of the
Oratory at Edgbaston could praise, will understand how in the story of
the "Fisherman and his Soul" it is written.

"The Priest went up to the chapel, that he might show to the people the
wounds of the Lord, and speak to them about the wrath of God. And when
he had robed himself with his robes, and entered in and bowed himself
upon the altar, he saw that the altar was covered with strange flowers
that never had been seen before, and after that he had opened the
tabernacle, and incensed the monstrance that was in it, and shown the
fair wafer to the people, and hid it again behind the veils, he began to
speak to the people."

And now I come to "The Star-Child--inscribed to Miss Margot Tennant."

"He was white and delicate like swan ivory, and his curls were like the
rings of the daffodil. His lips, also, were like the petals of a red
flower, and his eyes were like violets by a river of pure water, and his
body like the narcissus of a field where the mower comes not." But his
heart was hard and his soul was selfish, and his evil ways wrought
mischief all around; so bitter sorrow fell upon him and his comeliness
departed, and in pain and grief he was purged from his sin.

This last is indeed a beautiful story, and not once is there sounded the
mocking note of cynical disdain of men. If one had taken up this tale
and known not whose pen had traced it, he would not hesitate to place it
in his children's hands.

Is it not good to think that tenderness and humility and patience are
seen herein to be more beautiful than all the precious things which are
loved so ardently by the artistic mind? I have shown, I hope, that in
both of these exquisite volumes, it may be seen that Oscar Wilde had
visions sometimes of the celestial city where the angels of the little
children do always behold the face of the Father. And if, as other
chapters of this volume may seem to show, the vision splendid died away
and faded all too soon, purgatorial pain came to the author, as to the
star-child in his story, and he who could build for his soul a lordly
pleasure house, and was driven forth from it, may enter it again when he
has purged his sin.




If a keynote were wanted to Oscar Wilde's verse it might be found in a
couple of stanzas by the poet whose work perhaps had the greatest share
in moulding his ideas and fashioning his style. Charles Baudelaire, with
all his love of the terrible and the morbid, was an incomparable
stylist, and in these lines has almost formulated a creed of art.

   "La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
    Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
    L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
    Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

    Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
    Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
    Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
    Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent."

We can picture to ourselves the young Oxford student studying these
lines over and over again till they had become part and parcel of

Wilde himself has left it on record that he "cannot imagine anyone with
the smallest pretensions to culture preferring a dexterously turned
triolet to a fine imaginative ballad." In the majority of his poems, the
beauties of nature, flowers, the song of birds and the music of running
water are introduced either incidentally or as the _leit motif_. In
fact, he was responsible for the dictum that what English poetry has to
fear is not the fascination of dainty metre or delicate form, but the
predominance of the intellectual spirit over the spirit of beauty.

That the expression of the beautiful need not necessarily be simple was
one of his earliest contentions. "Are simplicity and directness of
utterance," he asks, "absolute essentials for poetry?" and proceeds to
answer his own question. "I think not. They may be admirable for the
drama, admirable for all those imitative forms of literature that claim
to mirror life in its externals and its accidents, admirable for quiet
narrative, admirable in their place; but their place is not everywhere.
Poetry has many modes of music; she does not blow through one pipe
alone. Directness of utterance is good, but so is the subtle recasting
of thought into a new and delightful form. Simplicity is good, but
complexity, mystery, strangeness, symbolism, obscurity even, these have
their value. Indeed, properly speaking, there is no such thing as Style;
there are merely styles, that is all."

There we have a clear, concise and catholic statement of his literary
creed, and none other was to be expected from one to whom Baudelaire,
Poe, Keats, and Rossetti were so many masters whose influence was to be
carefully cultivated and whose methods were worthy of imitation and
study. His views on the subject of simplicity in verse should be read by
all who desire to understand his method and do justice to his work.

"We are always apt to think," he wrote, "that the voices which sang at
the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours,
and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which
they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and could pass,
almost without changing, into song. The snow lies thick now upon
Olympus, and its scarped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy,
the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the
morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the
vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or
think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every
century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the
work that seems to us the most natural and simple product of its time is
probably the result of the most deliberate and self-conscious effort.
For nature is always behind the age. It takes a great artist to be
thoroughly modern."

"Ravenna," the poem with which Oscar Wilde won the Newdigate Prize, we
find to be far above the average of such effusions, though possessing
most of the faults inherent in compositions of this kind. Grace and
even force of expression are not wanting, with here and there a pure
strain of sentiment and thought, and a keen appreciation of the beauties
of nature. Ever and anon we come across some sentence, some _tournure de
phrase_ which might belong to his later work, as for instance--

   "The crocus bed (that seems a moon of fire
    Round-girdled with a purple marriage-ring)."

But for the most part the poem is rather reminiscent of "Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage," and is chiefly interesting by reason of the promise it
holds forth.

The poems published in 1881 are preceded by some dedicatory verses
addressed to his wife which are characterised by great daintiness and
simplicity, instinct with tender affection and chivalrous homage.

"Helas," which forms a sort of preface to the collection, is chiefly
interesting on account of the prophetic pathos of the lines:

   "Surely there was a time I might have trod
    The sunlit heights, and from life's dissonance
    Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God."

"Ave Imperatrix" will come as a surprise to those unacquainted with
Wilde's works. Most people would have thought the author of "Dorian
Gray" the last man in the world to write a stirring patriotic poem which
would not be out of place in a collection of Mr Kipling's works. A copy
of _The World_ containing this poem found its way to an officer in Lord
Robert's force marching on Candahar, and evoked the enthusiasm and
admiration of the whole mess. As a proof of the author's originality and
care in the choice of similes he purposely discards the modern heraldic
device of the British lion for the more correct and ancient leopards,

   "The yellow leopards, strained and lean,
    The treacherous Russian knows so well
    With gaping blackened jaws are seen
    Leap through the hail of screaming shell."

There is a fine swing about the metre of this verse, and the description
of the leopards as "strained and lean" is a piece of word painting, a
felicity of expression that it would be difficult to improve on. The
whole poem is tense with patriotic fervour, nor is it wanting in
exquisitely pathetic touches, as for instance--

   "Pale women who have lost their lord
    Will kiss the relics of the slain--
    Some tarnished epaulette--some sword--
    Poor toys to soothe such anguished pain."


   "In vain the laughing girl will yearn
    To greet her love with love-lit eyes:
    Down in some treacherous ravine,
    Clutching the flag, the dead boy lies."

That he should have written such a poem is proof conclusive of the
author's extraordinary versatility, and though a comparatively early
production is worthy to rank with the finest war poems in the language.

Current events at that time attracted his pen for we find a set of
verses on the death of the ill-fated Prince Imperial, a sonnet on the
Bulgarian Christians, and others of a more or less patriotic character.
Few of these productions, however, invite a very serious criticism. They
were of the moment and for the moment, and have lost the appeal of
freshness and actuality.

In "The Garden of Eros" we get a good insight into Wilde's passionate
fondness for flowers, to whom they were human things with souls.
Probably no other verses of the poet so well define and express this
master passion of his life.

   "... Mark how the yellow iris wearily
    Leans back its throat, as though it would be kissed
    By its false chamberer, the dragon-fly."


   "And I will tell thee why the jacynth wears
    Such dread embroidery of dolorous moan."

or again

   "Close to a shadowy nook where half afraid
    Of their own loneliness some violets lie
    That will not look the gold sun in the face."

I remember a lady telling me once that she was in a London shop one day
when Wilde came in and asked as a favour that a lily be taken out of the
window because it looked so tired. This looking on flowers as real live
sentient things was no mere pose with him. He was thoroughly imbued with
the conviction that they were possessed of feeling, and throughout his
poetical work we shall find endless applications of this idea.

Of particular interest in this poem are the verses descriptive of the
various poets, his contemporaries. Swinburne he alludes to most happily,
as far as the neatness of phrase is concerned nothing could be better in
this regard than

   "And he hath kissed the lips of Proserpine
    And sung the Galilean's requiem."

William Morris, "our sweet and simple Chaucer's child," appeals to him
strangely. Many a summer's day he informs us he has "lain poring on the
dreamy tales his fancy weaves." His appreciation of Morris's verse is
keen and enthusiastic.

   "The little laugh of water falling down
    Is not so musical, the clammy gold
    Close hoarded in the tiny waxen town
    Has less of sweetness in it."

What a delicate metaphor that is, what an exquisite poet's fancy. Not
Keats himself could have surpassed the "clammy gold close hoarded in the
tiny waxen town"--it is worthy to rank with some of the daintiest
flights in the "Queen Mab speech," that modern Mercutios murder so

Like every verse writer of his time Oscar Wilde had felt the wondrous
influence of Rossetti, and no finer tribute to the painter could be
written than the lines--

                "All the World for him
    A gorgeous coloured vestiture must wear,
    And Sorrow take a purple diadem,
    Or else be no more Sorrow, and Despair
    Gild its own thorns, and Pain, like Adon, be
    Even in Anguish beautiful; such is the empery which Painters held."

There is a stately splendour about the flow of "a gorgeous coloured
vestiture," and one pauses to admire the choice of the last word, and
can picture the poet's delight when, like an artist in mosaic who has
hit upon the stone to fill up the remaining interstice, he lighted on
the word. It is essentially _le mot juste_, no other could have filled
its place. So also is there a peculiar happiness in the use of "empery."
There is a volume of sound and meaning in the word that could with
difficulty be surpassed.

In fact, in his choice of words Wilde always and for ever deserves the
glowing words of praise that Baudelaire addressed to Theodore de

   "Vous avez prélassé votre orgueil d'architecte
    Dans des constructions dont l'audace correcte
    Fait voir quelle sera votre maturité."

And when we come to a line like--

            "Against the pallid shield
    Of the wan sky the almond blossoms gleam"

we realise how thoroughly the praise would be deserved, and linger
lovingly on the lilting music of the words and the curious Japanese
setting of the picture evolved. The poem ends on a note like the drawing
in of a deep breath of country air after a prolonged sojourn in towns.

                          "Why soon
    The woodman will be here; how we have lived this night of June."

In "Requiescat" quite a different note is reached. The poem was written
after the death of a beloved sister; the sentiment rings true and the
very simplicity of the language conveys an atmosphere of real grief that
would have been entirely marred by the intrusion of any decorative or
highly-coloured phrase. The choice of Saxon words alone could produce
the desired effect, and the author has realised this and made use almost
exclusively of that material. Nor was he ill-advised to let himself be
influenced so far as the metre is concerned by Hood's incomparable
"Bridge of Sighs," and it was not in the metre alone that he availed
himself of that priceless gem of English verse--

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

is obviously inspired by

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

But, on the other hand, Hood himself might well have envied the
exquisite sentiment contained in--

   "Speak gently, she can hear
    The daisies grow."

The lines were written at Avignon, surely the place of all others, with
its memories and its mediæval atmosphere, to inspire a poem, the dignity
and beauty of which are largely due to the simplicity of its wording.

During this period of travel we are struck by two things. Firstly, how
deeply impressed the young poet was by the mysteries of the Catholic
Faith and how his indignation flamed up at the new Italian _régime_;
secondly, how apparent the influence of Rossetti is in the sonnets he
then wrote.

His sympathies were all with the occupant of St Peter's chair.

   "But when I knew that far away at Rome
    In evil bonds a second Peter lay,
    I wept to see the land so very fair."

and again

   "Look southward where Rome's desecrated town
    Lies mourning for her God-anointed King!
    Look heavenward! Shall God allow this thing
    Not but some flame-girt Raphael shall come down,
    And smite the Spoiler with the sword of pain."

In "San Miniato" the influence of Rome upon the young man's mind finds
expression in words which might have been written by a son of the Latin

   "O crowned by God with thorns and pain!
    Mother of Christ! O mystic wife!
    My heart is weary of this life
    And over sad to sing again,"

he writes, and ends with the invocation--

   "O crowned by God with love and flame!
    O crowned by Christ the Holy One!
    O listen ere the scorching sun
    Show to the world my sin and shame."

Nor can it be wondered at that the devotion to the Madonna which forms
so essential a feature of the Catholic Faith should impress his young
and ardent spirit as it does nearly every artist to whom the poetic
beauty of this side of It naturally appeals.

The Pope's captivity moved him again and again to express his
indignation in verse, and from his poem, "Easter Day" we can gather how
deeply he was impressed both by the stately ceremonial at St Peter's and
by the sight of the despoiled Pontiff. At this time also he seems to
have been more or less yearning after a more spiritual mode of life than
he has been leading, at least so one gathers from poems like "E
Tenebris" in which he tells us that--

   "The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
    My heart is as some famine-murdered land
    Whence all good things have perished utterly
    And well I know my soul in Hell must be,
    If I this night before God's throne should stand."

That he had visions of a possible time when a complete change should be
worked in his spiritual condition seems clear from the concluding lines
of "Rome Unvisited."

   "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."

Apart from the light these poems throw upon his mental and spiritual
attitude at that period, they are extremely interesting as revealing the
literary influences governing him at the time. I have already referred
to the resemblance between his sonnets and the more finished ones of
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and this point cannot better be illustrated than
by placing the work of the two men in juxtaposition.

If we take, for instance, Rossetti's "Lady of the Rocks."

   "Mother, is this the darkness of the end,
      The Shadow of Death? and is that outer sea
      Infinite imminent Eternity?
    And does the death-pang by man's seed sustained
    In Time's each instant cause thy face to bend
      Its silent prayer upon the Son, while He
      Blesses the dead with His hand silently
    To His long day which hours no more offend?
    Mother of grace, the pass is difficult,
    Keen as these rocks, and the bewildered souls
      Throng it like echoes, blindly shuddering through.
    Thy name, O Lord, each spirit's voice extols,
      Whose peace abides in the dark avenue
    Amid the bitterness of things occult."

and compare it with "E Tenebris." We are at once struck with the same
mode of expression, the same train of thought and the same deep note of
pain in the two poems.

And again take Wilde's "Madonna Mia"--

   "I stood by the unvintageable sea
      Till the wet waves drenched face and hair with spray,
      The long red fires of the dying day
    Burned in the west; the wind piped drearily;
    And to the land the clamorous gulls did flee:
      'Alas!' I cried, 'my life is full of pain,
      And who can garner fruit or golden grain,
    From these waste fields which travail ceaselessly!'
    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!"

and compare it with Rossetti's "Venetian Pastoral" and "Mary's
Girlhood," and we can almost imagine that the painter was holding up
pictures to inspire the young poet.

   "Red underlip drawn in for fear of love
    And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,"

might almost have been written by Rossetti himself.

More characteristically original are the lines--

                      "I saw
    From the black waters of my tortured past
    The argent splendour of white limbs ascend,"

from the "Vita Nuova," though one cannot fail to perceive a faint
Baudelairian note.

   "Where behind lattice window scarlet wrought and gilt
    Some brown-limbed girl did weave thee tapestry,"

at once reminds us of the Rossetti influence.

The poem itself shows considerable skill in construction and deftness in
the moulding of the sentences, moreover, there is a freshness in the
treatment of the theme that a less original writer would have found
great difficulty in imparting. Here again we see the Catholic note as
when he writes--

                "Never mightest thou see
    The face of Her, before whose mouldering shrine
    To-day at Rome the silent nations kneel;
    Who got from Love no joyous gladdening,
    But only Love's intolerable pain,
    Only a sword to pierce her heart in twain,
    Only the bitterness of child-bearing."

There is one especially fine bit of imagery--

   "The lotus-leaves which heal the wounds of death
    Lie in thy hand--"

which bears the very truest imprint of poetry.

With the poet's return to England, a reaction took place, and the sight
of English woodlands and English lanes caused a strong revulsion of

   "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."

The green fields and the smell of the good brown earth come as a
refreshing contrast to the incense laden atmosphere of foreign
cathedrals. And yet his fancy delights in commingling the two. In the
"violet-gleaming" butterflies he finds Roman Monsignore (he anglicises
the word by the way and gives it a plural "s,"), a lazy pike is "some
mitred old Bishop _in partibis_," and "The wind, the restless prisoner
of the trees, does well for Palestrina."

He revels in the contrast that the refreshing simplicity of rural
England presents to the pomp and splendour of Rome. The "lingering
orange afterglow" is "more fair than all Rome's lordliest pageants." The
"blue-green beanfields" "tremulous with the last shower" bring sweeter
perfume at eventide than "the odorous flame-jewelled censers the young
deacons swing." Bird life suggests the conceit that--

    "Poor Fra Giovanni bawling at the Mass,
          Were out of tune now for a small brown bird
                Sings overhead."

His love of nature, his passion for flowers and the music of nature find
continued and ecstatic expression.

    "Sweet is the swallow twittering on the eaves."

Everything appeals to him, "the heavy lowing cattle stretching their
huge and dripping mouths across the farmyard gate," the mower whetting
his scythe, the milkmaid carolling blithely as she trips along.

   "Sweet are the hips upon the Kentish leas,
      And sweet the wind that lifts the new-mown hay,
    And sweet the fretful swarms of grumbling bees
      That round and round the linden blossoms play;
    And sweet the heifer breathing on the stall
      And the green bursting figs that hang upon the red-brick wall."

No matter that he mixes up the seasons somewhat and that having sung of
bursting figs he refers, in the next line, to the cuckoo mocking the
spring--"when the last violet loiters by the well"--the poem is still a
pastoral breathing its fresh flower-filled atmosphere of the English
countryside. Wilde is, however, saturated with classical lore and
(though on some minds the fantasy may jar) he introduces Daphnus and
Linus, Syrinx and Cytheræa. But he is faithful to his English land, he
talks of roses which "all day long in vales Æolian a lad might seek for"
and which "overgrows our hedges like a wanton courtesan, unthrifty of
its beauty," a real Shakespearean touch. "Many an unsung elegy," he
tells us, "Sleeps in the reeds that fringe our winding Thames." He
peoples the whole countryside with faun and nymph--

   "Some Mænad girl with vine leaves on her breast
    Will filch their beech-nuts from the sleeping Pans,
    So softly that the little nested thrush
    Will never wake, and then will shrilly laugh and leap will rush
    Down the green valley where the fallen dew
    Lies thick beneath the elm and count her store,
    Till the brown Satyrs in a jolly crew
    Trample the loosetrife down along the shore,
    And where their horned master sits in state
    Bring strawberries and bloomy plums upon a wicker crate."

And yet the religious influence still makes itself felt.

   "Why must I behold [he exclaims]
    The wan white face of that deserted Christ
    Whose bleeding hands my hands did once enfold?"

but it is only momentary, and once more he sports with the sylvan gods
and goddesses till

   "The heron passes homeward from the mere,
    The blue mist creeps among the shivering trees,
    Gold world by world the silent stars appear
    And like a blossom blows--before the breeze
    A white moon drifts across the shimmering sky."

and he hears "the curfew booming from the bell at Christ Church gate."

Wilde never wrote anything better in verse than this with the single
exception of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." The poem deserves to rank
among the finest pastorals in the language. It is essentially musical,
written with artistic restraint and with a discrimination of the use of
words and their combination that marks the great artist. It is a true
nature poem and it will appeal to all those who prefer musical verse to
the artificial manufacture of rhymes, and simple sentences to the
torturing of words into unheard-of combinations.

As a contrast to it comes the "Magdalen Walks" which, in construction
and rhythm, is somewhat lacking in ease and freedom. It is a curious
thing that Wilde's affections seemed to alternate between the unordered
simplicity of English woods and meadows and the trim artificial
parterres and bouquets of Versailles or Sans Souci. There is a
constraint about the metre of this poem which does rather suggest a man
walking along a trim avenue from which he can perceive flowers, meadows
and riotous hedges--in the distance. There is also a suggestion of
Tennyson's "Maud" about--

   "And the plane to the pine tree is whispering some tale of love
    Till it rustles with laughter and tosses its mantle of green
    And the gloom of the wych elm's hollow is lit with the iris sheen
    Of the burnished rainbow throat and the silver breast of a dove."

"Impression du Matin" might be said to be a successful attempt to render
a Whistler pastel into verse, but there is a human note about the last
verse that elevates the poem far above such a mere _tour de force_, and
there is a fine sense of effect in the picture of the "pale woman all
alone" standing in the glimmering light of the gas lamp as the rays of
the sun just touch her hair.

"A Serenade" and "Endymion" possess all the qualities that a musical
setting demands, but do not call for especial comment. It is, however,
in "La Bella Donna della mia Mante" that the expression of the poet's
genius finds vent.

   "As a pomegranate, cut in twain,
    White-seeded, is her crimson mouth"

is as perfect a metaphor as one could well wish to find.

"Charmides" is a more ambitious effort than anything he had yet
attempted. The word-painting is obviously inspired by Keats, for whose
work he had an intense admiration. Such lines as "Came a great owl with
yellow sulphurous eyes," and "Vermilion-finned with eyes of bossy gold"
might have been taken straight out of "Lamia," so truly has he caught
the spirit of his master. But if enamoured of Keats's gorgeous colouring
Wilde revelled in the construction of jewelled phrase and crimson line,
there is another source of inspiration noticeable in the poem. Had
Shakespeare never written "Venus and Adonis," Wilde might have written
"Charmides" but it would not have been the same poem. The difference
between the true poet who has studied the great verse of bygone ages and
the mere imitator is that one will produce a work of art enhanced by the
suggestions derived from the contemplation of the highest conception of
genius, whereas the other will outrun the constable and merely
accentuate and burlesque the distinguishing characteristics of the work
of others. In the case in point, whilst we note with pleasure and
interest the points of resemblance between the poem and the models that
its author has followed, we are conscious that what we are reading is a
work of art in itself and that its intrinsic merits are enhanced by the
points of resemblance and do not depend on them for their existence.

There is another poem--"Ballade de Marguerite"--which recalls memories
of Keats, closely resembling as it does "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."
Rarely has the old ballad form been more successfully treated. We catch
the very spirit of mediævalism in the lines--

   "Perchance she is kneeling in St. Denys
    (On her soul may our Lady have grammercy!)
    Ah, if she is praying in lone chapelle
    I might swing the censer and ring the bell."

It is so easy to overdo the thing, to produce a bad counterfeit made up
of Wardour Street English, that to retain the simplicity of language and
the slight _soupçon_ of Chaucerian English requires all the skill of a
master craftsman, and the intimate knowledge of the value and date of
words that can only result from a close acquaintance with the works of
the ballad writers.

In "The Dole of the King's Daughter" Wilde again essays the ballad form,
but this time the treatment shows more traces of the Rossetti influence.
The ballad spirit is maintained with unerring skill and the form
perfectly adhered to throughout. To quote good old Izaak
Walton--"old-fashioned poetry but choicely good."

As conveying the idea of impending tragedy nothing could be more
effective than the simplicity of the lines

   "There are two that ride from the south and east
    And two from the north and west,
    For the black raven a goodly feast
    For the king's daughter rest."

In this ballad as in the "Chanson" he uses the old device, so common in
ancient ballads, of making the alternate lines parenthetical, as, for

   "There is one man who loves her true,
    (Red, O red, is the stain of gore!)
    He hath duggen a grave by the darksome yew,
    (One grave will do for four)."

A rather clever parody of this mode of construction is worth quoting


(_By a Fading-out Æsthete_)

   "My love is as fair as a lily flower.
      (_The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!_)
    Oh, bright are the blooms in her maiden bower.
      (_Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!_)

    Her face is as wan as the water white.
      (_The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!_)
    Alack! she heedeth it never at all.
      (_Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!_)

    The China plate it is pure on the wall.
      (_The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!_)
    With languorous loving and purple pain.
      (_Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!_)

    And woe is me that I never may win;
      (_The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!_)
    For the Bard's hard up, and she's got no tin.
      (_Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!_)"

Among the sonnets written at this period the one on Keats's grave in
which he does homage to him whom he reverenced as a master is especially
felicitous in its ending--

   "Thy name was writ in water--it shall stand
    And tears like mine will keep thy memory green
    As Isabella did her Basil-tree."

Than the graceful introducing of Keats's poem no more delicate epitaph
could be well imagined. Shelley's last resting-place likewise inspired
his pen and there is an "Impression de Voyage" written at Katakolo at
the period of his visit to Greece in company with Professor Mahaffy, the
concluding line of which, "I stood upon the soil of Greece at last,"
conveys more by its reticence than could be expressed in volumes.

Of his five theatrical sonnets headed "Impressions de Theatre," one is
addressed to the late Sir Henry Irving and the three others to Miss
Ellen Terry. It is curious that of the three Shakespearean characters he
mentioned as worthier of the actor's great talents than Fabiendei
Franchi--viz. Lear, Romeo, and Richard III.,--the only one that Irving
ever played was Romeo, and in that part he was a decided failure, which,
considering his peculiar mannerisms and method, as well as his age at
the time, was not to be wondered at. The fifth was probably intended for
Madame Sarah Bernhardt, whose wonderful rendering of Phèdre could not
fail to deeply impress so cultured a critic as the author of these

In "Panthea" Oscar Wilde gives rein to his amorous fancy, and, inspired
by the poets of Greece and Rome, peoples the world with gods and
goddesses who mourn the old glad pagan days--

   "Back to their lotus-haunts they turn again
    Kissing each other's mouths, and mix more deep
    The poppy-seeded draught which brings soft purple-lidded sleep."

How rich is the language here employed, how exquisite the lilt of "soft
purple-lidded sleep." Not even Tennyson in "The Lotus Eaters" has done
anything better than this. And how delicately expressed is the idea
embodied in the lines--

   "There in the green heart of some garden close
    Queen Venus with the shepherd at her side,
    Her warm soft body like the briar rose
    Which should be white yet blushes at its pride--"

or, how tender the fancy that inspired

   "So when men bury us beneath the yew
    Thy crimson-stained mouth a rose will be,
    And thy soft eyes lush bluebells dimmed with dew."

None but a poet could have written those lines; the stately wording of
the second line is purposely chosen to enhance the perfect simplicity of
the third.

The poems comprised within "The Fourth Movement" include the
"Impression," "Le Reveillon," the first verse of which runs--

   "The sky is laced with fitful red,
    The circling mists and shadows flee,
    The dawn is rising from the sea,
    Like a white lady from her bed--"

which inspired the parodist with--


(_By Oscuro Wildgoose_)


   "My little fancy's clogged with gush,
    My little lyre is false in tone,
    And when I lyrically moan,
    I hear the impatient critic's 'Tush!'

    But I've 'Impressions.' These are grand!
    Mere dabs of words, mere blobs of tint,
    Displayed on canvas or in print,
    Men laud, and think they understand.

    A smudge of brown, a smear of yellow,
    No tale, no subject,--there you are!
    Impressions!--and the strangest far
    Is--that the bard's a clever fellow."

I quote the two parodies to show how little Oscar Wilde's verse was
appreciated by his contemporaries. There is an unfairness and
misrepresentation about them which is significant of how the poet's
poses and extravagancies had prejudiced the public mind.

In the two love poems "Apologia" and "Quia multi Amori" a deeper key is
struck, and a note of pain predominates. There is a restraint about the
versification and the colour of the words that strikes the right chord
and tunes the lyre to a subdued note.

The underlying passion and regret find their supreme expression in the

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

The "hadst thou liked me less and loved me more" deserves to pass into
the language with Richard Lovelace's

   "I could not love thee, dear, so much,
    Loved I not honour more."

In "Humanitad" we get a view of the country in winter time, and

   "The gaunt bittern stalks among the reeds
      And flaps his wings, and stretches back his neck,
    And hoots to see the moon; across the meads
      Limps the poor frightened hare, a little speck;
    And a stray seamew with its fretful cry
      Flits like a sudden drift of snow against the dull grey sky."

The picture is complete, we see the bare countryside, the sky grey with
impending snow, and the animal life introduced uttering nature's cry of
desolation. But hope is not dead in the poet's breast; he sees where,
when springtime comes, "nodding cowslips" will bloom again and the hedge
on which the wild rose--"That sweet repentance of the thorny
briar"--will blossom out. He runs through the whole flower calendar,
using the old English names "boy's-love," "sops in wine," and

   "Soon will the glade be bright with bellamour
    The flower which wantons love and those sweet nuns
    Vale-lilies in their snowy vestiture,
    Will tell their beaded pearls, and carnations
    With mitred dusky leaves will scent the wind
    And straggling traveller's joy each hedge with yellow stars will bind."

Once more we note how the flowers are personalities for him, a view
which could not long escape the humorists of _Punch_, and which was
amply taken advantage of by the writer of some burlesque verses, two of
which are sufficiently amusing to quote--

   "My long lithe lily, my languid lily,
       My lank limp lily-love, how shall I win--
    Woo thee to wink at me? Silver lily,
    How shall I sing to thee, softly, or shrilly?
       What shall I weave for thee--which shall I spin--
           Rondel, or rondeau, or virelay?
       Shall I buzz like a bee, with my face thrust in
       Thy choice, chaste chalice, or choose me a tin
           Trumpet, or touchingly, tenderly play
       On the weird bird-whistle, _sweeter than sin_,
           That I bought for a halfpenny, yesterday?

    My languid lily, my lank limp lily,
       My long, lithe lily-love, men may grin--
    Say that I'm soft and supremely silly--
    What care I, while you whisper stilly;
       What care I, while you smile? Not a pin!
           While you smile, while you whisper--'Tis sweet to decay!
       I have watered with chlorodine, tears of chagrin,
       The churchyard mould I have planted thee in,
           Upside down, in an intense way,
       In a rough red flower-pot, _sweeter than sin_,
           That I bought for a halfpenny, yesterday!"

Nature appeals to Oscar Wilde in all her moods, and though he might at
times assume the pose of preferring art to nature, he gives expression
to his real feelings when he exclaims:

   "Ah! somehow life is bigger after all
    Than any painted Angel could we see
    The God that is within us!"

The lines speak for themselves and are strongly indicative of his
attitude towards nature and art at that period. The true spirit of
Catholicism had gripped him; the influence of Rome was at work, though
enfeebled, and remained latent within him till in his hour of passing he
found peace in the bosom of the great Mother, who throughout the ages
has always held out her arms to the sinner and the outcast.

There has always been a certain amount of mystery attached to another
poem of Wilde's called "The Harlot's House," written at the same period
as "The Duchess of Padua" and "The Sphinx"--that is, when he was living
in the Hotel Voltaire. It was originally published in a magazine not
later than June 1885. It is a curious thing that all researches up to
the present as to the name of the publication have proved fruitless, and
that the approximate date of the appearance of the verses has been
arrived at by reference to a parody entitled "The Public House," which
appeared in _The Sporting Times_, of all papers in the world, on 13th
June 1885. First, an edition of the poem was brought out privately by
the Methuen Press in 1904 with five illustrations by Althea Gyles, in
which the bizarre note is markedly, though artistically, dominant.
Another edition was privately printed in London in 1905 in paper

The idea of this short lyrical poem is that the poet stands outside a
house and watches the shadows of the puppet dancers "race across the

"The dancers swing in a waltz of Strauss"--the "Treues Liebes
Herz"--"like strange mechanical grotesques" or "black leaves wheeling in
the wind." The marionettes whirl in the ghostly dance, and----

   "Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
      A phantom lover to her breast,
    Sometimes they seemed to try and sing."

The man turns to his companion and remarks that "the dead are dancing
with the dead," but drawn by the music she enters the house. As Love
enters the house of Lust the gay seductive music changes to a discord,
and the horrible shadows disappear. Then the dawn breaks, creeping down
the silent street "like a frightened girl."

That is all, but as a high specimen of imagina-verse it stands alone.
That the author was inspired by memories of Baudelaire and Poe is beyond
dispute. Nevertheless, the poem, in conception as well as execution, is
essentially original. The puppet dancers' _motif_ was afterwards
introduced by him with telling effect as we shall see later in "The
Ballad of Reading Gaol." Hardly ever have the bizarre and the _macabre_
been used with such artistic effect as in this short poem, nor have the
imaginative gifts of its author ever found a finer scope. If he had
written nothing else than these lines they would confer immortality on
him. Like all truly great work they are imperishable and will form part
of English literature when far more widely read effusions are set aside
and forgotten.

I have remarked on the original character of the poem in spite of its
obvious sources of inspiration, and there can be no better way of
verifying this than by giving an example of Baudelaire's own incursion
into puppet land--


  "_Fière, autant qu'un vivant, de sa noble stature,
    Avec son gros bouquet son mouchoir et ses gants,
    Elle a la nonchalance et la désinvolture
    D'un coquette maigre aux airs extravagants._

   _Vit-on jamais au bal une taille plus mince?
    Sa robe exagérée, en sa royale ampleur,
    S'ecroule abondamment sur un pied sec que pince
    Un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur._

   _La ruche qui se joue au bord des clavicules,
    Comme un ruisseau lascif qui se frotte au rocher,
    Défend pudiquement des lazzi ridicules
    Les funèbres appas qu'elle tient à cacher._

   _Ses yeux profonds sont faits de vide et de ténèbres,
    Et son crâne, de fleurs artistement coiffé,
    Oscille mollement sur ses frêles vertèbres,
    --O charme d'un néant follement attifé!_

   _Aucuns t'appelleront une caricature,
    Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair,
    L'élégance sans nom de l'humaine armature,
    Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon gout le plus cher!_

   _Viens-tu troubler, avec ta puissante grimace,
    La fête de la Vie? ou quelque vieux désir,
    Eperonnant encor ta vivant carcasse,
    Te pousse-t-il, crédule, au sabbat du Plaisir?_

   _Au chant des violons, aux flammes des bougies,
    Espères-tu chasser ton cauchemar moqueur,
    Et viens-tu demander au torrent des orgies
    De rafraîchir l'enfer allumé dans ton coeur?_

   _Inépuisable quits de sottise et de fautes!
    De l'antique douleur éternel alambic!
    A travers le treillis recourbé de tes côtes
    Je vois, errant encor, l'insatiable aspic._

   _Pour dire vrai, je crains que ta coquetterie
    Ne trouve pas un prix digne de ses efforts;
    Qui, de ces soeurs mortels, entend la raillerie?
    Les charmes de l'horreur n'enivrent que les forts!_

   _Le gouffre de tes yeux, plein d'horrible pensées,
    Exhale le vertige, et les danseurs prudents
    Ne contempleront pas sans d'amères nausées
    Le sourire éternel de tes trente-deux dents._

   _Pourtant, qui n'a serré dans ses bras un squelette,
    Et qui ne s'est nourri des choses du tombeau?
    Qu'importe le parfum, l'habit ou la toilette?
    Qui fait le dégoûté montre qu'il se croit beau._

   _Bayadère sans nez, irrésistible gouge,
    Dis donc à ces danseurs qui font les offusqués:
    'Fiers mignons, malgré l'art des poudres et du rouge,
    Vous sentez tous la mort!' O squelettes musques._

   _Antinous flétris, dandys à face glabre,
    Cadavres vernisses, lovelaces chenus,
    Le branle universel de la danse macabre
    Vous entraine en des lieux qui ne sont pas connus!_

   _Des quais froids de la Seine aux bords brûlants du Gange,
    Le troupeau mortel saute et se pâme, sans voir,
    Dans un trou du plafond la trompette de l'Ange
    Sinistrement béante ainsi qu'un tromblon noir._

   _En tout climat, sous ton soleil, la Mort t'admire
    En tes contorsions, risible Humanité,
    Et souvent, comme toi, se parfumant de myrrhe,
    Mêle son ironie à ton insanité!_"

The French poem lacks the simplicity and the directness of its English
fellow. It appears overloaded and artificial in comparison, and above
all it lacks the music which results from the juxtaposition of the
Anglo-Saxon a, e, i, and u sounds, and the Latin ahs and ohs.

But, on the other hand, as an example of the precious and artificial in
literature, a further poem of Wilde's written at this period, "The
Sphinx," reveals another phase of his extraordinarily versatile genius.

The metre of the poem is the same as that of "In Memoriam," though,
owing to the stanzas being arranged in two long lines instead of the
fairly short ones in Tennyson's poem, this might at first escape
attention. The poet at the time of writing we learn had

                      "hardly seen
    Some twenty summers cast their green for Autumn's gaudy liveries."

(which would seem to indicate that this part, at any rate, was written
at an earlier period than the rest of the poem), and in the very first
lines he tells us that--

   "In a dim corner of my rooms far longer than my fancy thinks
    A beautiful and silent sphinx has watched me through the silent gloom."

Day and night--

                "this curious cat
    Lies crouching on the Chinese mat with eyes of satin rimmed with gold."

Here we have in a very few words an exact picture of this "exquisite
grotesque half-woman and half-animal," whom, after the manner of Edgar
Allan Poe with his raven, he proceeds to apostrophise--

   "Oh tell me" [he begins] "were you standing by when Isis to Osiris
    And did you watch the Egyptian melt her union for Antony?"

and plies her with many questions of similar nature. Presently he
adjures her--

   "Lift up your large black satin eyes which are like cushions where one
    Fawn at my feet, Sphinx! and sing me all your memories."

This idea of comparing the velvet depths of the eyes to "cushions where
one sinks" is quaint and original, though distinctly decadent, nor is
the note of the _macabre_ wanting, as--

   "When through the purple corridors the screaming scarlet Ibis flew
    In terror, and a horrid dew dripped from the moaning mandragores."

There is a wonderful use of contrast in the introduction of sweating
mandragores in connection with the purple of the corridors and the
scarlet plumage of the Ibis. How daring, likewise, the grotesque note
introduced as he recites the catalogue of her possible lovers and asks--

   "Did giant Lizards come and couch before you on the reedy banks?
    Did Gryphons with great metal flanks leap on you in your trampled
    Did monstrous hippopotami come sidling towards you in the mist?
    Did gilt-scaled dragons writhe and twist with passion as you passed
      them by?"

The speaker will find out the secret of her amours. There is nothing too
bizarre, too monstrous to include in the list.

   "Had you shameful secret quests" [he asks] "and did you hurry to your
    Some nereid coiled in amber foam with curious rock crystal breasted?"

Not Baudelaire himself could have invented anything more precious than
the description of this sea-nymph, but the gruesome must be introduced.
"Did you," he inquires,

   "Steal to the border of the bar and swim across the silent lake?
    And slink into the vault and make the Pyramid your lupanar,
    Till from each black sarcophagus rose up the painted swathèd dead?"

Wilde catalogues through the whole Egyptian mythology; he is inclined to
give first place to "Ammon."

   "You kissed his mouth with mouths of flame: you made the hornèd god
      your own:
    You stood behind him on his throne: you called him by his secret name.
    You whispered monstrous oracles into the caverns of his ears:
    With blood of goats and blood of steers you taught him monstrous

Decadent the idea may be, but how cleverly, how subtly the effects are
produced and how well sustained is the atmosphere of chimerical,
nightmare horrors. Wilde makes use of the impression derived from the
contemplation of colossal figures--the Egyptian galleries of the Louvre
were, one may be certain, a daily haunt of his at the time--and he
describes--"Nine cubits span" and his limbs are "Widespread as a tent at
noon," but he was of flesh and blood for all that.

    "His thick soft throat was white as milk and threaded with thin veils
       of blue,"

and he was royally clad, for--

    "Curious pearls like frozen dew were embroidered on his flaming silk."

His love of rare and beautiful things finds an outlet in the description
of the jewels and retinue of the god.

   "Before his gilded galliot ran naked vine-wreathed corybantes,
    And lines of swaying elephants knelt down to draw his chariot."

Barbaric splendour and Eastern gorgeousness we have here and in one line
the sense of immense wealth is conveyed--

   "The meanest cup that touched his lips was fashioned from a chrysolite."

But now--

   "The god is scattered here and there: deep hidden in the windy sand
    I saw his giant granite hand still clenchèd in impotent despair."

And he bids her--

   "Go seek the fragments on the moor and wash them in the evening dew,
    And from their pieces make anew thy mutilated paramour."

With mocking irony he tells her to "wake mad passions in the senseless

He counsels her to return to Egypt, her lovers are not dead--

                      "They will rise up and hear your voice
    And clash their cymbals and rejoice and run to kiss your mouth!..."

He advises to--

    "Follow some raving lion's spoor across the copper-coloured plain,"

and take him as a lover or to mate with a tiger--

   "And toy with him in amorous jests, and when he turns and snarls and
    O smite him with your jasper claws! and bruise him with your agate

But "her sullen ways" pall on him, her presence fills him with horror,
"poisonous and heavy breath makes the light flicker in the lamp."

The poet wonders what "songless tongueless ghost of sin crept through
the curtains of the night." He drives the cat away with every
opprobrious epithet for she wakes in him "each bestial sense" and makes
him what he "would not be." She makes his "creed a barren shame," and
wakes "foul dreams of sensual life," and with a return to sanity he
chases her away. "Go thou before," he cries,

                          "And leave me to my crucifix
    Whose pallid burden sick with pain watches the world with wearied eyes
    And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in pain."

On this note of pessimism and refusal the poem ends. In the realm of the
fantastic it has no equal and though the objection may be raised that
the whole thing is unhealthy, the truth is that it is merely an
experimental excursion in the abnormal. It has all the fantastic
unreality of Chinese dragons, and, therefore, can in no way be harmful.
The nightmare effect has no lasting influence. We read it as we would
any other imaginative grotesque. But whilst we are alternately
fascinated and repulsed by the subject, we are lost in admiration of the
decorative treatment of the theme. The whole performance is artificial,
but so is all Oriental art.

It is true that Baudelaire's poems, with their morbid, highly polished
neurotic qualities, had fascinated the young artist and exercised a
powerful influence over him, but "The Sphinx" was an achievement apart
and totally different from any other of his poems. It is more in the
nature of an extravaganza, an opium dream described in finely chiselled,
richly tinted phrases. Every young poet goes through various phases and
this was only a phase in the author's literary career. Nothing could be
better than the workmanship, and that the poem should so rivet the
attention and attract where it most repels is the greatest tribute to
the genius of its creator. It is essentially a weird conception
expressed in haunting cadences, an esoteric gem for all those who have
brains to think and the necessary artistic sense to appreciate really
good work. That persons of inferior mental calibre and narrow views
should be shocked by it is only to be expected, and the author himself
excused the delay in publishing it by explaining that "it would destroy
domesticity in England!" The original edition, it may be mentioned, was
published in September 1894 by Messrs Elkin Mathews and John Lane, and
was limited to two hundred copies issued at 42s. with twenty-five on
larger paper at 105s. It was magnificently illustrated by Mr C. R.
Ricketts, the delicacy and distinction of whose work is too well known
to need comment.

In striking contrast to the artificiality and decadent character of "The
Sphinx" stands the author's imperishable "Ballad of Reading Gaol." What
the circumstances were that led to the writing of this great masterpiece
have been already sufficiently dealt with in the earlier portion of this
work. It has been aptly said that all great art has an underlying note
of pain and sorrow, beautiful work may be produced without it, but not
the work that is worthy to rank among the great creative masterpieces of
the world. "Quand un homme et une poésie," writes Barbey d'Aubrevilly,
"ont dévalé si bas dans la conscience de l'incurable malheur qui est
fond de toutes les voluptés de l'existence poésie et homme ne peuvent
plus que remonter." There can be no doubt that this poem could never
have been written but for the terrible ordeal the poet had been through.
It is incomparably Wilde's finest poetic work--great, not only by reason
of its beauty, but great on account of the feeling for suffering
humanity, his power to enter into the sorrows of others and to forget
his own trials in the sympathetic contemplation of the agony of his
fellow-sufferers which it reveals. The words of another distinguished
French critic might almost have been written about him:

     "Désormais divorcée d'avec l'enseignement historique, philosophique
     et scientifique, la poésie se trouve ramenée à so fonction
     naturelle et directe, qui est de réaliser pour nous la vie,
     complémentaire du rêve, du souvenir, de l'espérance, du désir; de
     donner un corps à ce qu'il y a d'insaisissable dans nos pensées et
     de secret dans le mouvement de nos âmes; de nous consoler ou de
     nous châtier par l'expression de l'ideal ou par le spectacle de nos
     vices. Elle devient non pas _individuelle_, suivant la prédiction
     un peu hasardeuse de l'auteur de _Jocelyn_, mais _personnelle_, si
     nous sous-entendons que l'ame du poëte est nécessairement une âme
     collective, une corde sensible et toujours tendue que font vibrer
     les passions et les douleurs de ses semblables."

With Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," "Reading Gaol," holds first place
amongst the ballads of the world, and by many critics it is held, by
reason of its deep feeling and anguished intensity, to be a finer piece
of work than the older poet's _chef d'oeuvre_.

Although the author's identity was concealed under the cypher "C33,"
there was never a moment's doubt as to who the writer was. It came as a
shock to the British public that the man who, but a couple of years
before, had stood in the public pillory, the man whose work the great
majority, who had never even read it, believed to be artificial,
meretricious, and superficial, should be the author of a deeply moving
poem that could be read by the most prudish and strait-laced.

_The Times_, that great organ of English respectability, devoted a
leading article to it of a highly eulogistic character. The edition was
sold out at once, and the book was on all men's tongues. Wherever one
went one heard it discussed, priest and philistine were as loud in their
praises of it as the most decadent of minor poets. No poem had for a
generation met with such a friendly reception or caused such a

A critical notice of the poem from the pen of Lady Currie appeared in
_The Fortnightly Review_ for July 1904. In it the author writes of the
"terrible 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' with its splendours and inequalities,
its mixture of poetic farce, crude realism, and undeniable pathos." As
to the crudeness of the realism, that is a mere matter of opinion: it is
easy to supply an adjective--it is more difficult to justify the use of
it, and give satisfactory reasons for its application. Realistic the
poem doubtless is--crude, never, but the writer shows a far keener
appreciation when she says--"all is grim, concentrated tragedy from
cover to cover. A friend of mine," Lady Currie says, "who looked upon
himself as a judge in such matters, told me that he would have placed
certain passages in this poem, by reason of their terrible, tragic
intensity, upon a level with some of the descriptions in Dante's
'Inferno,' were it not that 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' was so much
more infinitely human."

Among the many laudatory notices that appeared at the time, there is an
extract from a review of the work taken from a great London paper and
quoted by a French writer which is worth reprinting as showing the
attitude of the press towards the poem.

     "The whole is awful as the pages of Sophocles. That he has rendered
     with his fine art so much of the essence of his life and the life
     of others in that inferno to the sensitive is a memorable thing for
     the social scientist, but a much more memorable thing for
     literature. This is a simple, a poignant, a great ballad, one of
     the greatest in the English language."

Never, perhaps, since Gray's "Elegy" had a poem been so revised, pruned
and polished over and over again as this cry from a prison cell. The
publisher was driven to the verge of distraction by the constant
alterations and emendations, the placing of a comma had become a matter
of moment to the fastidious author, but the work was published in its
entirety save for two or three stanzas concerning one of the prison
officials that it was deemed wise to suppress.

The poem bears the dedication--

  C. T. W.
  Sometime Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards
  Obiit, H.M. Prison, Reading, Berkshire
  July 7th, 1896.

The case of the trooper to whose memory the work is dedicated excited a
good deal of interest at the time. He had a fit of jealousy, murdered
his sweetheart, and though public opinion was inclined to take a
merciful view of the crime, and a petition was presented to the Home
Secretary for the withdrawal of the capital sentence, it was without
effect, and the extreme penalty of the law was carried out in the Gaol
at Reading.

The first line--

    "He did not wear his scarlet coat"--

rivets the attention at once, and as surely as do the opening lines of
"The Ancient Mariner." The reason for this is given at once--

     "For wine and blood are red
    And blood and wine were on his hands
      When they found him with the dead."

That the whole incident that led to the man's being there should be
communicated in the very first stanza, to make that stanza complete, is
an artistic necessity, and in the next two lines we are told who the
victim is--

    "The poor dead woman whom he loved,
      And murdered in her bed."

The tragedy is complete. We have the picture of the soldier deprived of
his uniform and the whole story is revealed to us. A more concise or
supremely reticent description of the pathetic drama there could not be.
But the picture must be filled in even to the most trivial detail, and
we see the poor wretch taking his daily exercise among the prisoners
awaiting their trial, attired in "a suit of shabby grey," trying to
demean himself like a man and, trivial, but, from the artist's point of
view, important detail, with a cricket cap on his head. There is a world
of pathos and lines of unspoken tragedy in that cricket cap worn by a
man whose days are numbered, who never will play a game again and whose
mind must be occupied with thoughts far removed from sport and amusement
save perhaps when they may revert to happy days spent with bat and ball,
and which will never recur again. But though his step be jaunty, the
oppression of his impending doom is on him,

    "I never saw a man who looked
      So wistfully at the day."

We can see that prison yard, the circle of convicts pacing the
melancholy round at ordered intervals and with measured tread, and the
strong man, full of life and vigour looking up at God's blue sky and
drinking in the air with greedy lungs. We can see the author of the
poem, the erstwhile social favourite, in his convict garb walking

    "With other souls in pain
      Within another ring."

and his horror as he receives the information muttered by some
fellow-prisoner through closed lips that

    "That fellow's got to swing."

In words, the simplicity and intensity of which are sublime, he tells us
of how the news affected him--

    "Dear Christ! the very prison walls
      Suddenly seemed to reel."

That apostrophe to the Redeemer is a revelation in itself coming from a
man who is enduring his own mortal agony, but his particular sorrows
fade into insignificance and are forgotten in the presence of a
fellow-creature's crucifixion--

    "And, though I was a soul in pain,
      My pain I could not feel."

Already he is purified by his months of trial and tribulation, and he
can enter sympathetically into the sorrows of others and share their

He now understands the reason of the jaunty step and the defiant manner,
he himself has tried to flee from his thoughts.

    "I only knew what hunted thought
      Quickened his step."

He realises the meaning of that "wistful look" towards the vaulted
canopy of heaven.

The man had killed the thing he loved.

   "Yet each man kills the thing he loves
      By each let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
      Some with a flattering word;
    The coward does it with a kiss
      The brave man with a sword."

It has been objected that making sword rhyme with word is a makeshift,
but surely it is patent to anyone with any artistic sense whatever that
this forced rhyme avoids the danger of making the verse too facile, and,
far from being a piece of slovenly writing, is the well-thought-out
scheme of a perfect master of his craft. It is one of those stupid
objections that superficial critics are so apt to raise when utterly
devoid themselves of any sense of proportion or fitness.

The idea that all men, young or old, kill the thing they love is not
only original but it is a very fine flight of metaphor--there is a whole
sermon in the conception, and Wilde elaborates the theme--

    "The kindest use a knife because
      The dead so soon grow old."

It is as we read these lines that our thoughts are immediately directed
to "The Dream of Eugene Aram," that incomparable masterpiece of another
poet, who likewise was looked upon as a mere jester whose work should
not be treated seriously, but who has left us three of the finest and
most deeply moving poems in the English language. There is a striking
resemblance in the wording between the two poems, but without
disparaging Hood's work there can be no possible doubt as to which is
the greater and more noble achievement.

Another stanza elaborates the theme still further and the fact is
recorded that though every man kills the thing he loves, yet death is
not always meted out to him.

   "He does not die a death of shame
      On a day of dark disgrace,
    Nor have a noose about his neck,
      Nor a cloth upon his face
    Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
      Into an empty space."

Within these grim prison walls all the horrible details of execution
obtrude themselves upon the wretched captive. He has tasted the horrors
of solitary confinement, of being spied on night and day by grim,
taciturn warders who, at frequent intervals, slide back the panel in the
door to observe through the grated opening that the prisoner is all
right. So he can feel all the torture that a man under sentence of death
must go through at having to

                      "Sit with silent men
      Who watch him night and day,
    Who watch him when he tries to weep
        And when he tries to pray."

The ceaseless watch that is kept on the poor wretch lest he should be
tempted, given the opportunity, to "rob the prison of its prey" by doing
violence on himself, the whole grim ceremonial of the carrying out of
the law's decree are conjured up by him. He pictures the doomed man
awakened from sleep by the entrance of the Sheriff, and the Governor of
the Gaol accompanied by the "shivering Chaplain robed in white." He
dwells on the hurried toilet, the putting on of the convict dress for
the last time whilst the doctor takes professional stock of every
nervous symptom. It is to be hoped that the lines descriptive of the
doctor are purely imaginative--one must hope, for the credit of the
medical profession, that it has no foundation in personal experience.
Then there is the awful thirst that tortures the victim and another
introduction of an apparently trivial detail, "the gardener's gloves"
worn by the hangman. But the detail is not trivial, its introduction
adds to the ghastliness of the scene. The reading of the Burial Service
over a man yet living is another realistic touch that serves its
purpose. With him we can enter into the agony of the condemned wretch as
he prays

                    "with lips of clay
    For his agony to pass."

Wilde proceeds with the strict narrative. He tells us how for six weeks
that Guardsman walked the prison yard still wearing the same suit and
his head covered with the same incongruous headgear.

Still does he cast yearning glances at the sky,

    "And at every wandering cloud that trailed
      Its ravelled fleeces by."

But the man is no coward, he does not wring his hands and bemoan his
fate, he merely kept his eyes on the sun "and drank the morning air."

The other convicts, forgetful of themselves and their crimes, watch with
silent amazement "The man who had to swing." He still carries himself
bravely and they can hardly realise that he will so soon be swept into
eternity; and then a perfectly mediæval note is struck--

   "For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
      That in the springtime shoot:
    But grim to see is the gallows-tree
      With its adder-bitten root
    And green or dry a man must die
      Before it bears its fruit."

There we have the true spirit of the old ballads. The comparison between
the oak and elm in the spring putting forth their leaves, and the gaunt,
bare timber of the gibbet with its burden of dead human fruit is a
highly imaginative and artistic piece of fantasy, though possibly a
poem of Villon's was in Wilde's mind at the time of writing.

He gives us in the next stanza a picture of the murderer with noose
adjusted to his neck, taking his last look upon the world, and the drop
suggests another finely imaged comparison to him--

   "'Tis sweet to dance to violins
    When Love and Life are fair,"

and goes on so for another two lines before he brings in the

   "But it is not sweet with nimble feet
    To dance upon the air."

The almost morbid fascination the sight of this man with his foot in the
grave exercises over him is undiminished, till one day he misses him and
knows that he is standing "In black dock's dreadful pen." He himself had
been through that dread ordeal and his spirit goes out to him whom he
had seen daily for a brief space without ever holding commune with him.

    "Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
      We had crossed each other's way,"

he writes, and proceeds to explain that it was impossible for them to
exchange word or sign, as they never saw each other in the "holy" night
but in the "shameful" day. In a passage of rare beauty, one of the
finest in the poem, he explains--

   "A prison wall was round us both
      Two outcast men we were
    The world had thrust us from his heart,
      And God from out His care:
    And the iron gin that waits for Sin
      Had caught us in its snare."

The lines in their supreme reticence indicate precisely the agony and
despair that filled the heart of C33, and once again a comparison with
"Eugene Aram" is forced upon us.

The third period starts with a picture of the doomed man and a scathing
bit of satire directed against the prison officials. The wretch is shown
to us watched day and night by keen, sleepless eyes, debarred even for a
brief second of the privilege of being alone with his thoughts and his

Then a small detail is introduced to heighten the effect of the grim

    "And thrice a day he smoked his pipe
      And drank his quart of beer."

There is quite a Shakespearean note in this introduction of these
commonplace details, which proves how thoroughly Oscar Wilde had studied
the methods of the great dramatist.

But he leaves the condemned cell to paint the effect the whole ghastly
tragedy being enacted within those grey walls had upon the other
prisoners. To a highly strung and supersensitive nature like the
writer's the strain must have been terrible. The captives went through
the allotted tasks of picking oakum till the fingers bled, scrubbing the
floors, polishing the rails, sewing sacks, and all the other daily
routine of prison life.

    "But in the heart of every man
      Terror was lying still--"

until one day, returning from their labours, they "passed an open
grave," and they knew that the execution would take place on the morrow.
They saw the hangman with his black bag shuffling through the gloom, and
like cowed hounds they crept silently back to their cells. Then night
comes and Fear stalks through the prison, but the man himself is wrapt
in peaceful slumbers. The watching warders cannot make out

   "How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
    With a hangman close at hand."

Not so with the other prisoners--"the fool, the fraud, the knave"--sleep
is banished from their cells, they are feeling another's guilt, and the
hardened hearts melt at the thought of another's agony. The warders,
making their noiseless round, are surprised as they look through the
wickets to see "gray figures on the floor." They are puzzled and

   "Why men knelt to pray
    Who never prayed before."

All through the long night they keep their sacred vigil.

    "The grey cock crew, the red cock crew
      But never came the day,"

and their imaginations people the corners and shadows with shapes of
terror. The marionette dance of death of these ghostly visitants is as
fine a bit of word-painting as can be found any where. The idea is an
amplification of the _motif_ of "The Harlot's House," but how
immeasurably superior, how much more artistically effective the most
cursory comparison of the two poems will make apparent.

At last the first faint streaks of day steal through the prison bars and
the daily task of cleaning the cells is performed as usual, but the
Angel of Death passes through the prison, and with parched throats the
prisoners, who were kept in their cells while the grim tragedy was being
enacted, wait for the stroke of eight, the hour fixed for the carrying
out of the sentence. As the first chimes of the prison clock are heard a
moan arises from those imprisoned wretches. At noon they are marched out
into the yard, and each man's eye is turned wistfully to the sky, just
as the condemned man's had been. They notice that the warders are
wearing their best uniforms, but the task they have just been engaged
upon is revealed "by the quicklime on their boots." The murderer has
expiated his crime,

    "And the crimson stain that was of Cain
      Became Christ's snow-white seal."

In his dishonoured grave he lies in a winding-sheet of quicklime; no
rose or flower shall bloom above it, no tear shall water it, no prayer
or benison be uttered over it.

"In Reading Gaol by Reading Town," with a repetition of the stanza
embodying the theme that "all men kill the thing they love," the poem

Truly a wonderful poem this. We close the covers of the book slowly,
almost reverently, our minds all saddened and attuned to a low note by
this gloomy picture of agony, torture and horror. We feel as if we had
been assisting at a funeral, and with hushed voices slowly make our way
back to the world of life and bustle.

Wilde's place in poetry has yet to be settled, we have not yet had time
to focus his work into perspective. That he will rank amongst the very
greatest creative geniuses of the world, the men whose songs sway
nations, is doubtful, though time alone can tell us.

The least that can be said is that there is a distinction about Wilde's
poetry that will always stamp it as the work of a great artist, and as
such it commands a high place amongst the best literary work that this
country has produced.




That the gift of composing beautiful verse and the ability to write
gracefully and wittily in prose does not of necessity enable an author
to produce good fiction, is a truism that requires no elaboration. That
the novelist should possess style is a _sine quâ non_--that is, if his
novels are to take their place as works of art and not merely achieve an
ephemeral success amongst the patrons of circulating libraries--but to
achieve distinction in the field of romance many other qualities are
requisite. To begin with, the story must be of sufficient interest to
hold the attention of the reader, the dialogue must be brisk and to the
point, and the delineation of character--a gift in itself--lifelike and

Whether Oscar Wilde would, had his life been prolonged, have ever
achieved success in this branch of literature is one of those vexed
questions which may well be left to those speculative persons who love
to discuss "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and other unfinished works of
fiction. That he was endowed with an extraordinarily vivid imagination
and that his versatility was marvellous are factors that no one should
neglect to take into account when considering the matter. His own
contributions to fiction are so few that they afford very little data
to go upon. They consist of "The Picture of Dorian Gray," published in
1890; "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"; "The Incomparable and Ingenious
History of Mr W. H., being the true secret of Shakespeare's Sonnets, now
for the first time here fully set forth," the manuscript of which, after
passing through the hands of Messrs Elkin Mathews and John Lane,
publishers, who had announced the work as being in preparation, has been
unaccountably lost, although it is known that it was returned to the
author's house on the very day of his arrest. An article in _Blackwood's
Magazine_ alone enables us to gather some idea of the last work. Then we
have three short stories--"The Sphinx without a Secret," "The
Canterville Ghost," "The Model Millionaire," which complete the list of
Wilde's fiction in the limited sense of the word.

A careful study of these remains must lead to the inevitable conclusion
that, so far as we can judge by these more or less fragmentary
specimens, Wilde's _forte_ was not fiction. He can in no sense be
regarded as a novelist, certainly not as an exponent of modern fiction.
The pieces are brilliantly clever, gemmed with paradoxes and quaint
turns of thought, but they are not fiction in the accepted sense of the
word. Works of imagination, yes, but "fiction," no. That he was a
graceful allegorist nobody can deny, but that his work in this other
field of letters was great is never for a moment to be even suggested.
He used fiction as a means of introducing his curiously topsy-turvy
views of life, but his characters are mere puppets, strange creatures
with unreal names, without any particular personality or especially
characteristic features, who enunciate the author's views and opinions.

In a preface to "Dorian Gray," when it was published in book form, Oscar
Wilde himself confirms this view--"The highest and the lowest form of
criticism," he tells us, "is a mode of autobiography." That he himself
believed in the artistic value of his story is evident from the series
of brilliant aphorisms which constitute the preface.

When in July, 1890, there appeared in an American magazine the fantastic
story of "Dorian Gray" an astonished public rubbed its eyes and wondered
whether all its previous theories as to this class of work had been
absolutely false and should henceforth be discarded like a garment that
has gone out of fashion.

The story provoked a storm of criticism which, for the most part, only
served to increase the sale of the magazine in which it appeared. In
answer to his critics the author contented himself with the dictum that
"Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new,
complex, and vital." Whether "The Picture of Dorian Gray" possessed
these three essential qualities is a question which may best be answered
by giving a short _resume_ of the story itself. Basil Hallward, a young
artist who, some years previously, had caused a great sensation by his
disappearance, has painted a full-length portrait of a young man of
"extraordinary personal beauty." In conversation with Lord Henry Wotton,
who is visiting the studio, he inadvertently reveals that it is the
portrait of Dorian Gray, and alleges as his reason for not exhibiting
the picture that he has put too much of himself into it; and, pressed
for an explanation, he tells the story of his meeting the original of
the painting at a Society function, and how deeply he had been impressed
by his extraordinary personality. He experiences a "curious artistic
idolatry" for the young man, and as they are discussing him the servant
announces "Mr Dorian Gray." We then get a word-picture of this
interesting young man, we are told that there was something in his face
which made you trust him, that it was full of the candour of youth and
passionate purity. During the sitting that follows, Lord Henry
enunciates his views of life, and his words leave a deep impression on
his youthful auditor. Dorian's acquaintance with Lord Henry soon ripens
into friendship, and he confides to his friend that he has fallen deeply
in love with Sybil Vane, a young actress he has accidentally discovered
in an East End playhouse.

Late upon the same night on which the confidence was made Lord Henry
finds, on his return home, a telegram from Dorian Gray announcing his
engagement to the object of his affections. We are next introduced to
Sybil's shabby home in the Euston Road; to her mother, a faded,
tired-looking woman with bismuth-whitened hands, and to her brother, a
young lad with a thick-set figure, rough brown hair and large hands and
feet "somewhat clumsy in movement." The faded beauty of the elder woman
and her theatrical gestures and manners are deftly touched upon. The
son, whom we learn is about to seek his fortune in Australia, goes with
his sister for a walk in the park, and their talk is all of her love for
Dorian, of which he does not approve. Sybil catches sight of her lover,
but before she can point him out to her brother he is lost to sight.
They return home; the lad's heart is filled with jealousy, and a fierce
murderous hatred of the stranger who, as it seemed to him, had come
between him and his sister. Downstairs he startles his mother with a
sudden question--"Were you married to my father?" The woman had been
dreading the question for years, but she answers it in the negative, and
tells him that his parent was a gentleman and highly connected, but not
free to marry her. In the meanwhile, Lord Henry and Basil are
discussing the proposed marriage in the private room of a fashionable
restaurant, and presently they are joined by Dorian himself, who takes
part in the discussion, till it is time for them to go to the theatre.
His two friends are delighted with the beauty of his _fiancée_, but her
acting is below mediocrity, and the boy, who has seen her act really
well on previous occasions, is terrible disconcerted.

Later, in the green-room, Sybil explains the reason of this falling off.
She is quite candid about it: she tells him she will never act well
again, because he has transfigured her life, and that acting, which had
before been a matter of reality to her, had become a hollow sham, and
that she can no longer mimic a passion that burns her like fire.
Flinging himself down on a seat, Dorian exclaims, "You have killed my
love," and after an impassioned tirade answers his own question of "What
are you now?" with "A third-rate actress with a pretty face." In vain
she pleads for his love; he leaves her telling her that he can never see
her again, for she has disappointed him. When, after wandering aimlessly
about all night, he returns home, he is suddenly conscious of a change
in the portrait Basil had painted of him. The expression is different,
and there are lines of cruelty round the mouth, though he can trace no
such lines in his own face.

"Suddenly, there flashed across his mind what he had said in Basil
Hallward's studio the day the picture had been finished.... He had
uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young and the portrait
grow old, that his own beauty might be untarnished and the face on the
canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins." He is struck with
remorse for his cruelty to Sybil, and by the time Lord Henry comes to
see him has determined to atone for it by marrying her, but it is too
late. He learns from his friend's lips that Sybil has committed suicide
in the theatre shortly after he had left her.

He spends the evening at the opera with Lord Henry Wotton, and his
sister, Lady Gwendolen. When, next day, he mentions this to Basil the
latter is horrified, but Dorian is perfectly callous and is inclined to
be flattered by the fact that the girl should have committed suicide for
love of him.

Basil wishes to look at the picture, which he intends to exhibit in
Paris, and before which Dorian has placed a screen, but the latter will
not let him see it, and the former presently goes away greatly puzzled
by the refusal. When he is gone Dorian sends for a framemaker, and gets
him and his assistant to remove the draped picture to a disused room in
his house, having previously sent his man out with a note to Lord Henry
in order to get him out of the way. Having dismissed the framemaker and
his assistant, he carefully locks the door of the room and retains the
key. When he comes down, he finds that Lord Henry has sent him a paper
containing an account of the inquest on Sybil, and an unhealthy French
book which fascinates whilst it repels him, and the influence of which
he cannot shake off for years after.

Time passes, but the hero of the story shows no signs of growing older,
nor does he lose his good looks. Meanwhile, the most evil rumours as to
his mode of life are in circulation. We learn that he is in the habit of
frequenting, disguised and under an assumed name, a little ill-famed
tavern near the docks, and we are given a long analysis of his mental
and spiritual condition, whilst his various idiosyncrasies are carefully
recorded, and we are insensibly reminded of the surroundings invented
for himself by the hero of Huysman's "A Rebours."

All the while, the picture remains hidden away, a very skeleton in the
cupboard. Dorian Gray is nearly blackballed for a West End Club, Society
looks askance at him, and there are all sorts of ugly rumours current as
to his doings and movements.

One night he meets Hallward, who wants to talk to him about his mode of
life. The painter enumerates all the scandalous stories he has heard
about him; he ends up by expressing a doubt whether he really knows his
friend. To do so, he says, he should have to see his soul. "You shall
see it yourself to-night," Dorian exclaims, "it is your handiwork," and,
holding a lamp, he takes him up to the locked room, and removes the
drapery from the picture. An exclamation of horror breaks from the
painter as he perceives the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him.
It fills him with loathing and disgust, and he has difficulty in
believing it to be his own work. Dorian is seized with an uncontrollable
feeling of hatred for his friend, and, seizing a knife lying on a chest,
stabs him in the neck and kills him. After the murder he locks the door,
and goes quietly downstairs. He slips out into the street closing the
front door very gently, and rings the bell. When his valet opens it he
explains that he had left his latchkey indoors, and casually inquires
the time, which the man informs him is ten minutes past two.

The next day Dorian sends for a former friend of his, Alan Campbell,
whose hobby is chemistry, and after telling him of the murder, begs him
by some chemical process to destroy the body. Alan refuses to help him.
Dorian then writes something upon a piece of paper and gives it to the
other to read. Alan is terror-struck and consents to do what is required
of him, though reluctantly. When later, provided with the necessary
chemicals, they enter the locked room, Dorian perceives that the hands
of the picture are stained with blood.

He dines out that night, and when he returns home he provides himself
with some opium paste he keeps locked up in a secret drawer, and having
dressed himself in rough garments makes his way to the docks. He enters
an opium den, but the presence of a man who owes his downfall to him
irritates him, and he decides to go to another. A woman greets him with
the title "Prince Charming" (the name Sybil had given him), and on
hearing it a sailor gets up from his seat and follows him. In a dim
archway he feels himself seized by the throat and sees a revolver
pointed at his head. Briefly, his assailant tells him that he is Sybil's
brother, and that he means to avenge his sister's death. A sudden
inspiration comes to Dorian and he inquires of the man how long it is
since his sister died. "Eighteen years," is the answer, and Gray
triumphantly exclaims "Look at my face." He is dragged under a lamp, and
at sight of the youthful face Sybil's brother is convinced that he has
made a mistake. Hardly has Dorian gone, when the woman who had called
him Prince Charming comes up, and from her the sailor learns that in
eighteen years Dorian has not altered.

Dorian goes down to his country house, where he entertains a large party
of guests, though all the while he lives in deadly terror lest Sybil's
brother should trace him. During a _battue_ a man is accidentally shot
by one of Dorian's guests. It is at first thought that the victim of the
accident is one of the beaters but it turns out to be a stranger, a
seafaring man presumably. Dorian goes to look at the body, and to his
intense relief finds that the dead man is his assailant of some nights

Back in London one night Dorian Gray determines that he will reform,
and, curious to see whether his good resolutions have had any effect on
the portrait, he goes up to look at it. No, it still bears the same
repulsive look, and in a rage he stabs at it with the knife with which
he had murdered Basil. A loud agonised cry rings through the house, and
when the servants at last make their way into the room they find hanging
upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen
him, while lying on the floor with a knife through his heart was a dead
man "withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage," whom they could only
identify by the rings on his fingers.

Such, shorn of all its brilliant dialogue and exquisite descriptive
passages, is the story of "The Portrait of Dorian Gray," in its bald
outlines. As an imaginative work it must rank high, and in spite of the
fantastic character of the plot and its inherent improbability, it
exercises a weird fascination over us as we read. That its author (more
even in the treatment than in the plot) was inspired by Balzac's
incomparable "Peau de Chagrin" is beyond question. In the one story we
have a man purchasing a piece of shagreen skin inscribed with Sanskrit
characters which, as each of its possessor's desires are gratified, by
its shrinkage marks a diminution in the span of his life. In the other,
whilst the original man remains outwardly unchanged, his portrait ages
with the years and reveals in its features all the passions and sins
that gradually transform his nature. In both cases the story ends in

The colouring of the tale is one of its most remarkable features. In
passages of rare beauty Oscar Wilde gives us descriptions of jewels and
perfumes, rare tapestries and quaint musical instruments. The catalogue
of the jewels as set out by him deserves to be quoted for the marvellous
knowledge of precious stones it reveals as well as for the exquisite
description of them.

     "He would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in the
     cases the various stones that he had collected, such as the
     olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red by lamplight, the cymophane
     with its wirelike line of silver, the pistachio-coloured peridot,
     rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery scarlet
     with tremulous four-rayed stars, flame-red cinnamon stones, orange
     and violet spinels, and amethysts with the alternate layers of ruby
     and sapphire. He loved the red-gold of the sunstone, and the
     moonstone's pearly whiteness, and the broken rainbow of the milky
     opal. He procured from Amsterdam three emeralds of extraordinary
     size and richness of colour, and had a turquoise _de la vicille
     roche_ that was the envy of all connoisseurs."

It may here be pointed out, though the fact is not generally known, that
Wilde's knowledge of tapestry which, at first sight, seems so profound,
was obtained from Lefebure's "History of Embroidery and Lace," a book
which he had reviewed in an article having for title "A Fascinating
Book." It is interesting to compare an extract from that article with a
passage from the review under discussion:

     "Where was the great crocus-coloured robe, on which the gods fought
     against the giants, that had been worked for Athena? Where the huge
     velarium that Nero had stretched across the Colosseum at Rome, on
     which were represented the starry sky, and Apollo driving a chariot
     drawn by white gilt-reined steeds? He longed to see the curious
     table-napkins wrought for Elagabalus, on which were displayed all
     the dainties and viands that could be wanted for a feast; the
     mortuary cloth of King Chilperic, with its three hundred golden
     bees; the fantastic robes that excited the indignation of the
     Bishop of Pontus, and were figured with 'lions, panthers, bears,
     dogs, forests, rocks, hunters,--all, in fact, that a painter can
     copy from nature'; and the coat that Charles of Orleans once wore,
     on the sleeves of which were embroidered the verses of a song
     beginning '_Madame je suis tout joyeux_,' the musical accompaniment
     of the words being wrought in gold thread, and each note, of square
     shape in those days, formed with four pearls. He read of the room
     that was prepared at the palace at Rheims for the use of Queen Joan
     of Burgundy, and was decorated with 'thirteen hundred and
     twenty-one parrots, made in broidery, and blazoned with the king's
     arms and five hundred and sixty-one butterflies, whose wings were
     similarly ornamented with the arms of the queen, the whole worked
     in gold.' Catherine de Medicis had a mourning-bed made for her of
     black velvet powdered with crescents and suns. Its curtains were of
     damask, with leafy wreaths and garlands, figured upon a gold and
     silver ground, and fringed along the edges with broideries of
     pearls, and it stood in a room hung with rows of the queen's
     devices in cut black velvet upon cloth of silver. Louis XIV. had
     gold-embroidered caryatides fifteen feet high in his apartment. The
     state bed of Sobieski, King of Poland, was made of Smyrna gold
     brocade embroidered in turquoises with verses from the Koran. Its
     supports were of silver gilt, beautifully chased, and profusely set
     with enamelled and jewelled medallions. It had been taken from the
     Turkish camp before Vienna, and the standard of Mohammed had stood
     under it."

     "Where is the great crocus-coloured robe that was wrought for
     Athena, and on which the gods fought against the giants? Where is
     the huge velarium that Nero stretched across the Colosseum at Rome,
     on which was represented the starry sky, and Apollo driving a
     chariot drawn by steeds? How one would like to see the curious
     table-napkins wrought for Heliogabalus, on which were displayed
     all the dainties and viands that could be wanted for a feast; or
     the mortuary cloth of King Chilperic, with its three hundred golden
     bees; or the fantastic robes that excited the indignation of the
     Bishop of Pontus, and were embroidered with 'lions, panthers,
     bears, dogs, forests, rocks, hunters--all, in fact, that painters
     can copy from nature.' Charles of Orleans had a coat, on the
     sleeves of which were embroidered the verses of a song, beginning
     'Madame, je suis tout joyeux,' the musical accompaniment of the
     words being wrought in gold thread, and each note (of square shape
     in those days) formed with four pearls. The room prepared in the
     palace at Rheims for the use of Queen Joan of Burgundy was
     decorated with 'thirteen hundred and twenty-one _papegauts_
     (parrots) made in broidery and blazoned with the King's arms, and
     five hundred and sixty-one butterflies, whose wings were similarly
     ornamented with the Queen's arms--the whole worked in fine gold.'
     Catherine de Medicis had a mourning-bed made for her 'of black
     velvet embroidered with pearls and powdered with crescents and
     suns.' Its curtains were of damask, 'with leafy wreaths and
     garlands figured upon a gold and silver ground, and fringed along
     the edges with broideries of pearls,' and it stood in a room hung
     with rows of the Queen's devices in cut black velvet on cloth of
     silver. Louis XIV. had gold-embroidered caryatides fifteen feet
     high in his apartments. The state bed of Sobieski, King of Poland,
     was made of Smyrna gold brocade embroidered in turquoises and
     pearls, with verses from the Koran; its supports were of
     silver-gilt, beautifully chased and profusely set with enamelled
     and jewelled medallions. He had taken it from the Turkish camp
     before Vienna, and the standard of Mahomet had stood under it."

Wilde, who at times was extremely indolent, had an amiable weakness for
using the material at hand, and throughout his writings we find whole
lines of verse and prose sentences reappearing in work produced at
another period. It is the same with the epigrams in "Dorian Gray," most
of which were subsequently transferred, bodily, to his plays. During his
travels in Italy, as I have already pointed out, he had been enormously
impressed by the stately ceremonials of the Catholic Church, and in this
book he uses his opportunity of introducing the ornate and sumptuous
vestments worn at her services. Dorian Gray, he tells us, "had a special
passion also for ecclesiastical vestments, as indeed he had for
everything connected with the service of the Church. In the long cedar
chests that lined the west gallery of his house he had stored away many
rare and beautiful specimens of what is really the raiment of the Bride
of Christ, who must wear purples and jewels and fine linen that she may
hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering that she
seeks for, and wounded by self-inflicted pain. He had a gorgeous cope of
crimson silk and gold-thread damask, figured with a repeating pattern of
golden pomegranates set in six-petalled formal blossoms, beyond which on
either side was the pineapple device wrought in seed-pearls. The
orphreys were divided into panels representing scenes from the life of
the Virgin, and the coronation of the Virgin was figured in coloured
silks upon the hood. This was Italian work of the fifteenth century.
Another cope was of green velvet, embroidered with heart-shaped groups
of acanthus-leaves, from which spread long-stemmed white blossoms, the
details of which were picked out with silver thread and coloured
crystals. The morse bore a seraph's head in gold-thread raised work. The
orphreys were woven in a diaper of red and gold silk, and were starred
with medallions of many saints and martyrs, among whom was St Sebastian.
He had chasubles, also, of amber-coloured silk, and blue silk and gold
brocades, and yellow silk damask and cloth of gold, figured with
representation of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, and embroidered
with lions and peacocks and other emblems; dalmatics of white satin and
pink silk damask, decorated with tulips and dolphins and _fleurs de
lys_; altar frontals of crimson velvet and blue linen; and many
corporals, chalice-veils, and sudaria."

It may also be noted here that a couple of chapters, those dealing with
Sybil's home and the death of her brother, were not written till the
story appeared in book form, and a certain extra number of words were
required to make the volume of the requisite bulk; so must writers
submit to the inexorable demands of publishers who measure work not by
its merit but by a footrule.

The dialogue throughout the tale sparkles with brilliant epigrams, and
this is all the more notable when we remember that the story was written
in a hurry, when the author was hard pressed for money, is more or less
a piece of hack work, and that whole pages were written in at the behest
of the publisher, who, like a customer at the baker's demanding the
make-weight which the law allows him, was clamouring for more "copy."

Nothing could be more felicitous than "young people imagine that money
is everything ... and when they grow older they know it"; and, "to be
good is to be in harmony with oneself." And characteristic of that
Epicurean pose that the author delighted in is the paradoxical dictum
that "a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is
exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied." Likewise essentially
characteristic of the man and his extraordinary, topsy-turvy views of
life is, "There is a fatality about good resolutions--that they are
always made too late," or "Good resolutions are useless attempts to
interfere with scientific laws. They are simply cheques that men draw on
a bank where they have no account."

Some of the epigrams are as biting as a _Saturday Review_ article, in
the old days, as for instance, this description of a certain frail
dame--"She is still _decolletée_, and when she is in a very smart gown
she looks like an _edition de luxe_ of a bad French novel." Could
anything be more pithy or more brilliantly sarcastic? It is of this same
lady that the remark is made, "When her third husband died, her hair
turned quite golden from grief."

But one could go on for ever, and I have quoted enough to illustrate the
wittiness of the dialogue, and, as the author himself lays down,
"Enough is as good as a meal." And there, by the way, we have an
illustration of how cleverly Wilde could transform the commonest saws by
the alteration or the transposition of a word, even sometimes by the
inversion of a sentence into what, at the first flush, appeared to be
highly original and brilliant sayings. By the substitution of the word
"meal" for "feast" we fail to recognise the old homely saying, and are
ready, until we consider it more closely, to receive it as a new and
witty idea neatly embodied. It is a _truc de métier_, but one that
requires a clever workman to use properly, as anyone can make sure of by
glancing through the bungling work of the majority of his imitators.

In "Dorian Gray," Wilde gives free play to his ever-present longing to
utter the _dernier cri_, to avoid all that was _vieux jeu_, and to fill
with horror and amazement the souls of the stodgy _bourgeoisie_. That he
succeeded in doing so merely proves that the _bourgeoisie_ are stodgy,
not that the author has erred from the canons of art and good taste.

His short stories are all written in a lighter vein--we peruse them as
we eat a plover's egg, and with the same relish and appreciation. They
are things of gossamer, but gossamer will oft survive more solid
material, and has the supreme quality of delicacy.

"Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" deals with that nobleman's anxiety to
commit the murder a cheiromantist has predicted he will perpetrate, and
to get the matter over before he marries the girl to whom he is engaged.
His two successive failures and his final drowning of the hand-reading
fortune-teller is conceived in the best spirit of comedy, and provokes a
gentle continuous ripple of amusement as we read it. The same may be
said of "The Sphinx without a Secret," and "The Canterville Ghost,"
whereas the "Model Millionaire" is simply a pretty story wittily told.
The whole plot is summed up in its concluding lines "Millionaire models
are rare enough ... but model millionaires are rarer still."

But, incomparably, Wilde's best work in fiction is the "Portrait of Mr
W. H." as the _Blackwood_ article is headed. After reading it our regret
becomes all the more poignant that the complete MS. of the book should
have so unaccountably disappeared. Correctly speaking, the story is
hardly a work of fiction, or, at anyrate, the fiction is so slight as to
be hardly deserving of criticism, and is a mere medium for the
exposition of a theory. The teller of the story is in a friend's rooms,
and the talk drifts on to literary forgeries. The friend (Erskine) shows
him a portrait-panel of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume,
and proceeds to tell him his story. A young friend of his had
discovered what he considered a clue to the identity of the Mr W. H. of
Shakespeare's Sonnets, the only hitch being the difficulty of proving
that the young actor to whom he asserted his poems were written, ever
existed. He shortly afterwards produced a panel-portrait of the young
man which he had, as he alleged, discovered clamped to the inside of an
old chest picked up by him at a Warwickshire farmhouse. This final proof
quite convinced Erskine of the genuineness of the discovery, and it was
not till an accidental visit to a friend's studio that the fact of the
panel being a forgery was revealed to him. He taxes the discoverer of
the clue with it and the latter commits suicide. The writer of the story
is so impressed with the various proofs that Erskine has laid before him
that, in spite of that latter's utter scepticism as to the existence of
any such person as the dead man evolved from the Sonnets themselves, he
completes the researches on his own account. But the moment he has sent
off a detailed account of the result of his investigations to Erskine,
he himself is filled with an utter disbelief in the accuracy of the
conclusions derived from them. Erskine, on the other hand, is once more
converted by his letter to his dead friend's theory.

Two years later the writer receives a letter from Erskine written from
Cannes stating that, like the discoverer of the clue, he has committed
suicide for the sake of a theory which he leaves to his friend as a
sacred legacy stained with the blood of two lives. The writer rushes off
to the Riviera only to find his friend dead, and to receive from his
mother the ill-starred panel.

The story ends with a true Wilde touch, for in a conversation with the
doctor who had attended him, he learns that Erskine had died of
consumption and had never committed suicide at all.

So much for the setting, which is quite unimportant. The real matter of
moment is, that the _Blackwood_ article is a really very valuable
contribution to the controversy as to the identity of the mysterious Mr
W. H.

It will be remembered that the Sonnets were first issued in book form in
1609, by a sort of piratical bookseller of those days, called Thames
Thorpe who, on his own responsibility, prefixed the edition with a
dedication--"To the only-begotten of these insuing sonnets, Mr W. H.,
all happinesse and that eternite promised by our ever living poet
wisheth the well wishing adventurer in setting forth. T. T." Round the
identity of this W. H. there has long raged an ardent controversy. Most
of the commentators have rushed to the conclusion that he must be the
person to whom the Sonnets are addressed. Some have attempted to
identify him as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (the initials
being reversed), who is known to have been an early patron of the poet,
others without much apparent reason have assumed that the W. H. in
question was none other than William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The most
probable theory is undoubtedly that of Mr Henry Lee, that the dedication
is entirely Thorpe's own, that it has nothing whatever to do with
Shakespeare or the inspirer of the poet, and that it was meant for
William Hall, a sort of literary intermediary. In confirmation of this
he adduces the undoubted fact that Thorpe had, at anyrate, once
previously dedicated a work to its "begotten."

One point is established almost beyond dispute--viz. that the first 126
sonnets are addressed to a young man and the remainder refer to a "dark
woman" who, after having bewitched the author, casts her spell over his
young friend and estranges the two.

A counter-theory is that Shakespeare's selection of the sonnet, "that
puling, petrifying, stupidly platonic composition," as Byron calls it,
as a medium for his muse, is that he was experimenting in the style of
writing which had become the fashion in England between the years 1591
and 1597.

Wilde's history is a totally new one, and deserves close examination.
Given that it could be proved that the young actor to whom he maintains
the Sonnets were addressed ever had a real existence, and the matter
would be as good as proved, but that is the weak point in his armour.
Mayhap some enthusiast may, by digging amongst old deeds and papers,
light upon some reference to him, but until then his hypothesis can be
only regarded as an ingenious, though highly interesting speculation.
Parenthetically it may be mentioned, although the fact is only known to
very few, that an artist friend of Oscar Wilde, whose work is the
admiration of all connoisseurs, had, under his direction, painted
exactly such a panel-portrait as described, employing all the arts of
the forger of antiquities in its production, and that a young poet whose
recently published volume of verse had caused considerable sensation in
literary circles had sat for the likeness.

The points Wilde advances in confirmation of his theory are as

    1. That the young man to whom Shakespeare addresses sonnets must
    have been someone who was really a vital factor in the development
    of his dramatic art, and that this could not be said of either Lord
    Pembroke or Lord Southampton.

    2. That the Sonnets, as we learn from Meres, were written before
    1598 and that his friendship with W. H. had already lasted three
    years when Sonnet CIV. was written, which would fix the date of its
    commencement as 1594, or at latest 1595, that Lord Pembroke was born
    in 1580 and did not come to London till he was eighteen (_i.e._
    1598) so that Shakespeare could not have met him till after the
    sonnet had been written; and that Pembroke's father did not die till
    1601, whereas W. H.'s father was dead in 1598, as is proved by the

    "You had a father, let your son say so."

    3. That Lord Southampton had early in life become the lover of
    Elizabeth Vernon, so required no urging to enter the state of
    matrimony, that he was not dowered with good looks, and that he did
    not remember his mother as W. H. did. (Thou art thy mother's glass,
    and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime), and
    moreover that his Christian name being Henry he could not be the
    Will to whom the punning sonnets (CXXXV. and CXLIII.) are addressed.

    4. That W. H. is none other than the boy actor for whom Shakespeare
    created the parts of Viola, Imogen, Juliet, Rosalind, Portia,
    Desdemona and Cleopatra.

    5. That the boy's name was Hughes.

These points he proves from the Sonnets themselves. As regards No. 1 he
writes: "to look upon him as simply the object of certain love poems is
to miss the whole meaning of the poems; for the art of which Shakespeare
talks in the Sonnets is not the art of the Sonnets themselves, which
indeed were to him but slight and secret things, it is the art of the
dramatist to which he is always alluding. He proceeds to quote the

   "Thou art all my art and dost advance
    As high as learning my rude ignorance."

2 and 3 effectually dispose of the pretensions of Pembroke and Surrey.

4. The theory of the very actor he praises by the fine sonnet:--

  "'How can my Muse want subject to invent,
    While thou dost breathe, thou pour'st into my verse
    Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
    For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
    O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
    Worthy perusal stand against thy sight:
    For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee,
    When thou thyself dost give invention light?
    Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
    Than those old nine, which rhymers invocate;
    And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
    Eternal numbers to outlive long date.'"

The name of the boy he discovers in the eighth line of the 20th sonnet,
where W. H. is punningly described as--

    "_A man in hew, all Hews in his contrawling_,"

and draws attention to the fact that "In the original edition of the
sonnets 'Hews' is printed with a capital H and in italics," and draws
corroboration from "these sonnets in which curious puns are made on the
words 'use' and 'usury.'"

Another point he touches on is that Will Hughes abandoned Shakespeare's
company to enter the service of Chapman, or more probably of Marlowe. He
proves this from the lines--

   "But when your countenance filled up his line
    Then lack I matter; that enfeebled mine"--

as also

        "Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
    My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
    But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
    And my sick nurse does give another place";

and further by

   "Every alien pen has got my use
    And under thee their poesy disperse,"

and draws attention to the "obvious" play upon words (use = Hughes).

Such in brief are the salient points of his argument, the limitations of
space precluding me from amplifying the subject, but I strongly advise
all those interested in the subject to read the whole article for

It is undoubtedly one of the cleverest things Wilde ever did, and as a
contribution to controversial English literature no student of letters
can afford to overlook it. Some day perhaps the manuscript of the book
will be discovered--in the library of a Transatlantic millionaire
maybe--and the author's more matured and expansive investigations be
given to the world. May that day come soon!




The greatest claim that Wilde made for himself was that he was a high
priest of æsthetics, that he had a new message concerning the relations
of beauty and the worship of beauty to life and art, to life and to
morals to give to the world. This claim was one in which to the last he
pathetically believed. He was absolutely certain in his own mind that
this was his vocation. He elaborated a sort of philosophy of beauty
which not only pleased and satisfied himself, but found very many
adherents, and became the dogma of a school.

Even in this last work, "De Profundis," written in the middle of his
degradation and misery, he still believes that it is by art that he will
be able to regenerate his spirit. He said that he would do such work in
the future, would build beautiful things out of his sufferings, that he
might cry in triumph--"Yes! This is just where the artistic life leads a

We all know where the artistic life did lead Oscar Wilde upon his
release from prison. It led him to an obscure quarter of Paris where he
dragged out the short remainder of an unhappy life, having written
nothing save "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and becoming more and more
lost to finer aspirations.

Yet, nevertheless, this æsthetic philosophy of Wilde's forms one of the
most important parts of his writings, and of his attitude towards life.
It must, therefore, be carefully considered in any study of the man and
his work.

First of all, let us inquire, what are æsthetics? Do not let anyone who
has not given his attention to the subject imagine that the
"æstheticism," which became known as the hallmark of a band of people
led by Oscar Wilde who committed many whimsical extravagances, and who
were caricatured in Mr Gilbert's "Patience," has any relation whatever
to the science of æsthetics. Even to Oscar Wilde æstheticism, as it has
been popularly called, was only the beginning of an æsthetic philosophy
which he summed up finally much later in "Intentions," the "Poems in
Prose," and "The Soul of Man under Socialism."

By æsthetics is meant a theory of the beautiful as exhibited in works of
art. That is to say, æsthetics considered on its objective side has to
investigate, first, a function of art in general as expressing the
beautiful, and then the nature of the beauty thus expressed.

Secondly, the special functions of the several arts are investigated by
æsthetics and the special aspects of the beautiful with which they are
severally concerned. It, therefore, follows that æsthetics has to
discuss such topics as the relation of art to nature and life, the
distinction of art from nature, the relation of natural to artistic
beauty, the conditions and nature of beauty in a work of art, and
especially the distinction of beauty from truth, from utility, and from
moral goodness.

Æsthetics is, therefore, not art criticism. Art criticism deals with
this or that particular work or type of art, while the æsthetic theory
seeks to formulate the mere abstract and fundamental conceptions,
distinctions, and principles which underlie artistic criticism, and
alone make it possible. Art criticism is the link between æsthetic
science and the ordinary intelligent appreciation of a work of art by an
ordinary intelligence. Much more may be said in defining the functions
of æsthetics, but this is sufficient before we begin to examine Wilde's
own æsthetic theories.

His ideas were promulgated in the three works mentioned above, and also
given to the world in lectures which he delivered at various times.

It is true, as Mr Arthur Symons very clearly pointed out some years ago,
that Oscar Wilde wrote much that was true, new, and valuable about art
and the artist. But in everything that he wrote he wrote from the
outside. He said nothing which had not been said before him, or which
was not the mere wilful contrary of what had been said before him.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that Oscar Wilde never saw the full
face of beauty. He saw it always in profile, always in a limited way.
The pretence of strict logic in Wilde's writing on "Artistic Philosophy"
is only a pretence, and severe and steady thinkers recognise the

Let us examine Oscar Wilde's æsthetic teaching.

In one of his lectures given in America he said--

     "And now I would point out to you the operation of the artistic
     spirit in the choice of subject. Like the philosopher of the
     platonic vision, the poet is the spectator of all time and all
     existence. For him no form is obsolete, no subject out of date;
     rather, whatever of life and passion the world has known in the
     desert of Judea or in Arcadian valley, by the ruins of Troy or
     Damascus, in the crowded and hideous streets of the modern city, or
     by the pleasant ways of Camelot, all lies before him like an open
     scroll, all is still instinct with beautiful life. He will take of
     it what is salutary for his own spirit, choosing some facts and
     rejecting others, with the calm artistic control of one who is in
     possession of the secret of beauty. It is to no avail that the muse
     of poetry be called even by such a clarion note as Whitman's to
     migrate from Greece and Ionia and to placard 'removed' and 'to let'
     on the rocks of the snowy Parnassus. For art, to quote a noble
     passage of Mr Swinburne's, is very life itself and knows nothing of
     death. And so it comes that he who seems to stand most remote from
     his age is he who mirrors it best, because he has stripped life of
     that mist of familiarity, which, as Shelley used to say, makes life
     obscure to us.

     "Whatever spiritual message an artist brings to his age, it is for
     us to do naught but accept his teaching. You have most of you seen
     probably that great masterpiece of Rubens which hangs in the
     gallery of Brussels, that swift and wonderful pageant of horse and
     rider, arrested in its most exquisite and fiery moment, when the
     winds are caught in crimson banner and the air is lit by the gleam
     of armour and the flash of plume. Well, that is joy in art, though
     that golden hillside be trodden by the wounded feet of Christ; and
     it is for the death of the Son of Man that that gorgeous cavalcade
     is passing.

     "In the primary aspect a painting has no more spiritual message
     than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass. The channels by which
     all noble and imaginative work in painting should touch the soul
     are not those of the truths of lives. This should be done by a
     certain inventive and creative handling entirely independent of
     anything definitely poetical in the subject, something entirely
     satisfying in itself, which is, as the Greeks would say, in itself
     an end. So the joy of poetry comes never from the subject, but
     from an inventive handling of rhythmical language."

And further he said that "in nations as in individuals, if the passion
for creation be not accompanied by the critical, the æsthetic faculty
also, it will be sure to waste its strength. It is not an increased
moral sense or moral supervision that your literature needs. Indeed one
should never talk of a moral or immoral poem. Poems are either well
written or badly written; that is all. Any element of morals or implied
reference to a standard of good and evil in art is often a sign of a
certain incompleteness of vision. All good work aims at a purely
artistic effect."

In "Intentions" he enunciated serious problems which seemed constantly
to contradict themselves, and he causes ourselves to ask questions which
only bewilder and astonish. To sum up all the æsthetic teaching of the
author it amounts simply and solely to the aphorism that there must be a
permanent divorce between art and morals. "All art," he says, "is

Some people have taken the view that Oscar Wilde in his philosophy of
beauty was never quite sincere. He did not write for philistines with
his heart in his mouth, but merely with his tongue in his cheek. I
remember Mr Richard Le Gallienne once said that in "Intentions" Wilde's
worship of beauty, which had made a latter-day myth of him before his
time, was overlaid by his gift of comic perception, and, rightly viewed,
all his flute-tone periods were written in the service of the comic
muse. When he was not of malice aforethought humorous in those parts of
the work where he seems to be arguing with a serious face enough, it is
implied that he did so simply that he might smile behind his mask at the
astonishment of a public he had from the first so delighted in
shocking--that he had a passion for being called "dangerous," just as
one type of man likes to be called "fast" and a "rake."

This is, of course, one point of view, but it is not one with which I am
in agreement. Wilde laid such enormous stress upon the sensuous side of
art, and never realised that this is but an exterior aspect which is
impossible and could not exist without a spiritual interior, an
informing soul.

With all his brilliancy the author of "Intentions" only saw a mere
fragment of his subject. It may be that he wilfully shut his eyes to the
truth. It is more likely that he was incapable of realising the truth as
a whole, and that what he wrote he wrote with absolute sincerity.

It has been said that the artist sees farther than morality. This is a
dangerous doctrine for the artist himself to believe, but it has some
truth in it. In Oscar Wilde's case, in pursuing the ideal of beauty he
may have seen "farther than morality," but blind of one eye he missed
Morality upon the way and did not realise that she was ever there.

It is the fashion nowadays among a certain set of writers, who form the
remainder of the band of "Æsthetes" who followed Wilde in his teachings,
to decry Ruskin, though, in the beginning of Wilde's "Æsthetic"
movement, Wilde was an ardent pupil of this great master of English
prose. We do not now accept Ruskin's artistic criticisms as adequate to
our modern needs. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the days
when Ruskin wrote, and his peculiar temperament, while appreciating much
that was beautiful and worthy to be appreciated, was at the same time
blind to much that is beautiful and worthy to be appreciated. Ruskin's
criticism on the painting of Whistler would not be substantiated by a
single writer of to-day. At the same time, all Ruskin's philosophy of
art--that is to say, æsthetics--is as true now as it ever was. Ruskin
showed, as the experience of life and art has shown and always will
show--show more poignantly and particularly in the case of Oscar Wilde
than in any other--that art and morality cannot be divorced, and that if
all art is immoral, then art ceases to exist. "I press to the
conclusion," he said, at the end of his famous lecture on the relation
of art to morals, "which I wish to leave with you, that all you can
rightly do, or honourably become, depends on the government of these two
instincts of order and kindness, by this great imaginative faculty,
which give you inheritance of the past, grasp of the present, authority
over the future. Map out the spaces of your possible lives by its help;
measure the range of their possible agency! On the walls and towers of
this your fair city, there is not an ornament of which the first origin
may not be traced back to the thoughts of men who died two thousand
years ago. Whom will _you_ be governing by your thoughts, two thousand
years hence? Think of it, and you will find that so far from art being
immoral, little else except art is moral; that life without industry is
guilt, and industry without art is brutality: and for the words 'good'
and 'wicked,' used of men, you may almost substitute the words 'makers'
and 'destroyers.' Far the greater part of the seeming prosperity of the
world is, so far as our present knowledge extends, vain: wholly useless
for any kind of good, but having assigned to it a certain inevitable
sequence of destruction and of sorrow. Its stress is only the stress of
wandering storm; its beauty the hectic of plague: and what is called the
history of mankind is too often the record of the whirlwind, and the map
of the spreading of the leprosy. But underneath all that, or in narrow
spaces of dominion in the midst of it, the work of every man, _qui non
accepit in vanitatem animan suam_, endures and prospers; a small remnant
or green bud of it prevailing at last over evil. And though faint with
sickness, and encumbered in ruin, the true workers redeem inch by inch
the wilderness into garden ground; by the help of their joined hands the
order of all things is surely sustained and vitally expanded, and
although with strange vacillation, in the eyes of the watcher, the
morning cometh, and also the night, there is no hour of human existence
that does not draw on towards the perfect day."

For our own part let us examine a little into the relation between art
and morality for ourselves.

When we hear it asserted that morality has nothing to do with art and
that moral considerations are quite beside the mark in æsthetic
criticism and judgment, such a statement is simply equivalent to saying
that actual life has nothing to do with art. The main demand that we can
make from art of all kinds is the demand of truth. Truth is beauty, and
beauty is truth. By truth in this connection we mean that higher and
more ideal truth which is inherent in the realities of things and
contained by them, but which is brought out, explained, made credible,
and visible by the artist in this or that sphere of art, and through the
process of his art purified from the accidental obscurities which cloud
it and hide it in the realm of actual life. If we are to demand truth
from the artist, and let us always remember, as Keats realised so
strongly, that in demanding truth we demand beauty also, we must insist
that the artist must give us nothing in which a false psychology
obtains, must, for example, paint no passions that do not occur in
actual life. It is, therefore, equally necessary, on a logical
conclusion, that when the subject of a work of art requires it, the
moral should be represented as it really is--that is, according to its
truth--and that the moral law should not be misrepresented. If we
require of the artist that he should give a vivid representation of the
illusions of human life, of the struggles and rivalries of men for
objects and ends of imaginary value, we must equally demand of the
artist that he should know and be capable of describing that which alone
has true and absolute value in human life. Surely it is a truism that
every drama from beginning to end contains a moral. It is a lie that art
is immoral or can by its very nature ever be so. To say so, to pretend
that art has a separate existence, is to say something which even the
most brilliant paradox cannot prove and which immediately suggests to
the mind of the thinking man an apologia or reason for licence of
personal conduct. As a great German writer on æsthetics and the relation
to the ethics has said, all human actions do of necessity presuppose a
norm, a rule to which they conform, or from which they depart; and there
is nothing which can be represented, whether as criminal or as
ridiculous, or as an object of irony, otherwise than under this
assumption. Hence every artist enforces some kind of morality, and
morality accordingly becomes of chief moment for æsthetic judgment.

Aristotle himself, from whom Oscar Wilde frequently quotes, and
incidentally from whose poetics he attempts, by means of brilliant
paradox, to infer an attitude which is not really there, has pointed out
that art is a means of purification. If the morality of a work of art is
false and wrong, if the artist is either ignorant of the subject with
which he deals or deliberately misrepresents the morality of it, then
his work is viewed merely as a work of art--and therefore as a thing
whole and complete in itself--is a failure in art. In many respects it
may have æsthetic excellence, but as a complete thing, as a work of art,
it must inevitably fail.

Sibbern in his "Æsthetik" tells us very sanely and wisely that art need
not be limited by choice of subject, but depends for its artistic
qualities upon the attitude of the artist in dealing with it.

That art must not be limited by choice of subject is a great point of
Oscar Wilde's own philosophy, and here he is perfectly sound. But he
goes further in his paradoxical view, and shows that the artist must
hold no brief for either good or evil, and that the excellence of a work
of art depends entirely upon the skill of presentation.

The German student, on the contrary, writes:

     "There are dramas in which the moral element is not brought into
     special prominence, but just hovers above the surface, and which
     yet have their poetic value. What must, however, be absolutely
     insisted on is, that the artistic treatment should never insult
     morality. We do not mean that art must not represent the immoral as
     well as the moral, for this is, on the contrary, indispensable, if
     art is truly to reflect life as it is. But immorality must not
     infect and be inherent in that view of life and those opinions
     which the poet desires by his work to promulgate; for then he would
     injure morality, and violate that moral ideal to which all human
     life, and therefore art itself, must be subordinated. Plays and
     novels which depict virtue as that mere conventionality and
     Philistinism which is but an object of ridicule, or which hold up
     to our admiration false and antinomian ideals of virtue,
     representing _e.g._, the sentimentality of a so-called good heart
     as sufficient to justify the most scandalous moral delinquencies or
     'free genius' as privileged to sin, which paint vice in attractive
     and seductive colours, portraying adultery and other
     transgressions as very pardonable, and, under certain
     circumstances, amiable weaknesses, and which by means of such
     delineations bestow absolution on the public for sins daily
     occurring in actual life--such plays and novels are unworthy of
     art, and are as poison to the whole community.

     "Equally with all untruth must all impurity be excluded from art.
     Purity and chastity are requirements resulting from the very nature
     of art. But it is just because art is so closely connected with
     sensuousness, that there is such obvious temptation to present the
     sensuous in false independence, to call forth the mere
     gratification of the senses. The sensuous must, however, be always
     subordinated to the intellectual, for this is involved in the
     demand for _ideality_, in other words, for that impress of
     perfection given by the idea and the mind in every artistic
     representation. And even if æsthetic ideality is present in a work
     of art, it must be subordinated to ethic ideality, to the moral
     purity in the artist's mind, a purity diffused throughout the

Enough has been said and quoted to prove to all those who believe that
art, while it is the chief regenerative force in life, cannot possibly
be dissociated from morals, that Wilde's view of art in its relation to
morals is entirely unsound and dangerous to the half-educated and those
who do not know how the greatest brains of the world have regarded this
question. It is not necessary to continue or to pile proof upon proof,
easy though this would be.

From the people who have a little culture, imagine they have much more,
and are dazzled by the splendour and beauty of Wilde's execution, it
will be idle to expect an assent. Those who believe in art for art's
sake as an infallible doctrine, may be divided into three classes.

First of all there are the very young, whose experience of life has not
taught them the truth. They have not seen or known life as a whole, and,
therefore, no sound ethical view can possibly disabuse them of the

There are those again, older and more mature, who have not made
experience of life in its harsher and sadder aspects sufficient to wean
them from Wilde's theory, in which they are interested from a purely
academic point of view. And there is another class who are convinced
secretly in their own hearts that art for art's sake is an untenable
doctrine, but know that if they accepted it they would have to give up
much which they are unable to do without and which makes life pleasant
and dulls the conscience.

It is more satisfactory to turn to the consideration of "Intentions,"
and pay an enthusiastic and reverential meed of praise to this
perfection of art. Marred here and there perhaps by over-elaboration
and ornament, the book nevertheless remains a masterpiece. In its
highest expression, where paradox and point of view were not insisted
on, where pure lyric narrative fills the page, I know of nothing more
lovely. "Lovely" may be an exaggerated word, yet I think that it is
almost the only word which can be applied in this connection. Let me
give, as an example, a few lines from the marvellous and inspired pages
which treat of the Divine Comedy of Dante. Would that I could quote the
whole of the supreme and splendid passages! That is impossible. But
listen at least to these few lines.

The poet is describing his spiritual experiences while reading the
mighty harmonies of the Florentine:

     "On and on we go climbing the marvellous stair, and the stars
     become larger than their wont, and the song of the kings grows
     faint, and at length we reach the seven trees of gold and the
     garden of the Earthly Paradise. In a griffin-drawn chariot appears
     one whose brows are bound with olive, who is veiled in white, and
     mantled in green, and robed in a vesture that is coloured like live
     fire. The ancient flame wakes within us. Our blood quickens through
     terrible pulses. We recognise her. It is Beatrice, the woman we
     have worshipped. The ice congealed about our heart melts. Wild
     tears of anguish break from us, and we bow our forehead to the
     ground, for we know that we have sinned. When we have done penance,
     and are purified, and have drunk of the fountain of Lethe and
     bathed in the fountain of Eunoe, the mistress of our soul raises us
     to the Paradise of Heaven. Out of that eternal pearl, the moon, the
     face of Piccarda Donati leans to us. Her beauty troubles us for a
     moment, and when, like a thing that falls through water, she passes
     away, we gaze after her with wistful eyes."

Do not these words strike almost the highest, purest, and most beautiful
note that any writer of prose has struck throughout the centuries. In
English, at least, I know of nothing more rapt and ecstatic. It is above
criticism and the man who wrote it must for ever wear in our minds one
of the supreme laurels that artistic achievement can bestow.

One more paragraph will show the author of "Intentions" in a different
mood, but yet one in which the supreme sense of beauty and of form
throbs out upon the page and fills our pulses with that divine and
awestruck excitement that great art can give.

     "... wake from his forgotten tomb the sweet Syrian, Meleager, and
     bid the lover of Heliodore make you music, for he too has flowers
     in his song, red pomegranate-blossoms, and irises that smell of
     myrrh, ringed daffodils and dark blue hyacinths, and marjoram and
     crinkled ox-eyes. Dear to him was the perfume of the beanfield at
     evening, and dear to him the odorous eared-spikenard that grew on
     the Syrian hills, and the fresh green thyme, the winecup's charm.
     The feet of his love as she walked in the garden were like lilies
     set upon lilies. Softer than sleep-laden poppy petals were her
     lips, softer than violets and as scented. The flame-light crocus
     sprang from the grass to look at her. For her the slim narcissus
     stored the cool rain; and for her the anemones forgot the Sicilian
     winds that wooed them. And neither crocus, nor anemone, nor
     narcissus was as fair as she was."

If the song of Meleager was sweet and if the suns of summer greet the
mountain grave of Helikê, and the shepherds still repeat their legends
where breaks the blue Sicilian sea by which Theocritus tuned his lyre;
if the voice of Dante yet rings and sounds in the world-weary ears of
mortals of to-day; if "As You Like It" has still its appeal to our
modern ears as from a woodland full of flutes, then, indeed, this prose
of Oscar Wilde's, so beautiful and so august, will remain with us always
as an imperishable treasure of literature and as a lyric in our hearts.

"Poems in Prose" that Oscar Wilde wrote were published first in _The
Fortnightly Review_, during July, 1894, when Mr Frank Harris was the
editor. We must remember the date because it was only a few months
before the absolute downfall of the author.

In criticising this work of Wilde's, we cannot help the reflection that
it was written at a time when enormous, sudden, and overwhelming success
had thrown him entirely from his mental balance, and had filled him with
an even greater egoism than he ordinarily had, at the time these fables,
or allegories, let us call them, were produced, Oscar Wilde was at the
very height of his success, and of his almost insane irresponsibility

That they are beautiful it would be idle to deny. Still we have the sure
and dexterous pen employed upon them. There is no faltering in phrase,
no hesitation of artistry. It is said by many people who heard the poet
recite these stories upon social occasions, tell them to please, amuse,
or bewilder one of those gatherings in which he was the centre in a
constellation, that, spoken, they were far more beautiful than when at
length he wrote them down and published them in the review. I can well
believe it. On the two occasions when I myself heard Oscar Wilde
talking, I realised how unprecedented his talent for conversation was,
and wished that I also could hear him at times when he attempted his
highest flights. Yet, even as pieces of prose, the title the author
chose for them is perfectly justified. They are indeed "poems" in prose
and triumphant examples of technical accomplishment and mastery.

Yet, the condemnation of their teaching can hardly be too severe. With
every wish in the world to realise that a paradox is only a truth
standing on its head to attract attention, with every desire to give the
author his due, no honest man, no Christian, no Catholic, no Protestant,
but must turn from these few paragraphs of allegory with sorrow and a
sense of something very like shame.

And it is for this reason.

The poet has dared an attempt of invasion into places where neither he
nor any artist has right. With an insane pride he dares to patronise, to
limit and to explain the Almighty.

Nowhere in this Appreciation have I made a whole-hearted condemnation of
anything Wilde has written. Even at times when I most disagreed with his
attitude I have attempted, I hope with humility and sincerity, to
present the other side of the shield. Here I do not see there is
anything to be said in favour of at least two or three of the prose
poems--those two or three which give colour to the whole.

There is one of them called "The Doer of Good." It begins in this wise:

          "It was night time and He was alone,
    And He saw afar off the walls of a round city and went towards the

Our Lord is meant.

The allegory goes on to say that when Christ came near to the city He
heard music and the sounds of happiness and joy. He knocked at the
gate and "certain of the gatekeepers opened to Him."

Our Lord passes through the beautiful halls of a palace and sees upon a
"couch of sea purple" a man bearing all the signs of an ancient Greek
stupefied by pleasure and by wine. The Protagonist asks the man He
sees--"Why do you live like this?"

Then Wilde's prose goes on to tell how the young man turns and
recognises his interlocutor and answers that he was a leper once, that
Christ had healed him. How else should he live?

Our Lord leaves the palace and walks through the city, and he sees
another young man pursuing a harlot, while his eyes are bright with
lust. He speaks to the young man and asks him the reason of his way of
life, and the young man turns and tells the Saviour of Mankind that he
was once blind and that He had given him sight, and, therefore, at what
else could he look?

The allegory goes on, but it is not necessary to continue an account of
it. All it is necessary and right to say is, that the allegory is
blasphemous and horrible--horrible with the insane pride of one who has
not realised his imminent fall, who has realised the horror of his
mental attitude no less than the life he was proved to have been
leading at the time.

I have purposely refrained from quotation here. But let it again be said
that the artistic presentment of these parables is without flaw.

I do not think it would be a kindness to the memory of Oscar Wilde, nor
be doing a service to anyone at all, to continue this ethical criticism
of the "Poems in Prose." Let me say only that Wilde, in another story,
takes a sinner to the Judgment Seat and introduces God the Father into a
dialogue in which the sinner silences the Almighty by his repartee. All
these "Poems in Prose" are written beautifully, as I have said, but also
with an extraordinarily adroit use of actual phrases from the New
Testament. I will permit myself one quotation before I conclude, which
is surely saddening in its significance in the view of after events.

And God said to the Man: "Thy life hath been Evil, and the Beauty I have
shown thou hast sought for, and the Good I have hidden thou did'st pass

It remains to say something about Wilde's final essay, entitled "The
Soul of Man," which also appeared in _The Fortnightly Review_. Upon its
appearance it was called "The Soul of Man under Socialism," but it has
since been republished under the title of "The Soul of Man."

This essay, brilliant in conception, brilliant in execution, has none of
the old lyric beauty of phrase. It can in no sense be considered a
masterpiece of prose, but only a piece of fine and cultured writing. In
it paradox obscures the underlying truth. The very first words strike
the old weary note. "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 himself and

As far as the prose artist is concerned, the essay has little to
recommend it. He was tired, tired out, and had no longer the wish or the
stimulus to produce the marvellous and glowing prose to which we have
been accustomed in these other statements of the writer's attitude
towards art, towards morals and towards beauty. Yet, at the same time,
the man's love of individualism drove him to write this essay, and at
certain points it comes strangely into impact with Catholic truth.

The more Catholic the conception of religion and of art becomes, the
more surely the socialistic idea obtains. Certainly our Lord taught that
individual character can only be developed through community. The great
socialistic organ of England attempted the value and weight of Oscar
Wilde's defence of Socialism in the following words:--

     "Christ taught that individual character could only be developed
     through community. Some say he opposed Socialism because, when two
     young capitalists came to him wrangling about their private
     property, he ignored them, saying, 'Who made me a divider among
     you?' I suppose these objectors still think that Socialism means
     dividing up. When his enemies were closing in upon him, and his
     life hung in the balance, a woman came and anointed his feet, and
     wiped them with her hair, and the good people were shocked, and
     complained of the waste. Might not the ointment have been sold, and
     the money doled out to the poor? Christ defended her generous
     impulse, and remarked: 'The poor you have always with you. You have
     plenty of opportunities of helping them. Me you have not always.'
     This is erected into a great pronouncement that we must not attempt
     to abolish poverty! To such amusing shifts are Christian
     Individualists driven!

     "But our contention is that although Christ was not a State
     Socialist, his spirit, embodied in the Christian Church, inevitably
     urges men to Socialism; that the political development of the
     Catholic Faith is along the lines of Socialism; and that, as the
     State captured the Church in the past, so now it is the business of
     the Church to recapture the State, and through it to establish
     God's Kingdom on earth."

I quote them here in order to show what sympathy the essay awakened,
even though that sympathy is utterly alien to the belief of the
chronicler. And now let us finally bid farewell to Oscar Wilde as
Æsthete, or, rather, as prophet and expounder of the æsthetic.

I have placed on record not only my own small opinion of his teachings,
but a very solid and weighty consensus of condemnation of his attitude.

And I hope, from the purely literary point of view, I have made
obeisance and given every credit to one of the greatest literary artists
of our time.




     "I Have entered on a performance which is without example, whose
     accomplishments will have no imitator. I mean to present my
     fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this
     man shall be myself.

     "I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like
     anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in
     existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether
     Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me,
     can only be determined after having read this work.

     "Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself
     before the sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and loudly
     proclaim, Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.
     With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or
     wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have
     sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy
     a void occasioned by defect of memory. I may have supposed that
     certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted
     as truth a conscious falsehood. Such as I was, I have declared
     myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous,
     generous, and sublime. Even as thou hast read my inmost soul, Power
     eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my
     fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush
     at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his
     turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of
     his heart, and, if he dare, aver, _I was better than that man_."

These are the first words in that book which it was supposed would
always stand as a type of real self-revelation and confession and which
now is thought of by all the world as merely a brilliant piece of
literature and an amazing tissue of misrepresentations.

Jean Jacques Rousseau never gave his real self to the world despite the
loud Gallic boast of the paragraphs above.

Did De Quincey? Did St Augustine? Did anyone ever tell the truth about
himself from the very beginnings of literature? Newman's "Apologia";
Bunyan's "Grace Abounding"; the Journals of Wesley; the Memoirs of
Madame de Stael de Launay; the diary of Madame D'Arblay; the "Ausmeinem
Leben" of Goethe, the "Lavengro" of Borrow--how much in all these and in
the hundred other works of like nature which crowd to the mind, how much
is self-deception, how much picturesque fiction?

Who can say?

There is only one way of determining the value of an autobiographical
statement--by a comparison of internal evidence with external historic
fact. In the case of people whose generation has passed away this task
is beset with difficulties, though not impossible. In the case of one
who has but recently died, whose friends and contemporaries are living
still, about whom documentary and oral evidence abounds, the task is
more easy, though still a hard and, possibly, a thankless one.

In a consideration and criticism, however, of Oscar Wilde's greatest
work, "De Profundis," such an attempt must undoubtedly be made.

Yet, this question of sincerity or reality is not the only one to be
determined, and it will be well, therefore, to treat of "De Profundis"
with the assistance of a definite plan of criticism.

Let us then divide this part of the book into several sections.

There are, undoubtedly, a great many people who have heard the name of
the book and read the extraordinarily copious reviews of it in the
public press, but have no further acquaintance with it than just that.
It will be necessary, therefore, in the first instance, to give an
account of the actual subject-matter in order to make the following
criticism intelligible and, it is to be hoped, to induce them to
purchase and read this marvellous monograph, which is one of the
world's minor masterpieces, for themselves.

Secondly, a purely literary criticism will not be out of place, a
criticism which treats of the book as a consummate work of art and a
piece of prose almost unparalleled for its splendour and beauty in
modern literature.

Thirdly, the vexed question of its conscious or unconscious sincerity
must be dealt with, while the fourth consideration should surely be
devoted to the philosophy and teaching, especially in its regard to the
Christian Faith, which is definitely promulgated within the book.

Lastly, a few words about its actual legacy to the Europe of to-day
should conclude this part of the Appreciation.

       *       *       *       *       *

"De Profundis" was published by Messrs Methuen & Company on 23rd
February 1905. It was written by Oscar Wilde when in prison, by special
permission of the Home Secretary. A fuller account of these details will
be found in Part I. of this book.

Directly "De Profundis" made its appearance the whole press of England,
almost without exception, devoted a large space to its consideration.
The sensation the book occasioned was extraordinary and almost without
parallel in modern times. An enormous controversy arose about it
immediately. Every possible aspect of the book was canvassed and
discussed, and, strange as it may seem, a vast amount of venom and
bitterness was mingled with the bulk of eulogy. The student of
contemporary literature, or perhaps, in view of what I am going to say,
it would be better to call it contemporary book publishing, can find no
parallel to the interest and excitement this book occasioned, save only
in the case of a very different production called "When it was Dark," an
over-rated sensational novel by a Mr "Guy Thorne," whose views excited
the various religious parties in the Church of England to a sort of
frenzy for and against them.

In pure literature I know of nothing which, upon its appearance, made
such an immediate stir as "De Profundis."

With the various views of various sections of the community, I propose
to deal later. With the doubts that were thrown on its authenticity as a
genuine prison manuscript I have already dealt. I may here, however,
quote a few words of a statement made by the editor of "De Profundis,"
Mr Robert Ross, to a representative of an evening paper. They will
explain for the reader all that he will further find necessary to
introduce him to the circumstances under which "De Profundis" appeared.

"My object," he said, "in publishing this book, as I have indicated in
the preface and in my letter to _The St James's Gazette_, was that Mr
Oscar Wilde might come to be regarded as a factor in English literature
along with his distinguished contemporaries. The success of 'De
Profundis' and the reviews lead me to believe that my object has been

"I cannot expect the world to share my admiration of Mr Oscar Wilde as a
man of letters, at present, although that admiration is already shared
by many distinguished men of letters in England, by the whole of
Germany, and by a considerable portion of the literary class in France.

"With regard to the authenticity of the manuscript, I may say that it
was well known that during his incarceration at Reading Gaol he was
granted the privileges of pen and paper, only permitted in exceptional
cases, at the instance of influential people not his personal friends.
The manuscript of 'De Profundis,' about which he wrote to me very often
during the last months of his imprisonment, was handed to me on the day
of his release. The letters he had written to me in reference to it are
published in the German edition of the work, and later on, perhaps, they
may appear in England, if I think it desirable to publish them here.

"Contrary to general belief the manuscript contains nothing of a
scandalous nature, and if there was another object in publishing the
work it was to remove that false impression which had gained ground.
The portions which I have omitted in the English publication, apart from
the letters to which I have already referred as appearing in the German
edition, are all of a private character. There are one or two
unimportant passages which the English publisher--very wisely, I
think--deemed unsuitable for immediate reproduction in England.

"In Germany Mr Oscar Wilde's place in English literature had already
been accepted. 'Salomé,' for instance, is now part of the repertoire,
and Strauss, the great musician, is engaged on an opera based on Mr
Wilde's work, which he selected out of many others because of its
popularity in Germany, and also, no doubt, on account of the dramatic
intensity of Mr Wilde's interpretation of the Biblical story.

"It is not for me to criticise or to appreciate 'De Profundis' on which
many competent writers have given their opinions, but I should have
imagined that it was sufficiently clear that Mr Oscar Wilde had not
attempted to throw any blame for his misfortune on anyone but himself.

"The manuscript is written on blue prison foolscap. There are a few
corrections. Although Mr Wilde gave me very full instructions with
regard to those portions which he wished published he allowed me
absolute discretion in the matter, which he did about all his other
manuscript and letters."


I have said that for those who have not read the book, a short synopsis
of its contents is necessary here. But I am immediately confronted with
a difficulty because, probably, no book is more difficult to sum up, to
make a _précis_ from, than this. However, I do all that is possible, and
only ask my readers to remember that this bald catalogue will be
elucidated further on in the article. In the preface to the book a
letter of Oscar Wilde to the editor is quoted in which he says:

     "I don't defend my conduct. I explain it. Also there is 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. Of
     course, from one point of view, I know that on the day of my
     release I shall be merely passing from one prison into another....
     Prison life makes one see people and things as they really are.
     That is why it turns one to stone.... I have 'cleansed my bosom of
     much perilous stuff.' I need not remind you that mere expression is
     to an artist the supreme and only mode of life.... For nearly two
     years I have had within a growing burden of bitterness, of much of
     which I have now got rid."

This, in some sort of way, will give the reader an idea of what the book
consists or, at anyrate, of its other view about it.

He begins the work by a statement of the terrible suffering he is
undergoing in prison. The iron discipline, the paralysing immobility of
a life which is as monotonous and regular as the movement of a great
machine, are set forth subjectively by a presentment of the effects they
are having upon the prisoner's brain. "It is always twilight in one's
cell, as it is always twilight in one's heart."

... He is transferred to a new prison. Three months elapse, and he is
told of his mother's death. He speaks of his deep love and veneration
for her and says that he who was once a "lord of language" has now no
words left in which to tell of the appalling shame which has seized upon
his heart and mind. He realises the infamy with which he has covered
that honoured name.

An anecdote comes into these sorrowful pages. It is an anecdote of his
sad and guarded appearance among the world of men when he was brought
to appear before the Court of Bankruptcy. As he walked manacled in the
corridor towards the Court Room, a friend of his, who was waiting,
lifted his hat and bowed. Waited, "that, before the whole crowd, whom
such an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might raise
his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by."

A page or two is occupied with the poor convict's gratitude for this
simple, sweet and dignified action. A marvellous eulogy is pronounced
upon it.

What prison means to a man in the upper ranks of life is set forth in
words of anguish, and then, following these paragraphs, is a frank
admission that Wilde had ruined himself. "I am quite ready to say so. I
am trying to say so, though they may not think it at the present moment.
This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself."

He describes the great and brilliant position he had held in the world.
He tells of all the splendid things with which fortune had endowed him.
He admits that he allowed pleasure to dominate him and that his end came
with irremediable disgrace.

He has lain in prison for nearly two years, and now he begins to
describe his mental development during the long torture. Humility, he
says, is what he has found, like a treasure in a field. From this newly
discovered treasure he builds up a method of conduct which he will
pursue when he is released from durance. He knows, indeed, that kind
friends will await him on the other side of the prison door. He will not
have to beg his bread, but, nevertheless, humility shall bloom like a
flower in his heart.

He begins to speak of religion, and avows his atheism. "The faith that
others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look
at." There is no help for him in religion.

He goes on to speak of reason. There is no help for him in reason.
Reason tells him that the laws under which he was convicted were wrong
and unjust laws, the system under which he suffered a wrong and unjust

Yet, in pursuance of his determination of Humility, he resolves to make
all that has happened to him into a spiritualising medium. He is going
to weave his pain and agony into the warp and woof of his life with the
same readiness with which he wove the time of pleasure and success into
the completion of his temperament.

Then there comes a long discussion of his own position at the moment, a
common prisoner in a common gaol, and of what his position will be
afterwards. He tells of occasions on which he was allowed to see his
friends in prison, and afterwards describes a moment of his deepest
degradation, when he was jeered at in convict dress as he stood, one of
a chained gang, on Clapham Junction platform. The story is utterly
terrible. On the occasion of his removal from London to Reading, he
says, "I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in
convict dress and handcuffed, for all the world to look at.... When
people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the
audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course,
before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they
laughed still more. For half-an-hour I stood there, in the grey November
rain, surrounded by a jeering mob."

We find now, in our short survey of the book, the widely discussed
passages about the personality and message of Christ. These form the
greater part of this strange and moving masterpiece. They will be
treated of hereafter.

Finally, come anticipations of release and plans for the future, and "De
Profundis" concludes with an especially poignant and almost painfully
beautiful passage which anticipates the kindliness of Nature to heal a
bruised soul to which man has given no solace:

"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 whole."


There is very little of the wise and sensuous geniality of Horace in
Oscar Wilde's outlook upon life. But some lines of the poet, never a
great favourite with Wilde by the way, certainly have a direct
application upon the style of the author of "De Profundis"--

   "Saepe stilum vertas, iterum quæ digna legi sint
    Scripturus; neque te ut miretur turba labores,
    Contentus paucis lectoribus."--S. I. 10, 72.

A piece of prose to Oscar Wilde was always, in a sense, like a definite
musical composition in which words took the place of notes, and he
carried out the poet's injunction to polish and rewrite with meticulous

Wilde had, in a marvellously developed degree, the sense that a piece of
prose was a built-up thing proceeding piece by piece, movement by
movement, sentence by sentence, and word by word towards a definite and
well-understood effect. "It was the architectural conception of work
which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and
in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does
but, with undiminished vigour, unfold and justify the first."

These lines were written by Oscar Wilde's master in English prose,
Walter Pater, and we shall see how entirely Wilde has adhered to such an
artistic attitude. Like the Greeks, he believed in an elaborate
criticism of language, and the metrical movements of prose were
scientifically and artistically interesting to him, as any student of
harmony takes pleasure in a contrapuntal exercise. The analogy is
perfectly correct, and Wilde himself has drawn attention to it more than
once in his prose writings. Counterpoint consisted, in the old days of
music, when a system of sounds called points were used for notation, in
two or more lines of these points; each line represented a melody which,
when set against each other and sounded simultaneously, produced correct

Wilde's prose was moulded entirely upon an appreciation of these facts,
and the ear must always be the critic of the excellence of his prose
rather than the intelligence, in the first instance, as reached by the
eye. If we read aloud passages of "De Profundis" the full splendour of
them strikes us far more poignantly than in any other way. It is true
that Wilde's prose makes an appeal _ad clerum_, and it is not necessary
for the connoisseur, the initiate, to apply the test of the spoken
word. But those who are not actually conversant with the more technical
niceties of style will do well to read Wilde's prose aloud. They will
discover in it new and unsuspected beauties.

Wilde, at one period of his career, published a series of short
paragraph stories which he called "Poems in Prose." With him there were
many points of contact between prose and poetry. The two things could
overlap and intermingle, though in his hands neither lost its own
individuality in the process. There has been too much said in the past
about the old principle of sharp division between poetry and prose. This
was a classical tradition and was one which well applied to the Greek
and Latin languages. It was maintained, until a late era in our own
English literature, by the Gibbons and Macaulays who moulded themselves
upon Cicero and Livy. But during the last century the force of the old
tradition weakened very much. A newer and more flexible style of writing
became permissible. Coleridge, De Quincey, Swift, Lamb, to mention a few
names at random, showed that, at anyrate, prose need no longer be
written as a stately cataract of ordered words with due balance and
antithesis, and with certain rigid movements which were thought
indispensable to correct writing.

Dr Boswell said, apropos of style--"Some think Swift's the best; others
prefer a fuller and grander way of writing." To whom Dr Johnson
replied--"Sir, you must first define what you mean by style, before you
can judge who has good taste in style and who has bad. The two classes
of persons whom you have mentioned don't differ as to good and bad. They
both agree that Swift has a good neat style, but one loves a neat style,
another a style of more splendour. In the like manner one loves a plain
coat, another loves a laced coat; but neither will deny that each is
good in its kind."

Although Johnson and his contemporaries certainly had a great sense of
rhythm and harmony in prose they were the last defenders of the old
axiom that poetry and prose were two entirely separate things. It was
Walter Pater who, in our own times, finally demolished the old
tradition, and opened the way for a writer, such as Oscar Wilde, to
bring the new discovery to its fullest perfection. Walter Pater showed
that it was not true that poetry differs only from prose by the presence
of metrical restraint.

Wilde, understanding this, most thoroughly, resolved early in his
literary career that his prose should be beautifully coloured, jewelled,
ornate, and yet capable of every delicate nuance, every almost lyric
echo that could be caught from the realms of poesy and welded into the
many-coloured fabric.

In Wilde's "Intentions" we have an example of his most ornamented and
decorated prose, so marvellously musical that it reminds us of a fugue
played on a mighty organ with innumerable stops. Yet, at the same time,
in this book of Essays, Oscar Wilde frequently laid himself open to the
charge of precocity and over-elaboration. It is possible to obscure the
grand and massive lines of a building by an over-elaboration of detail.
Beautiful as decorated Gothic is, I have in mind the Cathedral of
Cologne, there is a more massive grandeur in the early mediæval work
than anything the later style can give.

"De Profundis" is purged of all the faults--one might almost say the
faults of excellence--that the hypercritical student may sometimes find
in the earlier prose of its author. Just as the man himself was purged
and purified in mind by the terrible experiences of prison, so his style
also became stronger and more beautiful, and what was once reminiscent
of a marvellous nocturne or ballade of Chopin, or "some mad scarlet
thing by Dvorak" inherent with all the beauty of just this, now acquires
the harmony and strength of a great wind blowing through a forest.

The prose is still full of the old symbolism and imagery, but these two
means of producing an effect are used with much more restraint of
language and simplicity of words. Note, for example, how the following
paragraph, especially when read aloud, proceeds from symbol to symbol
with a marvellously adroit use of the dactyl and the spondæ, or rather
their equivalents in English prosody, until the final thought is
enunciated, the voice drops, the sentence is complete. "When one has
weighed the sun in the balance and measured the steps of the moon, and
mapped out the seven Heavens, star by star, there still remains

Here we notice in addition, the extraordinary influence that the words
of the Bible always had upon the prose of Oscar Wilde. In his lonely
prison cell, where nearly the whole of his reading must have consisted
of Holy Scripture, the influence was naturally greater than ever before.
No one can read "De Profundis" with its rhythmic repetitions of phrase
without realising this in an extraordinary degree. Take the passage I
have just quoted and the following paragraph, which, let me assure my
readers, I have taken quite at random, opening a Bible and turning over
but a very few leaves of the Old Testament without any regular
search,--"So that they shall take no wood out of the field, neither cut
down out of the forest; for they shall burn the weapons with fire: and
they shall spoil those that spoiled them, and rob those that robbed
them, saith the Lord God."

Yes! there can be no possible doubt that much of the inspiration of "De
Profundis"--that is, the purely literary inspiration--came from the
solemn harmonies and balanced phrases of the old Hebrew singers and

With Job, Oscar Wilde might well have said, and his own lamentations are
strangely reminiscent of the phrase, "My harp is turned to mourning and
my organ into the voice of them that weep."

In "De Profundis" the special passages of rare and melodious beauty
which star the printed page at no long intervals, have been very widely
commented upon and quoted. By this time they are quite familiar to all
who take an interest in modern literature, and this masterpiece of it in
particular. Yet, in considering the prose of "De Profundis" we must not
forget to pay a due meed of praise to the great substance of the book in
which an extraordinary ease and dignity of style, an absolute simplicity
of effect, which conceals the most elaborate art and the most profound
knowledge of the science of words, links together those more memorable,
because more striking, passages which leap out from the page and plant
themselves in the mind of the appreciative reader like arrows.

     "There is hardly a word in 'De Profundis' misplaced, misused, or
     used at all unless the fullest possible value is got from its
     presence in the sentence. Even now and then, when, in the midst of
     the grave rhetoric of his psychology, the author descends into
     colloquialism, the ear is not offended in the least. He knows the
     precise moment when the little homely word will bring back to the
     reader the fact that he is reading a human document written by a
     human sufferer in a prison cell.

     "If, after I am free, a friend of mine gave a feast, and did not
     invite me to it, I should not mind a bit, I can be perfectly happy
     by myself."

Here in the midst of passages of calculated and cadenced beauty we have
a little carefully devised sentence to which, though the ordinary reader
will not realise the art and cunning of its employment, it will have
precisely the effect upon the brain of the ordinary reader that Oscar
Wilde designed when he wrote it.

The literary man himself, accustomed to deal with words, can, and will,
appreciate the art of the artist in this regard.

It is with the profoundest appreciation and admiration for the
marvellous skill of presentation, the perfect power and flexibility of
the prose that I leave the consideration of the purely artistic merits
of the book and turn to its real value as a human document.

As Oscar Wilde said of himself, he was indeed a "lord of language."


We now come to a consideration of "De Profundis" as a revelation, or
not, of the real sentiments and thoughts of the man who wrote it.

To the British temperament it is always far more important, in the
judgment of a book, that the writer should be sincere in the writing
than that what he wrote should be perfectly artistic.

The British public, indeed, the whole Anglo-Saxon world, has never been
able to adapt itself to the French attitude that, provided a thing is a
flawless work of art, the sincerity of the writer has nothing whatever
to do with its worth. This attitude Wilde himself consistently preached
in season and out of season. For example, he wrote a study of
Wainwright, the poisoner, which, read from the ordinary English ethical
point of view, would seem to show him a most sympathetic advocate of
crime, provided only the criminal committed his crimes in an artistic
manner and had also a sense of art in life.

When a friend reproached the monster Wainwright with the murder of an
innocent girl, Helen Abercrombie, to whom he owed every duty of kindness
and protection, he shrugged his shoulders and said--"Yes, it was a
dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles." If we are to take
Oscar Wilde's essay, "Pen, Pencil and Poison," quite seriously we must
believe him to be utterly indifferent to the monstrous moral character
of the hero of his memoir. He speaks of him as being not merely a poet
and a painter, an art critic and antiquarian, a writer of prose and a
dilettante of things delightful, but also a forger of no mean nor
ordinary capacities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without
rival in this or any age.

When "De Profundis" first made its appearance and the flood of criticism
began, dozens of critics pounced upon the book, admitted its marvellous
literary charm and achievement, and said that its author was absolutely
and utterly insincere in all he wrote about himself. _The Times_ for
example, which still holds a certain pre-eminence of place, although it
is the fashion of a younger generation to decry it and to pretend that
it has lost all its influence, owing both to the change of public taste
in journalistic requirements and certain business enterprises which have
been associated with its name, spoke out to this effect with careful and
calculated sincerity.

In an article which was extremely well written and had indubitably a
certain psychological insight, the leading journal condemned "De
Profundis" from an ethical point of view with no uncertain voice. It
said that, while it was possessed by every wish to understand the author
and to sympathise with him in the hideous ruin of his brilliant career,
it was impossible, except in a very few instances, to regard his
posthumous book as anything but a mere literary feat.

The excellence of that was granted, but it was not allowed to be
anything more than that.

It was not in this way, so said the writer in _The Times_, that souls
were laid bare, this was not sorrow, but the most dextrous counterfeit
of sorrow. Wilde, so the review stated, was "probably unable to cry from
the depths at all." His book simply showed that there was an armour of
egotism which no arrow of fate was able to pierce. Even in "De
Profundis" the poseur supplemented the artist, and the truth was not in
him. If the heart of a broken man showed at all in the book it must,
said _The Times_, "be looked for between the lines. It was rarely in

In short, so the review, when summed up and crystallised, implied, Wilde
was incapable of telling the truth about himself, or about anything at
all. Sometimes in his writings he fell upon the truth by accident, and
then his works contained a modicum of truth. Consciously, he was never
able to discover it, consciously, he was never able to enunciate it.

Now, that is a point of view which is natural enough, but which, after
careful study, I cannot substantiate in any way. Over and over again
the same thing was said. Everybody was prepared, at last, to admit that
Wilde was a great artist--in direct contradiction to that condemnation
of even his literary power which was poured upon his works at the time
of his downfall--but the general opinion of the leading critics seemed
to point to the fact of "De Profundis" being a pose and insincere.

Now, if the book was merely an excursion in attitude, a considered work
of art without any very profound relation to the truth of its personal
psychology, then I think the book would be a less saddening thing than
it undoubtedly is. Surely, the author had a perfect right, if he so
wished, to produce a psychological romance. This I know is not a
generally held opinion, but I do not see how anybody who knows anything
about the brain of the artist and the ethics of creation can really deny
it. If the work is absolutely sincere, as I believe it to be, then, from
the moral point of view, it is indeed a terrible document. It shows us
how little the extraordinary, complex temperament of Oscar Wilde was
really chastened and purified. It provides us with a moral picture of
monstrous egotism set in a frame of jewels.

As has been said so often before in this book, the worse and insane side
of Oscar Wilde must always obscure and conquer the better and beautiful
side of him.

Oscar Wilde describes himself as a "lord of language." This is perfectly
true. He goes on to say that he "stood in symbolic relations to the art
and culture of his time." This is only half true. He continues that "I
felt it myself and made others feel it." The first half of this sentence
is too true, the second half is untrue, inasmuch as it implies that he
made everyone feel it, whereas he mistook the flattery and adulation of
a tiny coterie for the applause and sanction of a nation. Oscar Wilde
always lived within four very narrow walls. At one time they were the
swaying misty walls conjured up by a few and not very important voices,
at another they were the walls of concrete and corrugated iron, the
whitewashed walls of his prison cell. He says that his relations to his
time were more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger
scope than Byron's relation to his time. Then, almost in the same
breath, he begins to tell us that there is only one thing for him now,
"absolute humility." That something hidden away in his nature like a
treasure in a field is "humility."

Comment is almost cruel here.

In another part of "De Profundis" the author airily and lightly touches
upon those horrors which had ruined him and made him what he was, and
which kept him where he was.

     "People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner
     the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their
     company. But then, from the point of view through which I, as an
     artist in life, approached them, they were delightfully suggestive
     and stimulating. The danger was half the excitement...."

Is this Humility and is this Repentance? To me it seems as terrible a
conviction of madness and inability to understand the depth to which he
had sunk as one could find in the whole realm of literature.

"People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained," etc. etc. Does
not the very phrase suggest that Wilde still thinks in his new-found
"humility" that it was not dreadful of him at all and that he had a
perfect right to do so?

There is no doubt of his absolute sincerity. He is absolutely incapable
of understanding. He still thinks, lying in torture, that he has done
nothing wrong. He has made an error of judgment, he has misapprehended
his attitude towards society. He has not sinned. Once only does he
admit, in a single sentence, that any real culpability attached to him.
"I grew careless of the lives of others." This shows that a momentary
glimpse of the truth had entered that unhappy brain, but it is
carelessly uttered, and carelessly dismissed. All he cared for, if we
believe this book to be sincere, as I think nobody who really
understands the man and his mental condition at the time that it was
written, can fail to believe, is, that every fresh sensation at any cost
to himself and others, was his only duty towards himself and his art.

Doubtless when he wrote "De Profundis" Oscar Wilde believed absolutely
in his own attitude. He was no Lucifer in his own account, no fallen
angel. He was only a spirit of light which had made a mistake and found
itself in fetters. That is the tragedy of the book, that its author
could never see himself as others saw him or realise that he had sinned.
When Satan fell from Heaven, in Milton's mighty work, he made no attempt
to persuade himself that he had found something hidden away within him
like a treasure in a field--"Humility." There was in the imaginary
portrait of the Author of Evil still an awful and impious defiance of
the Forces that controlled all nature and him as a part of nature.

Oscar Wilde could look back upon all he did to himself and all the
incalculable evil he wrought upon others and say quite calmly that he
did not regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. He tells
us that he threw the "pearl of his soul into a cup of wine," that he
"went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes." And then, after
living on honeycomb he realises that to have continued living on
honeycomb would have been wrong, because it would have arrested the
continuance of his development.

"I had to pass on."

Let us pass on also to a consideration of Wilde's teaching on
Christianity in "De Profundis."


It is necessary to deal with this part of "De Profundis" which treats of
the unhappy author's "discoveries" in Christianity, because his views
were put so perfectly, with such a wealth of phrase, with such apparent
certainty of conviction, that they may well have an influence upon young
and impressionable minds which will be, and possibly has been, dangerous
and unsettling.

There is no doubt but that the teaching of "De Profundis," or rather the
point of view enunciated in it, which deals with Christianity, shows
that Oscar Wilde had failed to gain any real insight into the Faith. It
is quite true that various of the sects within the English Church,
especially those which dissent from the Establishment, might find
themselves in accordance with much that Wilde said. A Catholic, however,
cannot for a moment admit that the poet's teachings are anything but
paradoxical, dangerous, and untrue.

A minister of the Protestant Church, Canon Beeching, preaching at
Westminster Abbey on "The Sinlessness of Christ," referred to the
portions of "De Profundis," with which I am dealing now, in no uncertain

There are here and there things that a Catholic would not entirely
endorse in Canon Beeching's sermon, yet, on the whole, it is a very sane
and fair presentation of what a Christian must think in reading "De
Profundis." It is as well to say frankly, that I write as a Catholic,
and, in this section of my criticism, for those who are also of the

I print some extracts from Canon Beeching's sermon:

"One wonders sometimes," said he, "if Englishmen have given up reading
their gospels. A book has lately appeared which presents a caricature of
the portrait of Christ, and especially a travesty of His doctrine about
sin, that is quite astonishing; and with one or two honourable
exceptions the daily and weekly Press have praised the book
enthusiastically, and especially the study it gives of the character of
Christ; whereas, if that picture were true, the Pharisees were right
when they said to Him that He cast out devils through Beelzebub, and the
priests were right in sending Him to death as a perverter of the people.
The writer of the book, who is dead, was a man of exceptional literary
talent, who fell into disgrace; and whether it is pity for his sad fate
or admiration of his style in writing that has cast a spell upon the
reviewers and blinded them to his meaning, I cannot say; but I do say
they have not done their duty to English society by lauding the book as
they have done, without giving parents and guardians some hint that it
preaches a doctrine of sin, which, if taken into romantic and
impressionable hearts, will send them quickly down the road of shame.
The chief point on which the writer fixes is Christ's behaviour to the
sinners; and his theory is that Christ consorted with them because He
found them more interesting than the good people, who were stupid. 'The
world,' he says, 'had always loved the saint as being the nearest
possible approach to the perfection of God; Christ, through some divine
instinct in Him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the
nearest possible approach to the perfection of man. To turn an
interesting thief into a tedious honest man was not His aim.... But in a
manner not yet understood of the world He regarded sin and suffering as
being in themselves beautiful and holy things, and modes of perfection.'
It seems to have struck the writer at this point that our Lord had
Himself explained that He consorted with sinners, as a physician with
the sick, to call them to repentance. For he goes on:--'Of course the
sinner must repent; but why?--simply because otherwise he would be
unable to realise what he had done.' In other words, a man is the
better for any sort of emotional experience, when it is past, because he
is fertilised by it as by a crop of wild oats; a form of philosophy
which Tennyson in 'In Memoriam' well characterised as 'Procuress to the
Lords of Hell.' But even this writer, absolutely shameless and unabashed
as he is, does not hint that Christ Himself gained His moral beauty by
sinning. The lowest depth of woe is theirs who call evil good and good
evil, for that is a poisoning of the well of life. What is the use of
calling Jesus "good" if we destroy the very meaning of goodness? May God
have pardoned the sin of the man who put this stumbling-block in the way
of the simple, and may He shield our boys and young men from that
doctrine of devils that the way of perfection lies through sin."

These words, although they are obviously said without any sympathy
whatever for Oscar Wilde, have the germ of truth within them. Strong as
they are, and no one who had really studied the whole work and life of
Oscar Wilde would perhaps care to make so fierce a statement, they are,
nevertheless, words of weight and value. I have no record among my
documents of any Catholic priest who dealt with the Christian aspect of
"De Profundis" upon its publication. Nevertheless, I have conversed with
Christians of all denominations on the subject of Wilde's "discovery"
of Christ, and I am certain that I am only representing the Christian
point of view when I state that a wholesale condemnation of the
doctrines Wilde enunciated is the only thing possible for us. Of the way
in which his doctrines were enunciated no one with a literary sense and
who takes a joy in fine, artistic achievement, can fail to give a
tribute of whole-hearted praise and admiration.

Let us consider.

Morality, philosophy, religion, Wilde has already confessed have no
controlling force or power for him. Yet, he takes up the position of
those dim and early seekers after the Presence of Divinity. He would see
"Jesus." Accordingly, Wilde writes of our Lord very beautifully indeed.
He tells us that the basis of "His nature was an intense and flame-like
imagination.... There is almost something incredible in the idea of the
young Galilean Peasant imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders
the burden of the entire world--all that has been done and suffered, and
all that was to be done and suffered--and not merely imagining it, but
achieving it."

As another Anglican minister, Canon Gorton, appointed out at the time,
Wilde states that Christ ranks next to the poets. There is nothing in
the highest drama which can approach the last act of Christ's Passion.
Our Lord becomes, in Wilde's eyes, the source of all art. He is a
requisite for the beautiful. He is in "Romeo and Juliet," in "The
Winter's Tale" in Provencal poetry, and in "The Ancient Mariner." "Hence
Christ becomes the palpitating centre of romance, He has all the colour
elements of life, mystery, strangeness, pathos, suggestion, ecstasy,

And then Wilde finally says "that is why he is so fascinating to
artists." This summing up of the personality and mission of the Saviour
of the world as a mere element in the life of mental or spiritual
pleasure enjoyed by those who are cultivated to such a life at all,
strikes the Christian man or woman with dismay. It is horrible, this
patronising analysis of the Redeemer as another and great Dante, merely
a supreme artist to whom artists should bow because of that, and no

Wilde, in fact, definitely states that the artistic life means for him
the tasting in turn of good and evil, the entertainment of saints and
devils, for the sake of extending the circle of his friends. He
approaches the Personality of Christ _sub specie artis_, and only in
this way, and his words are the more terrible to the devout Christian
because they are so beautiful. Do we not remember, indeed, that once
when a young man knelt to our Lord and called Him "good," the Saviour
put him aside? Does it not strike one that there is something very
nearly blasphemous in the man who had lived the consciously antinomian
life that Oscar Wilde lived daring to call the Saviour idyllic, poetic,
dramatic, charming, fascinating? Does not the poet use the personality
of our Lord as a mere peg on which to hang his own gorgeous and jewelled
imagery, a reed through which he should make his own artistic music? Our
Lord did not come into the world to win admiration but to win the soul
from sin. His appeal was not to our imagination, but to our dormant
souls to rouse and strengthen them.

Oscar Wilde writes of Jesus, but there is no Cross. There is a Saviour,
but no repentance, no renewal, of life, no effort after Holiness.

It is terrible, indeed, to think of the poor unhappy author striving to
appreciate Jesus, though surely even his blind semi-appreciation of the
Personality of our Lord was better than none at all, and then to know
that even the little germ of truth which seemed to have come into his
life was forgotten and pushed away when once more the "appreciator" of
Jesus of Nazareth returned to the world.

As an English minister pointed out, the moral of Wilde's attitude
towards the Christian Faith is as old as Scripture itself, and as modern
as Browning also, who, in the painter's question--"gave art, and what
more wish you?" replied--

   "To become now self-acquainters,
    And paint man, man, whatever the issue,
    Make new hopes shine through the flesh they fray,
    New fears aggrandise the rags and tatters,
    To bring the invisible full into play,
    Let the visible go to the dogs--what matters?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Finally we have to ask ourselves what is the precise value of this last
legacy Oscar Wilde has left to us? I think it is just this. We have upon
our shelves a piece of incomparable prose. I know of nothing written in
recent years that comes anywhere near it as an almost flawless work of
art. Nobody who cares for English literature or who understands in the
least degree, what fine writing is and means, will ever neglect this
minor classic. From another point of view also, it has its value. We who
appreciate the immense genius of Oscar Wilde and mourn for a wrecked
life and the extinction of a bright intellect, will care for and
treasure this volume for its personal pathos, its high and serene beauty
of expression, and also because, as a psychological document, it throws
a greater light upon the extraordinary brain and personality of its
author than anything he had written in the past.


  Æsthetic Movement, 7-9, 12, 19, 22, 29

    Art and morality, 337-344
    Art criticism distinguished from, 333
    Meaning and scope of, 332
    Ruskin's teaching regarding, 338-340
    Wilde's belief in his vocation as to, 331;
      his writings, 333;
      his lectures, 334-336

  America, Wilde's tour in, 18, 29;
    quotation from his lectures, 334-336

  Anderson, Miss Mary, 199-200

  _Apologia_, 269

  Aristotle cited, 342

    Art's sake, for, 345
    Morality and, 337-344
    Wilde's writings on, 333

  _Ave Imperatrix_, 248-250

  _Ballad of Reading Gaol_--
    Criticisms of, 285-286
    Dedication of, 287
    Estimate of, 262, 283-284, 298
    Quotations from, 287-297
    Revision of, 286
    Otherwise mentioned, 86, 273

  Ballad parody, 266

  _Ballade de Marguérite_, 264-265

  Baudelaire, Charles, influence of, on Wilde, 245-246, 258, 273, 274, 282;
    quoted, 245, 252;
    _Danse Macabre_ quoted, 274-276

  Baugham, E. A., quoted--on _Salomé_, 195-197

  Beardsley, Aubrey, 40-41

  Beeching, Canon, quoted--on _De Profundis_, 387-389

  Berneval, Wilde's life at, 84

  Bernhardt, Mme. Sarah, 161, 187-188;
    Wilde's sonnet to, 267

  _Birthday of the Infanta, The_, 239

  Boswell quoted, 373-374

  _Chanson_, 265

  _Charmides_, 263-264

  Currie, Lady, quoted, 285-286

  _Daily Chronicle_--
    "Salomé" _Critique_ in, quoted, 190-192
    Wilde's letters to, cited, 81-84

  _Daily Mirror_ cited, 74

  _Daily Telegraph_, extract from, 65-68

  D'Aubrevilly, Barbey, quoted, 283

  _De Profundis_--
    Authenticity of, as prison-written, 71-76, 364-365
    Biblical influence, 376-377
    Christ as depicted in, 386-392
    Estimate of, 362, 393
    Extracts from, 359-360, 376, 378, 383-386, 390-391
    Preface to, 366-367
    Press criticisms on, 380
    Publication and reception of, 362-363
    Ross, R., on publication of, 363-366
    Self-revelation in, 360, 379-386
    Sincerity of, 382, 384-385
    Style of, 371-373, 375-378;
    Subject matter of, 367-371

  _Des Sponettes_, 269

  _Devoted Friend, The_, 229, 233-234

  _Dole of the King's Daughter, The_, 265

  Dress, _rationale_ of, 14-15

  _Duchess of Padua, The_--
    Anderson, Miss Mary, refusal by, 199-200
    Estimate of, 199, 205-206
    Influences in, 49
    Plot of, 200-204
    Production of, in Berlin, 205

  _E Tenebris_, 256, 257

  _Endymion_, 263

  Fairy Stories, the--
    _Format_ of 1891 Edition of, 239-240
    Pathos of, 228
    Sacred matters, allusions to, 230-231
    Style of, 229

  _Fisherman and his Soul, The_, 240-241

  _Florentine Tragedy, The_--
    Plot of, 217-218
    Production of, 215, 216, 219
    Theft of, 215

    Decorative effect of, 45-46
    Wilde's love of, 250-251, 260, 271

  _Fortnightly Review_--
    _Ballad of Reading Gaol_ criticised in, 285-286
    _Poems in Prose_ in, 348
    _Soul of Man, The_, in, 352

  _Fourth Movement, The_, 268

  Fyfe, Hamilton, cited, 75

  _Garden of Eros, The_, 250-253

  Gide, André, 77

  Gorton, Canon, cited, 390

  Grolleau, Charles, estimate of Wilde by, 47-48

  _Happy Prince and Other Tales, The_, 227-231.
    (_See also titles of the stories._)

  _Harlot's House, The_, 272-274

  _Helas_, 248

  Holloway Prison, journalistic account of Wilde in, 59-64

  House decoration, 44-46

  _House of Pomegranates, The_, 235-239

  _Humanitad_, 270

  _Ideal Husband, The_--
    Characters of, 129-131
    Estimate of, 129, 148
    Plot of, 131-148

  _Importance Of Being Earnest, The_--
    Estimate of, 149
    Plot of, 150-154
    Quotations from, 154-156
    Reception of, 150, 156
    Otherwise mentioned, 40

  _Impression de Voyage_, 267

  _Impression du Matin_, 263

  _Impressions de Théâtre_, 267

  _Incomparable and Ingenious History of Mr W. H., The_--
    Story of, 320-322
    Theft of, 215, 220, 302
    Theory of, 323-327
    Value of, 322

  _Intentions_, 49, 336, 337, 345-348, 375

  Irving, Sir Henry, Wilde's Sonnet to, 267

  Japanese artistic sense, 46

  Johnson, Dr, quoted, 374

  Keats, influence of, on Wilde, 246, 263, 264;
    Wilde's epitaph on, 266-267

  _La Bella Donna della mia Mante_, 263

  Labouchere, H., estimate of Wilde by, 17-19

  _Lady Windermere's Fan_--
    Extracts from, 111-118
    Plot of, 107-109
    Reception of, by the public, 95, 106;
      by critics, 104-106

  Le Gallienne, Richard, cited, 336-337

  _Le Reveillon_, 268

  _Lord Arthur Savile's Crime_, 320

  _Madonna Mia_, 257

  _Magdalen Walks_, 262-263

  Meyerfeld, Dr Max, 192-193

  Moonlight, Wilde's sentiment for, 168

  Moore, Sturge, 216

  Morris, Wm., Wilde's estimate of, 251

  Nature, Wilde's love of, 260, 271-272

  Nicholson, Dr, cited, 75

  _Nightingale and the Rose, The_, 231-232

  Nordau, Dr Max, 9-12;
    criticism of Wilde by, 12-16

  Oxford Union debate on the Æsthetic Movement, 39-41

  _Panthea_, 267-268

  Pater, Walter, quoted, 371-372;
    cited, 374

  _Pen, Pencil and Poison_, cited, 379-380

  Pennington, Harper, portrait of Wilde by, 44

  _Picture of Dorian Gray, The_--
    Epigrams from, in Wilde's plays, 315
    Estimate of, 319
    Extracts from, 312-313, 316-318
    Huysmans' influence in, 49
    Preface to, 303
    Story of, 304-312

  Poe, E. A., influence of, on Wilde, 246, 273

  _Poems in Prose_, 348-352, 373

  Poems, pastoral, 259-262.
    (_See also titles of Poems._)

  Poetry, Wilde's views as to simplicity in, 246-247

  Precious stones, Wilde's knowledge of, 312

  Proverbs, Wilde's transmutations of, 319

  _Punch_, 21-22, 38;
    bibliography of references to Wilde in, 23-28;
    quotations, 29-34, 271

  Queensberry case, 56

  _Quia Multi Amori_, 269

  _Ravenna_, 247-248

  Reading Gaol--
    _Ballad of Reading Gaol_, see that title
    Cruelties perpetrated in, 81-83
    Wilde's removal to, 370;
      his life in, 76-78, 85

  Rebell, Hugues, estimate of Wilde by, 48-50

  _Remarkable Rocket, The_, 234-235

  _Requiescat_, 253-254

  Ricketts, C. S., 192, 193, 239-240, 283

  Roman Catholic Church, influence of, on Wilde, 240, 254-255, 258, 272,

  _Rome Unvisited_, 240, 256

  Ross, Robert, quoted--on theft of Wilde's MSS., 215;
    on publication of _De Profundis_, 363-366;
    cited, 217;
    mentioned, 75

  Rossetti, D. G., influence of, on Wilde, 246, 252, 254, 256-258, 265

  Ruskin, John, quoted, 338-340

  _Sage Green_, 266

  _St James's Gazelle_, extract from, 72-74

    Beardsley's illustrations to, 184-185
    Bernhardt, written for, 161;
      her dealings regarding, 187-188
    Censor's prohibition of, 187
    Criticisms on, quoted, 190-198
    German popularity of, 365
    Language of, 186
    Production of--in Paris, 188;
      in London, 189-193;
      in various Continental countries, 193-194;
      in Berlin, 195;
      in New York, 195
    Stage directions of, 167, 185-186
    Stagecraft of, 181-182
    Story of, 162-180
    Tone of, 183

  _San Miniato_, 255

  Scott, Clement, criticism by, of _Lady Windermere's Fan_, quoted, 104,

  _Selfish Giant, The_, 232-233

  _Serenade, A_, 263

  Shakespeare's influence on Wilde, 264

  Shannon, Mr, 239

  Shaw, G. B., _Don Juan in Hell_, cited, 121-123, 157

  Sherard, R. H., cited, 6, 11, 84

  Sibbern, cited, 342

  Simon, J. A., quoted, 39-41

  Socialism, Wilde's views on, 353

  _Soul of Man, The_, 235, 352-355

  _Sphinx, The_, 272, 276-283

  _Star-Child, The_, 241-242

  _Story of an Unhappy Friendship, The_, cited, 6

  Style, 246, 371-378

  Swinburne, A. C., Wilde's estimate of, 251

  Symons, Arthur, cited, 333

  Tapestry, Wilde's knowledge of, 313

  Terry, Miss Ellen, Wilde's sonnets to, 267

  _Times, The_--
    _Ballad of Reading Gaol_ praised by, 285
    _De Profundis_ criticised by, 380-381

  _Tribune_, extract from, 215-217

  _Truth_, extract from, 69-70

  _Vera, or The Nihilists_--
    Dramatis personæ of, 207-208
    Estimate of, 212-213
    Plot of, 208-212
    Production of, in America, 207

  Wainwright the poisoner, 379

  Wilde, Constance Mary, 235, 248;
    quoted, 44-46

  Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills--
    Ancestry of, 11
    Appreciation of, growth of, 3-5
    Career of--
        first period, 7, 16-42;
        second, 42-53,
        third, 53-79;
        fourth, 79-90;
      tour in America, 18, 29;
      bankruptcy, 215, 220, 368;
      refusal to forfeit his bail, 54-57;
      the Queensberry case, 56;
      trial and sentence, 65;
      Clapham Junction episode, 370;
      life in Reading Gaol, 76-78, 85;
      release, 76;
      last years, 84-88;
      death, 88
    Characteristics of--
      Charm of manner, 46
      Complexity, 50-51, 79
      Conversational brilliancy, 34, 46, 86, 349
      Eccentricity, 38
      Egoism, 51-52, 349, 382
      Flowers, love of, 250-251, 260
      Generosity, 46, 51
      Humour, 17
      Imaginative faculty, 301
      Kindliness and gentleness, 46, 51, 77
      Language, felicity of, 252, 378
      Loyalty to friends, 53, 55
      Moonlight, sentiment for, 168
      Narrowness of view, 383
      Nature, love of, 260, 271-272
      Perversity and whimsicality, 34
      Profusion and splendour, taste for, 46
      Self-plagiarism, 315
      Versatility, 90, 301
      Wit, 46, 98, 103
    Dramatic powers of--
      Brilliancy of dialogue, 95-99, 110
      Plot interest, 97-98
      Reality of characters and scenes, 96, 100, 102
    Estimates of, by--
      Grolleau, M. Charles, 47-48
      Labouchere, H., 17-19
      Nordau, Dr Max, 12-16
      Rebell, Hugues, 48-50
    Fiction of, characteristics of, 302-303
    Home of, at Chelsea, 43-44
    Insanity of, 11-12, 91, 382, 384
    Interview with, quoted, 35-38
    _Life of_, by Sherard, cited, 6
    Literary style of, 371-378
    Portrait of, by Penninton, 44
    Work of, absolutely distinct from private life, 4, 68

  Wilde, William, cited, 55

  _Woman Covered With Jewels, The_--
    Bernhardt, written for, 221
    Loss of MS. of, 220-221
    Plot of, 222-223

  _Woman Of No Importance, A_--
    Characters of, 126-128
    Dialogue of, 120-123
    Plot of, 123-125
    Popularity of, 121-123, 128
    Reception of, 119

  _Woman's World, The_, Wilde's editorship of, 42

  Words, Wilde's felicitous choice of, 252

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