“You criticise and condemn the English conception of justice, and English legal methods: you even question the impartiality of English judges, and throw an unpleasant light on English juries and the English public–all of which is not only unpopular but will convince the unthinking that you are a presumptuous, or at least an outlandish, person with too good a conceit of himself and altogether too free a tongue.”
I should be more than human or less if these arguments did not give me pause. I would do nothing willingly to alienate the few who are still friendly to me. But the motives driving me are too strong for such personal considerations. I might say with the Latin:
Even this would be only a part of the truth. Youth it seems to me should always be prudent, for youth has much to lose: but I am come to that time of life when a man can afford to be bold, may even dare to be himself and write the best in him, heedless of knaves and fools or of anything this world may do. The voyage for me is almost over: I am in sight of port: like a good shipman, I have already sent down the lofty spars and housed the captious canvas in preparation for the long anchorage: I have little now to fear.
And the immortals are with me in my design. Greek tragedy treated of far more horrible and revolting themes, such as the banquet of Thyestes: and Dante did not shrink from describing the unnatural meal of Ugolino. The best modern critics approve my choice. “All depends on the subject,” says Matthew Arnold, talking of great literature: “choose a fitting action–a great and significant action–penetrate yourself with the feeling of the situation: this done, everything else will follow; for expression is subordinate and secondary.”
Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the young and was put to death for the offence. His accusation and punishment constitute surely a great and significant action such as Matthew Arnold declared was alone of the highest and most permanent literary value.
The action involved in the rise and ruin of Oscar Wilde is of the same kind and of enduring interest to humanity. Critics may say that Wilde is a smaller person than Socrates, less significant in many ways: but even if this were true, it would not alter the artist’s position; the great portraits of the world are not of Napoleon or Dante. The differences between men are not important in comparison with their inherent likeness. To depict the mortal so that he takes on immortality–that is the task of the artist.
There are special reasons, too, why I should handle this story. Oscar Wilde was a friend of mine for many years: I could not help prizing him to the very end: he was always to me a charming, soul-animating influence. He was dreadfully punished by men utterly his inferiors: ruined, outlawed, persecuted till Death itself came as a deliverance. His sentence impeaches his judges. The whole story is charged with tragic pathos and unforgettable lessons. I have waited for more than ten years hoping that some one would write about him in this spirit and leave me free to do other things, but nothing such as I propose has yet appeared.
Oscar Wilde was greater as a talker, in my opinion, than as a writer, and no fame is more quickly evanescent. If I do not tell his story and paint his portrait, it seems unlikely that anyone else will do it.
English “strachery” may accuse me of attacking morality: the accusation is worse than absurd. The very foundations of this old world are moral: the charred ember itself floats about in space, moves and has its being in obedience to inexorable law. The thinker may define morality: the reformer may try to bring our notions of it into nearer accord with the fact: human love and pity may seek to soften its occasional injustices and mitigate its intolerable harshness: but that is all the freedom we mortals enjoy, all the breathing-space allotted to us.
In this book the reader will find the figure of the Prometheus-artist clamped, so to speak, with bands of steel to the huge granitic cliff of English puritanism. No account was taken of his manifold virtues and graces: no credit given him for his extraordinary achievements: he was hounded out of life because his sins were not the sins of the English middle-class. The culprit was in much nobler and better than his judges.
The artist who finds in Oscar Wilde a great and provocative subject for his art needs no argument to justify his choice. If the picture is a great and living portrait, the moralist will be satisfied: the dark shadows must all be there, as well as the high lights, and the effect must be to increase our tolerance and intensify our pity.
There is one measure by which intention as apart from accomplishment can be judged, and one only: “If you think the book well done,” says Pascal, “and on re-reading find it strong; be assured that the man who wrote it, wrote it on his knees.” No book could have been written more reverently than this book of mine.
On the 12th of December, 1864, Dublin society was abuzz with excitement. A tidbit of scandal which had long been rolled on the tongue in semi-privacy was to be discussed in open court, and all women and a good many men were agog with curiosity and expectation.
A famous doctor and oculist, recently knighted for his achievements, was the real defendant. He was married to a woman with a great literary reputation as a poet and writer who was idolized by the populace for her passionate advocacy of Ireland’s claim to self-government; “Speranza” was regarded by the Irish people as a sort of Irish Muse.
It was said that this Miss Travers, a pretty girl just out of her teens, had been seduced by Dr. Sir William Wilde while under his care as a patient. Some went so far as to say that chloroform had been used, and that the girl had been violated.
The interest taken in the case was extraordinary: the excitement beyond comparison; the first talents of the Bar were engaged on both sides; Serjeant Armstrong led for the plaintiff, helped by the famous Mr. Butt, Q.C., and Mr. Heron, Q.C., who were in turn backed by Mr. Hamill and Mr. Quinn; while Serjeant Sullivan was for the defendant, supported by Mr. Sidney, Q.C., and Mr. Morris, Q.C., and aided by Mr. John Curran and Mr. Purcell.
To judge by the scandalous reports, the case should have been a criminal case, should have been conducted by the Attorney-General against Sir William Wilde; but that was not the way it presented itself. The action was not even brought directly by Miss Travers or by her father, Dr. Travers, against Sir William Wilde for rape or criminal assault, or seduction. It was a civil action brought by Miss Travers, who claimed L2,000 damages for a libel written by Lady Wilde to her father, Dr. Travers. The letter complained of ran as follows:–
Sir, you may not be aware of the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray where she consorts with all the low newspaper boys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which my name is given, and also tracts in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde. If she chooses to disgrace herself, it is not my affair, but as her object in insulting me is in the hope of extorting money for which she has several times applied to Sir William Wilde with threats of more annoyance if not given, I think it right to inform you, as no threat of additional insult shall ever extort money from our hands. The wages of disgrace she has so basely treated for and demanded shall never be given her.
The summons and plaint charged that this letter written to the father of the plaintiff by Lady Wilde was a libel reflecting on the character and chastity of Miss Travers, and as Lady Wilde was a married woman, her husband Sir William Wilde was joined in the action as a co-defendant for conformity.
First, a plea of “No libel”: secondly, that the letter did not bear the defamatory sense imputed by the plaint: thirdly, a denial of the publication, and, fourthly, a plea of privilege. This last was evidently the real defence and was grounded upon facts which afforded some justification of Lady Wilde’s bitter letter.
It was admitted that for a year or more Miss Travers had done her uttermost to annoy both Sir William Wilde and his wife in every possible way. The trouble began, the defence stated, by Miss Travers fancying that she was slighted by Lady Wilde. She thereupon published a scandalous pamphlet under the title of “Florence Boyle Price, a Warning; by Speranza,” with the evident intention of causing the public to believe that the booklet was the composition of Lady Wilde under the assumed name of Florence Boyle Price. In this pamphlet Miss Travers asserted that a person she called Dr. Quilp had made an attempt on her virtue. She put the charge mildly. “It is sad,” she wrote, “to think that in the nineteenth century a lady must not venture into a physician’s study without being accompanied by a bodyguard to protect her.”
Miss Travers admitted that Dr. Quilp was intended for Sir William Wilde; indeed she identified Dr. Quilp with the newly made knight in a dozen different ways. She went so far as to describe his appearance. She declared that he had “an animal, sinister expression about his mouth which was coarse and vulgar in the extreme: the large protruding under lip was most unpleasant. Nor did the upper part of his face redeem the lower part. His eyes were small and round, mean and prying in expression. There was no candour in the doctor’s countenance, where one looked for candour.” Dr. Quilp’s quarrel with his victim, it appeared, was that she was “unnaturally passionless.”
The publication of such a pamphlet was calculated to injure both Sir William and Lady Wilde in public esteem, and Miss Travers was not content to let the matter rest there. She drew attention to the pamphlet by letters to the papers, and on one occasion, when Sir William Wilde was giving a lecture to the Young Men’s Christian Association at the Metropolitan Hall, she caused large placards to be exhibited in the neighbourhood having upon them in large letters the words “Sir William Wilde and Speranza.” She employed one of the persons bearing a placard to go about ringing a large hand bell which she, herself, had given to him for the purpose. She even published doggerel verses in the “Dublin Weekly Advertiser”, and signed them “Speranza,” which annoyed Lady Wilde intensely. One read thus:–
She wrote letters to “Saunders Newsletter”, and even reviewed a book of Lady Wilde’s entitled “The First Temptation,” and called it a “blasphemous production.” Moreover, when Lady Wilde was staying at Bray, Miss Travers sent boys to offer the pamphlet for sale to the servants in her house. In fine Miss Travers showed a keen feminine ingenuity and pertinacity in persecution worthy of a nobler motive.
But the defence did not rely on such annoyance as sufficient provocation for Lady Wilde’s libellous letter. The plea went on to state that Miss Travers had applied to Sir William Wilde for money again and again, and accompanied these applications with threats of worse pen-pricks if the requests were not acceded to. It was under these circumstances, according to Lady Wilde, that she wrote the letter complained of to Dr. Travers and enclosed it in a sealed envelope. She wished to get Dr. Travers to use his parental influence to stop Miss Travers from further disgracing herself and insulting and annoying Sir William and Lady Wilde.
The attack in the hands of Serjeant Armstrong was still more deadly and convincing. He rose early on the Monday afternoon and declared at the beginning that the case was so painful at the beginning that he would have preferred not to have been engaged in it–a hypocritical statement which deceived no one, and was just as conventional-false as his wig. But with this exception the story he told was extraordinarily clear and gripping.
Some ten years before, Miss Travers, then a young girl of nineteen, was suffering from partial deafness, and was recommended by her own doctor to go to Dr. Wilde, who was the chief oculist and aurist in Dublin. Miss Travers went to Dr. Wilde, who treated her successfully. Dr. Wilde would accept no fees from her, stating at the outset that as she was the daughter of a brother-physician, he thought it an honour to be of use to her. Serjeant Armstrong assured his hearers that in spite of Miss Travers’ beauty he believed that at first Dr. Wilde took nothing but a benevolent interest in the girl. Even when his professional services ceased to be necessary, Dr. Wilde continued his friendship. He wrote Miss Travers innumerable letters: he advised her as to her reading and sent her books and tickets for places of amusement: he even insisted that she should be better dressed, and pressed money upon her to buy bonnets and clothes and frequently invited her to his house for dinners and parties. The friendship went on in this sentimental kindly way for some five or six years till 1860.
Miss Travers, it appeared, had been burnt low down on her neck when a child: the cicatrice could still be seen, though it was gradually disappearing. When her ears were being examined by Dr. Wilde, it was customary for her to kneel on a hassock before him, and he thus discovered this burn on her neck. After her hearing improved he still continued to examine the cicatrice from time to time, pretending to note the speed with which it was disappearing. Some time in ’60 or ’61 Miss Travers had a corn on the sole of her foot which gave her some pain. Dr. Wilde did her the honour of paring the corn with his own hands and painting it with iodine. The cunning Serjeant could not help saying with some confusion, natural or assumed, “that it would have been just as well–at least there are men of such temperament that it would be dangerous to have such a manipulation going on.” The spectators in the court smiled, feeling that in “manipulation” the Serjeant had found the most neatly suggestive word.
Naturally at this point Serjeant Sullivan interfered in order to stem the rising tide of interest and to blunt the point of the accusation. Sir William Wilde, he said, was not the man to shrink from any investigation: but he was only in the case formally and he could not meet the allegations, which therefore were “one-sided and unfair” and so forth and so on.
After the necessary pause, Serjeant Armstrong plucked his wig straight and proceeded to read letters of Dr. Wilde to Miss Travers at this time, in which he tells her not to put too much iodine on her foot, but to rest it for a few days in a slipper and keep it in a horizontal position while reading a pleasant book. If she would send in, he would try and send her one.
“I have now,” concluded the Serjeant, like an actor carefully preparing his effect, “traced this friendly intimacy down to a point where it begins to be dangerous: I do not wish to aggravate the gravity of the charge in the slightest by any rhetoric or by an unconscious overstatement; you shall therefore, gentlemen of the jury, hear from Miss Travers herself what took place between her and Dr. Wilde and what she complains of.”
Miss Travers then went into the witness-box. Though thin and past her first youth, she was still pretty in a conventional way, with regular features and dark eyes. She was examined by Mr. Butt, Q.C. After confirming point by point what Serjeant Armstrong had said, she went on to tell the jury that in the summer of ’62 she had thought of going to Australia, where her two brothers lived, who wanted her to come out to them. Dr. Wilde lent her L40 to go, but told her she must say it was L20 or her father might think the sum too large. She missed the ship in London and came back. She was anxious to impress on the jury the fact that she had repaid Dr. Wilde, that she had always repaid whatever he had lent her.
She went on to relate how one day Dr. Wilde had got her in a kneeling position at his feet, when he took her in his arms, declaring that he would not let her go until she called him William. Miss Travers refused to do this, and took umbrage at the embracing and ceased to visit at his house: but Dr. Wilde protested extravagantly that he had meant nothing wrong, and begged her to forgive him and gradually brought about a reconciliation which was consummated by pressing invitations to parties and by a loan of two or three pounds for a dress, which loan, like the others, had been carefully repaid.
The excitement in the court was becoming breathless. It was felt that the details were cumulative; the doctor was besieging the fortress in proper form. The story of embracings, reconciliations and loans all prepared the public for the great scene.
The girl went on, now answering questions, now telling bits of the story in her own way, Mr. Butt, the great advocate, taking care that it should all be consecutive and clear with a due crescendo of interest. In October, 1862, it appeared Lady Wilde was not in the house at Merrion Square, but was away at Bray, as one of the children had not been well, and she thought the sea air would benefit him. Dr. Wilde was alone in the house. Miss Travers called and was admitted into Dr. Wilde’s study. He put her on her knees before him and bared her neck, pretending to examine the burn; he fondled her too much and pressed her to him: she took offence and tried to draw away. Somehow or other his hand got entangled in a chain at her neck. She called out to him, “You are suffocating me,” and tried to rise: but he cried out like a madman: “I will, I want to,” and pressed what seemed to be a handkerchief over her face. She declared that she lost consciousness.
For some time, she said, she scarcely realized where she was or what had occurred, though she heard him talking. But gradually consciousness came back to her, and though she would not open her eyes she understood what he was saying. He talked frantically:
“Do be reasonable, and all will be right. . . I am in your power . . . . spare me, oh, spare me . . . . strike me if you like. I wish to God I could hate you, but I can’t. I swore I would never touch your hand again. Attend to me and do what I tell you. Have faith and confidence in me and you may remedy the past and go to Australia. Think of the talk this may give rise to. Keep up appearances for your own sake. . . . .”
He then took her up-stairs to a bedroom and made her drink some wine and lie down for some time. She afterwards left the house; she hardly knew how; he accompanied her to the door, she thought; but could not be certain; she was half dazed.
Then it was true, the worst was true. The audience, excited to the highest pitch, caught breath with malevolent delight. But the thrills were not exhausted. Miss Travers next told how in Dr. Wilde’s study one evening she had been vexed at some slight, and at once took four pennyworth of laudanum which she had bought. Dr. Wilde hurried her round to the house of Dr. Walsh, a physician in the neighbourhood, who gave her an antidote. Dr. Wilde was dreadfully frightened lest something should get out. . . .
Miss Travers’ examination in chief had been intensely interesting. The fashionable ladies had heard all they had hoped to hear, and it was noticed that they were not so eager to get seats in the court from this time on, though the room was still crowded.
The cross-examination of Miss Travers was at least as interesting to the student of human nature as the examination in chief had been, for in her story of what took place on that 14th of October, weaknesses and discrepancies of memory were discovered and at length improbabilities and contradictions in the narrative itself.
First of all it was elicited that she could not be certain of the day; it might have been the 15th or the 16th: it was Friday the 14th, she thought. . . . It was a great event to her; the most awful event in her whole life; yet she could not remember the day for certain.
The audience was thunderstruck; the plot was deepening. Miss Travers went on to say that the Doctor was rude to her again; she did not know his intention; he took hold of her and tried to fondle her; but she would not have it.
So far all that Miss Travers had said hung together and seemed eminently credible; but when she was questioned about the chloroform and the handkerchief she became confused. At the outset she admitted that the handkerchief might have been a rag. She was not certain it was a rag. It was something she saw the doctor throw into the fire when she came to her senses.
When she was examined as to her knowledge of chloroform, she broke down hopelessly. She did not know the smell of it; could not describe it; did not know whether it burnt or not; could not in fact swear that it was chloroform Dr. Wilde had used; would not swear that it was anything; believed that it was chloroform or something like it because she lost consciousness. That was her only reason for saying that chloroform had been given to her.
It was manifest that the strong current of feeling in favour of Miss Travers had begun to ebb. The story was a toothsome morsel still: but it was regretfully admitted that the charge of rape had not been pushed home. It was felt to be disappointing, too, that the chief prosecuting witness should have damaged her own case.
Lady Wilde gave her evidence emphatically, but was too bitter to be a persuasive witness. It was tried to prove from her letter that she believed that Miss Travers had had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde, but she would not have it. She did not for a moment believe in her husband’s guilt. Miss Travers wished to make it appear, she said, that she had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde, but in her opinion it was utterly untrue. Sir William Wilde was above suspicion. There was not a particle of truth in the accusation; “her” husband would never so demean himself.
In his speech for Miss Travers, Mr. Butt made the most of this omission. He declared that the refusal of Sir William Wilde to go into the witness box was an admission of guilt; an admission that Miss Travers’ story of her betrayal was true and could not be contradicted. But the refusal of Sir William Wilde to go into the box was not, he insisted, the worst point in the defence. He reminded the jury that he had asked Lady Wilde why she had not answered Miss Travers when she wrote to her. He recalled Lady Wilde’s reply:
Every woman would be interested in such a thing, he declared, even a stranger; but Lady Wilde hated her husband’s victim and took no interest in her seduction beyond writing a bitter, vindictive and libellous letter to the girl’s father. . . . .
It only remained for the judge to sum up, for everyone was getting impatient to hear the verdict. Chief Justice Monahan made a short, impartial speech, throwing the dry, white light of truth upon the conflicting and passionate statements. First of all, he said, it was difficult to believe in the story of rape whether with or without chloroform. If the girl had been violated she would be expected to cry out at the time, or at least to complain to her father as soon as she reached home. Had it been a criminal trial, he pointed out, no one would have believed this part of Miss Travers’ story. When you find a girl does not cry out at the time and does not complain afterwards, and returns to the house to meet further rudeness, it must be presumed that she consented to the seduction.
But was there a seduction? The girl asserted that there was guilty intimacy, and Sir William Wilde had not contradicted her. It was said that he was only formally a defendant; but he was the real defendant and he could have gone into the box if he had liked and given his version of what took place and contradicted Miss Travers in whole or in part.
His Lordship recalled the jury at Mr. Butt’s request to say that in assessing damages they might also take into consideration the fact that the defence was practically a justification of the libel. The fair-mindedness of the judge was conspicuous from first to last, and was worthy of the high traditions of the Irish Bench.
After deliberating for a couple of hours the jury brought in a verdict which had a certain humour in it. They awarded to Miss Travers a farthing damages and intimated that the farthing should carry costs. In other words they rated Miss Travers’ virtue at the very lowest coin of the realm, while insisting that Sir William Wilde should pay a couple of thousands of pounds in costs for having seduced her.
It was generally felt that the verdict did substantial justice; though the jury, led away by patriotic sympathy with Lady Wilde, the true “Speranza,” had been a little hard on Miss Travers. No one doubted that Sir William Wilde had seduced his patient. He had, it appeared, an unholy reputation, and the girl’s admission that he had accused her of being “unnaturally passionless” was accepted as the true key of the enigma. This was why he had drawn away from the girl, after seducing her. And it was not unnatural under the circumstances that she should become vindictive and revengeful.
Such inferences as these, I drew from the comments of the Irish papers at the time; but naturally I wished if possible to hear some trustworthy contemporary on the matter. Fortunately such testimony was forthcoming.
A Fellow of Trinity, who was then a young man, embodied the best opinion of the time in an excellent pithy letter. He wrote to me that the trial simply established, what every one believed, that “Sir William Wilde was a pithecoid person of extraordinary sensuality and cowardice (funking the witness-box left him without a defender!) and that his wife was a highfalutin’ pretentious creature whose pride was as extravagant as her reputation founded on second-rate verse-making. . . . . Even when a young woman she used to keep her rooms in Merrion Square in semi-darkness; she laid the paint on too thick for any ordinary light, and she gave herself besides all manner of airs.”
This incisive judgment of an able and fairly impartial contemporary (As he has died since this was written, there is no longer any reason for concealing his name: R. Y. Tyrrell, for many years before his death Regius Professor of Greek in Trinity College, Dublin.) corroborates, I think, the inferences which one would naturally draw from the newspaper accounts of the trial. It seems to me that both combine to give a realistic photograph, so to speak, of Sir William and Lady Wilde. An artist, however, would lean to a more kindly picture. Trying to see the personages as they saw themselves he would balance the doctor’s excessive sensuality and lack of self-control by dwelling on the fact that his energy and perseverance and intimate adaptation to his surroundings had brought him in middle age to the chief place in his profession, and if Lady Wilde was abnormally vain, a verse-maker and not a poet, she was still a talented woman of considerable reading and manifold artistic sympathies.
The Wildes had three children, two sons and a daughter. The first son was born in 1852, a year after the marriage, and was christened after his father William Charles Kingsbury Wills. The second son was born two years later, in 1854 and the names given to him seem to reveal the Nationalist sympathies and pride of his mother. He was christened Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; but he appears to have suffered from the pompous string only in extreme youth. At school he concealed the “Fingal,” as a young man he found it advisable to omit the “O’Flahertie.”
In childhood and early boyhood Oscar was not considered as quick or engaging or handsome as his brother, Willie. Both boys had the benefit of the best schooling of the time. They were sent as boarders to the Portora School at Enniskillen, one of the four Royal schools of Ireland. Oscar went to Portora in 1864 at the age of nine, a couple of years after his brother. He remained at the school for seven years and left it on winning an Exhibition for Trinity College, Dublin, when he was just seventeen.
The facts hitherto collected and published about Oscar as a schoolboy are sadly meagre and insignificant. Fortunately for my readers I have received from Sir Edward Sullivan, who was a contemporary of Oscar both at school and college, an exceedingly vivid and interesting pen-picture of the lad, one of those astounding masterpieces of portraiture only to be produced by the plastic sympathies of boyhood and the intimate intercourse of years lived in common. It is love alone which in later life can achieve such a miracle of representment. I am very glad to be allowed to publish this realistic miniature, in the very words of the author.
“I first met Oscar Wilde in the early part of 1868 at Portora Royal School. He was thirteen or fourteen years of age. His long straight fair hair was a striking feature of his appearance. He was then, as he remained for some years after, extremely boyish in nature, very mobile, almost restless when out of the schoolroom. Yet he took no part in the school games at any time. Now and then he would be seen in one of the school boats on Loch Erne: yet he was a poor hand at an oar.
“A favourite place for the boys to sit and gossip in the late afternoon in winter time was round a stove which stood in ‘The Stone Hall.’ Here Oscar was at his best; although his brother Willie was perhaps in those days even better than he was at telling a story.
“Oscar would frequently vary the entertainment by giving us extremely quaint illustrations of holy people in stained-glass attitudes: his power of twisting his limbs into weird contortions being very great. (I am told that Sir William Wilde, his father, possessed the same power.) It must not be thought, however, that there was any suggestion of irreverence in the exhibition.
“At one of these gatherings, about the year 1870, I remember a discussion taking place about an ecclesiastical prosecution that made a considerable stir at the time. Oscar was present, and full of the mysterious nature of the Court of Arches; he told us there was nothing he would like better in after life than to be the hero of such a “cause celebre” and to go down to posterity as the defendant in such a case as ‘Regina versus Wilde!’
“At school he was almost always called ‘Oscar’–but he had a nick-name, ‘Grey-crow,’ which the boys would call him when they wished to annoy him, and which he resented greatly. It was derived in some mysterious way from the name of an island in the Upper Loch Erne, within easy reach of the school by boat.
“It was some little time before he left Portora that the boys got to know of his full name, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Just at the close of his school career he won the ‘Carpenter’ Greek Testament Prize,–and on presentation day was called up to the dais by Dr. Steele, by all his names–much to Oscar’s annoyance; for a great deal of schoolboy chaff followed.
“He was always generous, kindly, good-tempered. I remember he and myself were on one occasion mounted as opposing jockeys on the backs of two bigger boys in what we called a ‘tournament,’ held in one of the class-rooms. Oscar and his horse were thrown, and the result was a broken arm for Wilde. Knowing that it was an accident, he did not let it make any difference in our friendship.
“When in the head class together, we with two other boys were in the town of Enniskillen one afternoon, and formed part of an audience who were listening to a street orator. One of us, for the fun of the thing, got near the speaker and with a stick knocked his hat off and then ran for home followed by the other three. Several of the listeners, resenting the impertinence, gave chase, and Oscar in his hurry collided with an aged cripple and threw him down–a fact which was duly reported to the boys when we got safely back. Oscar was afterwards heard telling how he found his way barred by an angry giant with whom he fought through many rounds and whom he eventually left for dead in the road after accomplishing prodigies of valour on his redoubtable opponent. Romantic imagination was strong in him even in those schoolboy days; but there was always something in his telling of such a tale to suggest that he felt his hearers were not really being taken in; it was merely the romancing indulged in so humorously by the two principal male characters in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ . . .
“He never took any interest in mathematics either at school or college. He laughed at science and never had a good word for a mathematical or science master, but there was nothing spiteful or malignant in anything he said against them; or indeed against anybody.
“The classics absorbed almost his whole attention in his later school days, and the flowing beauty of his oral translations in class, whether of Thucydides, Plato or Virgil, was a thing not easily to be forgotten.”
This photograph, so to speak, of Oscar as a schoolboy is astonishingly clear and lifelike; but I have another portrait of him from another contemporary, who has since made for himself a high name as a scholar at Trinity, which, while confirming the general traits sketched by Sir Edward Sullivan, takes somewhat more notice of certain mental qualities which came later to the fruiting.
“We thought him a fair scholar but nothing extraordinary. However, he startled everyone the last year at school in the classical medal examination, by walking easily away from us all in the “viva voce” of the Greek play (‘The Agamemnon’).”
I may now try and accentuate a trait or two of these photographs, so to speak, and then realise the whole portrait by adding an account given to me by Oscar himself. The joy in humorous romancing and the sweetness of temper recorded by Sir Edward Sullivan were marked traits in Oscar’s character all through his life. His care in dressing too, and his delight in stately editions; his love of literature “with a special leaning to poetry” were all qualities which distinguished him to the end.
“Until the last year of my school life at Portora,” he said to me once, “I had nothing like the reputation of my brother Willie. I read too many English novels, too much poetry, dreamed away too much time to master the school tasks.
“I was nearly sixteen when the wonder and beauty of the old Greek life began to dawn upon me. Suddenly I seemed to see the white figures throwing purple shadows on the sun-baked palaestra; ‘bands of nude youths and maidens’–you remember Gautier’s words–‘moving across a background of deep blue as on the frieze of the Parthenon.’ I began to read Greek eagerly for love of it all, and the more I read the more I was enthralled:
Oh what golden hours were for us
As we sat together there,
While the white vests of the chorus Seemed to wave up a light air;
While the cothurns trod majestic
Down the deep iambic lines
And the rolling anapaestics
Curled like vapour over shrines.
“The head master was always holding my brother Willie up to me as an example; but even he admitted that in my last year at Portora I had made astounding progress. I laid the foundation there of whatever classical scholarship I possess.”
“Englishmen all say so,” he replied, “but it did not enter into my experience. I was very childish, Frank; a mere boy till I was over sixteen. Of course I was sensual and curious, as boys are, and had the usual boy imaginings; but I did not indulge in them excessively.
“At Portora nine out of ten boys only thought of football or cricket or rowing. Nearly every one went in for athletics–running and jumping and so forth; no one appeared to care for sex. We were healthy young barbarians and that was all.”
“It is strange you should have mentioned it,” he said. “There was one boy, and,” he added slowly, “one peculiar incident. It occurred in my last year at Portora. The boy was a couple of years younger than I–we were great friends; we used to take long walks together and I talked to him interminably. I told him what I should have done had I been Alexander, or how I’d have played king in Athens, had I been Alcibiades. As early as I can remember I used to identify myself with every distinguished character I read about, but when I was fifteen or sixteen I noticed with some wonder that I could think of myself as Alcibiades or Sophocles more easily than as Alexander or Caesar. The life of books had begun to interest me more than real life. . . . .
“My friend had a wonderful gift for listening. I was so occupied with talking and telling about myself that I knew very little about him, curiously little when I come to think of it. But the last incident of my school life makes me think he was a sort of mute poet, and had much more in him than I imagined. It was just before I first heard that I had won an Exhibition and was to go to Trinity. Dr. Steele had called me into his study to tell me the great news; he was very glad, he said, and insisted that it was all due to my last year’s hard work. The ‘hard’ work had been very interesting to me, or I would not have done much of it. The doctor wound up, I remember, by assuring me that if I went on studying as I had been studying during the last year I might yet do as well as my brother Willie, and be as great an honour to the school and everybody connected with it as he had been.
“This made me smile, for though I liked Willie, and knew he was a fairly good scholar, I never for a moment regarded him as my equal in any intellectual field. He knew all about football and cricket and studied the schoolbooks assiduously, whereas I read everything that pleased me, and in my own opinion always went about ‘crowned.'” Here he laughed charmingly with amused deprecation of the conceit.
“It was only about the quality of the crown, Frank, that I was in any doubt. If I had been offered the Triple Tiara, it would have appeared to me only the meet reward of my extraordinary merit. . . . .
“‘Glad to go,’ I cried; ‘I should think I was; fancy going to Trinity College, Dublin, from this place; why, I shall meet men and not boys. Of course I am glad, wild with delight; the first step to Oxford and fame.’
“‘Then we shall meet,’ I remarked; ‘you must come and see me in my rooms. My father will give me a room to myself in our house, and you know Merrion Square is the best part of Dublin. You must come and see me.’
“He looked up at me with yearning, sad, regretful eyes. But the future was beckoning to me, and I could not help talking about it, for the golden key of wonderland was in my hand, and I was wild with desires and hopes.
“He just glanced up at me, and the glance surprised me; it was like a dog looks at one. But my own hopes soon took possession of me again, and I can only remember being vaguely surprised by the appeal in his regard.
“‘Oh, yes,’ I replied, ‘as soon as I get settled down, you know. There will be such a lot to do at first, and I am wild to see everything. I wonder how the professors will treat me. I do hope they will not be fools or prigs; what a pity it is that all professors are not poets. . . . .’ And so I went on merrily, when suddenly the whistle sounded and a moment afterwards the train began to move.
Oscar Wilde did well at school, but he did still better at college, where the competition was more severe. He entered Trinity on October 19th, 1871, just three days after his seventeenth birthday. Sir Edward Sullivan writes me that when Oscar matriculated at Trinity he was already “a thoroughly good classical scholar of a brilliant type,” and he goes on to give an invaluable snap-shot of him at this time; a likeness, in fact, the chief features of which grew more and more characteristic as the years went on.
“He had rooms in College at the north side of one of the older squares, known as Botany Bay. These rooms were exceedingly grimy and ill-kept. He never entertained there. On the rare occasions when visitors were admitted, an unfinished landscape in oils was always on the easel, in a prominent place in his sitting room. He would invariably refer to it, telling one in his humorously unconvincing way that ‘he had just put in the butterfly.’ Those of us who had seen his work in the drawing class presided over by ‘Bully’ Wakeman at Portora were not likely to be deceived in the matter. . . . .
“He was an intense admirer of Swinburne and constantly reading his poems; John Addington Symond’s works too, on the Greek authors, were perpetually in his hands. He never entertained any pronounced views on social, religious or political questions while in College; he seemed to be altogether devoted to literary matters.
“He mixed freely at the same time in Dublin society functions of all kinds, and was always a very vivacious and welcome guest at any house he cared to visit. All through his Dublin University days he was one of the purest minded men that could be met with.
“He was not a card player, but would on occasions join in a game of limited loo at some man’s rooms. He was also an extremely moderate drinker. He became a member of the junior debating society, the Philosophical, but hardly ever took any part in their discussions.
“He read for the Berkeley medal (which he afterwards gained) with an excellent, but at the same time broken-down, classical scholar, John Townsend Mills, and, besides instruction, he contrived to get a good deal of amusement out of his readings with his quaint teacher. He told me for instance that on one occasion he expressed his sympathy for Mills on seeing him come into his rooms wearing a tall hat completely covered in crape. Mills, however, replied, with a smile, that no one was dead–it was only the evil condition of his hat that had made him assume so mournful a disguise. I have often thought that the incident was still fresh in Oscar Wilde’s mind when he introduced John Worthing in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ in mourning for his fictitious brother. . . . .
“Shortly before he started on his first trip to Italy, he came into my rooms in a very striking pair of trousers. I made some chaffing remark on them, but he begged me in the most serious style of which he was so excellent a master not to jest about them.
Already his humour was beginning to strike all his acquaintances, and what Sir Edward Sullivan here calls his “puremindedness,” or what I should rather call his peculiar refinement of nature. No one ever heard Oscar Wilde tell a suggestive story; indeed he always shrank from any gross or crude expression; even his mouth was vowed always to pure beauty.
The Trinity Don whom I have already quoted about Oscar’s school-days sends me a rather severe critical judgment of him as a student. There is some truth in it, however, for in part at least it was borne out and corroborated by Oscar’s later achievement. It must be borne in mind that the Don was one of his competitors at Trinity, and a successful one; Oscar’s mind could not limit itself to college tasks and prescribed books.
“When Oscar came to college he did excellently during the first year; he was top of his class in classics; but he did not do so well in the long examinations for a classical scholarship in his second year. He was placed fifth, which was considered very good, but he was plainly not the man for the dolichos (or long struggle), though first-rate for a short examination.”
“It was the fascination of Greek letters, and the delight I took in Greek life and thought,” he said to me once, “which made me a scholar. I got my love of the Greek ideal and my intimate knowledge of the language at Trinity from Mahaffy and Tyrrell; they were Trinity to me; Mahaffy was especially valuable to me at that time. Though not so good a scholar as Tyrrell, he had been in Greece, had lived there and saturated himself with Greek thought and Greek feeling. Besides he took deliberately the artistic standpoint towards everything, which was coming more and more to be my standpoint. He was a delightful talker, too, a really great talker in a certain way–an artist in vivid words and eloquent pauses. Tyrrell, too, was very kind to me–intensely sympathetic and crammed with knowledge. If he had known less he would have been a poet. Learning is a sad handicap, Frank, an appalling handicap,” and he laughed irresistibly.
“They were worse even than the boys at Portora,” he replied; “they thought of nothing but cricket and football, running and jumping; and they varied these intellectual exercises with bouts of fighting and drinking. If they had any souls they diverted them with coarse “amours” among barmaids and the women of the streets; they were simply awful. Sexual vice is even coarser and more loathsome in Ireland than it is in England:–
“When I tried to talk they broke into my thought with stupid gibes and jokes. Their highest idea of humour was an obscene story. No, no, Tyrrell and Mahaffy represent to me whatever was good in Trinity.”
In 1874 Oscar Wilde won the gold medal for Greek. The subject of the year was “The Fragments of the Greek Comic Poets, as edited by Meineke.” In this year, too, he won a classical scholarship–a demyship of the annual value of L95, which was tenable for five years, which enabled him to go to Oxford without throwing an undue strain on his father’s means.
He had the advantage of going to Oxford a little later than most men, at twenty instead of eighteen, and thus was enabled to win high honours with comparative ease, while leading a life of cultured enjoyment.
He was placed in the first class in “Moderations” in 1876 and had even then managed to make himself talked about in the life of the place. The Trinity Don whom I have already quoted, after admitting that there was not a breath against his character either at school or Trinity, goes on to write that “at Trinity he did not strike us as a very exceptional person,” and yet there must have been some sharp eyes at Trinity, for our Don adds with surprising divination:
“I fancy his rapid development took place after he went to Oxford, where he was able to specialize more; in fact where he could study what he most affected. It is, I feel sure, from his Oxford life more than from his life in Ireland that one would be able to trace the good and bad features by which he afterwards attracted the attention of the world.”
In 1878 Oscar won a First Class in “Greats.” In this same Trinity term, 1878, he further distinguished himself by gaining the Newdigate prize for English verse with his poem “Ravenna,” which he recited at the annual Commemoration in the Sheldonian Theatre on June 26th. His reciting of the poem was the literary event of the year in Oxford.
There had been great curiosity about him; he was said to be the best talker of the day, and one of the ripest scholars. There were those in the University who predicted an astonishing future for him, and indeed all possibilities seemed within his reach. “His verses were listened to,” said “The Oxford and Cambridge Undergraduates’ Journal”, “with rapt attention.” It was just the sort of thing, half poetry, half rhythmic rhetoric, which was sure to reach the hearts and minds of youth. His voice, too, was of beautiful tenor quality, and exquisitely used. When he sat down people crowded to praise him and even men of great distinction in life flattered him with extravagant compliments. Strange to say he used always to declare that his appearance about the same time as Prince Rupert, at a fancy dress ball, given by Mrs. George Morrell, at Headington Hill Hall, afforded him a far more gratifying proof of the exceptional position he had won.
“Everyone came round me, Frank, and made me talk. I hardly danced at all. I went as Prince Rupert, and I talked as he charged but with more success, for I turned all my foes into friends. I had the divinest evening; Oxford meant so much to me. . . . .
“I was the happiest man in the world when I entered Magdalen for the first time. Oxford–the mere word to me is full of an inexpressible, an incommunicable charm. Oxford–the home of lost causes and impossible ideals; Matthew Arnold’s Oxford–with its dreaming spires and grey colleges, set in velvet lawns and hidden away among the trees, and about it the beautiful fields, all starred with cowslips and fritillaries where the quiet river winds its way to London and the sea. . . . . The change, Frank, to me was astounding; Trinity was as barbarian as school, with coarseness superadded. If it had not been for two or three people, I should have been worse off at Trinity than at Portora; but Oxford–Oxford was paradise to me. My very soul seemed to expand within me to peace and joy. Oxford–the enchanted valley, holding in its flowerlet cup all the idealism of the middle ages. (Oscar was always fond of loosely quoting or paraphrasing in conversation the purple passages from contemporary writers. He said them exquisitely and sometimes his own embroidery was as good as the original. This discipleship, however, always suggested to me a lack of originality. In especial Matthew Arnold had an extraordinary influence upon him, almost as great indeed as Pater.) Oxford is the capital of romance, Frank; in its own way as memorable as Athens, and to me it was even more entrancing. In Oxford, as in Athens, the realities of sordid life were kept at a distance. No one seemed to know anything about money or care anything for it. Everywhere the aristocratic feeling; one must have money, but must not bother about it. And all the appurtenances of life were perfect: the food, the wine, the cigarettes; the common needs of life became artistic symbols, our clothes even won meaning and significance. It was at Oxford I first dressed in knee breeches and silk stockings. I almost reformed fashion and made modern dress aesthetically beautiful; a second and greater reformation, Frank. What a pity it is that Luther knew nothing of dress, had no sense of the becoming. He had courage but no fineness of perception. I’m afraid his neckties would always have been quite shocking!” and he laughed charmingly.
“All romantic and ideal affections. Every successive wave of youths from the public schools brought some chosen spirits, perfectly wonderful persons, the most graceful and fascinating disciples that a poet could desire, and I preached the old-ever-new gospel of individual revolt and individual perfection. I showed them that sin with its curiosities widened the horizons of life. Prejudices and prohibitions are mere walls to imprison the soul. Indulgence may hurt the body, Frank, but nothing except suffering hurts the spirit; it is self-denial and abstinence that maim and deform the soul.”
“Frank,” he cried reprovingly, laughing at the same time delightfully, “I was a great talker at school. I did nothing at Trinity but talk, my reading was done at odd hours. I was the best talker ever seen in Oxford.”
“There were two or three teachers, Frank,” he replied, “greater than Mahaffy; teachers of the world as well as of Oxford. There was Ruskin for instance, who appealed to me intensely–a wonderful man and a most wonderful writer. A sort of exquisite romantic flower; like a violet filling the whole air with the ineffable perfume of belief. Ruskin has always seemed to me the Plato of England–a Prophet of the Good and True and Beautiful, who saw as Plato saw that the three are one perfect flower. But it was his prose I loved, and not his piety. His sympathy with the poor bored me: the road he wanted us to build was tiresome. I could see nothing in poverty that appealed to me, nothing; I shrank away from it as from a degradation of the spirit; but his prose was lyrical and rose on broad wings into the blue. He was a great poet and teacher, Frank, and therefore of course a most preposterous professor; he bored you to death when he taught, but was an inspiration when he sang.
“Then there was Pater, Pater the classic, Pater the scholar, who had already written the greatest English prose: I think a page or two of the greatest prose in all literature. Pater meant everything to me. He taught me the highest form of art: the austerity of beauty. I came to my full growth with Pater. He was a sort of silent, sympathetic elder brother. Fortunately for me he could not talk at all; but he was an admirable listener, and I talked to him by the hour. I learned the instrument of speech with him, for I could see by his face when I had said anything extraordinary. He did not praise me but quickened me astonishingly, forced me always to do better than my best–an intense vivifying influence, the influence of Greek art at its supremest.”
“Oh, no, Frank,” he chided, “everyone sat at my feet even then. But Pater was a very great man. Dear Pater! I remember once talking to him when we were seated together on a bench under some trees in Oxford. I had been watching the students bathing in the river: the beautiful white figures all grace and ease and virile strength. I had been pointing out how Christianity had flowered into romance, and how the crude Hebraic materialism and all the later formalities of an established creed had fallen away from the tree of life and left us the exquisite ideals of the new paganism. . . .
“The pale Christ had been outlived: his renunciations and his sympathies were mere weaknesses: we were moving to a synthesis of art where the enchanting perfume of romance should be wedded to the severe beauty of classic form. I really talked as if inspired, and when I paused, Pater–the stiff, quiet, silent Pater–suddenly slipped from his seat and knelt down by me and kissed my hand. I cried:
The most important event in Oscar’s early life happened while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford: his father, Sir William Wilde, died in 1876, leaving to his wife, Lady Wilde, nearly all he possessed, some L7,000, the interest of which was barely enough to keep her in genteel poverty. The sum is so small that one is constrained to believe the report that Sir William Wilde in his later years kept practically open house–“lashins of whisky and a good larder,” and was besides notorious for his gallantries. Oscar’s small portion, a little money and a small house with some land, came to him in the nick of time: he used the cash partly to pay some debts at Oxford, partly to defray the expenses of a trip to Greece. It was natural that Oscar Wilde, with his eager sponge-like receptivity, should receive the best academic education of his time, and should better that by travel. We all get something like the education we desire, and Oscar Wilde, it always seemed to me, was over-educated, had learned, that is, too much from books and not enough from life and had thought too little for himself; but my readers will be able to judge of this for themselves.
In 1877 he accompanied Professor Mahaffy on a long tour through Greece. The pleasure and profit Oscar got from the trip were so great that he failed to return to Oxford on the date fixed. The Dons fined him forty-five pounds for the breach of discipline; but they returned the money to him in the following year when he won First Honours in “Greats” and the Newdigate prize.
This visit to Greece when he was twenty-three confirmed the view of life which he had already formed and I have indicated sufficiently perhaps in that talk with Pater already recorded. But no one will understand Oscar Wilde who for a moment loses sight of the fact that he was a pagan born: as Gautier says, “One for whom the visible world alone exists,” endowed with all the Greek sensuousness and love of plastic beauty; a pagan, like Nietzsche and Gautier, wholly out of sympathy with Christianity, one of “the Confraternity of the faithless who “cannot” believe,” (His own words in “De Profundis.”) to whom a sense of sin and repentance are symptoms of weakness and disease.
Oscar used often to say that the chief pleasure he had in visiting Rome was to find the Greek gods and the heroes and heroines of Greek story throned in the Vatican. He preferred Niobe to the Mater Dolorosa and Helen to both; the worship of sorrow must give place, he declared, to the worship of the beautiful.
While still at Oxford his tastes–the bent of his mind, and his temperament– were beginning to outline his future. He spent his vacations in Dublin and always called upon his old school friend Edward Sullivan in his rooms at Trinity. Sullivan relates that when they met Oscar used to be full of his occasional visits to London and could talk of nothing but the impression made upon him by plays and players. From youth on the theatre drew him irresistibly; he had not only all the vanity of the actor; but what might be called the born dramatist’s love for the varied life of the stage–its paintings, costumings, rhetoric–and above all the touch of emphasis natural to it which gives such opportunity for humorous exaggeration.
“I remember him telling me,” Sullivan writes, “about Irving’s ‘Macbeth,’ which made a great impression on him; he was fascinated by it. He feared, however, that the public might be similarly affected–a thing which, he declared, would destroy his enjoyment of an extraordinary performance.” He admired Miss Ellen Terry, too, extravagantly, as he admired Marion Terry, Mrs. Langtry, and Mary Anderson later.
The death of Sir William Wilde put an end to the family life in Dublin, and set the survivors free. Lady Wilde had lost her husband and her only daughter in Merrion Square: the house was full of sad memories to her, she was eager to leave it all and settle in London.
The “Requiescat” in Oscar’s first book of poems was written in memory of this sister who died in her teens, whom he likened to “a ray of sunshine dancing about the house.” He took his vocation seriously even in youth: he felt that he should sing his sorrow, give record of whatever happened to him in life. But he found no new word for his bereavement.
Willie Wilde came over to London and got employment as a journalist and was soon given almost a free hand by the editor of the society paper “The World”. With rare unselfishness, or, if you will, with Celtic clannishness, he did a good deal to make Oscar’s name known. Every clever thing that Oscar said or that could be attributed to him, Willie reported in “The World”. This puffing and Oscar’s own uncommon power as a talker; but chiefly perhaps a whispered reputation for strange sins, had thus early begun to form a sort of myth around him. He was already on the way to becoming a personage; there was a certain curiosity about him, a flutter of interest in whatever he did. He had published poems in the Trinity College magazine, “Kottabos”, and elsewhere. People were beginning to take him at his own valuation as a poet and a wit; and the more readily as that ambition did not clash in any way with their more material strivings.
The time had now come for Oscar to conquer London as he had conquered Oxford. He had finished the first class in the great World-School and was eager to try the next, where his mistakes would be his only tutors and his desires his taskmasters. His University successes flattered him with the belief that he would go from triumph to triumph and be the exception proving the rule that the victor in the academic lists seldom repeats his victories on the battlefield of life.
It is not sufficiently understood that the learning of Latin and Greek and the forming of expensive habits at others’ cost are a positive disability and handicap in the rough-and-tumble tussle of the great city, where greed and unscrupulous resolution rule, and where there are few prizes for feats of memory or taste in words. When the graduate wins in life he wins as a rule in spite of his so-called education and not because of it.
It is true that the majority of English ‘Varsity men give themselves an infinitely better education than that provided by the authorities. They devote themselves to athletic sports with whole-hearted enthusiasm. Fortunately for them it is impossible to develop the body without at the same time steeling the will. The would-be athlete has to live laborious days; he may not eat to his liking, nor drink to his thirst. He learns deep lessons almost unconsciously; to conquer his desires and make light of pain and discomfort. He needs no Aristotle to teach him the value of habits; he is soon forced to use them as defences against his pet weaknesses; above all he finds that self-denial has its reward in perfect health; that the thistle pain, too, has its flower. It is a truism that ‘Varsity athletes generally succeed in life, Spartan discipline proving itself incomparably superior to Greek accidence.
Oscar Wilde knew nothing of this discipline. He had never trained his body to endure or his will to steadfastness. He was the perfect flower of academic study and leisure. At Magdalen he had been taught luxurious living, the delight of gratifying expensive tastes; he had been brought up and enervated so to speak in Capua. His vanity had been full-fed with cloistered triumphs; he was at once pleasure-loving, vainly self-confident and weak; he had been encouraged for years to give way to his emotions and to pamper his sensations, and as the Cap-and-Bells of Folly to cherish a fantastic code of honour even in mortal combat, while despising the religion which might have given him some hold on the respect of his compatriots. What chance had this cultured honour-loving Sybarite in the deadly grapple of modern life where the first quality is will power, the only knowledge needed a knowledge of the value of money. I must not be understood here as in any degree disparaging Oscar. I can surely state that a flower is weaker than a weed without exalting the weed or depreciating the flower.
The first part of life’s voyage was over for Oscar Wilde; let us try to see him as he saw himself at this time and let us also determine his true relations to the world. Fortunately he has given us his own view of himself with some care.
In Foster’s “Alumni Oxonienses”, Oscar Wilde described himself on leaving Oxford as a “Professor of aesthetics, and a Critic of Art”–an announcement to me at once infinitely ludicrous and pathetic. “Ludicrous” because it betrays such complete ignorance of life all given over to men industrious with muck-rakes: “Gadarene swine,” as Carlyle called them, “busily grubbing and grunting in search of pignuts.” “Pathetic” for it is boldly ingenuous as youth itself with a touch of youthful conceit and exaggeration. Another eager human soul on the threshold longing to find some suitable high work in the world, all unwitting of the fact that ideal strivings are everywhere despised and discouraged– jerry-built cottages for the million being the day’s demand and not oratories or palaces of art or temples for the spirit.
Not the time for a “professor of aesthetics,” one would say, and assuredly not the place. One wonders whether Zululand would not be more favourable for such a man than England. Germany, France, and Italy have many positions in universities, picture-galleries, museums, opera houses for lovers of the beautiful, and above all an educated respect for artists and writers just as they have places too for servants of Truth in chemical laboratories and polytechnics endowed by the State with excellent results even from the utilitarian point of view. But rich England has only a few dozen such places in all at command and these are usually allotted with a cynical contempt for merit; miserable anarchic England, soul-starved amid its creature comforts, proving now by way of example to helots that man cannot live by bread alone:– England and Oscar Wilde! the “Black Country” and “the professor of aesthetics”– a mad world, my masters!
It is necessary for us now to face this mournful truth that in the quarrel between these two the faults were not all on one side, mayhap England was even further removed from the ideal than the would-be professor of aesthetics, which fact may well give us pause and food for thought. Organic progress we have been told; indeed, might have seen if we had eyes, evolution so-called is from the simple to the complex; our rulers therefore should have provided for the ever-growing complexity of modern life and modern men. The good gardener will even make it his ambition to produce new species; our politicians, however, will not take the trouble to give even the new species that appear a chance of living; they are too busy, it appears, in keeping their jobs.
No new profession has been organized in England since the Middle Ages. In the meantime we have invented new arts, new sciences and new letters; when will these be organized and regimented in new and living professions, so that young ingenuous souls may find suitable fields for their powers and may not be forced willy-nilly to grub for pignuts when it would be more profitable for them and for us to use their nobler faculties? Not only are the poor poorer and more numerous in England than elsewhere; but there is less provision made for the “intellectuals” too, consequently the organism is suffering at both extremities. It is high time that both maladies were taken in hand, for by universal consent England is now about the worst organized of all modern States, the furthest from the ideal.
Something too should be done with the existing professions to make them worthy of honourable ambition. One of them, the Church, is a noble body without a soul; the soul, our nostrils tell us, died some time ago, while the medical profession has got a noble spirit with a wretched half-organized body. It says much for the inherent integrity and piety of human nature that our doctors persist in trying to cure diseases when it is clearly to their self-interest to keep their patients ailing–an anarchic world, this English one, and stupefied with self-praise. What will this professor of aesthetics make of it?
Here he is, the flower of English University training, a winner of some of the chief academic prizes without any worthy means of earning a livelihood, save perchance by journalism. And journalism in England suffers from the prevailing anarchy. In France, Italy, and Germany journalism is a career in which an eloquent and cultured youth may honourably win his spurs. In many countries this way of earning one’s bread can still be turned into an art by the gifted and high-minded; but in England thanks in the main to the anonymity of the press cunningly contrived by the capitalist, the journalist or modern preacher is turned into a venal voice, a soulless Cheapjack paid to puff his master’s wares. Clearly our “Professor of aesthetics and Critic of Art” is likely to have a doleful time of it in nineteenth century London.
Oscar had already dipped into his little patrimony, as we have seen, and he could not conceal from himself that he would soon have to live on what he could earn–a few pounds a week. But then he was a poet and had boundless confidence in his own ability. To the artist nature the present is everything; just for to-day he resolved that he would live as he had always lived; so he travelled first class to London and bought all the books and papers that could distract him on the way: “Give me the luxuries,” he used to say, “and anyone can have the necessaries.”
In the background of his mind there were serious misgivings. Long afterwards he told me that his father’s death and the smallness of his patrimony had been a heavy blow to him. He encouraged himself, however, at the moment by dwelling on his brother’s comparative success and waved aside fears and doubts as unworthy.
It is to his credit that at first he tried to cut down expenses and live laborious days. He took a couple of furnished rooms in Salisbury Street off the Strand, a very Grub Street for a man of fashion, and began to work at journalism while getting together a book of poems for publication. His journalism at first was anything but successful. It was his misfortune to appeal only to the best heads and good heads are not numerous anywhere. His appeal, too, was still academic and laboured. His brother Willie with his commoner sympathies appeared to be better equipped for this work. But Oscar had from the first a certain social success.
As soon as he reached London he stepped boldly into the limelight, going to all “first nights” and taking the floor on all occasions. He was not only an admirable talker but he was invariably smiling, eager, full of life and the joy of living, and above all given to unmeasured praise of whatever and whoever pleased him. This gift of enthusiastic admiration was not only his most engaging characteristic, but also, perhaps, the chief proof of his extraordinary ability. It was certainly, too, the quality which served him best all through his life. He went about declaring that Mrs. Langtry was more beautiful than the ‘Venus of Milo,’ and Lady Archie Campbell more charming than Rosalind and Mr. Whistler an incomparable artist. Such enthusiasm in a young and brilliant man was unexpected and delightful and doors were thrown open to him in all sets. Those who praise passionately are generally welcome guests and if Oscar could not praise he shrugged his shoulders and kept silent; scarcely a bitter word ever fell from those smiling lips. No tactics could have been more successful in England than his native gift of radiant good-humour and enthusiasm. He got to know not only all the actors and actresses, but the chief patrons and frequenters of the theatre: Lord Lytton, Lady Shrewsbury, Lady Dorothy Nevill, Lady de Grey and Mrs. Jeune; and, on the other hand, Hardy, Meredith, Browning, Swinburne, and Matthew Arnold–all Bohemia, in fact, and all that part of Mayfair which cares for the things of the intellect.
But though he went out a great deal and met a great many distinguished people, and won a certain popularity, his social success put no money in his purse. It even forced him to spend money; for the constant applause of his hearers gave him self-confidence. He began to talk more and write less, and cabs and gloves and flowers cost money. He was soon compelled to mortgage his little property in Ireland.
At the same time it must be admitted he was still indefatigably intent on bettering his mind, and in London he found more original teachers than in Oxford, notably Morris and Whistler. Morris, though greatly overpraised during his life, had hardly any message for the men of his time. He went for his ideals to an imaginary past and what he taught and praised was often totally unsuited to modern conditions. Whistler on the other hand was a modern of the moderns, and a great artist to boot: he had not only assimilated all the newest thought of the day, but with the alchemy of genius had transmuted it and made it his own. Before even the de Goncourts he had admired Chinese porcelain and Japanese prints and his own exquisite intuition strengthened by Japanese example had shown him that his impression of life was more valuable than any mere transcript of it. Modern art he felt should be an interpretation and not a representment of reality, and he taught the golden rule of the artist that the half is usually more expressive than the whole. He went about London preaching new schemes of decoration and another Renaissance of art. Had he only been a painter he would never have exercised an extraordinary influence; but he was a singularly interesting appearance as well and an admirable talker gifted with picturesque phrases and a most caustic wit.
The art critic of “The Times”, Mr. Humphry Ward, had come to see an exhibition of Whistler’s pictures. Filled with an undue sense of his own importance, he buttonholed the master and pointing to one picture said:
“My dear fellow,” cried Whistler, “you must never say that this painting’s good or that bad, never! Good and bad are not terms to be used by you; but say, I like this, and I dislike that, and you’ll be within your right. And now come and have a whiskey for you’re sure to like that.”
Of all the personal influences which went to the moulding of Oscar Wilde’s talent, that of Whistler, in my opinion, was the most important; Whistler taught him that men of genius stand apart and are laws unto themselves; showed him, too, that all qualities–singularity of appearance, wit, rudeness even, count doubly in a democracy. But neither his own talent nor the bold self-assertion learned from Whistler helped him to earn money; the conquest of London seemed further off and more improbable than ever. Where Whistler had missed the laurel how could he or indeed anyone be sure of winning?
A weaker professor of aesthetics would have been discouraged by the monetary and other difficulties of his position and would have lost heart at the outset in front of the impenetrable blank wall of English philistinism and contempt. But Oscar Wilde was conscious of great ability and was driven by an inordinate vanity. Instead of diminishing his pretensions in the face of opposition he increased them. He began to go abroad in the evening in knee breeches and silk stockings wearing strange flowers in his coat–green cornflowers and gilded lilies–while talking about Baudelaire, whose name even was unfamiliar, as a world poet, and proclaiming the strange creed that “nothing succeeds like excess.” Very soon his name came into everyone’s mouth; London talked of him and discussed him at a thousand tea-tables. For one invitation he had received before, a dozen now poured in; he became a celebrity.
Of course he was still sneered at by many as a mere “poseur”; it still seemed to be all Lombard Street to a china orange that he would be beaten down under the myriad trampling feet of middle-class indifference and disdain.
Some circumstances were in his favour. Though the artistic movement inaugurated years before by the Pre-Raphaelites was still laughed at and scorned by the many as a craze, a few had stood firm, and slowly the steadfast minority had begun to sway the majority as is often the case in democracies. Oscar Wilde profited by the victory of these art-loving forerunners. Here and there among the indifferent public, men were attracted by the artistic view of life and women by the emotional intensity of the new creed. Oscar Wilde became the prophet of an esoteric cult. But notoriety even did not solve the monetary question, which grew more and more insistent. A dozen times he waved it aside and went into debt rather than restrain himself. Somehow or other he would fall on his feet, he thought. Men who console themselves in this way usually fall on someone else’s feet and so did Oscar Wilde. At twenty-six years of age and curiously enough at the very moment of his insolent-bold challenge of the world with fantastic dress, he stooped to ask his mother for money, money which she could ill spare, though to do her justice she never wasted a second thought on money where her affections were concerned, and she not only loved Oscar but was proud of him. Still she could not give him much; the difficulty was only postponed; what was to be done?
His vanity had grown with his growth; the dread of defeat was only a spur to the society favourite; he cast about for some means of conquering the Philistines, and could think of nothing but his book of poems. He had been trying off and on for nearly a year to get it published. The publishers told him roundly that there was no money in poetry and refused the risk. But the notoriety of his knee-breeches and silken hose, and above all the continual attacks in the society papers, came to his aid and his book appeared in the early summer of 1881 with all the importance that imposing form, good paper, broad margins, and high price (10/6) could give it. The truth was, he paid for the printing and production of the book himself, and David Bogue, the publisher, put his name on for a commission.
Oscar had built high fantastic hopes on this book. To the very end of his life he believed himself a poet and in the creative sense of the word he was assuredly justified, but he meant it in the singing sense as well, and there his claim can only be admitted with serious qualifications. But whether he was a singer or not the hopes founded on this book were extravagant; he expected to make not only reputation by it, but a large amount of money, and money is not often made in England by poetry.
The book had an extraordinary success, greater, it may safely be said, than any first book of real poetry has ever had in England or indeed is ever likely to have: four editions were sold in a few weeks. Two of the Sonnets in the book were addressed to Ellen Terry, one as “Portia,” the other as “Henrietta Maria”; and these partly account for the book’s popularity, for Miss Terry was delighted with them and praised the book and its author to the skies. (In her “Recollections” Miss Terry says that she was more impressed by the genius of Oscar Wilde and of Whistler than by that of any other men.) I reproduce the “Henrietta Maria” sonnet here as a fair specimen of the work:
In the lone tent, waiting for victory, She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain, Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain: The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky, War’s ruin, and the wreck of chivalry,
To her proud soul no common fear can bring: Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King, Her soul aflame with passionate ecstasy. O Hair of Gold! O Crimson Lips! O Face!
Made for the luring and the love of man! With thee I do forget the toil and stress, The loveless road that knows no resting-place, Time’s straitened pulse, the soul’s dread weariness, My freedom and my life republican.
Lyric poetry is by its excellence the chief art of England, as music is the art of Germany. A book of poetry is almost sure of fair appreciation in the English press which does not trouble to notice a “Sartor Resartus” or the first essays of an Emerson. The excessive consideration given to Oscar’s book by the critics showed that already his personality and social success had affected the reporters.
“The Athenaeum” gave the book the place of honour in its number for the 23rd of July. The review was severe; but not unjust. “Mr. Wilde’s volume of poems,” it says, “may be regarded as the evangel of a new creed. From other gospels it differs in coming after, instead of before, the cult it seeks to establish. . . . . We fail to see, however, that the apostle of the new worship has any distinct message.”
“The Saturday Review “dismissed the book at the end of an article on “Recent Poetry” as “neither good nor bad.” The reviewer objected in the English fashion to the sensual tone of the poems; but summed up fairly enough: “This book is not without traces of cleverness, but it is marred everywhere by imitation, insincerity, and bad taste.”
At the same time the notices in “Punch” were extravagantly bitter, while of course the notices in “The World”, mainly written by Oscar’s brother, were extravagantly eulogistic. “Punch” declared that “Mr. Wilde may be aesthetic, but he is not original . . . . a volume of echoes. . . . . Swinburne and water.”
Now what did “The Athenaeum” mean by taking a new book of imitative verse so seriously and talking of it as the “evangel of a new creed,” besides suggesting that “it comes after the cult,” and so forth?
It seems probable that “The Athenaeum” mistook Oscar Wilde for a continuator of the Pre-Raphaelite movement with the sub-conscious and peculiarly English suggestion that whatever is “aesthetic” or “artistic” is necessarily weak and worthless, if not worse.
Soon after Oscar left Oxford “Punch” began to caricature him and ridicule the cult of what it christened “The Too Utterly Utter.” Nine Englishmen out of ten took delight in the savage contempt poured upon what was known euphemistically as “the aesthetic craze” by the pet organ of the English middle class.
“‘You see I am, after all, 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.
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!”) . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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!”)
Taking the criticism as a whole it would be useless to deny that there is an underlying assumption of vicious sensuality in the poet which is believed to be reflected in the poetry. This is the only way to explain the condemnation which is much more bitter than the verse deserves.
The poems gave Oscar pocket money for a season; increased too his notoriety; but did him little or no good with the judicious: there was not a memorable word or a new cadence, or a sincere cry in the book. Still, first volumes of poetry are as a rule imitative and the attempt, if inferior to “Venus and Adonis,” was not without interest.
The first round in the battle with Fate was inconclusive. Oscar Wilde had managed to get known and talked about and had kept his head above water for a couple of years while learning something about life and more about himself. On the other hand he had spent almost all his patrimony, had run into some debt besides; yet seemed as far as ever from earning a decent living. The outlook was disquieting.
Even as a young man Oscar had a very considerable understanding of life. He could not make his way as a journalist, the English did not care for his poetry; but there was still the lecture-platform. In his heart he knew that he could talk better than he wrote.
Besides he had another string to his bow. When the first rumblings of the social storm in Russia reached England, our aristocratic republican seized occasion by the forelock and wrote a play on the Nihilist Conspiracy called “Vera”. This drama was impregnated with popular English liberal sentiment. With the interest of actuality about it “Vera” was published in September, 1880; but fell flat.
The assassination of the Tsar Alexander, however, in March, 1881; the way Oscar’s poems published in June of that year were taken up by Miss Terry and puffed in the press, induced Mrs. Bernard Beere, an actress of some merit, to accept “Vera” for the stage. It was suddenly announced that “Vera” would be put on by Mrs. Bernard Beere at The Adelphi in December, ’81; but the author had to be content with this advertisement. December came and went and “Vera” was not staged. It seemed probable to Oscar that it might be accepted in America; at any rate, there could be no harm in trying: he sailed for New York.
It was on the cards that he might succeed in his new adventure. The taste of America in letters and art is still strongly influenced, if not formed, by English taste, and, if Oscar Wilde had been properly accredited, it is probable that his extraordinary gift of speech would have won him success in America as a lecturer.
His phrase to the Revenue officers on landing: “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” turned the limelight full upon him and excited comment and discussion all over the country. But the fuglemen of his caste whose praise had brought him to the front in England were almost unrepresented in the States, and never bold enough to be partisans. Oscar faced the American Philistine public without his accustomed “claque”, and under these circumstances a half-success was evidence of considerable power. His subjects were “The English Renaissance” and “House Decoration.”
His first lecture at Chickering Hall on January 9, 1882, was so much talked about that the famous impresario, Major Pond, engaged him for a tour which, however, had to be cut short in the middle as a monetary failure. “The Nation” gave a very fair account of his first lecture: “Mr. Wilde is essentially a foreign product and can hardly succeed in this country. What he has to say is not new, and his extravagance is not extravagant enough to amuse the average American audience. His knee-breeches and long hair are good as far as they go; but Bunthorne has really spoiled the public for Wilde.”
“The Nation” underrated American curiosity. Oscar lectured some ninety times from January till July, when he returned to New York. The gross receipts amounted to some L4,000: he received about L1,200, which left him with a few hundreds above his expenses. His optimism regarded this as a triumph.
One is fain to confess today that these lectures make very poor reading. There is not a new thought in them; not even a memorable expression; they are nothing but student work, the best passages in them being mere paraphrases of Pater and Arnold, though the titles were borrowed from Whistler. Dr. Ernest Bendz in his monograph on “The Influence of Pater and Matthew Arnold in the Prose-Writings of Oscar Wilde” has established this fact with curious erudition and completeness.
Still, the lecturer was a fine figure of a man: his knee-breeches and silk stockings set all the women talking, and he spoke with suave authority. Even the dullest had to admit that his elocution was excellent, and the manner of speech is keenly appreciated in America. In some of the Eastern towns, in New York especially, he had a certain success, the success of sensation and of novelty, such success as every large capital gives to the strange and eccentric.
In Boston he scored a triumph of character. Fifty or sixty Harvard students came to his lecture dressed to caricature him in “swallow tail coats, knee breeches, flowing wigs and green ties. They all wore large lilies in their buttonholes and each man carried a huge sunflower as he limped along.” That evening Oscar appeared in ordinary dress and went on with his lecture as if he had not noticed the rudeness. The chief Boston paper gave him due credit:
“Everyone who witnessed the scene on Tuesday evening must feel about it very much as we do, and those who came to scoff, if they did not exactly remain to pray, at least left the Music Hall with feelings of cordial liking, and, perhaps to their own surprise, of respect for Oscar Wilde.” (By way of heaping coals of fire on the students’ heads Oscar presented a cast of the Hermes (then recently unearthed) to the University of Harvard.)
One incident must find a place here. On September 6 he sent L80 to Lady Wilde. I have been told that this was merely a return of money she had advanced; but there can be no doubt that Oscar, unlike his brother Willie, helped his mother again and again most generously, though Willie was always her favourite.
Oscar returned to England in April, 1883, and lectured to the Art Students at their club in Golden Square. This at once brought about a break with Whistler who accused him of plagiarism:–“Picking from our platters the plums for the puddings he peddles in the provinces.”
If one compares this lecture with Oscar’s on “The English Renaissance of Art,” delivered in New York only a year before, and with Whistler’s well-known opinions, it is impossible not to admit that the charge was justified. Such phrases as “artists are not to copy beauty but to create it . . . . a picture is a purely decorative thing,” proclaim their author.
The long newspaper wrangle between the two was brought to a head in 1885, when Whistler gave his famous “Ten o’clock” discourse on Art. This lecture was infinitely better than any of Oscar Wilde’s. Twenty odd years older than Wilde, Whistler was a master of all his resources: he was not only witty, but he had new views on art and original ideas. As a great artist he knew that “there never was an artistic period. There never was an Art-loving nation.” Again and again he reached pure beauty of expression. The masterly persiflage, too, filled me with admiration and I declared that the lecture ranked with the best ever heard in London with Coleridge’s on Shakespeare and Carlyle’s on Heroes. To my astonishment Oscar would not admit the superlative quality of Whistler’s talk; he thought the message paradoxical and the ridicule of the professors too bitter. “Whistler’s like a wasp,” he cried, “and carries about with him a poisoned sting.” Oscar’s kindly sweet nature revolted against the disdainful aggressiveness of Whistler’s attitude. Besides, in essence, Whistler’s lecture was an attack on the academic theory taught in the universities, and defended naturally by a young scholar like Oscar Wilde. Whistler’s view that the artist was sporadic, a happy chance, a “sport,” in fact, was a new view, and Oscar had not yet reached this level; he reviewed the master in the “Pall Mall Gazette”, a review remarkable for one of the earliest gleams of that genial humour which later became his most characteristic gift: “Whistler,” he said, “is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.”
Whistler retorted in “The World” and Oscar replied, but Whistler had the best of the argument. . . . . “Oscar–the amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar–with no more sense of a picture than of the fit of a coat, has the courage of the opinions . . . . of others!”
It should be noted here that one of the bitterest of tongues could not help doing homage to Oscar Wilde’s “amiability”: Whistler even preferred to call him “amiable and irresponsible” rather than give his plagiarism a harsher attribute.
Oscar Wilde learned almost all he knew of art (confer Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”) and of controversy from Whistler, but he was never more than a pupil in either field; for controversy in especial he was poorly equipped: he had neither the courage, nor the contempt, nor the joy in conflict of his great exemplar.
Unperturbed by Whistler’s attacks, Oscar went on lecturing about the country on “Personal Impressions of America,” and in August crossed again to New York to see his play “Vera” produced by Marie Prescott at the Union Square Theatre. It was a complete failure, as might have been expected; the serious part of it was such as any talented young man might have written. Nevertheless I find in this play for the first time, a characteristic gleam of humour, an unexpected flirt of wing, so to speak, which, in view of the future, is full of promise. At the time it passed unappreciated.
September, 1883, saw Oscar again in England. The platform gave him better results than the theatre, but not enough for freedom or ease. It is the more to his credit that as soon as he got a couple of hundred pounds ahead, he resolved to spend it in bettering his mind.
His longing for wider culture, and perhaps in part, the example of Whistler, drove him to Paris. He put up at the little provincial Hotel Voltaire on the Quai Voltaire and quickly made acquaintance with everyone of note in the world of letters, from Victor Hugo to Paul Bourget. He admired Verlaine’s genius to the full but the grotesque physical ugliness of the man himself (Verlaine was like a masque of Socrates) and his sordid and unclean way of living prevented Oscar from really getting to know him. During this stay in Paris Oscar read enormously and his French, which had been schoolboyish, became quite good. He always said that Balzac, and especially his poet, Lucien de Rubempre, had been his teachers.
While in Paris he completed his blank-verse play, “The Duchess of Padua,” and sent it to Miss Mary Anderson in America, who refused it, although she had commissioned him, he always said, to write it. It seems to me inferior even to “Vera” in interest, more academic and further from life, and when produced in New York in 1891 it was a complete frost.
In a few months Oscar Wilde had spent his money and had skimmed the cream from Paris, as he thought; accordingly he returned to London and took rooms again, this time in Charles Street, Mayfair. He had learned some rude lessons in the years since leaving Oxford, and the first and most impressive lesson was the fear of poverty. Yet his taking rooms in the fashionable part of town showed that he was more determined than ever to rise and not to sink.
It was Lady Wilde who urged him to take rooms near her; she never doubted his ultimate triumph. She knew all his poems by heart, took the strass for diamonds and welcomed the chance of introducing her brilliant son to the Irish Nationalist Members and other pinchbeck celebrities who flocked about her.