Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 2

Oscar Wilde as a Schoolboy

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.

“Even as a schoolboy he was an excellent talker: his descriptive power being far above the average, and his humorous exaggerations of school occurrences always highly amusing.

“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 celèbre 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.

“He had, I think, no very special chums while at school. I was perhaps as friendly with him all through as anybody, though his junior in class by a year. . . .

“Willie Wilde was never very familiar with him, treating him always, in those days, as a younger brother. . . .

“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 romances that impressed him most when at school were Disraeli’s novels. He spoke slightingly of Dickens as a novelist. . . .

“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.

This observer who does not wish his name given, writes:

“Oscar had a pungent wit, and nearly all the nicknames in the school were given by him. He was very good on the literary side of scholarship, with a special leaning to poetry. . . .

“We noticed that he always liked to have editions of the classics that were of stately size with large print. . . . He was more careful in his dress than any other boy.

“He was a wide reader and read very fast indeed; how much he assimilated I never could make out. He was poor at music.

“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.

“Knowledge came to me through pleasure, as it always comes, I imagine. . . .

“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 palæstra; ‘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 anapæstics

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.”

It occurred to me once to ask Oscar in later years whether the boarding school life of a great, public school was not responsible for a good deal of sensual viciousness.

“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.”

“Did you go in for games?” I asked.

“No,” Oscar replied smiling, “I never liked to kick or be kicked.”

“Surely you went about with some younger boy, did you not, to whom you told your dreams and hopes, and whom you grew to care for?”

The question led to an intimate personal confession, which may take its place here.

“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 Cæsar. 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 school-books 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. . . .

“When I came out from the doctor’s I hurried to my friend to tell him all the wonderful news. To my surprise he was cold and said, a little bitterly, I thought:

“‘You seem glad to go?’

“‘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.’

“‘I mean,’ my chum went on, still in the same cold way, ‘you seem glad to leave me.’

“His tone startled me.

“‘You silly fellow,’ I exclaimed, ‘of course not; I’m always glad to be with you: but perhaps you will be coming up to Trinity too; won’t you?’

“‘I’m afraid not,’ he said, ‘but I shall come to Dublin frequently.’

“‘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.

“My friend was very silent, I remember, and only interrupted me to ask:

“‘When do you go, Oscar?’

“‘Early,’ I replied thoughtlessly, or rather full of my own thoughts, ‘early tomorrow morning, I believe; the usual train.’

“In the morning just as I was starting for the station, having said ‘goodbye’ to everyone, he came up to me very pale and strangely quiet.

“‘I’m coming with you to the station, Oscar,’ he said; ‘the Doctor gave me permission, when I told him what friends we had been.’

“‘I’m glad,’ I cried, my conscience pricking me that I had not thought of asking for his company. ‘I’m very glad. My last hours at school will always be associated with you.’

“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.

“When I was settled in my seat in the train, he did not say ‘goodbye’ and go, and leave me to my dreams; but brought me papers and things and hung about.

“The guard came and said:

“‘Now, sir, if you are going.’

“I liked the ‘Sir.’ To my surprise my friend jumped into the carriage and said:

“‘All right, guard, I’m not going, but I shall slip out as soon as you whistle.’

“The guard touched his cap and went. I said something, I don’t know what; I was a little embarrassed.

“‘You will write to me, Oscar, won’t you, and tell me about everything?’

“‘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.

“‘You must go now,’ I said to him.

“‘Yes,’ he replied, in a queer muffled voice, while standing with his hand on the door of the carriage. Suddenly he turned to me and cried:

“‘Oh, Oscar,’ and before I knew what he was doing he had caught my face in his hot hands, and kissed me on the lips. The next moment he had slipped out of the door and was gone. . . .

“I sat there all shaken. Suddenly I became aware of cold, sticky drops trickling down my face — his tears. They affected me strangely. As I wiped them off I said to myself in amaze:

“‘This is love: this is what he meant — love.’ . . .

“I was trembling all over. For a long while I sat, unable to think, all shaken with wonder and remorse.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30