Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 4

Formative Influences: Oscar’s Poems

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 £7,000, 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,”4 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.

Another dominant characteristic of the young man may here find its place.

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 Æsthetics, 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 æsthetics,” 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 æsthetics”— 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 æsthetics, 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 Æsthetics 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 Æsthetics 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 today 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 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.

Oscar sat at his feet and imbibed as much as he could of the new æsthetic gospel. He even ventured to annex some of the master’s most telling stories and thus came into conflict with his teacher.

One incident may find a place here.

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:

“That’s good, first-rate, a lovely bit of colour; but that, you know,” he went on, jerking his finger over his shoulder at another picture, “that’s bad, drawing all wrong . . . bad!”

“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.”

Carried away by the witty fling, Oscar cried:

“I wish I had said that.”

“You will, Oscar, you will,” came Whistler’s lightning thrust.

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 Æsthetics 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.5 I reproduce the “Henrietta Maria” sonnet here as a fair specimen of the work:

Queen Henrietta Maria

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 Athenæum 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 critic then took pains to prove that “nearly all the book is imitative” . . . and concluded: “Work of this nature has no element of endurance.”

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 æsthetic, but he is not original . . . a volume of echoes . . . Swinburne and water.”

Now what did The Athenæum 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 Athenæum mistook Oscar Wilde for a continuator of the Pre–Raphaelite movement with the sub-conscious and peculiarly English suggestion that whatever is “æsthetic” 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 æsthetic craze” by the pet organ of the English middle class.

This was the sort of thing Punch published under the title of “A Poet’s Day”:

“Oscar at Breakfast! Oscar at Luncheon!! Oscar at Dinner!!! Oscar at Supper!!!!”

“‘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.

“After this effort Mr. Wilde expressed himself as feeling somewhat faint; and with a half apologetic smile ordered another portion of Ham and Eggs.”

Punch’s verses on the subject were of the same sort, showing spite rather than humour. Under the heading of “Sage Green” (by a fading-out Æsthete) it published such stuff as this:

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.

Oscar was naturally disappointed with the criticism, but the sales encouraged him and the stir the book made and he was as determined as ever to succeed. What was to be done next?

4 His own words in “De Profundis.”

5 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.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/chapter4.html

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