Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 8

Oscar’s Growth to Originality About

The period of growth of any organism is the most interesting and most instructive. And there is no moment of growth in the individual life which can be compared in importance with the moment when a man begins to outtop his age, and to suggest the future evolution of humanity by his own genius. Usually this final stage is passed in solitude:

Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,

Sich ein Charakter in dem Strome der Welt.

After writing a life of Schiller which almost anyone might have written, Carlyle retired for some years to Craigenputtoch, and then brought forth Sartor Resartus, which was personal and soul-revealing to the verge of eccentricity. In the same way Wagner was a mere continuator of Weber in Lohengrin and Tannhaeuser, and first came to his own in the Meistersinger and Tristan, after years of meditation in Switzerland.

This period for Oscar Wilde began with his marriage; the freedom from sordid anxieties allowed him to lift up his head and be himself. Kepler, I think, it is who praises poverty as the foster-mother of genius; but Bernard Palissy was nearer the truth when he said:— Pauvreté empêche bons esprits de parvenir (poverty hinders fine minds from succeeding). There is no such mortal enemy of genius as poverty except riches: a touch of the spur from time to time does good; but a constant rowelling disables. As editor of The Woman’s World Oscar had some money of his own to spend. Though his salary was only some six pounds a week, it made him independent, and his editorial work gave him an excuse for not exhausting himself by writing. For some years after marriage; in fact, till he lost his editorship, he wrote little and talked a great deal.

During this period we were often together. He lunched with me once or twice a week and I began to know his method of work. Everything came to him in the excitement of talk, epigrams, paradoxes and stories; and when people of great position or title were about him he generally managed to surpass himself: all social distinctions appealed to him intensely. I chaffed him about this one day and he admitted the snobbishness gaily.

“I love even historic names, Frank, as Shakespeare did. Surely everyone prefers Norfolk, Hamilton and Buckingham to Jones or Smith or Robinson.”

As soon as he lost his editorship he took to writing for the reviews; his articles were merely the résumé of his monologues. After talking for months at this and that lunch and dinner he had amassed a store of epigrams and humorous paradoxes which he could embody in a paper for The Fortnightly Review or The Nineteenth Century.

These papers made it manifest that Wilde had at length, as Heine phrased it, reached the topmost height of the culture of his time and was now able to say new and interesting things. His Lehrjahre or student-time may be said to have ended with his editorship. The articles which he wrote on “The Decay of Lying,” “The Critic as Artist,” and “Pen, Pencil and Poison”; in fact, all the papers which in 1891 were gathered together and published in book form under the title of “Intentions,” had about them the stamp of originality. They achieved a noteworthy success with the best minds, and laid the foundation of his fame. Every paper contained, here and there, a happy phrase, or epigram, or flirt of humour, which made it memorable to the lover of letters.

They were all, however, conceived and written from the standpoint of the artist, and the artist alone, who never takes account of ethics, but uses right and wrong indifferently as colours of his palette. “The Decay of Lying” seemed to the ordinary, matter-of-fact Englishman a cynical plea in defence of mendacity. To the majority of readers, “Pen, Pencil and Poison” was hardly more than a shameful attempt to condone cold-blooded murder. The very articles which grounded his fame as a writer, helped to injure his standing and repute.

In 1889 he published a paper which did him even more damage by appearing to justify the peculiar rumours about his private life. He held the opinion, which was universal at that time, that Shakespeare had been abnormally vicious. He believed with the majority of critics that Lord William Herbert was addressed in the first series of Sonnets; but his fine sensibility or, if you will, his peculiar temperament, led him to question whether Thorpe’s dedication to “Mr. W.H.” could have been addressed to Lord William Herbert. He preferred the old hypothesis that the dedication was addressed to a young actor named Mr. William Hughes, a supposition which is supported by a well-known sonnet. He set forth this idea with much circumstance and considerable ingenuity in an article which he sent to me for publication in The Fortnightly Review. The theme was scabrous; but his treatment of it was scrupulously reserved and adroit and I saw no offence in the paper, and to tell the truth, no great ability in his handling of the subject.8

He had talked over the article with me while he was writing it, and I told him that I thought the whole theory completely mistaken. Shakespeare was as sensual as one could well be; but there was no evidence of abnormal vice; indeed, all the evidence seemed to me to be against this universal belief. The assumption that the dedication was addressed to Lord William Herbert I had found it difficult to accept, at first; the wording of it is not only ambiguous but familiar. If I assumed that “Mr. W.H.” was meant for Lord William Herbert, it was only because that seemed the easiest way out of the maze. In fine, I pointed out to Oscar that his theory had very little that was new in it, and more that was untrue, and advised him not to publish the paper. My conviction that Shakespeare was not abnormally vicious, and that the first series of Sonnets proved snobbishness and toadying and not corrupt passion, seemed to Oscar the very madness of partisanship.

He smiled away my arguments, and sent his paper to the Fortnightly office when I happened to be abroad. Much to my chagrin, my assistant rejected it rudely, whereupon Oscar sent it to Blackwoods, who published it in their magazine. It set everyone talking and arguing. To judge by the discussion it created, the wind of hatred and of praise it caused, one would have thought that the paper was a masterpiece, though in truth it was nothing out of the common. Had it been written by anybody else it would have passed unnoticed. But already Oscar Wilde had a prodigious notoriety, and all his sayings and doings were eagerly canvassed from one end of society to the other.

“The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” did Oscar incalculable injury. It gave his enemies for the first time the very weapon they wanted, and they used it unscrupulously and untiringly with the fierce delight of hatred. Oscar seemed to revel in the storm of conflicting opinions which the paper called forth. He understood better than most men that notoriety is often the forerunner of fame and is always commercially more valuable. He rubbed his hands with delight as the discussion grew bitter, and enjoyed even the sneering of the envious. A wind that blows out a little fire, he knew, plays bellows to a big one. So long as people talked about him, he didn’t much care what they said, and they certainly talked interminably about everything he wrote.

The inordinate popular success increased his self-confidence, and with time his assurance took on a touch of defiance. The first startling sign of this gradual change was the publication in Lippincott’s Magazine of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It was attacked immediately in The Daily Chronicle, a liberal paper usually distinguished for a certain leaning in favour of artists and men of letters, as a “tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadents — a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.”

Oscar as a matter of course replied and the tone of his reply is characteristic of his growth in self-assurance: he no longer dreads the imputation of viciousness; he challenges it: “It is poisonous, if you like; but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at.”

When Oscar republished “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in book form in April, 1891, he sent me a large paper copy and with the copy he wrote a little note, asking me to tell him what I thought of the book. I got the volume and note early one morning and read the book until noon. I then sent him a note by hand: “Other men,” I wrote, “have given us wine; some claret, some burgundy, some Moselle; you are the first to give us pure champagne. Much of this book is wittier even than Congreve and on an equal intellectual level: at length, it seems to me, you have justified yourself.”

Half an hour later I was told that Oscar Wilde had called. I went down immediately to see him. He was bubbling over with content.

“How charming of you, Frank,” he cried, “to have written me such a divine letter.”

“I have only read a hundred pages of the book,” I said; “but they are delightful: no one now can deny you a place among the wittiest and most humorous writers in English.”

“How wonderful of you, Frank; what do you like so much?”

Like all artists, he loved praise and I was enthusiastic, happy to have the opportunity of making up for some earlier doubting that now seemed unworthy:

“Whatever the envious may say, you’re with Burke and Sheridan, among the very ablest Irishmen. . . .

“Of course I have heard most of the epigrams from you before, but you have put them even better in this book.”

“Do you think so, really?” he asked, smiling with pleasure.

It is worth notice that some of the epigrams in “Dorian Gray” were bettered again before they appeared in his first play. For example, in “Dorian Gray” Lord Henry Wotton, who is peculiarly Oscar’s mouthpiece, while telling how he had to bargain for a piece of old brocade in Wardour Street, adds, “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In “Lady Windermere’s Fan” the same epigram is perfected, “The cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Nearly all the literary productions of our time suffer from haste: one must produce a good deal, especially while one’s reputation is in the making, in order to live by one’s pen. Yet great works take time to form, and fine creations are often disfigured by the stains of hurried parturition. Oscar Wilde contrived to minimise this disability by talking his works before writing them.

The conversation of Lord Henry Wotton with his uncle, and again at lunch when he wishes to fascinate Dorian Gray, is an excellent reproduction of Oscar’s ordinary talk. The uncle wonders why Lord Dartmoor wants to marry an American and grumbles about her people: “Has she got any?”

Lord Henry shook his head. “American girls are as clever at concealing their parents as English women are at concealing their past,” he said, rising to go.

“They are pork-packers, I suppose?”

“I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor’s sake. I am told that pork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, after politics.”

All this seems to me delightful humour.

The latter part of the book, however, tails off into insignificance. The first hundred pages held the result of months and months of Oscar’s talk, the latter half was written offhand to complete the story. “Dorian Gray” was the first piece of work which proved that Oscar Wilde had at length found his true vein.

A little study of it discovers both his strength and his weakness as a writer. The initial idea of the book is excellent, finer because deeper than the commonplace idea that is the foundation of Balzac’s “Peau de Chagrin,” though it would probably never have been written if Balzac had not written his book first; but Balzac’s sincerity and earnestness grapple with the theme and wring a blessing out of it, whereas the subtler idea in Oscar’s hands dwindles gradually away till one wonders if the book would not have been more effective as a short story. Oscar did not know life well enough or care enough for character to write a profound psychological study: he was at his best in a short story or play.

One day about this time Oscar first showed me the aphorisms he had written as an introduction to “Dorian Gray.” Several of them I thought excellent; but I found that Oscar had often repeated himself. I cut these repetitions out and tried to show him how much better the dozen best were than eighteen of which six were inferior. I added that I should like to publish the best in “The Fortnightly.” He thanked me and said it was very kind of me.

Next morning I got a letter from him telling me that he had read over my corrections and thought that the aphorisms I had rejected were the best, but he hoped I’d publish them as he had written them.

Naturally I replied that the final judgment must rest with him and I published them at once.

The delight I felt in his undoubted genius and success was not shared by others. Friends took occasion to tell me that I should not go about with Oscar Wilde.

“Why not?” I asked.

“He has a bad name,” was the reply. “Strange things are said about him. He came down from Oxford with a vile reputation. You have only got to look at the man.”

“Whatever the disease may be,” I replied, “it’s not catching — unfortunately.”

The pleasure men take in denigration of the gifted is one of the puzzles of life to those who are not envious.

Men of letters, even people who ought to have known better, were slow to admit his extraordinary talent; he had risen so quickly, had been puffed into such prominence that they felt inclined to deny him even the gifts which he undoubtedly possessed. I was surprised once to find a friend of mine taking this attitude: Francis Adams, the poet and writer, chaffed me one day about my liking for Oscar.

“What on earth can you see in him to admire?” he asked. “He is not a great writer, he is not even a good writer; his books have no genius in them; his poetry is tenth rate, and his prose is not much better. His talk even is fictitious and extravagant.”

I could only laugh at him and advise him to read “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

This book, however, gave Oscar’s puritanic enemies a better weapon against him than even “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” The subject, they declared, was the same as that of “Mr. W.H.,” and the treatment was simply loathsome. More than one middle-class paper, such as To–Day in the hands of Mr. Jerome K. Jerome, condemned the book as “corrupt,” and advised its suppression. Freedom of speech in England is more feared than licence of action: a speck on the outside of the platter disgusts your puritan, and the inside is never peeped at, much less discussed.

Walter Pater praised “Dorian Gray” in the Bookman; but thereby only did himself damage without helping his friend. Oscar meanwhile went about boldly, meeting criticism now with smiling contempt.

One incident from this time will show how unfairly he was being judged and how imprudent he was to front defamation with defiance.

One day I met a handsome youth in his company named John Gray, and I could not wonder that Oscar found him interesting, for Gray had not only great personal distinction, but charming manners and a marked poetic gift, a much greater gift than Oscar possessed. He had besides an eager, curious mind, and of course found extraordinary stimulus in Oscar’s talk. It seemed to me that intellectual sympathy and the natural admiration which a younger man feels for a brilliant senior formed the obvious bond between them. But no sooner did Oscar republish “Dorian Gray” than ill-informed and worse-minded persons went about saying that the eponymous hero of the book was John Gray, though “Dorian Gray” was written before Oscar had met or heard of John Gray. One cannot help admitting that this was partly Oscar’s own fault. In talk he often alluded laughingly to John Gray as his hero, “Dorian.” It is just an instance of the challenging contempt which he began to use about this time in answer to the inventions of hatred.

Late in this year, 1891, he published four stories completely void of offence, calling the collection “A House of Pomegranates.” He dedicated each of the tales to a lady of distinction and the book made many friends; but it was handled contemptuously in the press and had no sale.

By this time people expected a certain sort of book from Oscar Wilde and wanted nothing else. They hadn’t to wait long. Early in 1892 we heard that Oscar had written a drama in French called Salome, and at once it was put about that Sarah Bernhardt was going to produce it in London. Then came dramatic surprise on surprise: while it was being rehearsed, the Lord Chamberlain refused to license it on the ground that it introduced Biblical characters. Oscar protested in a brilliant interview against the action of the Censor as “odious and ridiculous.” He pointed out that all the greatest artists — painters and sculptors, musicians and writers — had taken many of their best subjects from the Bible, and wanted to know why the dramatist should be prevented from treating the great soul-tragedies most proper to his art. When informed that the interdict was to stand, he declared in a pet that he would settle in France and take out letters of naturalisation:

“I am not English. I am Irish — which is quite another thing.” Of course the press made all the fun it could of his show of temper.

Mr. Robert Ross considers “Salome” “the most powerful and perfect of all Oscar’s dramas.” I find it almost impossible to explain, much less justify, its astonishing popularity. When it appeared, the press, both in France and in England, was critical and contemptuous; but by this time Oscar had so captured the public that he could afford to disdain critics and calumny. The play was praised by his admirers as if it had been a masterpiece, and London discussed it the more because it was in French and not clapper-clawed by the vulgar.

The indescribable cold lewdness and cruelty of “Salome” quickened the prejudice and strengthened the dislike of the ordinary English reader for its author. And when the drama was translated into English and published with the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, it was disparaged and condemned by all the leaders of literary opinion. The colossal popularity of the play, which Mr. Robert Ross proves so triumphantly, came from Germany and Russia and is to be attributed in part to the contempt educated Germans and Russians feel for the hypocritical vagaries of English prudery. The illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, too, it must be admitted, were an additional offence to the ordinary English reader, for they intensified the peculiar atmosphere of the drama.

Oscar used to say that he invented Aubrey Beardsley; but the truth is, it was Mr. Robert Ross who first introduced Aubrey to Oscar and persuaded him to commission the “Salome” drawings which gave the English edition its singular value. Strange to say, Oscar always hated the illustrations and would not have the book in his house. His dislike even extended to the artist, and as Aubrey Beardsley was of easy and agreeable intercourse, the mutual repulsion deserves a word of explanation.

Aubrey Beardsley’s genius had taken London by storm. At seventeen or eighteen this auburn-haired, blue-eyed, fragile looking youth had reached maturity with his astounding talent, a talent which would have given him position and wealth in any other country. In perfection of line his drawings were superior to anything we possess. But the curious thing about the boy was that he expressed the passions of pride and lust and cruelty more intensely even than Rops, more spontaneously than anyone who ever held pencil. Beardsley’s precocity was simply marvellous. He seemed to have an intuitive understanding not only of his own art but of every art and craft, and it was some time before one realised that he attained this miraculous virtuosity by an absolute disdain for every other form of human endeavour. He knew nothing of the great general or millionaire or man of science, and he cared as little for them as for fishermen or ‘bus-drivers. The current of his talent ran narrow between stone banks, so to speak; it was the bold assertion of it that interested Oscar.

One phase of Beardsley’s extraordinary development may be recorded here. When I first met him his letters, and even his talk sometimes, were curiously youthful and immature, lacking altogether the personal note of his drawings. As soon as this was noticed he took the bull by the horns and pretended that his style in writing was out of date; he wished us to believe that he hesitated to shock us with his “archaic sympathies.” Of course we laughed and challenged him to reveal himself. Shortly afterwards I got an article from him written with curious felicity of phrase, in modish polite eighteenth-century English. He had reached personal expression in a new medium in a month or so, and apparently without effort. It was Beardsley’s writing that first won Oscar to recognition of his talent, and for a while he seemed vaguely interested in what he called his “orchid-like personality.”

They were both at lunch one day when Oscar declared that he could drink nothing but absinthe when Beardsley was present.

“Absinthe,” he said, “is to all other drinks what Aubrey’s drawings are to other pictures: it stands alone: it is like nothing else: it shimmers like southern twilight in opalescent colouring: it has about it the seduction of strange sins. It is stronger than any other spirit, and brings out the sub-conscious self in man. It is just like your drawings, Aubrey; it gets on one’s nerves and is cruel.

“Baudelaire called his poems Fleurs du Mal, I shall call your drawings Fleurs du Péché — flowers of sin.

“When I have before me one of your drawings I want to drink absinthe, which changes colour like jade in sunlight and takes the senses thrall, and then I can live myself back in imperial Rome, in the Rome of the later Cæsars.”

“Don’t forget the simple pleasures of that life, Oscar,” said Aubrey; “Nero set Christians on fire, like large tallow candles; the only light Christians have ever been known to give,” he added in a languid, gentle voice.

This talk gave me the key. In personal intercourse Oscar Wilde was more English than the English: he seldom expressed his opinion of person or prejudice boldly; he preferred to hint dislike and disapproval. His insistence on the naked expression of lust and cruelty in Beardsley’s drawings showed me that direct frankness displeased him; for he could hardly object to the qualities which were making his own “Salome” world-famous.

The complete history of the relations between Oscar Wilde and Beardsley, and their mutual dislike, merely proves how difficult it is for original artists to appreciate one another: like mountain peaks they stand alone. Oscar showed a touch of patronage, the superiority of the senior, in his intercourse with Beardsley, and often praised him ineptly, whereas Beardsley to the last spoke of Oscar as a showman, and hoped drily that he knew more about literature than he did about art. For a moment, they worked in concert, and it is important to remember that it was Beardsley who influenced Oscar, and not Oscar who influenced Beardsley. Beardsley’s contempt of critics and the public, his artistic boldness and self-assertion, had a certain hardening influence on Oscar: as things turned out a most unfortunate influence.

In spite of Mr. Robert Ross’s opinion I regard “Salome,” as a student work, an outcome of Oscar’s admiration for Flaubert and his “Herodias,” on the one hand, and “Les Sept Princesses,” of Maeterlinck on the other. He has borrowed the colour and Oriental cruelty with the banquet-scene from the Frenchman, and from the Fleming the simplicity of language and the haunting effect produced by the repetition of significant phrases. Yet “Salome” is original through the mingling of lust and hatred in the heroine, and by making this extraordinary virgin the chief and centre of the drama Oscar has heightened the interest of the story and bettered Flaubert’s design. I feel sure he copied Maeterlinck’s simplicity of style because it served to disguise his imperfect knowledge of French and yet this very artlessness adds to the weird effect of the drama.

The lust that inspires the tragedy was characteristic, but the cruelty was foreign to Oscar; both qualities would have injured him in England, had it not been for two things. First of all only a few of the best class of English people know French at all well, and for the most part they disdain the sex-morality of their race; while the vast mass of the English public regard French as in itself an immoral medium and is inclined to treat anything in that tongue with contemptuous indifference. One can only say that “Salome” confirmed Oscar’s growing reputation for abnormal viciousness.

It was in 1892 that some of Oscar’s friends struck me for the first time as questionable, to say the best of them. I remember giving a little dinner to some men in rooms I had in Jermyn Street. I invited Oscar, and he brought a young friend with him. After dinner I noticed that the youth was angry with Oscar and would scarcely speak to him, and that Oscar was making up to him. I heard snatches of pleading from Oscar —“I beg of you. . . . It is not true. . . . You have no cause”. . . . All the while Oscar was standing apart from the rest of us with an arm on the young man’s shoulder; but his coaxing was in vain, the youth turned away with petulant, sullen ill-temper. This is a mere snap-shot which remained in my memory, and made me ask myself afterwards how I could have been so slow of understanding.

Looking back and taking everything into consideration — his social success, the glare of publicity in which he lived, the buzz of talk and discussion that arose about everything he did and said, the increasing interest and value of his work and, above all, the ever-growing boldness of his writing and the challenge of his conduct — it is not surprising that the black cloud of hate and slander which attended him persistently became more and more threatening.

8 Cfr. Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”


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